Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Fifth Episode of Happiness

It WAS the calculus lecture! Tied with the chemistry class! Proof that truly exceptional and exciting teaching can reach even the dullest and most unpromising student. Both teachers had remarkable energy and clarity and a clear gift for engaging everybody in the room, even when the room was a large lecture hall.

Now, when I say "the dullest and most unpromising student," that truly is me. I got a C in Algebra II and never got past trig. I have no memory of learning anything at all in high school chemistry and never studied chemistry in college. My mission was to see if I could learn something from both classes yesterday - preferably something life-transforming - and I did!

In the calculus class, Mary Nelson put up on the board some (to me) hideously long equation. I may have written this down wrong in my notes, but it was something like:

5 + (2n to the 4th power)
(6n to the 4th power) + (2n to the 3rd power)
where the limit of n is infinity.

Are you all with me so far??

Dr. Nelson then asked the class how many of them could see instantly that the answer was 1/3. Certainly I hadn't seen this! The reason why is something called "dominance of powers." Dr. Nelson said, and these were the words that changed my life: "Infinity to the 4th power is huge compared to 5."

This means (I think) that when you are dealing with something as big as infinity to the 4th power, you can just not bother with the part of the equation that has 5 in it. Indeed, you can not bother with the part of the equation that has infinity to the 3rd power in it.

Now, she also said that "Dominance of powers only applies to polynomial over polynomial." But I think she was wrong there. I think it applies to everything.

What are the really big things in your life, your infinity to the 4th power? THOSE are the things you need to be focusing your energy on, and your worry, and your delight. You can just skip worrying about 5 at all. Or even infinity to the 3rd power. You could say (I could say) that the basic point was "Don't sweat the small stuff" - but it's only because the big stuff, infinity to the 4th power, matters SO MUCH.

Dr. Janet DeGrazia in the chemistry class was also truly exceptional. There they were studying thermodynamics, and I did have the edge there, over the calculus class, that at least I had HEARD of entropy (and actually knew, sort of, what it was). Dr. DeGrazia showed a video of a car being blown up by something called (I think) thermite, and as she turned to a discussion of gases later in the hour, she had balloons in liquid nitrogen that changed size amazingly when released into room temperature air.

Here was her life-changing comment. In talking about some chemical reaction, she said, "You have to put energy in to break bonds." Hmm. I went up after class to tell her how great the class had been, but also to ask her, "What happens when you MAKE bonds?" She said: "When you make bonds, you get energy back."

Ooh! Let me repeat: "When you make bonds, you get energy back." So: breaking bonds TAKES energy. Making bonds CREATES energy. (Well, I guess there is conservation of energy, so it would be more like: Making bonds RELEASES energy. Anyway: gives you energy back.)

So maybe making bonds is like infinity to the 4th power! It's what really matters in life. Maybe the only thing that matters.

Or so concludes this philosopher and children's book writer upon observing her first chemistry class in forty years and her first calculus class, ever.

Friday, February 26, 2010

On the Lookout

As some of you know, I have the practice each day of lining up five episodes of happiness for myself for the day. I plan them out in the morning so that I'll be sure to pay attention to them when they appear.

Today, however, I only could come up with four:
1) lying in bed for fifteen extra minutes under the snug warm covers with Snickers purring next to me
2) writing a page on my chapter book - even on a university teaching day!
3) walking through the inch of radiant new-fallen snow for a mile and a half before I get on the Skip to go to work
4) attending the Pops concert at Fairview High School tonight, where Gregory will be performing with Jazz 1.

But what could be my fifth? I'm planning to enjoy both classes that I'm teaching today - Mill's replies to various objections to utilitarianism at 11:00, the second half of Part Two of Rousseau's novel Julie at 2:00, but neither one is a guaranteed good time. My 11:00 class has been quite quiet lately, and that particular bit of Rousseau's novel is a one of the duller ones (except for his hilariously scathing description of Parisian opera - but can I fill up fifty whole minutes discussing that?). I'm observing two classes by faculty nominated for a faculty teaching award, at 9 and at 10, and it's always a treat to watch spectacular teaching - but one of the classes is in calculus and the other is in chemical engineering! I'm attending a lunchtime talk, but it's by a graduate student in another department, and it might be wonderful, but it might not. I'll see my mother this afternoon, and it could be a sweet visit, but also likely to be bittersweet.

So right now I don't have a fifth episode of happiness lined up!

I decided that this means that my project today is to find a fifth episode along the way. I'm going to be on the lookout today for one unexpected source of happiness. I'll report back and tell you what I find.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Making Use of Everything

I am about halfway through the first draft of my chapter book, and so I sat down yesterday to make a rough outline for what has to happen next. At first, it seemed that maybe I didn't have quite enough material to take up another five chapters; the storyline as I originally planned it had maybe three more big scenes that needed to be developed, but three big scenes wouldn't fill up five more chapters.

So I looked again at the first five chapters to see what gifts I had already given myself that could prove to be fertile sources of tension, conflict, suspense, and excitement. I found that every element that had appeared in a random little burst of inspiration as I was writing along was full of possibility. Indeed, I came up with this new principle for writing: every single element in the story has to be used for something.

So: in the first chapter, Kelsey is surreptitiously reading under her desk during math time. The only point of this, when I wrote it, was to establish right away Kelsey's passion for reading (the book is about a schoolwide reading contest). Then, in a later chapter, she's also stealing forbidden moments during math time to read. Even if I DIDN'T need more stuff to flesh out the second half of the book, haven't I set it up so that SOMETHING has to happen here? Such as, Kelsey has to get caught? And get caught in such a way that it won't just be a gratuitous scene of extraneous excitement, but that it will play some important role in the plot? Of course!

And in the first chapter, as soon as the jolly, exuberant principal, Mr. Boone, comes into Kelsey's classroom and plops himself down on Mrs. Molina's desk, I found, as I was writing, that Mrs. Molina didn't care for Mr. Boone's larger-than-life style. As I kept writing, her irritation in his presence continued. So even if I DIDN'T need more stuff to flesh out the second half of the book, don't I need to take the tension between these two and do SOMETHING with it? If I don't, then why is it in the book in the first place? Well, to make the writing sparkly, to make the characterizations vivid, to keep the reader's interest. But it also needs to play some role in the PLOT.

Now that I've figured this out for myself, it seems completely and glaringly obvious. But it wasn't obvious to me until yesterday.

An author needs to make use of EVERYTHING.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fast and Slow

Midterms are approaching for my classes at CU. Next week I'm giving a midterm exam in both my Philosophy and Society class and my Intro to Ethics class. In fact, my two TAs and I are going to work together to make up the questions for the Philosophy and Society exam this morning over brunch at Dot's Diner.

I know from many years of experience in giving exams that some students will race through the exam and finish it in half the allotted time. Others will need every single second, and I'll have to tear their paper from their heartbroken hands as the students from the class after ours are impatiently pouring into the classroom. I also know from many years of experience that there will be little, if any, correlation between time and grade. Some students work quickly and do very well - they just know their stuff. Some students work quickly and do badly - they just blew it off. Some of my slowpokes are struggling students; others are passionate perfectionists. Fast and slow simply have little if nothing to do with good and bad.

The same seems to be true of children's book writers. Some of my friends are fast writers, and some are slow writers. It's just a matter of how their inner clock is set.

I think I fall into the camp of the fast writers. Even though I only write a page or two a day (during the hour I devote to my writing), which makes me seem slow, this means that I can actually complete the full draft of a 50-page chapter book in not much more than a month, which makes me seem fast. Also, in my case, I do feel that it's a good sign when I'm writing quickly, when I am so much in control of the story, have such a good sense of what has to happen next, am so propelled by the powerful emotions of my characters, that the words fly onto the page.

I just finished Chapter Five of my new chapter book, and my hand was racing across the lines. And I just read over the chapter, and, well, frankly, I think it's terrific!

Right this minute, for me, fast is good.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Anthony Trollope's Mother

I have been writing steadily and happily on the first draft of my new chapter book this past week - I'm halfway through Chapter Five! My heart is full of overwhelming sadness, but writing sweet, dear, funny scenes about a third grader competing in a school-wide reading contest is providing me considerable cheer in this bleak midwinter.

In writing through my hard times, I'm inspired, as I am so often, by my constant re-reading of the autobiography of Anthony Trollope. In his chapter, "My Mother," he pays tribute to the woman who was herself a prodigiously prolific novelist although she began her career at the age of fifty. She wrote to support her family as she nursed a dying husband and dying adult children (a son and a daughter).

Trollope writes that even as hers were the hands that nursed these beloved invalids, "The novels went on, of course. We had already learned to know that they would be forthcoming at stated intervals - and they were always forthcoming." He goes on to say, "I have written many novels under many circumstances; but I doubt much whether I could write one when my whole heart was by the bedside of a dying son. " Frances Trollope spent the autumn of 1834 in a house in the outskirts of Bruges, left alone "to nurse these dying patients - the patients being her husband and children - and to write novels for the sustenance of the family!"

Trollope comments, "It was at this period of her career that her best novels were written."

Anthony Trollope has long been one of my heroes and literary role models, for writing his novels so faithfully while working full time for decades in a demanding position for the British postal service. These days his mother is, even more so, my heroine, too.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Thursday evening, Christopher, Samantha, and I braved the falling snow to head down to Macky Auditorium at CU to hear a dazzling performance by pianist Haochen Zhang, last year's Van Cliburn Gold Medalist. The program began with a marvelously fluid and delicate performance of Mozart's Sonata in C Major (no, not THAT one - but K. 330), and built through a gorgeous playing of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor to the stunning finale of Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Zhang, who won the medal just four days after his nineteenth birthday, made his recital debut at age five, performing all fifteen Bach two-part inventions, plus sonatas by Mozart and Haydn; a year later, at the tender age of six, he played a Mozart piano concerto with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

This made me wonder why - thank goodness! - there are no similar stories about writing prodigies. I can't think of a single one. There was that little girl poet, Hilda Conkling, whose poems I read in various anthologies when I was a little girl myself. Hilda wrote the majority of her poems between the ages of four and ten; I see that in my Time for Poetry book, edited by May Hill Arbuthnot (published in 1951), Hilda has no fewer than 11 poems included. The one called "Fairies" goes:

I cannot see fairies.
I dream them.
There is no fairy can hide from me;
I keep on dreaming till I find him:
There you are, Primrose! I can see you, Black Wing!

Okay, Hilda Conkling was impressive. But who else? What novelists, what playwrights, wrote anything worth publishing before their teen years? Maybe it's because you really do need a certain kind of wisdom to write something revelatory of the human condition. Aristotle famously remarked that the young are not suitable as students of ethics. Maybe they are not suitable as novelists, either. They can dash off a performance of a piano concerto (well, some very few of them can!), but fiction seems better left to those of us of riper years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tools of the Writer's Trade

Like many writers, I am particular about the tools of my trade. Not just about commas and semi-colons, but about the actual implements with which I do my writing. While I write my academic philosophy and children's literature articles on the computer, I write all my children's books by hand.

I always use a clipboard, the very same clipboard I've used since my college days. For some decades now it has been a clipboard without a clip, the clip having long ago fallen off and disappeared.

I always use the same kind of paper: pads of white paper, narrow ruled, no margins.

I always use the same kind of pens: Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pens.

A couple of years ago I had a scare, when I went to Office Max and then on to Office Depot and found that they no longer carried my favorite brand of pens. I was in despair until my son Gregory went on the Internet, Googled "Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pens" and found that I could order them from amazon. com. Whew! Then when Staples moved in to the new 29th Street Mall in Boulder, I also discovered to my relief that I could get them there.

But then last week, when I stopped by Staples to get my pens and a new 12-pack of pads of paper, they didn't have narrow-ruled paper. I seemed to remember that they had been out of it the last time I was there as well, and that I hadn't found it at Office Max the other day, either. With my new Gregory-inspired resourcefulness, I went to the Staples website, found 12-packs of white, narrow-ruled pads, no margins, and placed my order.

The package came today. I opened it nervously. What if - what if I had gotten CANARY-colored paper by mistake? Or that horrible light-green, eye-ease, paper that so often ruins what would have been wonderful narrow-ruled little notebooks? Or what if - no, I couldn't possibly have gotten COLLEGE-ruled paper, could I?

Enough suspense! The new paper is indeed narrow-ruled. It is indeed white. There are no offensive margins. But - I hate to say it, but the blue lines on the page are, well, they are a little bit TOO dark. I hadn't realized until ten minutes ago that I need to write on white, narrow-ruled paper, no margins, with LIGHT blue lines.

I agonized for a few moments about what to do. But then I decided to accept the new pads with their slightly darker lines. I am going to exhibit my writing versatility. Finicky is one thing. Fanatic is another.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nice Things and Accomplishments, Mid-Month

February is half over, and I checked my little nice things and accomplishments list for the month and started to panic. Only two items! Two! Item number one was the comforting visit from my sister. Item number two was that Being Teddy Roosevelt is on the master list for a new children's choice award in Illinois, the Bluestem Book Award (the seventh state list for Teddy). I checked my email a few extra times in case late-breaking news of nice things for Claudia was about to come pouring in. Nothing.

Then I remembered: I could take action myself to create some nice things and accomplishments for February. I finished my sulking over my new chapter-book-in-progress, which I blogged about in my last post, and wrote Chapter Two, which I shared with my writing group last night to warm encouragement. Writing Chapter Two is now nice thing/accomplishment number three. I'm halfway through Chapter Three and expect to finish it by the end of the week: nice thing/accomplishment number four. Thursday I'm giving a talk on campus, called "Divine Love and Moral Arbitrariness" - I read over my notes for the talk this morning and was pleased. So I'm planning on having that be nice thing/accomplishment number five.

Some of my nice things and accomplishments really are up to me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I haven't been writing on my new chapter book for the past couple of weeks. I told myself it was because I was overwhelmed with worry about my mother and distracted by time spent on her care.

But this wasn't true.

The real reason I haven't been writing is that I've been smarting over the comments from those two agents on the SCBWI agent night that I blogged about last month in my post "Not for the Faint of Heart." You may remember that the two agents that night read my opening pages and reported that while there was nothing wrong with the writing, there was nothing "overwhelming" or "compelling" about it, either. I, with 42 published books to my credit, and with an ALA Notable announced that very day, felt like never writing again.

Oh, how can writers be so thin-skinned? So easily discouraged?

I felt the way I had felt during my pre-tenure period at CU when I sent a philosophy article off to a journal and got back the anonymous reviewers' comments on it: one of them said, "It's not brilliant, but it's not bad, either," and the other said, "A modest paper, but good of its kind." I almost didn't get tenure because those comments made me feel like never writing another philosophy article again. But finally, after literally TWO YEARS of sulking, I made the requested revisions (hardly any work at all), sent the article back to the journal, they accepted it and published it, and I ended up with enough articles altogether to be awarded tenure. If I wanted to stay employed as a philosophy professor, I simply couldn't afford to sulk any longer.

I decided this morning that I couldn't afford to sulk any longer about my chapter book, either. I read over the first chapter, the not-overwhelming and not-compelling one, and tried to decide if I should make it more overwhelming and compelling, or leave it as it is. Perhaps mistakenly, I took the second option. I think it's really quite darling, and I recalled that the audience that evening burst out laughing at one of my funny lines - one of my apparently not-overwhelming and not-compelling lines. In any case, I think the best thing now is just to keep going and see what emerges in Chapter Two, and Chapter Three.

So ten minutes ago I finished writing the first page of Chapter Two. It felt so good!

No more sulking, for now.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Thing with Feathers

My sister has been here for several days, with her husband, to visit my mother and help with her care, including investigating options for what will happen next. It has been so wonderful to have her here. She's so funny, and wise. And she took care of so many seemingly little things that would have put me over the edge if I had to face them right now: getting a new battery for my mother's watch, straightening out her bollixed-up checkbook.

Cheryl is the best in the world at straightening up bollixed-up checkbooks. She told me a story this week, which I had forgotten (on purpose?), of how she took on my messed-up checkbook back when I was a grad student renting my first apartment. I could see that there was something seriously wrong with my checkbook register, but couldn't figure out what it was. Cheryl took a look at it and right away found the problem: I had written a check for the deposit on the apartment, but then recorded the check in the DEPOSIT column in the checkbook, adding it instead of subtracting. After all, it was called a "deposit," right? Problem solved!

Because of her visit, I now feel a little more hopeful about how everything is going to play itself out. One way or another, it will be all right. There may be changes, but some changes are good changes. And they're all easier to face in the company of a sister.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Joy of Mentoring

I think I'm a pretty good teacher of children's book writing. But I think I'm a very good mentor to fellow children's book writers. I don't know that I'm so articulate at generating general guidelines for teaching students how to write. But hand me a particular manuscript and I'm on fire to analyze what's working and what isn't, what's good and what could be great. I've thought about being a "book doctor," but that sounds too clinical and detached, and carries the unfortunate implication that the book is sick and ailing. I don't want to doctor a book, I want to mentor its author.

So I'm thrilled to be participating this spring in SCBWI's pilot mentoring program. I've taken five fabulous writers under my wing, meeting with each one monthly as she works on revising the manuscript she submitted to be part of the program. I don't want to blog about particular mentees and the writing challenges each of them is working through, because I respect their privacy. But some of them are bloggers themselves, and so. . .

Tracy Abell is one of my mentees, and she's going to be reporting on her creative journey on her own blog. Check out her blog to see how she is learning not to "ping-pong" from one emotion to another in her characters. Just from reading her blog you can see what a terrific writer she is already!

I'm also proud to announce that this is my 150th blog post since I began my blog last summer. Thanks for sticking with me, readers!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Magic Ring

I am not a famous writer. Often I meet librarians who apologize to me, "I'm sorry, but I don't know your books." Or at a book signing, someone will ask me kindly, "Is this your first book?" when it's my 42nd.

But years ago, some other writer remarked that many of us - most of us - had our lives changed by some book that nobody else ever heard of. My favorite book as a child, or one of them at least, was a book nobody else has ever heard of. It was called The Magic Ring. The author wsa Neta Lohnes Frazier (who?), and I read it over and over and over again, I loved it so much. The girl in the story gets a ring she believes to be magic, and the wishes she makes on it all come true, but it's never clear in the story if they come true because the ring is really magic, or by coincidence. I loved the book because for me it represented all the scope for magic even in our ordinary lives.

Then yesterday my Google blog alert directed me to this blog: Just North of Dundee, by Blair Emsick. In it, Blair writes, "It wasn't until the fifth grade that I really wrote my first poem. I remember reading the book Lizzie At Last by Claudia Mills. The main character Lizzie is this out of the ordinary girl who writes poetry all the time, I wanted to be just like her and so I began writing poetry. From that point on I was constantly writing in my diary, constantly just writing. Writing made me feel important, it made me feel like I had something really important to say, and that even if people wouldn't listen the page would." She goes on to say, "Writing I hope will continue to be such a huge part of me and my life. Writing is my muse, my therapy, my life, me."

I guess I was her "Magic Ring." Maybe every book is the magic ring for some reader, somewhere.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stockpiling Time

Remember Y2k? As the turn of the millennium approached, there was supposed to be some computer glitch connected with resetting all the dates from 1999 to 2000 that would cause the end of civilization as we knew it. Enthralled and energized by the excitement of an approaching apocalypse, people stockpiled food, water, batteries. Of course, none of that happened (though perhaps didn't happen precisely because enough computer scientists were alerted to the possible problem), but the preparations for a whole new way of life were fun while they lasted.

These days I'm stockpiling, not food or water, but time. With new demands on my time from my mother's fall and recovery, and uncertainty about what the future will bring for her, and for me, I've decided to save up all the time I can to deal with whatever I will need to deal with in the weeks and months ahead. This means doing certain Loathsome Tasks NOW, rather than procrastinating. I don't want to have a mile-long to-do list; right now I want to have only a list of things already done.

So I'm grading four papers a day for my Intro to Ethics class, whether I feel like grading them or not. I'm writing every recommendation letter the day I'm asked to write it, instead of putting it on my pile. When a grad student sent me a chapter of his dissertation to read, I thought about pleading stress and strain in order to get a deferment from him to read it sometime later. I didn't. Because there is no guarantee that later is not going to be filled with even more stress and strain. So I did it now.

Arnold Bennett, in his little gem of a book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day (1910), addresses the advisability of this strategy most pithily: "Therefore no object is served in waiting till next week, or even until tomorrow. You may fancy that the water will be warmer next week. It won't. It will be colder."

I don't know if the waters I'm swimming through will be warmer next week, or colder, or, most likely, about the same. But I might as well heed Bennett's advice to jump in now.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bright Star

My treat last night was watching Jane Campion's Bright Star, on DVD, with my friend Rowan and her husband, Jim. The film is a gorgeous cinematic homage to the immortal love between poet John Keats and his next-door neighbor, Fanny Brawne. The lovers actually lived in the two sides of a shared house, their bedrooms separated only by a single wall. One of the most passionate scenes in the movie shows both of them moving their single beds up against the shared wall and stroking its surface with their yearning hands. But their love was never consummated: Keats was impoverished and unsuitable as a husband, and he also fell tragically ill, dying of consumption in Rome when he was only 25, as Fanny mourned him half a continent away.

I don't want to die of consumption, and I'm too old now to feel any appeal for a doomed love of my own. But the film did make me think I would like to have the life of a poet as depicted here - days spent gazing into space, occasionally scribbling, reading, sharing my work with friends (but I'd want a different friend from repellent Mr. Brown in the movie), walking through expanses of daffodils or bluebells - and when all of that proved too distracting, going off for a few months of uninterrupted writing to a cottage by the sea. I still wouldn't write a single line as perfect as "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." But, minus the consumption and the doomed love, it would be fun to try.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

One of Those Days

I'm having one of those days. It's hard to make myself do anything. Even the simplest of tasks seem beyond me. Laundry - impossible! Paying bills - no way! Pulling up the bed covers - where would I even begin? And so of course I'm not about even to consider something like tackling the first set of papers from my Intro to Ethics class, which were turned in yesterday. Or writing a page on my new chapter book. I'm trapped in the LaBrea Tar Pits of my own lethargy, depression, and despair.

Enter my fetish for counting things. Okay, I cannot possibly face making my whole entire bed. So I tell myself just to do five motions. Motion number one, pull up the covers on this side. Motion number two, pull them up a little bit more. Motion number three, walk around to the other side of the bed. Motion number four, try to pull up the covers on that side with a forceful enough yank that a further motion won't be required. Motion number five, straighten the pillows. Bed: done!

I just finished going through my laundry basket, by folding just five things, and then another five, and then another five. The laundry is still all over my (nicely made) bed, in piles, but at least it is folded. After I finish writing this blog post, I will carry five piles of folded laundry to where they go. I think I have seven piles total, so MAYBE I'll then have enough momentum to do the other two piles. If not, I'll leave them for later. And then I'll count out the first five things I have to do to make myself lunch: find a can of tuna, open the can. I know those are the first two.

It's one of those days. But at least now my bed is made and my laundry is folded, and I have the beginning of a plan for lunch. It's more than I had an hour ago, thanks to counting.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Plan for Hard Times

I'm having a hard time. Make that, a very hard time. I'm overwhelmed with pain and worry about various things in my personal life, wondering how I can get up in the morning and face all that I have to face: a full-time job on top of a writing career that means so much to me, and then all the demands of these new Herculean challenges.

This means that I need a plan, a tough times plan. Luckily, plans are my specialty! I woke up this morning and made this one, and I think it's one of my best:

Here it is:
Use my hard time as an excuse not to do things I already didn't want to do; don't allow it to be an excuse not to do the things I do want to do.

So: say no to things that would have been Loathsome Tasks, anyway. I am having a hard time! I don't need to make my life even harder. So: no to serving on committees that are pointless and boring, no to being endlessly responsive to every student request to meet with me at exceedingly inconvenient times, no to volunteering to take on thankless jobs that nobody else seems to be willing to do.

But still take walks with Rowan, still watch tape-recorded episodes of "The Colbert Report" with Diane, still read Anne Tyler's new book, Noah's Compass, still write my poem on Thursday to send to Clara, still blog, still eat Hershey cherry cordial kisses. I am having a hard time! I need to give myself all reasonable comforts and treats.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Queen for a Day

Today I'm off to Gilcrest Elementary School for an all-day school visit, doing four presentations plus a quick little hello to kindergarten. I know it will be a wonderful day. Days when I visit schools are always wonderful days.

There are many things I love about school visits, but here are two particularly self-serving ones:

1. I get to be a celebrity, for at least this one day. It turns out that I lOVE being a celebrity. I still cherish my visit to one school, years and years ago, when the cafeteria renamed the hot lunch menu in my honor, so that the kids that day were eating Gus and Grandpa chicken nuggets and Phoebe's fries. Many are those who have bronze or marble statues of themselves on a pedestal in the public square; but few are those who have had a hot lunch menu named after them. Kids whisper and point as I walk down the halls: "Is that her? Is that CLAUDIA MILLS?" They ask me to autograph grubby little pieces of paper, their hands, their shoes. In the question period they pepper me with questions like, "Is your family jealous that you're so famous?" Once, after a local school visit, a kid was walking by my house when I was outside in the yard - he stopped astonished in his tracks: "I didn't know YOU lived here. I thought it was some ORDINARY person." In my greatest yet queen-for-a-day moment, one librarian in Tampa gave me a bunch a bunch of plain yellow number-2 pencils and asked me to touch them, so that she could give a pencil to each child that had been touched by me.

Yes, I do like being a celebrity!

2. I get ideas for future books. My books are often very immersed in the world of school, and now I no longer have children who obligingly come home each day with school stories to report to me. (Back when he was in elementary school, I would try to get Gregory to give me enticing details about such matters as which kids had fallen out of their chairs that day. "Gregory, who fell out of his chair today?" "Mom, people don't fall out of their chairs EVERY day. . . Well, it was Kevin.") So, since my boys went and grew up on me, I walk the halls of elementary schools looking for seeds of story, and for the real you-couldn't-make-this-up kind of details that will bring the story alive. It was on a school visit a few years ago that I saw a hallway hung with student papers on the topic, "What I Would Do to Change the World." Thus was born How Oliver Olson Changed the World. I have a lot of reasons to thank that school forever.

What book might be born today?