Home of the Brave – An Immigrant Story


“In Kek’s story, I hope readers will see the neighbor child with a strange accent, the new kid in class from some faraway land, the child in odd clothes who doesn’t belong. I hope they see themselves.” Katherine Applegate

These words, found on the inside flap of the Katherine Applegate’s first standalone novel, Home of the Brave, convey some of the emotion behind her powerfully written story. Although it took me about two chapters to fully engage with Home of the Brave, I later found that I couldn’t put it down. News images flashed across my mind as Kek’s story unfolded, causing me to engage on an emotional level when faraway scenes of immigrants fleeing their homes flashed across my digital screens. syrian-kurds.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x719.jpg

Before reading Home of the Brave, I knew Applegate as the author of Animorphs – the only series my younger son ever wanted to own. That was back in 1996. Here’s what one review says about this relatively more recent (2008, reprinted 2014) release. “The evocative spareness of the verse narrative will appeal to poetry lovers as well as reluctant readers and ESL students.”—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. If I were still in the classroom, I’d definitely read this book with my students. Kek’s story not only provides students with empathetic, sometimes humorous glimpses into an immigrant’s life. It also touches on the basic human need we all have to feel like we belong – to find a place we can truly call home, making it a perfect middle grade book.

I also found Home of the Brave a great study in honing my writing craft. Our MG Lunchbreak group has looked at novels through the lens of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and I found Home of the Brave’s pacing in stride with Snyder’s beat sheet. For example, the “B Story” occurs after breaking into act two when Hannah asks Kek, “How about your mom?”

I’ll wait here for her.
Waiting is hard too, Hannah says,
and I can see that she also knows sad places.

Then there’s Snyder’s Midpoint when, as Snyder says, “the main character either gets everything they think they want (great) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (awful).” Applegate does both at the midpoint when she brilliantly locks hope and despair together in a deathhold embrace through the plot, the environment, and her metaphoric prose. It occurs when spring comes, Kek has a pet cow, and Kek and Ganwar have jobs on the farm.

Something strange is happening to the world.
I hear birdsong now, where only silence filled the air before.
Tiny green hints dot the trees and bushes.
The snow is getting smaller and grayer,
like an old person whose time is past.

I highly recommend this book to writers wishing to improve their craft, teachers desiring to promote empathy and cultural understanding, parents wishing to broaden their children’s worldview and to my most favorite people of all, middle grade students!

View Katherine’s video about Home of the Brave.
Listen to her audio about how she came to write it and her reading of chapter one.

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The Silver Coin – The Aleppo Connection

Silver Coin Cover
John Dewey once said meaningful learning occurs when successive learning experiences “are integrated with one another. It [a learning experience] can be built up only as a world of related objects is constructed.”

That’s one of the tasks of volume 3 in the middle grade historical fiction series Ancient Elements –  The Silver CoinThis adventurous series about life in Ancient Mesopotamia relates to the 6th grade social studies curriculum.

The Silver Coin includes maps and scenes of Sam’s father on a caravan trip from Babylonia to Tyre in search of a treasure and revenge. Dagon’s caravan travels through the ancient city of Halab, known today as Aleppo. The teacher’s guide provides information helping teachers relate current events in Aleppo to Dagon’s 1780’s BC experience of the city, giving students, as Dewey suggested, a meaningful learning opportunity  where “successive experiences are integrated with one another.”

More information at: www.mariesontag.com and www.thebronzedagger.com

Categories: Aleppo, Syria, Omran, current events, authors, books, current events, historical middle grade fiction, social studies | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New WIP – All That Glitters – With STEAM

I’m excited to move forward with my new middle grade historical fiction work in progress, tentatively titled, All That Glitters. Yesterday I visited Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery, the final resting place for several people from the Donner party, including Virginia Reed, who was thirteen when she came West with her mother, stepfather, and siblings.

In my middle grade historical fiction story, All That Glitters, the thirteen-year-old historical character, Virginia Reed, befriends my (fictional) thirteen-year-old character, Daniel, and his ten-year-old sister, Hannah, orphaned siblings who travel West with a guardian, Jim Savage, in 1846 (Jim is an historical figure). Jim, along with his wife and my two fictional characters, Daniel and Hannah, travel with the same wagon train as the Donner Party, but before reaching the Salt Flats they leave Fort Bridger sooner than the Donner party, so Jim and my fictional characters don’t get caught in the winter storms as do Virginia and the other families. My characters later meet up with Virginia after the Donner Party survivors reach California in the spring of 1847.

In the meantime, Jim and my fictional character, Daniel, fight in the Mexican-American War, discover gold, run trading posts, befriend Indians, then lead a battalion into Yosemite to rout out marauding Indians who attack trading posts and miners – miners who have trodden the Native Americans’ lands and killed their people. The Mariposa Battalion members become the first white settlers (historically true!) to set eyes on Yosemite as they attempt to take the Ahwahneechees to a reservation. Friendships, prejudices, revenge, forgiveness, justice and injustice abound as Daniel and Hannah try to find their way in this middle grade coming of age historical fiction novel.

bancroft-libraryI recently visited the Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus which specializes in housing first and second-hand documents from the 1800’s in California, especially the California Gold Rush period, to help fill in some holes in the research I’ve conducted so far.

I am about one-third of the way through the manuscript and am excited to continue. A friend who now works as a STEAM TOSA teacher (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math focus, teacher-on-special-assignment) suggested I include STEAM ideas at the end of each chapter. This will make the book even more useful to 4th grade teachers who want to include STEAM activities when they discuss US westward migration as part of 4th grade social studies, and also very valuable to home-schooling parents. I visited my friend’s classroom yesterday to see a STEAM project she created for 4th grade students. She has them making covered wagons, using the engineering design process. Very exciting!! I’m hoping to collaborate more with her as the manuscript develops. Stay tuned!


Categories: California history, Donner Party, gold rush, historical fiction, gold rush,, historical middle grade fiction, social studies, Virginia Reed | Leave a comment

The Silver Coin

PhoenicianShipBook 3 of the Ancient Elements series is now in its final editing stage! This ship is one of the illustrations in the book by my wonderful illustrator, Marsha Ottum Owen. The book’s cover art is still in the development stage.We hope to publish by the end of June, or early July. If you’d like to be notified when it’s available, use this contact form. I can hardly wait! A 6th grade teacher at Kennedy Middle School recently read an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) to her class and sent me their comments. A sampling of some of their comments is below.


SC_coin.jpg My class LOVED reading about Samsuluna’s adventures and as a teacher, I loved that there was so much about the civilizations woven throughout the narrative! – Ms. Yeung, 6th grade teacher

The Silver Coin will take you on a roller coaster of emotions with your adrenaline racing as you and the character merge to becomeone.— Mahati

Amazing end to the series of The Elements. Many twists and turns that keep you forever on your toes. — Will

The Silver Coin, the last book in the trilogy of the Ancient Elements series, is a great ending book. The plot has amazing twists and readers will really enjoy it. Dr. Sontag didn’t disappoint in any book, letting students learn while having fun at the same time.— Diya 

This final book to the Ancient Elements series is a mix of romance, adventure, surprise, and history all perfectly measured and combined into a single book.—Sophia

An epic conclusion to the Ancient Elements series, with tinges of romance woven into the gripping plot.—Victor

Mystery on top of mystery, an aching thirst kept me awake at night, dying for more.— Rachel

It kept the whole class on the edge of their seats the whole time. —Sophia

Educational yet thrilling, The Silver Coin thrills the reader with twists and turns all ending in one grand finale. A terrific ending to the tale of Samsuluna.—Nitin  

Dr. Sontag does an amazing job of entertaining the reader with a very intriguing plot with lively characters and devious plots, while also putting ancient civilizations into the mix, putting it all together to make a very intricate story of three perspectives slowly coming together in a spark of adventure. This finale, The Silver Coin, for the Ancient Elements series sure will grab you and won’t let you go.—Shreyas 

Exciting, gripping, and edgy are just a few of the words that can be used to describe The Silver Coin. Dr. Sontag perfectly combines and contrasts adventure and mystery in this stunning end to her thrilling trilogy. —Riya 

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Why I Write – Reason #1

fal bed.jpgWhy I Write – Reason #1: So I don’t fall out of bed at night.
At least, that’s my working theory. You see, this month I haven’t had time to write. My mom, who has lived with us for the past three years, has dementia that advanced to the point where we needed to find her a place to live where she could receive professional care. Getting this in place absorbed all my time and energy this month.

As a result, my story brain went into overload. The other night I struggled to free myself from gunmen (in a dream), but discovered my feet bound with a belt. I cut my bonds with a knife, but my legs still wouldn’t move. I had to will my body to roll over to avoid getting shot by my pursuers. The next thing I knew I was on the floor next to our bed with my husband looking down on me, asking if I was okay.

So if I don’t return your call or email right away in the next few weeks, it’s because I’m busy writing so that I won’t fall out of bed at night.




Categories: authors, books, inspiration | 4 Comments

Author Visit to Kennedy Middle School

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 2.46.53 AMLast week I spent a day and a half at Kennedy Middle School in Cupertino  sharing with their  6th grade students (500 of them in groups of 60 at a time!) about my Ancient Elements series of books, The Bronze Dagger, The Alabaster Jarand The Sliver Coin. They also got to see and touch my ancient artifacts. What a sharp and delightful group of students! In sharing about the writing process, I talked about how becoming a writer was always one of my dreams, and compared having a dream or a passion to the process of making a hard boiled egg.  After discussing the comparison, I asked students to put this quote from Carl Sandburg in their own words, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” One 6th grader said, “It means that when you have a dream about something it’s usually beyond what you think you can do, but if you really want it, having a dream helps you push past the hard things to make it happen.” I then asked students to share some of their dreams. They included becoming one of the fastest runners, becoming an inventor, an engineer, a teacher, and a writer, among other dreams.

chasing_dreams_10-15One student came in wearing this top. She was delighted when she heard one of our topics was about having a dream. I was disappointed I couldn’t take her picture because of privacy issues, but she surprised me when I returned to the school the following day by bringing in the top and letting me take a picture of it without her in it!


Categories: book marketing, books, school visits | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Scout from the 1944 Rising

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 7.53.51 PM

This past Saturday I met Halina Butler at a Polish Festival I was invited to in Martinez, CA. At the festival I shared about my book, Rising Hope, which takes place in Warsaw, Poland during WWII. I learned that Halina was a 15-year-old Girl Guides bicycle messenger during the 1944 Rising in Warsaw, Poland when the Scouts tried to help the Polish Underground Army rid Warsaw of the occupying Germans during WWII.

In Rising Hope I weave the lives of historical people in with fictional characters. I have talked to one Polish Scout from this time period over the phone, but Halina was the first Scout survivor from the Rising I’ve had the privilege of meeting in person. What a precious moment. Her eyes twinkled and she squeezed my hand as I told her daughter about my book. I told her daughter that in all the research I’ve done about the Scouts who survived those dark days, they were always praised as heroes, but when survivors were interviewed they always said, “We only did what had to be done.” Halina squeezed my hand extra hard and my eyes watered as she simply nodded her head and replied, “That’s right. We just did what we had to do.”

In my desire to “bring the past to life” for today’s youth, it’s such a wonderful experience when I get to meet someone in person who lived during the time I’m writing about!

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Turkey’s Border Crisis

This week I’ve continued work on the third book of the Ancient Elements series, The Phoenician Coin, as the main character, Sam, nears his goal of finding his Uncle Zim in Tyre. Sam’s father, Dagon, also takes further steps toward his goal of seeking revenge on Sam and Sam’s uncle (Dagon’s brother) for the misfortunes Dagon believes they have caused him. As I completed a chapter that saw Dagon and his Babylonian caravan travel west and then south from the area now known as northern Syria, drawing closer to his destination of Tyre, I included the caravan’s course on this map, as seen below.


Then, just this morning, I saw the geographic area I’m writing about come to life as I viewed the news. Today’s news took me to a picture from two weeks ago that shows a man carrying a girl as Syrians fled the war in their town of Tal Abyad in northern Syria and tried to pass through a broken down border fence to enter Turkish territory illegally. This occurred near Akcakale’s border crossing (Akcakale forms a divided city with Syria’s Tal Abyad) on June 14 (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images). If you look at the modern-day map of this area and compare it with Dagon’s caravan route, you can see that the towns of Tel Aybad and Akcakale are just north of Dagon’s route.


Here’s an image of Syrians from Tal (Tel) Abyad trying to cross over into Turkey two weeks ago

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 10.50.11 AM

This morning, I viewed a VOA news clip showing that, as of June 25, these refugees began to return to Tal Abyad, since coalition bombings and fighting from the Kurds and Syrian rebel forces helped to oust ISIS from Tal Abyad. (The pic from the video is not a hot link. Here is the video link: http://www.voanews.com/media/video/syrian-refugees-return-to-tal-abyad/2837176.html).

Syrians returnI miss teaching social studies to middle school students, especially when current events relate to areas covered in the curriculum. Students study ancient civilizations, including this area of Ancient Mesopotamia, during 6th grade social studies. Since I’m not in the classroom anymore unless I get to do an author visit, I relish the opportunity to write books for this age group, such the Ancient Elements series.

If you haven’t read book one of the Ancient Elements series, The Bronze Dagger, we’re having a drawing of three free books July 25 for those who enter below. If you’ve read it, send the link and encourage a friend to enter. Book two, The Alabaster Jar, is now in the design stage as the publisher works on the cover. Hopefully The Alabaster Jar will be out by the end of July. Book three, The Phoenician Coin, should wrap up its writing stage by mid-July, then move on to the editing stage, with a possible publication date by the end of the year. Sign up below to enter the free drawing, and encourage friends to do the same!

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Blog Hop – The Silver Coin

BD height330Ever heard of a Blog Hop? No, it’s not a new dance. I’m joining one today where several writers post 400 words or less from their current, unpublished “work in progress”, and then view and comment positively on several of the posted blogs. Below is mine for this Fiction Friday Blog Hop. It’s from the third and final book in my middle grade historical fiction series, Ancient Elements, titled The Phoenician Coin, set during the time of Hammurabi (1780’s BC). We don’t have a cover designed yet for book three, and book two’s cover is still in the design phase, so I’ll use book one’s cover as a placeholder.

coin_boatBefore long, five men with long hair and short beards descended the ladder. Each had a sword strapped to his waist. Like most of the Phoenician sailors, the Mycenaeans had bare chests and wore kilts.

            The sick Phoenician captain struggled to his feet and approached one of the Mycenaeans. “I am the captain of this ship,” he said. “State your business here.”

            The Mycenaean unsheathed his sword and placed its tip underneath the captain’s chin. “You ain’t the captain here no more,” the short, stocky man said. “We’re pirating this ship and loading all of your goods onto our vessel. If you’re smart, you won’t put up a fight.”

            The young woman cried out. “Are you going to leave us stranded out here on the Great Sea?”

            The Mycenaean laughed and waved his sword in the air. “Oh, no, lady. We have other plans for you. You’ll all soon be slaves of rich Mycenaeans!” The stocky man laughed again and then turned to the other four pirates with him. “Load all of this cargo onto our ship. Make these passengers help. If they give you any trouble, run ‘em through with your blades.”

            Sam and Keret, along with the other passengers and Phoenician crewmen helped the Mycenaean pirates carry the cargo of jars, ivory and crates up the ladder and onto the Mycenaean ship. A heavy fog hung in the air, restricting vision beyond a few yards, but the winds and the rains had stopped.  

            As the last of the cargo and passengers boarded the Mycenaean ship, the stocky Mycenaean shouted to one of his men who still remained on the Phoenician ship. “Burn it all.”

            Sam watched as a clean-shaven Mycenaean torched the Phoenician ship’s sail, its rigging and the wicker railings.

            The Mycenaean captain laughed and addressed his prisoners. “This way, there’ll be no record of what happened to you. By the time people realize you’re missing, you’ll all be slaves of Greek merchants or landowners. And I’ll be that much richer!”

            A loud crash, followed by a jolt, interrupted the Mycenaean pirate’s gloating, almost knocking him off his feet. Sam turned to see a warship pulled up alongside the Mycenaean vessel. A large ramming device on the front of the warship had punched a hole through the side of the Mycenaean ship.

Christian Fiction Friday is a weekly blog hop where authors post short (400-word or less) snippets from their current works in progress. It is hosted by Alana Terry and Hallee Bridgeman. – See more at: http://www.hallee.bridgemanfamily.com/#sthash.YrDWdniq.7VOY7TqL.dpuf

To enter a drawing for a free copy of Ancient Elements Book One, The Bronze Dagger, sign up below. Three names will be drawn July 25, 2015.

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Polish Festival in Belmont, CA

AdultDancersPicMark, Mom and I had a great time Saturday at the PolCA Polish Heritage Festival in Belmont, CA. We enjoyed Polish folk dancing, music, and food. I got to meet the Consul General of Poland in LA, Mariusz M. Brymor, who received a copy of Rising Hope, my historical fiction book about the Polish Scouts’ part in helping to overthrow the Germans in Warsaw during WWII.

I was delighted to see that the Polish Society of California had a copy of Rising Hope at their booth, along with other books about Poland in English and in Polish.Anna_Girl_Guide_2015

I especially enjoyed meeting Polish-American Scouts that helped out at the festival, including a leader named Anna. We talked about Scouts that fought in Poland during WWII, and about the current Polish uniforms worn here in the United States. Anna even agreed to let me take a picture of her in her gray uniform. She was delighted to receive a copy of Rising Hope because she is preparing a talk for her group of Polish-American Scouts about the history of Scouting in Poland.

Mom especially enjoyed the Polish band with an accordion because she taught accordion in Milwaukee, WI before we moved to CA in 1963 (she ran a music store in WI from the age of 17). Mark especially enjoyed the food! Last week I made Bigos for the first time, a traditional Polish dish. Can’t wait for my next festival! Enjoy a bit of Polish culture by viewing one or more of the 10 to 50 sec. video clips linked below.



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Sontag Writing Dreams

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

marsha ottum owen

I make Children's Books

Under His Wings

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

Cathleen Armstrong

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

ACFW San Francisco Bay Area

Northern California chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers

A Writer's Diary

Author, Educator, Consultant

Sontag Writing Dreams

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

marsha ottum owen

I make Children's Books

Under His Wings

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

Cathleen Armstrong

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

ACFW San Francisco Bay Area

Northern California chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers

A Writer's Diary

Author, Educator, Consultant