PHEASANTS and WEASELS: Avoiding Word Blunders

Bird Under ParasolPlease join me over at my online critique group’s blog – PENS AND BRUSHES – for some thoughts on avoiding embarrassing word blunders. I’ll make it easy for you. Press here.

CHRISTMAS in JUNE: (Look what landed my porch!)

IMG_0241I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for surprise packages, like these advanced copies of GOODNIGHT, MANGER (Zonderkidz, 2015) which arrived yesterday. There’s something magical about holding the book you’ve journeyed with for so long – from inspiration to the hard work of writing to – finally -publication! With Jane Chapman once again illustrating, the book has come together beautifully!

To pique your interest, here is the blurb from the inside flap:

“It’s bedtime for baby Jesus, but who knew a stable could be so loud?  Mama, Papa, and all of the animals try to lull the baby to sleep, but between itchy hay, angels singing, and three kings bearing gifts, it’s just too noisy.  Cuddle up as Mama finds a way for everyone to work together to shepherd Baby into peaceful dreams under the twinkling stars.”

GOODNIGHT, MANGER is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.  The release date is October 6th, 2015 – just in time for the holidays.  I am also starting to schedule readings and visits.  If you would like me to do a reading for your preschool or early elementary school class via Skype or in person, please contact me via my contact tab.

Happy reading, all!

PARLOR PLIÉS: Thoughts on Ballet and Writing

IMG_2946.JPGRight now my daughter, aged 10, is dancing around the living room to the rich music of Coppelia, a beautiful 19th century ballet. Using a dish towel as a prop, she’s flitting and twirling and swooping to the music in perfect motion. I would love to snap a photo, but she has asked me to remain in the kitchen (where I am cleaning up from supper) and I want to respect her privacy.  But, oh my, each time I peek in I am amazed. She is 100% into the moment – listening to the mood of the music and improvising as she goes.  And, wow, how her movements flow. The result is beautiful!

As a writer, I am taking note. This young budding artist is not letting the inner voices of self doubt and fear of criticism interfere one bit. Perhaps she hasn’t even recognized their pesky little voices yet.

I was never a dancer, but I have distant recollections of that beautiful innocent time when I just let my creativity flow both through writing and drawing without holding back. That phase ended for me in mid-elementary school when I suddenly became self conscious about my writing, especially at school. Thankfully, I continued to write stories and poems for my own pleasure.  Still, it took years for me to return to that safe place where I felt secure enough to really open up and let that creativity flow again.

To reach our full creative potentials, we must follow my sweet daughter’s example and reconnect with that creative sweet spot from our childhood when we felt free to create without inhibition. Will you join me this week in finding the joyful spot? Happy dancing, er writing, all!

SKUNKS and SKETCHES: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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NOTE: I simply can’t resist piggybacking (or should I say skunk backing) on yesterday’s skunky quiz with a few writerly thoughts on skunks, elephants, and creativity, so please bear with me and enjoy! 

Can you guess what these are?

They’re preliminary sketches for the sleepy little pair skunks and the large pair of frightened elephants that appear in GOODNIGHT, ARK. When Jane Chapman first posted them on Facebook a few months back, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I was amazed at all the detail and artistic brainstorming that went into developing these delightful animals. They clearly show that she spent at least as much time “playing with pictures”  as I spent “playing with words” in the creation of my story.

Jane’s sketches are a wonderful reminder that there is joy in the process of creating and that creating takes time.  Don’t rush the process by just sketching one skunk or elephant.  Sketch a a full page of them!  Likewise, don’t rush to finalize your word choice or your plot twists. Keep on playing with those words and let the creative process work its magic. Fill an entire notebook if you need to. That’s what I did!

As a fun aside, and in conclusion of today’s skunk-themed thoughts, if you have a copy of GOODNIGHT, ARK, you might enjoy examining these sketches and then perusing the pages of the story to see which sketches made the final cut.  The students I share the sketches with LOVE doing this and I have to agree, it’s fun!

Enjoy!

Happy NATIONAL SKUNK DAY! (And a QUIZ)

IMG_0354Did you know that in addition to being Flag Day, yesterday was also National Skunk Day?! And since a pair of the little stinkers play an important role in GOODNIGHT, ARK, I’ve grown especially fond of the species.

So now, in celebration of skunks, not just once a year, but every day, here’s a fun quiz to test your skunk expertise.

1. TRUE or FALSE:  All skunks have black and white stripes.

2.TRUE or FALSE: A batch of baby skunks is called a litter.

3. TRUE or FALSE: Spraying that stinky mist is a skunk’s first defense mechanism.

4. Which of the following predators are IMMUNE to the skunk’s stinky spray?

A. foxes         B. coyotes             C. great horned owls       D.badgers

5. TRUE or FALSE: Bathing in tomato juice is the best remedy for “de-skunking”.

ANSWERS: (Skunk’s honor: no peeking until after the quiz.)

1. FALSE: All skunks are black and white which acts as a warning for predators to keep away. The specific fur patterning, however, varies.  Different types of skunks have different black and white patterns including stripes, spots, and swirls.

2. TRUE: Skunk babies are born in the spring. Mother skunks typically give birth to between two and ten babies per year.  The babies follow their mother around until late summer when they are ready to be on their own.

3. FALSE: Lifting the tail and spraying is a skunk’s LAST line of defense. Before resorting to spraying, skunks give several warning signs including growling, stomping feet and, finally, raising  tails and hind legs while stomping. These advanced warning signals give predators time to back-off without getting sprayed.

4. C. Great Horned Owls, and most larger birds of prey, are immune to the skunk’s stinky spray.

5. FALSE: Actually, according the Humane Society plain old tomato juice isn’t all that effective because it lacks the acidity necessary to neutralize the chemicals in the stinky spray.  Adding vinegar helps somewhat, but the best way to  “de-skunk”, according the Humane Society, is to make your own odor neutralizing home remedy.  For more on that, visit this helpful post from Humane Society.

To learn more about skunks check out these great resources from National Geographic, the University of Michigan and the Humane Society.

GUEST POST: Teaching the Tool of Time with Cathy Ballou Mealey

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Today I am delighted to have picture book writer Cathy Ballou Mealey as my guest.  She and I are kindred spirits in that we both share a love for kid’s poetry, picture books, reading and… ART!  Today she’s here to inspire us with an encouraging post on harnessing the creative potential inherent in the process of waiting for writerly feedback.  Take it away, Cathy!  

Teaching the Tool of Time 

by Cathy Ballou Mealey

In a 2013 Harvard Magazine article entitled The Power of Patience, professor Jennifer L. Roberts writes about teaching her art and architecture students about the value of immersive attention. Counter to the trends in today’s high-speed, digitally oriented classrooms, she deliberately creates assignments that force students to slow down and spend time in deep contemplation.

Specifically, her students must write an intensive research paper on a single work of art after devoting three continuous hours in a museum studying the piece and noting their emerging discoveries. Of course students resist. Three hours is a large chunk of time to commit, and with no social media? But later they all report being astonished by the revelations of this exercise.

Roberts proverbially “puts her money where her mouth is” by devoting three hours to study John Singleton Copley’s 1765 work A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham). Nine minutes into the exercise, she sees that the boy’s ear crinkles echo the squirrel’s belly folds. After 21 minutes, she notes the span of his fingers measure the precise width of the water glass. Then she wonders why his face is turned in profile, and what is odd about that red curtain?

When Roberts launches into the history component of her lesson, the story is completely gripping. A self-taught artist isolated from esteemed European art academies, Copley was hungry for feedback to improve his work. He painted this portrait, boxed it up, walked to Boston Harbor to put it on a ship bound for London, and waited. After eleven months, he got a note that they thought his work was “too liney.” What exactly did that mean? he wrote back. And waited again for a response.

Those of us in the throes of queries and submissions know all too well about waiting for feedback. In 250 years, have we made no progress in the speed at which we get answers? Copley knew his wait would be long, but the modern world is unused to such a pace. Roberts suggests we regain an awareness of the value of patience as a tool. We have the power to put our waiting time to good use through thoughtful observation and careful questioning. If Roberts had looked away after ten minutes, she would have missed many significant details that greatly enriched her later research on the painting’s symbolism.

Waiting is never easy, but perhaps we can learn to harness the creative potential inherent in the process. If  you would like to study an image of A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) follow this Museum of Fine Arts, Boston link. Or you may wish to watch Jennifer Roberts lecture about The Power of Patience from the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching conference. Whatever you are waiting for, I hope you pass the time productively!

20141031_144419 (2)Cathy Ballou Mealey is a picture book writer and former college administrator. She volunteers for her children’s schools, local literacy efforts, and organizations supporting children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Read more about Cathy’s thoughts on poetry, art and picture books on her blog. She also reviews new children’s books at Good Reads with Ronna and for North Shore Children & Families. She is represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency.

Goodnight, Ark – BOARD BOOK Edition – Ready to SET SAIL!

photo 2Look what sailed on to my porch last Thursday. It’s the BOARD BOOK edition of GOODNIGHT, ARK!  With sturdy pages and a padded cover, it’s perfect for littlest readers who want to turn the pages themselves. It’s a good size too – bigger than most of the board books I read my kids when they were little. Perfect for showing off all the wonderful details in Jane’s illustrations. It still has the full text too! A great value for $8.99. The release date for GOODNIGHT, ARK (board book edition) is August 4, 2015. It’s available for pre-order now at your favorite store.

In celebration of its release I will be doing a special story time/booksigning at Lakeside Chautaqua in Ohio.  Hosted by Lakeside’s Fine Print Bookstore, the event will take place at Green Gables, 11:00 am, August 3rd, 2015. Please join me if you are in the area.

More celebrating to come. Stay tuned.

PICKING RASPBERRIES: Thoughts on Writing and Living

RaspberriesIt’s almost raspberry picking time again and that has gotten me thinking about, of all things, life and how we choose to live it. A couple of summers ago I posted a writing analogy about raspberries. In that post I described how my children and I were enjoying picking raspberries up the street in a wild raspberry patch we had discovered.  I observed that even in this culture where “more” is perceived as “better”, my kids understood that part of what made the berries in this patch special was their scarcity. Each day we ate only a few and we savored each one.

Summertime writing, I observed, was a lot like raspberry picking because, with my kids home from school, time to write would be at a premium. Each day, like raspberries, I would pick a few precious moments to write. These times, I explained, would be short, but intense, and I vowed to savor each and every one.

After that post went live, my mother, who many of you will recall was in the midst if fighting a valiant battle with ALS, sent me this email which I saved and now treasure.  She wrote:

Reading your latest blog, it struck me that what you say about savoring wild raspberries is a lot like living with ALS– I try to enjoy, get the most out of, each little thing that happens — our telephone calls, John’s sweet smile (that’s my dad), a cardinal flying by, sitting at Sunnyside…..It is having appreciation for small things that makes for a happy life.

Her wise words have stuck with me, for in the big picture, we are all like my mother. No, we don’t all have ALS, but we all live in an imperfect world where bad things happen. Our hearts get wrenched. We go through difficult times. We struggle. But, if in the midst of all that, we can find something good in each day, even if it’s just a little thing or a small moment, then like my mother, I think we too, will find the secret to a happy life.

What small moments will come your way today?  Take time today to recognize them and to give thanks.  Blessings, all!

FUN MAIL: First Grader Reviews GOODNIGHT, ARK (and the author!)

Last week, I received a note from a first grade teacher at Bloomingdale Avenue School.  In her note she explained that since March, when I visited her class, her students have been busy writing reviews of all sorts, including book reviews. And one darling first grader chose to write his book review about Goodnight, Ark!. “This was his choice to review your book,” she explained. “He did a great job.”  Well, I completely agree! He did do a great job and I especially enjoyed how he gave a bit of a review of the author as well. What fun! Thank you!

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WEEDING BAREHANDED: Thoughts on Tending Our Stories

photo 1My husband likes weeding with gloves on which definitely has its advantages. It keeps dirt from getting stuck under his fingernails and protects his skin against nettles, thorns, and other prickly bits of nature. It’s also an effective safeguard against the wayward poison ivy which occasionally creeps into our flower garden from the wild weed patch next door.

I, however, prefer weeding barehanded. Scandalous, I know. To me, gloves are a hindrance.  When I have them on, I can’t properly feel the roots of those pesky weeds. And when I have gloves on, one of two terrible things happens:  1) I end up extracting only the top portion of some weedy nuisance, thus encouraging future weedy growth, or 2)  my hands are so clumsy that I inadvertently pull up more than just weeds! Either way, my garden suffers.

But, weeds beware, without gloves I’m going to get you!  And yes it’s dirty  My nails get cruddy and the swirls and curves of my finger prints really stand out in muddy relief, but it also feels good. Barehanded, I feel a connection to the rich soil beneath my garden. And it’s easy to identify the roots of each weed and to extract them completely. If my garden could speak, I think it would thank me, because when I weed barehanded the garden looks better.  Much better.

My writing, too, needs weeding and it’s done best without gloves on. Barehanded revising is messy, but if you are willing to dig in to your garden of words – mud, worms and all – and if you are willing to get to the root of the weedy bits, even if it means getting cruddy in the process, your story will flourish. Indeed, if your story could speak, I am quite convinced, that like my garden, it would thank you.

Don’t be afraid to take off those writerly gloves of inhibition and really dig in to the messy process of revising!  And may your gardens, er stories, flourish!