Friday, December 31, 2010

Farewell to 2010

The Writer's Almanac for today offers a number of New Year's Eve quotations from Tennyson, Twain, and others. This is the one that struck me, from Bill Vaughan: “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”

I have to admit that I'm falling into the pessimist category right this minute, though I don't plan to stay up until midnight, but will instead bid farewell to the old year at a more reasonable 8:30. But I do want to send 2010 on its way. It was so hard and so heart-breaking. I want a new year that is easy and heart-healing. Okay, I can't expect any year to be easy. But I can ask for heart-healing, I really think I can.

Still, poor 2010 deserves some loving tribute, too. In my special little notebook, I closed out the year this morning with a review of my achievements and accomplishments and major joys for the year, and sure enough, it filled a full page, which is all I had left in my notebook to allot to it. Here are just a few: I got a literary agent, for the first time in my career; I wrote four books, and I loved writing them; Makeovers by Marcia won an award in France, in its French incarnation, Marcia Vous Maquille - how cool is that?; I taught a totally fun new course, Philosophy through Literature; Gregory got heaps of graduation awards and won a full-tuition scholarship to the College of Music at CU to study jazz saxophone; Christopher found a full-time job that he loves, at Boulder Toyota; and even the farewells to my mother and Grandpa, who had both lived such full and rich lives, were in their way beautiful and satisfying. I was surprised when I started writing all of this down to find that the old year hadn't been a total bust, at all. I mean, what do I expect? Glorious happiness from dawn to dusk every single day?

Still, my heart has holes in it, big Swiss cheesy holes. Holes where my mother used to be, where Grandpa used to be, where my marriage used to be, where certain hopes and dreams used to be. These holes fill up with hurt in the evenings, throbbing, aching hurt. And then in the morning, I wake up, and the day is full of promise again. Tomorrow 2011 will begin, full of promise that this year I will run faster, stretch out my arms farther. Maybe even fill up some of those holes in my heart. And one fine morning . . .

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Word for the New Year

When I attended my poetry retreat three years ago, the poet who led/taught/inspired us for the weekend was the remarkable and wonderful Molly Fisk. Molly is a poet, teacher, and essayist who does weekly radio pieces on top of everything else she does. She just posted on Facebook an update of the great new year's post she did last year. Molly believes that instead of making grim resolutions that are bound to fail, you should choose a word that will resonate inside you throughout the year, a word to hover in the back of your thoughts and help you through the coming months. One year her word was "surrender"; another year it was "austere"; this year it is going to be "precise." Molly said that sometimes you don't choose your word as much as it chooses you.

I want to choose a word for this coming year, for me. This is going to be a significant year for me, because for the first time in decades I'm free to create an entirely new life for myself if I want. My beloved mother and father-in-law are at peace and no longer needing my care, my younger son is away at college, my older son is employed full time. And I'm alone, without a partner to share my life, but also without a partner to encumber it.

So what should my word be, my word for this year that is about to begin? I thought about the word "adventure." But Molly's words weren't obvious and cliched like that. Then I wrote on Facebook that I was going to grope toward my word. And as soon as I wrote that, I thought: that's my word! "Grope"!

Molly didn't say anything about choosing a word, or having it choose you, and then changing your mind partway through the year; she didn't speculate that perhaps you could be wrong in your choice of word. She didn't treat choosing your word as some big deal that was supposed to take weeks of thought and preparation. So maybe I should stop second-guessing myself and agonizing over this, and just say, okay. "Grope." That's my word for 2011. "Grope." As I'm repeating it to myself now, it has a strange sound. It looks strange on my screen. "Grope."

And yet, it also seems right. And it rhyme with "Hope."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gratitude Toward My Former Self

One of the projects I have to do over the break is to write the paper that I am contributing to an edited collection on romanticism and childhood. I was asked to write a paper on my beloved Rousseau, connecting him somehow to recent children's literature. I hit upon the idea of looking at some recent children's books that feature home-schooling through the lens of Rousseau's Emile, his account of one fictional boy's extraordinary 20-year-long home-schooled education at the hands of his tutor, representing the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself.

Now is the day I HAVE to settle down to writing this thing. I unearthed the abstract I submitted to the editor many months ago and was agreeably surprised. It's great! I've already done all the work of laying out my ideas and linking them together. All I really need to do now is connect the dots, color it in, flesh it out. I even have detailed, extremely helpful notes on the four children's books I'm discussing: Skellig, Ida B., Surviving the Applewhites, and Stargirl. This is going to be a piece of cake!

So right now I'm overwhelmed with gratitude to my former self for giving my current self such a great head start on this project. Thank you, former self! And, in a pay-it-forward mood, now I want to do something equally nice for my future self. Maybe I'll eat healthfully and in moderation today so that she can be happy weighing herself tomorrow. Maybe I'll put in several good hours on this Rousseau paper so that she'll wake up tomorrow and feel as if the shoemakers' elves have done lovely things for her as she was sleeping.

I want to be as good to my future self as my former self has been to me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

There's a World Outside of Yonkers

Last night I saw Hello, Dolly! at the Boulder Dinner Theater with my colleague Carol and her daughter, Elspeth. I knew it would be wonderful, and it was: the perfect end-of-year treat, the perfect usher-in-the-new-year treat, the perfect invitation, especially to those of us who are bit older, a bit more weary, to seize the splendor of every day before the parade passes us by. There IS a world outside of Yonkers, Barnaby! And now I'm determined that in the new year about to begin, I'm going to go out and find that world.

I'm going to go and taste Saturday's high life - I'm going to get some life back into my life! I've got to go again, I've got to drive again, I've got to feel my heart coming alive again! I'm going to raise the roof, I'm going to carry on - give me an old trombone! give me an old baton!

So this is just to put the world on notice that I'm planning to do something extraordinary with my life in this coming year. Me, and Dolly Levi.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Day After Day After Christmas

Now that I have eaten my way through three tins of cookies and several plates of fudge, it is time to turn my thoughts to using the rest of winter break productively. Next week I'll be heading back East for the poetry retreat I've attended for the past few years. This means that I have nine days between now and then to accomplish great things.

I meant to start accomplishing great things this morning, but so far I've mainly accomplished small things. I made my master list of all that I had to do, with 92 items on it. Of course, I write everything on the list, including the very smallest items, because I so love the motivating momentum of being able to cross things off: make a vet appointment for Snickers (done!), get tickets for the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum for this Wednesday (done!), transfer money to pay Gregory's college bill for the coming semester (done!), re-read a beautiful little book of Advent meditations before putting it away to read again next December (done!). Somehow it has taken me three hours to do these things. How can that be? I've crossed off seven things total so far this morning, of those 92, but they were all so small and yet somehow they took so long. Oh, well, at least they're done. If I hadn't made my gloriously detailed list, I might not have accomplished even those seven. Better seven than none, right?

I know that it would have been a better use of my time to pick one of the big, important things and do that instead, even if it was the only thing I managed to do today: e.g., work for one hour on a writing project. Actually, I could still do that, but somehow the luster is off the morning. Maybe I'll do at least three more tiny things for an even ten: I'll reply to three Christmas cards (I didn't send cards this year, so now need to do something to respond to the interesting notes on the cards I did receive); I'll send a nagging email to a journal that has had one of my articles for three months now; oh, and writing this blog counts, too. So that will be ten out of 92. Just 82 left to go.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

Today I baked my mother's special Christmas cinnamon rolls. My mother served these on Christmas morning every Christmas that I can remember, my whole entire life. She'd make them ahead of time - on the day after Thanksgiving, the same day that she made the Christmas cookie dough. Then she'd freeze them. On Christmas morning we'd heat them up in the oven, frost them, and eat them after my sister and I opened our stockings (when I was little) or after the boys opened their stockings (when I was big).

Christmas was also my mother's birthday. She claimed that she liked having a Christmas birthday, that she liked having her birthday fall on this most special day of all the year.

Last year she and I baked the cinnamon rolls together. You make them with yeast, and the dough has to rise twice. The first time it rises in a bowl covered with a towel, set in a warm place. The second time it rises, it has already been rolled out and made into the cinnamon rolls.

I was nervous. I had never baked them before all my myself, and directions that have to do with yeast have a certain nerve-wracking vagueness to them: dissolve the yeast in warm water (how warm?); scald the milk and then let it cool to room temperature (how scalded is scalded? can I tell room temperature just by sticking the tip of my finger in the bowl?). What if they didn't rise enough? What if they rose too much?

And I couldn't call my mother to ask her any of these questions. I can never call her again.

But they turned out beautifully. They look delicious. I know they'll taste delicious. And the boys and I will eat them tomorrow morning, after they open their stockings, with smiles on our faces, tears in our eyes, and love in our hearts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rufus M.

I spent a most happy day today working on a scholarly paper on Rufus M., by Eleanor Estes, published in 1943; I'm submitting the paper to the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association conference, to be held this year at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, this coming June. Abstracts for submitted papers are due January 15, but I have another scholarly paper due in January as well, so I wanted to get at least one of them done before Christmas. And what more fun way to spend the day before Christmas Eve?

My whole career as a children's literature scholar has been spent writing papers on books I loved as a child. There is no other unifying focus to my published children's literature papers - now numbering almost twenty - except for the common theme of writing about books I loved as a child, though I guess I also try to focus on ethical or philosophical themes in the books, where I can. I've written papers on the Betsy-Tacy books, on the Little House books, on The Secret Garden, on the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, and three papers now on Eleanor Estes:

“‘Good in the way witches enjoy being good’: The Reality of Morality in Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family,” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 34, no. 3 (September 2010): 320-32

From Individual to Community: The Shifting Moral Subject in The Middle Moffat and The Alley by Eleanor Estes,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 55-71

"Artistic and Moral Imagination in The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes," Children's Literature in Education, vol. 33, no. 3 (September 2002): 167-74

If my Rufus M. paper gets published, it will make number four. From my fairly extensive search of the scholarly literature in the field, I have learned that nobody else has written more than ONE paper on Eleanor Estes. This makes me, I can say in all honesty, the most prolific and prominent Eleanor Estes scholar in the world. In the world! And Eleanor Estes is a pretty important figure of twentieth century children's literature, in my opinion, winner of the Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye and of three Newbery honors, for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses. But nobody but me seems to have written much about her.

It's fun to be the foremost something in the world. And even more fun if you can be it simply by writing about something you love.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Carrying On

Every year since my boys were very little, my mother baked Christmas cookies with them. It was one of our favorite Christmas traditions. She would make the dough ahead of time (compulsively organized person that she was, she always made the dough the day after Thanksgiving and then froze it). On the baking day, she would come armed with dough, aprons, and enormous rolling pin. Under her supervision, the boys would roll out the dough to her prescribed thickness and cut out dozens of cookies with our wonderful assortment of cookie cutters. Then after she baked them for us , the decorating extravaganza would begin.

This is the first year we don't have my mother with us. I thought we'd skip the cookie baking this year - too sad to do it without her. But the boys wanted to do it. So yesterday we did. And it wasn't sad. It was wonderful, every minute of it. How could I have thought it would be sad?

Here are some of our cookies, made with so many memories, and with so much love.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cringing Time

The most recent issue of the SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Bulletin has an article by Joelle Anthony called "The NEW Red-Haired Best Friend: An Updated Look at the Most Overused Things in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fiction." A few years ago, Joelle wrote her original list on her blog. The SCBWI Bulletin has her updated list; I think only members can access the link to it.

It's very hard for most writers, including me, to read the list without cringing. On her current list, I recognize several of the "overused things" in my own recent books:

#15 - stories of irresponsible parents with main characters who end up paying bills, cooking, cleaning, etc.
My newest middle-grade novel, One Square Inch

#3 - clumsy characters who can't dance or play sports to save their lives
My middle-grade novel Lizzie at Last

#1 - main characters who hate math
Every single book I've ever written EXCEPT for Lizzie at Last. In fact, Wilson's hating math is the very heart of 7 x 9 = Trouble! and Fractions = Trouble!

Joelle's earlier list has even more of the these cringe-generating items for me: parents who are professional writers, heroines who can't carry a tune, the diary as a device, main characters who want to be writers, and NUMBER ONE on her list: lists.

I know that so many writers gravitate toward these same story elements because so many of us tend to write about characters who were like our own younger selves, that is to say, people who grew up to be writers. Writers are often bad at sports and bad at math. Writers often keep diaries and like to make lists. Others of the items in Joelle's catalog come from the demand on us as writers to create a compelling story with high stakes for our main character - this is why we end up with main characters with absent, irresponsible, or dead parents. This is why Harry Potter is an orphan - oh, and I should note that he is also an orphan who has a best friend with red hair.

But I'm still cringing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Last Thoughts on Utopia

I just finished grading the final papers for my Philosophy through Literature class, structured around the search for utopia. This time I followed the advice given to me years ago by one of our graduate student instructors, who said that he made it his practice to assign papers that he would enjoy reading. So I gave my students the option for their final project either to write a traditional analytic paper or to write a creative paper in which they designed their own utopia. To my great pleasure, more than half chose to share with me their version of a perfect world.

So I read about Prairie, a society that embraces the whole of human feeling and welcomes even negative emotions as a sign of being fully alive - Ataraxia, the land of tranquility (you have to pass a test of character to be admitted to residence there) - a libertarian utopia set in Somalia in the year 2060 - Cloud 10, an artistic and environmental paradise up in the sky - Gaia, based on empathetic spirituality - Atlantis, settled only by the hand-picked intelligentsia - Treeopia, where happiness is achieved not through material possessions, but through art. Although my students voted overwhelmingly, on our last day of class, to live in our world rather than any of the utopias we visited together, I myself am ready to sign up right now for Ataraxia or Treeopia - that is, if they will take me.

The downside of giving students an interesting paper topic is that they will rise to the occasion and produce truly wonderful papers, and then I'll have to give them high grades on these papers, and our chair will send us another memo about how we need to hold fast against grade inflation. But the upside is that I get to spend the last days of the semester reading papers that are truly worth reading and that make me feel that the course I taught was truly worth teaching. I think I'll go with the upside on this one.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

One More Day to Be Sad

Because it's been such a hard and sad year for me in so many ways, I've been looking forward to December 31 with great anticipation. Farewell 2010, and good riddance! On to greet all the wonderful new things the universe has lined up for me in 2011! I've found myself in a countdown mode - only three weeks left to be sad, now only two weeks left to be sad...

But then I decided that I really didn't want to wring every last bit of sadness out of 2010, especially because, after all, this is winter break from my job teaching at CU, and it's supposed to be a time of well-earned relaxation, plus a time to get all the work done that I didn't have time to do during the busy semester. Did I really want to spend the better part of winter break moping? So I decided to give myself just through December 26 to be sad, and then start being happy again on December 27. I'd have a sad Christmas (Christmas Day was my mother's actual birthday, and she was always the heart and soul of our family celebrations), and then on the morning of Sunday, December 26, I'd preach the sermon at church, as I've done for the past two years, with Christopher playing all the music for the service (the regular pastor and organist like to take off the Sunday after Christmas to recover from all their intense Christmas season efforts). It would be a sermon on looking back, and on looking forward, and then I'd start looking forward myself.

But now I'm thinking that maybe I should move up the deadline for starting to be happy again, and give myself just TODAY to wallow in my last hurrah of sadness, and then get up TOMORROW and start being happy again. I have a number of enticing work projects to begin, and all the last satisfying Christmas activities. And even today has a lot of distractions from sadness in it: church this morning, an open house at the parsonage this afternoon, and then caroling at two retirement communities. Still, I can squeeze quite a bit of sadness in.

And then tomorrow, Monday, December 20, I'm going to wake up at 5:00 again, instead of my currently slothful 6:00, and I'm going to listen to some great songs from Hello Dolly: "Put on Your Sunday Clothes, There's Lots of World Out There!", "So long, dearie, I should have said 'So long' so long ago," and "Before the Parade Passes By." And then I think I'm going to spend the rest of my life being happy. It sounds like a plan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

End of Another Writing Year

My wonderful Boulder-based critique group had our holiday dinner last night, with nine of us gathered around the beautifully decorated table at Elizabeth's house. Two beloved former members joined us for the occasion, and we added one new member this year, so the evening was a sweet mixture of old and new, with so many stories to share.

Ina asked us all to share our writing accomplishments for the year. Listening to our self-summaries, I was struck at how different we are in our approach to writing. Three of us are always writing heaps of books, whether or not they get published; we just keep on writing through hard times, through good times; we are dogged, dedicated, die-hard writing machines. I fall in that group. This year I wrote three 125-page novels in the space of six months while also nursing a dying mother, a dying father-in-law, and various dying dreams.

Others in our group spend more time letting the well refill. They make more space in their lives to develop their creativity in other ways. One, for example, has been prioritizing her photography rather than her writing. One is in the process of sustained private groping toward trying to write something unlike anything she's written before. One is preoccupied with the demands of her day job and giving herself permission to take some time off from writing.

I decided long ago that when it comes to creativity, one creative style isn't better or worse than another, it's just different. Maybe it would be good for our group's doers to spend more time dreaming, or for our dreamers to spend more time doing. Or maybe not. Our doers definitely produce more books. I wouldn't say that we produce better books. Maybe next year I'll try make more space for creative idleness, for deceptively lazy stretches of imaginative play. Or maybe I'll write five 125-page books.

But either way, it was wonderful holding hands around Elizabeth's table, blessed to be in the company of such beloved writer friends.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

End of Term Parties

The semester ended on Friday at CU, so I had my usual in-class parties for both my classes.

For my small Intro-to-Ethics freshmen class, which meets at 1:00, we had pizza and cupcakes. That course opens with our reading of The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy, which I present to them as the story of a life gone wrong: as he is dying, Ivan Ilyich keeps tormenting himself with the question, "Did I live as I ought?" And he keeps trying to reassure himself with the answer, "Yes, I did, because I lived as everyone else did." Only on the day that he is dying does he realize that that the answer is no, he did not live as he should have lived, and with that answer comes the relief of facing the truth and reorienting his life in his last hours toward what really matters. Then the rest of the course is structured as a series of books about how we SHOULD live our lives, with readings by Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Trungpa (Shambhala). On the last day I have the students vote: if they could give only one of these books to a young Ivan Ilyich, which would they choose? This year, the winner was . . . Aristotle.

In my other class, Philosophy through Literature, which meets in the morning, we had donuts and orange juice for our party. This is the class where we read six books on utopia, each one with a different vision of a perfect society. I had the students vote on which was their favorite, which was the world in which they would most want to live. The default setting was our own world. And overwhelmingly, when they voted, our world won. Part of me felt disappointed that they had remained so conservative in their vote, so wedded to the familiar status quo. But part of me felt that it was a lovely thing, to survey all these visions of utopia and then decide that our own world, just as it is, was the most wonderful of all.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


With my final Mason Dixon revision behind me, and the last of the in-term grading done for my two classes, and my signing off on my guest-editorship for the University of Maryland's Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly today (hooray, hooray), I am now officially in groping mode for a new book idea.

Some of my author friends don't need to grope for book ideas. They already have more ideas for books than they could write in a lifetime; their panic is never "What will I write next?" but "Will I live long enough to release these characters into the world who have taken up residence in my head?"

Some people just have very fertile and clever brains. Of all my writer friends, the one with the most fertile and clever brain is Utah picture-book author Rick Walton. I've heard Rick speak several times, and it's always amazing to behold how his brain works. Rick says that he writes - get this! - some two hundred picture books in a year. Two hundred. He says he might end up selling and publishing five or six of these, so he has a very low publication rate from his ideas. But because he has so many ideas, he ends up publishing a ton of books. And, I might add, a ton of delightfully creative books.

My brain doesn't work that way. I have to sit down and slowly, consciously, painstakingly create an idea out of nothing. I tend to create one idea at a time, usually no more than one or two ideas in a year. I lie on my couch with my clipboard, pad of paper, and pen, hour after hour, day after day, until I finally start to form my idea. But then when I have an idea, it usually gets published. I have a much higher publication rate for my ideas than Rick has for his. My brain isn't better or worse than Rick's brain. It's just different.

So now, as soon as I finish posting this, I'm going to put in a good hour of groping for a book idea. And another one tomorrow. And another one the day after that.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mightier than the Sword

My revisions for Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters have been approved. Hooray! I was desperately in the mood for some nice news this week, so when I got the reassuring email from Nancy Hinkel on Monday, I sat in my office at CU playing a YouTube clip of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes, There's Lots of World Out There!" from Hello, Dolly over and over again. I can now say that I wrote and revised three 125-page books this year, more than I've ever done in one year before. This nice news makes up for a lot.

There's a wonderful scene in one of my beloved Betsy-Tacy books, Heaven to Betsy, in which Betsy, heartbroken in her crush on the Tall Dark Stranger, Tony Marcus, has a writing triumph of her own, when she reads aloud her amusing essay, "An Adventure on Puget Sound," to the uproarious applause of the high school.

"[Betsy] was happy. She was proud. Let Bonnie have Tony if she wanted him! 'The pen is mightier than the sword,' she thought. Sword wasn't the word, exactly. But it was the best she could find with the Deep Valley High School whistling and stamping its feet."

That's how I feel right now. I've had some disappointments in my personal life recently. But now I have a book revision that has been approved! The pen is indeed mightier than a lot of the other things that drag us down and make us disheartened. So right now I'm whistling and stamping my own two feet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Back from Thanksgiving Break

Thanksgiving break is over; classes resume today at CU - two more weeks of classes before finals, and then winter break.

I have to admit that I dazzled myself with what I accomplished over the past nine days. My secret was that I had a traumatic upheaval in my personal life, and the only way to deal with it was to observe strict, life-saving discipline in my professional life.

In my most-favorite-ever book on writing, If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, she talks about a hard-working friend who is a violinist and author. When her friend had a very bad head cold, Ueland recommended that she lie down, covered with a warm shawl, and drink hot lemonade (which actually sounds very appealing to me). Her friend replied, with horror: "Oh, that is no way to treat a cold!" Instead, she cured her cold by working harder than ever.

And I have found that the way to cure deep personal sadness is to work harder than ever. So I made a stern, extremely long to-do list. I required myself to cross off three things on this list every day during the break, with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, which I took off from work completely. So now, as a result of my toil, I accomplished: the revisions on Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, laborious toil on the first-pass proofs for the issue of the Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly that I am guest-editing, an entire set of papers graded for my Philosophy through Literature class, a entire set of reading journals graded for this same class, a careful review of a hundred pages of writing from my mentee's novel, a review of nine submissions for the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference, a preview of the final book I'm teaching in the Philosophy through Literature course, and more things that I won't even list here for fear of sounding even more braggy than I already do.

Plus, my broken heart feels tons better. It really does. My beloved philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote that "work is the only practical consolation for having been born." Amen to that, brother.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Why I Like Writing a Blog

Well, lots of reasons, actually. But the one that prompted me to write this is that when you put something out to the universe on a blog, sometimes it alerts the universe to send something back to you.

The other day I posted about my Thanksgiving week activities, which include going from shoe store to shoe store begging for empty shoeboxes to use for my church's Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless drive, which I coordinate every year. I have come to hate doing this, even though that didn't come through, I don't think, in my blog post. I'll call the stores, and they'll promise to hold the boxes for me, and then they'll forget, or give them to someone else, or they'll have boxes, all right, but without lids, or of weird sizes (humongous boxes for cowboy boots, teensy boxes for infant shoes), whereas I need boxes of a uniform, shoebox size. Of course, I could scavenge for boxes throughout the year, but something impels me to leave it to the last minute, which means that I go out on this miserable errand on Black Friday when all the parking lots are jammed, so if I do get a nice shoebox haul I have to stagger for miles to drag it back to my car.

I've thought about skipping the part of the drive where I hand out actual shoeboxes to people and just ask people to scrounge in their own garages for a shoebox that might work. But it's such a part of the drive to hand the boxes out in church. I sing a special song, to the tune of "Deck the Halls," and the congregation sings it with me:

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.

And then the children help me distribute the empty boxes, while we all sing. It wouldn't be the same with virtual boxes.

Okay. So I mentioned the shoeboxes in my blog. One of my readers, who is also a dear friend, emailed me privately to ask why I didn't just stock up on plastic shoeboxes from the Dollar Store or Big Lots. I am fainting with happiness at this idea! They will all be uniform in size! They will so nice for their recipients to have, people who need to cart their possessions from pillar to post. They will be so easy for me to get. They will look so much nicer stacked in the back of the sanctuary.

The rest of my life will be easy now, because of this new plan! Thank you, Kay!

This is one reason why I like writing a blog.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Revisions Done

I just finished my revisions for Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters and emailed them off to Nancy Hinkel at Knopf/Random House. As always happens, it took me VASTLY less time to do them than it did to dread doing them. When will I ever learn to replace dreading with doing?

Though I do think it might be simply part of the process to spend time in dread, dismal as that may sound. Before I can make revisions on a book, I have to get myself used to the idea of changing my original text, and sometimes even my original conception of how the story should go. Then apparently I have to spend time wondering if I should maybe just give up and throw the whole book away and start over entirely. Maybe that IS what I should be doing? Maybe that is what my editor thinks I should be doing? Maybe she's expecting at the very least a MAJOR overhaul of the book? The kind that should take months to do? But I don't have months to do it. So I just sit and do nothing.

Then time runs out for me. I have a deadline I have to meet. For better or worse, this book is going to be revised in days rather than years. No, in HOURS rather than years. Why don't I start with doing the few, small, specific things that my editor recommended? In this case, set up Mason's initial involvement with basketball so that it doesn't so clearly echo his initial involvement with pets in Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters, and with joining the school choir in Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters. That means rewriting the first chapter extensively - but not the whole book - and then checking to see that the changes in the first chapter reverberate appropriately through the rest of the book - but not in every single line. This also means rewriting the last chapter to add a new scene in which Nora, so unflappable in the previous two books, finally is flapped. And heightening some mentions of her unflappability previously so that her ultimate flapping carries more weight.

Friends, we are talking now about rewriting mere pages of a 130-page-long book, but in a way that will make a big difference in differentiating the story arc of this book from the story arc of its predecessors, while still keeping the familiar feel that readers seek in the third book in a series.

So it's done, and I've sent it off, and if Nancy Hinkel wants more changes, well, then, I'll make more changes. After sitting paralyzed with dread for a while first.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Break

For the fall semester at CU, we don't get a break until Thanksgiving week, two weeks before the end of the semester - terrible timing for those who yearn for a well-paced chance to catch one's breath. But this is when Thanksgiving falls, and so, for better or worse, this is when we catch our breath. At least we have all week to catch it.

I don't know how much breath-catching I'm going to be able to do, because I kindly - or foolishly - made the due dates for the second paper for both classes be right before the break, so that the students could relax during their family get-togethers, forgetting that this meant that I would have to spend MY family get-together grading, grading, grading. And I still have the revisions for Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters to do, revisions which should have already been done. I have a hundred pages of a mentee's manuscript to read, and I need to preview the book I'm teaching after the break, Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, by Carl Elliott, to figure out which chapters to assign as required reading, given that it just now occurred to me that the book is simply too long for us to read all of it. And I have to drive around to local shoe stores collecting empty shoe boxes to use for our church's annual Christmas drive: Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless. At some point I'm also going to have to generate my share of the food for the Thanksgiving dinner, which we're having this year with the family of Gregory's girlfriend, Sierra.

But there will still be time for walks with Rowan, and watching a movie with Diane, and emailing old friends, and hanging out with the boys. There will still be plenty of time for catching my breath, and counting my blessings.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Off to Kansas City

I'm heading off to Kansas City today to give two talks tomorrow at Mill Creek Upper Elementary School in Belton, Missouri. I was invited because my book, The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary of Amanda MacLeish, is on the master list for the Mark Twain Award this year.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this kind of award: just about every state has a readers' choice award, and almost all of them are set up in the same way. Some committee of teachers and librarians generates a master list of titles, published in the past several years, and then children from all around the state read the books on the master list and vote for their favorite.

I've won a readers' choice award only once: 7 x 9 = Trouble! won the Virginia Book Award. Unfortunately for me, Virginia doesn't make much of a fuss about its award. I seem to remember that the only reason I even knew about the award was that I went on the Internet myself and found the announcement of it. But some states make a huge fuss over their award, presenting it to the author at a banquet in a chandelier-hung ballroom. That is one of my life's ambitions: just once to receive an award presented to me at a banquet in a chandelier-hung ballroom.

But the best thing really is just to get on the master list. Then tens of thousands of children read your book (and thousands of librarians buy your book). One of my books, You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, was on ten different state lists, which was so lovely for me. And now because The Totally Made-Up Civil War Diary is on the Mark Twain list, I get to board a plane today and fly to Kansas City to meet with readers tomorrow, two of whom have already emailed me to tell me how excited they are that I am coming to their school. Kaylin and Madisen, I can't wait to meet you!

This might even be better than the banquet in the chandelier-hung ballroom. It really might.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Book Signing

I had my book signing Tuesday night at the Boulder Bookstore, Boulder's wonderful treasure of an independent bookstore, down on our nationally known Pearl Street pedestrian mall. Of course it snowed that night, the first snowfall of the season. So I was in a panic that nobody would come.
But so many people did.

This is the single best thing about a book signing: to look out into the room and see so many people you love from so many different parts of your life. Two dear friends, whom I met because they were mothers of Gregory's first two best friends at Boulder Montessori preschool seventeen years ago - another two dear friends who were part of the enchanted circle of "Grandpa's people," the women friends who brightened his life so much during its last decades - grad students from the philosophy department - a colleague from the philosophy department - another colleague's wife - a member of my writing group with her husband and granddaughter - a couple I'd never met before who came because they are friends with a Children's Literature Association friend of mine who lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, but who saw my post on Facebook about my signing and told them to come - and a new friend - and his next-door neighbors - and heaps and heap of people from my church. Fellow writers, if you want a big crowd at a book signing, join a church! There were more people there from my church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, than from all the other parts of my life put together. And they all bought multiple copies for all their friends and relatives.

I felt so blessed that evening, seeing those faces in the audience, sharing with them my journey of how I came to write One Square Inch. Thank you, dear friends, for braving the snow and coming to join me at the christening of this newest of my book children. I love you all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Things I Hate

I don't know if any of you have this problem, but I have this terrible tendency to keep signing up to do things that I hate. I'll sign up to do something I hate, and I'll do the thing, hating every minute of it and allowing it to poison every waking moment of my life, and I'll vow to myself and to anyone who will listen that I'll never EVER take on this Loathsome Task again, and then (this is the bizarre part): a few months later there I am, signing up to do the very same Loathsome Task.

How can this be?

Part of it is that, like most of us, I have the blessed ability to forget how terrible something is once it's over. I've heard it said that the only reason any woman has a second child is that she forgets how terrible labor and childbirth were the first time around, and by the time she remembers, it's too late.

I'm also sometimes paid a lot of money to do the hateful and terrible thing.

I also start to tell myself that THIS time, I'm going to be able to control how terrible the hateful thing is. Okay, it's hateful, but that doesn't mean I have to let it poison every waking moment, does it? What if I just DID the hateful thing, for the relatively few hours that it takes to do it, and skipped the part where I think about how much I hate it, and tell everybody how much I hate it, and dread doing it because I hate it so much. That could work, right? Isn't the hateful thing only hateful because I've made it hateful? Because I've allowed myself to hate it? What if I just DID it without hating it so much?

So that's what I tell myself. And now I have the hateful thing to do today, after having dreaded it and postponed it and allowed it to poison every waking moment of my life. Again.

Here is my vow: I am never again going to sign up to do something that I hate. I'm going to file this under the heading: "Life Is Too Short." I'm going to re-read this blog entry once a month, maybe even once a week, in case I am in any danger of forgetting.

Dear readers, do not sign up to do something you hate! Really. Don't do it. Life is too short to sign up to do something you hate.

Friday, November 5, 2010

How Full Is Too Full?

I gave my talk last night on "Sleeping Beauty Awakes: Unexpected Retellings in Recent Children's Literature." I would say that the whole thing was a fairly stressful experience. First of all, and most of all, I didn't know ANYTHING about the topic when I signed up to do this - I had never spent a minute in my entire life doing any scholarly work on fairy tales. So I had to start completely from scratch - or thought I was going to have to start completely from scratch, until I discovered a brilliant essay by scholar Tina Hanlon on this topic from which I could borrow heavily and gratefully. But I still had to read all the books she discusses, come to my own thoughts about them, write up these thoughts, locate the images for the Powerpoint, hire the graduate student to make the Powerpoint....

The Powerpoint was another source of stress. I thought I did have to have images to accompany the talk, but I am so clueless, so pitifully and pathetically clueless, when it comes to technology! This is where I am so blessed to be a faculty member at CU, where I can send an email out to our grad students begging them to help provide any service I ever need. Wonderful David Meens agreed to help me, not only to make the Powerpoint, but to show the Powerpoint at the talk itself.

I worked for days on the talk, and all afternoon on Tuesday with David on the Powerpoint, and then rehearsed the talk. But on the day of the talk I was further stressed by having not one, not two, but THREE Skips (our Boulder bus) break down on my way to the talk! A terrible omen? A sign of the impending end of Western civilization as we know it? And what if David didn't remember to come, given that my talk was now on HIS computer? And what if nobody else came to my talk, either, after all this work? And what if -???

But finally the third Skip got me close enough to the university before breaking down that I could walk the rest of the way. And of course wonderful David was already there ready to set up the computer for me. And of course the terrific publicity by the University Libraries brought in a good crowd. And my talk went reasonably well, though ran a tad too long. It was all good.

Afterward, I wondered a bit why I continue to sign up for things that are so time-consuming and stressful, given that I already have an adequately full life as a philosophy professor and children's book author. Did I really need to devote a week of my life to preparing a talk on recent retellings of Sleeping Beauty in children's literature?

And then I realized the answer: I do these things because they're fun. It was fun learning something new, it was fun reading all these versions of Sleeping Beauty, it was fun pondering the various ways that writers have taken on the challenge of making this problematic tale fresh and beautiful to new generations of children. I loved getting to meet the other scholars at CU who work on fairy tales. I loved looking in my planner throughout the semester and seeing "FAIRY TALE MEETING" or "FAIRY TALE FILM" and finally "FAIRY TALE TALK - ME."

Would I do it again? Well, yes, I would. A full life is a good life, even if sometimes - say, when the third Skip in a row is breaking down on your way to give a high profile talk on some topic you have just learned about for the first time this week - it can seem a bit too full. A full life is a good life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Book Signing Next Week

This coming Tuesday, November 9, I'll be doing a book signing for my recent middle-grade novel, One Square Inch, at 6:30 p.m. at the Boulder Bookstore, Boulder's fabulous independent bookstore on our beautiful Pearl Street open-air pedestrian mall. I'll also be talking about how I came to write the book and reading from it.

Like most authors, I've done a million signings where nobody has come, but I think a lot of people are going to come to this one, because the store is willing to send out up to 200 (!) postcards to the author's own mailing list, so I've invited friends from the philosophy department, from church, from my writing group and other writing organizations, and from the neighborhood. In fact, one of the most satisfying things about the signing should be seeing friends from different parts of my life sitting next to each other - sort of like when I post something on Facebook and see replies from philosophy grad students next to replies from high school buddies or from people I don't even know in person but only via the Internet.

If you're going to be in Boulder on Tuesday evening, come on by!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sleeping Beauty Awakes

My talk for the fairy tale symposium at CU is going to be this Thursday from 5-6:30 at Norlin Library. So far the lineup of events has included a screening of the 1946 film The Stone Flower, a pair of talks on eroticism in early modern French and Italian fairy tales, and a screening of the 1966 film Father Frost. My talk will look at retellings of Sleeping Beauty in relatively recent children's literature, borrowing from scholar Tina Hanlon's fabulous article on Jane Yolen's retellings of Sleeping Beauty that appeared in the journal Children's Literature some years ago.

I'm framing the talk as a look at the problem posed by Sleeping Beauty - her slumbering passivity and need for a prince's kiss to rescue her - and various approaches to solving it. One approach, of course, is simply to walk away from fairy tales altogether, a "solution" that has had its moments of popularity in every century, from Mrs. Trimmer's attacks on "the impropriety of putting such books in the hands of little children" in the 18th century, to Samuel Goodrich's horror of fairy tales in the 19th century - "Why do they tell such falsehoods?" - to Lucy Sprague Mitchell's attempt to replace fairy tales with realistic fare for children at the Bank Street College of Education in the early 20th century.

A second solution, popular since the 1980s, is feminist-inspired parodies of fairy tales, such as Prince Cinders and Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole, in which a hapless drudge of a wimpy prince is in need of rescue and a confident princess sends away all suitors so that she can happily remain a "Ms." rather than becoming a "Mrs." Or, in a less heavy-handed inversion of gender roles and expectations, we see variants of Sleeping Beauty either where she doesn't sleep (Jane Yolen's Gwinellen, Frances Minters's Sleepless Beauty) or isn't beautiful (Yolen's Sleeping Ugly).

But the problem with parody is that it works only if readers are still familiar with the original tales - and it always lacks the depth and beauty of the original. So then the problem for authors becomes: how can we reclaim the original story in a way that doesn't reinforce and foster sexism? Jane Yolen is the master here, and my talk looks at her retelling of Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, as well as her original tale The Girl in the Golden Bower that resonates with Sleeping Beauty, and her brilliant use of Sleeping Beauty in her novel Briar Rose, set against the background of the Holocaust.

I'm going to close the talk with this quote from the poet Schiller, quoted by Bruno Bettelheim in his The Uses of Enchantment: "Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Today is Halloween, but Friday was the day for elementary school Halloween parties. And on Friday I was invited to Mesa Elementary School, my boys' former elementary school, to speak at their fifth-grade variant of a Halloween party, the Biography Tea, because of my book Being Teddy Roosevelt, inspired by that very event.

For the Biography Tea, children come to school dressed as some famous person and impersonate that individual during an elegant tea party. The four main characters in my book dress up as Teddy Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Hellen Keller, and Queen Elizabeth, and each has his or her life changed in some small but significant way as a result of inhabiting this other identity.

This year I saw two Queen Elizabeths, at least one Pocohantas, and one very convincing-looking Abraham Lincoln, as well as a terrific King Tut. I also encountered some wonderful famous people I had never met before: pictured above is Sam Dusinberre as Sousa band trumpeter Herbert L. Clarke.

After my brief talk to the two costumed fifth-grade classes, it was wonderful to field questions from so many eminent historic personages. The teacher, Ms. Devira Chartrand, a brilliantly acted Charlotte Bronte, asked me about my writing process. Emily Dickinson, Anne Frank, and Laura Ingalls Wilder smiled sympathetically as I answered. The two boys dressed as Louis Braille (one wearing dark glasses, the other with his eyes kept shut) asked me if there were any Braille editions of my books - good question, Louis! (The answer, alas, is no.)

Yay for the Biography Tea!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Same, Yet Different

I just heard back from Nancy Hinkel, the editor for my MASON DIXON series that will be coming out next year from Random House, with her comments on the manuscript for the third book in the series, Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, following after Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters and Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters. The good news: she thinks the manuscript is "a delight to read" and generally "swell." The bad news: she thinks the story arc of this one is too much like the story arc of the first two books.

Of course, my first thought was: well, that's because it's the third book in a series! In a series there is going to be a certain, shall we say, similarity among the books! In all my Dinah books (Dynamite Dinah, Dinah for President, Dinah in Love, and Dinah Forever), Dinah is a likable narcissist who has her self-love a bit chastened; in all my Gus and Grandpa books, Gus experiences some kind of second-grade problem that Grandpa helps him to solve; and in all the Mason Dixon books, Mason first expresses reluctance to engage in some activity (getting a pet, joining the fourth grade chorus at school, trying a team sport) and then comes around to find himself more enthusiastic than he had expected.

But there does seem to be something especially predictable about this standard story arc for the Mason Dixon books, I'm starting to think. And I trust Nancy on this completely. So now my challenge is to find some way to make this third book different, while still making Mason be Mason (curmudgeonly, sarcastic, expecting the worst) and his best friend Brody be Brody (hyper-enthusiastic, sunny, expecting the best).

I know I can do it. Heck, it has to be possible or Nancy wouldn't expect me to do it, right? My question right this minute is HOW.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting Published

Last night I finished teaching a four-week-long Lifelong Learning Class on Children's Book Writing through Boulder Valley Public Schools.

For the first session, I went over the format and expectations for all the different categories of children's books - picture books, easy readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels, YA - and we did an in-class writing exercise using a prompt that involved excavating childhood memories.

For the second session, I presented material on plot and characterization, and we did a character development exercise that I borrowed from writer Denise Vega: each student is given two cards, one containing a situation (e.g., you didn't get the part you wanted in the class play, your little brother breaks your favorite toy, a boy you don't like asks you to the class dance) and the other containing two different character traits (e.g., determined, selfish, creative, shy, compassionate, clumsy). The challenge is to write a short scene in which the character would deal with the given situation while exhibiting the two character traits. Students then share their work (if willing) and the rest of us have the fun of trying to guess which character traits are being portrayed.

For the third session, I talked about writing picture books, since everybody always wants to write picture books even though this is by FAR the hardest form of children's book writing. I also gave them handouts on point of view and do's and don'ts of dialogue, as well as a grab-bag of other craft-related goodies.

For the final session, I explained the process of children's book publication - self-publishing versus commercial publishing, agent versus no-agent. I shared information about the wonderful organization SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). I gave out samples of my own synopses to show how a selling synopsis is crafted. For the second half of the class, we critiqued the manuscripts of the three students who were brave enough to bring their work-in-progress to share.

I thought it was a pretty good class. In the course evaluations, which I collected that night, the students also thought it was a pretty good class. But they wanted it to go on longer (which is gratifying). And they wanted more on how to get published. Indeed, throughout the course I kept getting questions on how to get published, questions that I kept deferring to our final session: let's first learn how to WRITE the books, then we can learn how to get them published. But everybody always wants to learn how to get published.

The writer Anne Lamott is the one who is best on this phenomenon that all teachers of creative writing face. In Bird by Bird, she talks about sharing with her students what the miracle of writing is like, and then her students stare at her for a moment and ask, "How do we find an agent?" She says that "the problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published." Anne tells them, "You'll never get to where you want to be that way. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it."

Now, don't get me wrong. I want to be published, too. I love being published. But Anne Lamott is right. The writing itself comes first. And last. As Anne writes, "[Writing is] like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fractions = Trouble!

When I write each book, I always think, maybe THIS is the one: the one to be my "breakout" book, my Newbery medal, my best-seller, my ticket to literary immortality. And guess what: so far, I've always been wrong. But each book ends up garnering some little honor, some small piece of recognition, appealing to some child somewhere.

Of all my books, the one that has sold the most copies by far is 7 x 9 = Trouble! When I get my royalty statements twice a year, I usually find that it has sold not only more copies than any of my other books, but often more copies than all the other books put together. I do love this little book, but I don't love it more than its brothers and sisters. So I have no idea why this one has proven to be the most popular of my books. It does have a cute title. It does have an adorable cover, with art by G. Brian Karas. It does deal with a childhood rite of passage - mastering the times tables - that hasn't been given a book-length treatment before. I'm sure all that helps. But it's still a mystery to me why this book of all my others has turned out to be the little book that could.

Now the sequel is coming out next year: Fractions = Trouble! Still a cute title, still an adorable cover, but this time Wilson is struggling with fractions, not times tables. Will that make a difference in its popularity? I'll know in a year or two or three or four.