Friday, August 29, 2014

Friend Friday

Lois Brandt was one of my first students when I was on the faculty at the now Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, about 6 or so years ago. I was so impressed by the deep passions she had for social justice and for making the world a better place (not a surprise she's a former Peace Corps volunteer). Lois not only has a heart of gold, she has a pen of gold. And her first picture book, Maddi's Fridge, is a testament to that writing talent. It's an honor to host Lois today.

Lois Brandt

When you have a book coming out (Maddi’s Fridge) and a book launch to plan (6-8 pm September 4th at University Bookstore, Bellevue, Washington), that’s what you are supposed to blog about. But that’s not what’s on my mind.

I’ve been thinking about a girl in one of my classes.

I normally teach creative writing to adults, but during the summer months I get to teach teens. I love adults, but teens bring a fresh wonder with them as they swoop into the classroom. I teach at a high level to challenge these young writers and my classes are intense.

A few weeks ago, a girl with both physical and intellectual disabilities came into my week-long class. The parents gave me no advanced notice. The girl, I’ll call her Ida, simply showed up.

I was a little upset. Why hadn’t her parents spoken to me? How could I teach this girl if I didn’t know her limits?

I flipped through my notes and waited for the last students to arrive. All I could do, I decided, was stick to my normal curriculum.

Ida followed right along during lectures and writing exercises on that first day. She took her turn speaking as each student discussed what they had written. When I had trouble understanding Ida, I leaned over her work and could tell from her writing what she was saying.

She apologized for her handwriting; I showed her my own illegible scribbles. We bonded.

On the second day of class, I always divide the students into groups to create characters. That night I wondered if I should change my curriculum. Would the other students be able to work with Ida if she were in their group? Should I partner with Ida to give her extra attention?

Since I really didn’t know how much of the curriculum Ida was understanding, I decided to treat her like any other student. The kids in Ida’s group surpassed my hopes, integrating Ida’s ideas and comments. She was an equal partner in the creation of that group’s impressive character.

The next day all students were required to turn in a short story draft. Ida sent me a summary of her story and some character sketches with nice detail, but she had not yet understood the idea of writing in scenes.

I decided to slow things down for Ida. We were talking about using images to convey the theme of the story. I guessed that Ida couldn’t follow the exercise, so I skipped over her when students were talking about the image in their story that represents their theme.

Ida’s hand shot up. “You forgot me,” she said. She explained that she had chosen her character’s hat. His mother had given it to him before she died. He kept it with him as a reminder always to do the right thing. Her theme: if you remember your mother, you will do good.

Ida nailed the exercise.

Later, as we were talking about scenes, Ida raised her hand. “I see the scenes in my head,” she said. “I want to learn to write them down. That’s why I’m here.”

All writers have scenes and characters crowding our heads. Truth be told, we’re all a little nuts. We write to get scenes out of our heads and give ourselves breathing room.

Ida’s comment pushed me past my own limited thinking. Ida was absolutely in the correct class. She was stretching and reaching towards her goal of writing stories. I was being an over-cautious idiot.

Since that class, I’ve been doing some serious self-assessment. What friends, acquaintances and family members am I holding back with my stereotypes and truncated expectations? What goals am I not reaching for in my own life?

I write for kids because these are the stories that open us up to hope. These are the stories that remind us to stretch and explore possibilities.

This past week I was working on a hunger quiz for my book launch and getting more depressed by the minute. How do you fight childhood hunger, a persistent problem that is harming the health and futures of 16 million American children?

Then I thought of Ida.

You do what Ida did. Reach for your goals and ignore limits. See how far you can stretch.

Years ago, Lois Brandt peeked into her best friend's refrigerator and found empty shelves and one small carton of milk; the family didn't have enough money to buy food. Maddi's Fridge, Lois's first picture book, is the result of that moment. When she is not working on her own projects, Lois teaches writers of all ages to tell the stories that are close to their hearts. Lois lives near Seattle, Washington, with her husband, assorted kids, two dogs, and a fluffy cat who thinks he's a dog. You can visit Lois here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wednesday Wisdom

"There cannot be a crisis next week. 
My schedule is already full."

Henry Kissinger

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Birthday!

Celebrating a book birthday today:

And here is the lady who inspired the book:

Mitsue "Mitsi" Shiraishi

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friend Friday

I first got acquainted with Dan Richards at the Los Angeles SCBWI conference,  a year ago. We hit it right off and that had nothing to do with the fact he was wearing a superhero costume, complete with foam muscles. It didn't take me long to figure out that Dan had worked hard learning his craft and the business. I was out of town for the book launch of his first book, The Problem With Not Being Scared of Monsters, but his post below put me right in the scene. Take it away, Dan!

Dan Richards, who is NOT afraid of book launches

My debut picture book THE PROBLEM WITH NOT BEING SCARED OF MONSTERS released recently. Like most authors, I scheduled a book launch party at my favorite local bookstore (Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington). Here’s an inside look at the day of my party.  

7am - After tossing and turning all night, concluded further effort at sleep was pointless and crawled out of bed. Assured myself that sleep is necessary to daily living but absolutely unnecessary before a book launch party. 

9am - Wondered to myself how two hours had passed and I had yet to eat, walk the dog, or shower. 

11am - Nervously checked with my volunteers to see that no one had taken ill during the night or, worse yet, forgotten about my party altogether.

Noon - Attempted a frontal assault on my lunch. Tried to ignore the swirling vortex that was my stomach. Assured myself food is also unnecessary before a book launch party. 

2:45pm - Checked the clock once again only to discover there were still three hours before I needed to leave the house. Which was five minutes less than the last time I checked.

4pm - Took a nap. What else was there to do?

5pm - Woke to discover I had actually taken a nap. Frantically raced about with a million things to do and no time left to do them. 

6pm - Arrived at the bookstore. Huddled up with the butterflies in my stomach. Asked for solidarity in the effort to keep the day’s food down despite the requests from my stomach to the contrary.

6:10pm - Stared at the book display of MY BOOK that was dominating the entrance to the store. Paused to give thanks for independent bookstores and all that is sacred in the world of children’s literature.

6:30pm - Discovered the first guest had arrived. Secretly wished he would leave and let me cower in peace in the back of the store.  Secretly also wished he'd brought a tribe of friends with him or it might be a very sad book launch party.

6:50pm -  Mingled with the guests that continued to filter into the store and who seemed to be there for the sole purpose of celebrating with me. 

7:15pm - Stepped up to the podium. Stared into a sea of smiling faces who seemed intent on making me feel welcome at my own event.

7:20pm - Gave a humorous talk outlining my life as a writer leading up to the publication of my first book. Secretly thanked the butterflies in my stomach for having gone mostly dormant.

7:25pm - Concluded a reading of my book. Discovered the crowd had increased to a size just short of spectacular. Butterflies gone. Feeling downright chipper now.

7:30pm - Signed my first book. Surreal moment. No way to describe the mixture of humility and adrenaline coursing through my veins. 

7:45pm - Looked up to discover a serpentine line weaving its way around the store with books in hand, patiently waiting their turn. Appreciated the years of obscurity that led to this moment. And then got back to work. A lot of books left to sign.

8:30pm - Looked up to discover a line still waiting. Appreciated the moment, again. Signed the next book. 

9pm - Said goodbye to the last guest. Gave the last hug. Gave thanks it was over. Secretly wished it had lasted longer, maybe all night.

11pm - Posted photos on Facebook and replied to the many well wishers. 

1am - Slumped into bed, exhausted but aware this was a day I’d treasure forever. 

Dan Richards has been interested in monsters since he was old enough to check under his bed. He’s been checking ever since and has found many of his closest friends that way. The Problem With Not Being Scared Of Monsters is his first picture book. He lives with his family in Bothell, WA. Visit him online here

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friend Friday

I have a lot of "friends" that I've never met: people whose books I've admired, for example. Karen  Harrington falls in that category -- I read her Sure Signs of Crazy and fell head over heels. But guess what: Karen and I will both be at the Texas Tween Reads Book Festival at the end of September. So we will get to meet! I cannot wait. In the meantime, enjoy this thoughtful post from an amazing writer.

Karen Harrington
As a writer, am I the only one who has the second novel blues? That place where you know a lot more than you did on your freshman novel attempt and everything about starting the second work makes you feel like you don’t even know how to write a sentence? 

When I was first drafting COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS, my second middle-grade novel, I had more false starts and weak attempts than ever before. I rearranged point of view, voice, characters, structure – everything. (There’s even a string of back and forth exchanges with my editor that include the subject line: Ways to get rid of David. If the NSA is tracking writers, well, they’ll have their hands full.) 

But I hit a critical turning point when I literally put myself in the sneakers of the unsteady, young character.

COURAGE features Mysti Murphy, seventh-grade girl in the midst of two crises. First, her father suffers a serious accident, putting him in the hospital just as school is starting. This forces Mysti to fill in for her dad, and be the responsible one at home for her agoraphobic mother and her little sister. The second crisis is at school. Her long-time best friend, Anibal, engages Mysti in what he calls a “social experiment.” Anibal has his ambitions set on becoming a hipster this year and decides he can’t be seen talking to someone from his past like Mysti. “We’ll still be friends,” Anibal tells her. “Just not in the lunchroom or hallways.” 

My turning point was a day when I decided to visit a middle school like the one Mysti attends. I called a good girlfriend and arranged to have lunch with her middle-schooler one day. I wanted to see if the middle school cafeteria still hummed with that spectrum ranging from bright confidence to quiet insecurity, and all the colors in between.
It did. (It also still smelled vaguely of cold soup and disinfectant.) 

When the time came to meet my young friend, I went to the cafeteria with my sack lunch. The cafeteria was a big, wide room with a curtained stage on one end. Rows upon rows of tables extending backwards from the stage. A small section of tables reserved for guests coming to eat with their students. A cafeteria line. Random teachers shouting, “Have some respect!” to a few rowdy students. I stood in the front of the cafeteria near the guest tables and eagerly looked for my friend. As I rocked back and forth, minutes passed. I watched the variety of students. The vivid, conversationalists. The ones with heads stuck in a book. And those sitting alone – even though they were sitting with others. Boy, I remember that. 

My young friend never showed up. Students came and went and stared at me like out of place person that I genuinely was.

Want to know what that felt like? 

Just like I did in seventh grade! In fact, sort of like a dork. 
I ditched my home-made sandwich. The whole thing made me lose my appetite.

I hit the writing desk again. And everything changed. I could see and feel where Mysti would encounter her old friend Anibal and ache to talk to him. To belong. To be asked to sit at his lunch table. To feel left behind and forgotten while others seemingly had a great lunch. And because I could vividly see that and pull up those feelings, I was finally able to hear Mysti’s words come through and onto the page. Every writer knows that’s where the magic is. 

I told my eleven-year old daughter this story recently and she responded, “So…what you’re saying is, you have to be a dork to write a book.” 

My child. She is funny. “No, you don’t have to be a dork,” I told her, “But today’s dork is often tomorrow’s inventor and artist and writer.” 

Writing this book reminded me of something my favorite writing professor once said:  you need to find that opening into a character that you so strongly identify with that you can see the world through his or her eyes and allow your own vulnerability to inform your writing. 

My third middle-grade novel (MAYDAY, Little, Brown/2016) is about a plane crash survivor. Shall I leave you to wonder at how I entered into the experience of that protagonist? 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wednesday Wisdom

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. 
Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Samuel Beckett