Thursday, June 22, 2017

From Paradise to Paradise

I had no sooner arrived at Hollins University for my summer teaching in the graduate programs in children's literature (i.e., paradise), and settled into my adorable rooms in the charming Barbee Guest House on the Hollins campus, when I had to whisk myself off for a whirlwind visit to ChLA - the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association (i.e., paradise), held this year in Tampa.

I was disappointed that my two paradises had a conflict in dates, with the ChLA conference falling during the crucial first week of the six-week Hollins summer term. How could I miss my very first class with my already beloved students? But how could I miss the mandatory all-day meeting of the Phoenix Award Committee, for which I'm in the middle of serving a three-year-term? I decided to try to do both -  dash off from Hollins to ChLA for the Wednesday meeting and one conference session (the 8:00-9:15 a.m. session on Thursday, the first day of the conference proper), where I'd deliver my paper for a panel on the North American Girl's Bildungsroman. Then I'd dash back to Hollins, with a makeup class planned for my students with compensatory love to be lavished upon them.

It made for an intense few days, but also for a magical few days. What is more satisfying than to spend hours and hours talking with four super-smart children's literature scholars about the ten finalists we had chosen together for the Phoenix Award? As the award honors a book published twenty years ago, which didn't receive a major award at the time but is deemed (by us) as worthy of one now, these were all titles published in 1999 - and oh, that year had some amazing books for us to agonize over. We aren't able to reveal our choice yet, but we left the meeting most pleased with ourselves for what we had chosen.

That evening I squeezed in a dinner with three conference friends. We've been meeting together since we first met as roommates at the ChLA conference in Buffalo in 2004 - strangers to each other at that time, who teamed up to save money and ease demand on a limited bank of conference-reserved hotel rooms. That year we had our first "midnight feast" (the term borrowed from a staple scene in classic girl's boarding school books). Our feast, however, doesn't take place at midnight, but after an early dinner. We lie on the beds in one of our hotel rooms and read aloud to each other from favorite children's books while stuffing ourselves full of candy. What better feast could there be?

This morning my three co-panelists and I delivered our papers to a surprisingly large audience for our early time slot. One of them, the panel's bold organizer, Dawn Sardella-Ayres, gifted me with yet more candy to thank me for reading and commenting (earlier this year) on a draft of her now-completed dissertation for her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. The candy was TWO Cadbury chocolate bars of top-quality British Cadbury chocolate, in the largest size of any candy bar I've ever seen. Here is one of the two (alas, there isn't much left of the other one), with two good-sized mugs behind it, for scale,


Then I flew back to Hollins, from one paradise to another, with more candy than one mortal has any right to dream of this side of, well, paradise.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Off to Paradise (i.e., Hollins University)

I leave tomorrow to spend six weeks teaching in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature and Children's Book Illustration at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I will be entering the portals of paradise.
I've sojourned at Hollins twice before: as a writer-in-residence in the summer of 2005 and as a faculty member teaching chapter book writing in the summer of 2014. So I know exactly what to expect, which is six weeks of creative joy.

This time I'm teaching one of the three Advanced Creative Writing Tutorials, where students are working on their creative thesis projects, intensely workshopping them in class sessions as well as honing fine points of craft. I will have four students in the class - yes, four - and we'll meet twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-5. I've been in email contact with them already to learn what project they are planning to pursue during our time together and to ascertain how I can best assist them in its pursuit. I love them already.

That's what makes the Hollins program such a paradise. Everyone is there for one reason only: love. The students want to write or illustrate children's books more than anything in the world and have waited all year to have these six enchanted weeks in which to immerse themselves in doing this. The faculty leave behind everything else in our lives - all our cares and woes - to spend six weeks teaching what we love best to people who yearn with every fiber of their being to learn it. In most university teaching, if you end class a few minutes early, no wails of lamentation are heard from the students. At Hollins, if you try to end a three-hour class five minutes before the close of the final hour, the students say, "But - we still have five minutes left! Can we just ask you a few more questions?"

The campus itself is lovely, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Each morning I walk, very early, with two dear friends past horses grazing in green pastures. Evenings are filled with stimulating talks, or long, intense, funny, heartfelt conversations.

As if this weren't enough, my closest friend in the world lives in Roanoke. She is retiring from thirty years of teaching high school theater, and her last day is . . . TODAY. So there will time for playing with Rachel, including a weekend getaway to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, with two other beloved friends who live in Maryland.

Oh, and I'll have time to do my own writing, too. I've been preoccupied with scholarly, academic projects for the last few months, but I'll return to being my creative self at Hollins. Last time I was there I wrote an entire 15,000-word chapter book: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ. This time I have two creative projects packed in my suitcase - plus dreams of writing something utterly new of which I haven't yet a glimmer of an idea.
But one may come to me in paradise, don't you think?


Thursday, June 8, 2017

"The Ants Go Marching" Song - New and Improved!!!

In the first book in my Nora Notebooks series, The Trouble with Ants, budding myrmecologist (ant scientist) Nora is irritated by the decidedly unscientific lyrics of the song, "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two" (hurrah, hurrah!). She sniffs:"'The little one stops to suck his thumb.' As if ants had thumbs rather than mandibles! 'The little one stops to tie his shoe.' Tying a shoe? Really?"

Well, yesterday I received an email from Kate Wolff, first grade teacher at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver. Her students had read Nora's story and responded by writing new lyrics for this old song, informed by their own study of ants. The lyrics are brilliant. The lyrics are amazing. The lyrics took my breath away.

Here, with their permission to post, the new and improved version of "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two."

The Ants Go Digging
A scientifically correct version of “The Ants Go Marching” by Kate’s Crew
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one,
Then one emits a pheromone
And they all follow the smell down, underground
To get into the chamber
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two,
Their colony is like a crew
And they cooperate
In all they do
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three
Their feet are called their tarsi
And they use them to climb trees
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four,
The army ants might go to war
If other colonies attack
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five
They hide away to stay alive
Avoiding predators (and rain)
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!

The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six
The nurse ants give the larvae licks
To keep them moist and clean
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven
They have two stomachs in their abdomen
And one is called a crop!
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight,
In the winter they hibernate
Deep down under the ground
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine,
They leave the nest in a line
To forage for their food
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
 
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten,
The queen ant lays some eggs again
And the life cycle never ends
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!

Thank you, Kate's Crew! I told them I only wished Nora were a real person, instead of a character I invented, so I could send these lyrics to her directly. How pleased she would be!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Kicking the [Stuffing] out of Plan B

This year May was my cruelest month.

My family is undergoing huge, heartbreaking changes. For the past four years my son and his wife - and their dog - have lived with me. Then came adored granddaughter number one, and adored granddaughter number two, making a total of six humans and two animals in my 1500-square-foot condo. I sometimes mourned the loss of control over my own space and my own time, even as I knew these intensely sweet days wouldn't last, as nothing in this world ever does.

And now it's over: my son and his wife are divorcing, and the girls and their mother moved out this past weekend to a mountain town a good four hours' drive away (not counting weather and traffic, which are huge factors for much of the year).

I'm heartbroken. Now, of course, I'd give anything to have my old crammed, crowded life with those two little girls back again, in every exhausting and exasperating detail.

But Plan A is no longer an option.

One of my writer friends has a new mantra: "When Plan A falls through, kick the [stuffing] out of Plan B." Her Plan A was having her most recent book, the one she loved best and believed in most passionately, rejected by mainstream publishers. Her Plan B is self-publishing, and she's determined to promote this book to every reader in the universe and make it her best-seller, anyway.

My Plan B is: 1) enjoy my peaceful, quiet house for three out of four weeks each month while I work busily and happily on my own creative and scholarly writing projects; then 2) have the girls come to us one week a month, where I'll be with them full time every weekday while their daddy is at work, filling every day with as much love and joy and memory-making moments as I can.

That is not a terrible plan.

It's not the plan I wanted, but I can make it a good plan. It won't be the "forever" plan, as someday the girls will be in "real school" where they will have to come to us on holidays or summer vacations - and someday they may no longer live in this mountain town - and someday everything may change yet again. There are no forever plans. I'm trying to make peace with the radical unknowability of the future.

In the meantime, I'm going to do everything I can to kick the [stuffing] out of Plan B.