The Power of Kids' Books

How "Nobody Kills Uncle Buster and Gets Away with It" with Susan Koehler

February 06, 2023 Dori Durbin Season 1 Episode 4
The Power of Kids' Books
How "Nobody Kills Uncle Buster and Gets Away with It" with Susan Koehler
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Listen to today's episode, "How 'Nobody Kills Uncle Buster and Gets Away with It'" with Susan Koehler" as Author and Educator (and so much more), Susan Koehler joins Dori Durbin to share how her own teaching kids to write inspired her to write middle grade kids' books including  "Nobody Killed Uncle Buster and Gets Away With It" ... how her passion has expanded her writing career and more! Susan speaks about:
* Susan's background
* How Susan got started... and her BOOKS
* Upcoming release of her next middle grade book "Charlie's Song"
* A reading of "Nobody Killed Uncle Buster"
* 2 Ways parents can better connect with their kids' reading
* 2 Reasons every expert should have a kids' book

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More about Susan Koehler
Susan Koehler is the author of two middle grade novels. Dahlia in Bloom, her first novel for young readers, was released August 2019 and was named among the "Best Books of 2019" by Kirkus Reviews.  Nobody Kills Uncle Buster and Gets Away With It, a fast-paced contemporary mystery, was released August 2021 and in 2022 was named Children's Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.

In addition to being an author, Susan is a veteran educator and consultant who specializes in the teaching of reading and writing. Over the course of 36 years, she taught all grades from kindergarten through middle school and served as a reading coach and an adjunct professor. She has traveled across the country providing professional development and is the author of four professional books for teachers and five nonfiction books for children. Susan was the 2004 Leon County Teacher of the Year and the 2005 recipient of Florida's Mary Brogan Award for "Excellence in Teaching."

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More about Dori Durbin:
Dori Durbin is a Christian wife, mom, author, illustrator, and a kids’ book coach who after experiencing a life-changing illness, quickly switched gears to follow her dream. She creates kids’ books to provide a fun and safe passageway for kids and parents to dig deeper and experience empowered lives. Dori also coaches non-fiction authors and aspiring authors to “kid-size” their content into informational and engaging kids’ books!
 Buy Dori's Kids' Books:

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The Power of Kids' Books Podcast 
Interview with Susan Koehler

[00:00:00.410] - Dori Durbin
After 36 years in the classroom, susan Kohler is no longer teaching there, but she is teaching elsewhere, and her knowledge and expertise is needed and definitely appreciated. Susan is the author of over four books, including one that we'll talk about today, nobody Kills Uncle Buster and Gets Away With It. And I love chatting with Susan, and I think  you will too. Listen in.

[00:00:27.310] - Dori Durbin
Hi there, and welcome to The Power of Kids Books, where we believe kids books are a catalyst for empowering and inspiring change. I'm your host, Dori Durbin, and today on our show we have author, coach, and grandma mom, Susan Kohler. Welcome, Susan.

[00:00:46.680] - Susan Koehler
Hello. Thank you for having me.

[00:00:48.800] - Dori Durbin
Absolutely. You have some fun and just inspiring books that you have written. You have two and a half, I'm calling it correct?

[00:00:59.970] - Susan Koehler

[00:01:01.490] - Dori Durbin
And I'll let you talk about those in just a second. But your background is we were just chatting right before 36 years in education. I hope you got a medal of some kind, because that is some serious toughness on your part. Just a little bit about your background for me.

[00:01:22.250] - Susan Koehler
Sure. I went into teaching honestly because I was wondering, how do you teach somebody to read? That was really what I wanted to do. And so when I first started teaching, I taught primary grades for 18 years. And so I started in first grade and kindergarten. Kindergarten, first combination and then second grade. And so I thought I would forever be in primary grades. And I loved it. And there's magic. I stopped calling it teaching kids to read because you can teach kids skills and you must also try to engage them with books. And then all of that comes together and this magic happens. And so I always felt like I was putting some pieces together, but that magic was happening independent of me. And so I was watching kids become readers, and that is a wonderful thing. But I also taught a lot of writing, and I moved up to fourth grade where we had writing assessment going on in our state. And so the principal is like, I would really like to have you there. And so I did that. But then it was great because I discovered a whole new range of literature and really got into middle grade books, which is that eight to twelve grade spot.

[00:02:36.510] - Susan Koehler
And so that was exciting. I eventually moved up to middle school. I have an English minor, and so I really love English literature. And so it was fun kind of moving into another realm of things and always working with kids as writers, which I loved, and then always trying to engage them as readers. And so that's been magical. I taught a college class for a couple of years as an adject and thought maybe I wanted to go that way, but I liked it. But it just wasn't the same as being with the kids. And so I thought that's not where I'm headed, but anyway, that's amazing.

[00:03:14.770] - Dori Durbin
So what is your minor then, if English is your major?

[00:03:18.390] - Susan Koehler
No, English would be minor. And elementary education was my major. And then I have a master's degree in reading education.

 [00:03:26.240] - Dori Durbin
Okay, wow. So, yeah, you definitely immersed yourself in all levels.

Susan Koehler:
Yes, I did.

 [00:03:34.690] - Dori Durbin
So your true passion is really those middle grade novels.

[00:03:39.510] - Susan Koehler
Probably so, yes. That's where I just keep being drawn. So I started writing that and honestly, the first book I published was a professional book in 2007. I had sent something to a published to some publishers. I heard back from one and she's and this was, you know, very first dipping the toe in the water. And she she called me and she said, I like your writing style. This isn't the kind of thing I publish or market, but I see you teach writing. Would you be interested in working on a book called Crafting Expository Papers? So it's not like my dream was to publish that. But that was the first book I wrote and published. And so I stayed in that professional realm for a while and did some professional books and did some writing for hire of nonfiction books. Anyway, I really learned about writing and publishing through those experiences. So that was kind of a nice little side story too.

[00:04:33.430] - Dori Durbin
Yeah. And you've got Dalia? I've got Dalia in the bloom. Dalia and Bloom in the bloom. Okay. And then I love the title of this one. Nobody Kills Uncle Buster and gets away with it.

[00:04:46.970] - Susan Koehler
That's a fun one.

[00:04:48.890] - Dori Durbin
And then your next one is Charlie's Song, is that correct?

[00:04:52.320] - Susan Koehler
Yes. Charlie's Song launches on May 6 and it is a sequel to Dahlia and Blue, which that was my first novel for young readers. My first middle grade novel is historical fiction. It's set in 1933 during the Great Depression. A family that moves from an isolated cabin to become tenant farmers in a community and then become immersed in the community then. And so there's a lot of history with Great Depression in North Carolina and the time and place. But there's also the story of this little character that just came to me and I fell in love with and her family. And so she has an older brother named Charlie. So Charlie's Song is the sequel. And that's what comes out in May. And it's set in 1935. And they're still tenant farmers and they have a new visitor who comes, their mom's brother who plays the banjo and hops on trains and travels from place to place. And so it's a little bit different part of the history of the time. But I'm excited for that to come out and even wrote a song in it and had a local musician record it. He'll be there performing at the book launch.

[00:06:02.280] - Susan Koehler
And so I'm excited about that too. But in between those, yes, I wrote contemporary Mystery. Nobody Kills Uncle buster and gets away with it. There's no violence in it, but it's fun. I think it was fun to write. And everybody who's read it has said it was very fun to read too. Adults and children. I just last week spoke to a women's group where they read it and it was people of all ages. And so that was fun. That was very satisfying. It was awesome.

[00:06:30.620] - Dori Durbin
Okay, so I think you're going to read some of that book for us, right? Yes, I would love to hear. I'm so curious.

[00:06:38.350] - Susan Koehler
Well, and I thought I'd just start out with it. The story is told by Sam, who's twelve years old, and he is, against his will, forced to go to attend a family funeral with his mother. But once he gets there, he starts realizing that all these quirky characters might be trying to hide something. And so he starts his own investigation, thinking that maybe this was not natural causes, but was a murder. But the very beginning of it, the very first chapter is short. The phone rings in the kitchen and I'm thinking, who uses the landline anymore? It's got to be a scam. But mom yells from the garage, sam, get the phone please. So I do. Hello? Is this the Parsons residence? Home of Eva Parsons. Yes. Oh, this must be Samuel. Mike, you sound so grown up. You must be nine or ten now. Twelve, I say. And you must be oh, forgive me. It's your Aunt Bess, sweetheart. Aunt Bess. My mind opens a dusty file folder containing the ants of West Virginia, best of Mercer County and Older Sister Birdie of Boone County. Not my aunts, actually, my mom's crazy aunts. My mom's great aunts.

[00:07:50.330] - Susan Koehler
My mom's not so great aunts. Sweet tea cheek, pitching mothballs crochet Doyle's. Sam, are you still there? Oh, yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I need to speak to your mother. Or maybe you can pass along the message. It's about her Uncle Buster. Dear uncle Buster said you let her know. Okay, bye now. Wait, don't hang up, please. Click. And just like that, I'm the one who has to tell her.

[00:08:17.550] - Dori Durbin
I love that. Okay, so I am probably going to have to read this now! I love how you chose to read the characters and make them so real. Are they based off of people you know?

[00:08:36.710] - Susan Koehler
Well, I am the youngest child in a big family and my parents were younger children in their family, so there are a lot of older relatives. And so I think part of this probably was somewhere in my subconscious that I went to a lot of funerals as a kid. Maybe not everybody's experience. So as I thought about it, I thought maybe that was it. But I had thought of the idea for the mystery and I wasn't sure where I was going to go with it, what voice it was going to be told in what the target audience was, but I had kind of these ideas of the sort story in my head. And just one morning I woke up and I heard Sam's voice, and I was like, boom, that's it. And I sat down and wrote that first chapter that I just read. And then everything else flowed from it.

[00:09:21.800] - Dori Durbin
That is awesome. I thought for sure Sam was going to ask how old his aunt was, honestly.

[00:09:31.750] - Susan Koehler
Here we go.

[00:09:36.650] - Dori Durbin
Okay. And this is part of your writing and your immersion into English as you are. Sam sounds like a twelve year old boy. He sounds like the distractedness, the train of thought is lost and she has to remind him he's on the phone, those kinds of pieces. So how did you connect into that? What did you do to get into that step?

[00:10:03.810] - Susan Koehler
That's so funny because sometimes I think part of it was like thoughts and perceptions I had probably when I was a twelve year old. But I wouldn't actually say what you think. But the other huge part of it is while I was writing it, I was teaching 6th and 7th grade. So I was around a lot of 12th grade boys every day.

[00:10:28.710] - Dori Durbin
Good models.

[00:10:29.530] - Susan Koehler
That way, which I have had people comment, oh, it's such an authentic voice for a twelve year old boy. And I thought, I know a lot of them.

[00:10:37.160] - Dori Durbin
Yes, well, both characters, really. I felt like the same thing. You hear that language that you have. Okay. One of the things that I feel with kids books especially, is when they have conversations that are real, they have those situations that are experiences that kids actually experience, too. They can tie to that so much tighter. And so part of my thought process is, well, did you feel like you were putting yourself in the mind of a kid who obviously was going to attend a funeral, but also trying to find a way out? Like the realization there. Yeah.

[00:11:21.290] - Susan Koehler
So he does go through an elaborate bit of scheming to try to get out of it, and his dad is onto it. It becomes part of the story too, that he's talking about a math test that he has to take. He's not doing well. He's going to have to go to the study session. He was trying to take notes, but that red mechanical pencil ran out of lead. You can't tell because you can't see it. He goes through this whole thing, and it's funny because I think it was bits and pieces of things I'd heard from students and my own children. But anyway, his dad, who is a high school teacher, is onto it, and he tells him too many details. I smelled a lie. That becomes part of the story too, but he does try to get out of it. But once he's into it, he really is into it. Middle of everything.

[00:12:13.530] - Dori Durbin
Do you feel like parents? Okay, let me back up a second. When I think of reading books, especially at the age group that you're at, you think of them being so much more independent and probably not really talking to their parents about the books that they're reading, or maybe it's a required reading that they just are answering questions on papers for something easy. How do you envision your book being best used?

[00:12:41.890] - Susan Koehler
I love that you ask that, because being somebody who has tried to engage kids as readers, both as a teacher and as a mom, as an aunt and as a grandma, I'm always trying to engage kids as readers. I have shared books for a long time with children, and I had my own library of books that I have picture books, I have a library of middle grade books, and so I've always had resources to share with the kids. But I think one of my best parenting memories is the first time one of my own kids, when she was about third grade, recommended a book to me, and I was just beside myself, and so I had to read it. It was Ramona and her father. And I loved Beverly Cleary, but I had not read that particular book. And then she read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, and she recommended that to me, and I loved it. And so it was so funny because I was just so this is so exciting that she has great taste in literature, and she's recommending books, but we also shared books as a family, so that was a natural thing.

[00:13:44.410] - Susan Koehler
And so I would love for this to be shared as a family, whether a parent or grandparent reads it and the kid reads it, and then they discuss it. Or my family did read alouds. And a lot of families, once kids become independent, readers don't do read alouds anymore as a family because the child can read on their own. But it's so important to continue reading two children even after they become independent readers, because you share the experience of that book. You model the proddy and the expression and the reading, and you expose them to vocabulary that might be new to them, and it gives you a connection, a shared experience of this book, which is what a wonderful thing. So, like, we used to go on vacation, and we would take a book every vacation, and we would read a book, and so it would just be a chapter or two at a time and put it away. And they'd play their games or listen to music or whatever, but then, oh, time to read again, and we'd take it out. And of course, my husband was driving, but we shared books that way.

[00:14:48.610] - Susan Koehler
And so remember the vacation where we read Treasure Island or remember the vacation where we read Maniac McKee. But we had this shared experience that was tied to a book, and there's an emotional bond in that. And there's this fondness for literature that develops because of the positive emotional bond. And so I would love to see families do it as a read aloud or I would love to see parent and child or grandparent and child each read it and discuss it. I'd love that very much.

[00:15:23.270] - Dori Durbin
I think the topics that you're writing about, just in that short bit that I heard, I'm thinking there's plenty of room for discussion just in that section.

[00:15:34.170] - Susan Koehler

[00:15:35.370] - Dori Durbin
And those conversations. I was just speaking with somebody recently, and I think when you have kids who are kind of in that tweener age group, those conversations that really delve deep into what they're thinking, what they're feeling, how they're coping with things, they become less and less because those kids are trying to be more and more independent. And so it's a really perfect opportunity to be able to like you said, if you're reading in the car, to bring it up and to talk about it. And part of me is thinking they're locked in the car, they can't get away.

[00:16:09.670] - Susan Koehler
But really, actually, that's part of it. Yeah, that's true too.

[00:16:14.250] - Dori Durbin
But the conversations that could develop from something even like a non fictional book like this, I think that's very powerful.

[00:16:26.890] - Susan Koehler
Yeah, I really think, I mean, just what you heard on the first page, there are a lot of discussions you could have about interpersonal relationships, about film skills, about family members. There are a lot of conversations. But as it goes on, there are a lot more conversations you could have too. And there's even stuff about conservation and ecology and birds and the Audubon Society. There's a whole bunch of little pieces that come into Sam's investigation because they come his way and he's like, hey, maybe this fits in what I'm thinking here. Anyway, he has an elaborate investigation notebook by the time he is ready to present his findings. But it's pretty exciting and it's got some twists, I think, that are fun for people to read too, where if you were reading it alongside someone, you'd be waiting for them to get to the point to see if they saw it coming or not.

[00:17:20.060] - Dori Durbin
Oh, yeah. Now, I know that you coach writing. Has anybody who has read your book, any kid decided to try to write books themselves after having read your material?

[00:17:33.970] - Susan Koehler
Oh, yeah. I have a lot of former students who are young authors and I even have this one little reader in Brooklyn, New York who writes to me. And it's great because she read Alia and Bloom and she wrote a letter to me and she loved it and she pointed out things she liked about it. But then she has been writing since and so she writes to me sometimes about it, my own students, because I said I was still teaching 6th and 7th grade when I was working on the book. So I was able to workshop the book with them, which was a really great experience because for me, I had this critique group that was my target audience. Right. But then for them, they were seeing what that process was like for the writer, and so many of them just got into the process, and they were writers. And I had a lunchtime critique group going on with anybody who wanted to be in it because they were writing. And I even had a group of boys who were trying to make a movie out of the story, and so middle school boys who were inspired to make a movie out of it.

[00:18:40.860] - Susan Koehler
And one of the minor characters in it, one of the teachers, was like, who is this kid they're all talking about? I don't know him. And she's naming I'm like, oh, that's a character in a book that I'm writing. So they really got into it.

[00:18:56.170] - Dori Durbin
I don't know this kid, do I? That is great. Well, let me ask you from the author perspective, you've got these books out. People are reading them. How did that change what you were doing professionally and even just being a kids book author in general?

[00:19:18.930] - Susan Koehler
Yeah. Well, I have always written as long as I can remember, as early as I could learn to write, I would make up poems and stories, and I enjoyed those things. I think around third or fourth grade was my first publication. It was when a teacher had an after school poetry club, and she told us publishing a book just means making it ready to share with the public. And so we went through the whole writing process, and we revised, and she edited, and she typed them for us. And this was a very long time ago. We put a cardboard cover and covered it with I had green fabric for mine, already brought in fabric, and made this book. And she said, now you're a published author. And that was just a wonderful experience to me because I thought, wow, I have written a book. Right. So I've always had this draw to writing and to publishing. But once you get into teaching and you become a mom, there's only so many things you can do at one time. And so it's always been a back burner thing, or I have stuff I'm working on that I can't commit to.

[00:20:27.350] - Susan Koehler
I had done the professional writing. Like I said, I kind of stumbled into that, and then I just thought, I can do the fiction because that's where I'm being pulled, and that's where I feel like I want to go. I'm going to do it. And so I did it. And when Dallion Bloom first came out, that was my first published fiction. And it got a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, and then Kirkus put it on their Best Books of 2019 list.

00:20:56.630] - Dori Durbin

[00:20:57.120] - Susan Koehler
And I was just beside myself. And I have a little independent publisher, and it's nobody you know, but it was so affirming to get that. And so that really inspired me to keep going until I got to the point where I had written a couple of books. I had another one going, and I decided, I'm stepping into this now instead of just leaning into it, I'm stepping into it now and taking the bold move. And so I stopped teaching. And I work on developing some content in English Language Arts, and I work on some consulting things, but I dedicate myself to writing.

[00:21:38.070] - Dori Durbin
That is awesome. That is awesome. And I'm sure you also have opportunities to share your book and immediately get the feedback from people. I'm imagining you have your books and you were able to kind of hand them over to kids and they take off with them and they're like, I just met the author. I met the author.

[00:21:58.950] - Susan Koehler
It's wonderful.

[00:22:00.250] - Dori Durbin

[00:22:00.740] - Susan Koehler
And I can do that. And we have local independent bookstore here, midtown Reader in Tallahassee, and there's one in Thomasville, Georgia, not too far away, called The Bookshelf. And they have been very supportive in getting that to my audience. And so that's really nice. And then also working with teachers and schools and that's really nice, too. There was a teacher who did a workshop last summer, like a one week thing where they read Dallas Bloom, they did crafts, went along with the books. I learned about life in 1933, and then the big culminating event was I came in and signed their books and got to talk to them and they got to ask me questions. And so it was huge. And so I think this summer we're going to try to do that with Charlie's Song. And I even got some little beta readers who were fourth graders to read Charlie's Song and give me feedback. And that was wonderful. So, yeah, having that connection with the local bookstores and with the local education community and teachers is very helpful for me.

[00:23:05.770] - Dori Durbin
And it probably opened some doors that you didn't have before, having just had these ideas, but not actually putting anything out there and publishing it. Right, right.

[00:23:16.590] - Susan Koehler
Yeah. And I could even share those ideas and talk about them with kids. But actually having a book that you published and your name's on it and your pictures on it, and it's a real thing, that's a different world.

[00:23:29.410] - Dori Durbin
Yeah. I was speaking with an author who just recently released a book, and she was talking about how her grandmother actually sent her book to someone else. And the tangibleness of it, of having your ideas in front of you actually in print, like you said, with your name on it, with your content in there, is huge. But then having the affirmation of having little fans almost, you've got this group who know who you are, who are anticipating the next book, the next thing, and you're helping them just be inspired and encouraged. It's such a huge thing.

[00:24:10.270] - Susan Koehler
Thanks. And that again brings me back to why I got into education to begin with. I just wanted kids to read, and I wanted them to be engaged in that experience and enjoy it. And so I love being a part of this side of it.

[00:24:23.830] - Dori Durbin
Well, that's exciting. I'm excited for your next book, too, to see what happens.

[00:24:28.870] - Susan Koehler

[00:24:31.110] - Dori Durbin
So as you're thinking through this, are there a couple of things that you would encourage parents to do in order to engage their kids more into books?

[00:24:44.010] - Susan Koehler
Yeah, the number one number one thing is reading to them and making that like a daily habit, a quiet time, something predictable, that is a warm emotional experience so that that context for reading is developed as something that feels good, that's pleasant, that you have a positive emotional attachment to. Because sometimes kids who struggle with reading, they develop a real negative emotional attachment to the process of reading. And so it's very difficult to undo that once it's done. So as early as possible. If we can establish that positive emotional climate around books and reading, that's just wonderful. And there's no better way than making that a shared bonding experience with a parent, but then not giving up on that either. Once they become independent readers, let them read independently, but still find ways to share books together. And so for us, when it was busy during the school year in my family, it was recommending books to one another. But when we had that time on summer vacation or something, we would pick a book that was going to be our shared book for vacation. So number one, above all else is reading to your children.

[00:25:55.100] - Susan Koehler
And then I have to just say, because when I was a kindergarten teacher, people used to ask me all the time, do I drill them on this or on that? And there are a lot of things you can drill them on, but the most important thing I found is if they came to school with a really good vocabulary and an ability to converse and have a conversation with the give and take that a conversation has, I stop and listen while you talk. I respond to what you say. And so kids who had a lot of rich conversations with their parents about experiences could process the experiences and the emotions that went along with them. They had good vocabularies. They understood the give and take of conversation. And that was something that you can teach them to recognize letters and sounds, but that's something you can't just teach in the classroom. So I think those conversations are invaluable for parents to routinely have with children, too.

[00:26:46.930] - Dori Durbin
Yeah, that's great. That is great. All right, I hate to say it, but we have just a couple of minutes left. What are two reasons that experts should have kids books?

[00:27:01.030] - Susan Koehler
Okay, well, one, if you have something to share from your perspective, you need to share it with the world and if you feel that nudge or that need that's out there and you could meet it with something that you have, then I think you need to commit yourself to doing it. And the commitment is the big part because just like anything else that we do, you have to work at it and it has to be an everyday thing. And when you don't feel like doing it, you still to sit down and do it. It's not just when the inspiration hits. So if you have something and you feel that nudge to share it and to write it and to put it out there, then you need to commit yourself to it and do it. And then for the other end of it, the recipients, there are people out there who need to hear what you want to say and their lives will be enriched by it. And so they're waiting. So that's wonderful. They're waiting, so go ahead and do it.

[00:27:56.870] - Dori Durbin
That's awesome. That's awesome. Just think of all those kids that you've inspired just by being there and spending that time encouraging them. That's great.

[00:28:05.450] - Susan Koehler
Wow. They've inspired me too.

[00:28:08.810] - Dori Durbin
Well, Susan, thank you so much for reading to us, for sharing your insights and your wisdom of this. And I am going to provide links below our podcast with ways that people can find you, find your books and anticipate your next one. And I just thank you for your time today.

[00:28:27.810] - Susan Koehler
Well, thank you Dori. And thank you for what you're doing. This is great.

[00:28:31.730] - Dori Durbin
Absolutely, thank you.


Meet Susan Koehler
Susan's Background
Susan's Author Progression
Upcoming book, "Charlie's Song"
Reading "Nobody Killed Uncle Buster"
How she develops her characters
How she envisioned her book used
How parents can use books to discuss real life
How her writing has influenced others
How having books alter her path personally
2 Way parents can talk with kids about books
2 Reasons experts should have kids' books