Fast Five: Books About Big Families

fast five families

As a semi-only child (my half siblings are ten and twelve years older than I am), I’ve always been enthralled with books about families with lots of kids. Here are a few favorites:

Papa’s Wife — Thyra Ferre Bjorn

Based on the author’s childhood, Papa’s Wife is about a Swedish pastor who marries his maid, raises a large family, and immigrates to the United States. Though I’ve only read Papa’s Wife, two more books follow: Papa’s Daughter and Mama’s Way.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers — Maria Augusta Trapp

In a very similar vein, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers focuses on Austrian widower Captain Von Trapp, who marries his children’s nanny and immigrates to America. The Sound of Music, celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, is based on this book.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew  — Margaret Sidney

Times are tough for the five children raised by their widowed mother, but their stories are always hopeful, sweet, and downright cosy. Oh, how I loved the Peppers when I was in fifth grade. Who wouldn’t want a baby sister named Phronsie?

Cheaper by the Dozen ; Belles on Their Toes — Frank B. Gilbreth and  Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

And two more based on a real family, the Gilbreths of Montclair, New Jersey. Mr. Gilbreth, an efficiency expert, and Mrs. Gibreth, a psychologist and engineer, use scientific methods to raise their kids. An especially fun thing for me to learn was that one of the younger Gilbreth boys — Dan, I think — ended up being my grandfather’s college roommate!

All-of-a-Kind Family — Sydney Taylor

Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie — I wanted to be the sixth sister in this series about a family living in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. Readers might recognize Sydney Taylor’s name from The Sydney Taylor Book Award, which is “presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.”

What books about large families would you recommend?

Classroom Connections: FISH IN A TREE by Lynda Mullaly Hunt


age range: 10 and up
genre: contemporary middle grade
educator’s guide
author’s website

Filled with a delightful range of quirky characters and told with heart, the story also explores themes of family, friendship, and courage in its many forms. . . . It has something to offer for a wide-ranging audience. . . . Offering hope to those who struggle academically and demonstrating that a disability does not equal stupidity, this is as unique as its heroine.

Mullaly Hunt again paints a nuanced portrayal of a sensitive, smart girl struggling with circumstances beyond her control. . . . Ally’s raw pain and depression are vividly rendered, while the diverse supporting cast feels fully developed. . . . Mr. Daniels is an inspirational educator whose warmth radiates off the page. Best of all, Mullaly Hunt eschews the unrealistic feel-good ending for one with hard work and small changes. Ally’s journey is heartwarming but refreshingly devoid of schmaltz.
— School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

Please tell us about your book.

Fish in a Tree is about sixth-grader, Ally Nickerson, who misbehaves in school to hide the fact that she struggles with reading and writing. Since her dad is in the military, she has moved from school to school; this has helped her keep her secret. Having moved so often, she has not had to opportunity to forge strong friendships as well – until she meets Kesiha and Albert. 

It is also very much a school story with eight different student personalities interacting with (sometimes crashing into) each other and their teacher Mr. Daniels.

What inspired you to write this story?

Well, my own life inspired the story. Although I’ve never been tested for dyslexia, I have been suspicious that I have at least a touch of it. I was in the lowest reading group in grades one through six. Mr. Daniels is based on my sixth grade teacher Mr. Christy. I realized about halfway through writing it that Fish in a Tree is a love letter to him and all teachers like him.

I have no doubt that Mr. Christy saved me. I came into sixth grade wondering what would be come of me and left sixth grade with a laser focus on becoming a teacher and helping kids like he helped me. He set a high expectations. Even as a child I knew this was a high compliment and I tried very hard to reach every bar he set for me. He completely changed my perception of myself in on year – a powerful transformation. The man was amazing.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

This book required a lot of research, actually. I had the opportunity to speak with some people who have dyslexia and were not helped until they were older. Unfortunately, even with all the screening in the early grades, kids still slip through the cracks until sixth grade or higher. Being a teacher I know that it is a very difficult job. When a child is very bright, they can often compensate very well and mask their difficulties. Ally Nickerson is such a child. 

I also had to do a lot of research for Albert. He is a walking encyclopedia but that took hours of finding facts that were not only pertinent but interesting as well.

What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade fiction?

I think one of the special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade are authenticity. At least for me. It takes courage to be honest but middle grade readers respond very well to it – in fact readers of all ages do.

 So, as the writer we have to crawl into our own basement sometimes in order to get it on the page. Both of the books that I have written make me feel very vulnerable in this regard. They’re honest. And they are me. The vulnerability was difficult at first but now I see it as a gift and I’m grateful to be able to share those aspects of myself with readers.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The topics my book touches upon that make it a perfect fit for the classroom are family life, love of siblings, being different is a gift, bullying in the sense that we can’t control the bully’s behavior but we can control how we respond to it, a family struggling financially, and how learning disabilities are not necessarily disabilities – just a different way of learning.

Bullet Journaling My Way Through May

A few months ago I linked to Kate Messner’s post on bullet journaling. She’s such an on-the-ball author (Kate has seven books coming out this year, I believe), I knew any organizational system she uses would be worth looking into. I found her explanation and examples of bullet journaling really insightful.

I started my own low-key version after reading her post. While I don’t list day to day events (I still use my calendar for that), I’ve found it helpful to have one place to stick all my notes — work related or not. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve got down for May.


On the left I have notes about my son’s eighth-grade dance. Our church, which meets in my boys’ school, tries to give back throughout the year. One way we’re helping this time around is by decorating for the dance. It’s an 80s theme. Think Rubix cubes, fun movie posters, and Pac Man!

On the right is May at a glance. My current calendar is a weekly one, giving me plenty of space to write in daily tasks. But if I want to see the general flow of the month, I can’t. That’s why this overview is so handy.


Here’s my checklist for May, which I know will grow as the days pass. It’s life, it’s work, it’s big stuff and small. I’m working again on a manuscript I affectionately call Jasper. Though it’s not due back to my editor until August 10, I want to be sure to get my rhythm down now. I’ll check off each day I work and record the amount of time I’ve spent (my own version of a sticker chart).

I’m also deep in the middle of my Laura Ingalls Wilder class. Well, I’m actually a bit behind. Thankfully participants can finish at their own pace.

Over in the Wetlands releases in July (!!), so it’s time to start thinking about some guest blog posts as well as add to my Louisiana mailing list (my plan is to send postcards to the schools and libraries in the ten coastal parishes).

2015-05-17 08.21.56

Then there’s that dance. The shelves in my office closet. A writing mentorship (I’m reading and responding to two picture book manuscripts a month for a local writing friend). A birthday sleepover. The end of school. An eighth-grade graduation. Other books I’d like to read. A piece of writing for SCBWI-NM’s Enchantment show. My calendar is great for the everyday, but I’m loving the bullet journal for fleshing it all out.

Anyone else out there bullet journaling?



Risk, Passion, Hope, Determination


While on vacation in the summer 0f 2012, my family visited a small museum outside Denver. I decided I’d like to know more about the particular person the museum honored and perhaps write a picture book about him,* so the following January I dug in with research.

I drafted. I took the manuscript to my critique group. I revised. I sent it along to my agent, Tracey, who submitted it to various publishing houses.

That was about twenty months ago.


Since March, I’ve been at it with the same manuscript, trying to see if I can make it shine. It was interesting to take the story back to my critique group a year and a half later. While they said it was better, they offered plenty of ways to make it even stronger.

I madly took notes while listening to their feedback:

  • Rush into the moment, not past it.
  • Base the story more on senses.
  • This needs to be about the character’s emotional response. Where is the strongest emotional moment in this piece? Currently every moment is treated equally.
  • Don’t slow the story down, zoom the focus closer.
  • Show the story through the character, don’t build it on top of him.

I’ve been working hard with these suggestions in mind.


I used to think once an author sold a couple of books, subsequent sales were a given. And surely established authors didn’t need to keep learning about craft. They’d arrived, right? But that’s not the way the writing life works. An author is always learning, improving, working. There are no promises the things we create will interest publishers, but we keep at it anyway.



*If you’ve read around here a while, you’ve probably figured out I get a bit cagey when it comes to manuscript specifics. I’d much rather keep things vague until I’m finished, or even better, until it’s sold.

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