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!

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!

BOXERWOOD FAIRY FOREST: Learning from the Experts

IMG_1875My daughter and I recently spent a week in Lexington, VA visiting my dad. One of the highlights was visiting the amazing Fairy Forest at Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden.  The Fairy Forest opened this spring and is growing quickly.  Garden Director, Faith Vosburgh, explained that this colony for fairy folk is meant to be a place where children can come to explore and build. She showed my daughter buckets containing prickly balls, pine cones, pods, acorn shells, twigs and other bits of natural building material perfect for building and adorning fairy houses.

But, before building her own fairy house, my daughter wanted to explore the woods for inspiration. She peeked into the structures previous fairy house architects and engineers had constructed.

She looked at this house and this one and this one!

And this one… and this one!

And as she did, she took mental notes about what worked, in her opinion, and what didn’t.

Next, with her own plan in mind,  Miss A. was ready to begin.

She picked her special spot and cleared space for her foundation. Then, using bits of nature and her wonderful imagination, as well as some of the fairy abode principles she had observed, she built.

She built and built and built!

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Until, finally, her fairy house was finished!

As a writer, think that the Boxerwood Fairy Forest is a wonderful, visual reminder that good writing should be grounded in a solid understanding of our subject/genre. Indeed, whether building fairy houses or writing picture books, it’s important to look to those who have built before us, or who are building alongside us, for wisdom and insight into what makes a long and lasting structure/story.

For me, that means reading, reading, reading! Each week this summer, I plan to lug home a bag full of picture books from the library. Some will be classics I knew and loved as a child. Others will be new books by contemporary authors. I will read them to myself, to the kids, to the dog and as I do I will analyze what makes them work or not. I will record my thoughts in a notebook for future reference.

Then, just as my daughter did at Boxerwood’s Fairy Forest, I will gather my own twigs, bark, and yarn, and build my own stories, applying what I’ve learned from the experts.

How about  you? What’s your version of a trip to Fairy Forest?  How do you plan to grow and learn as a writer this summer?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Happy Summer, all!

POST-CONFERENCE PONDERING: It’s Okay To Be A Late Bloomer

I returned last evening from a lovely weekend at the NJSCBWI annual June conference. The workshops were helpful and the keynotes from Suzy Ismail and David Wiesner were inspiring.  Over the course of the weekend, I met writers and illustrators at all stages of their careers.  I especially enjoyed chatting with several pre-published writers, early in their journeys, and I was reminded of this oldie, but goodie, which still rings so true (at least for me). Happy Monday!

I still miss the Korean Dogwood that graced our old front yard. Every year it was the very last to bloom in our neighborhood. Long after the forsythia had turned from yellow to green and the cherry and apple trees had not only bloomed, but lost their blossoms, it still stood green, but flower-less. Then, just when folks began to wonder if it would ever bloom, out popped the creamiest four-petaled blossoms I’ve ever seen. Set against the dogwood’s thick foliage, the blossoms were so stunning, passersby often stopped to admire them.

I began my writing career in that house and that tree became an annual reminder that it’s okay to take your time learning and improving the craft. In fact, it’s better not to rush into subbing manuscripts until you’ve really honed your writing skills. When I look back at my earliest pieces, I’m amazed at how stilted, clumsy and rough they are. It has taken years of writing daily, reading, studying the craft, attending conferences, and participating in peer critique to develop into the writer I am today.

Writing is not a race to get published. Rather it’s a beautiful journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, enjoy the process and remember, it’s okay to bloom in your own time.

FIVE Things That FLOAT My Family’s Boat

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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 is #15 on the Christian Juvenile Bestsellers’ List for May 2016!), 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 15, 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 Becky Kopitzke’s lovely blog.)

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: Write Like a TURTLE!

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Want to survive, even thrive, as a writer?  Then take the TURTLE approach.  Enjoy!

Develop a thick shell. The business of writing is not all butterflies and daisies. It’s hard work with a steep learning curve and lots and lots of guaranteed opportunity for rejection. But if, like a turtle, you can develop a few callouses, or preferably a nice thick shell, you can let those rejections, doubting comments etc. bounce right off.

Be at peace with the slow pace of it all. The publishing world is notoriously slow.  Accept that, then use the time to bask in the sun, soaking up new story ideas and savoring the process.

Take time each day to retreat into your shell.  As writers it’s important to set aside quiet time to write each day. But if long “retreats into your shell” are hard to muster, take heart – good writing can’t be done in total isolation. It’s also important to mosey along in the outside world for that’s where you will find your inspiration!

Bury your eggs for awhile before letting them go. I’ve learned over time, that my best stories and poems are the ones I let sit for a while, so I can re-examine and improve them before sending them out for consideration to editors. My ideas, at least, improve with age.

Don’t expect every egg to be viable.  Not every idea is a winner and that’s okay. The important thing is to keep producing eggs, er stories, for in every batch there will surely be a few good eggs, or maybe more than a few.

Happy writing, all!

Happy Mother’s Day: MY LITTLE ALARM CLOCK

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With Mother’s Day just around the corner, I thought it would be fun once again to celebrate with a poem of mine that originally appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul New Moms : 101 Inspirational Stories of Joy, Love, and Wonder (2011). Inspired by my first little alarm clock (I now have two and they aren’t so little anymore), I hope my poem fills you with a sense of the wonder (and exhaustion) of being a new mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Little Alarm Clock

THE POWER OF SMELL: An Olfactory Reminder for Writers

Pee ew stinkyRecently, prompted by a very whiffy truck ahead of us, my daughter and I passed a most enjoyable half-hour brainstorming all the smells we love and hate. Some we agreed upon. Others we did not.  Still, we both agreed that smells add richness to life.

The lists we compiled serve as fragrant and stinky  reminders that kids LOVE the idea of SMELLINESS and that, as a picture book author, I need to remember my readers noses. Take a whiff (rather than a peek) at our lists below. What would you add?

Our List of FAVORITE SMELLS… coffee percolating,  puppy ears, strawberries, asphalt after a summer rain, salty sea air, damp earth, pizza in the oven, a clean baby, skunk (faint), lilacs in bloom, a crackling fire, candle smoke, newly mown grass, bubble gum, spring, balsam needles,  hamburgers on the grill, freshly laundered sheets, pumpkin pie, impending snow, herbs snipped from the garden, freshly sharpened pencils, old books, freshly polished wood, crayons, bacon sizzling, rubber boots, spent matches, peppermints, perfume, vanilla, honeysuckle, clover, brownies baking, mountain air, waxed hallways, leather, curry, onions sautéing, cedar chests, roses, hay, apple pie in the oven, soup simmering, new sneakers.

Our List of STINKY SMELLS… hot tar, mucky marshes, skunk (strong), cigar smoke, bus fumes, sour wash clothes, new mulch, dirty diapers, rotten eggs, doggy doo, butt snorts (as we call them in our family), clammy feet, stinky socks, wet wool, moldy cheese, manure, chicken coops, summer garbage cans, nail polish, sweaty armpits, old melon rind, gym lockers, dank cellars

A hint of odor, skillfully incorporated, can be a powerful addition a story. Indeed, I repeatedly hear from parents everywhere that their kids favorite spread of all in GOODNIGHT, ARK is the one in which two creatures, who shall remain nameless, make a BIG stink! 

What whiffy addition will you add to your WIP this week?

Happy writing!

 

 

Miss A.’s APPLE BERRY UPSIDE DOWN CAKE (Or: How to Cook up a Lesson on Revising!)

IMG_1737.jpgLast week, my eleven year old decided to bake a cake using her own made-up recipe.  She wrote her list and we went shopping.  She immediately set about baking her first ever “Apple Berry Upside Down Cake”.  She was so excited that I suggested she write down her recipe while the cake cooled.  The challenge, I explained, was to write an original recipe that used mouthwatering language and clear step-by-step instructions.  She fully embraced the project and I’ve never seen my reluctant writer put words to paper so enthusiastically.  Here is her mouthwatering first, unedited draft. Not bad for someone who usually has a hard time expressing her thoughts in writing.IMG_1721

The problem was… the cake.  It was a little doughy.  And a little heavy.  It looked pretty but did not taste the way she wanted it to. “I want to try it again, but without pizza dough,” she announced.  So she baked it again – this time with pancake batter.  And as she did, she had to revise her written recipe as well.IMG_1689

But there was still a problem… the batter.  It was too goopy and oozed through the layer of apples so that when she flipped the cake it didn’t have a clean, artistic look. It looked more like this…IMG_1730.jpg

And so, for a third time, she had to revise her plans (and her writing piece). This time she decided to use prepackaged crescent dough. And the result?  DELICIOUS!

Now… for the recipe, which together with the cake, are delicious reminders that not only is revising our writing essential, it can also be fun! Enjoy!

Little Miss A.’s  APPLE BERRY UPSIDE DOWN CAKE

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Ingredients:

2 apples

1 cup frozen raspberries

1 cup frozen blueberries

1 package crescent dough

1 teaspoon butter (to grease pan)

First, grease a nonstick round cake pan with butter.

IMG_1716 (1).jpgNext, cut the apples into slices and place them in the pan so they form a circle like flower petals.

IMG_1717.jpgThen place one cup of raspberries in the center of the apples!!!

IMG_1732Next, put one very thin layer of your pastry dough on top of the berries and apples. (Hint: It won’t taste like plain pastry dough because the sweet bitterness of the berries will make the dough moist and delicious when it bakes.)

IMG_1736.jpgAfter this, place a second layer of apples on the pastry dough, but instead of raspberries add one cup of blueberries!!! Then place another very thin piece of pastry dough on top.

Set the oven to 350 and put the cake in for 25-30 minutes. As it bakes, you will see the cake rise and become flaky. Soon it will smell like you just walked into a French pastry shop, but it’s really your own kitchen.

Let the cake cool down for 45 minutes. Once it has cooled, place the plate that you want to serve it on on top of the pan and flip it over!!!

IMG_1737Voila! Enjoy your Apple Berry Upside Down Cake!

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: Spider Webs – Thoughts on Weaving Stories

IMG_2366I’m taking break from the tour this week to enjoy a special, but busy, week.  I’ll be visiting two schools, celebrating someone’s eleventh birthday, hosting a birthday party, and finalizing a couple of homemade costumes. I also plan to take nice, reflective walks each day.  Lately, I’ve been enjoying looking for and marveling at the abundance intricate spider webs in my neck of the woods. With those beautiful creations in mind, here’s an oldie but goodie to inspire your writing. Enjoy!

 Lately, I’ve been noticing an abundance of spider webs dazzling in the early morning light as the first rays catch their dewy threads. Their strength and structure amaze me. Each spider web I notice follows the same basic pattern. First the spider established her outermost framework and then worked her way inward in concentric spirals until she reached the heart of the web.

There’s no doubt that there is a universality to spider webs.  But look closely and you will see that even though they share many common characteristics, each web is also a unique creation.  Each web’s shape and size varies depending on where it was woven and on the delicate dance the spinning spider performed as she leapt from anchor point to anchor point. One web I saw was spun snuggly between two slender stems of Queen Anne’s lace, stretched oblong by early fall breezes.  Another was hung high among prickly pine boughs, round and tight, so as not to get prickled, yet big enough to capture a passing fly.

As writers, it sometimes seems that every story has already been spun and that there couldn’t possibly be a new way to tell anything. Yes, it’s true, like spider webs, most stories fit into plot types and there are common structures.  There are also universal themes.  And like spiders, who all use liquid silk to build their webs, our stories too, are created using the same building blocks – words.

But does this mean originality is impossible? Not at all. Like webs, the best stories do have a universal quality about them.  But, if we listen to our inner creative spirit, something unique will unfold within that universal framework.  A spider web’s uniqueness emerges as she weaves in response to the specific setting and conditions surrounding that creation.  She also leaps and dances in a way that only she can.  Another spider spinning her web in the same spot would create a different web altogether.

So take heart as you write and listen to your deepest inner voice, the one that expresses itself in a way only you can. If you do, then I am convinced that, like a spider weaving uniquely concentric circles, you’ll weave the story as only you can.

Happy spinning all!