GUEST BLOG: Reading At Lakeside Chautauqua

IMG_0572I am guest blogging today over on The Front Porch, the official blog of Lakeside Chautauqua. We’re headed to this lovely Ohio treasure next week to enjoy a relaxed week with family – including cousins! I will also be doing a special Christmas-themed story time at Green Gables (pictured above).  My topic today?  Reading!  So, grab a cup of coffee (or tea as I prefer) and head on over to the Front Porch. The breezes there are wonderful and the post, I hope, is inspiring.  Happy Thursday!

QUAIL EGGS: Making IDEAS EXTRAORDINARY!

I’m taking a blog break this week to spend time with my family, but I thought you might enjoy this writerly post from 2012.  We still love quail eggs at our house!  Enjoy!

A Korean-American friend invited me to shop at a Korean supermarket. The store was brimming with the most beautiful produce and authentic Asian foods I have ever seen. I filled my cart with Korean BBQ sauce, dumplings, seaweed, barley tea, bok choy, Japanese eggplant, oyster mushrooms and more. But the best find of all was the carton of tiny speckled quail eggs I discovered by the tofu.

“How do you eat these?” I asked my friend. “Hard-boiled,” she answered. “Then pop them in your mouth.”

The excitement at our house over these miniature eggs was astounding. My kids couldn’t wait to try them and insisted that I boil them immediately. Then, even though it was almost dinner time, we peeled them and, lo and behold, the inside of the shell was aqua colored. When we popped them in our mouths, they tasted exactly like chicken eggs. The magic was in their tiny size and their magical shell.

“Can we share them?” my daughter asked. Then, nestling them in her hands, she shared the magic of the quail eggs with the neighbor kids. They were a big hit!

Ideas are kind of like eggs. Sometimes it seems they’re a dime a dozen. The trick is finding one that stands out from the rest. After all, no one wants to read yet another story about an ordinary egg. YOUR egg needs to be extraordinary. Add speckles and a magical lining. Scramble it. Fry it. Poach it. Do whatever it takes to make it stand out from the rest.

Quail eggs are destined to become a frequent snack in our house. Not only are they rich in protein and pretty, but they’re a tasty reminder that I don’t want to settle for plain old chicken egg ideas. Instead, I want to savor the exhilarating process of transforming ordinary ideas into extraordinary eggs. Happy writing!

FINDING YOUR INNER POET

IMG_2762I grew up in a family of readers. Indeed, some of my earliest memories include sitting in my mother’s lap while she read to me from A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. I loved the rhythmic rhyming sound of Milne’s poems and memorized several, quite by accident, because I asked my mother to read them to me so often. I’ve carried the rhyming beat of those poems with me ever since.

As soon as could hold a pencil and spell (sort of), I started writing poetry on my own. How do I know this? I know because my parents sent me a box full of papers and notebooks from my childhood including limericks, riddles, and silly rhyming snippets – all proof that I’ve loved playing with language for a very long time.

IMG_2766As an adult, I have continued to foster that love by educating myself on the intricacies of meter and rhyme, by reading the best children’s poetry out there, and by honing my own skills by writing, writing, writing!

Poetry, especially rhyming poetry, is harder than it might first appear because it’s not just about good rhyme.  It’s also about rhythm and keeping a consistent rhythm throughout a piece.

Do you have an inner poet somewhere deep inside, too?  Here are tips to help  you find him/her:

1. Write from the heart.  Have an idea for a poem? At this early point, don’t worry about perfecting the rhyme or meter. Simply enjoy the process of writing and see where your pen and imagination take you. Dabble with rhyme and meter, if you feel so inclined, but it’s better to have fresh ideas than tight, strained stanzas. Once you have written from the heart, then you can go back and creatively work on meter and rhyme.

2. Read, read, read! It will help your inner poet grow if you read poetry. There are many great children’s poets out there. You might enjoy exploring poet Renee LaTulippe’s Big List of Children’s Poets. Her website, No Water River, also includes children’s poets reading their works. This is a great way to hear poems read and to appreciate how seemingly efffortless the final version should sound. I also make a habit of checking out poetry anthologies and collections from the children’s poetry section of my library.  I do the same with rhyming picture books. As I read them, I analyse what makes them work and take notes for future reference.  

3. Pick a poem to model. This is a great exercise for broadening your poetic skills.  I love doing this when I have writer’s block or am between projects. First, I pick a poem that I like.  Maybe I’ll pick a limerick one week and something with couplets the next. Once I’ve picked my poem, I dissect it – examining each line, as well as the whole – to see how the poet put it together. I also make guesses as to why the author chose certain wording, or a certain theme.  Then I pick a topic and/or theme that is completely different and write my own poem using the form I’ve just studied.  I’ve learned A LOT this way!  Plus, it’s just plain fun and your inner poet will love it.

IMG_27634. Invest in several poet-friendly resources. Of course in this day and age, we poets have lots of free poetry- aiding resources at our finger tips. These include on-line rhyming dictionaries such as the one found at RhymeZone. This nifty resource includes not only rhyming options but can also serve as a thesaurus. Most computer dictionaries also have a thesaurus function. However, in my experience, nothing is quite as good as two old-fashioned resources that will forever be my bffs when it comes to writing poetry.  The first is Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. I have still have the 1982 edition I got when I was in junior high!  The second, I bought for my inner poet on my birthday in 2008.  It’s called The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, Revised. Edited by Clement Wood and revised by Ronald Bogus, it includes not just an exhaustive rhyming dictionary, but The Poet’s Craft Book  as well.

5. Finally, remember to HAVE FUN! There is joy in playing with words and it’s a real treat to carve out time to write. So, my last tip is to enjoy the process. I do! Happy writing, all!

And the WINNER is…

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I’m delighted to announce that the winner of this week’s special giveaway,  a signed copy of Jody Jensen Shaffer’s newest children’s book, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED is…

KATY D!!!

Congratulations!  I will be in touch with you today so we can get the book to you.

Thanks again, Jody, for the interview and for putting a copy up for grabs. I’d also like to thank everyone who took the time to comment on this week’s post and to my daughter, once again, for lending me her snazzy hat for the drawing. IMG_2887

Happy reading and writing, all!

Stop by the BHPL BOOK BLOG for a FUN INTERVIEW!

13507225_10153848033924094_2368832568996490477_nIn anticipation of my GOODNIGHT, ARK story time visit at the Berkeley Heights Public Library next Tuesday, I was interviewed by the librarian! We had the nicest time chatting about writing  picture books, working with an illustrator, living in New Jersey and more. Curious? Then hop on over. I’ll make it easy. Press here.

NOTE:  The GOODNIGHT, ARK story time will take place next Tuesday, July 19th at 10:30 in the Children’s Room of the Berkeley Heights Public Library. Please join us if you can.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Jody Jensen Shaffer (and a GIVEAWAY!)

Today I am delighted to have my talented friend and critique partner Jody Jensen Shaffer as my guest.  Jody and I have known each other for quite a few years now, and it’s been exciting for me to follow her writerly journey. Jody has written 27 children’s books. She’s here today in celebration of her newest release THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED with illustrations by Kelly Kennedy (Simon Spotlight, July 2016). Forthcoming titles include PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW which will be published by Laura Godwin at Holt Children’s in 2017 and A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK which will be available in 2018 from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. Well, let’s get started. 
Thanks so much for joining us today, Jody. Now that re-introductions have been made, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become a writer? 
Thanks for having me, Laura! Like many authors, I liked to write and read when I was young. When I finished high school, I went to college and got a degree in English. (I also got my first paying magazine job. But it was for adults, not kids.) Lots of folks thought I might be a lawyer. But I had other plans. I knew I wanted to teach college students how to write, so I got a master’s in English and taught for a few years, while I was working in the corporate world. When I had kids, I wanted to stay home with them, and that’s when I got hooked on children’s literature. Oh my goodness! I loved those books! I began writing seriously for children then.
THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED has been out now for just over a week.  What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I had such a good time researching the history of cookies! I hope readers will enjoy learning about it as much as I did. The history of cookies is a fascinating story of cultures and ingredients and technology and pluck. (You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean about that last part!)
This seems like a delicious topic to research.  Was a lot of cookie nibbling involved?  But, seriously, I know readers of all ages will be interested in your process for first researching and then writing the book. Can you share a few tasty tidbits with us? 
Cookie nibbling is always a part of my research, Laura, whether my topic is cookies or not! I began my research by scouring the internet and my local libraries. I dug up all the information I could about baking and cookies and spices. I actually thought I’d discover when, where, and what the Very First Cookie was. But guess what? It wasn’t even a cookie! (Again, you’ll understand once you read the book.) After I was comfortable that I had a handle on the history of cookies, I had to decide what information to put in the book and what to leave out. Since this is a book for 6-8 year olds, I wanted to be sure I was adding the right amount of sugar and not overloading them with too much salt, if you know what I mean. I’m happy with the way it turned out, and I think readers will be, too.
Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?
Great question! There are all kinds of possible curriculum-extenders for this book, including studying the geography of the history of cookies, the math that recipes use, the technology of ovens, refrigeration, and factories, maybe even a little chemistry for what heat does to specific ingredients. If that’s not enough, how about how cookies are used in various cultures, including ours? The tie-ins are endlessly delicious!
Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?
Yes, there are more picture books in the pipeline! PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW (Holt) releases in 2017, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin) releases in 2018, with more to follow! Readers can find my books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Simon & Schuster, WalMart and Target. They can find me at my blog at Just Kidding and on Twitter @jodywrites4kids.
Thanks so much for having me, Laura!
Thank YOU for coming!
AND NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!!!  If you’d like a chance to win a FREE, SIGNED copy of THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED (Simon Spotlight, July 2016) simply name your favorite cookie in the comment space below.  (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident and at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Thursday, 7/14/16 at 11:59 pm EST. The winner will be announced on Friday!  The giveaway is now over. Press here to see the winner.

BAKING COOKIES: Thoughts on Peace and Reconciliation During These Troubling Times

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My blog celebrates “writing, reading, and life” and mostly I focus on things writerly and readerly. This week, however, has been firmly grounded in life.  Like many of you, I have been grieving over the state of our nation at this present moment.  There is just so much hurt and bitterness and anger and racism and misunderstanding.  And this week’s news breaks my heart – two black men shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and five police officers shot and killed in Dallas?  Will this ever end?  Is reconciliation possible?  And what can I do? What can my children do? What can you do? What can we as individuals do in the midst of this miserable time?

Foster community.  Build community. Construct bridges. That’s what.  This Sunday morning, in an act that is totally out of my shy/reserved comfort zone, I listened to that inner voice inside which whispered to me – reach out.  What we did this morning was very small, but it’s a step.

First, Miss A. and I woke up very early and baked cookies – lemon sugar cookies.  Once they cooled, we decorated each one with a little pink icing heart and placed them attractively in a box. Then we prayed that God would bless our morning call.  (After all, I think He’s the one who prompted the whole thing.)

Then, instead of going to service at our regular church, we drove to the charmingly steepled church near us that is home to a predominantly African-American congregation.  Neither Miss A. nor I knew a soul.  Nevertheless, we climbed those stairs with our cookies and our courage. I felt a little nervous, but I needn’t have.

What a wonderful morning it was!  The love and grace of that congregation filled the sanctuary. As we sang hymns in unison, I felt God’s very presence. I wondered how I would let them know the reason for my visit, or if I even should.  The answer came  with the morning announcements. Since we were clearly visitors, the pastor welcomed us. Then he asked if I had a greeting or a word to share.  My shyness threatened to take over, but I didn’t let it.  With a slightly shaky voice, I briefly spoke what was on my heart – that with all that’s going on in our country – the hurt, the killings, the divide, that I felt the Spirit’s prompting to step outside my normal routine and reach out in this way.  I added that I had also been prompted to bake cookies – and everyone laughed. I loved that.

The whole service was a blessing, but my favorite part was the altar call. We all – everyone of us – formed a circle in the center aisle. Then holding hands and leaning hearts and minds towards the altar, we prayed.  We prayed for peace and reconciliation for our country; we prayed for those who are hurt and grieving or ill; we prayed for hope and we affirmed that God is a God of life and that killing and hurting our fellow humans is not part of God’s plan for us.  And we thanked God for His love and grace.

Afterwards, we enjoyed cookies in the parish hall. I had a chance to talk and make more connections.  One of the parishioners  even said that the morning was like a breath of fresh air!  It was and I think we all needed it. When it was time to go, we were invited back anytime.  And we will be back… because  we are community and we need to come together and support each other.  Cookie by cookie, step by step.

My parting thought today, both for myself and for you, is what can I/you do this week to build bridges instead of walls, love instead of hate, and understanding instead of misunderstanding?  It doesn’t have to be anything big or complicated. It can be as easy as… baking cookies.

God bless you!

What’s Your BEESWAX? (Writerly Thoughts Inspired by my Son)

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He’s almost 16 now and hasn’t sewn much since that long-ago locker dangler.  But he’s still just as resolute, determined, and inspiring to me as ever.  (And my sewing is forevermore transformed!)  With this intro, please enjoy this old, but still inspiring, favorite post of mine.

As a sixth grader, my son took a mini-course in home economics. For the sewing component, he hand-stitched a simple felt pocket with a button loop to hang in his locker. He completed most of the “locker dangler” at school, but needed to finish the final step – sewing on the button- at home. After rummaging through my button box for a “funky” button, he was ready to get started.

I’m no seamstress, but I’ve sewn on buttons before. I’ve also hand-stitched doll quilts and sewn on my fair share of Boy Scout patches. So, in a knowing “I’ve done this before” tone of voice, I suggested that he double up his thread so it wouldn’t slip off the needle, but not make it too long, lest it get all twisty and knotted. This sometimes happens to me, and it’s a nuisance, requiring that I back up or start that section over.

My son, however, was resolute. “I’m supposed to do this by myself,” he explained. “And I know what to do.” Then, with remarkable skill, he threaded the needle, doubled up his strand and tied a tidy knot.  Finally, peering into my sewing kit he asked, “Where’s the beeswax?”

“The what?” I asked.

He looked at me incredulously. “You know, the beeswax.”  I didn’t know, but now I do, and I think my days of knotted thread might finally be over!  For, as every REAL seamstress knows, a coating of beeswax quickly applied to the thread, not only strengthens and bonds the double strand, it also makes it slippery so the stitches glide knot-free through the fabric.

Sometimes, like thread, my writing feels tight and knotty. The words don’t flow at all.  What I could really use is a little beeswax for my pen, or maybe even for my mind, to loosen me up and get those words gliding.

Thankfully, I think I’m a better writer than a seamstress. Here’s my writerly beeswax: I begin each writing session with 5 minutes (or more if I’m having fun) of just playing with words.  Somedays I’ll free write something that’s on my mind. Other days I’ll open with quick hand written list of, say, all the words that rhyme with shoe, or all the different ways a penny could get lost. Often that’s all I need to get me going.

How about you? What’s your BEESWAX?

PORCH WISDOM: Thoughts on Flowers and Life

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I’m sitting on my porch again this morning. It’s still early so it’s just me, the birds, my bible, journal, a cup of tea – and clippers.  That’s right, clippers.  And, after I reflect on Scripture, journal, pray, and finish this lovely cup of tea, I will put those clippers to good use. 

You see, this summer I bought two gorgeous hanging flower pots to decorate my front porch.  I love how they look, but I had no idea just how much tending they would require. Without daily – and if it’s a scorcher of a day, twice daily- watering, they wither. The delicate little flowers turn brown and fall off and the vine-y stems shrivel up like old twine. I know this because when I first hung them, I thought I could water them every other day. Now I know better and they are getting plenty to drink.

But to keep them truly bursting with those gorgeous blossoms, I’ve also learned that they require daily trimming.  Each morning, I snip off dead blossoms so that all their stored energy can focus on getting  all those new buds to blossom.  And as I do, I pray or think quietly aloud – yes, I sometimes even talk to them, but they love it! I love it! We are thriving together.

It just happens that this morning I was reading from the first chapter of  James. Found in the New Testament, this chapter is bursting with wisdom and exhortation, but -perhaps because of these hanging plants -I was especially struck by the verse that reads, “For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business” (NIV, James 1: 11).  

That verse, combined with my flowers, reminds me that life is indeed fleeting.  Like the flowers on my porch – that take my breath away each morning with their delicate beauty – my life, too, is filled with breathtaking blessings and riches – big and small. But like flowers, that can wither and fade even as we go about our business – if I’m not careful, these blessings too can pass by unnoticed and unappreciated.  And how awful would it be to have them wither and fade without my even recognizing them or taking the time to tend to and find joy in them!  I do not want to be so busy going about my business, that I miss the blessings, big and small, that enrich each day.  

My most precious blessing- my family – will soon awaken. And my clippers and that verse have inspired me.  No, I’m not going to use clippers on my family. But I am going to grab a spatula and bowl and make them a special pancake breakfast because we are all home today. It’s the Fourth of July and I can’t wait to tend to and find joy in their presence.

Happy Monday, all!

FAIRY WASH: Capturing Ideas Before They EVAPORATE!

IMG_2224In light of my post earlier this week on studying fairy houses, er, mentor texts, as a way to improve our picture book writing skills, I couldn’t resist continuing the fairy theme with this oldie but goodie.  (My daughter still LOVES fairies, by the way.)  I hope you enjoy the fairy analogy. 

My daughter, age eight, is convinced there are fairies living in our neighbor’s yard. For one thing, the dense flower beds and towering trees are perfect spots for fairy houses. We’ve even had a couple of unconfirmed sightings of dainty creatures with wings flying near the daisies. They may have been dragonflies, but you never know. The clincher, though, is that early the other morning, while walking the dog, I spotted fairy wash out to dry on our neighbor’s lawn.  I’m talking sheets and towels, blankets and pilllow cases. How do I know it was fairy wash? Well, I recognized it immediately from my own childhood, when my grandmother showed me fairy wash on her front lawn.  Fairy wash is distinctive because  it sparkles.

Skeptics think fairy linens are simply dew-dazzled spider webs, but my daughter and I know better. That’s why  when I returned from my walk, I grabbed my daughter (and camera) and hurried back so we could prove conclusively that fairies do indeed live in our neighborhood.

We were too late.  The fairy wash was no where insight.  It had evaporated, or rather, already been taken in by those elusive fairies. The next morning, intent on succeeding my daughter joined me on my early morning walk. Lo and behold, the fairies had again been busy with their wash and we now offer you our proof that they do indeed exist (see picture above).

As writers, there is a lesson to be learned here.  Ideas, after all, are kind of like fairy wash. If we don’t capture them right away, they might evaporate. That’s why I try to always carry not only my camera (so I can snap shots of those elusive fairies) but also my trusty tiny notebook.  It’s so small, there’s no excuse not to have it along at all times.  How about you?  Have you got that notebook ready so you can capture your next dazzling idea before it evaporates?

Happy writing, all!