Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ

Today is the pub day of my newest book child, Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ, the fourth title in the Franklin School Friends chapter book series.
Simon appears as Kelsey's reading contest rival in Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; he's Annika's Sudoku contest rival in Annika Riz, Math Whiz; and he is a competitive racer in Izzy Barr, Running Star. When it was Simon's turn to star in his own book, I asked myself: "What problem could a kid have who is good at everything?" And the answer was immediately clear: "That he's good at everything."

Simon is a very bright kid who has a wide range of intellectual and creative interests. He genuinely loves to read, and adores math, and savors playing the violin. And he shines as a speller because of his love affair with words, the longer and harder the better. But his best friend, Jackson, is getting tired of losing at everything to Simon - and when Simon tries letting Jackson win, Jackson gets even madder. Other kids start calling Simon "Super Simon" and then "Super Duper Pooper Simon." What is poor Simon to do? Hide his talents from his classmates? Pretend not to care about all the things that are dear to his heart?

His story ended up being very dear to my own heart. I wrote it during the blissful summer of 2014 when I taught at Hollins, sharing it with the students in my graduate chapter-book writing class. My son Gregory helped me come up the "longest-word-in-the-world" that Simon exults in spelling, and Gregory also served as the only ghost-writer I've ever employed, providing some language for the video gaming action in two scenes; the book is dedicated to him. And Simon is just so sweet, so eager to learn and perplexed that others don't share his affinity for the life of the mind.

So I send him out into the world with an extra-protective hug today.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"I Want Your Life!"

Yesterday I taught a writing workshop for young authors, hosted by the Education Nonprofit Corporation and held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Mine was the two-and-a-half hour class for eighteen bright, motivated third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. They were a delight.

One of the sweetest moments in this sweet day came when one of the other presenters there stopped me to say that she still remembered a motivational talk I gave for a Society of Children's Book Writers conference well over a decade ago. In that talk I shared how I juggle being a professor of philosophy with being a prolific author of children's books,  with my beloved hourglass as a prop to demonstrate my "hour a day" writing system.

As this person heard my talk, she told herself, "I want this woman's life!" And then she proceeded to go out and get it. She went back to graduate school, earned an advanced degree, teaches classes at CU-Denver, and has published her poetry.

I was touched and thrilled. For I so identify with her desire to change her life on the model of another life she found herself coveting. I do this myself all the time. I even "collect" lives in my little notebook, so I'll have touchstones at the ready for the kind of life I want to live. My motto has long been "Don't envy, emulate."

When I look at the people I most want to be, one commonality is that they all fill their lives with creative joy. In fact, the person I envy most is a fellow writer who has published very little, as she works full-time as a teacher, has a young child, and is pursuing extremely ambitious and complex writing projects. What I envy her for is that she teaches with out-of-the-box originality, mothers with dazzling creative energy, and prioritizes her writing even if she doesn't prioritize seeking publication. I look at her and think, "I want that person's life!" And then I make lists of things I can do to try to come closer to my ideal.

So I'm grateful I got to be a life role model for someone else, as so many other creative souls have been life role models for me.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Walking the Dog, Walking with God

My church here in Boulder, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, has this as its mission statement: To openly share creative opportunities to grow in Christ's love through worship, fellowship, service, and learning. The word "creative" is important to us. Our church is filled with people who love using their creativity to get closer to God and to one another. One of the most creative is my pew mate, Rebecca Glancy. (Church members are NOT creative about where we sit: we all sit in the same spots every single week, and my chosen spot is with Rebecca and her family.)

Rebecca writes and directs original Christmas programs for our youth each year. She preaches inspirational guest sermons for our congregation and at twice-a-month services held at the nearby Meridian retirement community. She and I both wrote many puppet scripts for several years for a children's program called "Where the Wild Things Worship." And she also writes delightful devotions which she shares on her blog.

Her current meditation series is called "Walking the Dog, Walking with God," daily reflections on what she's learned about faith, and about herself, from walking her family dog, Lexi. Here's one of my favorites (I always love when people find seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture and probe them to find a deeper underlying truth):

Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.” –Luke 10:4
I follow Jesus’s advice when I walk Lexi: we don’t greet anyone on the road. (I don’t take a purse or bag, either, but I do wear sandals in the summertime.) Lexi’s greeting is so enthusiastic as to be perilous. She jumps and writhes around and is likely to knock someone down or tangle him in her leash. Also, she can’t control her bladder when she’s excited. Very few people want to be greeted like that; most neighbors just want to pat a calm, friendly dog on the head as they pass by. So Lexi and I stand aside or cross the street when we see people coming. Jesus tells a story about a priest and a Levite who cross over to the other side of the road (Luke 10:30-35). They are criticized for being unneighborly. Perhaps my neighbors think I’m unneighborly, too. Is Jesus saying contradictory things in Luke 10? I don’t think so. When we walk with God, we’re supposed to focus on him. We’re not supposed to get distracted. Stopping to chat along the road was a distraction for Jesus’s disciples (for Lexi, too). However, we’re not supposed to be so focused on our religious practice (like the priest and the Levite, who feared becoming ceremonially unclean) that we fail to love our neighbors. Walking with God means knowing when to cross over and when to stop.
Dear God, Show me when to cross the road and when to stop when I’m walking with you. Amen
Today Rebecca invited me to contribute a guest meditation, as she knows I'm a fellow faithful walker of our family's little dog Tank. So here it is. And if you ever want a pew to sit in on a Sunday morning in Boulder, St. Paul's is at the corner of Grinnell and Gillaspie, and some creative people will be eager to welcome you.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Fun + Fun = More Fun

I've been trying to make it a priority to maximize creative joy in my life, and actually, just to maximize FUN in any form. I learned this from a student at Hollins University when I taught there summer before last. You can either meet with a student to talk about her chapter-book-in-progress (fun in its own right) in your bare little office, OR over ice cream at the sweet place up the road, sitting outside on a bench under a tree on a perfect summer afternoon. Which should you pick?

My life strategy now is to pick the option that involves ice cream.

So when I received a grant to do research on the manuscripts of Eleanor Estes at the University of Connecticut (fun in its own right), I asked myself: how can I make this fun thing even more fun?

Answer: time the trip so that I could head down from Storrs to NYC afterward on the very weekend that a friend's play was being produced there. My friend Sandy Asher, whom I see every year at the children's literature festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, had her one-act, one-actor play, Walking to America, selected for performance in this year's Solo Festival. Her goal was to sell out the theater so she could obtain a second night: she ended up with SIX. And I was there for one of them.

I took myself to the city from Hartford via Peter Pan bus. I stayed two nights with another writer friend, whom I first met at the poetry writing retreat I attended for many years, in her adorable, tiny book-and-teapot-filled apartment on York Avenue and 64th Street. We attended Sandy's fabulous play together, as well as wandering all around Central Park where I paid a visit to Hans Christian Andersen.

For extra fun, I reconnected with a former CU student whose brilliant creative writing thesis I advised over a decade ago; we spent hours at two different vegan cafes talking, talking, talking. I had lunch with my editor, Margaret Ferguson at FSG, and iced chocolate with my agent, Steve Fraser (meeting him under the clock at Grand Central Station, something I've always wanted to do). I spent one night with my dear grade-school friend Kim at her cozy home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. And I took myself to the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland exhibit at the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue.

I even watched the lunar eclipse on an esplanade overlooking the East River. I really can't take credit for what the moon chooses to do, or not to do, but I watched it with eyes ready to feast on any fun that comes their way. Because fun plus fun equals more fun.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Buried Treasures: Archival Research on Eleanor Estes

In my career as a children's literature scholar, I have published several articles on the work of mid-twentieth century children's author Eleanor Estes, who received three Newbery Honor awards (for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses) and the 1952 Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye. In fact, it is fair to say that I am the world's foremost living Eleanor Estes scholar - simply because hardly anybody else is doing any work nowadays on Eleanor Estes at all.

But you can't call yourself the world's foremost living Eleanor Estes scholar unless you've done archival work on Eleanor Estes, poring over her manuscripts and her editorial correspondence for insights into her creative process. So I needed to do that. And the last golden week of September, I did.

Many of Estes's papers are housed at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut; Estes was a native of West Haven, Connecticut, which became the fictionalized Cranbury of the Moffat and Pye books. My friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino, who always has excellent ideas, told me to apply for one of their travel grants for visiting scholars. I did, and received one, thanks to two scholar friends who wrote generous letters in support of my application.

So off I flew to Connecticut for a delicious, delightful, delectable week of doing nothing but reading box after box after box of Eleanor Estes materials in the lovely, peaceful reading room at the Dodd Research Center.

Every day I would arrive precisely at 9:00 and enter the reading room, taking with me only my pad of paper, paper, and cell phone (for taking photos of certain documents): no pens allowed!

The special collections librarians would bring one box at a time to my little table:
And I'd sit there hour after hour, taking notes:
Here, a few snippets:

Letter from Elisabeth Hamilton, Estes's first editor at Harcourt:
"I do agree with you about Disney. .  I've never seen many Disney pictures, but judging from one or two I can't imagine he would do anything nice with The Hundred Dresses."

Western Union telegram from Margaret McElderry, Estes's second editor, August 31, 1950:

Oh, why don't editors send authors Western Union telegrams today to acknowledge a book's arrival?

And, finally, this from one of Estes's speeches:
After showing the manuscript of her first book, The Moffats, to her New York Public Library supervisor, the towering and terrifying Miss Anne Carroll Moore, Estes received this response: "Well, Mrs. Estes, now that you have gotten this book out of your system, go back to being a good children's librarian." !!!

I read, and I read. My notes grew to 25 pages, with dozens of photos taken as well. Whenever I needed a break, I wandered over to the Bookworms Cafe in the UConn Babbidge Library across the plaza and bought myself a raspberry croissant or yogurt parfait. I also had lunch one day with two UConn children's literature faculty, guest-taught my friend Lisa's creative writing course at nearby Eastern Connecticut State, and gave a "University Hour" lecture there. Friday afternoon, my work completed, I celebrated by taking myself to tour the adjoining Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses in Hartford:
Alas, there is no Estes house open to the public to visit. If there had been, you can bet I would have been there, clipboard poised, ready to do my duty as the world's foremost (well, just about only) living Eleanor Estes scholar.