Friday, April 28, 2017

Back from Wisconsin

There are so many places in the world that I would be happy living. One of them, it turns out, is the Coolee region of southwestern Wisconsin, centered on the city of LaCrosse, where I just spent a lovely week speaking to children from six elementary schools (Galesville, Ettrick, North Woods, Whitehall, West Salem, and Northside), as well as visiting two public libraries (Galesville and LaCrosse), and giving a talk at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.

It's so pretty in the Midwest! I think of Carney in Maud Hart Lovelace's Carney's House Party, thinking that her Vassar classmates "haven't any idea how nice the Middle West is."

What is nicer than to walk along the banks of the mighty Mississippi in a park designed by Frederick Olmsted?

Or to wander through tiny towns like Galesville and Whitehall, with populations of fewer than 2000 people but yet boasting thriving downtowns with appealing cafes and markets? Here I stand overlooking Galesville, during a fascinating tour from my librarian friend Winna.
And meeting the town founder, Mr. Gale.
The children were uniformly delightful. My talks were a nice mix of my usual meet-the-author assembly (now complete with much-admired slides of my cat, dog, and grandbabies) and writing workshops for smaller groups on the principle of "Show, don't tell," These led to much hilarity as child volunteers acted out scenarios of being sad, mad, and glad, while the rest of us took notes on their facial expressions and body language. Great slumping shoulders, sad ones! Great clenched fists, mad ones! Great leaping into the air, glad ones!

I hadn't realized that I would be so close to Pepin, Wisconsin, site of Little House in the Big Woods, or to the homestead of Caddie Woodlawn, dear to me ever since I played the role of stuck-up cousin Annabelle in a fifth-grade dramatization. So now I have to plan a return trip to make that pilgrimage.

What a big wonderful world this is! I'm glad I had the chance to spend a week in this sweet part of it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Off to Wisconsin

Last July I received an email from the children's librarian in Galesville, Wisconsin, inquiring whether Cody Harmon, King of Pets was going to be the concluding title in my Franklin School Friends series, or if additional titles were planned. She explained that she has a section of her library for "series" books (with "series" defined as "more than five books"). Should she move Franklin School Friends into the series section or keep it with the regular collection?

I wrote back expressing astonishment at such heroic efforts to shelve my books correctly. She and I then fell into a witty email correspondence, as she happens to be one of the funniest human beings I have ever encountered. I couldn't resist dropping a hint that I'd be interested in coming to Wisconsin to do some author visits at local schools (and also admire my appropriately shelved books in the Galesville public library). Wina (pronounced Winna) passed my name onto a school librarian friend, who was indeed interested in sharing my services with her teachers and students, but lacked the budget to bring an author all the way from Colorado.

Oh, well. I tried.

But - wait - I really did want this to happen - and Galesville isn't that far from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where a new friend of mine teaches in the philosophy department (a friend I met last summer when I gave a talk at the American  Society of Aesthetics in Santa Fe). What if - ooh - what if the university would be willing to host me as a visitor? I could be both visiting professor AND visiting author, as I had recently done at Coastal Carolina University and Carleton College?

So tomorrow I fly to Minneapolis, where I'll rent a car to drive two-and-a-half hours to LaCrossse, Wisconsin. Then I'll spend all of next week presenting to children at six different elementary schools: Galesville, Ettrick, North Woods, Whitehall, West Salem, and Northside, as well as at two public libraries: Galesville and LaCrosse. I'll also give a talk at the university. And meet Wina at last!

All of this thanks to one librarian who cared enough about how to shelve my books in her library to write a hilarious email to me. And to one brilliant and generous philosophy professor friend who took time out of her enormously busy schedule to write a grant proposal to fund my presentation at her university and outreach from the university to the community.

Wisconsin, here I come!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"What You Do Most Is What You Do Best"

I promise I won't write every single blog post for the rest of my life about poetry, poetry, poetry.

But I'm still loving every minute of my poem-a-day commitment for National Poetry Month. Today, April 13, I now have 13 new poems that I've written, and I've noticed a pattern.

I'm getting better.

Even though I am doing this only for its own sake, just for the sheer creative joy of the writing itself, it's hard to break a lifelong habit of self-appraisal. I know which poems I've written are just so-so, in my own assessment, and which ones have a little spark of something special - perhaps six words strung together in a fresh way - or one burst-out-into-a-chuckle flash of humor - or some tiny insight about the human condition that may not wow anyone else but records something I want to keep in my heart. Lately, I've had more of these moments, more poems I feel like sharing with the universe.

This makes sense. I recently heard the motto "What you do most is what you do best," and it does seem to be true. Even though I have a long way to go before I've logged the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to achieve mastery in a field, just the ten or so hours I've logged this month have made a difference. I'm a better poet than I was two weeks ago. (And a happier person.)

It's self-reinforcing, too. The more I love writing poetry, the more time I spend writing it. The more time I spend writing, the better I get. The better I get, the more satisfaction I derive from both activity and product. The more satisfaction I get, the more I keep doing it. . . .

I know I can't sustain this schedule of poem-a-day writing. I'm letting many other more urgent pursuits fall by the wayside, beguiled into tarrying with my muse. My current plan is to finish out the month of poetic obsession, then turn to neglected articles and books, to preparing the course I'm teaching this summer in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins, and other tasks.

But I'm going to sign up for another month-long poem-a-day challenge before the year is out. Poetry was my first love as a child. Maybe it will be my last love as I age. I'm grateful to the girl I was for all those poems she wrote. I like to think she'd be happy to know her future self would still be writing poems. I wish I could send her one to see if she'd like it. But even if she didn't, she'd be pleased that I was still putting one word down on the page after another, for every day of a happy April, fifty years later.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Wanna Have Fun? Write a Poem Every Day!

It's Day 6 of my commitment to write a poem every day this month under the guidance and encouragement of poet Molly Fisk (see previous post for delicious details). I can now report: these six days of poetry writing have been utterly transformative.

March was a month of malaise for me. I wrote dutifully on revisions for a children's literature scholarly paper, following February's dutiful revisions of an academic philosophy article. But I wrote nothing creative, nothing fresh and new and daring and different, nothing just for the joy of it, nothing just for me.

Now every morning I hop out of bed to race to my computer to see Molly's choice of the prompt for the day. You can see them rendered photographically on her website. The list so far:
April 1:  Where are you going next?
April 2: In reflected light
April 3: Praising camouflage
April 4: What am I going to wear?
April 5: Do you want to demolish something?
April 6: Are you going to grow old?

I think the prompt that produced the best poems from us as a group (there are eleven poets signed up with Molly for the month's challenge) was "praising camouflage." I think I'm fondest of the poems I wrote today and yesterday, on demolition and aging (though I'm pleased with my camouflage poem, too, which I wrote in a child's voice).

I was stuck for a while yesterday, thinking about what I might want to "demolish." I've found it's helpful to un-stick myself by starting with some research - in this case, internet searching on "dynamite," which unearthed this gem from a website called

Q: How can you get dynamite?

A: You first get a federal explosives license. You will need to prove three things: that you are a good person, that you need the license for professional reasons, and that you have a safe, secure place to store your explosives before you use them.

Ooh! How good a person would I need to be to be in order to be able to purchase some dynamite? How would I prove my goodness? My poetic muse afire, I busily scribbled for an hour, as happy (as Grandpa used to say) "as if I'd had good sense." 

Through the poetry challenge I've already made several new friends. One of them, when I messaged her to praise her exquisite camouflage poem, wrote me back to ask if by any chance I was the Claudia Mills who was the author of the article "Redemption through the Rural: The Teen Novels of Rosamond du Jardin," which she was reading with another discussion group. And I was! 

Her group focuses on the novels of a different mid-century author, the Beany Malone books of Lenora Mattingly Weber, which I don't remember reading, though I adored a different one of Weber's books: Don't Call Me Katie Rose. I couldn't find any Beany Malone books listed in the Boulder Public Library catalog, and even the University of Colorado libraries had little to offer. So I turned to Image Cascade Publishing, which offers reprints of many beloved girls' books of the past, otherwise all but unavailable.The full set of Beany titles - 14 books - totals a whopping $149 plus $10 shipping. I hesitated for a moment and then went ahead and clicked to purchase. Why not?
After all, I'm on a joy roll this month. Poetry AND new friends AND a new series of mid-twentieth century girl books to read? 

Go for it!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Poem-a-Day for National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and in the nick of time I signed up for the perfect National Poetry Month activity. I've committed to writing a poem a day, for the 30 days of April, in an eleven-member group organized by poet Molly Fisk.

The group works like this:
1. Every evening Molly posts a prompt for the next day, which we are free to use, or not. (Oh, but writing from prompts, I finally discovered ten years ago, is SO MUCH FUN.)
2. Then the next day we have all day to ruminate on the prompt and write our poem.
3. We post our poem on the classroom bulletin board.
4. We read each others' poems, and if so moved, post brief responses, with one rule only: appreciation, not critique. I LOVE THIS RULE.

It's only April 2 now, but already I feel new creative energy stirring within me. The first prompt was:
"Where are you going next?" I think my own poem on that prompt was just okay, but some of the other poets' offerings were brilliant and beautiful. It's fascinating to see all the different ways eleven poets can respond to the stimulus of the same five words.

Today's prompt is: "In reflected light." Hmm. What would I write? I'm not gifted at close observation of nature, or arresting turns of phrase, and this prompt seemed best suited to someone with those aptitudes. But then a memory forced its way to the surface of my consciousness, and then another. . .

Here's my poem. You don't have to like it, but I do! This month I'm trying hard not to criticize my poet self, I'm just appreciating her.


I made a million dollar bet once with my husband
that he had left the lights on in the car.
I could see them gleaming in the parking lot,
unassailable proof that I was right.

But I was wrong. Their dazzling beams
were reflected from the headlamps of the facing car.
A million dollars lost like that!

I made it back, though, when I bet two million to a friend
who said Billy Joel’s marriage to Christy Brinkley wouldn’t last.
I had “Uptown Girl” and “For the Longest Time”
as irrefutable evidence that I was right.

Because nothing lasts forever, for the purposes of the bet,
we defined “last” as “at least two years.”
And I won. A million dollars richer now!

That car’s been sold, that marriage ended,
as Christy and Billy’s ended, too.
But I’d still bet on a light reflected in the darkness.
I’d still bet on a song from a car radio
heard through an open window, on a summer night.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Day Before April 2017

Today is the day before April, the day for me to reprint my now-traditional day-before-April post. 

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1959). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family holiday. Some years ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually gave my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day Before April. Maybe someday I will.

In honor of the day, I'm going to go buy some flowers - daffodils, probably. Seven years ago, when I first wrote this post, I took daffodils to my mother, who was in a rehabilitation center after a fall that broke her hip and arm; she died two months later. My daffodils today are in memory of her.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Every Day Is "The Last Time Ever"

I'm back from my annual trip to the Children's Literature Festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg. This was the 49th year of the festival, and I believe it was my 20th year of attending. Held during the university's spring break, the festival takes over the entire campus, bringing in dozens of authors to talk to thousands of children/parents/teachers bused in from all over western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

The festival now has a new, young, energetic director, with ideas galore for moving forward into the festival's next half-century. Already change was in the air: lots of fabulous new authors participating this year, and correspondingly fewer returnees - maybe half-and-half old-and-new.

We still observed beloved traditions.

The ardent walkers in the group had our Sunday morning "walk to see the cows":
After a busy day of talking to young readers on Monday, we headed off to Brown's Shoe Fit, the old-timey downtown shoe store, for our shoe-buying spree:
And, of course, we adored having the chance to talk with so many kids who love reading books as much as we love writing them.Here, two members of the group who wore the best T-shirts I saw at the festival:
But I did have a sense of prophetic melancholy. This time many of my dearest festival friends weren't there: some no longer living, some no longer traveling, some not invited back this time. Next year, that could be me.

Savoring a twinge of sadness, I exclaimed to two author friends, as we stood in the lobby of the university's beautiful library: "This may be the last time the three of ever stand in this exact same spot talking together!"

One of them said: "Um, Claudia? This is actually the FIRST time the three of us have ever stood in this exact same spot talking together." And she was right.

EVERY moment is the first-ever moment just like itself, and the last-ever, too. It's true that those Warrensburg cows do look awfully familiar, year after year. But each time I've walked to greet them with a different assortment of companions, and even the same friends have new stories to share as we catch up on the year that has passed since the previous cow pilgrimage.

So there isn't any point in grieving over the inevitable fleetingness of each moment's pleasures. EVERY moment will pass and never come again. I might as well savor EVERY moment for itself, as I'm living it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Write Out" at the Denver Botanic Gardens

I have a group of children's book author friends, living all over the Denver/Boulder metropolitan area, who love to do "write-ins" at each others' houses. Today one of them hosted, instead, a "write-out." Five of us met at the Denver Botanic Gardens for a day of writing together - well, writing, and talking, and walking, and eating.

We arrived as the gardens opened at 9 and set ourselves up in the indoor cafe.
I used my writing time brainstorming ideas for a brand-new book. I have a long way to go before I can pen the first line, but today I got as far as tentatively deciding that the book will be "the best, truest portrait of a friendship ever." I even have an idea of the theme - and the characters - so all I need is a plot: that is to say, every detail of the actual story itself. Still, I was pleased with myself by the time we set out for a walk through the gardens at 11:30.

Spring was much in evidence:

But even if the weather hadn't been balmy, we could have restored flagging spirits in the tropical conservatory.
One of the most magical parts of the day, for me, was that I found my way to the gardens via bus - actually, three different buses. First I took the local Skip bus from my house in Boulder down to the connection point for the Flatirons Flyer express bus to Denver, and from Union Station in Denver I walked just two blocks to get the #10 bus which delivered me just two blocks from my destination. I felt so plucky! So light and unencumbered! I do love navigating the world without a car.

On the way home, I got off the #10 bus at the Civic Center and continued on the free Sixteenth Street Mall Shuttle. There a rapper dude on the bus struck up a conversation with me. He and another rider wanted to know the day's date; when I told them, he said to me, "You look like an author." !!!! Which is exactly what I am! He said that there was something about the way I enunciated my words that gave me away. He proceeded to recite one of his own rap compositions to me. I thought it was terrific. 

Back at Union Station, I bought myself a black raspberry ice cream cone before boarding the bus to return home to Boulder. If your project is joy, as mine is these days, you don't pass on the ice cream. You give yourself the gift of writing with friends, wandering past spring flowers, bus rides galore, AND ice cream. 

It was, after all, that kind of day.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Desperate Times Call for Joyful Measures

I've had a few personal and professional setbacks lately: nothing life-threatening, just a series of small heart-hurting personal and professional disappointments.

My new writing group didn't like the time-travel middle-grade book to which I've devoted a good bit of time over the last four years on multiple extensive revisions from the original version of 2013. When pressed to come up with something nice to say about it - anything at all - the best they could do was to congratulate me for being "brave" enough to share such a "rough" draft with them. Ouch!

My brand new book, The Trouble with Babies (book #3 in the Nora Notebooks series), is getting no attention whatsoever, the sad but not atypical fate of a family's third child. I'll post its cover here because I feel so sorry for it.

My house is feeling very small, its 1500 square feet currently occupied by six humans and two animals. Some of the humans and animals get along with each other less well than others. Lately I'm the one who gets along less well with all of them.

I was moping considerably this past weekend, trying to keep from sinking into that "everything in my life is completely hopeless" downward spiral. But then, inveterate planner that I am - ta-dah! - I made a plan! And I love my plan, as I always love my plans.

This plan is to take drastic steps - immediately - to infuse massive, intensive, mega-levels of joy into my life. I have no other choice right now. Joy is no longer an optional extra; it's a sanity-and-happiness preserving requirement.

So I made a list of all kinds of things I can do - pronto - that would bring me joy: joy with my family, joy in my work, and joy just for me.

Here are a few:

1. Bake cookies with my three-year-old granddaughter - ooh! cookies!
2. Do a craft project with this same little person that will involve serious amounts of glitter.
3. Have a picnic lunch with all of them, even if it's only outside on our postage-stamp-sized lawn.

1. Go to the Denver Botanic Gardens this coming Thursday with five other writer friends for a "Write Out" there (this is the same gang who often have write-ins at each other's houses).
2. Take myself on a writing retreat to my favorite bed-and-breakfast in Idaho Springs: Miners Pick.
3. Put a shot of amaretto - occasionally! - in my beloved writing beverage of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

1. Go to concerts at the university, international film festivals, theater outings, mountain hikes.
2. Read GREAT novels - Dickens, Trollope, Dumas, Hugo - huge books you can inhabit for weeks on end.
3. Stay alert for rock-bottom airfares and fly somewhere else - anywhere else - just for a day.

Desperate times, I've decided, call for joyful measures.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Learning from an Artist

I love being in the presence of phenomenally gifted creative people. I love it most of all when they are gifted in an art form different from my own: gifted filmmakers, composers, actors, painters. Then I can simply bask in awe of them, drawing inspiration from the beauty they create in the world, without having to submit to the inevitable self-denigration that would otherwise follow.

On Sunday afternoon I had the opportunity to hear an "art talk" at the Boulder Public Library by my friend Ina's daughter Zoey Frank, who is, in my view, not only a phenomenally gifted young artist, but an artist of genius. You can give yourself the gift of marveling at her brilliant paintings on her website, which showcases the dazzling evolutions of her style that she shared with us on Sunday.

Zoey began her training in a classical atelier, where she spent, she told us, four years learning "how to paint a single object under a single light source." The entire first year was spent only in drawing, followed by a year of painting only in shades of black and white. It wasn't until the fourth year that color was introduced. Like generations of painters before her, Zoey spent months in the Lourvre copying great masters with astonishing fidelity. This Rembrandt copy looks awfully like an original Rembrandt to me.
She then produced her own works of strikingly original subjects with the same meticulous attention to detail, like this one (my personal favorite) from a series of paintings of white garments hung against a white wall.
If I could paint like this, I'd spend the rest of my life painting nothing but white dresses. What on earth could be lovelier?

Not Zoey. She went on to an MFA program where she learned to paint in a whole new way. A course on "Time in Painting" encouraged her to capture the process of painting itself in her work, leaving remnants of earlier approaches to a subject in the painting itself, as shown in this breathtaking short video, Girl in Striped Shirt.

I tried to take notes as Zoey talked, but it was difficult as I couldn't bear to take my eyes off the images projected on the screen. But here are a few nuggets:

She had to "trick herself" out of her usual hyper-detailed style by choosing subjects impossible to render in the way she had been trained: e.g., still life arrangements that changed every day.

She sometimes sets herself the challenge of "making an interesting painting from something that isn't inherently interesting," like painting an abandoned table in a dimly lit studio basement.

She plays with different angles of approach, now realizing that "straight on and fully frontal" is merely the default angle for a painting: new possibilities emerge if an object is viewed from above, from below.

After spending so many years mastering the technique of exact rendering, it was hard to let herself do something that looks simpler - but isn't.

I came away from Zoey's talk wondering if I can trick myself into deviating from my own usual style, with which I've now had four decades of practice, not four years. Can I write an interesting story about something that isn't inherently interesting? Can I play with different angles of approach to a fictional narrative? Can I let myself do something that looks simpler but isn't?

Here, one more image from Zoey's recent work - oh, the lushness of that melon! Could I ever write a melon that would taste so good?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Ask, and Ye May Receive

As February draws to a close, I've now had two months on my 2017 resolution of submitting a new project - creative, scholarly, long, short - somewhere every single month. ("New" here doesn't mean completely new. I can return to an abandoned project from the past for further revisions. Heck, I can just drag out an abandoned project from the past and send it off, as is. "New" just means that I can't take the same project and submit it twelve different times.)

So far - admittedly, the year is young - I have kept the resolution. I sent off my February project - a massively revised philosophy paper on the topic of artistic integrity - to an aesthetics journal just two days ago. Hooray for me (I cheer for myself)! There are few things in my life that give me greater satisfaction than setting a goal for myself and attaining it (which is why I like having modest, attainable goals).

Here's what I've learned so far, after two months on the submission schedule.

If you submit more stuff, you get more rejections.

And if you submit more stuff, you get more acceptances.

The astonishingly prolific author Jane Yolen, who has published over 300 highly acclaimed books for young readers, posts cheerfully every day on Facebook about the constant negative and positive responses to her work she receives from the many editors to whom she submits. A typical day might net her two picture book rejections, and three acceptances for poems. The numbers in my stats are teensy-weensy compared to hers. But they are so much higher this year than they were last year, before I started the submission-a-month plan.

So far this year I've gotten four rejections: a (devastating) one on a proposed chapter book series to my beloved editor at my most beloved publisher, and three on a picture book biography. (Actually, both of those projects were submitted at the very end of 2016, but submitted in the spirit of my new resolution.) Rejections always sting. They always (for me at least) occasion self-doubt. Maybe I'm not really any good at this writing thing. Maybe I'm over the hill now! A has-been! A once-was! Yesterday's news!

But so far this year I've also gotten two acceptances. First, an offer from the beloved editor at the most beloved publisher for a stand-alone chapter book that would have been the first title in the proposed series. I wouldn't have gotten this acceptance if I hadn't submitted the larger project that received the rejection. So that submission actually yielded an acceptance as well as a rejection, a moment that hurt my heart and a moment that made my heart sing.

Second, I just heard that I got the travel grant I applied for to visit the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Eleanor Estes and Maud Hart Lovelace. Until two years ago, I had never applied for a grant. It had never even crossed my mind to do so. But then a friend encouraged me to apply for a travel grant to do Eleanor Estes research at the University of Connecticut - and I got it! And the trip was amazing! And I produced a paper from that research of which I'm very proud. So I applied for the Kerlan grant - and got it, too. Later this year I'll be off for a blissful week in Minneapolis.

Sometimes when you submit you get rejected. Sometimes when you apply you get accepted. But one thing I now know for sure: if you don't submit or apply, you can't possibly get anything. And my year still has ten more months of submissions to go.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

February in D.C.

I love trips that have everything in them: professional and creative growth and enrichment, connections and re-connections with friends new and old, chances to walk in beautiful places, and hot chocolate to drink. I'm just back from a trip to Washington, D.C., that offered all of these.

My official reason for the trip was the huge and amazing AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, which filled up the Washington Convention Center and nearby Marriott Hotel with some 12,000 (!) writers and poets for three days of panel discussions, keynote talks by world-famous writers, and a massive exhibit hall of displays by MFA programs, small literary journals, writing retreats and residences, and more. (Maybe I should sign up for the retreat in Reykjavik, Iceland?)

I had been asked to be on a panel of children's authors who are also university professors, titled "Children's Authors in the Academy." I have a policy of saying yes to all invitations - it's been a pretty good life strategy, all in all - but I did have a pang of worry when our panel was actually accepted for presentation. These days, when I no longer have a university salary or university-provided travel funds, I would have to pay for the whole trip myself: conference registration fee, airfare, lodging, meals, all of it. I prefer trips where I get paid to trips where I have to pay. What if I paid all that money and traveled all that distance, and only three or four people attended our panel?(Once I was on a panel with only ONE non-panel-member present as audience.)

But I had said I'd do it, so I did. And it was a totally wonderful trip.

Some two dozen people did show up to hear me and my two co-presenters, Virginia Zimmerman of Bucknell University and Anne Nesbet of the University of California at Berkeley. Afterward several of the younger women in the audience came up to tell us how glad they were to consider this kind of template for their future careers.

I sat in the enormous, gratifyingly crowded ballroom to hear (among others) Karen Joy Fowler, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates read and converse.

Because I posted my presence at the conference on Facebook, I met up with two new new friends: poet and children's book author Jacqueline Jules and philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, who teaches at Gallaudet and is now working on an MFA in poetry (I always feel such a bond with philosophers who write something other than philosophy).

I walked past the Capitol Building on a wintry morning.
I channeled Mr. Smith and made a pilgrimage to the statue of Mr. Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about living in a country deeply divided:

I wandered through the National Gallery, thankful that so many beautiful things exist in the world.
I met up with a librarian friend who now works as book buyer in the children's room of the fabulous bookstore Politics and Prose. In their cafe I treated myself to hot chocolate with strawberry whipped cream (with bits of real strawberries in it), as well as avocado and cucumber toast. (The cup was overflowing with whipped cream but I drank some before I remembered to take a picture of it in all its glory - but aren't those curled slices of cucumber glorious?)
I stayed with two dear friends (splitting my time between them): Robin and Lori, who both worked with me in the early 1980s at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. A third dear friend of those days, Rachel, drove up from Roanoke to join us. As Robin, Rachel, and I walked together through Brookside Gardens, near Silver Spring, early daffodils were starting to bloom, and the park's greenhouse offered azaleas at their peak of beauty. In my Maryland years I lived in the small town of Takoma Park, Maryland, which calls itself the City of Azaleas (others call it the People's Republic of Takoma).
On our final night together, we organized a reunion of the philosophers from the Institute, hosted by Lori at her beautiful house. Some of us hadn't seen each other for over thirty years. How young we were then! How much older we are now! And how grateful I am that we could all be together once again. The older I get, the more I crave a sense of continuity with my younger self, and the more it means to me to reach out across the years to her - especially on a trip rich with writing inspiration, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, daffodils and azaleas, and hot chocolate with strawberry whipped cream.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Submission a Month

My writing goal for 2017 is to submit something somewhere every single month. The "something" can be a children's book proposal, a completed children's book, a scholarly children's literature article, a philosophy article, a personal essay, a short how-to piece on craft, a grant application, a poem - any of these will count.

Right now (of course, it's only the start of February!), I am totally enamored of this plan. A month is just the right unit of time to accomplish a medium-sized task of this sort, or to make progress on a big-sized task (while also completing a small-sized task to serve as the month's submission). This plan will make me start every month with enthusiasm as a new project awaits. It will make me finish every month with an adrenaline surge as I sprint toward my self-imposed deadline.

In January, my submission was a grant application to the Kerlan Collection of children's literature at the University of Minnesota (where my own manuscripts are archived). The grant, if I receive it, would provide travel funds for me to visit the Kerlan Collection in Minneapolis and do research on the manuscripts and correspondence of two mid-20th-century children's authors on whom I've already published several articles: Eleanor Estes and Maud Hart Lovelace. Maybe I'll get the grant. Maybe I won't. But my goal for the year makes no reference to success. The goal is simply to submit.

That task took only an hour or two, so I spent the rest of the month blissfully revising a middle-grade novel I drafted during my second year as a visiting professor in Indiana: 2012-13. It's a time travel story where the magic mechanism is a cookie jar: you bake a period cookie and insert it into the jar, and it transports you into that period of the past. To return home again, you simply eat the cookie (unless your dog eats it first - spoiler alert for the big climax scene!). My writing group read the book several years ago; some of them loved it but one person hated it. On reflection, her hatred struck me as warranted. So I set the book aside. Then this past December - after a brainstorming breakfast with my brilliant mystery writer friend Leslie O'Kane - I had a plot breakthrough for fixing the hatred-triggering plot problems.

I finished an extensive, intensive round of cookie jar revisions on - yes - January 31. The book is not yet ready to submit, as first I want my new writing group, the Writing Roosters, to read it, which they probably can't do until March or April. But once they do, and I revise it yet again, it can be a submission for June or July.

This month, alas, I have a tougher revision to face. It's on a philosophy article I've been delivering to various audiences for literally years. I decided I was too ashamed to keep on dragging it out to present, so I gave myself the choice: either revise it and submit it to at least one journal, or give up on it and throw it away. I chose the first option. So on February 28 I expect to submit this paper - on artistic integrity - to an appropriate journal that I've chosen. Then, after a few months of waiting for the review process to play itself out, I'll see what they say.

In March I'll revise and re-submit my paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes, from comments I received from the two blind reviewers for the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, where I submitted it in November. Unlike the cookie jar book and the philosophy article, which are long shots, I'm fairly confident this revision will bring success.

Then in April - well, I haven't figured out April yet. Maybe it will be a month focused on a shorter, less labor-consuming project: a poem? or another grant proposal to go somewhere else and do something else fun?

But whatever it is, however puny the project, it's bound to be more than I would have done if I hadn't made myself this Submission-a-Month Plan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Backstage at the Tattered Cover

Yesterday I braved icy roads (treacherous enough that Highway 36 between Boulder and Denver was closed for three solid hours from multiple wrecks) for a lovely morning at the glorious Tattered Cover store on Colfax Avenue in Denver. The new co-owner, Kristen Gilligan, is excited about working with local authors to create an even more thriving writing community, and so she emailed me with an invitation to join her for coffee at this remarkable branch of this legendary store.

The Tattered Cover first opened in 1971; its several branches together now stock half a million books. I especially love the branch in LoDo, the area of Denver right next to Union Station. I've made special trips on the bus to Denver just to sit there and write. The Colfax store often hosts the Denver Children's Book Authors salon, and it's currently the largest and most beautiful. The store is situated in an old and very grand former theater with soaring windows in the front.
It even retained some of the theater seating. Here a knitting group sits cozy in those red-plush theater chairs.
Kristen took me on a tour of the store, showing all the various theatrical elements that remain, from red velvet curtains hanging on one wall to a puppet theater in the well-stocked children's area. She also led me through the bowels of the store where the busy staff have their offices, so I could glimpse the inner workings of a store of this scale.There is magic in seeing how and where and magic happens.

So hooray for local independent bookstores like the Tattered Cover, as well as Denver's treasure of children's bookstore (Second Star to the Right), our own Boulder Bookstore here on Pearl Street, and the wondrously eclectic Fallen Leaf Books owned by my sister and her husband in charming Nashville, Indiana.
And hooray for booksellers who want to partner with local authors so that we can make book magic together.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rejection - and More Rejection

The story of an author's life is rejection.

At the very least, any author's life is going to have a considerable amount of rejection in it: rejection of manuscripts by editors, rejection of published projects by disparaging reviewers, rejection of even critically acclaimed work by some reader somewhere who just doesn't love our book, story, article, or poem.

I've had rejection throughout my long career. You could say that I got my start as a published author by getting rejections. . . from myself. When I worked as an editorial secretary at Scholastic almost 40 years ago, I submitted manuscripts to Scholastic under a pseudonym - and I was the one who had to type my own rejection letters. Over the intervening decades plenty of projects have been turned down even by editors who loved me. I've gotten my share of hurtful reviews, including one from The New York Times so scathing that friends all around the country sent me messages of condolence. I am hardly a stranger to rejection.

But lately it seems that I'm getting more rejections than ever before.

Part of the reason is that it's simply tougher to get a book published these days. I used to be able to get a contract for a book from a one-page synopsis if my editor was enthusiastic enough about it. Nowadays, awakening an editor's enthusiasm is just the first of many hurdles that have to be cleared: editorial enthusiasm; approval at a meeting of the entire editorial staff; approval from the editor-in-chief; and then approval at an acquisitions committee meeting at which marketing and sales staff are also present. And nowadays, there are so venues through which authors receive reviews, such as the website Goodreads, where thousands of strangers can weigh in on the merits of one's work. The people who decades ago would have hated a book of mine in private can now voice their hatred in public - and do.

The world has simply become a more rejecting place.

But part of the reason I'm getting more rejections than ever before may have to do with me. I'm getting older. This doesn't mean I'm getting fail and feeble! But it may mean that I'm getting not just old, but old-fashioned, clinging to a literary style shaped by the books of the mid-20th-century I so loved when I was a child. I need to keep on growing and changing. But getting older can also mean getting a teensy bit, well, more tired, and also maybe a teensy bit more accepting of that fact that I'm unlikely ever to write the Great American Novel - a teensy bit more contented with the modest-but-lovely success I've had.

Last year I posted on this blog a list of my recent rejections. I just re-read it. I listed five rejections there:
1) rejection of a proposal for a chapter book series from my publisher;
2) a second revise-and-resubmit report on a children's literature journal article;
3) disappointing spring royalties;
4) disappointing attendance at my sessions at a children's literature festival I attend every year;
5) rejection of a proposal to speak at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference.

In reviewing this list almost a year later, I now note that:
1) I just received a rejection on ANOTHER proposal for a chapter book series from the same publisher. I still don't have that contract in hand. WAH!
2) The journal article has been published, much better for yet another round of revisions, and I'm enormously proud of it: "'Better Times Are Coming Now for All People': Wartime Dreams and Disillusionment in Rufus M."is now available in Children's Literature in Education.
3) My fall royalty statement returned to its usual level; the spring dip was an anomaly rather than a forecaster of a trend of decline;
4) I was invited back to that same festival for this spring even though the festival now has a new director - and is now paying attending authors twice as much as before.
5) I just presented a talk at the Denver Children's Book Authors Salon that was probably the best talk on craft I've ever given.

So: one rejection (the most important one, alas!) is still haunting me. I rebounded from the other four just fine.

2017 has already brought me two painful rejections, both on book projects. I can't say I'm not worried. I am.

But I'm not terrified.

Rejection is just part of an author's life. And it just so happens that I am an author.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Denver Children's Book Authors Salon

When I first moved to Colorado twenty-five years ago, I didn't think we had much of a children's book community here, compared to the fabulous opportunities provided by the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C., of which I remain a (non-resident) member to this day. My fellow members included Katherine Paterson, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Mary Downing Hahn, and they were all so amazingly warm and welcoming to me and other newbie authors.

Now, however, the Colorado children's book community is wonderfully thriving and gets better and better all the time, with all of us turning out in force for each others' book launches, writing together on write-in days at each others' houses, and even hosting writing-themed baby showers for authors who are prolific in both literary and familial ways (I have a Very Hungry Caterpillar bunting gift ready for the shower I'm attending this coming Friday.)

Best of all, we now have the Denver Children's Book Authors Salon. It began with a chance remark from one author (I don't even remember who it was): "Wouldn't it be great if we could just get together sometimes and learn from each other?" Not at a big conference, not at a formal class, just a few of us who deeply admire each others' books hanging out for an afternoon to grow in our craft by learning from the best masters around, that is to say, us. And then the incomparably generous Sarah Azibo simply took it upon herself to make it happen.

Here's how the salons work. Once a month or so, on a Sunday afternoon, we meet at a lovely independent bookstore, rotating among stores because there are so many we love and want to support. Right now we alternate between two locations: the legendary Tattered Cover Bookstore, at its stunning three-story, renovated-old-movie-theater site on Colfax Avenue, and the relatively new but already beloved Second Star to the Right children's-only bookstore on Tennyson Avenue.

A different author presents each time, on some aspect of craft. So far I've heard Newbery-honoree Ingrid Law (Savvy) talk about writing a high-concept book, Lauren Sabel (Lies I Live By) on the multi-narrator book, Emily France (Signs of You) on what distinguishes young adult mysteries from their adult counterpart (note: it isn't literary sophistication or complexity of characterization or plot), and Jean Reidy (Too Purpley!, which I've read to granddaughter Kataleya approximately 523 times since this past Christmas) on resonance in picture books.

Attendees pay no fee to attend, and authors receive no fee for presenting, but each attendee purchases (from the bookstore) a pre-ordered copy of one of the presenter's books, which of course we are all wild to read after hearing her craft presentation.

It's like attending an MFA program in creative writing, for free, with classes taught by dear friends right in your own town.

Yesterday it was my turn to present, so fourteen or fifteen authors gathered at the Rumpus Room in a little cottage behind Second Star to the Right to hear me talk on a topic dear to my philosopher-author's heart: "How to Write Ethically Charged Stories without Teaching or Preaching." Of course, my opening caveat was that I wasn't going to be offering clear, directive rules for how to do this, because they simply don't exist - at the very least, it's impossible to find any rule here that hasn't been broken - with brilliant success - by some of the greatest authors who ever put pen to paper. But I did promise - and I think I delivered - to generate a good discussion about which books we've read that did memorably convey a deep and beautiful moral truth to readers without falling into dictatorial didacticism.

It was a joy to be able to share my thoughts on craft with writers I so respect and admire, hoping they might learn from me as I've learned from them. Look how happy I appear in this picture - and as I usually hate photos of myself, getting this one was an added bonus of a magical afternoon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Lessons from Lois Lenski

For Christmas, I asked for - and received - a copy of the brand new (2016) biography of children's author/illustrator Lois Lenski: Lois Lenski, Storycatcher, by Bobbie Malone.

Lenski is best-known to Betsy-Tacy devotees - and I am nothing if not a Betsy-Tacy devotee - as the beloved illustrator of the first four books in the series: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib; Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill; and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.
But she is best known to just about everyone else as the creator of some 100 of her own books, most notably her "American Regional Series," exhaustively and intimately researched books that shared the stories of children from a wide range of hard-working backgrounds, including Strawberry Girl (1945, winner of the Newbery Medal), Cotton in My Sack (1949), Mama Hattie's Girl (1953), and Corn-Farm Boy (1954).

I stumbled upon the biography only because of Lenski's Betsy-Tacy connection (I discovered it on the Betsy-Tacy Society website). It turned out that only ONE PAGE of the 323-page book discusses Lenski's Betsy-Tacy role. But the book was nonetheless mesmerizing in its portrait of this mid-20th-century author who pioneered the telling of untold stories, the hardships and small victories of America's neglected and marginalized children. Some of her titles, such as Cotton in My Sack, ensued from the actual invitation of school children for her to come live among them for a stretch of time to learn their stories - invitations that she was honored to accept.

I was also struck powerfully by Lenski's struggles to maintain a balance between family and work at a time when it was an unquestioned requirement that women would put husband and children first. Lenski married her art-school mentor, Arthur Covey, a widower sixteen years her senior, father of two children in desperate need of a new mother; they also had an additional child together.

The man who had been so unfailingly supportive and encouraging of Lois as his student was far less so of her as his wife. When she complained to him, early in his marriage, that she had no time for her work, they had this exchange (as shared by Malone):

"Your job is the home and the children. They come first."
"But what about my work?"
"That's up to you.. . You'll have to find time for it."

What's amazing is that she did, even becoming the family breadwinner as commissions for his large-scale murals disappeared during the Depression years (and of course, she still had to prioritize home-making and care-giving, even as she earned virtually all of the family's income). She wrote of this conversation with her husband, which would have proved disheartening to so many: "His words, in putting the responsibility up to me, in offering me no aid in my struggle, helped me to realize that I was truly possessed by this creative demon and could not and would not give it up."

A decade later she penned an essay, "Professional and Domestic Life," which laid out the system that allowed her to make her astonishing contribution to children's literature under such adverse conditions:
1. Industry
2. Determination
3. Ability to plan and organize
4. Willingness to make sacrifices
5. Definite purpose in life.

Malone provides some additional details: "Ability to plan and organize" included saving the best hours of the day for her studio by relegating housework to the evenings - a good tip. But most of all, it seems to have been #5 on her list - her strong sense of art as a sacred calling - that explained her success.

I am my family's chief breadwinner, and also a much-in-demand caregiver. Lenski reminds me that the responsibility for finding time for the work I love is, in the end, up to me. I guess I already knew that. My mantra has long been: "If it is to be, it's up to me."

Malone's fascinating biography of Lois Lenski reminds me that, for better or worse, this mantra is as true as true can be.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Joyful Noise for the New Year

Happy new year!

Today my son Christopher and I celebrated the dawn of 2017 by continuing a mother-son tradition of several years standing: we led worship at St. Paul's United Methodist Church here in Boulder, me as "preacher girl" presiding over the service and providing an inspirational new year's message, he at the keyboard playing for a congregational hymn sing.

I'm always surprised to learn that not everyone loves a hymn sing as I do. Even one of our choir members, the one with the most glorious voice and biggest stage presence, said that hymn sings "aren't her favorite." One friend of mine, who attends a different church, claims to dread hymn singing. How can this be??!

I'm a mediocre singer at best, but perhaps what I love best about being a regular church attender is the chance to sing, indeed, to belt out hymns confident that any wrong notes will be drowned by the swelling sound of the entire congregation singing together.

Christopher can play anything in the United Methodist Hymnal by sight, so I invited people just to call out numbers. First up, in honor of the season, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." Then, because I had referenced this one to frame our prayer time, "It's me, it's me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer" (most rousing!). One member surprised us with a request we've never sung in our church before and I had never even heard before: "I Sought the Lord." Bold Christopher sailed through its four flats with aplomb.

Then, as we are facing a new year that offers new challenges for our country and our world, two that almost brought me to tears: "Let There Be Peace on Earth (and Let it Begin with Me)"; and the moving African-American spiritual and anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, "We Shall Overcome." After we sang that last one, no one called out any other hymn numbers, even though most of us usually have endless favorites to request: it was such a perfect note to end upon.

In this new year, I wish all of you health and happiness, work for your hands and love for your hearts. Welcome, 2017!