Sunday, June 12, 2016

Crossing Off Bucket List Items (I Didn't Even Know I Had)

In the past few days at the Children's Literature Association conference, I crossed off several "bucket list" items, things that I wanted most to experience before I die. Strangest (and best) of all, these weren't even items on my actual bucket list, as they were things I had never dreamed were possible.

Although I'm a children's book author, I come to the conference each year as a children's literature scholar, presenting papers not about my own books but about books by other authors I've long loved: Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maud Hart Lovelace, Eleanor Estes, Betty MacDonald, Rosamond du Jardin. But this year, another scholar on the program presented a paper about me.

Prof. Jean Stevenson of the University of Minnesota-Deluth frequently presents papers drawn from her archival research at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. It just so happens that I donate my own manuscripts to the Kerlan Collection. So this year Jean poked around into those materials and shared her findings in a conference session. It was bizarre, and humbling, to sit in the room and see my scribbled outlines, handwritten manuscript pages, and correspondence with my editor Beverly Reingold, there up on the screen of Jean's Power Point. I felt a bit exposed - appearing in public wearing only what ladies used to call their "foundation garments" - but mainly just so honored and grateful. Thank you, Jean, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving this loving attention to my work.

If that weren't enough, I gave my own presentation on my idol, Jeanne Birdsall, creator of the Penderwicks series. I was a judge of the National Book Award in 2005, in the category of Literature for Young People; Jeanne's first book in the series was our winner, and I think it's fair to say that I was the judge who loved it first and most.
This year the brilliant scholar Anne Phillips of Kansas State University created a ChLA panel on the "family story in the 21st century," centering on The Penderwicks, and invited Jeanne Birdsall to join us as the guest of honorSo in the last session on the last day of the conference, I gave my paper, "Exclusive vs. Inclusive Families: L'Engle's Austins vs. Birdsall's Penderwicks," with Jeanne sitting right next to me.The hug she gave me afterward is something I'll take with me to my grave,
Then that evening, at the awards banquet, I received the organization's Edited Book Award for my collection, Ethics and Children's Literature, a labor of love born out of a symposium I organized during my time at DePauw.
Shortly I'll fly back to my Boulder life, where I'll start dreaming and scheming about next year's ChLA conference in Tampa (theme: "Imagined Futures") and the year after that in San Antonio (theme: "Water"). But every conference for me has the theme "Happiness."

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Books and Bliss in Columbus, Ohio

Greetings from Columbus! I'm here attending the annual meeting of the (scholarly) Children's Literature Association conference. This might be the 20th one I've attended; certainly I've attended heaps and heaps, and in 2012-13, I served as the organization's president. This is always my happiest week of the year.

The conference officially begins today, but yesterday was the all-day meeting for the Executive Board (of which I'm no longer a member) and of the Phoenix Award Committee (on which I'm now serving the first of a three-year term). The Phoenix Award Committee gives an award to a children's book published 20 years ago which did not win a major award in the year of its original publication but is judged, by our committee, to merit one now.

I arose early and took myself on a delightful walk from our Sheraton hotel right across from the Ohio Statehouse to the picturesque neighborhood of German Village, with its historic houses and brick sidewalks.

The walk terminated in Schiller Park: how many major American cities have a park named after a poet? Here is its charming "Girl with an Umbrella" fountain, as well as the imposing statue of Friedrich Schiller.

Of course, along the way I found a German bakery/cafe for hot chocolate and whipped cream, and cinnamon-crumb-topped coffee cake.

Back at the hotel, it was time to hurry to the Phoenix Committee meeting. All year long, I've been reading titles published in 1998 in preparation for deliberating about the 2018 award (we work two years ahead for various logistical reasons). By the time of the conference we were down to our ten finalists. We spent the entire morning lovingly discussing each one, celebrating its strengths, noting its weaknesses, and then reached a consensus decision on the winner. I'm not allowed to disclose it at this time, but trust me, it's a wonderful book, The rest of the day-long meeting was taken up in phone calls to the winners selected last year and plans for next year's festivities.

In the evening, I had dinner with two beloved once-a-year conference friends, and stayed up late talking to one of them about our shared love for Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl.

All this before the conference actually begins, with the registration table open in another hour-and-a-half - just enough time for a quick walk to the German Village, and more hot chocolate, with more whipped cream....

Monday, June 6, 2016

Finding an Hour a Day

Well, one day - ONE! - after posting my weepy, whiny complaint about how I can no longer find my golden hour of the early morning to write, I sat down with my little strategizing notebook and solved my problem, just like that.

The problem: my house is very small and very crowded, and my darling two-year-old toddler-in-residence now gets up unpredictably early. I've built my whole entire career on writing for an hour first thing in the morning. So it's now impossible to pursue my career as a children's book author, right?


To find my solution I began by listing all my woefully  imperfect options, with my litany of reminders why each one wasn't going to work:

1) Get my hour later in the day - oh, but I hate not starting my day off with writing! Once that crucial early morning time slot has passed, it's too easy to talk myself into thinking I might as well do my writing "tomorrow."

2) Slip away to a cafe and spend my hour there - oh, but that would mean getting dressed, and driving somewhere, and spending money, and what if they don't have a comfy couch, or what if they do and some other author has already claimed it?

3) Get up at 4:00 - oh, but that's sooooo early, even for me!

4) Try to make someone else take care of Kataleya - oh, but her father is off at work and her mother has been up many times all night long with a newborn baby, and it hardly seems fair to rouse her again.

5) Let Kataleya fend for herself when she awakes - oh, but who could recommend that for a very active and mischievous two-year-old who every day finds a new way to foil our child-proofing?

6) Give up writing. I don't even need to list why this option is unacceptable to me.

I realized that I could stare at this list for the rest of my days, and it wasn't going to change. These are the options. I had to pick one of them. The best one, all in all, was #3. As my literary hero, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote about his own pursuit of a writing career in tandem with a career in the British Post Office: "There must be early hours, and I had not as yet learned to love early hours." Okay. Early hours it would be, and I'd make myself learn to love them.

Unless. . . I reminded myself that actually Kataleya usually sleeps until 6 or 6:30 or even 7. There was only one morning - really, only one - when she was up at 5:30. It's true that now that I know she may wake up, I can't have the utter, spellbound, writing concentration of yore. But maybe I can talk myself into ignoring this dread possibility and write my best, anyway.

So, a new option appeared on the list:
7) Get up at 5:00. Don't check email. Don't check Facebook. Don't do anything but write as fully and fiercely as you can for one hour. If Kataleya wakes up during that hour,  yes, it's a disappointment. But life has disappointments in it, and only whiny babies wallow in them.

Problem solved. This morning I got up at 5:00. I worked for a glorious hour on the keynote address I'm giving in a week and a half at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop in Utah. I realized that I already had the talk well in hand from previous hour-a-day stints, so in today's hour of intense concentration I got the rest of it in good enough shape that, although I plan to do plenty of tweaking between now and then, if I had to give it tomorrow, that would be perfectly fine. Hooray!

Next time I have a vexing problem, I think I'll skip right over the self-pity stage and go straight to finding an imperfect but workable solution. I mean, why not?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

My Newest New Life Ever

Many of you know that I begin a new life on the first day of each month, a life that will revolve around creative joy and dazzling productivity. For a few days, I do indeed dazzle myself, but then the new life peters out and I'm back to my usual slothful, sluggish ways. Still, I owe everything I've ever achieved to those first few days of each month times twelve months in the year.

This month my new life needs to be the newest new life ever. I really think I'm done with academia this time, done with juggling dual careers as college professor and children's book author, done with traveling back and forth between Colorado and Indiana, done with ripping my heart out as I make each transition. I'm back in Colorado to stay. My children's book writing career will finally come first. I've recommitted to my family. "This one," I've said, pointing to my Colorado life. "This is the life I want to live."

So now I have to figure out exactly how to live it.

My chief structural challenge is that I live in a very small house that is filled with many creatures whom I love, and who love me: one husband, one son, one-daughter-in-law, two adorable granddaughters (two years old and two-and-a-half weeks old), a needy dog, and an aging cat. I'm the chief dog walker and toddler-entertainer. I guess I'm the matriarch, the mover-and-shaker, or maybe, to switch metaphors, the stabilizing presence that keeps it all from moving and shaking apart. But I'm also, or at least I want to be, a writer. That's always been the biggest part of who I am.

My usual answer for how to juggle competing demands in my life has been to wake up at 5 a.m. and spend the first, best hour of the day writing. Then I can spend the rest of the day however the universe (or my employer, or my family) wants me to spend it. I've "paid myself first," and the books have gotten written, slowly, surely, at a pace that ensured victory for a certain famous tortoise.

Lately, however, this isn't working for me. Kataleya can wake up at 5 or 5:30, when her daddy is already off at work and her mommy is trying to get needed sleep after being up several times at night with baby Madilyne. I can no longer count on my undisturbed hour. Should I get up at 4 a.m.? That is awfully early, even for me. And there's something about being unable to COUNT on my hour that consumes me with such nervous anxiety that I can't write.

Obviously, the solution is to take an hour for myself LATER in the day, leaving the house to do it. That is truly all I need to do. Leave! Go somewhere else! For just one hour! I could go to the local branch of the public library, but they don't open until 10, and if 4 a.m. is too early, 10 a.m. is too late. I could go to the nearest cafe, but it doesn't have couches, and I love writing on a couch. I could accept offers from friends to come write at their houses, but it's so easy to slip into chatting instead.

One way or another, I have to find a way to get an hour for myself, say, from 8:30-9:30, on some convenient couch with hot chocolate handy. Surely this can be done. And if I do it, my NEW new life will be my best new life ever.