Halloween Book Fun

Giving out books to trick-or-treaters has been a fun way to share my love of reading with children. I stumbled upon the idea years ago when Googling creative ways to donate books. California mom and author Rebecca Morgan founded “Books for Treats” in 2001 to “feeds kids’ minds, not their cavities.”

I don’t object to giving out Halloween candy. (Truth be told, it’s possible I’ve eaten as much of it as I’ve handed out over the years.) But I do champion literacy and the mental health benefits of reading books.

Only about 1 in 3 fourth-graders in the United States are proficient in reading, according to a report by Save the Children. If children can’t read at grade level by fourth grade, they’re unlikely to ever catch up. A key part of the problem is that many children don’t have access to books in their homes or family members who read to them.

To combat those facts, we give books at Halloween. My husband was skeptical at first. In his defense, I tend to go overboard when it comes to books. So, I conceded it might be possible that children would not be thrilled with getting books, and we stocked up on plenty of candy as a back-up.

As it turns out, books-for-treats was a huge success.

The kiddos love it, and they remember. Many run up the driveway saying, “This is the book house!” Often, they take their time going through the baskets to find just the right book, while parents laugh and say, “Just pick one!” Every now and then, a child simply can’t decide and will slip two books into their pumpkin bucket or pillowcase. I smile and look the other way.

Teenage trick-or-treaters are some of the biggest fans; they’re both grateful and suspicious. “I can just take this?” Every year, we buy more books than the year before. We always run out before the night ends.

Giving books for treats at Halloween is a fun way to improve child literacy. And the kiddos love it. #booksfortreats #authorsforliterarcy #readingcommunity

If you’re still not convinced this is the Best. Idea. Ever, check out this CNN article highlighting a neurobiological study of the benefits of books and detriments of screen time on a preschool child’s development. The brain scans are startling. Kids need books.

There are many ways to stock up on books without breaking the bank. Here are few ideas:

  • Thin out your own book collection of board books, early readers and young adult books that your children have outgrown and no longer want. One year, we gave out Manga graciously donated by my daughter who was moving overseas. The kids went bananas.
  • Used-book stores often have large selections of kids’ books in clearance for $1 each. One year, we bought comic books (50 cents apiece) at Bookmans, an indie bookstore in Arizona. When the bookseller learned we were going to give them away to trick-or-treaters, they gave us a 10 percent discount to boot. Library sales are another great source for inexpensive books.
  • If you prefer to give out new books, The Dollar Store often has ones that fit the bill. You can also order inexpensive books from Oriental Trading Company, like this set of 10 nursery rhyme readers for about $6.

DIY Halloween Décor – Old, Spooky Books

In a related note on my obsession with books, check out this photo gallery highlighting a fun DIY project. I hate throwing away books, but sometimes they get outdated or worn out. Other times, the books are of such low quality, I am not comfortable donating them. My solution is to repurpose them in fun ways, like making books look old and spooky for Halloween décor. Scroll down for simple instructions.

DYI Instructions

  1. Tear the covers off paperback books. Paint covers of hardbound books – I used red; when it was dry, I dabbed on burnt umber with a scrunched paper-towel to make it look aged.
  2. Pour left-over coffee into a 9”x13” glass pan. Dip books one at time into the coffee. You can either submerge the entire book, or just the edges; it depends on how old and wrinkled you want them to become.
  3. Fan out the pages and shape the books however you’d like.
  4. Set them outside in the sun to dry, or arrange in front of a fan. Flip the books periodically to make sure all sides get air. It can take a few days to dry thoroughly, depending on how deeply you submerged them.
  5. I also created fake book titles in spooky fonts, make-believe potions and creepy graphics to cut and paste into the books. I dipped the printouts into the coffee and set them on a cookie rack to dry (move quickly when dipping the paper, so it doesn’t get too soggy and fall apart).
  6. Have fun decorating them with Halloween doodads, if you want. I used plastic spiders and ping-pong balls painted like eyeballs. Brush on Modge Podge or Elmer’s glue to help secure pages and décor.


Writing to Grab the Reader

Historical novelist and creative nonfiction author Jessica McCann answers two questions from aspiring writers in this four-minute video.

  1. How do you write an opening line that will grab readers?
  2. There are so many entertainment options out there today. Do you think it’s getting harder to catch the attention of readers?

Newsletter about Reading, Writing and Life

I’ve launched an email newsletter and monthly giveaway to shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).

Go to the newsletter sign-up page and enter giveaway by clicking here!

(You can also earn bonus entries for the monthly giveaway by using the Rafflecopter form on the sign up page to share this with others.)


Writing Deadlines and Goals

Historical novelist and creative nonfiction author Jessica McCann answers two questions from aspiring writers in this five-minute video.

  1. You said when you’re writing a book, you should take time to get it right. But how do you take your time when you’re on a deadline?
  2. Do you set daily word count goals to get your book written?

Writing Research and Fieldtrips

Published author Jessica McCann spoke online with high school students about her writing and research process. The students were awesome and asked several great questions. In the coming weeks, this blog will feature video segments from the class. In this first post, McCann talks about how technological advances during her career has made book research much easier; yet, she stresses how also getting offline and away from technology can improve your writing in different ways.


Garden Library DIY

Garden library DIY project

This crafty do-it-yourself project has been months in the making. I’d been aching to improve the dreadful view outside my home office window for a couple years. Inspiration for a garden library DIY project finally struck early in 2020.  

I began stopping my car and hopping out to rescue stray bricks and busted pavers from curbs, gutters, sidewalks and embankments. These orphans would become my garden books. A busted, stained shipping-pallet and a weather-worn lattice would be reincarnated as trellis bookshelves. Splashes of old paint would be mixed from buckets left in the garage by the previous homeowner. A little money was invested in a fresh box of wood screws, a few drought-resistant plants and vines, and a couple other decorative touches.

I just had to wait out the summer heat to begin assembling the pieces. So, I waited. And I waited.

The mercury in Phoenix exceeded 100 degrees for nearly five months in 2020. Fifty-three of those days, the temperate was more than 110 (pulverizing the 33-day record set in 2011). This was just one more aberration among the many that made 2020 a painfully-weird year.

At the end of October, I stopped waiting for the crispness of fall weather. The mid-90s would have to be cool enough. I needed to get outside – hammering, sanding, drilling, painting, planting and sweating my COVID-lockdown, presidential-election stress away. It was just what I needed.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero #brickbooks #DIY #booknerd #writingcommunity

I hope you enjoy the before, during and after photos. This remains a work in progress, though I already love my new view! My husband is happy I had fun with the project. My son thinks I’m weird. What do you think?


Video Teaser for Novel in Progress

People always ask authors, “Are you working on another novel?” The answer is yes. Always yes. Yet, we all write and create at a different pace. I’m an avid reader, too, so I understand the enthusiasm and anticipation one feels while waiting for a favorite author’s next book. So without further ado, I’ll share a brief, sneak peek at the idea board — imagery and themes — for my current historical novel-in-progress. Enjoy!


Nonfiction Book for a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is a fabulous read for anyone feeling unsettled, stressed out or anxious. In other words, pretty much everyone. It’s a small book packed with wisdom in bite-sized pieces – some sections are a few pages, others are a few paragraphs, or a poem, or a short list of things like “5 reasons to be happy you are human and not a sentient robot.”

Haig experiences anxiety, panic attacks and depression. His books – both fiction and nonfiction – tackle issues of mental health with the humility and insight of someone who has been there. In Notes, he applies research, wit and a touch of humor in exploring the complexities and ironies of modern-day life.

He waxes both poetic and philosophic on topics like “the big picture” and “internet anxieties,” as well as the “shock of the news” and “phone fears.” He offers thoughts on sleep, wanting, despair, happiness, self-image and transcendence. Haig doesn’t tell you what to do or that everything is OK. He does offer ways to help you get a handle on your life, to take control in small ways, to make things less-bad. He also offers hope that life can be OK, maybe even be better than OK.

Some reviewers lamented the repetitive nature of the book. It’s true, Haig does repeat certain points and ideas multiple times. That’s part of the book’s beauty.  He keeps reminding you (gently, prudently, clearly) of important things that are so easy to forget.

I marked dozens of passages and pages so that I can return to them later. One section in particular hit me right between the eyes: Algorithms Eat Empathy. In two succinct pages, Haig explains how algorithms can make our lives easier and, seemingly, make us happier. When we shop online, we are shown things we may like, things “people like us” buy. Easy-peasy. On social media, we’re shown lists of people who are like the people we already follow. More people like us. Great.

“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe,” Haig writes, “because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”

This new ease of getting and doing stuff has only been possible in the past two decades or so. Think about that. For thousands of years before, Haig explains, “We had to go out and compromise and deal with people who weren’t like us. With things that weren’t like the things we liked. And it was horrid. But now it might be even worse. Now we might end up utterly hating anyone who doesn’t think like us…. People with similar views end up falling out, unable to stomach even the slightest difference of opinion, until they are trapped in a little echo chamber of one, reading a million versions of the same book, listening to the same song, and retweeting their own opinions until the end of time.”

No wonder we’re all so stressed out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is still so new. We still have time to take control of it. Haig reminds us that we are humans (which, per the list referenced previously, is something to be happy about). We can resist being confined. The internet can be our ally. It can be what we want it to be. “We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”

Well said.

Here are few more sections and lines from the book that spoke to me:

  • Future Tense details out how we are not encouraged to live in the present. Starting with Kindergarten, we’re taught “to think of the future, of a time different to the time we are in. Exam time. Job time. When-we-are-grown-up time. To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. The act of learning… is an end in itself. It is a way to love living right now.”
  • In a one-paragraph entry about happiness, titled Maybe, Haig proposes several ideas. Among them…

“Maybe happiness is not about us, as individuals. Maybe it is not something that arrives into us. Maybe happiness is about what we already have. Maybe happiness is about what we can give…” ~@matthaig1 #NotesOnANervousPlanet #bookreview

  • Finally, I leave you with this. A section under the heading Fiction is Freedom. “Reading isn’t important because it helps you get a job. It’s important because it give you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

* If you decide to purchase Matt Haig’s book, consider using the Bookshop.org link below. A portion of sales at the site helps support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Historical Fiction Makes Us Feel

Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.

  • The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
  • Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
  • The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Author Events with Jessica McCann 2020

Desert Nights, Rising Stars Literary Fair

When: Saturday, February 22, 2020, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Where: Arizona State University, Tempe, Front Lawn of Old Main

What: Presented as a public extension of the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference in partnership with ASU Open Door, the Literary Fair presents an afternoon of readings, panels, conversations, and performances from authors, publishers, and other literary organizations from all over the Southwest. 

All fair events and activities are open to the public and free. You do not need to register for the conference in order to attend.

Jessica McCann will be on hand to chat with attendees and sign books. Her award-winning historical novels will be available for purchase, as well as advance copies of her forthcoming nonfiction release, Words: Essays on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Books-for-Treats Exchange: Donate a children’s or YA book for a low-income Halloween trick-or-treater and receive a delicious treat in exchange (packaged cookies, candy bars, Kind Bars, etc.).

In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is shocking: 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children. Even in middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio is a dismal 13 to 1 (Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2). Yet, having access to books at a young age and learning to read is vital to long-term success.

For the past seven years, McCann has given out books for treats at Halloween. She came across the idea online and did it the first time as a creative way to give away all the books her children had outgrown (i.e. board books, early-reader chapter books, middle grade novels, etc.). It was a huge hit. Many children rarely receive books as gifts, so getting a book for Halloween was a special treat.

And the kids remember the gift year after year. They run up the driveway saying, “This is the book house!” Often, children take their time going through the baskets to find just the right book, while parents laugh and say, “Just pick one!” Teenage trick-or-treaters are some of the biggest fans; they’re both grateful and skeptical. “Are you sure I can just HAVE this?” Every year, McCann and her husband buy more books than the year before, and they still always run out before the night ends.

Books donated during the literary fair will be given to trick-or-treaters in low-income neighborhoods, as well as at UMOM New Day Centers, Halloween 2020. If you forget to bring one, you can purchase a book from one of the fair vendors, including Bookmans.

Visit the ASU website for more details.