Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Fun Continues

I'm still in Olathe, Kansas, having a blissful time as the visiting author for the Families Read Every Day program, which provided my book Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters to 14,5000 children to read at home with their families over a two-week period.

A few favorite moments:

A question from a second grader on Thursday: "What would you do if you had a dream and it didn't come true?" (A good one to blog about, one of these days.)

A third grader's picture of Mason's pet Hamster dressed up as an artiste, complete with beret and easel, situated in a Parisian cityscape.

A display of children's lists (inspired from the clever back jacket copy for the book created by Nancy Hinkel at Random House) of what they like, dislike, and "aren't sure about."  One girl listed "brothers and sisters" as what she dislikes (a story there, to be sure!), and as what she isn't sure about: "Growing up."

A visit to the Reading Reptile Bookstore, which furnished all the books for the event at cost. The store is crammed full of whimsical sculptures inspired by children's book illustrations, and exploding with creativity everywhere. If you go, check out the Cabinet of Wonders, whose drawers contain such treasures as "Toad's Buttons," "Cookie Cutters," "VERY NICE ROCKS!," and "Small Random Objects," which can be purchased for a nickel or dime.  I bought a button for Toad.

A crowd of 270 children and their parents who came to see me at the main branch of the Olathe Public Library today: 30 had been expected. Some had been read the book by their parents or older siblings; others had read the book to their parents or younger siblings - whole families absorbed in sharing stories together.

And, of course, food, food, food, food, food! Tonight: tapas with some of the brilliant librarians who helped create the many activities for schools and parents to use with the book.

I told the families who waited in that long line to have me sign their books this afternoon that if an author died and went to Heaven, when she woke up it would look just like Olathe, Kansas.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Fun in Kansas

Greetings from Olathe, Kansas, where I am experiencing the single nicest thing that has ever happened to me as a children's book author. The school district here has launched a new district-wide program called F.R.E.D. - Families Read Every Day. As part of this program, a team of teachers, principals, and parents selected one book to be read by all of the 14,000 students in the district's 34 elementary schools, and the book they chose was - drum roll - my Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters.  And so I've been invited to Kansas to do a few days of school visits and library presentations and generally to savor every second of my fifteen minutes - actually, two weeks, all told - of fame.

The district purchased close to 15,000 copies of the book, provided to them at cost by the fabulous Kansas City indie bookstore Reading Reptile. The children read a chapter each evening at home with their families. See the picture of one family happily reading, above.

The F.R.E.D. team prepared a booklet of activities to accompany the reading, so as I walked down the hallways of each school I've seen kids' drawings of the Halloween costumes they would have made for Mason's hamster as well as sponge paintings of Mason's goldfish and crazily decorated socks to contrast with the plain brown socks Mason prefers. Posters of the mayor, the school superintendent, teachers, families, and pets reading the book delight me everywhere I go.

This afternoon I'll speak to a group at the public library, where I've been told that Fig Newtons, Mason's favorite cookie, will be served. I just signed dozens of hardcover books of the other two titles in the series, Mason Dixon: Fourth Grade Disasters and Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters, to be awarded as grand prizes for the ongoing trivia contest (with winners from each school).

After this heady week, I really think I should never again complain about anything, ever.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Better for Them, Easier for Me

Teaching my Winter Term Children's Book Writing course for the second time this year, I now know a number of things to do differently. I always want to find teaching strategies that lead to better results for my students.  I also want to find teaching strategies that require less effort from me. What I love best is when I get both of these at the same time: better for them AND easier for me.

Last time I tried to do critique sessions on manuscripts with the full class of 25 students. It took forever and felt awfully tedious to all of us by the time that 25th manuscript rolled around. Because I didn't want to dominate the discussion, leaping in instantly to pronounce my own assessment of a story and so preempting student comments, or else swooping in at the end with the "right" answer about the story's strengths and failings and so discrediting student comments already made, I stayed fairly quiet during the critiques - well, as quiet as I could! But as I also wanted the students to have MY feedback on their work, I wrote up a single-spaced page of typed comments for each manuscript - 25 picture books and then 25 middle-grade novel chapters. It takes a LONG time to write 50 pages of comments! And I knew all too well that in a number of cases, I had spent longer writing my comments than the students had spent writing their stories.

So this year, I made a number of changes:

1. No large-group manuscript critiques: too time-consuming and also too intimidating for beginning writers.

Instead, I devoted two classes to peer critique groups, with each student placed in a group of four to share their stories, using a printed-out worksheet prepared by me to make sure they addressed what I thought was important to consider for each one.

2. No written comments from me: too time-consuming and also somewhat daunting for the students. Even though I made sure to begin with positive comments, a detailed list of critical comments can be overwhelming.

Instead I sat and read all the manuscripts during the peer-critique sessions. I had each student meet with me for a mandatory ten-minute appointment for the picture book manuscript. In ten minutes I can give a LOT of helpful comments, and the sessions were more interactive and collaborative. I made a second one-on-one consultation on the novel chapter optional. Only five students opted to take it, making me even gladder that I had decided against written comments: if a student doesn't value my comments enough to spend ten minutes talking, why should I spend thirty minutes writing? With fewer students wanting comments, I was able to have longer meetings with the more motivated ones.

Actually, I ended up meeting for at least a few minutes on the book chapter with almost every student. As each critique group wound up its session, finishing at quite different times depending on how detailed they chose to make their own critiques, I invited students to linger for a quick consultation with me, and almost everyone did. So I was able to give what I considered to be extremely helpful big-picture comments to just about everybody.

Better for them! Easier for me! My hunch is that more often than not, these two goals can be realized simultaneously in teaching, in writing, and in life. But at least I realized these goals at the same time, in the same way, this year during Winter Term.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Pajama Night by the Fireplace

Last night, as we did last January as well, the students in my Winter Term course on Writing Children's Books carpooled out to the Prindle Institute, two miles from campus, to share favorite children's books by the beautiful fireplace in the Prindle Great Room. The wearing of pajamas was encouraged. So was attendance by stuffed animal friends.

Perhaps a third of the students wore their pj's, some earning extra credit from me (well, imaginary extra credit) for wearing footie pajamas or fluffy bathrobes. A number of students brought friends with them, both stuffed and human. In addition to my stuffed puppet Ruby, who has been my constant companion during my year and a half at DePauw, I spotted a large Pooh bear, a Pikachu (from Pokemon), a moose, a well-worn dog, and a very old cloth doll. Ruby introduced herself to all of them. Readers of this blog know that I love making voices for stuffed animals!

I wore my Lanz of Salzburg nightgown (over my regular clothes) and served milk, apple cider, hot chocolate, and all different kinds of cookies. . And then we gathered around the fireplace and read: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Junie B. Jones, Shel Silverstein, a recent picture book called Ten Thousand Dresses, Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School. One student read his own picture-book-in-progress. I would have read a short scene from my Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters, but enough students had brought books to read to us that I enjoyed just listening instead.

Many DePauw students are taking Winter Term courses off campus, studying hip hop music in Brazil, dance in Morocco, legend and landscape in Brittany (oh, wouldn't that one be delicious?), environmental sustainability in Tanzania, the geology of New Zealand. Those would be fun, I must admit. But maybe not more fun than reading classic picture books on a cold Indiana evening to stuffed animals by a fireplace.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


I'm waiting these days for my editor's reaction to the manuscript for the third chapter book in my forthcoming Franklin School Friends series: Izzy Barr, Running Star, to follow on the heels of Kelsey Green, Reading Queen and Annika Riz, Math Whiz. One thing I know is that Margaret got a VASTLY better manuscript than she would have if my Boulder writing group had not given me quite justifiably scathing critiques of it on the night of our holiday dinner, back in December.

Well, that isn't quite fair. One person did write, "What a lovely book!" and then went on to say that the first- and second-level plots were well balanced, and the treatment of all the characters was compassionate, and the symbolic level was "terrif" - though even she did say that the story needed more "friction" to create dramatic tension. Another said, "The story was so warm and decent it left me with a glow. I even cried twice!" - though she did also said, "This one was a little slow getting started in terms of suspense." But the group's toughest critic said bluntly: "This book lacks tension for me."  She said the opening chapter, the place where the author gets her first and best (and perhaps only) chance to draw the reader in, was "pretty passive. It's all backstory and exposition." In other words, I had made the single most common beginner's mistake for opening my story.


And yet. . . down deep, all along I had known this. I had deliberately chosen not to share the opening chapter with my group when we met over Thanksgiving break, because I knew they would say that, and I didn't want to hear it. I thought, okay, the first chapter is sort of slow with a lot of telling, but hey, see how much better the book gets after that!

I was in denial.

No one discusses denial better than dancer/choreographerTwyla Tharpe in her brilliant book, The Creative Habit. There she talks about the trial run of her Billy Joel musical Movin' Out in Chicago. She knew the first act was slow, but hey, the second act was so much stronger! She writes, "One night I went outside and crossed the street to the restaurant where some of the audience goes during intermission. I overheard one waiter tell a couple, 'Don't worry. The second act is much better.' When the waiters in town know the problem and you don't do something about it, that's denial."

So I did what my critique group told me to do, and what I already knew I needed to do except for when I was in denial about needing to do it, and I revised the book and fixed the problem. You want tension? Now I have tension! Thanks, dear friends, for not letting me stay in denial. My readers will be thanking you, too.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Freedom through Limitations

My Winter Term class is going well so far. We've had a class trip to the Putnam County library for a presentation on what's new in picture books from our terrific children's librarian, Cortina Ziuchkovski. We've worked in small groups to share the picture books that we checked out and to analyze their structure. We did a point of view exercise, retelling "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" in the voice of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear, or Goldilocks, as well as a couple of free writes to excavate childhood memories. And yesterday author-illustrator Troy Cummings came to our class.

Troy lives right here in Greencastle, and it's been one of the joys of my time in Indiana to get to know him as a fellow children's book creator. It was perfect to have him guest-teach my class because he and I are about as different as two people who practice the same profession can be. 

It takes me a long time to come up with a book idea; I'm lucky if I come up with one idea in an entire year. Troy has zillions of ideas; he told my students about a "speed-dating" session he had with his editor in NYC, as he shared some thirty (!) different picture book ideas with her to see which ones might strike her fancy. My books are realistic school and family stories; Troy's are wild imaginative romps. I get my ideas by mining my memories. Troy gets his everywhere from playing horsie with his young children to building on the old trick phone-call joke: "Is your refrigerator running?" 

As when he visited my class last year, Troy did the following creativity-sparking exercise with my students. Each of us received three randomly distributed index cards containing a name, an adjective, and a noun, respectively. Then we had to draw a picture of that character.  Examples included Zak the nervous tugboat, Alice the undercover baby, Julia the elegant snail, Beatrice the dizzy pencil. Last year, I was shocked and shamed to find that I couldn't do these exercises AT ALL - my mind just didn't work that way. But this year I did a tolerably good job with Larry the sad little pinata. And then we had to make a four-page spread of a story about our character - AND use five completely unrelated words taken from a Pictionary card!

Why do this? Because, Troy said, there is a powerful freedom that comes through limitations, whether self-imposed or imposed externally. If I can write a book about anything in the world, if I can create any character at all, I sit paralyzed with the enormity of my options. But if I have to tell a story about a sad little pinata named Larry, while also using the words "matador," "slot machine," and "ripe," well, then at least I have a place to begin. Several of my students left the class with material for a lovely picture book, I would say.

Freedom through limitations: of genre, length, format, reading level, vocabulary, subject matter. It can be quite a wonderful thing, as Troy quite wonderfully showed us in a quite wonderful class yesterday.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Basketball Season

Last night I spent the evening watching two basketball games: first, the DePauw women playing Kenyon College, and then the DePauw men playing our arch-rival, Wabash College. The women, undefeated in their season, won the first game handily; the men had to work harder for their victory. Wabash led the entire first half, but DePauw was on fire the second half, scoring several dazzling three-point outside shots with one satisfying dunk as well.

I sat with my friend Keith, asking him questions as the games progressed. This was how I learned that you can score three points for a basket shot from far enough away, and that T.O.L. on the scoreboard means "Time-Outs Left," and why sometimes a player would get one free shot for a foul and sometimes two (if fouled mid-shot).

Then I had a strange realization.

It occurred to me that there was probably nobody in the entire gym who was more ignorant than I am about basketball. And there was also probably nobody in the entire gym who had written and published not one but two books about basketball.

For I am the author of Gus and Grandpa at Basketball and of Mason Dixon: Basketball Disasters.  I have to admit that both are short on the kind of lively, fast-pace sports action that would draw sports-loving readers to pick up the books. In both I had to conceal huge stretches of basketball ignorance (though I also had sports-loving friends help me throughout the writing process). In both I was more interested in the character's inner growth than I was in what happened on the court. Would second-grader Gus learn how to tune out the over-zealous parental voices in the crowd and concentrate on listening to his own voice within? Would fourth-grader Mason, the world's most reluctant athlete, survive his first basketball season, coached by his equally clueless dad, and realize that you can find enjoyment in unexpected places? (Spoiler alert: the answer both times turns out to be YES.)

So that was my odd little thought last night, as I sat watching the DePauw Tigers garner two mid-season victories.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

ONE Hour a Day

I'm back at DePauw for the second half of my second year.  This month I teach my Winter Term course on children's book writing, which is already off to a delightful start, with so many motivated and engaged students with whom I can share my life's passion.  This intensive, concentrated course ends the last week of January; then I fly to Kansas City for a few days of school visits, and then leap into the spring semester, where I'll be teaching an upper-division philosophy course on the work of political philosopher John Rawls.

Over the break I made a plan for how to organize my work time in January.  My Winter Term class meets every afternoon from 1-3:30.  The course does not require much daily preparation on my part, as (a) I taught it last year in the same format; and (b) my whole entire life has been preparation.  So that leaves the morning for me to make progress on other things.  I decided that I'd spend an hour a day writing on a children's book, an hour on activities to promote my books, an hour on work-related LTs (Loathsome Tasks) so they wouldn't pile up, an hour on a scholarly writing project (I have many committed), and an hour walking.  With ease I would accomplish everything on my to-do list, with evenings set aside for reading and time spent with friends.

So far, this plan is not working out.

There was too much accumulated stuff-you-need-to-do-to-live that I needed to face; plus, it is just too hard to switch gears in this way from one project to another.  I've come to realize that I only have in me ONE hour a day that I can dedicate without fail to a designated project; after that, I lose my ability for that kind of laser-like focus on an activity.  I guess this is why my blog is called "An Hour a Day" and not "Five Hours a Day," or "An Hour a Day Spent on This, Followed by an Hour a Day Spent on That."

The good news is that I can still get everything in my life done with my original system. Each day I'm going to prioritize ONE hour to give to what I need to do most that day - probably creative writing at least four days of the week, but a focused hour given to book promotion another day, and scholarly writing another day, and alas, an hour of LTs rounding out the mix. I will still do other work during the day, of course, but it won't be special hour-a-day work, just regular well-I'm-at-my-office-so-I-might-as-well-do-something work.  For example, my do-or-die hour today had to be spent reading proofs for a scholarly article, and it's done. But I'm still going to work on one book-promotion-related task after I finish this blog. Which is right now.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Elegy Ending Without a Rhyme

This is the next-to-the-last day of the poetry-writing retreat.  The retreat is now in its tenth (and final) year; this is my seventh time attending.  For the first few years, the retreat was held at a country inn in the Poconos; for the last few years it's been held at a convent in Mendham, NJ.  I loved the inn, but I love the convent more. We stay in little tiny rooms in a converted orphanage, each one holding just a narrow bed, nightstand, small dresser.  One hall of the orphanage is painted pink, and the beds all have pink sheets (floral or striped) and pink blankets; one hall is painted green , with green-patterned sheets and green blankets. I'm staying on the pink hallway, across from my writer friend Clara.

Our poet leader this year is Kim Addonizio, and the book she's using for our primary text is Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, edited by Michael Theune. Each essay in the book focuses on a different poetic structure, built around a different poetic "turn": Randall Jarrell is quoted as claiming that "a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem." The moment of that crucial shift is the poem's turn. 

For example, emblem poems begin with careful observation of an object and turn toward meditation on the larger themes it can illuminate. A concessional poem begins with conceding the weakness of its argument before pressing on to its conclusion - one common form of a concessional poem initially points out the negative features of a beloved before extolling the beloved's praises. Poems with a retrospective-prospective structure have a temporal turn.

This afternoon we wrote elegies, which can turn from grief to consolation or resignation - or sometimes from an attempt at consolation to its failure.  The model we used as our prompt was a poem called "Elegy Ending in a Dream," by Patrick Phillips. His poem used a call-and-response structure, contrasting what he thought the experience of grief would be to its more crushing reality. Kim then invited us to write own elegy-ending-in-something poems: e.g., elegy ending in a song, a laundromat, a fairy tale, an ice cream store.  Here is mine:

Elegy Ending Without a Rhyme

You have left me
A fork without a spoon.
No, a fork without its tines.

You have left me
A sky without a moon.
No, a moon without a sky.

You have left me
A ball without a bat,
No, a ball without a shape.

You have left me
A head without a hat,
No, a head without a face.

You have left me,
A bird without a wing,
No, a bird that never flew.

You have left me,
A finger with no ring
Chopped bleeding from a hand.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Writing Shoes

My sister and I, when we were growing up together as readers, loved the "Shoes" books of British author Noel Streatfeild: Ballet Shoes, Theater Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Movie Shoes, Circus Shoes - books about children pursuing their passions in the performing arts.  We would talk about what our career "shoes" were going to be.  I was going to have writing shoes, of course, and my sister for a while was going to have astronomy shoes.

Well, I did grow up to be a writer, and so do have "writing shoes" in Streatfeild's sense.  But I didn't realize how much my writing would end up bringing shoes into my life in a more literal sense.

Every year I attend the huge and splendiferous children's literature festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, where thirty or forty authors come into town to spend two intense days giving presentations to thousands of schoolchildren bused in from all over the state.  As part of the festival, the authors have an outing to a local old-timey shoe store and come away staggering under our boxes and bags of new shoes.  I'm wearing a pair of Warrensburg shoes right now, my favorite shoes ever.

But alas, two months ago, the strap on one of my shoes broke.  There are no shoe repair shops anywhere near Greencastle, Indiana, so I glued the strap back on with super glue and hoped that it would hold. Alas, this morning, as I was having my scones and fairy dust at Alice's Teacup in NYC, the strap gave way.  These are the only shoes I have with me.  And I had planned on doing a fair amount of walking over the next few days before I fly back home to Indiana.  What to do?

Luckily, I was with New Yorkers.  "Oh, there's a shoe repair shop right on Columbus Avenue two blocks away," Patty told me.  "But they aren't going to be willing to repair my shoe right on the spot," I protested.  "Of course, they are!" she shot back.

And sure enough, Patty was right.  I stood in the teensy-weensy shoe repair shop, one shoe on and one shoe off, while the kindly man repaired it NOT with super glue, but by actually sewing the strap back on nice and tight.  It was all done in "a New York minute" - well, ten New York minutes.

So now the shoes I bought at a children's literature festival have been repaired on my way to a poetry-writing retreat.  Writing shoes, indeed!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Fairy Dust and Scones Tomorrow

I am beginning this new year, as I have the last few years, by attending a poetry-writing retreat held at a convent/converted orphanage in Mendham, NJ. This year our poet leader will be the astonishing Kim Addonizio.  I'm in New Jersey right now, spending the night in the cozy teddy-bear-filled home of my sister and her husband - which also happens to be our childhood home, which she bought some fifteen years after our mother sold it to its intervening owner.

Before I write any poetry, however, I'm heading in to New York tomorrow morning to meet up with some fellow authors at Alice's Teacup on the Upper West Side. We will drink tea, eat delicious scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream, talk, talk, talk, and, best of all, be sprinkled with fairy dust.

This will be my fourth fairy dust sprinkling.  The first time I had the fairy dust sprinkled on a manuscript, which my agent sold to Knopf/Random House weeks later.  Ooh!  That fairy dust was something else!

But I have to admit that the second and the third sprinklings proved disappointing.  I had the bound galleys of that same book sprinkled the following year, and while the book got a couple of lovely reviews, it hardly made a noticeable splash in the publishing world. Then the year after that, I was emboldened to ask for love - and didn't get it.  Had I become somehow impervious to the powers of fairy dust?  Had I, like the Fisherman's Wife of the fairy tale, been too greedy? Asked too much?

Yet now that I think about it, the fairy dust worked both of those times, after all, just in a different way and with a longer time lapse than I had expected.  My book Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters has been selected by the Olathe School District in Kansas as the selection for its Families Read Every Day program later this month: they are buying 14,000 (!) copies of the books to give to every student from kindergarten to sixth grade in the entire school district and flying me in to do five days of school visits. Woohoo!

And love? I've reconnected with my family in a deep and satisfying way, and my year and a half at DePauw has brought me wonderful new friendships, and this past Christmas my life was so crammed to bursting with wonderful old friendships that my heart almost aches with the fullness of it all.

So I'm ready for fairy dust tomorrow. I don't know exactly what it will me bring me this year. But I'm trusting that it will bring me something beautiful.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Thank you, whatever comes."

The thing I hate most in life is uncertainty.  I feel that I can deal with anything, so long as I know what it is I'm dealing with.  When I was dating my not-yet husband decades ago, I remember saying to him, "Are we going to get married, or are we going to break up?  Because if we're going to get married, I'm going to start liking you a lot.  And if not. . . not."  I went through years of infertility before I had my two boys, and all I wanted was to know how it was going to come out. I could be happy as a mother, and I could be happy bringing joy to my life in other ways - but which was it going to be?

But alas, uncertainty is inescapable in life.  When I was seeing a therapist during a particularly hard time a few years ago, she tried to teach me to be willing to live in the space of the unknown.  Her proposed mantra for me was "It may, or it may not."  As in: "This thing you want most of all in the world may happen. Or it may not"; "This thing you fear most of all in the world may happen. Or it may not."

It was exceedingly hard to make myself look at my life in this way!

I'm facing a new year now that is going to have more than its share of uncertainty, as I transition in June back from Indiana to Colorado and face some questions about the future for my family.  So I'd better learn to let go of my need to control my reality and accept that it will be some time before I even know what that reality will be.

So of course yesterday, on New Year's Eve, I sat down with my little notebook for the new year and made some instructions to myself on how to live with uncertainty.  I came up with two thoughts:

1. Don't spend enormous amounts of time trying to decide in advance how to react to possible scenarios that may never even emerge - and which I won't even know how I feel about until they do emerge.

2. But do try to put myself in a position of health and strength better to face whatever happens in my life. This means focusing on physical health (daily exercise, healthy food choices); financial health (continue to pay down my mortgage and keep a savings cushion); career health (move heaven and earth to get a next book contract - or two or three); social health (prioritize friendship by making a concerted effort to connect with dear friends throughout the year); mental health (for me, the key to sanity is a clean, tidy, uncluttered home); spiritual health (church attendance, prayer).

This way, whatever comes to me in 2013, maybe I can meet it with calmness and cheer. I'm replacing my mantra of "It may, or it may not" with a line of Ezra Pound's I've always loved: "Thank you, whatever comes."

Oh universe, oh Holy Spirit, oh future that is to be: thank you.