Whispering Pines and Pi

Ten minutes down a winding, wooded road, off a nondescript route in Rhode Island, a cozy old place is nestled amidst expansive and interconnecting ponds, brooks, and…yes, looming whispering pine trees. This is where I just spent 48 magical hours. Twenty years ago, two brilliant writers – Laurie Smith Murphy and Linda Brennan  – created the Whispering Pines conference for children’s writers. Several equally brilliant writers over the years have taken over the reigns and passed them on, as the incredibly warm, funny, and articulate Lynda Mulally Hunt  did this weekend after being the conference director for the last 10 years. I was so lucky to be there for the 20th anniversary and Lynda’s last conference as director.

Three editors – Mallory Kass from Scholastic Press, Sylvie Frank from Simon and Schuster, and Kendra Levin  from Viking Children’s Books – joined three agents – John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary, Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary, and Erin Murphy – to spend hour upon hour with us sharing their knowledge, experience, guidance, feedback, humor, and warmth. I have been to a fair number of conferences and workshops for kid lit writers over the years, but this was my first time at Whispering Pines, and never have I had the opportunity to meet and have substantial conversations with such esteemed and friendly editors and agents. Truly, truly genuine and interesting individuals. And as if that wasn’t enough? I met and reconnected with a dozen or two talented writers who also happen to be super nice people. If you are a kid lit writer and haven’t gone yet, get thee to Whispering Pines March 10-12, 2016.

On my 2-hour ride back home, I listened to the NPR Ted talk radio hour and was treated to an episode on language and humanity. How fitting after two days immersed in the language of writing. It’s hard (and not the safest thing in the world!) to take notes while driving, but I managed to scribble down a few that seem so apropos to the weekend.

Did you know that there are over 7,000 distinct languages in the world? And that every year 50-100 of those languages go extinct? As with so much else on our planet, we are losing linguistic diversity at a rapid rate. That may sound alarming, and it is, but the speaker who presented these facts also said, “Different languages impose barriers to communication.” He surmises that at some point, in the not too distant future, English will be the world’s universal language. Boy, do I have mixed feelings about that! But being on the bubble of this writer’s conference, it made me think about how imperative language is to our survival. And that the language we choose to use in children’s books has a powerful effect on children and how they view the world. So choose your words with love and care, and hope that we can both preserve our diversity and join together as one world, simultaneously.

Another speaker, a Greek and Latin teacher named Phuc Tran , spoke about grammar and its implications for how we view the world. He said, “Grammar can be used to bring the world into sharp focus, or it can make the world a blurry place.” When I first heard this I thought, “Wha?” And then, as so often is the case, this TED talker made a connection between two ideas that had never occurred to me before. The subjunctive (could have, should have) does not exist in many languages. For example, his native language, Vietnamese, does not have the subjunctive. So when faced with near misses, potential tragedies, quandaries and such, there is no “could have” or “should have” to consider. There is only the present. Well, gosh darn it, I say, “How liberating!” After all, do “should have”s and “could have”s benefit us? As he asked, are they good for our soul? If not, let it go! That, and the idea of stretching the thinking of our readers by offering new perspectives on life, struck me as so important. Mallory Kass talked so passionately about the latter, as well.

So what about the Pi part of this blog entry? What is pi, after all? It describes a perfect circle. Why are circles significant? When we are part of one there is no beginning and no end. We are part of something that cannot be broken. We belong, organically. I am so happy to be part of the children’s writing community – a circle of friends and colleagues that seem to have an infinite amount of generosity, enthusiasm, support, and wisdom to share with other kid lit writers. That is the way the world should be, just like we learned in Kindergarten. Share. Help each other. Be nice. Laugh together.

Sylvie Frank shared her step-by-step process in editing Scott Magoon’s beautiful book, Breathe. It seemed very fitting to share his book here with you as I take this moment to breathe in the gifts I received this weekend of writing wisdom, new friendships, camaraderie, community, and never-ending support.

Life Lesson #18: Is it any coincidence that pie is round? Next time you share some with your friends, family or colleagues remember pi and the circles that we belong to that are unbreakable. Then breathe that comfort and blessing into your heart, and eat up!

Right from Scott Magoon’s website…”Today you’ve done some amazing things. And seen some pretty awesome sights. But did you revel in those moments? Or maybe you had a close call—did you take a moment to shake it off?”

Please share!

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Click here for Scott Magoon’s website

Best Books, Snow, and the Patriots

I’m not much of a football fan, but what I am a fan of is seeing things through to the end, determination, grit, and never losing hope or belief. For all those that watched The Game, the Patriots embodied all of these. (Sorry Seahawks fans).

For every New Englander that loves snow (I’m jumping up and down raising my hand!) we waited and waited, not losing hope, and finally got The Storm. Snow brings out the kid in me (which isn’t hard to do). I know so many people dislike snow, but I think it’s all about attitude and a willingness to embrace the kid inside. Oftentimes I’m the first one in the house to yell, “Snow day! Let’s get the sleds out!” I love the feeling of bundling up in layers, trudging up the hill, sitting atop that piece of hard plastic and letting go with a WHOOSH! Then, of course, there is snowman building, fort building, igloo building, snow wrestling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, animal tracking, and more. Snow is so much more than digging the cars out and praying you don’t slip on your way to work. Embrace it and you may find that there’s actually joy in that white fluffy stuff!

And that brings me to this year’s ALA 2015 winners. These are the children’s books selected as the best of the best. It would be impossible to put all of our favorites on this list, and there are always disappointments not to see them. But the books that have “made it” are well worth a read and well worth celebrating. More importantly from where I stand, I celebrate the authors (and illustrators) whose books have been given these prestigious awards because behind each of these books I know there was determination, grit, and seeing things through to the end. While there may have been moments of losing hope and belief, all of the other stuff won out. I have so much admiration for them, and congratulate each and every one of those authors and illustrators.

I struggle every day to hold on and keep my writing going. I lose hope often, but force myself to snap out of it and embrace the joy writing gives me. My son’s teachers are all about grit, and every time I help him with his homework and he gets frustrated it reminds me to have it in myself. How could I ever be a good role model if I gave up? I can’t and you can’t either.

What do you struggle with? How do you find your determination and grit? Please share!

In honor of Dan Santat’s Caldecott winning book The Adventures of Beetle: The Unimaginary Friend here is…

Life Lesson #17: Every day eagerly wait to be imagined by a real child. Together you can do the unimaginable.

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Click image to buy this book.

*Please visit my Parents Page for this month’s READ THIS! article on tips for helping children at home develop literacy skills, and a lifelong love of literacy.

Calling All Cupids! BOOK LOVE – A Blog Hop

Authors need our help! This is a fantastic idea and I hope you will get online to support the ones you love. Thanks to Carrie Finison for this fabulous idea. Some day soon I hope I’ll have my books out there for you to review, too 😉

Story Patch

A recent email by a writer friend reminded me that, even though I read and enjoy many, many books, I don’t always show those books (and their authors) the attention they deserve. If I’ve enjoyed a book a lot, I might tell a friend or two. I might even review a book here on my blog. But I don’t review books in other key places – like on Amazon and Goodreads.

That’s too bad because positive reviews on social media, especially on Amazon, can influence other readers and book buyers. The number of reviews a book gets can directly impact the book’s ranking in search engine results, which in turn can influence sales.

booklovebadge Badge designed by Dana Carey

It’s a tough world out there for books and their authors. They need our support now more than ever. So this month, I thought I’d play Cupid for a while and spread some BOOK…

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Run Across Iceland, or Write a Book?

What do they have in common? Pure inspiration.

During the last week of 2014 I was utterly inspired by two very different people. One I’ve never met and sadly never will. The other I had the pleasure of spending 2 days with recently.

Olga Kotelko took up competitive track and field at age 77 after a life void of athletics. By the time she reached 95 years of age she had amassed over 30 gold medals in the masters track world in 11 events. Thanks to the thoughtfulness of my good friend Molly, I have been soaking up every word about her in Bruce Grierson’s book, What Makes Olga Run? Olga was an enigma. No one had ever done what she did at her age. Doctors, scientists, and psychologists of every walk of life wanted to meet her and find out what her ‘secret’ was for longevity, her unbreakable spirit, desire, motivation, endurance and a life free of pain and degradation in the sense that we typically expect of an octo- or nonagenarian.

Every bit of Olga’s life is inspiration. It is NEVER, never too late to start something new. Greatness is NEVER to be rushed. To find out more about her ‘secrets’, I highly recommend her book.

Pavel Cenkl is a 43-year-old professor of environmental humanities at Sterling College in VT. He is also the husband of my dear friend and rock climbing partner. Pavel and Jen are the consummate outdoor adventure couple.

Have you ever met someone with tree trunk thighs? Pavel has worked long and hard to build his overall fitness. Not as a means to an end, but as a way of life. Now he is taking this way of life and amping it up to the nth degree. In June, Pavel will travel to Iceland with his 10-year-old son (and wife to join him later) to run 170 miles from the south of the country to the north. Solo. In one stretch. No stopping. Really.

His motivation? To raise awareness among outdoor enthusiasts and athletes about climate change and how the places in which we love to pursue our passions are palpably changing. Second motivation? Raise enough money to create a scholarship for a Sterling College student to study in Iceland and an Icelandic student to study at Sterling.

Every bit of Pavel’s life is inspiration. There is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If you’d like to find out more about Pavel, and support him in his endeavor please visit him at Climate Run.

So how many of you are reading about Olga and Pavel and muttering things like, More power to them. Better them than me. You’ll never get me out there doing that. Are they crazy?

See, that’s the kind of thinking that cuts us off from possibility. Remember when you were a kid and you thought you were invincible? You didn’t see any reason at all why you couldn’t BE Spiderman or a princess, eat 3 double scoop ice cream cones in a row, build a ramp off your roof and ride your bike up it, or sled down a hill at mach 6 speed.

And then you became an adult and those kinds of thoughts became crazy.

Why? What switched in us? Why did we suddenly wake up one day and think those things were impossible and dangerous and just plain old ridiculous? Was it fear? Fear of getting harmed? Fear of being judged? Fear of not being taken seriously by friends, family and colleagues? Fear of failing?

This, dear friends, is why I teach. It is why I am a mom. It is why I write stories for children. Children have it right, and we must never lose sight of how we viewed the world as a child. Surrounding myself with children keeps that reminder fresh in my mind every day. They hold the magic and we should make it our life’s work to hold it, too. In all that we do and in all that we are.

As a children’s book writer I want nothing more than for children to be inspired by the story they fall into. I want them to know, to remember, and to always and forever hold onto the belief that the world is good, people are good, and their lives are full of nothing but possibilities. If they can imagine it, they can be it or do it.

There are many classic books that are monuments to this idea that if you believe, anything is possible. The first that comes to mind is The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards. Then there is Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, Press Here by Herve Tullet, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett, and so many more.

What books would you add to this list?

There is inspiration all around us. I believe it can touch us deeply if we are open to it. We write the book of our own life. And if you are also a writer for others, hopefully you write from your heart so that their lives may be enriched.

Lesson #16: Live openly. Be inspired by others. Let their inspiration change your life. Don’t wait. 2015 is your year.

Happy New Year! Write the book that YOU want to write. Go get it!

Here are two contemporary books that remind us to keep the magic and possibilities alive and well in us…

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and…

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Click on images to visit the authors’ pages

Critique Groups. Short and sweet.

It’s almost the year’s end and I am grateful for so much. The list-toppers are, of course, my good health, my loving family, friends, and basic needs of fresh clean water, a roof over my head, food on my table, and a steady income. Really, what else does one need in life?

Well, if you’re a writer as I am…a kick butt critique group! I cannot say enough about how wonderful my critique group is. I’ve been part of a few terrific ones over the years, but the Sandbox Writers group is super special. We all write in the same genre and the feedback I get is uplifting, yet honest, from years of experience, and helps me shape my stories in the direction they need to go.

I’m taking my time these days with my manuscripts. Trying not to rush them out the door. Like soup. You know how it always seems to taste better the next day? My critique group is helping me make the yummiest of manuscripts. And I’m enjoying the process of adding a little of this and a little of that, testing the waters and finding the combination of words and ideas that are just right.

So, this one is short and sweet but infinitesimally important…

THANK YOU TO MY WONDERFUL CRITIQUE GROUP!!!!! And if you are a writer, I wish you the same good fortune I’ve had in finding or having a solid group of critiquers to test your soups…um…I mean writing!

Lesson #15: Be grateful for the little things in life. They carry a lot of weight.

And what better classic picture book than this one to remind us of loving the little things?

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Click on image to see Robert Munsch’s website

What are you grateful for? Please leave a comment!

 

 

 

Pig Pile Once in a While

For Thanksgiving I had the pleasure of having my father, brother and sister-in-law visit with my family and me. Aside from the scrumptious meal we made, pleasing both the omnivores and vegetarians alike, my family is always good for a whole bunch of goofiness. The lot of us are prone to doing and saying the silliest of things at any given time. If it’s a pun, which my father in particular is known for, there’s a lot of groaning. If it’s an activity, though, most of us will join in.

Such was the case when my son who, at age 11, said those words that are like fingernails on a chalkboard, “I’m bored” followed by “What should we do now?” To which I replied, “Pig pile on your uncle!” Without missing a beat, we all clambered across the rug and flumped ourselves on my brother who appropriately yelped and ughed and generally protested all in good fun, while saying, “The runt should be on the bottom!” And I’m thinking, um, my son weighs all of 80 pounds and I don’t want any crushed ribs.

Once we let him free, he told us a tale from his youth (always a good segue from a pig pile). When he was a teenager hitchhiking across the country with his buddy, he was given a ride by a woman driving a pick up truck. In the bed of the truck was a litter of piglets. They were all about the size of a small dog, except for one. The runt. He was about the size of a house cat. And what did the piglets proceed to do when the truck picked up speed on the highway and the wind roared past them? Pig pile on the runt! The whole lot of them clambered on top of this tiny little pig. Why? Most likely to keep him warm. Now isn’t that amazing instinct and family bonding? Yes, I think so too.

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Pigs are actually quite amazing creatures, and surprisingly similar to humans. What strikes me the most about pigs is their playfulness. They love to stimulate their brains and can be seen playing with soccer balls, performing tricks, making nests, relaxing in the sun, and even enjoying a massage! They thrive when given new opportunities and survive by bonding with other pigs. A lone pig is not a happy pig.

From the pig pile, I was immediately thrown back into my youth when my brother and I spent time playing together and torturing each other (okay, he did most of the torturing, being slightly older than me). So in the name of good fun, I challenged him to an Indian leg wrestle, which he won.

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We all played a game of pretzel.

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We made a human machine.

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And then we played the group picture making game.

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It was the closest I’ve felt to being a kid again in a while – since the last time I saw my brother! When we’re together, fun and playfulness are the operative words. As much as he can moan and groan at my ridiculous suggestions, he can be the most playful of the bunch. And it’s wonderful.

I love my goofball family, and they inspire me to remember how important play is in our everyday lives. For the author in me, that’s an invaluable tool for writing picture books. For the mom in me, it’s a reminder to keep life fun. As a wife, it reminds me how important laughter and play is in a marriage. And as a human, it inspires me to help others feel free and playful and take life a little less seriously.

Life Lesson #14: Let go of your preconceived notions of what’s acceptable and not for an adult, and make a pig pile with your family! Embrace a playful, bonding spirit and see how your heart and mind magically open to each other and to new ideas. It will get your creativity and joy flowing!

Play can also make the drudgery and chores of everyday life a whole lot of fun and silly, like Mrs. Jollybones does in Warren Hanson’s…

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Click on image to see author’s website

The Idea Machine

This month, as I have for the past 3 years, I’m participating in PiBoIdMo. (For those of you that don’t write picture books that translates into Picture Book Idea Month). It is Tara Lazar‘s brilliant challenge for writers to come up with 30 ideas for picture books in the 30 days of November. Every day of  November she sends an inspiring post from an author about how and where to get ideas. And it got me thinking. Not just about picture book ideas.

It got me thinking about how we treat ideas in our everyday lives. As a teacher and parent, I’m all about getting kids thinking and not limiting themselves; letting their imaginations be free and non-judgmental; sky’s the limit! But how many of us as adults live by the same mantra? I know plenty who don’t. They are stuck. Some in small ways, some in life strangling ways. Sounds melodramatic, but think about it.

How many of you know someone that is so stuck they are miserable, and they just can’t seem to find a way “out”? Now, everyone’s life circumstances varies greatly. But unless you are trying to get basic needs met, like food and shelter, I firmly believe there is always a way to get unstuck. The hardest part is taking a risk.

Here is where the idea machine comes in. Okay, buckle your seatbelt and don’t go anywhere. This is going to take a leap of faith and you’re going to have to turn off that naysayer button in your brain. You know, the one that says in the nasty little voice (or maybe it’s a high and mighty one?), “That’s the stupidest idea you’ve ever come up with. Give it up.” Put a sock in that little voice! Give it a strong dose of melatonin and let it sleep for days. You need to think like a child. Sky’s the limit.

What’s the point of this? The point is, when we allow ourselves to turn off the “no good” voice, ignore what others think or say, and give ourselves time to vomit up as many ideas as possible (sorry for that gross image – works for kids), we just might find a nugget in there that we never knew existed. But it isn’t just going to happen. You have to be purposeful and free. Give yourself time. It could be 30 minutes once a week for a month. Or it could be 5 minutes once a day for a week. How you divvy up the time doesn’t matter as much as giving yourself the time.

Now here’s what you do. Get a piece of paper or a notebook, or even a paper napkin if you’re in a coffee shop, and a pen. Find your favorite, most comfortable, and even inspiring spot to sit (or walk). It doesn’t have to be indoors. If you read last month’s post oftentimes we need to find a new scene for inspiration. Anyway, once you’re in that quite spot (alone), relax. Think about the problem you want to solve, the life change you want to make, the creative idea you want to come up with, or whatever it is that you’ve been stuck on or in.

Ready? Start writing down EVERY SINGLE IDEA that comes to your mind about how you can get unstuck, get that creative idea you’ve been searching for, or ways to solve the problem you’ve been grappling with. I mean it. EVERY SINGLE IDEA. Do NOT filter or judge. In fact, be absolutely sure to write down the ones that sneak in there with the naysayer voice (even though you were supposed to have turned that off. See paragraph 5 above). Good. If you’re sitting for 30 minutes, write as many ideas as you can. If you’re doing this 5 minutes a day for 7 days, go for at least 2 ideas at each sitting. If you come up with more, great! There is no pressure here. Just the opposite. You want to relax into your imagination, and into possibility.

Next, resist the urge to edit this list. DON’T cross anything out. If you think this might be too big of a temptation, consider using a fat sharpie to write down your ideas and then throw the sharpie far away, quickly (try not to hit anyone in the head as you throw). Words in sharpies are hard to cross out in pen or pencil. I’ve tried.

Let this list sit. Don’t show it to anyone. At the end of your week, or month reread everything you’ve written down. Imagine actualizing each idea. Again, don’t edit. Really go with your train of thought and visualize yourself doing this thing. If that’s too hard, imagine someone you admire doing it. See how they go about it. Imagine and visual yourself (or your hero) smiling, feeling good doing this thing. Now go on to the next idea and do the same thing.

A couple of surprising things might happen. One, you might come up with a new idea as you’re doing this exercise. Write it down! The other – and here’s the ultimate goal – you might actually hear yourself saying, “I can do this.”

So that’s it. No need to be stuck any more.

Now go ahead, turn on your idea machine, and let’s hear from you! Give yourself a starting date (like, um, today?) and an ending date (no later than 30 days from now). Post a comment and tell us how many ideas you came up with.

Life Lesson #13: You can always create something from nothing if you let your ingenuity be free, like bored-to-tears Gavin, in Mark Fearing’s latest hit…

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(Click on image for a link to Mark’s website)

A Change of Scenery Will Do You Good

Before I go on, I want to direct you to my For Parents page. I’ve had some juicy ideas here for parents since I started my blog, and now I will be adding a copy of my monthly newspaper column called READ THIS!, about how parents can help their children at home build literacy skills. So click on over and check it out! If you haven’t already subscribed to my blog, you can do so now. See that little blue button over there (head nod to the right)? Yep, that one. Click and subscribe so you don’t miss all the good stuff. And thank you!

And now, to change the scene…

So I was flip-flopping between reading the awesome feedback I got from my critique partners on my latest picture book draft, and revising and editing my second READ THIS! article when I found myself going blurry eyed sitting at my desk, starting at my computer blankly. For a really long time. Rereading ad nauseam, but not rewriting. Does this ever happen to you?

Here I am contemplating at my “normal” work area:

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Photo on 10-17-14 at 2.35 PM #2..and here’s my…umm…ever so tidy desk? Well, it’s homey, right?

Usually I find this a comforting place to write. It’s quiet, relatively speaking. It’s bright, mostly. It’s away from the hubbub of our house, for the most part. And it has all the writing tools I need, and then some. But now and then, (especially now) something happens to my brain and it just, well, sort of…stops working for me. It’s like I’m in one of those old Flinstones cartoons where Fred is racing to get home in his oh so sleek caveman car, running his feet into the ground, and the same scenery keeps flashing by every few seconds. As hard as he tries, he doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere.

When I snap out of it – which can take an hour, or sometimes in an especially dense state, a whole day – I realize that sitting in my little green office chair is stifling my mind and I have to get out of there. Quickly!

Today I was reading a manuscript about a cat and got into a cat mood. So I – get this – printed out my article. On real paper. Grabbed a pencil. Remember those? And headed downstairs to lie on my hardwood living room floor, next to the sliding glass door, where the sun shone in making the temperature in that spot about 8 degrees warmer than the rest of the house. Mmmm…delicious. One of my cats stretched out next to me, sharing the sun.

And guess what? In 15 minutes I cut the necessary 100+ words of my article and had revised and edited, ready to submit to my editor. It was like magic!

Oftentimes my change of scenery consists of walking across the street and onto the little path through the woods. It poured yesterday, and I was still lingering in that snuggle up at home feeling (which I did last night after helping my son with his homework and watching Merlin). Occasionally I’ll get in my car and go somewhere else. Maybe to another spit of woods, or to an overlook nearby. Sometimes I just walk to the end of my dirt driveway and back. Slowly, sniffing the grapes, and listening to the birds. The point is, I change the scene, just like a good story has well-timed and necessary scene changes. Imagine a story that didn’t go anywhere? Okay, there are a few classics. Anyone remember Waiting for Godot? Or the movie, “My Dinner with Andre”? – two of my favorites as a teen. But for the most part, we want movement. Change. Action. The unexpected when we’re reading. And we must keep that in mind as we write – both for our stories and for our sanity.

Life Lesson #12:   The next time your character is stuck in a rut, spinning her wheels, or you seem to be reading the same line in your work over and over again as if it’s an on a ferris wheel, or you are at home arranging the spices and don’t know what to do with yourself…move! Go somewhere else. Drop everything and get thee to another scene (a healthy one, mind you). I promise you you’ll feel different (hopefully better) and your brain will reset itself.

Check out Melinda Long’s adventurous book about a little guy who sure knows how to shake things up when he jumps on the “change of scene” bandwagon! (Click on the image for a link to Melinda’s webpage).

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How about you? Leave a comment about where you go or what you do when your wheels are spinning.

 

True Confessions

Did you ever wonder, “Am I good enough?” As much as I hate to admit it, that question has crept into my mind more times than I have toes on my tootsies. I’ve been writing my whole life. It started with stories in elementary school, shifted to emotionally charged, esoteric poetry in my teens, journal writing for self-expression, letter writing to friends almost as much as Eleanor Roosevelt was famed to do, academic writing, and then an exploration of writing articles – one of which has been published in a children’s magazine. As a teacher, and lover of books, I have always coveted and collected picture books. It wasn’t until I had a child, though, that I thought perhaps I could try my hand at writing picture books. That was a decade ago and I’m still trying my hand.

For the last several years I’ve ramped up my “professional” approach to writing. By this I mean being led by all the eye candy for kid lit writers: advice from published authors, editors and agents to the “n”th degree, taking workshops, learning how to create video for promotion, marketing tactics, starting a blog, even Tweeting (which nearly shocked me out of my shoes), and otherwise completely immersing myself in the world of all the things to do with building a platform and creating a professional stance. It’s like shopping when you have no money. You look and look and look, but in the end realize you don’t have the what you need to get what you want.

And then…

I lost my juju. For two months it all stopped. We’re talking screeching halt. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. Was this it? Had I lost all motivation? Had I come to the end of my line after 10 years of hard work and determination? Had I put the cart before the horse? Was I a round peg trying to fit into a square hole? Am I really a picture book author? Initially, I didn’t search all that hard for answers to these nagging questions. I just left myself alone and backed off (kind of). I felt the slumpiness some, but accepted and enjoyed living in the present moment as much as I could, even (and this is hard to admit to you all) felt a slight relief at not having to think about my characters and stories 24/7. It felt like I had been juggling another full-time job, on top of teaching and parenting.

After all, what else would I devote ten years of my life to and not reach a pinnacle? It’s like buying all of the gear to be a super pro rock climber because I know I’d need the gear, but in the meantime still having to learn how to coil a rope without getting tangled up.

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What I slowly came to realize is that I was losing the joy of writing. It became more of something I had to keep up with if I wanted to “succeed” as an author. In this interim time, I came up with an idea for a newspaper column (tips and resources for parents on helping their children develop strong literacy skills) and pitched it to the editor of our local paper. She loved it. My first piece is submitted and the column begins its run next week. I was inspired by all of this cogitating to write a blog entry, too. So, okay. The writing didn’t stop completely, but my picture book writing did.  I found something out, though. I’ve been part of critique groups for years, and my current one has 7 members. That’s 7 critiques a month, plus one I’m doing as a bonus prize for a group of authors. In my ten years at this, I’ve learned a heck of a lot about writing children’s picture books. And I love critiquing! I found out that I’m learning how to be a better writer by critiquing others’ writing. So here’s what else I learned. I need to be gentle with myself and remember that for everything I do (or don’t do) there is a reason (or a season!) Cue The Byrds, “Turn, turn, turn”

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So what’s the take away here?

Life Lesson #11: Instead of keeping your eye on the future, keep it on the present. Take time. Work it out. To borrow a quote, “There is no glory in practice, but without it there is no glory.”

It’s like I tell my son when he wants to quit something. What will you ever learn if you quit? Exactly nothing. You have to press on through the uncomfortable moments; know that you are not the best (yet) and have the willingness and the desire to persevere, little by little, step by step. You have to learn all of the rules of the game, every little nuance and technique, and forget about the trophies in the future, or the potential recognition. Because if you do, you will experience the incredible joy and triumph of enjoying what you are doing and getting better at whatever it is you set out to do. And it feels good! You won’t need a trophy (or a book deal) to know that you have “arrived” at that place of joy; that you are doing whatever you are doing because you love it. Not because it will bring you something.

So what’s my rush? What’s my worry? I love my career as a teacher. I’m very fortunate to have a steady income. And I love writing. THAT is what I have to remember. And if I ever stop loving it, then it’s time to take a break, like I’ve just done. And guess what? It’s okay. What’s that old saying, “If you love someone, set them free. If it was meant to be they will come back to you.” If I substitute “someone” for “writing”, I know it will always come back to me.

I think I just heard a knock on my door…

“Oh, writing! It’s you! Welcome back.”

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Check out Drew Daywalt’s inspiring tale of whether quitting is the way to go in the end, or not.

Don’t box the unboxable

It’s amazing how the summer stops for no one. Just when I think about how much time I’ll have to write, I find myself making phone calls for my son trying to find playdates and generally keeping him company as we seek adventures together. Apologies for the long absence on this blog, but here we go!

A new and interesting thing happened this summer. The TEDx talks came to town. I’m a big fan of the TED talks and have heard many people share inspiring information that I’ve used a lot in my life and in my career. This summer’s speakers were no exception.

Brad Barton, illusionist, topped my chart. His message? Be amazed! “Let the awe hang in the air.” We don’t lose the wonder in life, we cover it up with thoughts, rules, categories and the like. When we suspend those thoughts we return to the child-like state of mind and wonder. “Wonder is one of the greatest emotions” in life. Brad also quoted well-known magician Paul Harris a few times. One of my favorites relates to this idea of being amazed. He describes that awe and wonder as, “Surfing the gasp.” Instead of analyzing how water comes out of a faucet, just enjoy it and the wonder of it all, and let your mouth hang open!

THIS is why I am a teacher. THIS is why I write picture books. The wonder of it all. Kids keep us fresh, young, inspired, wondering, and in awe of the seemingly most mundane things in life which, if we suspend our adult minds, we see really aren’t mundane after all. If you look in my About Deb page you’ll see my penchant for slug watching. This is what I’m talking about. Before you say, “Eww, gross!” give it a try. You might be amazed at what you observe.

Next on my list of chart toppers was Andre Mack. You wouldn’t believe this guy. He grew up in a single-parent household in Trenton, NJ and got his first job at MacDonald’s. From there he worked his way up in the restaurant business and became an award-winning sommelier (wine expert) at a fancy restaurant in NYC. One day he woke up, married with a child on the way and said, “I’m going to start a vineyard.” Cue the overhead slides to show a white, elderly gentleman in front of a vineyard. “I don’t really fit the bill,” was Andre’s comment, standing on stage in his high tops, jeans and untucked button down shirt. And, by the way, he’s African American. His advice?

1. Don’t do what you’re supposed to do.
2. Don’t be afraid to do it yourself. For real.
3. Don’t dress the part. Be yourself.
4. Don’t seek approval.
5. Put your energy into what feeds you. PLAY!
6. Create your life on your own terms.
Hallelujah to all of it, Andre!

My favorite quote from Brian Gordon, stand up comic turned teacher of children with emotional and behavioral challenges, “Figure out your owner’s manual.”If you don’t tell people how you are, they may not accept you. Learn everything about what you’re good at and what you’re not and accept yourself.

Alan Poloma, musician, gave me permission to “Steal things from others that speak to your soul. If you can be authentic, you don’t have to be original.” This is one of the best pieces of wisdom I’ve heard in a while. Or maybe we hear what we’re waiting and wanting to hear. That stealing bit? I do it all the time when I write and then chastise myself for not being original or creative enough. Who’d have thought this was normal and okay?  Thank you, Alan, for getting me off the hook. Now I’m really going to go for it!

And lastly, I’ll leave you with a question to ponder from fashion designer and Golden Gloves title winning professional boxer, Nellie Partow (who’s maybe five feet tall!) . I want to hear your answers. I mean it!

ARE YOU CURRENTLY LIVING YOUR DREAM, OR WORKING TOWARDS A DREAM? Please leave a comment and share!

All of you fellow children’s writers and teachers out there…embrace the unboxable!

What could be a more appropriate picture book to feature with this post than Antoinette Poris’ Just a Box?

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 Click image to see Antoinette’s website