SETTING THE GEARS IN MOTION: Writerly Thoughts inspired by my Antique Clock

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 15 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove -or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

Now, with the holiday season upon us, it might be hard to find long stretches of time to pursue writerly passions, but not impossible!  With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy. 

1. If writing daily through the holidays is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If  trying a new genre is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that, either now or in the new year, you will be ready to write that first draft.

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and have a wonderful week!

FAITH, HOPE, STRENGTH: Thoughts on BLESSINGS Given and Received

It’s been almost six years since my mother, whose lovely banner still graces this blog, passed away.  And though I no longer mourn her loss in the intense way I did in the months following her death, every so often, something catches me – takes me by surprise- blessing me anew with memories of how faith-filled and strong she was —even the midst of struggle.

The blessing happened again recently as I was sorting through a desk drawer. This particular drawer was stuffed with old journals, letters and photos and, in an effort to thoughtfully thin the contents, I pulled everything out so I could sort into keep and toss piles. That’s when I discovered this: 

I knew what it was immediately – one of my mother’s many sketchbooks, but I wasn’t sure exactly why it was in this drawer, since all the other contents were assorted papers of mine.

I have several sketchbooks of hers and they are all similar – a blend of notes to herself to remember – say – to pick up milk at the store – and sketches she made while sitting in concerts or coffee shops or parks. 

I opened this sketchbook gingerly and it was an instant peek into her soul.  Turning the pages, one by one, my heart filled with love for the hand that had etched each quick sketch and stylized ink creation, for they all reminded me of her. Here are some samples:

Then I turned the page and wow, just wow! Right before my eyes was the answer to a question I’d been longing to confirm for years —and regretting that I had not written down.  It was like an answered prayer —and a renewed blessing to me.

In the spring of 2012, six months before my mother was diagnosed with ALS, but when she was starting to suspect something wasn’t quite right because she was struggling to regain her strength after back surgery, despite intense physical therapy sessions at the gym, she felt overcome by fear and anxiety. So one morning, during her prayer time, she asked God to please grant her faith, hope, and strength for the days ahead. 

When she arrived at the gym she was in for a surprise.  Her regular therapist was not in that day. Instead, a new therapist, one she had never seen before, greeted her. There was nothing particularly different about him. He was just an ordinary guy, but he was kind and sweet with my mom and very soon she noticed three special things about him. First, he had two crosses around his neck (FAITH!).  Second, he had big tattoo on his right bicep that said HOPE!  And, third, as my mom explained to me afterwards, he was very, very strong (STRENGTH!). 

I remember the joy in my mom’s voice as she described this encounter to me, for she immediately saw God in the moment —using that therapist to bring her the promise of FAITH, HOPE and STRENGTH that she so longed for.  And, given my mother’s sense of humor, it arrived in the perfect package.  

It brought her such joy, indeed, that, later that day, she sketched it into her notebook —a soul-nourishing reminder that God hears us when we cry out to Him, and that if we are listening, and waiting expectantly, He will answer. 

Those drawings were primarily for feeding her soul, of course, but my re-discovering them also fed my soul. For me, and I hope for you, too, her sketches are a much needed reminder not to underestimate the power of the still, small voice of God to speak to you in the midst of your struggles – most likely in the way you least suspect – such as through presence of this kind therapist whose appearance, which reflected all three attributes my mother had prayed for that day, was just what she needed.  

Here’s my mind-boggling (at least to me), closing thought.  When that therapist got dressed that day, I’m sure he had no idea that God would use his very presence to bless a worn and discouraged woman who needed a little boost of encouragement.

Think about it. Maybe this very week, or this very day, or this very morning, you might be God’s vehicle —in a way you haven’t even fathomed— to bring Light and Hope to another. I don’t know about you, but that sure motivates me to step out into this day, with all that it brings – in kindness and love.  

May your week be filled with blessings —both received and given!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from Little Owl!

Little Owl Halloween with text

LOOK! Little Owl, the sweet protagonist from LOVE IS KIND (Zonderkidz, 2018), is all dressed up for Halloween with spider buttons and a pointy hat.  And he’s got his little jack-o-lantern, ready to fill with Halloween treats. In this sweet illustration, created by illustrator Lison Chaperon (thank you, Lison!), it looks to me like he’s also whispering to Dragon that he’s ready to share his candy along the way and say please and thank you at every house he visits.  (That’s showing showing thoughtfulness and love in true LOVE IS KIND style, don’t you think?) Happy Halloween, all!

LOVE IS KIND Blog Tour: FINAL Stop

Since a central theme of LOVE IS KIND is spreading love and kindness, for this last stop on my blog tour, Darlene Beck Jacobson asked me to reflect on three acts of kindness that have touched me as a picture book author. However, as I pondered which to choose, one stood out from the rest. It’s one that I’ve been wanting to honor for a long time, but wasn’t sure how.  So thank you, Darlene, for asking me to write this post because, as it turns out, this was exactly the “how” I was looking for.  So, dear readers, grab a cup of tea – and some tissues – and head on over. I’ll make it easy.  Here’s the link.

NINE TIPS for Reading Picture Books with Babies/Toddlers

New Parent MeetupLast week I spent a special morning at the New Parent Meet Up at Farinolio‘s, sipping coffee and sharing a little bit about myself and my journey into picture book writing… along with some tips and reasons for reading to our babies. Here are a few pictures that capture the joy of the morning.

During my mini-informal presentation, one of my mama friends also captured this snippet of a sweet reading-related testimonial about the special bonding demonstrated years ago when my son was born 16 weeks early.

I hope that this clip  – along with the nine tips that follow -inspire you to read, read, read with your babies – and babies on the way! Now, without further fuss, are the nine tips I shared.

NINE TIPS FOR READING PICTURE BOOKS WITH BABIES and TODDLERS: 

Tip #1: Make reading time special. (It’s about more than just reading. It’s about
bonding, interacting and fostering love of story and storytelling.)

Tip #2: Ask questions. “Where’s the___?” “Who/what’s that?” “What’s ___ doing?”

Tip #3: Read anywhere, anytime. Read often.

Tip #4: Add simple actions and/or sounds. (Like animal sounds)

Tip #5 Vary the delivery. Sing the story. Use different voices.

Tip #6: Let toddlers turn the pages. Anticipate what will happen.

Tip #7: Extend the story with an activity. (Like counting or drawing)

Tip #8 Read the same stories again and again… if they ask! That’s how they learn and grow.

Tip #9: Establish weekly library visits. (Let them pick some of the books.)

Happy Reading, all!

Celebrating Grandparents Day with LOVE IS KIND

 

Tomorrow I’ll be sharing LOVE IS KIND at a special Grandparents’ Day Celebration at a local preschool. It’s a lovely pairing of story and celebration because one of the themes of LOVE IS KIND is the specialness of the bond that children have with their grandparents. Indeed, it’s Little Owl’s love for Grammy that sets the story in motion… and it’s Grammy’s love for him that brings the story to a cozy resolution.

Here’s a sweet glimpse of that bond in a special clip illustrator Lison Chaperon made to celebrate LOVE IS KIND:

I love that Little Owl and his grammy have such a sweet relationship, because it reminds me of the special bond I shared with each of my grandmothers.  I didn’t call either of them Grammy, but I most certainly shared a special connection with each that I treasure to this day.

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Me with my Nana circa 1970.

I called my paternal grandmother “Nana”and she taught me what unconditional love looks and feels like.  I will always associate the sweet scent of chocolate chip cookies with her and have fond memories of sitting beside her as she did her daily crossword puzzle. She showed love in quiet, gentle ways – through hand-made gifts like crocheted throws and homemade dresses- and just quietly being.  We always knew she loved us no matter what.

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Me with Mymommie circa 2002

I called my maternal grandmother “Mymommie” because as a small child, when my mother referred to her as “Mommie” I got confused and would always say, “You?” To this my mother would smile and answer, “No, my mommie!” and the name stuck. Unlike Nana who was so quiet and gentle, Mymommie was more of the outgoing, life of the party type.  From her, I learned what it looked and sounded like to be poised and articulate. She was also a voracious reader and wonderful storyteller and I like to think that I got my love of story from her. 

Though both have passed away, I still feel a special bond to them, for in their own ways, they each helped me to become the grown up I am now. How special was their influence?

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Dedication in “Love is Kind”

Special enough that I decided to dedicate LOVE IS KIND to their memories.  Thank you, Mymommie and Nana, for instilling in me a love for life and an appreciation of the gift of love.

If you have the chance to read LOVE IS KIND either as a grandparent reading with your grandchild or as a grandchild reading with your grand, I hope you will each take a moment to let each other know just how special you are to each other.

Happy Reading, all!

P.S. For those of you unfamiliar with the National Grandparents Day, it was officially designated as the first Sunday after Labor Day in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. You can learn more about the day here.   

PLUCKING SAPLINGS:  Thoughts on THE LITTLE PRINCE and, of course, WRITING!

IMG_7234 2One of my favorite books as a child was LE PETIT PRINCE which I read in French because we were living in Paris at the time.  My teacher, Mme. Lucas, chose it for our class because it was relatively simple in terms of word choice and sentence length, which was perfect for intermediate level students (and foreigners) like me.  But even as an eleven year old, I understood that there was more to the story than the relatively simple word choice and plot structure.  THE LITTLE PRINCE, I soon discovered, had the magic ability to touch readers on different levels.  It was my first exposure to allegory and symbolism and reading it brought storytelling to life for me in a new way that still resonates with the reader and writer in me.

But, there was one part of the book that for years I just didn’t get. What was up with those pesky baobabs? The Little Prince was so adamant about plucking them the minute they sprouted on his little asteroid B612, that he insisted the narrator draw a picture of what a planet overrun by baobabs might look like as a warning to children who might travel to faraway planets as he had. “If you attend to a baobab too late,” he warned, “you can never get rid of it again!” As a child, the picture of the baobab infested planet was of my favorites because I thought it so preposterous.

To this day, every time I pluck a wayward oak or maple or elm sapling, I think of the Little Prince and those baobabs which is, in and of itself, a testament to the power of story. It wasn’t until last summer however, when an unusually large number of Rose of Sharon saplings invaded a corner of our back yard, that I fully appreciated his insistence on attending promptly to wayward saplings.

IMG_7231At first, I ignored our sprouting Roses of Sharon. After all, they were small and green and seemingly harmless, right?  By end of summer, though, I had second thoughts and decided I should pluck them.  And guess what? The Little Prince was right!  I had waited too long. It was such hard work plucking all those tenacious little saplings that I vowed never again to ignore a wayward sapling.  However, I noticed this summer that I didn’t quite get them all, which attests to his princely wisdom.

I think the Little Prince’s wisdom can be applied to our writing as well.  First,  if we’re not careful, just like that baobab-infested planet, the little planet that is our work-in-progess can quickly become overrun with filler words, tell-y descriptions, forced plot twists etc.  Our job as writers, then, is, first, to be able to recognize those unwanted story bits, and second, to be willing to pluck them, just as the Little Prince insisted, before they take over our story planet.  

IMG_6656But the Little Prince didn’t pluck everything. He allowed some seedlings to grow, like his treasured rose. He tended to that rose with the utmost care because she, unlike the baobab, was the perfect size for his planet.  And he liked her company. Likewise, our writing notebooks and computer files are filled with all sorts of stories-in-progress.  Some have more potential than others. The trick is to have the discernment to see which story seedlings are worth pursuing so they grow into magnificent – publishable – stories.  

With that last thought in mind, I’d like to share one final image. Nine years ago I spotted a wayward sapling growing in the garden by the fence.  It was a nice little sapling and I kind of liked it there, so let it be and it grew… and grew… and grew. It now provides nice shade in that part of the yard. It turns out it’s an elm, the offspring, probably, of the old elm just up the street that had to be chopped down last summer because, after almost 100 years, it was sick.  And now… there’s a new tree – with a new story to tell.  

IMG_7230This week as you sit down to write, what kinds of seedlings do you spot – both within your stories-in-progress and in the larger body of your ideas and projects? Are there some story bits that need to be plucked or stories-in-progress that need to be set aside? Then do that! But surely there are also a few projects or ideas, that like this vibrant young elm, are meant to survive and thrive and enrich the world. Don’t pluck those! Instead tend to them with loving care!  Happy writing, all! 

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: Five Things That FLOAT my Family’s BOAT

Five things float boat

RUMBLE! BOOM! If your family is anything like mine, life can be stormy, what with the winds of busy-ness blowing us this way and that. And even if we’re not in the midst of truly stormy times, I find, as a mom, that it’s necessary to be intentional about finding creative, loving ways to stay afloat above the sea of activities and responsibilities of family living. Indeed one of the themes I hope readers (and their parents) will take away from my first book, GOODNIGHT, ARK  (Zonderkidz, 2014), is that sometimes a little extra TLC is just what’s needed to make things okay, even in the midst of a storm!

Now in celebration of TLC (tender lovin’ care) and GOODNIGHT, ARK (which has consistently been #1 bestseller in the Noah’s Ark Children’s Books on Amazon for the past several weeks), here are five things that keep my family afloat (and happy).

  1. Morning Hugs – From the moment they came home as babies, we’ve started our mornings with what we now call the “morning hug”.  Indeed the first sentence out of my daughter’s mouth each morning is,  “Time for my morning hug.”  And mine:  “Me, too.”  My son, age 17, now gives more of a morning shrug, but we still all know that the morning wouldn’t be quite the same without it.
  2. Special Breakfasts –  These are pretty self-explanatory. I mean isn’t any day extra special if it begins with pancakes and bacon, or warm-out-of-the oven blueberry muffins? The extra, extra special twist is that these breakfasts are often a group effort.  Who wants to stir?
  3. Family Dinners – Eat together.  Talk together. Be together.  Need I say more?
  4. After Dinner Sillies – This is our family’s favorite time to let loose and be silly. We’ve done foot puppet shows, dance numbers, stand-up comedy, you name it. Anything goes, really, in this delightful post-dinner moment of relaxation before dishes are cleared and the evening routine of finishing up homework, cleaning up after dinner, taking showers etc. resumes.
  5. Pillow Ponderings (and Prayers) There’s something about the cozy comfort of bedtime that brings out a reflective spirit in each of my children. And I love nothing better than talking with my kids about what’s on their mind and then wrapping it all up in prayer, before giving each that last goodnight kiss and turning out the light. Even when I’m tired to the core, like the Noah in my story must have been when he finally settled those animals down, I wouldn’t miss these special bedtime moments.

HAPPY FLOATING, ALL!

(An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog in May 2016 and on Becky Kopitzke’s lovely blog.)

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY: A Sentimental Reflection

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As Fernando, Delores and I head out for a special “Muffins with Mom” tea and storytime at a local preschool today, I find myself feeling a little sentimental about my own mom, whose birthday would have been tomorrow. She was an artist and an inspiration to me in all things, including how to live a good life despite difficult circumstances.

She never got to see DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE in final book form, but she did encourage me to keep working on it during the early drafting stage and I know she’s up there cheering me on.

And today, in a way, I, too, will be bringing my mom to “Muffins with Mom” for I will be wearing the special pin my sister and dad had made featuring her signature bird. ❤️

Happy Mother’s Day (almost) to all!  And don’t forget to give your mom a hug, if she’s still around, and tell her how much you love her!

“Scuffin” or “Mone”: 4 TIPS to TEST the TASTINESS of your STORIES

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My daughter loves creating new recipes and one of her favorite strategies in the kitchen is to take a tried-and-true favorite, and then add an unexpected twist.  Most of the time her creations are delicious, but tonight, as I’m reminiscing about her joyful kitchen spirit, I’m reminded of the time she proudly offered me her fresh out of the oven creation – “the scuffin”, as she called it, a creative combination of two favorite teatime treats – the muffin and the scone.  Sounds delish, right?

We thought so too, so before actually tasting them, we posted on Facebook this delectable-looking picture along with this tantalizing description:  

“Crispy on the outside like a scone and fluffy on the inside like a muffin…with chocolate chips too. Yum!”

Immediately, “likes” and congratulatory comments filled my Facebook timeline.  But, to our horror, when we took our first nibbles we discovered they were… awful! Thus, in the interest of full-disclosure, I added this to the post:

“…to be perfectly honest, once we tried them we both agreed that they were a little heavy and they stuck to the paper. I think, in all honesty, that they should be called “mones” instead of “scuffins” because that better connotes the feeling you have have after eating one.”

Writing can be a lot like baking. Often, the results of experimentation are successful, but sometimes instead of picture book “scuffins” we produce “mones”.  So what’s the secret to distinguishing between story drafts that are light and delicious, as opposed to “mone” inducing?  Miss A. and I are so glad you asked. Here are our suggestions:

TIP #1: Give your “scuffin”, er story, time to cool before tasting. This will allow you to remove yourself a little from the the process, so that you can discern – without so much emotion – whether your creation is light and delicious… or not.

 TIP #2: Keep track of  drafts so you know what’s working or not in each round of recipe, er story, creation, so you can add and modify intelligently. After assessing her recipe notes, Miss A. thought, perhaps, that she added too much oil to her batter, and in revising for the next batch, she used less.  The new “scuffins”, IMHO, were better, as a result. Likewise, if you keep track of changes/additions/deletions made to each draft of your story, you can more easily assess and make effective improvements.

TIP #3: Let a few trusted critiquers sample and give feedback on your latest “scuffin” in progress.  As Miss A. discovered, the feedback from a slightly more seasoned baker (me!), was just what she needed to take her “scuffin” from “mone” to “magnifique”!

TIP #4: DO NOT send to local bakeries, i. e. publishers, too soon!  Not that Miss A has even considered marketing her kitchen creations, it’s still good advice. Far too many new writers, submit their work to publishers far too quickly when patience, I have learned, is the better way… by FAR!

Well, that’s it from the Sassi kitchen today!  Happy story baking!