Win a Doodle! Win a Doodle! Win a Doodle!

If you’re interested in kidlit, writing, and/or like to laugh, my friend Mike Allegra has you covered! He’s also a talented doodler. Check it out!

Hey, Look! A Writer Fellow!

Who will be the lucky winner? Who will be the lucky winner?

In March, I hosted a contest. The grand (and only) prize was an official, original, custom-made Mike Allegra doodle.

Despite my doodling ability, the number of people who entered this contest was pretty large. This surprised me.

What also surprised me was that some of you reeeeally wanted that ding-dang doodle. In fact, a few people threatened to sic their cats on me if I didn’t do another doodle contest post haste.

To these people I say settle down because here’s another chance to win a doodle!

IF YOU WIN, I WILL DRAW WHATEVER YOU WANT!

Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

Jenion (the winner of the March contest) wanted a drawing of a bicycle racer. So I drew her a bicycle racer.

Ta daa! Ta daa!

But here is real proof: I am not fond of cats. (I am horribly allergic and keep rodents as pets.) But, once…

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The Nerdy Book Club

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I’m happy and honored to say I’m a guest blogger on The Nerdy Book Club today!

Are you a book nerd, too? If you display any of the following symptoms, you are probably already an honorary member of the Nerdy Book Club:

1.  Your nightstand is home to a precariously stacked “to be read” pile.

2.  You get excited, really excited, about new releases from your favorite authors.

3.  You have a favorite book from childhood that you have bought as a gift for at least one younger family member or friend.

4.  You prefer the book store to the shoe store.

5.  The names Harriet (the Spy), Harry (Potter), James (and the Giant Peach), Melody (OUT OF MY MIND),  Auggie (WONDER), and Ivan (the One and Only) prompt a visceral warm-fuzzy response.

6.  You rarely make it through the day without getting or giving a book recommendation.

7. Some of your best friends are teachers and librarians.

8. You always have a book nearby – in your car, bag, purse, or on your e-reader.

9.  You have a “full cart” on Amazon.com, B&N.com, or Indiebound.

10. You volunteer at your kids’ school library but spend more time reading than shelving.

Welcome, member! The Nerdy Book Club is an online space designed by a group of people who wanted a place to share their love of reading with others.  The website is run as a collaborative among book lovers, and is organized and maintained by three teachers you wish your kids could have.  (It also began as a way to organize voting and announce winners of the First Annual Nerdies Book Awards.)

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The site hosts various guest bloggers, and posts generally fall into five different types:

1. Reading Lives are about our lives as readers.

2. New Book Reviews are for books within 18 months of their publication.

3. Retro Reviews are for books that have been out longer than 18 months.

4. Pay It Forward posts are about promoting the love of reading to others.

5. Top Ten posts are lists of ten books or things about books.

As you might imagine, The Nerdy Book Club is a fun place to get lost!  If you get a chance, hop on over and check out my “Pay It Forward” post about encouraging the non-typical reader: Reading Outside the Box (and on it, and under it, and around it…).

As always, Nerds Rule!

Shhhh….

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December can be a very “crazy” month.  We scramble to stay productive while we layer on extra crafting, decorating, visiting, eating, buying, wrapping, concert going….the list of “ing”s goes on and on.  So today I offer you a meditation (from a Zen scroll at a monastery in Japan) that I often refer to when I’m feeling overwhelmed, even by the good things in life:

There is nothing you must be

And there is nothing you must do

There is nothing you must learn

And there is really nothing you must become

But it helps to know that fire burns, and that when it rains, the ground gets wet

It’s a happy time of year, and I hope that you will join me in trying to steal some quiet moments to enjoy it!

Stinky Writing (and by stinky, I mean powerful!)

“The timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights had said, “You have no need for sight. Listen.” -Ann Patchett, BEL CANTO.

“You’re obsessed with reading,” commented my daughter recently.  True.  I’ve been following a particularly rich breadcrumb path left by reviewers and bloggers and friends, which has led me to some great works.  I’ve begun acting a little like an addict:  keeping a hidden stash for backup, making sure I always have some with me, constantly thinking about my next score.

While I’m reading something that delights me, I try to focus on the exact what that makes the writing so engaging.  What has been rising to the surface for me is the power of a good description.

Of the five senses, I think most writers (myself included) focus mostly on sight and sound.  Think ‘streaks of dusky gray and white bleaching the blue sky’, or, ‘the loud clanging of the bell broke the hush of the early dawn.’

I think that’s why it’s always so pleasing to come across a really great description of smell or taste or touch.  If you’re writing today, I encourage you to close your eyes and smell, feel, and taste what your character is experiencing.  Here are a few talented examples to whet your appetite:

“She smelled like rotten flower vase water”- Jo Knowles, PEARL. (Seriously, smell some.  Your nose hairs will burn).

[A raisin roll]:  “That stretchy softness, warm to the teeth, black fruit off mountain vines popping like music.” – Anneli Rufus, White on White Lunch for When No One Is Looking, from ALONE IN THE KITCHEN WITH AN EGGPLANT, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.

“…dig down in with your fingers and tear it loose.” -Lois Lenski, COTTON IN MY SACK.

Breathe deeply, pick up a book, and enjoy!

A Stormy Read

How bad could the storm possibly have been, I wondered, as I read the first pages of Donn Fendler’s fantastically exciting memoir, Lost Trail.  (Down East Books, 2011)  Then five days ago, Sandy blew in with her hurricane force tropical tempest, and I realized how anxious bad weather can make us.  Even though I was safe in my home, miles and miles from the storm’s true path, my heart was racing and my ability to prioritize real vs. imagined danger was compromised.

So, in that moment, it was easier for me to imagine how a 12-year-old Donn Fendler from New York felt when a storm blew in as he summited Mt. Katahdin 73 years ago ago.

When Donn went on a fishing trip with his father and a group of friends in the northern Maine woods in the summer of 1939, the only care on his mind was finding the best fishing spot.  He never imagined he’d soon be in a race for his life.

Lost Trail is the true story of Donn’s 9-day adventure and struggle for survival alone on Mt. Katahdin, with nothing but the clothes on his back.  It is an exciting, page turning, uplifting story, which has been retold in a fantastic graphic novel format with Lynn Plourde.  The amazingly talented illustrator, Ben Bishop, has rendered the story with pen strokes that seem to grab the urgency of the situation and pull you into the story.

The story alone had me reading at a frantic pace, but the kicker is the actual newspaper articles and clippings from the Bangor Daily News, which chronicle the swell of people who surged in to help, and their trickling departure when it seemed all hope was lost.  I couldn’t imagine what Donn’s parents were thinking and feeling the day that the News reported: “Boy’s Body Likely Found.”

Of course, since he tells the story himself, you know the ending is a happy one:

Mr. Fendler now splits his time between Tennessee and Maine.  Through the years he has told his survival tale countless times, including in the 1939 book Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Joseph B. Egan (HarperCollins), which I’ll likely check out now for my son and I to read.

If you’re like me, you struggle with whether graphic novels are “really” books that your kids can “really” put on their reading log for school.  Since he was tiny, my son has always gravitated toward anything resembling a comic.  I remember snuggling my then two-year-old, wanting to read The Very Lonely Firefly, but instead reading something like:  and then with his last mortal breath, Dr. Mentor slashed the antidote from the wretched hands of the evil bomb maker…ROARRRRR screamed Hulk, his sinewy muscles snapping…. 

I’ll tell you what, those ‘graphic novels’ often have some pretty juicy vocabulary. Lost Trail is no exception.   The story is uber-compelling, and this re-telling is a guaranteed slam-dunk in any 8-10 year-old’s arsenal,  reluctant reader or not!

Turning the Page

Image Are these girls looking back at summer, or looking ahead to fall?

It’s the middle of the night groping for the blanket you kicked off some weeks ago.  It’s the arms-crossed coffee clutch at the bus stop.  It’s trading beach towels for sweatshirts on the laundry room hooks.  It’s the screech of the school bus brakes and an abruptly quiet home.  It’s a dozen little things that in concert tell us:  fall’s here.

Most people lament summer’s end, but few, especially here in New England, can begrudge fall its season.  It’s hard to resist the crispness of the air, the apples, the new sheets of paper.  Something about that change in the air always reminds me of going back to school, and moving forward on new adventures.

For many, the road ahead is prescribed and welcoming.  Kids move through their school years and many go on to college.  Some of their parents find themselves returning to jobs, starting classes, or rekindling dreams that have been lying dormant, waiting patiently for their turn.

For a few, the next step has a definite start date, and the plan is laid out clearly for you.  For others, the path ahead may seem like that first piece of blank paper that I set out when starting a new story.  The paper is waiting, the pen is in your hand….now what?

Best of luck to all of you who have figured out the “what’s next” piece of your story.  Starting a new field of study, going back to work, getting your business plan off of paper and into the real world: it all takes real courage!

And for those of you who are wondering what turn your story will take next, join the club!  We call that a “work in progress.”  The best part is, in writing and in life, you can revise as many times as you’d like until you find the path that’s right for you.

Sit still in the silence.  Feel fall’s gentle chill on your shoulders.  The rest will come.

Play Time!

Welcome to my new blog space! I’m glad you have found me here.  This summer, while my blog percolated and matured, I personally looked for ways to be as immature as possible.  For example:

I have made a concerted effort, as I enter my 5th decade of life (slight wince), to join in the fun whenever I can.  A few weeks ago, that meant elbowing my way to the front row of an outdoor concert (The Avett Brothers).  As I pushed past the taut bodies and fresh faces of the young crowd, I felt like Cathy Bates in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes:  “I’m older and I’ve got more insurance!”  What fun!

One of the reasons that I like to play regularly is because most of what I write is intended for children.  Letting my inner child out to play is a key component of my “research.”  It would actually be irresponsible to me not to stay up late chatting and giggling.  How lucky is that?

Writers are often encouraged to get to know their audience.  Playing around is one of the ways I endeavor to know mine.  It is not enough to remember what you think it was like to be a kid.  Time does funny things to memories: adding maturity where there was none, taking the danger out of daring situations, smoothing the rough edges of difficult times.  When it comes to being a kid, it takes one to know one.

Prepared or Unprepared?

      My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Williams, took attendance by barking our last names, then asking, “prepared or unprepared?”  You were to answer “prepared” if you had done last night’s homework, or studied the topic at hand, or completed a project.  All others were to answer, “unprepared.”


      I was 1) a nerd and 2) really afraid of Mr. Williams, so I always answered “prepared.”  The kids who were brave enough to answer “unprepared” were met with his steely glare, but then he would nod and move along to the next name.  The worst was if you said prepared, but were later outed as unprepared.  He had no tolerance for that, and vengeance was swift.  No one left that class with any doubt that honesty is the best policy.


      When my kids got off the bus on the last day of school, I was excited for summer. I was prepared.  We had camps lined up, outings planned, berries to pick, and swim lessons to enjoy.  Summertime and the livin’ is easy was playing in a loop in my brain.


     It took just a few days of heat, humidity, and togetherness to change that tune to Crazy Train.  One moment, the kids are bickering like cranky old men, and the next they are cheering as both sets of ears hear the ice cream truck.  Parenting in the summer can be blissful and frenetic, all in the same day.  A few weeks in, I’m finally willing to admit: I was unprepared.  Unprepared for the incredible longing I feel for a moment alone.  Unprepared to play so many games of Battleship, all in a row.  Unprepared to just let go and see where the day takes us.


      Maybe that’s the best way to approach summer.  With a little less structure and a little more flow.  A little more ice cream for lunch and a little less schedule.  That way, when the natives get restless, I can get restless right along with them, and set off for an adventure that no one prepared for, just for the fun of seeing what happens.


    Sorry, Mr. Williams, but when it comes to parenthood, my answer is: unprepared!
      

Critique Groups – a gem in the writer’s arsenal

    
       I’m feeling very grateful to NESCBWI (the New England chapter of The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) for their commitment to helping new writers get plugged in to local critique groups.  It was through this channel that about a year and a half ago I walked on shaky knees into a meeting of other children’s book authors.  I remember clutching my notebook like it was my mom’s hand and I was headed to my first day at Kindergarten.  And just like school, I was greeted by smiling people who have turned into wonderful friends and teachers.


      One of the most important things you can do to improve your writing is to take the scary step of reading it aloud to other people, with the hope that they will tear it apart and tell you what’s wrong with it!  If you have taken this step:  bravo for brave you!  A critique group is ideally friendly, as mine is, but not so friendly that they are not going to steer you away from dangerous cliffs, such as confusing dialogue or repetitive adjectives.   The most helpful comments are usually “gently ruthless.”


      Author Marion Roach Smith, in her slim but powerful book The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, recommends you try to find a place between “nastiness” and “uber-kindness,” as the former doesn’t move you forward, and the latter “kills excellent writing.”
      She also cautions against turning to family members for feedback, as “…gratuitous support begins at home, where reading your work to someone who depends on you for food, shelter, or sex can garner only one response: ‘Nice,’ or worst of all, ‘Neat!'”


      Trust me, you really don’t want people to tell you your first draft is “great!”  So, take the plunge.  Seek out some people who don’t care what you made for dinner, but do care about helping you elevate your work.  If you are looking for a critique group, you often have to look no further than Google to hit on some good online support.  I prefer the face-to-face kind, because so much of what is being communicated can be picked up through someone’s tone of voice or flicker in their eyes.  It’s not always what you want to hear, but it usually is what you need to hear.  


     You might get as lucky as me, and a few years later, find yourself sitting around a cozy farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by a fantastic group of talented pre-published writers (and one published author, sharing her beacon of light and hope!), swirling a glass of wine and thinking, “so this is what it feels like to realize a dream!”



The Ethnic Stew

xenophile  (ˈzɛnəˌfaɪl) 
(n): a person who likes foreigners or all things foreign

     I’ve got a real thing for the people, foods, and customs of cultures different from my own.  Even though I could have been the kid sister of Beaver Cleaver, I was not sheltered from the global world.  Foreign exchange students, graduate students from other countries passing through on their way to higher study, and foreign business associates of my father’s frequently stayed with us (or at least came to dinner).  
     I learned early on, thanks to my mom’s adventurous cooking, to appreciate foods that delighted my tongue with unique and new tastes.  I remember her rolling her own egg rolls, and flattening and frying chapatis to serve with Indian food cooked for a birthday feast.  What a lucky child I was. 
     I’m an even luckier grown up, to have married a man who brings such rich culture to our pairing.  As I like to say to him, “you had me at samosa.”   Thanks to my German mother-in-law and Indian father-in-law, our children are exposed to people and places well beyond what I saw at my dining room table, and that excites me.  
     I’m happy to say that it seems that publishers of picture books are beginning to broaden their depiction of our global world, as well.  However, there is a lot of room for growth.   In a recent article, (Diversity:  Everybody in the Pool! – SCBWI Bulletin May/June 2012), author Suzanne Morgan Williams points out that “more than 90 percent of children’s/YA books published in the US in 2010 were by white authors and illustrators, and about white protagonists.”
     I can name a few books with diverse voices from when I was young, including Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, and of course the controversial Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman.  (We cringe now at the political incorrectness, and apparently Helen does too, as she has rewritten the story as The Boy and The Tigers).  All I remember was being fascinated by that pool of butter.   
     For my own children, there were many more choices.  Some of their favorite books that included diverse cultures were:


 Something Special, by Nicola Moon

and Yum, Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger
and Bee-Bim Bop by Linda Sue Park.
My most recent favorite is Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, by F. Zia.  
     “Dada” is the Hindi word for grandfather, and Dadaji is the name my children call their own paternal grandfather.  It was a thrill to come across this book and to be able to give it as a gift to my young nephew, who will never know there was a time where it would have been difficult to find a title like this.  Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji tells the story of visiting grandparents and how they share their heritage through play.  It is a story of an Indian family, but it has universal appeal.  
     I’d like to see even more blending of cultures in books for young children, for kids like my 8-year-old son (1/4 Indian, 1/4 German, 1/2 Swiss/English, and a few other things…) who still struggles with his ethnic identity.  
    “Am I black?” he asked after a day at the pool when another child had commented on his skin color.
    “Is the reason I’m so good with my bow and arrow because I’m Indian?”  (Kid logic – I love it!).  
      I answer these questions imperfectly, usually starting with, “what do you think?”  Then I go into my extended rant about what a wonderful blend of loving people he is, and when we mixed it all together, look what we got!
     Suzanne Morgan Williams says, “Having a broader ethnic/racial base of published authors and illustrators as well as characters will benefit us all.”
     I agree with that, and would add that the xenophile June Cleavers of this world might have something to add as well.  At least I know I have the food part of my research down pat.  In fact, I think I’ll go research some Phở ([fɤ˧˩˧] right now.  Slurp!