HAPPY THANKS-GRIEVING: Reflections on Joy in the Midst of Sadness

 

 

I lost my mother early Thanksgiving morning four years ago.

I had awakened early that morning to get a turkey in the oven for dinner at our house later that day. It was heavy and awkward, and involved lots of clean up afterwards, but I was grateful for the normalcy of the act and was looking forward, in a distracted way, to having my husband’s family over for such a traditional, time-honored meal.

But to be honest, at my deepest core, I was struggling to be thankful. The previous December my mother had been diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – a heart-breaking disease that slowly kills the nerves in your body, paralyzing you till you can no longer walk, move, eat, speak.

And over the previous eleven months, I had watched my mother decline. But her prayer all that year, and mine, and we prayed it often, whether together or apart, was that she would feel Gods’s presence and that He’d give her the courage she needed to live life each day.  We also prayed for mercy and grace.

And God answered our prayers, for even as her muscles steadily atrophied, as she lost the ability to walk and to draw (she was an artist) and to speak and eat, her soul rallied. She adjusted to life, first with a scooter, and then with a wheelchair. Every day she treated herself to long rides out in the sunshine and she always had a wave and a smile for passers-by.  Indeed, I was amazed at how she was able to find the good in each day. She encouraged me to do that too.

So, drawing on her example of strength and blessing even in the midst of great challenges, I resolved that morning to give thanks. In fact, I had just written that in my journal when the phone rang. It was my father calling to say my mom had died. She had gone to bed very tired that night, but apparently fine. However, at 6 am when he went to her bed, she had gone.

In a quick change of plans, I passed the Thanksgiving off to my husband, hastily packed a bag, and drove six hours straight to be with my dad.  As I did, my daughter’s teary voice repeated in my head. “Why Mommy, why did Mattie have to die?  It’s supposed to be HAPPY Thanksgiving.  But instead it’s so SAD.”  Yes, I thought, so terribly sad.

IMG_1776Over the next few days, my dad, sister and I did all the things one has to do when someone dies. We kept ourselves busy, but as we did waves of tears would overcome us. In the evenings we’d sit by the fire alternately talking and being quiet. At one point my dad said my mom had been having panic attacks the last several nights before her death because she felt trapped in her body. So I asked him if he thought she had been afraid.  He answered, “Yes, of course she was afraid, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have courage. She had great courage. God gave that to her.” Having courage, he reminded me, isn’t living in the absence of fear. Courage is having strength as we face our fears.

That got me thinking. It’s kind of the same way with sadness. We are sad. One sure thing in life is that there will be sadness, but there will also be joy.  And just as my mother could at the same time be courageous and yet have fear, we too can rejoice, even in the midst of sadness.

Joy in the midst of sadness – light in the midst of darkness – that’s really what faith in Christ is all about.  My hope for you this Thanksgiving, for all of us really, is that wherever you find your soul this week – you will feel the presence of the One who has overcome it all.  And that just as my mother did, through God’s grace and mercy, even in the midst of her terrible circumstance, each of us will find joy and goodness even in the midst of life’s challenges.

With a heart full of thanks,

Laura

 

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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Carol Gordon Ekster in Celebration of the release of her newest book YOU KNOW WHAT?

YouKnowWhatbookcoverPlease join me in welcoming four-time picture book author Carol Gordon Ekster as we chat about her newest book YOU KNOW WHAT?, illustrated by Nynke Talsma and published by Clavis, a Belgian publisher, about a little boy who’s doing his very best to postpone bedtime by asking lots of questions.  Her other books include RUTH THE SLEUTH AND THE MESSY ROOM (Character Publishing), BEFORE I SLEEP, I SAY THANK YOU (Pauline Press and Media) and WHERE AM I SLEEPING TONIGHT?  (Boulden Publishing) Take a look at the YOU KNOW WHAT? book trailer below, then enjoy the interview that follows, with my questions in warm blue to match the book cover..

 Question 1: First of all, welcome, and congratulations on this latest book.  What inspired you to write YOU KNOW WHAT?

I love writing on planes…the confinement, the focus…my mind flies off into its best creative space. So there I was, in August 2014, on an airplane to meet my grandson two days after he was born. My laptop was on the tray and I was working on a story. I heard the child in front of me say to his parents, “You know what?” And my fingers immediately started typing a new document. That day I began brainstorming, more of a cause and effect exercise with every sentence beginning with, “You know what?” But when I returned home and began the real work on that draft, it developed into a conversation between a mother and son where Oliver uses the repeated, “You know what?” to postpone his bedtime.  The story wasn’t planned, it came to me like a gift. I wonder if I hadn’t been in that exact seat or not heard this child’s “You know what?” would I have picked it up somewhere else? I think catching the right story idea is a miracle!

I think you were meant to be sitting in that exact spot.  What a wonderful example of being intentional and ever on the look-out for story sparks. 

Question 2: Did you always want to be a writer? Tell us a little bit about your writing journey.

No, I did not always want to be a writer! Writing is hard. I was passionate about teaching and lived and breathed it most of my life as a fourth grade teacher. There was little room for anything else. Then my last seven years before retirement, writing snuck in like a welcome surprise. The need to write came over me at the beach one day. I felt taken over and had to walk to my car to get post-its, the only thing I had to write on, and a pen. I came back to my seat on the sand to write my first picture book. It was never published and unless it undergoes major revision, will never be sold. But that was the first of many. I started writing late in life and am making up for lost time.  It was the 20th manuscript that I wrote that was the first to sell. Starting to write while teaching was a sweet beginning into this journey because I got to share it with students. I became a better teacher and a better writer and I believe my students became better writers because they saw the writing process in action. They were my first critique group! Now retirement gives me the time to live and breathe writing. It’s such a great second career in that I get to continue communicating with children, but I can do it anywhere and on my own schedule.

Your journey into writing is inspirational and a lovely reminder that writing is a craft/career that one can hone and develop at any age.  

Question 3: Most books by American authors are published first in English and then, if we are lucky, they get translated into other languages.  But YOU KNOW WHAT? was first published in Dutch!  Tell us a little bit about that process. 

This process was definitely a little scary! The Dutch version came out in December 2016. I couldn’t help in its promotion, see it bookstores, check Amazon’s Author Central to know how it was selling. I had to trust in Clavis Books. I was excited at the possibility of extending my readership. And Clavis brings their books to all the international book fairs, which is wonderful. Both Chinese and Korean publishers already bought the rights. My other books have never been translated into another language, so I’ve been ecstatic. The English version came out September 1, 2017 and now I can get involved in marketing and help spread the word…like right here with you.

And here’s the Dutch cover so our readers can see what that version looks like.  

BookCover-MamaWistJeDatQuestion 4: 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?

Yes! I have activities, as I do for all my books, on my web page. I am a teacher first and foremost and as I’m writing a book I’m often thinking of extension activities and asking myself questions like will this work for a mentor text for strong verbs, alliteration, etc. With YOU KNOW WHAT? someone in my critique group suggested a different ending, which left things open ended. I loved that and immediately knew I’d make a sheet that children could fill out with what they thought that last “you know what?” might be. And I got the sweetest e-mail from a winner of the Shelf Awareness giveaway. She read the book with her five year old granddaughter with her granddaughter reading Oliver’s part while she read the mother’s part. Because YOU KNOW WHAT? is entirely a dialog between Oliver and his mom, the book lends itself to that kind of readers’ theatre. I hadn’t thought of that and was thrilled to learn of another way to read this book.

Here is the link where you can find language arts, math, creative arts, dramatic play, and gross motor activities that coordinate with the book.   Terrific!

 Question 5: Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books and projects in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?

I recently sent out my 80th manuscript. And I have SO many more on my desk top in varying degrees of readiness to be sent out to publishers. I am not yet agented so I do research about where to send my stories and then send them out on my own. I am hopeful there will be more published books in my future.

As far as where readers can find my books, I love supporting local bookstores. But if that isn’t an option, you can find the book at all e-tailers. Also, I love public libraries and am an avid user myself. You can ask your library to get the book for you if they don’t already have it.

Wow!  80 manuscripts.  Now that’s something to aspire to.  Thank you so much for joining me here today, Carol.   And readers, here’s how you can learn more and connect with Carol:

Goodreads  https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1867583.Carol_Gordon_Ekster

Twitter  https://twitter.com/cekster

Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/cekster

Group blog: https://writersrumpus.com/author/cekster/

Carol's professional photo for booksAbout the author:

Carol Gordon Ekster taught elementary school teacher for 35 years.  Her first published book, Where Am I Sleeping Tonight?-A Story of Divorce, Boulden Publishing, 2008, was an About.com Readers’ Choice 2012 finalist for Best Children’s Book for Single Parents. The Library Is The Perfect Place”, was acquired by Library Sparks magazine, 2010.  A picture book, Ruth The Sleuth and The Messy Room, was on Character Publishing’s debut list, 2011 and was awarded the Children’s Literary Classics Seal of Approval.  Her picture book, Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You, Pauline Books and Media, released January 1, 2015 and is now in its third printing. The book was the 3rd place winner in the Catholic Press Association’s 2016 Book Awards in the children’s category and was a finalist for the ACP Excellence in Publishing Awards 2016. Her first e-book came out spring 2015 as part of a digital library with Schoolwide, Inc. Her new book, You Know What? with Clavis Books came out first in Dutch, December 2016, and the English version released September 1, 2017. Korean and Chinese versions are in the works. Carol spends time in critique groups, doing exercise and yoga, and working on her books.

PRODUCTIVE PATIENCE: Ten Ideas to Keep a Writer Busy (and Productive) While WAITING for WRITERLY NEWS…

FullSizeRender (1)One thing I’ve learned as a picture book author is that the publishing process is SLOW! This SLOWNESS includes not only the writing stage –  it took two years to get my first book GOODNIGHT ARK polished for publication and there was an even longer process for me in writing my newest upcoming book DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE – but also the submitting and publishing stages.  When “on sub”, there’s the nail biting while you wait for editors to respond to stories you have submitted for consideration.  That can take months!  Or years (as I have discovered)! And then, once a piece is accepted, it typically takes another two years for a picture book to finally release – mainly because illustrating the book alone takes almost a year.

So, what is an eager writer to do while she (or he) waits?  Here’s a list to inspire you… please add to it in the comments – and inspire me!

  1. Brainstorm new story ideas. Tara Lazar’s annual January STORYSTORM challenge is a great way to jumpstart this.
  2. Keep writing. This includes journaling, working on stories-in-progress and, of course, new pieces. Any combination is fine. Just keep moving forward, writing-wise.
  3. Read, read, read. For me, this means regularly checking out new and classic picture books from the library and analyzing what makes them work – or not.)
  4. Work on building your social media platform.  This can include maintaining your blog and engaging regularly on Twitter and Facebook. I’m also considering branching into Pinterest and Instagrams.  (Thoughts, anyone?)
  5. Start planning for your book launch.  Planning for a book launch takes lots of coordinating – with other bloggers if you are planning a book tour, with bookstores, libraries and schools if you are planning events, of course, with your publisher (who will also have great ideas)!  I start planning at least six months in advance.
  6. Get something new ready to sub. While waiting for responses on amanuscript, there’s no reason not to submit something else elsewhere.
  7. Research new markets possibilities. 
  8. Take a day here and there to just do nothing. (That’s an important part of the process too!)
  9. Experiment with a new genre. If you write picture books, try poetry or early chapterbooks.  You may discover a new writing love!
  10. Develop lesson plans/ extension activities for your upcoming releases. Parents and teachers are always looking for ways to extend the reading experience, so have fun building a nice stock of puzzle, coloring pages, discussion questions and lesson ideas for your stories.  Each one will make a great blog post and/or you can gather them in a packet to have available on your website or on the publisher’s website.

YOUR TURN!  Please inspire us with other ideas for keeping busy (and productive!) while waiting for writerly news.      Happy Waiting, all!

LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

IMG_5327I was organizing boxes in my basement this weekend and rediscovered this – it’s a box full of my childhood Matchbox cars co-mingled with my husband’s –  with some more recent additions from when my kids were little.  The youngest cars in the collection are about fifteen years old – the oldest – almost fifty!  What amazes me most about this collection is the wildly contrasting condition of the cars.

I mean, if you look at them carefully, they are all comprised of the same basic elements – wheels, chassis, colorful paint job.  And, yes, of course, all have doors, hoods, and trunks (some that open which were my favorites as a kid). Yeah, yeah, some are trucks instead of cars, but basically they all fit into the same overarching miniature toy car category.

 

And yet, through the seemingly innocent act of playing with them… look how distinctive they’ve become! My husband’s cars are all battered up. He even had to repaint his little toy ambulance, a very necessary vehicle for his play world. That’s because for him, a perfect day of play involved car races and crashes and battles over rough terrain.

IMG_5330By contrast, my perfect day of automobile play involved creating a village in the fragrant bed of pine needles that covered the craggy old roots that abutted my grandparents’ driveway. I would spend hours creating roads and story lines to go with each car as they navigated my imaginary village world, stopping for tea at imaginary tea houses and picnics along imaginary vistas. Very different from my husband’s play.

But that’s where the originality and creativity emerges, isn’t it?

IMG_3152Writing stories is a lot like playing with toy cars.  We all begin with the same basic car parts – the words – and all our stories fit into a relatively small range of car models, i.e. story structures, plot lines and universal themes.

But does that mean that originality is impossible?  Not at all.  Like children playing with toy cars, that’s where the creativity begins!  So get out those stories-in-progress this week, or grab a new little car – and then PLAY! I wonder what new play worlds will emerge this week. Happy Monday all!

WRITING TREASURE: My Little Antique Iron

IMG_0332Among the treasures I keep on my desk is a little antique iron. It belonged to my grandmother. Known as a “flat” or “sad” iron, which is an old word for “heavy”, my little iron has a very distinct #2 on its back.  After a little research, I learned that iron manufacturers numbered their products by size. The larger the iron, the larger the number. A #2 iron is on the small side. By the time this little iron was heating up on the stove, all the necessary lead-up work – the sewing (if it was a new garment), the washing, and the overall pressing – would have been completed. Only the last dainty details would have remained such as the delicate pressing of the lace on a collar or the little pleats on a shirt front.

Though in real life I despise ironing, I find this little iron inspiring.  To the writer in me, it signifies joy. It’s a reminder that after weeks of laboring and revising, there comes a point where my story is almost finished! The overall story is well-stitched and the time has come to delicately and attentively press through each sentence, making sure that every last comma and verb agreement are correct.

At what stage of the writing process do you find yourself today? Are you in the final, exhilerating round of pressing out every last comma, or are you still stitching away?  Either way, I hope that my little iron encourages you to press on!  Happy ironing, er writing, all!

Note: With just a few weeks of summer left, I have decided to take a little holiday from blogging so I can focus on family. I will be back on August 28 with brand new posts. In the meantime, I’ll be posting a few favorite oldies, like this one from spring 2015. 

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL with Debut Picture Book Author Linda Whalen

 

This summer I’ve been celebrating the release of brand new kids’ books with special guest posts and author/illustrator interviews.  Today, I’m delighted to have debut picture book author Linda Whalen as my guest.  Illustrated by Jennifer Morris, Linda’s book LITTLE RED ROLLS AWAY (Sleeping Bear Press) piqued my interest because one of my vivid early memories is of watching an old house being moved in the town my grandparents lived in. The Little Red in Linda’s story is a barn who’s a little scared about moving and all of the unknowns.  As a child who moved around a lot, I would definitely have benefitted from a story like this!  Here’s the book trailer which gives a wonderful sense of the book:

Linda is here today, not only to celebrate the release of this book, but also to share her thoughts on what it means to be a writer who is in it for the long haul.  Her words really resonated with me. I hope they encourage you as well. Take it away, Linda!

In it for the Long Haul

By Linda Whalen

The long haul, sounds kind of scary because it implies patience and endurance. Ugh! Patience is not one of my virtues when it comes to getting published.  Writing is a different story. Writers should want, need, love to write. Put the words that float, zoom or just sit in your mind down on paper or on your computer even if you wind up throwing that paper away or hitting delete. Being a writer is forever. Whether you let the words out or not, you will still write them in your mind. 

Yes, it can be a long haul to being published. It was for me. It’s not for some. In either case, a writer should write. Otherwise, a writer’s soul withers and gets cranky. My family can always tell when I’m not writing because they will touch my arm and say, “I think you need to go write.” It’s true. If I let a rejection get to me and just stop writing for a while, I’m not as happy as usual. A writer needs to write.

The long haul is sometimes down a nice, even-paved road slowly getting to your destination but no road ever stays the same. Sometimes you hit a pothole or a detour or a sudden summer storm tries to blow you off the road completely. Don’t stop hauling your dream of being published down the road. Continue to write.

Writers are never really alone if you think about it. Every time you write, somewhere out there another writer is struggling just like you to do justice to the words and ideas springing into their thoughts. We look at the same blank pages. Search for the right way to convey our thoughts. Worry about rejection. Hope that someone will understand and love our story. Hunger to see our name follow a book title.

If you are a writer, you are in it for the long haul even if you physically stop writing because there will always be stories lingering in your mind waiting to be told. So tell them. Tell them because they need to be told. Every writer comes with a unique experience and you never know when the story in your mind may be just what someone needs. Being a writer is more than stories, it’s an opportunity to touch the lives of others. That’s a gift that is worth all of the struggle, rejection, and long nights. So enjoy the long haul, see the beauty of writing along the way and become companions with other writers on the road with you whether they are in your rear mirror or up ahead. You travel the road together in it for the long haul. 

Linda Whalen was raised in Southern California then married and traveled throughout the United States finally settling in Northern Calif. A city girl who found she loves country life with her husband, family and the creatures playing in the fields around her home. Devoting her life to children she has been a 4-H leader, volunteer teacher at her church, and owner/operator of Whalen’s Country Childcare a licensed facility. When she’s not writing Linda loves to sneak away to her art studio. To learn more, or contact Linda, please visit her website: http://www.lindawhalenauthor.com.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: WHEN INSPIRATION STRIKES with Linda Joy Singleton in Celebration of the release of A CAT IS BETTER

Linda Joy Singleton, author of over 45 books ranging from picture books to young adult, has a new picture book out with little bee books.  It’s called A CAT IS BETTER and today, in celebration of its recent release,  I am honored to have her as my guest. I know you will be inspired by her reflections on waiting for inspiration. Take it away, Linda!

WHEN INSPIRATION STRIKES

by

Linda Joy Singleton

Writers are often asked if they wait for inspiration to write a book. My answer used to be, “No way! I sit in my chair and write almost every day, until the book is finished.”

But writing my picture book, A CAT IS BETTER, has changed my answer.  I can’t just say, “I’m going to sit down today and write a picture book.” The picture book process doesn’t work that way. I still believe it’s important to write regularly for novels; getting that first draft can be a huge, time-consuming challenge. If you don’t add a few pages regularly, the book may never get finished.

Writing picture books has been a different experience for me. The short format is closer to creating poetry or music, and just can’t be forced.  It may sound cliche, but I have to wait to be inspired before I write a picture book.

Usually when an idea does strike, it’s in the middle of the night or when I’m driving. And if I don’t write it down immediately, the idea could vanish like a forgotten dream. Sometimes it feels like the words are a gift to me from the universe, and I’m always grateful (even for the many books I wrote that never sold).

My first picture book, SNOW DOG, SAND DOG, was inspired by a black and white photo. The next, CASH KAT, was triggered by a money game I played with my grandson.

But writing A CAT IS BETTER was a completely different experience. It was the first time that I was able to successfully ask the “universe” for an idea.

I was a speaker at a writing conference, and sitting in on another session. While others were making picture book dummies, a pre-arranged exercise, I had nothing to do. So I told myself that I would write a picture book. “What topic?” I asked myself. “Cats,” came the answer. Because I LOVE cats. And just like that—an opening line jumped into my head. “Congratulations, I’m your new cat. I’m the perfect pet for you. You may take me home now.”

My theory is that my creative brain whirls in the background of my life, but it’s not easy to access the information. But in this amazing moment, my conscious and creative mind connected. I wrote the first draft in one hour. I rewrote it for a few weeks, showed my agent, and after five rewrites for an editor, I had a contract. And A CAT IS BETTER was a June 2017 release from Little Bee Books.

Since that experience, I’ve had more of these conversations with myself. I saw a photo online that made me think, “Someone should write about this.” I kept thinking about the photo, and a title popped into my head. But I couldn’t think of a plot. I mulled this over, frustrated that no ideas happened. But at 4AM one morning, words popped into my head! I got up, typed quickly, writing a rough draft.

I don’t know if this new book will sell, but it was fun to write. Thank heavens for amazing, almost magical moments of inspiration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda Joy Singleton is the author of over 45 MG, YA and picture books. She’s currently working on the 6th mystery in the MG series, CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB. In 2017, she has two new picture books, A CAT IS BETTER and LUCY LOVES GOOSEY. She lives in the country with a menagerie of animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, horses and peacocks. She offers tips to writers and resources for teachers at www.LindaJoySingleton.com.

 

 

PONDERING SNAILS with EMALINE: Four Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

FullSizeRender (1)A special part of my recent trip to England was spending time with a friend who recently moved to London with her husband and three adorable daughters. My day with Charise began with a reading of “Goodnight Ark” to her girls’ classes at their lovely school in Hampstead, a village of London.  That was a wonderful treat in and of itself and I especially enjoyed answering the children’s questions after each reading, asked in charming British accents.

 

 

The readings ended at 10:30 and I think Charise’s youngest, who is just three, was a little sad not to get to spend the rest of the day at school with her sisters. It all turned out okay, though, because in the end, since Emaline was with us, it was she who got to show me the snails.

This is how it happened. First, Emaline and her mom gave us a walking tour of Hampstead. As we walked Charise pointed several spots that will be featured in the upcoming film Hampstead starring Diane Keaton, which I now can’t wait to see.  After our walk, it was still too early for lunch so we stopped in at their home for a few minutes.

Once home, Emaline took great pleasure in showing us her garden – and that’s where I met the snails. This particular morning there were only two. “Do you think this one’s the other one’s mum?” Emaline asked as we watched them move slowly across a patio stone. “Perhaps,” I answered. “Or maybe they’re friends. Maybe they play together. What do you think?”

Then, in quiet whispers, Emaline and I watched them for the loveliest long time. And, as we crouched there, I thought how good it felt to pause from the busyness of the day to ponder snails – how they might be related, where they might be going and what they might be doing etc.

This adorable interaction got me thinking about life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying days are those in which, like Emaline, I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder snails (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world anew.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from crouching down and seeing the world – snails and all – from the perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of three-year-olds, snails and slowing down, I offer you:

 FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

  1. SPEND TIME with a CHILD.  There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one.  Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes.
  2. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel!  And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
  3. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  Settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ!  Pick old favorites as well as newer titles.  Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir.
  4. Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS.  These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings.  I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it.  I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.

Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and ponder the snails this week.

OUR NEW TREE: A Symbol of HOPE and BLESSING

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A few years ago we sold our first house so we could move a few blocks away to a slightly larger home to fit our growing family. We loved that first house and I know my son still misses it sometimes, but what I, at least, miss most is the lovely Korean dogwood that graced the front lawn.

May 2004 004To me, that lovely tree symbolized hope and blessings. I gazed on it from the window when I was on bedrest with our first child. And once he was born (extremely prematurely at 24 weeks), that tree provided precious shade as I sat with him outside and later as he toddled about. He eventually even climbed that tree, for its trunk was nice and low and its branches the perfect size for him.

Later, as we wrestled with the understanding that the risks were too high to try for another biological child, that Korean tree became a reminder that blessings come in many ways. I’d always dreamed of adopting, perhaps because I had such fond memories of my sister’s childhood friend who was a Korean adoptee. Having that tree in the front yard seemed like divine confirmation that this was to be our next step as well. Indeed, I’m so grateful and happy to say that in due time that lovely Korean dogwood also provided shade for our beautiful adopted daughter – though she preferred playing fairies beneath the branches to actually climbing the tree.P1010024

Sometimes as I sat under that tree watching my children, I would free write what would later become stories and poems. I even have a post about that if you want to read. It’s all about not being in a rush to bloom as a writer, but to savor the experience along the way.

Long story short, we’ve been in our new house several years now, and every June I’ve missed that tree. Then, during a wild storm a couple of years ago, our neighbor’s pear tree, that had provided such lovely shade for both our front porches, collapsed and so we found ourselves with a bright, sunny, treeless front yard.  We lived for a couple of summers in that treeless condition before decided that we should plant a replacement tree in our front yard.

And what kind of tree do you think my husband and I both agreed we should get – a Korean dogwood!  So, here it is brand-new and darling as can be.  We’re watering it well so that it will grow healthy and strong – a living reminder of hope and blessing for years to come.

THE TEL OF THE JRAGIN AND THE GOL: Five PICTURE BOOK Writing Tips from a Four-Year Old!

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“The Tale of the Dragon and the Girl” by W, age four

Look what I found today while rummaging through the third drawer in my desk. It’s the first book my son ever wrote – as a four year-old.  He’s written other things since, but this was the first. (Yeah, I know. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

I remember the day well.  My son announced one morning that, like me, he wanted to be a writer and that he was going to write a book. Next thing I knew, he had planted himself at the dining room table with paper and pencil. Then he wrote and wrote. He didn’t stop until he was finished. Once he did, he didn’t let me peek. Instead he ran to our craft drawer and grabbed construction paper for the book cover.  With my help, we stapled the book together. Then, and only then, did he let me read it.  I needed his help the first time through, but his imagined spelling makes total sense to me now and I love how he didn’t let his lack of spelling knowledge keep him from expressing himself.

Here’s the story.  I’ve translated it in the captions, but just for fun, see if you can figure it out for yourself first.  Then, take a moment to think about my writerly takeaways from this authentic 4-year-old writing sample.  Enjoy!

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“You might not think that nothing might happen to Annie, but something happened to her.”

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“It happened by a dragon.”

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“We don’t know why the dragon took her.”

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“The dragon took her because it was hungry.”

I find this writing sample especially fascinating because it reveals one four-year-old’s perspective on what makes a winning picture book. Now, inspired this find, here are five characteristics of effective picture books – as seen through the writings of a four-year-old.

TIP #1: Have an attention grabbing title. I just love W.’s title.  I mean who wouldn’t want to read a tale of a dragon and a girl?  For me, at least, it immediately evokes fairy tales and magic. So, here’s my takeaway. What’s the first glimpse you get of a book sitting on the shelf at the library?  The spine of course. And on that spine you’ll find the title. So, using my son’s catchy title as an example, I think it’s worth considering that if want your book to stand out, a catchy title is a must.

TIP #2: Employ suspenseful page turns.  Even at age four, W. understood the power of a page turn.  He even included page numbers within his text. And if you carefully examine story, you’ll see that each page ends with a little tease – almost a cliff hanger.  This, I believe, is a reflection of something he enjoyed most as young partaker of picture books – the power of a suspenseful page turn. As you analyse your own work-in-progress, be inspired by W. and take a moment to consider how well-placed page turns can enhance your story.

TIP# 3: Keep your text sparse but active. You have to admit W.’s text is pretty lean.  There’s no fluff to be found. Every word he uses pushes his four-year-old story forward.  In fact, his story is almost blunt in its intensity. Likewise, as we write our stories, we need to to shed every word that doesn’t push the story forward – relying on meaty verbs and vivid nouns to bring our tales to life.

TIP #4 Create conversation sparking content. You can almost sense that one of W.’s favorite parts of reading picture books as a preschooler was the conversation that each page sparked.  We never just read a story through. Instead, we asked each other questions, pondered the pictures, and wondered what might happen next.  W.’s text almost reads as an answer to those questions.  As such, his wording is a great reminder to the picture book writer in me that I, too, want to make sure my stories open themselves to lots of interactive reading.

TIP #5 Don’t forget the conflict! Even as a four-year-old, W.’s writing reveals that he had a strong sense of one of the fundamentals to a good story.  Conflict!  A good story needs to have a problem that the character faces, learns from, and hopefully overcomes.  Poor Annie was eaten, but we as the readers, figured out why.  It’s because the dragon was hungry and hopefully, from now on, you’ll steer clear of hungry dragons.  But seriously,  W.’s story is a good reminder that, like dragons, children do indeed hunger for good stories with plenty of action, conflict, and excitement.

Happy writing, all!