Monday, February 18, 2019

Reading Across Borders

I've been in writing groups for my entire career, but I've never been in a long-running reading group, except during the several years when I teaching at DePauw University in Indiana, where I was a temporary member of the Janeites (which began each year with re-reading a beloved Jane Austen text).

Now, however, I surprised myself by becoming not only a member but the founder of a book group that is well into its second year. The idea for it popped into my head at the start of 2018, after a certain president was quoted as making a certain remark about U.S. immigration policy: that we didn't want people coming here from "sh-t hole countries." That week, in reply, someone posted on Facebook a link to an article providing a list of fabulous books by authors from just these denigrated countries. Ooh! I thought. I should read those books! Then: double-ooh! I thought. Why don't I put a post of my own on Facebook inviting other intrepid readers to join me?

Over a dozen people responded, from all different parts of my life - other children's book authors, former philosophy students, a friend from church, a friend whose daughters attended elementary school with my boys. Because most of the people in the group didn't know each other, except through me, we don't spend much time in our meetings on chit-chat. Instead we leap right in to talk about . . . the BOOK! Soon we outgrew the original "sh-t-hole-country" list and started nominating other titles, with the only proviso that we would focus our attention on other countries, other cultures, other viewpoints.

Here are the titles the New Voices Book Group has read thus far (many of these authors, listed here by their country of origin, now live and write in the U.S. or the U.K.).

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi of Kenya
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue of Cameroon
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (poetry collection), by Warsan Shire, of Somalia/Kenya
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvado (read in translation)
The Art of Dying by Edwidge Danticat of Haiti
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, by Native American poet Joy Harjo
The Original Dream by Nukila Amal of Indonesia (read in translation)
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy of India
Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang (whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from China)
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (an African-American trans woman)
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents)
Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban poetry, edited by Lori Marie Carlson and Oscar Hijelos

Next up:
Ghachar Gochar by Vivek Shanbhag of India, translated from the Kannada language
Women without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Shahrnush Parispur of Iran
Night School: A Reader for Adults, by Zsofia Ban of Hungary
Confessions of the Lioness but Mia Couto of Mozambique and Brazil

I haven't loved all these books - my least favorites were The Original Dream and Binti - but there hasn't been one I regretted reading and talking about with this little band of adventurous readers. My world is bigger now than it was a year ago, and for that I am grateful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Too Much of a Good Thing

I love decluttering.

I love decluttering so much that I seldom even get the chance to do any, as I tend not to acquire clutter in the first place.

That said, even ardent declutterers can usually find SOMETHING more to get rid of. So in January (inspired in part by the Marie Kondo craze that was sweeping the country from her new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo), I set myself the goal of ridding my house of 365 items for the coming year, one per day.

I ended up meeting the goal within the week, finally making myself part with some books I will truly never miss. Did I need a second - or THIRD - copy of certain childhood favorites? Did I need faded paperback copies of classic novels that are easily available in much more attractive editions from the public library? No, I did not.

But sometimes even I admit to the joy of owning something in reckless abundance. I can't make myself part with the two huge plastic tubs of Beanie Babies from the years when my two growing sons would each get a Beanie Baby in his Christmas stocking, in his Easter basket, for his birthday, and several as souvenirs on every family trip. I also couldn't make myself haul away a bunch of old pillows - though here I didn't particularly want to keep them, I just didn't want to send still useful pillows to the landfill (donation centers and recycling facilities won't accept them).

So when my two little granddaughters were here last week, and it snowed too hard for us to get out one day, I dragged down the Beanie Baby tubs from the attic.
It IS fun to have such a huge heap of them, no?

And the pillows served to make a roof for a playhouse, and a floor for a playhouse, as well as a door.
This final picture is not of my own stash of costume jewelry, but jewelry at the home of Kataleya's best friend, whose home contains more entertaining objects and overwhelmingly fun play opportunities for little girls, I'm convinced, than any other place on earth.
I remain a devotee of Marie Kondo, and I plan to revel in more decluttering in the future, but I'll give the closing words here to Mae West: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Snowy Day Solution

It was just over two years ago that I was driving down a slushy road in Boulder when this happened:
One moment I was happily heading off on errands, the next moment I lost control of my car on a curvy stretch (even though I was driving at my usual slowpoke speed), the moment after that I smacked into a huge utility pole, and suddenly it was A TERRIBLE HORRIBLE NO GOOD VERY BAD DAY.

I have since felt disinclined to drive in slush, sleet, ice, or snow.

This morning I had a scheduled author visit to Namaqua Elementary School in Loveland, about an hour's drive from Boulder. But the weather forecast called for my least-favorite kind of precipitation to come falling from the sky. WAHHH! I warned my host that I might need to cancel if the roads were bad, wimpy baby that I have become, wimpy baby that I intend to stay. But, oh, it's a sad thing to cancel a school visit when it was set up months ago, and the kids are looking forward to it, and there's no guarantee that the same kind of white stuff won't fall from the sky on an alternate date.

Instead a brilliant idea popped into my brain.

The snow wasn't expected until 6:30 a.m. What if I left home at 5:30? I'd arrive at Loveland an hour and a half before school opened at 8, but surely Loveland has coffee shops, and I adore writing in coffee shops. I'd still have to drive home afterward, of course, but I'd be in no rush and could dawdle my way back down to Boulder.


So early this morning I drove for an hour in the darkness, thankful every minute that I wasn't driving in any whiteness. The snow started falling - fast and furious - a few minutes before I arrived at the lovely Coffee Tree cafe on Fourth Street.

For the next hour I sat as snug and cozy as could be, scribbling down picture ideas, as I signed up for the 12 x 12 picture book challenge (to write a picture book each month for the year) and hadn't yet done anything toward meeting January's goal.
The drive to the school was still bad, but at least it was bad for three miles instead of thirty. The kids at Namaqua Elementary were great, and I even had another picture book idea pop into my head as I walked down the halls studying the student work on display. The drive home was bad, too, but at least the weather was now sunny.

Jubilant over my own cleverness, I borrowed Peter Pan's words and crowed to myself, "How clever I am! Oh, the cleverness of me!"

Admittedly, it isn't the VERY best evidence of cleverness to be someone who occasionally totals a car on a slippery road. But it's hard to beat the cleverness of giving myself the treat of an hour spent writing in a charming cafe while also driving an un-smashed car to Loveland and back on a snowy day.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Wisdom from Computer Coding

My current children's book-in-progress is requiring me to learn about a topic on which I hitherto knew nothing: coding.

I've written two books so far in my new chapter-book series, After-School Superstars. Each book takes place in a different month-long after-school "camp." Nixie Ness, Cooking Star is coming out in June of this year; I'm now working through the copy-edited manuscript for Vera Vance, Comics Star, which will be published in early 2020.

For the third book, I've been asked to feature a camp on coding. "Sure!" I said, even though I wasn't quite sure what coding was. I asked my younger son if he ever does any coding (he's a software engineer for a company in Chicago). "Mom! I do coding all day every day!" "Oh," I said. "I thought you did computer programming." "Mom! That's what coding is!"

So now I'm learning about coding. I attended two terrific "Hour of Code" workshops at Stott Elementary in Arvada, and I'm starting to attend some sessions of the Computer Club at Boulder Country Day School. I hauled home a big stack of books from the library, of which the two most helpful have been Coding for Kids: Create Your Own Videogames with Scratch and Helping Kids with Coding for Dummies (where I am surely the biggest dummy who will ever read it).

Here's what I've learned so far: Coding is fun! Kids adore it! At Stott Elementary the kids actually begged to be able to miss recess to keep on coding their "dance party."

The program you create either works, or it doesn't. If it works, it's a thrill. When his program finally worked, one boy kept shouting, "I'm a coding genius! I'm a complete genius!"

When it doesn't work, guess what? You can look at your program and figure out why it didn't work and fix it! As Megan (the brilliant teacher who ran the coding workshop at Stott), told her students, "Debugging is a huge part of coding. If something doesn't work, TRY SOMETHING ELSE." Ooh!!! That insight could be the heart of my book right there. Here's another great life lesson from Coding for Kids: "There is never just one possible solution to a problem!" Ooh!!! That insight could be my mantra as I wrestle with creating my plot.

I haven't actually tried coding myself yet... but I will soon. (Yikes!!!) What deep and important life truths will I discover in the process?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Starting the New Year a Few Days Late

I love the start of a new year so much. In addition to my major goal each year (for 2019 it's to embrace the new by undertaking six completely new work projects), I always have a bunch of piddly goals as well. Drink more water. Eat more veggies. Faithfully walk 10,000 steps a day. Radically declutter my house. Get serious about frugality. Make a budget and stick to it this time.

Alas, for the first few days of this new year I accomplished none of these. None! My little granddaughters were visiting until January 5, and it was bitter cold, so I had no proper walks. I spent freely on outings to the Bounce Place, Gym Jam, swimming at the North Boulder Rec Center, meals at Tandoori Grill and Tsing Tao. Plus, since I was already on a spending spree, I bought a new nightgown online as well. I didn't have even an hour to myself to get any real work done, as four-year-old Kataleya gets up as freakishly early as I do.

After just five days, 2019 was already ruined. Forget 2019! It wasn't working out for me at all. All I could do was slog grimly through the remaining 360 days and then pin all my hopes on 2020.

Fortunately, in the nick of time, I decided instead to salvage the situation and restart the new year on January 6, Epiphany Sunday.

So yesterday I drank five glasses of water. I went grocery shopping and returned with heaps of veggies. For dinner I made a huge pot of vegetarian chili stuffed full of carrots, brussels sprouts, and green beans, as well as three kinds of other beans, served over brown rice. I tallied up the money in my purse - $250 - and decided to limit myself to just that amount of cash for all discretionary spending for the month. I rounded up twenty-five items (yes, I counted them) to donate to Goodwill. And I spent a good solid hour on my first work project of the year. Hooray for the new me of 2019!

Now, I know all too well from past experience that today I might eat fewer veggies (though there is a LOT of that chili left over), and make some online purchase I'll regret. Plus, when February comes, the little girls will return for another ten-day visit. The new year's enthusiastic program of self-improvement can't be sustained.

But still... 

Sometimes I think I owe everything I've ever achieved in my life to these fits of fervor for starting something new. This is why I start a new life not only every January 1 (or January 6, in this case), but the first day of every month (or the tenth day now, once the little girls depart). Thank goodness for at least a few days each month of healthy eating, faithful walking, frantic decluttering, bans on spending, and diligent toil on the work projects at hand.

How I love January, and Mondays, and early mornings . . . all beginnings. As the proverb goes, "Well begun is half done." Or as Mark Twain said, "The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

I'm started on 2019 now - a few days late - but I'm started!

Watch out, world! (For the next few days at least), here I come!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

My NEW Goal for the NEW Year

For the last two years I eschewed the usual dreary list of resolutions in favor of focusing on one single bigger goal. My only requirement was that the goal had to be delicious: something that would give me a little shiver of joy every time I thought about it. For 2017, my goal was to submit something somewhere every single month; for 2018 my goal was to have ten hours of creative joy each month. I loved every minute spent achieving both of them.

I floundered a bit as I thought about what my goal for 2019 should be. (Actually, I floundered a bit until I found the goals for 2017 and 2018 as well). Here's what I've chosen, reminding myself that any goal can be revisited, and certainly fine-tuned, as the year progresses.

This is the year I turn 65 - how can this be? I, who still feel ten years old inside? Becoming an official senior citizen does mark a person as officially, in the eyes of the world, old. Or at least, old-ish. So my goal for the year is to embrace THE NEW.

One of my friends, author Tara Dairman, does this in a way that is particularly delightful. She makes a list, written on little pieces of paper, of a whole bunch of things she hasn't done before, things that push her out of her comfort zone and even scare her. She puts the jumbled scraps of paper into a jar and plucks one out each month. Her "new things" have included: 1) get a radically different haircut; 2) go on a social media fast; 3) try being vegan for a month; 4) cook one new recipe each week for a month; and 5) volunteer for a cause she believes in.

There's a whole book called I Dare Me, by Lu Ann Cahn, where the author shares how she shook up her stagnant life by doing a whopping 365 new things, one every single day for the course of an entire year.

I have found, however, that I do best with annual goals that are more narrowly work-focused, as I adore GETTING STUFF DONE. So for 2019, I am going to undertake six different, totally new-to-me work projects:

1. Teaching my first-ever online course (for the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University);
2) Writing my first book on a topic on which I initially knew absolutely nothing (a chapter book set in a club where kids are learning how to do coding);
3) Making my first serious effort to promote my books (as my After-School Superstars chapter book series launches in June);
4) Writing my first verse novel;
5) Making my first real attempt to publish the poems I've been writing for a decade now;
6) Writing and submitting my first shorter-than-500-word picture book (I published several picture books, many years ago, but they were twice as long in terms of text than the new word limit that has become all-but-mandatory these days).

This list lacks the appealing focus on the MONTH as a unit, which I've come to believe is crucial for life goals. I've become wary of any goal that requires me to do something every single day: miss one day, and it's all ruined! To focus on the year as a whole invites procrastination until a frenzied December arrives - another recipe for ruination. So I'm imposing a (weak) monthly structure onto this list.

The first two items on the list are guaranteed to happen simply because they have to. Students are already enrolled in the online course, which will run February-May, and the coding book is already under contract. Here my goal will not result in my achieving something I wouldn't have otherwise accomplished; instead it transforms my attitude toward what I'm already committed to doing. Instead of thinking "An online course? Yikes!!!!" or "Coding?????!!! Are you KIDDING ME, UNIVERSE?" I'm going to be thinking: "Ooh! An online course! What an adventure!" and "Coding!! Way to revitalize that aging brain!"

The second two items on the list are the most important to me. I just HAVE to do better at promoting my books if I'm going to continue to get them published in today's more competitive market, and I'm yearning toward this verse novel with every fiber of my being. Yet these goals are in danger of getting pushed aside by the urgency of the first two. So here I'm committing to logging ten hours a month from January through June on each one.

By June, the online course will be done, the coding book will be written and submitted, and the series will be launched (though there will be plenty of follow-up promotion afterward). Here is where I will turn to the final two new projects: publishing my poems and writing a picture book, logging ten hours a month on each of these, as well as on the verse novel - or maybe five hours a month? I can tweak the plan as needed. Tweaking is all to the good.

So that's the plan! It's a bit unwieldy compared to the crisply focused plans for 2017 and 2018, but I do feel excited about it, and that's all that really matters. I will prove to myself that even four decades into my career, I can still do something NEW! In fact, SIX new things! And find joy in doing them.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, "And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been."