No Peeking!

The 5th Annual Holiday Contest!
christmas tree beautiful christmas tree beautiful christmas tree ...

This week I’m playing in Susanna Leonard Hill’s holiday contest: Write a children’s story, 350 words maximum, beginning with any version of “Rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop.”

Here is my entry (y’all sing along now)…

 

NO PEEKING!

 

Sneakin’ around the present stash

At the bottom of the tree,

In stealth mode, got my ninja on,

Look how black-ops I can be!

 

I shouldn’t look, but too late now,

Hey, I think this one’s for me!

Later I might regret this choice,

But right now I’ve got to see.

 

Santa, please forgive me sir, it’s awfully hard to wait.

Voices saying, “It’s not Christmas – put that present down right now, Miss!”

 

Sneakin’ around the present stash

Is the most fun thing to do.

Parents are at their office bash,

If you were me, you’d peek too!

 

Here I go, I’m gonna open just one little gift.

Peel the tape slow, careful – don’t tear…

 

Jokes on me now, I got UNDERWEAR!

 

Wrap it back up, no time to waste

Hide this sneaky thing I did.

I’ll call St. Nick and plead my case,

“Please remember, I’m a kid!”

Presents

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

 

The Power of “Yes”

Ever notice a new pattern in your life, and wonder when and how things shifted?

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I recently noted that interesting things were happening to me, with some regularity. For example, I was asked to be an extra in a TV commercial. (Yes – random, unexpected, fun.) The morning of the shoot (look at me already using the lingo), I had a fleeting thought that I might meet another kidlit author that day. And I did. The actor in front of me in the “bank line” that I stood in for several hours told me all about his middle grade novel and his popular anti-bullying school visits.

Then, as I was reflecting on how fun it was to see the behind-the-scenes making of a commercial, I was asked to do an (unrelated) televised interview highlighting a local service I’d used and been happy with. Yes, I’m ready for my close up, I thought.

Before that, as I was sending my littlest off to school and contemplating next steps, I was asked to teach a few courses at the local university (UCONN). It was the clear-out-the-cobwebs/rejoin-the-adult-world kick in the pants I had needed.

I’ve also been asked to test and rate products, and have gotten paid to 1) eat crackers, 2) give my opinion on Lego toys, and 3) choose a decking material.

Oh, and I win things all the time. Annoying, I know. It’s always little things like books and baked goods. But still.

Things just keep…coming at me. Is this some kind of cosmic force I’m pulling to myself a la “The Secret”? (I never did read that book, but I know it talks about the ‘law of attraction.’)

No. I don’t think that’s it. It’s much more basic than that.

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I think it’s this: I simply started saying “YES.”

Yes, I will try this new random thing that scares me. Yes, I’d like to go somewhere new, and meet interesting people. Yes, I’d love to get out of my comfort zone for a bit…um, I think….yup, okay, I’ll do it. Yes, I’ll enter that contest. By saying yes, maybe I am sending the universe the message that I’m open to new ideas. I just hope it keeps answering. Because I’m having a LOT of fun.

What else, though, can we challenge ourselves to say yes to? It could be something small but significant, like: Yes, I will listen with an open mind to the varied opinions around my Thanksgiving table.

Last weekend I had to start with Yes, I will watch the news reports that are hard to digest, so I can know who needs our help the most. And how about yes, I am willing to learn about other religions and cultures, and open my heart and mind to their struggles? As I write this, people in Connecticut are arguing about our Governor’s decision to continue to welcome refugees from Syria. Really? If the tables were turned, and your family was casting about for a country to safely call home, wouldn’t you want to be given the benefit of a yes, you are welcome here? Honestly, if you are sitting on something comfortable as you read these words, you have so much more than millions of other humans on Earth. How simple your yes/no decisions would seem to them.

So many “No’s” come from fear, ignorance, and harmful generalizations: I’ll never succeed, why try? All Muslims are violent. People who don’t look like me don’t have the same emotions I do. One person can’t make a difference.

Let go the NO. What will you say YES to today? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year? I’d love to hear where your positive attitude takes you.

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If you’re interested, here is my small screen debut. I’m available for autographs, or to stand in line for you at the bank.

 

 

The Marriage Garden

IMG_4658I spent the morning in my pumpkin patch. I’m trying to grow a “biggest” one for a contest both as research and for fun.

It was time to prune vines and clip off some shoots in order to send more nutrients to the most hearty contestants. I was also looking for the main roots, where the vines originated, so I could infuse them with some good organic fertilizer.

It had been several weeks since I’d given the patch attention, so it took me hours to accomplish my tasks. Almost the whole time, a song my dad wrote for his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary was playing in my mind (the words as I remember them, anyway).

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[To the tune of the old hymn: In The Garden]

She works in the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. Then her boyfriend comes, with his two black thumbs, and starts to trim the hedges. And he walks to her, and he talks to her, and he tells her what she did wrong…and the joy they share, as they tarry there, will last their whole life long.

It may have been this image of a couple working (and arguing) together that led me to flesh out the garden analogy when I was asked to speak at my brother-in-law’s wedding. (I know! Huge honor. Super scary.)

I told the bride and groom to be aware that marriage is a lot like a garden. In the beginning, everything is shiny and new. You clear your plot. You put in the best soil. There isn’t a weed in sight. With great excitement, you go pick out all your favorite plants.

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Your rows are straight and full of promise. You’ve heard marriage is hard, but just look at what you’ve already accomplished! In no time you’ll be enjoying a bountiful harvest. Easy.

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The truth is, some years of your marriage will seem easier than others. You’ll plant your seeds, give the garden a few passing glances, and in the fall have a bumper crop. But other years, it seems that despite all your efforts, it’s all you can do to get a few tiny tomatoes to grow. You’ll look around and think, “Man. Am I sick of weeding!”

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Over time, you’ll learn that a steady blend of good soil, gentle rain, and constant care will yield the most consistent results. But most of the time, the work doesn’t look anything like the models you see in the Plow & Hearth catalog. There are no wide brimmed hats and soft kneeling pads. There is dirt-streaked hair, stinky sweat, and manure. Lots of manure.

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However, over the years your soil will become richer and able to handle a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. The garden will grow beyond it’s original plot. You’ll always have plenty enough produce for your own family, with leftovers to share.

Back in my garden this morning, I struggled to find those darn roots. Where had these vines originated, anyway? The temperature had spiked quickly, humidity squelching my desire to stay out there and work. But I knew, like I know with my marriage, that a little extra effort would go a long way.

And funny thing, my patch has only two pumpkins that will likely amount to anything. One is pretty big and hearty already, the other is a bit smaller and is going to need some special care. And there is a point where their two separate vines are twisted and bound so tightly together that there is no way to differentiate who’s getting nutrients from which root.

So I dug into the ground around all the roots I saw, and worked in lots of fertilizer. My hands were filthy. My back hurt. But my pumpkins are worth it. IMG_4789

And marriage is worth it, too. You pay the bills, you share your fears, you schlep the groceries and you clean the toilets. You sit and listen to the “bad day” rants, and get your turn to kvetch, too. You send out little tendrils and cling to each other, hanging on with all you’ve got.

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Then, come harvest time, you’ll get your payback. Your crops will exceed your greatest predictions. Your heart will overflow with the fruits of your labor. And, you’ll have all the energy and motivation you’ll need to do it all again next year.

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Now Read This!

I’m enjoying a growing trend in Middle Grade reading: novels in verse.

book love

These stories have a narrative arc, and character development, and all the things you’d expect from a novel-length work. But, they are told through the medium of poetry rather than prose.

Two of the main things I love about this type of novel are the beauty of the language, and the accessibility of the stories. This style of writing is particularly well suited for people who claim to not like poetry, or kids who are reluctant readers. There is a lot of white space in poetry, which can be very welcoming to readers who feel stuck when they see a page full of words.

Brown_Girl_Dreaming-200brown girl dreaming (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books 2014) by Jaqueline Woodson (newly named Young People’s Poet Laureate) won the 2014 National Book Award.

Through a connected series of poems, Woodson chronicles her life growing up in the 1960s and 70s in both the North and the South. I gained a much deeper appreciation of the landscape of our country at that time while reading her touching, often funny, and deeply personal story.

My favorites were the “how to listen” poems.

how to listen #3

Middle of the night

my grandfather is coughing

me upright. Startled.

***

how to listen #7

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

***

Give yourself the chance to listen to her words. They’re beautiful.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame AlexanderThe Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) by Kwame Alexander was this year’s Newbery Award Winner.

The Crossover is a heart-pumping story of basketball phemon twin-brothers Josh and Jordan Bell. But as the jacket flap says: Josh has more than hoops in his blood. He’s got a river of rhymes flowing through him – a sick flow that helps him find his rhythm when everything’s on the line.

This book is a natural summer reading pick for sports lovers. The word play, especially during scenes that describe basketball games, is really fun.

From Dribbling:

…Be careful though,

’cause now I’m CRUNKing

CrissCROSSING

FLOSSING

flipping

and my dipping will leave you

SLIPPING on the floor, while I

SWOOP in

to the finish with a fierce finger roll…

Straight to the hole:

Swooooooooooooooosh.

FREE Basketball Camp for 3rd & 4th Graders

However, it’s not exclusively for sports fans. There’s a tender story of family at the heart of this novel that will appeal to all readers.

Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life

your family is the court

and the ball is your heart.

No matter how good you are,

no matter how down you get,

always leave

your heart

on the court.

***

Happy Reading!

Poems for Your Pocket

Today is POEM IN YOUR POCKET day! How does one celebrate? By carrying around a poem or two in your pocket, and then sharing them with someone else.

My Grandpa Bill had a love of words and an incredible memory. When we visited, he would come to the bedroom door to say goodnight, and without preamble, would recite for us THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT by Edward Lear. I can still see his silhouette outlined by the hall light, and hear his gentle voice. Isn’t that a nice gift to send someone through life with?

One of my all time favorite kid poems is by Ogden Nash:

THE RHINOCEROS

The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farwell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.

There are many fun and funny poetry collections for kids. Here are a few that won’t steer you wrong:

Hilarious characters like Snerry Jake speak a language all their own in this billy sook.

Hilarious characters like Snerry Jake speak a language all their own in this billy sook.

If you like Shel, you'll love Jack. "Watson Watts, upon his legs, balanced forty ostrich eggs..."

If you like Shel, you’ll love Jack. “Watson Watts, upon his legs, balanced forty ostrich eggs…”

Find a kid  to give a poem to today. I sent my seventh grader off with a poem and an eye roll this morning. It is a love poem I wrote just for her. I’ll take the eye roll, she’ll take the poem, and with any luck we’ll meet up on the other side of junior high.

For more information about how POEM IN YOUR POCKET day originated, as well a great selection of downloadable poems, click here!

You may also enjoy visiting the website of poet Jason Tandon. I’m a fan.

PeRsPeCtIvE

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It took me quite some time after graduate school to find my first paid position as a speech pathologist. What didn’t take long was figuring out why my employer, an inner-city rehabilitation center, had used the word “unique” in their help-wanted ad. The majority of patients there were under 50, and missing at least one limb (due to complications from untreated diabetes). An overpowering stench permeated the building. But what really stood out was the volatility that hovered over every interaction. Outbursts were common, and the whole atmosphere was loud and unsettled. Early on, I was charged by a screaming, arm-flailing man because I had turned down his television set (never did that again!).

One day I sat across from a middle-aged, toothless man. We were working on his expressive language skills, including speech intelligibility, after a mugging had left him brain damaged. Just before our session, I had learned he would be heading to his mother’s house the next day.

“Are you excited about getting out of here?” I asked him. After all, I cried in my car every morning before walking into work, and assumed that actually having to stay there would be a horrible experience. But his answer surprised me.

“Oh, I hate to leave,” he told me. “The bed is so soft and clean. And the food is so good. I’ll be back on the streets soon, and I’ll be hungry again now.”

After we finished, I wished him well and then escaped into the dark back staircase, one of my regular hiding spots. I stood on my tip-toes so I could see out the cinder-block sized window, and I cried. But this time it was not because I was scared and overwhelmed, but because I hadn’t seen any goodness in this place before that. I had assumed this was the bottom – the worst case scenario. And that man’s words showed me how naive I was, and how much worse things could be.

IMG_1130Years later, I was teaching an introductory speech and language course at The University of Connecticut. I was my first college teaching experience, and I was very anxious for everything to go smoothly. When I walked into the building on the first day, I noticed a large group of students standing outside the classroom I’d been assigned to. I immediately panicked. It was an 8:00 a.m. class, and I didn’t have a key. I had no plan B! Then, I noticed a second door to the room, further down the hallway. I walked over to it, opened it, and went inside. The students followed behind me and the class proceeded. On the way home I laughed at how thin the line can be between student and teacher: the teacher is sometimes just the person who tries the second door!

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It seems that where we are on life’s journey often determines our perspective. Don’t we all, at some point, feel like we’re at the bottom of the heap? During those times, all we can do is look up, and see others who have achieved what we had hoped to by now. But don’t forget, there are people behind you, wishing they were as far along as you are. Reach back with encouragement, and look forward in hope. Take some time to adjust your perspective: maybe where you are right now is where you are supposed to be.

So, appreciate what you have. But, don’t forget to look for that second door. It’s probably sitting there, unlocked, waiting for you.

Little and Often Makes Much

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I don’t run. But I am fascinated by people who do, especially marathoners and other long distance runners. It took me a while to figure out what all those “26.2” bumper stickers meant. Honestly, I briefly thought it was something political (26.2 more days of so-and-so in office?). Then a friend started training to run a marathon and…Oh! That’s what that means.

Of course runners do not start with marathons. Consistent training sessions with gradually increasing miles, over a long period of time, are what lead to success on race day.

And so many worthwhile things in life are like that. Sometimes a far away goal looms so large, and seems so unattainable, that we stop trying before we begin. That will never happen is a refrain that keeps us in place. But what if you do start trying?

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What if you did one thing every day that got you closer to your goal? One cookie left on the plate. One closet organized. One chapter of a book written. Over time, the little steps start to add up. It’s like seeing someone else’s child after all long time: we are amazed at how much they’ve grown! But to the parents, and to the child themselves, it was incremental. Tiny, everyday changes that go unnoticed in the moment can add up to something huge.

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Today I am celebrating a “my how you’ve grown” moment: finishing the first draft of my second novel. As I was working on it, I sometimes felt like a chicken looking for grain – peck, peck, peck. And then one day I realized I was past the half-way mark. Then I wrote the climactic scene. Then I was working on the last chapter. Step by step. Page by page. Line by line.

 

I'm also obviously a lover of Chinese food.

I’m also obviously a lover of Chinese food.

What will you choose to take one step towards today? It may not be a marathon. Or a novel. But whatever it is, you have the power to get there. Go for it!

 

Destiny

Book Bravo: The Impossible Knife of Memory

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From the JacketFlap:

“For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, trying to outrun the memories that haunt them both. They moved back to Andy’s hometown to try a “normal” life, but the horrors he saw in the war [Iraq] threaten to destroy their lives. Hayley watches, helpless, as her father turns to drugs and alcohol to silence his demons. And then her own past creeps up, and everything falls apart.

How do you keep your father alive when death is stalking him? What are you supposed to do when your parent stops acting like an adult? And what happens if a sweet guy who can make you laugh barges his way into your world and for the first time, you find yourself thinking about the future?”

I knew this book had darker notes to it, so it had been moving up and down and sideways on my nightstand, waiting for me to be “ready” to read it. Then a series of snow days converged with the cover image to give me the kick I needed to dive in. And now I’m filled with the “evangelical zeal” that John Green talks about to tell other people about it.

From the first scene, Hayley had me in her corner. She sees herself as different than the ‘zombies’ in her new school, but right away I could see through her judgmental comments and understand her desire to belong. This is a young girl who has been through a lot, and is now holding on by her fingertips as things go from bad to worse.

Some reviews have criticized this novel as giving a “clean” version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If that is true, I’d hate to see the un-sugar coated version. I’m sure for people with personal connections to PTSD, it may read differently than it did for me. But I felt that the author did an excellent job of showing how some people are able to navigate daily life even when they have a very thin hold on reality. I think we would all be shocked if we knew how close so many people are to the edge of breakdowns. (Sometimes I dream that people had meters on them to show their “code red” status…Oh, he’s “code orange” today, better be extra nice...).

One of my favorite subplots of this book is Hayley’s relationship with her new friend, Finn. These two remind me a lot of Eleanor and Park*, another quirky couple who find each other among the cloud of teenage angst that surrounds high school. Finn becomes an anchor for Hayley as the chaos at her home swells.

“When I was with Finn, the world spun properly on it’s axis, and gravity worked. At home, the planet tilted so far on its side it was hard to tell which way was up. Dad felt it, too. He shuffled like an old man, as if the carpet under his feet was really a slick sheet of black ice.”

*Also a must read

*Also a must read

Hayley’s character is richly written, with multiple, believable layers. But the supporting cast all have deep back stories of their own. Both Finn and Hayley’s friend Gracie are also dealing with serious issues at home. These underlying stories enhance the theme of how we take care of those that we belong to.

Andy struggles with invasive memories and does a lot of crappy things as a parent. But we never doubt his love for his daughter. I found the other adults in the book to be very real as well…dealing with their own stuff while trying to do their best for the younger people who are in their care.

Take advantage of one of these snow days, and read THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY. Whether it does it perfectly or not, this book helps shed much needed light on the issue of post traumatic stress disorder. And that is a good thing.

 

 

Retreat! Retreat!

 The Writing Retreat

A tricky plot, I’ve lost my thought

I need to clear my head

My characters stink and I can’t think

My muse needs watered and fed

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So I’m off, down the road, take a right at the lane

To a fireside ‘cross the bay

Gonna clear my noggin, and quick my sloggin’

Gonna breath, and write all day

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Good friends, good food, and a bottle or four

Close the door, shut it tight, lock and latch it

The first draft needs words, and a problem to solve

The revision just might need a hatchet.

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I’ll wrangle and tangle my story until

A thin ray of hope starts to rise

And that night I’ll drink deep from the well of content

My eyes will be back on the prize

*****

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Far from a cry of defeat, the word retreat actually can mean a purposeful movement towards sanity.

Making a conscious effort to give your goals a solid chunk of attention is a very powerful way to tell yourself, and others, what is important to you right now.

For the next four days, I’m off to the Fireside Retreat – a writing getaway of my own design. I’ll be surrounded by peace and quiet and the occasional laugh from the talented friends who are joining me. We’ll also be meeting with Newbery Award winning author Cynthia Voigt who has graciously offered to share her time and insights with us. And all of this is because I had an idea, and asked for some favors and some help.

Maybe it’s time for you to plan a girl’s or guy’s weekend so you can focus on treasured friendships. Or, perhaps you crave a prefab or self-designed retreat for writers, crafters,  fitness junkies, spiritual seekers, or whatever is your current passion.

Make the time, make the arrangements, make you a priority! Retreat!