New Craft Books For Writers

Lately I’ve discovered some new writing craft books that have become staples of my reference shelf. I wanted to share my impressions of these recent releases, so I hope you enjoy.craft

THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO WRITE THE STORY BENEATH THE SURFACE, by Donald Maass (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). I’ve long been a Donald Maass fan, and pretty much use every one of his craft books repeatedly, but this newest release is absolutely stellar. As usual, Maass sprinkles his essays liberally with exercises that can be applied to your work in progress. But the most important aspect of this newest work is that rather than dealing with the architecture of story-telling (i.e., plot, pacing, character, voice, etc.) Maass tackles the nebulous yet essential emotional journey the writer must invoke in the reader. I’ve long been a fan of brain science and have read a number of articles on the importance of story-telling to us humans, but this is the first time I’ve read a craft book that tackles the “how-to” of invoking our reader’s deepest emotions and tapping into our primal story-loving needs.

STORY GENIUS: HOW TO USE BRAIN SCIENCE TO GO BEYOND OUTLINING AND WRITE A RIVETING NOVEL, by Lisa Cron (Ten Speed Press, 2016). And speaking of brain science and story-telling…I read these two books back to back. They are a marriage made in heaven. It’s almost as if Cron and Maass were channeling one another. The difference is that Cron – who also plants exercises throughout – first taps into the character’s emotional journey through life and how that applies directly to her story, and then, in the second half of the book, delivers a very specific template for crafting a first draft based on the emotional path of the character. For me, the second half of this book didn’t work because I’m a die-hard pantser and abhor any boxed-in template. But the first half is dynamite. And if you like planning and outlining, you may love the second half, too.

THE HERO IS YOU: SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS, CONQUER YOUR DEMONS, AND BECOcraftME THE WRITER YOU WERE BORN TO BE, by Kendra Levin (Conari Press, 2016). Full disclosure: Kendra is my editor at Viking Children’s. I totally love this book. And…surprise! It’s another book about how the brain works and how we writers must harness our individual emotions as the heroes of our own journeys. Kendra has also created numerous exercises to help writers cope with those ever-present nay-saying internal demons, and her research and anecdotal examples are fascinating. Kendra is also a certified life coach and I’ve participated in a coaching workshop with her, and if you are a writer – or any artist – who is struggling with self-doubt or fear, I recommend both this book and her coaching.

And one that I’m looking forward to….

THE MAGIC WORDS, by Cheryl Klein (W.W.Norton, 2016). I’m a fan of Klein’s SECOND SIGHT, so I’ve just put this one on order. When I heard Klein’s lecture at last year’s New York SCBWI conference, I came away with pages of notes. I’ll let you know what I think!

What about you – do you have any recommendations for new craft books?

Announcing A New Deal!

A new book deal for me!

Here’s the deal announcement from PW Children’s Weekly:

“Kendra Levin at Viking has signed Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle author Janet Fox‘s second middle-grade novel, The Last True Knight. Edwina, living in Elizabethan England, sets out to find her kidnapped older brother and avenge her father’s murder while disguised as a boy, accompanied by an aging knight whose magical stories not only presage the obstacles they face but hint at larger mysteries. Publication is set for fall 2018; Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency did the deal for world rights.”

And here’s my own version of the novel, which I kind of think is more fun:

THE LAST TRUE KNIGHT addresses alternative facts and gender identity in a magical Elizabethan England.

This is a story I’m deeply proud of and hope will touch your hearts. No, it isn’t a sequel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. But don’t lose faith.

I’m so excited to share with you all!

Get Organized For Teachers!

This week, in a continuation of my focus on getting organized for the new year, I have some tips for teachers to share with you. And please do enter the grand giveaway for a classroom set of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, and more!

Here again is what the giveaway contains:

  • a complete classroom set of copies (25 copies total) of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT
  • a hard copy print-out set of each of the reproducible worksheets
  • a hard copy print-out of the Activity Guide written by Deb Gonzales
  • a free fifteen-minute Skype visit to your classroom, grades 5-7

I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve seen students who have a hard time in school simply because they’re not organized. I’ve tried to work a few lessons into my schedule to teach some basic organizing skills. Here are some ideas for you, especially if you teach grades 4 through 7:

  • Most kids have no clue where their free time goes. They wonder why they can’t get homework done. Have students keep a record of their after-school activities and time spent on each for a day or two. Have them share any insights with classmates (there’s always a surprise or two!)
  • Does your school use a planner? If so:
    • Schedule a “planner walk-through” early in the school year. Students need to feel comfortable with their planners, and be able to customize them. Little things make a difference: “Do I write my homework on the day it’s due or the day I do it?” Show them how to clip pages to mark the current week.
  • If your school doesn’t have a planner:
    • Before entering middle school, kids need to learn how to manage their time. Teach “time awareness” by having them estimate how long something takes, then compare how long it actually takes.
  • You may already have a classroom cleanup time. I recommend that students clean up their desks, backpacks and binders, too. Guide them in this exercise to avoid the “dog ate my homework” look.
  • Give students interim deadlines on projects to teach long-term planning. Make sure they write these deadlines in their planners, with a clear path to their final goal.

And here’s a link to a pdf file of a long-term planner that you can share with your students. Be sure to enter the contest, and best of luck!

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Get Organized For Parents!

Continuing with the giveaway I posted about last week (a classroom set of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, plus so much more…), this week some tips for parents who want to help their kids.

And parents, if you would like to enter the contest on behalf of your child’s teacher or librarian, feel free. (I do want this giveaway to go to a school classroom.)

As a parent, I can sympathize if you have a disorganized child! Except for the rare kid born with an “organization gene”, organizational skills are learned. Here are some ideas for you:


  • Early in the school year, help your child put together a binder, with dividers for each subject. During the year, help your child file papers, gradually allowing him independence.
  • Find a file box to keep at home, so that as your child collects papers the older stuff can be moved from the binder to the file box. Keep the papers only so long as they are useful (for tests).
  • Help your child set up a home study space. If the only space is the kitchen table, use storage boxes to hold things your child needs every day, like pencils, paper, a ruler, etc. Then the table can be cleaned off for dinner! Try to maintain quiet (no TV, no computer) while your child studies.
  • Make sure your child studies at the same time every day. This way homework becomes a habit, and homework struggles are reduced. Have your child read if she doesn’t have homework.
  • Let your child take a brain break from homework every 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure that he has a healthy snack after school and before homework, so that he can keep going.
  • Homework is important, and your child should study for at least 10 minutes per grade (i.e., 30 minutes in 3rd grade, and so on). By middle school, extra time will probably be required.
  • Get everything ready for school the night before. This will reduce the early morning tendency to forget something important.

Also, you’ll find a downloadable pdf file of my “after-school schedule” here. I hope you find it useful.

Here again is the giveaway form, and best of luck!
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Get Organized!

January is the month to Get Organized!

My first book, in print since 2006 from Free Spirit Publishing, with over 60,000 copies sold and available in eight languages, is still helping middle grade kids get organized. With downloadable worksheets, helpful suggestions, various strategies, and humorous anecdotes, GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT has garnered praise from kids, teachers, and parents.

get organized

Get Organized giveaway pack

I wrote it because my own son suffered from ADD and dyslexia and the book emerged from the strategies I found to help him. (Mom pride moment: he is now on his way to a writing career.)

To celebrate my book’s decade-long (and ongoing) life, I’m offering a big give-away to any teacher or librarian. Here’s what’s in the giveaway:



  • a complete classroom set of copies (25 copies total) of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT
  • a hard copy print-out set of each of the reproducible worksheets
  • a hard copy print-out of the Activity Guide written by Deb Gonzales
  • a free fifteen-minute Skype visit to your classroom, grades 5-7

If you are a teacher or librarian of upper elementary or middle school grades, enter the giveaway below. Please note: only available to teachers/librarians currently employed in any school in the U.S.; contest is open until January 31.

The winner will be announced January 31. Good luck!!

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Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what motivates a protagonist to action. Lisa Cron, in her terrific craft book STORY GENIUS, describes what she calls the character’s “misbelief” – a belief that has been the source of much agony for the character. Others refer to this characteristic as a “back-story wound”, or a “fatal flaw”, but I love the idea of a misbelief that results from perhaps a single defining moment in someone’s past.

I love it primarily because it answers the question, “Why did you do that? Why do you feel that?”

And it can stem from something startlingly simple and innocent.

Today I heard a story on NPR that, in my opinion, describes a perfect, quietly tragic moment that I imagine resulted in a terrible, defining misbelief.iceberg-copy

The story (you can read it in its entirety here) was told by 94-year-old oncologist Joseph Linsk. When he was a young boy, running across the playground, his arms flailing, he knocked the eyeglasses off a classmate, and the glasses broke. The classmate burst into tears and said that it would cost two dollars to repair them, and where could he get two dollars? He was going to tell his father, and get Joseph into real trouble.

Joseph had no idea where he’d get two dollars either, but he was scared to death that the other boy’s father would call his parents.

At the time, his mother had a housekeeper named Pearl, who earned two dollars a week. Joseph saw the two dollars waiting for Pearl at the end of the day, and he took them from the counter, gave them to his teacher, and settled the matter of the glasses.

What wasn’t settled was the matter of Pearl. When she asked where her two dollars had gone, Joseph’s mother accused Pearl of lying, of taking and hiding the money herself, and fired her on the spot, leaving her, a mother, jobless.

Joseph hid the story from everyone for 80 years.

Now imagine the guilt Joseph lived with. His shame. His knowledge that perhaps Pearl’s children went hungry that week and for a long time after. His awareness that Pearl, branded a thief, was unable to get another job without a good referral. What would that guilt and shame have done to Joseph? What decisions did he make throughout his life that reflected his sickening memory? Did he stand up for himself in tough times, or did he cower? Did he try to make up for his transgression by becoming selfless, or did he toughen against those in need?

The fact that he became an oncologist may answer some of these questions, but the deeper issue raises new ones. And if I were writing his story, I’d be asking them. Because that incident, recited in a halting voice brimming with emotion, clearly colored who he became.

And where did this terrible, life-long, tragic feeling begin?

A child ran across a playground.

Be Kind

When my son was younger I told him that he should keep two words in mind as he went out in the world: be nice.

Now I would change those words to be kind.

There’s nothing wrong with nice. My mother would have used the word correct. (Which is one reason I’ve come to dislike the term politically correct, since there should be nothing political about correct/nice/appropriate behavior.)kindness

But kind, now, means more to me than just correct. Kind means heartfelt. It means selfless. It means love in the most brotherly of terms. It means feeling empathy for others. It means more of what we need as the community of human souls, especially right now.

In tribute to kindness and in the spirit of the season, I’d like to offer some gift suggestions that honor kindness and foster empathy. These suggestions not surprisingly have something to do with books and reading, since not only is that my thing, but also because I believe that through reading and education do we grow in kindness and empathy.

There are many more books than I have room to cite so please add your favorites in the comments – especially for teen readers.Gandhi

For the youngest readers:

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught The World About Kindness, by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low Books, 2016). A Horse that can read, write, and do math? Ridiculous! That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

Grandfather Gandhi, by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2015). Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson tells the story of how his grandfather taught him to turn darkness into light in this uniquely personal and vibrantly illustrated tale that carries a message of

For middle grade readers:

A Long Walk To Water, by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2010). Before leaving Africa, Salva’s life is one of harrowing tragedy. Separated from his family by war and forced to travel on foot through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, he survives starvation, animal attacks, and disease, and ultimately leads a group of about 150 boys to safety in Kenya. Relocated to upstate New York, Salva resourcefully learns English and continues on to college. Eventually he returns to his home region in southern Sudan to establish a foundation that installs deep-water wells in remote villages in dire need of clean water. This poignant story of Salva’s life is told side-by-side with the story of Nya, a young girl who lives today in one of those villages. (Be sure to check out the many generous actions taken by classrooms that have read this book.)the-seeds-of-america-trilogy-9781481486781_lg

The Seeds of America Trilogy, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster, 2016). It’s 1776 and Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth have only ever known life as slaves. But now the young country of America is in turmoil—there are whisperings, then cries, of freedom from England spreading like fire, and with it is a whole new type of danger. For freedom being fought for one isn’t necessarily freedom being fought for all…especially if you are a slave. But if an entire nation can seek its freedom, why can’t they?

For teen readers:

Challenger Deep, by Neil Shusterman (HarperCollins, 2015). Challenger Deep is an astonishing artistic achievement. In high school student Caden Bosch, Neal Shusterman has created a young hero who finds a way not just to navigate his own schizophrenic breakdown but to ease the struggles of his fellow patients. Poetic, compassionate, and thrillingly inventive, Challenger Deep affirms the power of narrative to describe the indescribable and enlighten us

For adults:

I recommend a contribution to We Need Diverse Books.

Their mission: “We Need Diverse Books™ is a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”

Please add any suggestions!wndb_button

“November 8th”: The Dance of Ordinary and Extraordinary

Anne Nesbet’s historical novel, CLOUD AND WALLFISH, about the Berlin Wall is receiving wide acclaim, including a Horn Book starred review. “In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.”

Anne wrote this post prior to last week’s election. If you feel a shiver up your spine, it may well reflect premonition. And another: November 9 is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. What is that, you ask? Only the beginning of the Holocaust.

Listen well. The past is teacher to the future. And we must, must pay attention, even to the smallest details. Here’s Anne.

As I finish up writing this post, it is already the early hours of November 8, 2016, a day for nervous humming and the biting of fingernails: a day when we know that tomorrow, the 9th, we will wake up, and the world will have changed a dance

At least elections, like hurricanes and holidays, give some advance warning as they approach: we can prepare by studying the issues or boarding up the windows or baking a lot of cookies, as appropriate. But then there are all those other momentous changes that come without warning, like earthquakes or winning the lottery or–well, let’s go back to another November 8:

in 1989.

The headlines that day were very ordinary: Kitty Dukakis was in the hospital; the Fed had just eased credit; Del Monte was restructuring. In Europe change continued to simmer along: something like 60,000 East Germans had slipped into the West through the increasingly permeable borders of Czechoslovakia and Hungary since the beginning of November.

But it was really a very ordinary day.

All over East Germany, children pulled turtlenecks over their heads or buttoned up their shirts and had some breakfast (the brown bread had a lovely, comforting tang to it, and then there were the slices of cheese and sausage, and maybe some jam) while their parents drank coffee they had boiled on the stove, and then those children looked at the clocks on the walls and stuffed their school books into their backpacks and ran off down the stairs to school. Their parents probably worried about the state of their country at some point, about friends who were thinking of leaving somehow, or who had already left, or about the nervousness of politicians these days, while drinking their coffee–but then they put on their jackets and went to work at the lab, at the garage, at the office, another ordinary day in their ordinary world.

And then the very next day, after that most ordinary of Wednesdays, the Wall came down, and everything dance

How do you tell a story that is true both to little things, like the taste of the bread people had for breakfast, and also to the huge events that interrupt the everyday and turn it into History? How do you respect both “November 8” and “November 9”?

CLOUD AND WALLFISH, my middle-grade friendship and spying novel, set in East Berlin in 1989, taught me that writing historical fiction is basically a question of choreography: shaping a dance between the Ordinary and the Extraordinary. There are the amazing historical events that really happened, that bring us to a place and a particular period in time: they dance like black holes, eager to swallow up the story. And then there are all the details of everyday life, the hopes and worries of ordinary people who have no way of knowing that today or tomorrow, their individual stories will find themselves caught up in a dance designed for a very large stage.

Noah and Cloud-Claudia, my heroes, get caught up in that large dance in Berlin; I want us to remember the little, everyday details as well as the splashy excitement of of the Wall’s collapse. For this reason, one of my own favorite parts of the book is where Claudia tells us more about something extraordinarily ordinary: a camping trip she went on with her parents, the previous summer. (If you read this aloud, be warned that you really have to try to do it all in one run-on breath!):

“‘I like to be asleep in a tent when it’s raining,’ she said. ….. “A tent is the best, if it isn’t leaking. If there are blankets and you have spent the whole day climbing up the crazy rock castles by the Elbe River and stopping to draw pictures of them because you can’t imagine how much they look like magicians carved them and then later you eat sausages and crawl into the tent and have the every-evening picture-judging contest to see who drew the best rocks that day which is not a fair contest says Papa, because his pictures are photographs so he can’t show them to us yet and ours always win, Mama’s drawings and mine, but that’s how it goes and you sing one more hiking song and then roll up in the blankets to sleep better and if then the rain comes but not all at once, just pat-pitter-pat like it’s whispering something, then that’s the best.'”

History has already hurt Claudia’s family, by this point in the story, but her life is not just History’s version: it is all the little things that came before. It’s the sound of the rain on the tent.

So my advice to those who find themselves suddenly caught up in History: notice the flavor of the bread. Write down some of the little details–maybe even do that today, which may also, who knows, turn out to be Historical: what socks you are wearing. How exactly you turn on the television, if you have one of those things. What the woman said at the store, when you were buying–what were you buying, again? You will be able to look up the big Historical aspects of today later on, but the little things are what make the difference between History and a life, and they deserve to be treasured, too.

Texas Book Festival & NCTE

Hi all! I have a couple of big events coming up this November. I hope to see you at one or the other! But first, the winner of my Rafflecopter giveaway (drumroll, please……):
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If you plan to attend the Texas Book Festival (in Austin, Texas), here’s my schedule:

On Saturday, November 5, my panel is SUPERNATURAL STORYTELLERS. Location: Capitol Extension Room E1.026 from 12:30 PM – 1:15 PM

Robert Beatty
Janet Fox
D.J. MacHale

Moderator: Cynthia Leitich Smith

A magical library, a haunted castle, and a mysterious forest. Otherworldly forces are at work this hour. Don’t miss supernatural storytellers D.J. MacHale, Janet Fox and Robert Beatty as they take us on journeys beyond this realm!

Booksigning, immediately after the panel: Childrens Book Sales & Signing TentIMG_1267

And at NCTE, in Atlanta, Georgia, I’m on two panels.

First, from 2:30-3:45 on Friday, November 18, in Room A311:

Advocating for Your Student Writers: Bringing the Author/Editor Relationship to the Classroom

Attend this roundtable session to discover how an editor/author relationship can be used by teachers to advocate for student writers. You will hear from four of the author/editor pairs learning insights, methods, techniques, tips, and strategies to improve writing instruction and guide student writers in your classroom.

Co-Chairs: Jillian Heise, literacy consultant, Custom Education Solutions Jenny Seiler, Woodworth Middle School, Fond du Lac, WI

Author/Editor Pairs: Janet Fox and Kendra Levin, Penguin Young Readers
Sara Zarr and Jordan Brown, HarperCollins Children’s Books
Jordan Sonnenblick and David Levithan, Scholastic
Randi Pink and Liz Szabla, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group
Brian Conaghan and Cindy Loh, Bloomsbury
Sherri Winston and Allison Moore, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
SJ Kincaid and Justin Chanda, Simon & Schuster
Ronald L. Smith and Lynne Polvino, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers

After that panel, I’ll be signing in the Penguin Booth (412) from 4:00-5:00 PMFullSizeRender (7)

Second, from 8:00-9:15 AM on Saturday, November 19, in Room B311:

We See Their Faces: How Historical Fiction Advocates for Empathy, Diversity, and Social Change

Empathy toward others and advocacy for diversity is more important than ever in schools. This teacher/author panel examines historical fiction characters as role models for today’s children and provides participants with ways to respond to injustice and obstacles through themed units, character studies, and social action projects.

Chair: Holly Mueller, Kings Local Schools, Kings Mills, OH
Presenters: Holly Mueller, Kings Local Schools, Kings Mills, OH
Margaret Simon, Iberia Parish Gifted Program, LA
Respondents: Kirby Larson, Scholastic
Janet Fox, author, Bozeman, MT (Penguin Young Readers)
Rita Williams-Garcia, HarperCollins
Augusta Scattergood, Scholastic
Linda Sue Park, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Please come and say hello if you will be at either of these events!

Things That Go Bump In The Night

” ‘Hainted, it is, with grindings and screeches…’ page 23, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE.

Ghost. Phantom, apparition, spook. Commonly thought to be the spirit of a dead person appearing in lifelike form.

The Scots, it turns out, are very into ghosts. The word wraith first appears in 18th century Scottish romantic literature; the word bogey first appears in Scottish poet John Mayne’s Hallowe’en (1780). Robert Burns read Mayne’s poem and wrote his own version; according to Burns, Halloween is “thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands”. Here’s just one stanza from Burns’ (very long) poem:


English churchyard

He wistl’d up Lord Lennox’ March
To keep his courage cherry;
Altho’ his hair began to arch,
He was sae fley’d an’ eerie:
Till presently he hears a squeak,
An’ then a grane an’ gruntle;
He by his shouther gae a keek,
An’ tumbled wi’ a wintle
Out-owre that night.

And the modern English translation:

He whistled up Lord Lennox’ march
To keep his courage cheery;
Although his hair began to stand on end,
He was so scared and eerie:
Till presently he hears a squeak,
And then a grown and grunting;
He over his shoulder gave a peek,
And tumbled with a stagger
Out over that night.


Window in Edinburgh

Halloween – more properly “Hallowe’en” or “All Hallows Eve” – is the night before All Saints’ Day, which was designated by Pope Gregory in the 8th century as the day to revere saints and martyrs. Halloween probably originated from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was a celebration of the end of summer and the beginning of the long dark days of winter, and associated with death. On Samhain, also celebrated on the first of November, the Celts believed that the line between life and death became blurred, and one could commune with the dead, which included fortune-telling by those spirits. As part of the communion – or perhaps to hide from wandering spirits – Samhain festival-goers would dress in costumes of animal skins and masks.


Edinburgh tombstone

All Saints’ Day could be translated from “All-hallowmas” or the Middle English “Alholowmesse”. The night before, “All-hallows Eve” became “Hallows-even” or “Hallowe’en.” Our practice of trick-or-treating probably comes from the English tradition of giving “soul cakes” to poor beggars who in turn would promise to pray for the souls of the donors. “Going a-souling” was eventually the province of children who would go door-to-door for food and money. The tradition may also have its roots in the practice of leaving food out for spirits, to encourage their benevolence.

Regardless of your feelings about spooks, spirits, or ghosts, you might want to give your modern-day trick-or-treaters a truly soul-feeding gift. In addition to candy, our “Trick-or-Reaters” website offers spooky fun book-related gifts. Just stuff one of these print-outs in their goody bags and trick-or-treaters can visit the website and peruse free offerings from the frightful to delightful.

tor_2flyer_daelynebellHappy Halloween, and remember – we ain’t afraid of no ghosts!

There’s a reference to All Hallow’s Eve in THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. Can you find it?

And don’t forget – this giveaway ends at midnight on Halloween night! Just in time for ghosts to return to their place of rest.


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