Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Bucket List

With four weeks done of the sweet six weeks of my summer stint at Hollins, and two left to go, I'm all too aware of how fast the time is passing and how many joys I have yet to experience. It's time to make a list of everything that I want to make sure happens before I fly back to Colorado on August 1.

1. I absolutely MUST spend some time writing at my new favorite coffee shop, Cups, in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke.

2. I absolutely MUST have a grilled cheese sandwich at the little place around the corner: Pops. Not one but TWO of my students have told me this.


 3. I have my heart set on getting comments on the last half of my spelling bee book from my two brilliant Hollins friends and colleagues, Lisa Rowe Fraustino and Hilary Homzie.

4. I so want to attend the playwriting-for-children workshop led by Nicole Adkins, and hear the talk "Mirrors of Antiquity in Modern Fantasy" by Bryn Mawr classics professor Benjamin Stevens, and the keynote address of our Twentieth Annual Francelia Butler Student Conference on Children's Literature by legendary fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes.

5. I want to sit writing at least one more time in a rocking chair on the verandah in the quad, and in the reading loft which you reach by ascending a tiny spiral staircase in the library, and on the cozy couch in the third floor lounge in Swannanoa Hall.

I think I'm going to be able to do all of these things! I already have plans with two students for an outing to write at Cups on Saturday morning, followed by grilled cheese at Pops. Lisa, Hillary, and I are meeting for a critique group session tonight; I suspect that a margarita may be involved as well. I've blocked out time for all those delicious talks in my planner. As for writing, I do believe I can write on the verandah today, and in the reading loft on Sunday, and in the Swannonoa lounge several times next week.

And if there is anything else that clamors for inclusion on my summer bucket list, I may just have to see if I can return here to teach in some future Hollins term, and start my list all over again.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"When You Come to a Fork, Take It"

Yogi Berra is remembered as much for his "Yogiisms" as for his distinguished career in Major League Baseball: sayings such as "It ain't over till it's over" and "You can observe a lot by watching." One of my favorites is: "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Lately I've been coming upon lots of little forks in the road of my daily life, opportunities to do activity A or activity B. Should I accept a new friend's invitation to go with her on a Saturday morning to the farmers' market in downtown Roanoke, or devote the day to writing my chapter book? Which chapter book: should I be working on my spelling bee book or on my third Nora-with-the-ant-farm book, both with looming due dates? Should I go with my friend Rachel to Williamsburg (on the other side of the state) for opening night of Julius Ceasar, where her son worked on the set in summer stock? Or use the time to catch up on some work before two girlfriends from our University of Maryland days descend on us for a delicious reunion?

Inspired by Yogi Berra, rather than trying to decide which tine of the fork I should take, these days I'm trying to find a way to take the whole fork. Which one should I do? Both!

The farmers' market/writing choice was really a no-brainer. Get real, Miss Claudia! You already know that an hour a day of writing is plenty! Write for your hour, write HARD for your hour, and then head off to buy South Carolina peaches (so good!) and have a Bloody Mary with lunch in the courtyard of a Creole restaurant. With the book writing: the spelling bee book is shorter and due sooner, and I was stuck on the other one, anyway. So I'll do both, but first this one, then that one. For this weekend's fun, I'm so glad I decided to do all of it. I had a 30-hour jaunt to Williamsburg where I saw beautiful scenery in Shenandoah National Park, walked in the rain down Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg with my author friend Brenda who lives in the area, had dinner with Brenda and my wife-and-husband librarian friends Noreen and Alan, saw the play (focusing as much on the ingenious set as on the famous speeches), and am now back at Rachel's house awaiting the arrival of our friends Robin and Lori. As for the work I meant to do, it will get done. Work always does. In fact, I might take a few whacks at it right now.

When in doubt, do both. While no one wants a life that is uncomfortably crammed, I want to err on the side of saying yes to it all, stuffing each day full of joy, love, and beauty. Just about all of my regrets from the first sixty years have been not for things I did, but for things I didn't do. In Act III of my life, I want to grab the whole fork and eat my way through the full buffet of the glorious possibilities laid out before me in this, my one and only life.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Calling on My Peeps

I now have a first full draft of the fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series. (Previous titles: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star.) This is a spelling bee book, starring Simon Ellis, who has been Kelsey's rival in the reading contest, Annika's rival in the Sudoku contest, and the rival of Cody (soon to star in book number five) in a race. The challenge for me in this current book is to make good-at-everything-Simon a sympathetic character with whom readers can identify, to find the vulnerabilities in the kid seemingly without any.

With a full draft done, it's time to call on my peeps to give me wise counsel that will help me write the next draft.

My son Gregory had already helped me enormously in writing the first chapter, where Simon is trying to find out what the longest word in the whole world is. When I was growing up, playground wisdom was that it was antidisestablishmentarianism. I knew that different times might generate different answers, so I asked Gregory what the longest word was taken to be when he was growing up. Without missing a beat, he told me, the syllables tripping with ease off his tongue:

pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. !!!

That went into the book.

Now I needed his help even more. I had decided that I simply could not keep writing realistic fiction about contemporary kids in school settings without having some kid sometime play a video game. So I wrote two video game scenes in Simon's book: one where his best friend, Jackson, is upset that Simon beats him; one where Jackson is equally upset that Simon lets him win.

The trouble is: I have never played a single video game in my entire life.

Luckily for me, Gregory has. 

I sent him my first try at the scenes, and he sent me back pages of kindly worded but sweeping critique:"In the beginning of the game Xalik and Satu are fighting each other, but then right afterwards they go to trying to find a treasure chest.  It is unlikely that a game would have the players switch objectives like this."

I rewrote the scenes and sent them back to him. His verdict: much better, but. . . . He sent me links to websites where I could learn more about game design, the difference between 2D and 3D games, game settings, game moves. My heart sank. Finally I threw myself on his mercy: "Gregory, could you maybe write just a couple of little details I could put in that would be accurate and real and engaging?" He did so within the hour. I feel a bit guilty about letting him ghost-write these lines for me, but then I remembered that Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my most beloved Betsy-Tacy books, had her husband, Delos, write the football scenes for her in the high school stories.

Next I emailed my brilliant former grad student Sara Goering to vet my Scrabble scene; she is a Scrabble-playing fiend. I emailed my philosophy department colleague Graham Oddie, parent of a now-grown-up violinist, to ask what scales Simon's teacher would ask him to play at his lesson:
Jessica, sitting with her dad in Reutlingen, Germany, sent me this: "Now let me hear a d major scale, two octaves, and the major and minor arpeggios."

I've sent the entire book off to my Boulder writing group friend Leslie O'Kane for what I know will be enormously insightful comments on its overall shape and pacing. My Hollins students have asked to read it, so I've emailed it off to them, too. Two Hollins faculty colleagues, Lisa Rowe Fraustino and Hillary Homzie, are working through it in a little manuscript exchange conducted over margaritas with fabulous Palestinian or Thai food made by Lisa's husband, AKA "The Cutie."

Yay for the village that it takes to write a book.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Morning Has Broken

I woke up this morning feeling a bit frazzled and stressed. So much left to teach in my class! So much left to write on my book! I'm going to be away next weekend from Thursday to Sunday for dizzyingly wonderful opportunities to reconnect with many dear friends, but can I really afford four days of pure play? And in between now and then I have class, student meetings, a Tuesday outing with a beloved friend who teaches children's literature at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, talks by author Candace Fleming and author/scholar Lisa Rowe Fraustino, and more, more, more!

Plus, I weighed an additional half pound this morning, despite walking for almost two hours every single day.

My walking partners and I have designated Sunday as do-your-own-walk (or not)  day; we don't make plans to head out together precisely at 6:15 a.m., on the theory that an unscheduled day of rest is all to the good.

I didn't feel like walking. Why walk, if I'm gaining weight, anyway?

I didn't feel like writing. Why write, if I can't get everything done, anyway?

Why not stay in bed a little longer itemizing in my head all the things I feel stressed about?

But I got up and threw on my walking clothes and headed out the door at 6:30, the fifteen-minutes-later-start, my concession to the day.

As I walked alone, grumpy, crabby, and mopey, I saw a student from my chapter book class out running, who had slowed to a walk. We fell into step together and started talking.

She's not only earning an M.F.A. degree in writing during summers at Hollins, she's also earning a Ph.D. in media/communication during the academic year. In fact, she was one of the presenters at my Ethics and Children's Literature conference at DePauw two years ago.

We started talking about her dissertation, which is focused on children and consumer culture, with a chapter on American Girl dolls. I told her about my doll Kirsten, and how my grad students took my hint that they might chip in to buy her for me in celebration of my receiving tenure. I told her about the paper I had heard about the American Girl doll books at ChLA this year, on whether the earlier books had been more "radical" than more recent ones, if "radical" and "American Girl dolls" can be used together in the same sentence. She told me about the ethnographic study she had done of the customers at an American Girl doll store in St. Louis.

Then we turned to her chapter book-in-progress, as we reached the crest of the hill and looked out at the farmlands stretching before us. She had switched ideas from the synopsis she had shared last week and has a whole new project. We brainstormed some structural features about it as we walked on. I offered an excellent idea for what the inciting incident for her character's story could be. She thought it was an excellent idea, too. And if not, at least I raised some suggestive possibilities that might stir something productive in her own thinking.

It was one of those conversations that left me thinking, "THIS is what teaching is. THIS is why I want to leave my sweet life in Boulder for six whole weeks on the other side of the country. Just for THIS: to talk deeply and richly about what I love best with someone else who loves it best, too."

And when I got back to my little apartment, my (admittedly unreliable) scale weighed me  half a pound lighter. So there!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Happy Days at Hollins

I like to collect "perfect days" - days that are complete and wonderful, often in a quiet, ordinary way, sweet, beautiful days, unremarkable days that nonetheless deserve to be remarked upon.

I'm having quite a few perfect days in my Hollins summer. Here are two.

Thursday, my formal teaching duties for the week had been satisfyingly discharged: my students' chapter-books-in-progress are looking so good! So four days "just for me" stretched ahead. I started the day, as I start every day here, taking a long walk (from 6:15 to 8 a.m.) with two of my fellow faculty, Elizabeth Dulemba and Candice Ransom. They are both so much better than I am at noticing nature: muskrats and heron in Tinker Creek (yes, Annie Dillard's Tinker Creek), a cardinal perched in scarlet splendor on top of a street sign. Elizabeth stops to say hello to the horses pastured along the way, greeting each one by name. "Good morning, Oyster!" They nuzzle against her petting hand.

Back "home" in my little apartment, I wrote for a good hour on my chapter book-in-progress, the fourth title in my Franklin School Friends series, this time a spelling bee story starring know-it-all Simon. I'm at the point in the writing where I have that delicious momentum that makes it feel as if the story is writing itself.

At 10:00 my dear friend Rachel came to collect me. Up first: picking up a few things she needed at Target! I do love tagging along on other people's errands. I've loved it all my life, since I spent much of my high school years going with my dear friend Betsy to pick up dry cleaning, get her shoes resoled, and visit her Aunt Peggy. There is something so relaxing about living someone else's life for a little bit. Then we drove up Mill Mountain and saw the world's largest steel star (so they say; I'm always a bit skeptical about such claims - has EVERY single star in the ENTIRE WORLD really been measured and compared?). As storm clouds gathered, we went to the Grandin neighborhood, near Rachel's house, and got completely and thoroughly soaked to the skin as we dashed into Cups, the perfect cafe for writing. Rachel actually got more soaked than I did, so much so that we had to call her husband, John, for dry clothes.

Note that this does nothing to compromise the perfection of the day.

At Cups we both had "steamers," my new favorite thing: warm milk flavored and sweetened with Italian soda syrup. Rachel had a pumpkin pie steamer; mine was a mixture of chocolate and cherry, like drinking foamy chocolate-covered cherries. Dry and warm now, we stopped into Too Many Books (can there be such a thing?), where I bought myself a used copy of Lucy Maud Montgomery's journals, volume 1. Then we saw a movie, the lush and romantic period-drama-with-a-social conscience, Belle, at the historic Grandin theater. Cobb salads at a local eatery converted from an old ice house completed our outing.

A perfect day.

Yesterday was as perfect, if quieter. Another early walk, on a cool, crisp, and exhilarating morning, the world scrubbed clean from the previous day's downpour. I wrote in my little apartment all morning: chapter 8 of Simon's book. Then I wandered over to campus mid-day to meet with two students to talk about their chapter books, chatting with one in the gorgeous Hollins library, and the other in the cozy lounge on the third floor of Swanannoah Hall, which I had just discovered. After that, I sat on a rocking chair on the verandah of a Georgian-style building on the quiet Hollins quad and scribbled my way through Simon, chapter 9. In the evening: 4th of July barbecue at our director Amanda's fabulously whimsical Victorian home with backyard fireworks (legal here, unlike Colorado).

Another perfect day.

Today so far I've had my walk.  My colleague/neighbor Ashley and her dog, Tula, met us along the way. Shortly I'm heading to another colleague/neighbor's Birthday Bubble Brunch for her two super-bright, super-cute daughters. Then more writing: Simon, chapter 10. Should I write here at home? Or at the library (where BLANKETS are provided for extra coziness?). Or on the verandah again? At 3:00, I'm heading out for ice cream with a student who has a car and offered to take me. Planned topic of conversation: writing!

I have a feeling I'm heading for three perfect days in a row.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Chapter Books!

Today is the first day of the second week of classes here at Hollins. Last week was an unusually structured week, as my class that meets Mondays and Wednesdays 9-12 met instead on Wednesday and Friday, as Monday was devoted to all kinds of orientations: student, faculty, information technology, library, welcome reception. In the course of that first day, I got my new Hollins ID and lost it within the hour. I worried that if I dashed off to replace it right away (which I did), that would ensure it would show up ten minutes later, but it never has shown up, so I'm glad I scurried off to take care of it immediately. Later in the week I lost my office keys (subsequently found beneath the couch cushions in my now-much-cozier garret) and my reading glasses (feared to have been left behind in the laundry room but subsequently located in the outside compartment of my purse).

So my entry into the enchanted world of Hollins was not without its complications.

But also not without its rich rewards. I wrote FOUR (!) chapters of a work-in-progress with a looming deadline. I reconnected twice with my extremely dear friend Rachel, who worked with me decades ago at the University of Maryland (for evidence of how dear she is to me: there were twelve people at my wedding, and she was one of them). I attended two fascinating panels by alums on "Life After Hollins," both of which impressed upon me how well our graduates do in both creative and scholarly work after departing from us. I read three books. I walked for an hour and three-quarters at 6:15 every single morning except for Sunday, with two other fast-paced authors. I attended a welcome potluck at the beautiful Victorian home of our director Amanda, every square inch of it radiating creative joy and whimsy.

The heart of the week, however, was teaching the first two classes in my chapter book course, where I fell in love with my seven wonderful students. Kids often call any book a "chapter book" if it has chapters, including within this designation everything from easy-reader texts like Frog and Toad to lengthy middle-grade novels like The Secret Garden. In my class we're using this terminology in its more restricted sense from the world of publishing: chapter books are books for transitional readers aged roughly 7-9 (grades two to four), books that fall precisely in between the 1000-word text of easy readers and the 25,000+ words of middle-grade novels, books that have their own distinctive pace and structure. Think Junie B. Jones, Clementine, Alvin Ho, Amber Brown.  My own chapter books include 7 x 9 = Trouble, How Oliver Olson Changed the World, Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters, and most recently Kelsey Green. Reading Queen and Annika Riz, Math Whiz. Mine range in length from 10,000-15,000 words, though Knopf wanted me to make my Mason Dixon books considerably longer, at 25,000 words.

For my course, I decided to try something quite ridiculously demanding. I want my students not only to read and analyze exemplar texts, as well as read a heap of other recent samples of the form, but to write an entire chapter book manuscript of their own, from idea to first chapter to conclusion (plus plenty of revision, of course), all in six weeks. It just seemed to me that chapter books are all about structure: finding the right size-and-shape of story to fit in that precise format, with its distinctively peppy pacing. I didn't think students could see what it was like to write one until they had written all of (at least a rough draft) one.

On Friday we brainstormed ideas in class, many drawn from our own third grade memories. Their assignment: come on Monday with a detailed one-page synopsis of your proposed book. I had second thoughts Friday night. Several students had met with me at length one-on-one that afternoon, and I left thinking: They can't do this. It's too much. Right now, they ain't got nothin'! And the plan for the book is due in 48 hours!

The synopses trickled in over email yesterday afternoon and late into the night. I read them early this morning.

They're good, all of them.

Some are more promising than others, some are farther along than others, but they are all chapter-books-in-embryo, ready to be written. We discussed/critiqued them in class today, and their authors proved to be insightful and supportive critics of others' work as well. Then we spent the rest of the class studying the requirements for a successful first chapter. First chapters: due Wednesday!

So, it's sort of crazy, but it's sort of wonderful, too. The class seems excited that I have to write a chapter book of my own during this same time frame, and they asked if I'd bring in my chapters to share as well. I don't want to draw class attention away from their manuscripts, but I'm willing to let them take a few peeks at mine and offer their thoughts. After all, we're all in this together, committed to spending the next six weeks (well, five now), living, breathing, eating, sleeping, reading, and writing my favorite form of writing-for-children: chapter books!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Garret Days

I've spent the last two days settling in at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, where I'll spend the next six weeks teaching a course in chapter book writing in their graduate program in children's literature. I came to Hollins in 2005 as the program's writer-in-residence, a two-week commitment that involved giving a talk, meeting with almost all of the creative writing students, and generally immersing myself in this wonderfully stimulating community. The campus is idyllic; I was housed in the darling Barbee Cottage; I walked in the evenings past trees festooned with fireflies. As I left, another guest lecturer was arriving, and I told her, "You are entering the portals of paradise."

This year, however, paradise is looking a little different from what I expected. I'm not housed this time in a sweet little cottage on campus, but in a unit in the graduate student apartments across a highway. When I first saw the apartment, I almost cried. Well, maybe I actually cried. Linoleum floors. Cracked ceiling light fixture in the kitchen. No overhead lights anywhere else except the bathroom and hall. One sad lamp in the living room, on the other side of the room from the non-comfy couch. One sad lamp in the bedroom, on the other side of the room from the hard little bed. A bare, scarred table on which to eat. No pictures, no curtains (there are blinds), rugs, no welcoming "touches" at all. And I have to live here for the next six weeks.

I tried to remember how much I loved Sara Crewe's bleak, bare attic in A Little Princess, where she's sent by cruel Miss Minchin after Sara's father dies, taking his fortune in diamond mines with him. I tried to remember how many times I've seen La Boheme and yearned for my own garret in Paris. But neither of those had Linoleum floors!

I was in despair until my friend Lisa, a veteran of the program, living in the apartment across the way from mine, showed me how pleasant her little digs had become. I learned that those who teach here year after year keep heaps of apartment-brightening materials in the many large plastic bins they store throughout the rest of the year in a Hollins facility and haul other needed items with them in their cars. But I came by plane with only carry-on luggage, and I'm not sure I'll be teaching here again, so don't want to invest too much in furnishings.

Undaunted, Lisa set to work beautifying my place. Step one: move the TV, which I never watch, into a closet, freeing a table that could be moved next to the couch, so I'd have a light for reading. She somehow found some other little table I had overlooked that could be positioned next to my bed, so I could read there, too. She turned my couch at a more appealing angle. She suggested moving one of my two empty bureaus from the bedroom closet into the living room to function as a sort of sideboard. She took me to the Hollins storage facility that contains all kinds of abandoned things: there I scored a small area rug, another lamp, a fake plant. A trip to the Dollar Store produced a cheery tablecloth, some flowered place mats to cover other unappealing surfaces, and a puffy "armchair" pillow. She noticed that I could use my extra blanket as a throw for the couch. And she showed me the bargain bunches of flowers Kroger was selling for 99 cents.

My little garret is quite sweet now. I'm writing this by the glow of my new lamp, with a vase (drinking glass) of flowers set before me. (Oh, she suggested candles, too, another excellent idea.) I can now read in bed, read on the couch, type on my pretty table.

So I did get my long dreamed-of garret, after all, in Roanoke rather than Paris, and with flooring that isn't what I would have chosen. But it's all going to be all right, thanks to Lisa, who served as my magician, just as the Indian Gentleman did for Sara Crewe in the book. Now all I have to do is write something worthy of it while I'm here.