Monday, January 16, 2017

Denver Children's Book Authors Salon

When I first moved to Colorado twenty-five years ago, I didn't think we had much of a children's book community here, compared to the fabulous opportunities provided by the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., of which I remain a (non-resident) member to this day. My fellow members included Katherine Paterson, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Mary Downing Hahn, and they were all so amazingly warm and welcoming to me and other newbie authors.

Now, however, the Colorado children's book community is wonderfully thriving and gets better and better all the time, with all of us turning out in force for each others' book launches, writing together on write-in days at each others' houses, and even hosting writing-themed baby showers for authors who are prolific in both literary and familial ways (I have a Very Hungry Caterpillar bunting gift ready for the shower I'm attending this coming Friday.)

Best of all, we now have the Denver Children's Book Authors Salon. It began with a chance remark from one author (I don't even remember who it was): "Wouldn't it be great if we could just get together sometimes and learn from each other?" Not at a big conference, not at a formal class, just a few of us who deeply admire each others' books hanging out for an afternoon to grow in our craft by learning from the best masters around, that is to say, us. And then the incomparably generous Sarah Azibo simply took it upon herself to make it happen.

Here's how the salons work. Once a month or so, on a Sunday afternoon, we meet at a lovely independent bookstore, rotating among stores because there are so many we love and want to support. Right now we alternate between two locations: the legendary Tattered Cover Bookstore, at its stunning three-story, renovated-old-movie-theater site on Colfax Avenue, and the relatively new but already beloved Second Star to the Right children's-only bookstore on Tennyson Avenue.

A different author presents each time, on some aspect of craft. So far I've heard Newbery-honoree Ingrid Law (Savvy) talk about writing a high-concept book, Lauren Sabel (Lies I Live By) on the multi-narrator book, Emily France (Signs of You) on what distinguishes young adult mysteries from their adult counterpart (note: it isn't literary sophistication or complexity of characterization or plot), and Jean Reidy (Too Purpley!, which I've read to granddaughter Kataleya approximately 523 times since this past Christmas) on resonance in picture books.

Attendees pay no fee to attend, and authors receive no fee for presenting, but each attendee purchases (from the bookstore) a pre-ordered copy of one of the presenter's books, which of course we are all wild to read after hearing her craft presentation.

It's like attending an MFA program in creative writing, for free, with classes taught by dear friends right in your own town.

Yesterday it was my turn to present, so fourteen or fifteen authors gathered at the Rumpus Room in a little cottage behind Second Star to the Right to hear me talk on a topic dear to my philosopher-author's heart: "How to Write Ethically Charged Stories without Teaching or Preaching." Of course, my opening caveat was that I wasn't going to be offering clear, directive rules for how to do this, because they simply don't exist - at the very least, it's impossible to find any rule here that hasn't been broken - with brilliant success - by some of the greatest authors who ever put pen to paper. But I did promise - and I think I delivered - to generate a good discussion about which books we've read that did memorably convey a deep and beautiful moral truth to readers without falling into dictatorial didacticism.

It was a joy to be able to share my thoughts on craft with writers I so respect and admire, hoping they might learn from me as I've learned from them. Look how happy I appear in this picture - and as I usually hate photos of myself, getting this one was an added bonus of a magical afternoon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Lessons from Lois Lenski

For Christmas, I asked for - and received - a copy of the brand new (2016) biography of children's author/illustrator Lois Lenski: Lois Lenski, Storycatcher, by Bobbie Malone.

Lenski is best-known to Betsy-Tacy devotees - and I am nothing if not a Betsy-Tacy devotee - as the beloved illustrator of the first four books in the series: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib; Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill; and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.
But she is best known to just about everyone else as the creator of some 100 of her own books, most notably her "American Regional Series," exhaustively and intimately researched books that shared the stories of children from a wide range of hard-working backgrounds, including Strawberry Girl (1945, winner of the Newbery Medal), Cotton in My Sack (1949), Mama Hattie's Girl (1953), and Corn-Farm Boy (1954).

I stumbled upon the biography only because of Lenski's Betsy-Tacy connection (I discovered it on the Betsy-Tacy Society website). It turned out that only ONE PAGE of the 323-page book discusses Lenski's Betsy-Tacy role. But the book was nonetheless mesmerizing in its portrait of this mid-20th-century author who pioneered the telling of untold stories, the hardships and small victories of America's neglected and marginalized children. Some of her titles, such as Cotton in My Sack, ensued from the actual invitation of school children for her to come live among them for a stretch of time to learn their stories - invitations that she was honored to accept.

I was also struck powerfully by Lenski's struggles to maintain a balance between family and work at a time when it was an unquestioned requirement that women would put husband and children first. Lenski married her art-school mentor, Arthur Covey, a widower sixteen years her senior, father of two children in desperate need of a new mother; they also had an additional child together.

The man who had been so unfailingly supportive and encouraging of Lois as his student was far less so of her as his wife. When she complained to him, early in his marriage, that she had no time for her work, they had this exchange (as shared by Malone):

"Your job is the home and the children. They come first."
"But what about my work?"
"That's up to you.. . You'll have to find time for it."

What's amazing is that she did, even becoming the family breadwinner as commissions for his large-scale murals disappeared during the Depression years (and of course, she still had to prioritize home-making and care-giving, even as she earned virtually all of the family's income). She wrote of this conversation with her husband, which would have proved disheartening to so many: "His words, in putting the responsibility up to me, in offering me no aid in my struggle, helped me to realize that I was truly possessed by this creative demon and could not and would not give it up."

A decade later she penned an essay, "Professional and Domestic Life," which laid out the system that allowed her to make her astonishing contribution to children's literature under such adverse conditions:
1. Industry
2. Determination
3. Ability to plan and organize
4. Willingness to make sacrifices
5. Definite purpose in life.

Malone provides some additional details: "Ability to plan and organize" included saving the best hours of the day for her studio by relegating housework to the evenings - a good tip. But most of all, it seems to have been #5 on her list - her strong sense of art as a sacred calling - that explained her success.

I am my family's chief breadwinner, and also a much-in-demand caregiver. Lenski reminds me that the responsibility for finding time for the work I love is, in the end, up to me. I guess I already knew that. My mantra has long been: "If it is to be, it's up to me."

Malone's fascinating biography of Lois Lenski reminds me that, for better or worse, this mantra is as true as true can be.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Joyful Noise for the New Year

Happy new year!

Today my son Christopher and I celebrated the dawn of 2017 by continuing a mother-son tradition of several years standing: we led worship at St. Paul's United Methodist Church here in Boulder, me as "preacher girl" presiding over the service and providing an inspirational new year's message, he at the keyboard playing for a congregational hymn sing.

I'm always surprised to learn that not everyone loves a hymn sing as I do. Even one of our choir members, the one with the most glorious voice and biggest stage presence, said that hymn sings "aren't her favorite." One friend of mine, who attends a different church, claims to dread hymn singing. How can this be??!

I'm a mediocre singer at best, but perhaps what I love best about being a regular church attender is the chance to sing, indeed, to belt out hymns confident that any wrong notes will be drowned by the swelling sound of the entire congregation singing together.

Christopher can play anything in the United Methodist Hymnal by sight, so I invited people just to call out numbers. First up, in honor of the season, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." Then, because I had referenced this one to frame our prayer time, "It's me, it's me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer" (most rousing!). One member surprised us with a request we've never sung in our church before and I had never even heard before: "I Sought the Lord." Bold Christopher sailed through its four flats with aplomb.

Then, as we are facing a new year that offers new challenges for our country and our world, two that almost brought me to tears: "Let There Be Peace on Earth (and Let it Begin with Me)"; and the moving African-American spiritual and anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, "We Shall Overcome." After we sang that last one, no one called out any other hymn numbers, even though most of us usually have endless favorites to request: it was such a perfect note to end upon.

In this new year, I wish all of you health and happiness, work for your hands and love for your hearts. Welcome, 2017!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Happy New Year (A Week Early)

Yesterday was Christmas, and it was all that Christmas should be. On Christmas Eve we had our traditional buffet dinner at 4:00, so that Christopher could head off early to church to finish rehearsing for his role as pianist for the high-profile Christmas Eve "carols and lessons" service. This was a "bucket list" item for him - to play on this most holy evening - and his proud mother can report that he performed beautifully.

Christmas morning two little elves appeared in matching elf pajamas.
Great was the joy as we opened the mountains of presents left by Santa and ate cinnamon rolls from the recipe of my mother (who so loved her Christmas birthday). We then played with the presents until Christopher, Ashley, and the girls left for THREE more Christmas gatherings with Ashley's extended family, and Gregory and I assembled the jigsaw puzzle he had gotten me as a gift: a covered bridge-in-autumn scene to reflect my abiding love for the covered bridges of my adopted state of Indiana.
(I still can't stop some of my pictures from appearing rotated despite saving them a thousand times in a re-rotated position!).

Now it is the Day After Christmas, and I'm totally ready for it to be New Year's Day. I'm ready to start my Whole New Life. I'm planning for January to be Buy Nothing Month, where I purchase absolutely nothing except for food and a minimal amount of gas for the car, to offset the money hemorrhage of the holidays. I'm planning for January to launch a year of dazzling writing productivity where I've set myself the goal of submitting one substantial manuscript (creative or scholarly) every single month. I have my little notebook for 2017 all ready to start listing my year's goals in every aspect of my life. I wish it were 2017 right now!

So I decided: why not start my new year today? If Auntie Mame could sing of needing a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols on the spinet, I can proclaim my own need for a little New Years's, right this very minute. Instead of hauling out the holly and slicing up the fruitcake, I'm going to take a good long healthful walk, read a mentee's manuscript, and - gasp - face revisions on a major manuscript of my own. And spend nothing, not one cent! And eat leftover broccoli instead of leftover Christmas cookies! (Well, maybe just a few leftover Christmas cookies).

Happy New Year! May 2017 be a year of love and joy - and if you're enraptured by work like me, promise and productivity - for all of us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Sing we now of Christmas"

I have two self-assigned seasonal "jobs" I take on each year in our small church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, about half a mile from my house in Boulder. I'm in charge of our "Mitten Tree" decorated with warm socks, hats, gloves, scarves, and yes, mittens, for the homeless. And I organize and lead caroling to a nearby retirement community and to our church shut-ins.

Both involve singing, and both remind me of how much the joy of Christmas is celebrated in song.

The Mitten Tree involves singing because I "wrote" a song to accompany this ministry. Our first ministry of Christmas giving to the homeless was started by a former member who moved away perhaps twenty years ago. It was our "Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless" ministry, which involved handing out empty shoeboxes on the first Sunday of Advent, to be filled by the congregation with small toiletry items, warm hats and gloves, and little candy treats, then gift-wrapped as presents for individual homeless persons at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.

I have to admit that this ministry was a huge pain for the person in charge - that is to say, for me - because it involved asking various local shoe stores to save empty shoeboxes, then going to collect the boxes (usually on Black Friday, when the parking lots were at their most jammed and the stores were at their most crazed), and finding out the stores had just given the boxes away to someone else who showed up first for their shoebox ministry or holiday craft project. I was worn to a frazzle with shoebox stress.

But I did come up with a song for the ministry, which the congregation sang with me each year. You can guess the tune. Here are the words:

Deck the halls with old shoeboxes.
Fa la la (etc.!)
Fill the bottoms and the topses.
Fill with gifts to give the homeless.
Thus, we share the joy of Christmas.

It was a relief to me when the shelter told me they no longer wanted individual wrapped gifts, and we switched instead to the Mitten Tree, where all I have to do is collect the offerings in trash bags and take them en masse to the shelter instead.

Of course, a new song was needed. You can guess the tune for this one, too.

O Mitten Tree! O Mitten Tree!
We come to fill your branches.
O Mitten Tree! O Mitten Tree!
We come to fill your branches.
With hats and scarves, and socks and gloves
We give to share our Savior's love.
O Mitten Tree! O Mitten Tree!
We come to fill  your branches!

I  noted yesterday that the branches are indeed filled completely. I'll gather up the "ornaments" and take them to the shelter tomorrow.

The church caroling is its own jigsaw puzzle of coordination, as places don't want us to come during residents' nap time (so preferably not before 3) or during residents' dinner time (which can be as early as 5 or even 4:45). And the places we visit are not all that close together. And we want to be able to linger and chat and share holiday cheer. And yet to hustle on the next stop. I never know if anybody from the congregation is going to show up to sing with me, given the busyness of schedules in December. What if it's just me, in my scratchy, squeaky, altogether irritating sort-of soprano?

But it always does work out, as it did yesterday. We started out at the Meridian, doing an actual performance for half an hour or so in the living room, accompanied (brilliantly!) by my son Christopher. I handed out song books, and everyone sang their hearts out for two verses of every single classic carol.

Next we visited Mildred, sharp-as-a-tack at 102 (!), and always so warm and welcoming when we crowd into her small and beautifully decorated room to sing.

Last stop was our visit to Arline, in a memory care unit at a place we had never visited before. Our instructions said not to come in the front door, but the back door, where we should ring the doorbell for admittance. But there was no doorbell! And it was ten degrees outside! By the time all that was sorted out, we were running even later and feeling even guiltier.

Finally, though, we were inside, and it was warm, and a few residents were there to hear us. There was  a  worn upright piano, and Christopher played to assist our tired voices.

And the magic happened.

Residents who remember so little of who they are and where they are could still remember the lyrics to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night." They sang with us, word-perfect. One, pushing several teddy bears in her walker, even started dancing to "Jingle Bells" (a resident's request).

The Nativity story in Luke 2 related the angels "saying" to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men." But I'm sure they sang it. As I learned again yesterday, Christmas is the season of singing.




Friday, December 16, 2016

An Experiment in Frugality

My car is totaled. The Geico adjuster estimated that the repairs would be in the neighborhood of $7800; I bought the entire car (previously owned) five years ago for $8000. Spending so much on repairs would make little economic sense. I gave the adjuster man the title; he gave me a check for $5307.26, their calculation of what it would cost to purchase a vehicle equivalent to the one I just wrecked.

I looked at that check - a fairly paltry one for the purposes of car shopping, but quite a nice one in its own right. Ooh! If only I didn't have to use that check to buy a car! If only I could just HAVE that money to refill my ever-depleting coffers and fatten my ever-shrinking purse!

Then, as I drove home, check tucked into my purse, I started to think: what if I DIDN'T buy a replacement car? What if I DID just hang on to that money?

Double ooh!

I thought some more. My son and daughter-in-law, and their two little girls, live with me. Both Christopher and Ashley own cars. Christopher uses his to go off to work every day. But Ashley is a stay-at-home mom and plans to be a primary caregiver for the foreseeable future. She's taking courses, but online. She hardly drives anywhere. Even when I had my sweet little Chevy Aveo, I hardly drove anywhere. When feasible, I greatly prefer to walk or to ride the Skip, one of Boulder's extremely excellent buses.

Did our extended family really need TWO cars sitting around for 90 percent of the time, costing us money that we'd just as soon spend on something else? What if Ashley and I shared both the use of her vehicle and the costs associated with it? Wouldn't this be a win-win situation for both of us? And, if this gave us an incentive to drive less (which it definitely will, for me), a win-win both for us and the planet?

So this is our plan for now, to be a two-car rather than three-car family, to coordinate, to share, to take turns, all of those good things. If we don't like it, that $5307.26 is right there in my bank account, swelling the balance but pledged to remain untouched.

I've been saying that I want to make 2017 a year of greater frugality, with more mindful (and just plain less) spending. The slushy stretch of road last week that totaled my poor little car has just given me that chance.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Lucky Unlucky Person

I have come to think of myself as a Lucky Unlucky Person.

Case in point: two years ago I was hurrying to the mailbox to get the mail, tripped, fell, and broke my foot. Unlucky! But then it turned out that I was non-weight-bearing only for two measly weeks (which admittedly felt more like two years). Lucky!

Second, more disturbingly recent, proof of my Lucky Unluckiness. This morning I was happily bustling off to do some Christmas shopping when I lost control of my car on a stretch of slushy road not too far from my house and careened head first into a four-foot-diameter concrete utility pole. Unlucky! If only I had zoomed off the road just a little bit on either side of the pole, I would have skidded to a bumpy stop in an open field. Double unlucky! The whole front of the car is smashed in, and I think my sweet minimalist 2007 Chevy Aveo with the roll-down windows (the reason I bought the car) is going to be totaled. Triple unlucky!

But right now I have to say that I'm feeling like the Luckiest Unlucky Person in the world.

I didn't hit anybody else's car.

My precious granddaughter wasn't in the back seat with me.

I'm completely uninjured.

It's still hard to believe that this happened. I'm shaken, stunned, haunted by the specter of what might have been. But what might have been DIDN'T happen.

So I'm weak with gratitude for my Lucky Unlucky Day.