UTAH! (a seatbelted-boy assisted poem)

Part of road-trip fun is creating activities to keep the kids stimulated. Yesterday, I asked them to look out their windows and to describe what they saw. With some prompting, they provided the following feedback: blue mountains, red and orange sand, a whole bunch of shrubs like a family reunion, things that looked like sphinxes (couldn’t narrow down which landscape feature, but you can use your imagination). I pulled together the ideas and created the following poem:

Ten blue tables set for queens.

Egypt cottons – red, orange, green

Laid out neatly on the land

Wait for jugglers, dancers, bands.

Shrubs all mingle – maiden whispers –

“Who shall join the Cirrus sisters?”

Sphinx or Tut seem apropos

But only West is in the know.

Cooling Breeze provides fanfare –

Marks entrance of the royal pair.

Sun sets down to banquet feast,

While Moon arises from the East.

The poem isn’t perfect, but the boys loved their finished product. It even opened up an opportunity to discuss rhythm in poetry. I altered a few words breaking the pattern and repeated the poem. They both giggled at how silly the poem sounded. Gotta love that!

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SCBWI Florida – June 2013 Conference

Last weekend, I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Florida conference. It was my fourth such conference – and it did not disappoint.

With representation from the publishing world (Andrea Welch, Senior Editor with Beach Lane Books, and Maria Middleton, Associate Art Director with Abrams), the writer realm (Laurie Friedman, author of “A Big Bed for Jed” and “Love, Ruby Valentine”), and the illustrator stratum (Ethan Long, writer/illustrator of “Scribbles and Ink” and “My Dad, My Hero”), the conference was packed with professional development, profound statements, and perfect rhyme.

However, my favorite part of the conference wasn’t Mr. Long’s comparison of Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble or Ms. Middleton’s thoughts on cat vs dog narrators or Ms. Friedman’s poster board fetish or Ms. Welch’s super-sweet disposition. No, my favorite part of the conference was the opportunity to meet new friends, such as Matt Kelsen, Wendy Mintz, Alisa Jenkins, and Steven Locklin (congratulations on “Beneath Hallowed Ground”). It was refreshing to speak with each of you – to learn of your career paths, your labors of love, and your successes (in both the writing and non-writing worlds).

I also so enjoyed visiting with old friends such as Erin Fennel, Sylvia Lopez (congratulations on “Cinder-Elvis”), and Jill Siegel (congratulations on your contract with Guardian Angel). Just when “getting published” seemed unattainable, you each inspired me and gave me hope.

Finally, I met some extraordinary individuals during my critiques: Rob Sanders, Gloria Rothstein, Margaret Mincks, and Linda Shute (we had met previously but you really are a lovely person – and have a great eye for PBs). Thank you for your thoughtful comments, suggestions, and well-wishes.Although this was my last Florida conference (for now – maybe I’ll be invited back someday as an author!), I’ll be taking a piece of it away with me in the form of friendships. Thank you, SCBWI Florida!

My Manuscripts

My manuscripts – oh yes! I should really tell you about those. They are, afterall, a part of me and, in some ways, a part of my family. Much of my inspiration comes from the two little rug rats who begrudgingly eat my arugula pesto, fill the air with Doofenschmerz quotations, and topple over with laughter at Elephant and Piggie. Jacob and Luke – these books are dedicated to you!

1. Very Brave and Very Smart. In Ming Dynasty China, Yin Li prepares for a journey to the city to deliver his family’s crops to market. In addition to his soybeans, Yin Li also packs his favorite toy – a kongzhu (Chinese yo-yo). Maybe fortune will allow him time to play with it during the long trip – or maybe not. With a thief, a tiger, and a Great Wall to conquer, Yin Li finds the trip more challenging than he expected. Will he falter along the way, or will Yin Li prove he is Very Brave and Very Smart?

2. Anthony for Presid-ANT. Anthony is fed up! He wants to play but Mom is always giving him more chores. When Anthony decides to de-throne the Queen and become Presid-ANT, he may have bitten off more than he can carry. Will he and his constitu-ants be able to celebrate his inauguration, or will it reign on his parade?

3. A Garden for Marvin. Sitting in a cracked pot, Marvin the rosebush longs for a garden to call his own. When he’s finally planted, Marvin has big plans for growth – until the other plants in the garden become a hindrance to his progress. Will Marvin’s bad attitude cause him to reap what he sows or will Marvin bloom where he grows?

4. RED!. In his primate habitat, Marty anxiously awaits zoo visitors every day – because every day presents new opportunities for Marty to acquire his dream – something red to call his own. Could a popsicle be his prize? Or a kite? Or a wagon? Is Marty destined for a life of drab color and watery disappointment or will he find a red to call his own?

5.Skip and Earl in the Park (a series). A squirrel named Earl is content with his quiet life – until a spunky chipmunk moves next door. Will Earl welcome the newcomer to the neighborhood or chase away the first potential friend he’s had in years?

6. Gross (an historical fiction tale of the childhood of Dr. Samuel Gross). Samuel has an unusually strong passion for nature. So much so that his eccentric habits have led his classmates to nickname him “Gross.” Although not a preferred name, Samuel accepts who he is. But when Samuel’s interest in plants draws the unwanted attention of Hank, the school bully, the natural balance is disturbed. Can Samuel’s quirky habits restore the balance – and save a life – or are they really just WAY too gross?

7. Prairie Ball. The prairie dogs have gathered for a duel on the diamond: the hometown favorites, the Black-Tailed Cubs, against the wily White-Tailed White Sox. With Swoop Dog and Gopher Gusto leading the line-ups, its shaping up to be a great baseball game – until an unwelcome visitor steals third, I mean the third baseman! Who will emerge the winner of this zany nail-biter? It’s one for the record books!

Get the ink flowing again…

I love the process of writing children’s picture books. Taking a simple idea and nurturing it into a manuscript – it gets me giddy just thinking about it. And if you’re reading this, maybe you get that same tingle – that same writer’s high – that I get when an idea sparks and the words start flowing.

But, if you’re new to writing, you may not be familiar with the other side to writing – the struggle. The days of fruitless revision. The days of anti-loquaciousness. The days when the writer’s block is so thick, it becomes a wall.

That being said, I have a secret. I actually don’t have too many days like that anymore. And I have a theory to explain it. You see, I have a job. Not any ole’ job – a mechanical, analytical, sequential job filled with spreadsheets, databases, and numbers. 

How, you may ask, do spreadsheets encourage writing? My theory is this: work is a completely left-brained activity. Creativity is not required and even discouraged. So, for 8-9 hours a day, my right brain hibernates. Replenishes. Rejuvenates (sounds like a good spa!).

What are the consequences of this? Blow-drying my hair, I rhyme words. Sitting at red lights, I write on receipts. Standing in the grocery line, I plunk down thoughts on my iPhone. Lounging on the sofa, I type. Writing becomes compulsion – a need – a creative outlet for the doldrums of the day.

So, am I suggesting you run out to become a CPA or data analyst? Goodness, NO! But, when ideas are slow to come or your writer’s block is beginning to take the shape of Mt. Rushmore, take a break and work your left brain for a while. Do a sudoku. Practice some multiplication tables with your kids. Listen to music with a strong bass rhythm. Follow a recipe. Roll your loose change.

 Before you know it, the creative scales will tip back in your favor and the ink will be flowing again.                                                                               Image

 

 

Inner Child Hot Spots

If you’ve grown restless in your favorite writing chair or your story ideas all seem to revolve around Doritos and game shows, maybe it’s time to replenish those creative juices with a healthy shot of “kid-orade.” Living with two little boys, they often provide me with giggly, a-ha moments that inspire my writing, but there are occasions when I either find or seek inspiration outside of my own home. I thought I would share some of those ideas with you. Maybe one of these hot spots will help you re-connect with your inner child too.

1. Playgrounds. Grab a blanket and a picnic lunch and go hang out at one of these bastions of childhood delight. Immerse yourself in the laughter of the kids. Listen as friends are made with the simple phrase, “You’re it!” Enjoy the free spirits surrounding you. Then get up and join in! Feel the warmth of the slide as sun and friction heat it up. Swing from the monkey bars. Dig your toes in the sand (or turf or wood chips). Play hide-n-seek. Return to a time in your life when you felt breathless and happy.

2. Baseball games. But not MLB games. I’m talking true baseball – Little League! Listen to the calls of the coaches and umpire. Admire the batting helmets covered with nicknames and stickers. See the kids jostling each other on the bench. Watch the celebration of an earned run. Witness the defeat of a strike-out. Smell the mixture of dirt and leather. Hear the chants from the dug-out. So many parents take for granted this moment in time – go and soak in those moments.

3. Go see a movie. Okay, so after 7 years of Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks, you would think I might be getting tired of cartoons, but I’m not. They’re a great way of understanding a child’s sense of humor and current voice/language trends. In addition, you can use them for some writing prompts afterward. Try to map out the plot lines. Take a character and think about changing their goals, ambitions, talents – how would that change the script? Think about the movie from another characters perspective. Or – just sit back and enjoy the show! Cartoons are, afterall, fun!

4. Go back to school. That’s right – school. Stop by your local elementary school or school district to see if they have a volunteer program. Many schools accept (and welcome) volunteers. You will have to go through a background check in order to work with children, but after a quick frisk and some friendly probing, you’re in! You may be able to assist in the classroom, at a cross-walk, or in the media center.  But, ideally, you want one-on-one time with some kids, so if the school offers a reading program, sign up. You not only have a front-row seat to see what kids are choosing to read, but you are also nurturing a lifelong love of reading.

5. Shhhh – we’re in the library. I don’t know if you’ve been to your local library lately, but the children’s area is NOT how I remember it. It’s not quiet. It’s not neat (well, sometimes it’s neat). It’s buzzing and busy and fun. There are chess clubs and story hours. Kids can read to animals or watch magicians. There are movie nights and fairy tale days. And, there are still books – tons and tons of books. Kids are sitting amidst the stacks and lounging on chairs, draping legs over armrests, reading.  And you can do it too. How wonderful is that? The library is a great place to find inspiration.

6. The zoo. To quote Robert Lopshire, “I will go into the zoo. I want to see it. Yes, I do.” The zoo is another wonderful location to see kids in action and to return to the childhood wonder of your youth. Scratch like an orangutan. Stomp like an elephant. Snap like a turtle. Slither like a snake. And watch the kids around you connecting with the animals. Kids want to develop relationships and seeing them interact with different species helps us understand how to connect with them too.

I hope these suggestions help to provide you with some get-out-of-the-house hot spots to spark your creative fire and re-charge your inner child.

Spinning the yarn

So, for those who know me, you may be surprised to find out that I am writing children’s picture books. For those who don’t know me, please indulge me whilst I explain. My story begins in the locker-lined halls of high school…

Franklin H.S. was actually a pretty decent public school in rural Pennsylvania. Back in the late 1980s, I found myself, an 11th grade, straight-laced geek, bathing in the Honors academic whirlpool. You see, for me, whirlpool baths have always been a bit of a double-edged sword. Simultaneously pleasant and disgusting.

In this case, the “bubbles” of this metaphorical soapy soak were the cut-and-dry, memorize-and-regurgitate math and sciences classes – trigonometry, biology, chemistry. Black-and-white. Defined answers. Research-based. Tepid. Pleasant. Easy. Perfect.

However, underlying every glistening bubble is the jetted water. Forced yuck. Murky. Distasteful. Make-you-gag-if-you-think-about-it-too-much filth. Unfortunately, I viewed the “dirty water” of my high school academics to be my English classes. Creative writing. Diagramming. Book reporting. Poem writing. Journaling. This may sound like Nirvana to many writers. But to me, it was – impossible!

I just couldn’t seem to free up my boxed-in mind. Everything I wrote seemed taped, tied, and strapped down – completely scripted and predictable. Writing was not just difficult – it was the equivalent of adding dirt to my whirlpool. It turned my leisurely tubby into a mud-wresting match.

To make matters worse (at the time, it seemed worse, but in retrospect, it was a blessing), my friends were wonderful writers. Their writing was fluid and fluent. Mine – flawed and flimsy.

And yet, I worked at it. Sitting on my bed, scratching away at rough drafts on college-ruled paper. Printing. Lining out. Caret-ing. Copying. Erasing. Processing. Just me – and my struggle.

At the end of each year in high school, our teachers had a tradition – to hand out awards to the seniors who best represented each department. Shockingly, I was honored with the award for the English Department. To this day, I am still mystified by this gesture. At the time, I thought they were crazy. But now, I wonder, did they see something I didn’t? A creativity that needed nurturing? A talent that needed encouragement? A platform I needed to find? Maybe.

I do think at least an element of their decision-making was based on my effort. My teachers knew writing was difficult for me, and yet, I think they saw my determination to work at it. To improve it. To not be satisfied with it. It’s that determination – that struggle – which continues to drive me and my writing.

So, what does all this mean now? Well, I am an M.D. by education. Family practice trained. But, then my children came along. And their birth brought about my re-birth. Priorities changed. Goals shifted. And I found myself in love with introducing them to the world – through exploration, experimentation, and, of course, books. The beauty of the words. The stirring of the imagination. The art of the story. And the story-telling. I fell in love.

I have found no greater joy than reading to children and reaching THAT moment. That moment in a well-written story, when all eyes are peeled, all breaths are bated, and there is silence. The silence of a climax – the silence of captured imaginations – the silence of a yarn being spun. That is now my goal – my hope – my dream – for my writing. To spin the kind of yarn that captures a child and wraps them up so tightly, they can’t even speak…

Until page 32.