Sunday, February 3, 2019

FAREWELL TO THE MEWS

The connection between writers and cats is almost a cliche. I wouldn't be surprised if MFA programs offer courses about sharing your desk with a cat. There is a reason for this. I had been putting words on paper for years, but I didn't become a real writer until after we brought Blackberry into our home. I will always be grateful for what she taught me.

BE CURIOUS



Cats are  interested in everything––except what is shown on a screen. And they never look in the mirror. Blackberry and I spent a lot of time watching the pigeons across the street.

KNOW WHAT'S IMPORTANT



Blackberry had an uncanny sense of which particular piece of paper was the one I needed the most. Here she is taking a bath on it, as if to say, "Clean this part up."

CONCENTRATE



Her stare was so powerful that it was unsettling.

BE HUNGRY



Her appetite was tremendous. Once she got a whiff of something she wanted, she pursued it relentlessly. She obeyed no rules. No shelf was too high. She even opened cupboard doors to get food we tried to hide from her. She took what she wanted, even if it was a sip from my husband's cocktail.

BE FEARLESS



Yes, she is sitting on the peak of a pitched roof.

BE WILD

 

Blackberry never ever forgot that she was a hunter. Even toward the end of her life, whenever dusk lengthened the shadows in the woods, and other animals crept from their hiding places, she wanted to leave my lap and run off to be part of that other world.

Blackberry was my inspiration and my companion for many years. We will be telling stories about her life for many more years to come.

















Sunday, January 20, 2019

Getting excellent advice from some readers

I'm fortunate to be a writer. I never take it for granted. I enjoy every bit of the process. I've worked hard, but I also know that I owe a lot to sheer luck.

I would never even have written my first novel. But I attended a reunion for a theater company where I had been an apprentice. I happened to sit near a children's book agent, Linda Pratt, who happened to  mention that she was always looking for humorous adventure stories. So I wrote one, and she sold it to Random House.

A few years after that, I had a second bit of amazing luck. I joined the Brooklyn Community Chorus. One night at rehearsal, I sat next to Susan Westover. When she found out I wrote kids books, she invited me to Brooklyn New School and Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, where she is the librarian.

That was eight years ago. Since then I have visited BNS and BCS many times to talk about my books and writing. I've gotten to know the schools' other wonderful librarians, Karen Klein and Amanda Clarke. (Yes, the schools are so committed to reading that they share three librarians!) They're always grateful for my school visits. But I get back far more than I give. Each visit restores me. It's so inspiring to be in schools where teachers care about kids. Kids care about kids. And everybody cares about books.

My current novel is still very much a work-in-progress. But that's when a writer most needs to get a dose of tough love. I asked Susan if she might have some readers who were willing to give me feedback. Susan and Amanda kindly gathered a group of fifth graders and a group of sixth graders. They read the first twenty pages of CITY KID.

The Fifth grade group gives me advice.
One student drew my main character and a logo.

Their comments and their ideas were so helpful to me!

The sixth grade group meets regularly in the library to share their own creative procects.
Of course their enthusiasm for the character made me happy. But I was even happier to get their questions. What kind of person is Peri? How does she feel about her step-dad? Why did she say "no hugging"? Can't she just take a taxi to the theater? What are "cut-offs"?

Lots of helpful comments IN RED


"Does she get to the theater? How? We'll help you write the next page!"

Yes, my friends at BNS and BCS. You certainly will.



Wednesday, March 28, 2018

My Mother Made Me -- Remembering Virginia Carson Kelley (1924 - 2018)


My mother made me a novelist. It wasn't her intention. We had the worst of our disagreements when I insisted on pursuing a life in the theater. She was right. I wasn't cut out to be an actress. But I did, as I once told her in overly dramatic fashion, HAVE to write. And that's because of her.

Language was Mom's life. Our house was full of books. She loved reading to herself and to us. Usually the books were from her own childhood--well-worn volumes which her own mother had probably read to her. Some were classics like Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and Little Women. Others were more obscure, such as Jane's Father, who, like my own dad, had unconventional but endearing ways.

Mom was also a master of conversation. She could talk with anybody, particularly a shy person whom nobody else seemed to notice. She understood people sometimes painfully all too well. She paid attention to details that we kept hidden even from ourselves. She usually pointed those out to us in humorous fashion. Her "zingers" were famous in our family. She was hardest on herself, however. She loved retelling the story about the time a guest discovered the dead chipmunk our cat left under a chair. Mom just laughed and said she should have done a better job of dusting.

But her letters were her real gifts to us. She seemed to type them effortlessly, batting them out, as she said. Droll descriptions of what she had been doing, the tennis games, the strawberries picked and made into jam, the lunches with friends whom my father referred to her as her clients because they always needed to talk to her. Mostly the letters contained questions and compliments about the details of our lives. They are treasures. I wish I had saved every single one.

At the time when I was becoming a writer, I discovered a short story she had written when she was in college. I can't remember how I found it in a box in the attic. Mom's family had many writers. Her own mother was a well-respected novelist whom some compared to Jane Austen. Her aunt was a biographer and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Her great aunt was a newspaper columnist for the Milwaukee Journal. And so I wasn't surprised by the quality of Mom's short story. I was surprised that she hadn't written more.

Who knows why some march forward while others stand to the side. When I asked her why she hadn't kept on, she said that she was too lazy. But I suspect her own parents hadn't been as encouraging as mine.

Mom was very proud of my books. I always read her early drafts of whatever I was working on. She was generous with her laughter and praise, and always had a few astute suggestions. I am forever in her debt.

Virginia Carson Kelley does leave a legacy. Her beloved children and grandchildren all have some of her wisdom, her wit, her love of family, and her appreciation for words.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

WRITE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD


A writer friend read a draft of one of my novels. She gave me lots of great feedback. In particular, she pointed to a scene in which the kids visit their friend and are greeted by a stay-at-home mom.

"I know you're writing the world we usually see," my friend said. "But why use stereotypical roles? Why not show a more diverse world? Then it can become the norm."

"Absolutely," I agreed. I felt chastened to be caught in conventional thinking.

So I changed the scene. I had the stay-at-home parent be a dad. I gave the mom an important, high salary job as a lawyer who is fighting for justice.

There was an unintended consequence. The mom never appeared in the book. She was at her law office. The dad got to be in a funny scene baking spinach brownies. This caused a whole new imbalance. What had I done?!?!

Obviously I could have conceived of a story in which the lawyer mom had a crucial role. But my intention had been to write about saving our planet! (Unfortunately, that was too big a job for a kid, so I changed the idea to saving the butterflies.) Did I have to worry about male-female role models too? Isn't this just a kids' book?

No, it isn't. Words have power. We feel validated when we connect with a character or situation we recognize. When we encounter the unfamiliar, we are enlarged.

Writing is a series of choices. The character does this or that, looks like this or that, and says this or that. The multitude of small decisions coalesce to make the book.

Which brings me to the question I'd been pondering even before my friend's suggestion. The world is beset by problems. So many injustices, so many crises, including those poor monarch butterflies. I'm just a writer. What can I do?

Pay attention. Be aware of the problems. Learn about them. Use facts whenever possible. That will lead to better writing.

Upend preconceived notions. Shun the stale and the trite. That's better writing.

Strive for balance. Not just among types of characters, but within them. Treat every character with respect. That's better writing.

Be honest. Kids see through our best attempts to guide them. They know damn well there's spinach in that brownie. Don't gloss over situations. Characters should change and grow. That's better writing.

One of the reasons I love what I do is that I can make a happy ending. I can't cure cancer or end poverty. But I can make bold heroes who happen to be girls. I can make friendships exist where they usually don't. I can make sensitive dads and brothers. I can make wise women give just the right amount of encouragement and advice.

I can write the change I want to see in the world.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

THE WAY TO AN AUTHOR'S HEART

STEP ONE:  Invite her to your school.

When educators make time for an author visit, they send a strong signal that books are important. Last spring, Mrs. Stacia Kohlstedt asked if I would visit St. Mary's School in Richland Center, Wisconsin. I happily agreed. Meeting young readers always inspires me and reminds me why I do what I do.

STEP TWO:  Read her book prior to the visit.

All of the grades read my books. The students had excellent questions and comments about what they had read. The seventh graders did an entire study on Nature Girl. Their illustrated reports lined the hallway.

I was really impressed by their analysis of character, plot, and setting.


I loved seeing Trail Blaze Betty get the credit she deserves for guiding Megan's journey. (Look--there's her famous hat!)

STEP THREE:  Let her discuss topics she's passionate about.


This workshop is entitled "WALK IN SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOES:  EMPATHY IN WRITING."

Fiction is a powerful tool that enables us to view the world from someone else's perspective. In my books, I've been a boy with too much imagination, an African gray parrot, and a snotty girl who is transformed by hiking. In other people's books, I've been a runaway slave, a soldier, and a Syrian refugee. Whether you're a reader, a writer, or both, your life will be enriched by being inside someone who is different from you. 

STEP FOUR:  Invite her to lunch with a few of your students.


Pizza! Kids! Conversation about school and books and butterflies. St. Mary's is passionate about saving monarchs--which happens to be the theme for a book I'm currently writing.

Thank you, Mrs. Stacia Kohlstedt, St. Mary's teachers and students for a wonderful day, for sharing your ideas--and for helping me write my next book.




Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I LOVE SCHOOL VISITS

The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators knows the importance of school visits. That’s where the kids are! In a noisy world, teachers and librarians are often the best ones to connect readers to books.

Unfortunately, schools aren’t always able to host these visits. But at the Wisconsin Educational Media & Technology Association convention, the SCBWI booth was mobbed by educators entering a drawing for a FREE author visit. Nancy Washnieski, a 6th grade teacher from Washburn, Wisconsin, was the lucky winner of a visit and a bag of books by Wisconsin authors and illustrators.

By happy coincidence, Nancy had already bought a copy of my middle-grade novel NATURE GIRL to share with her students. So I got to make the trip from the coast of one great lake to another -- beyond the reach of the interstate, through the Chequamegon National Forest, past Mercer (the loon capitol of the world), to Washburn on the shore of Lake Superior.

I wasn't sure what kind of school I would find in a town of only 2000. (There are schools in New York City that have that many students!) But I knew we had the most important thing in common – we all loved books.

Nancy had been reading NATURE GIRL to her students. They enjoyed Megan’s adventures on the Appalachian Trail, even though they were shocked she didn’t know how to start a campfire. Unlike my heroine, these kids loved being in nature.


They had so many great questions about writing and the reasons for choices I had made. They shared their ideas for a project I’m just beginning – in which a kid from the country gets lost in the city. 




Thank you, Washburn School! I loved sharing my books with you. And thanks for the water bottle with your school's mascot Castle Guards. It came in very handy as I hiked along the spectacular coast of Lake Superior.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Meet Clint McCool

Zing, zong, zing! Brain flash! It's time for another Clint McCool Escapade.

Clint McCool's real name is Walter. But he had to give himself a new identity. Real life just isn't exciting enough for a kid with limitless imagination.

I had so much fun working on this character. It was great to imagine outrageous adventures with alligators and monsters instead of the serious issues my other characters had been grappling with.

As you can see from these covers, Jessika von Innerebner really brought Clint McCool and his exciting escapades to life.  Her illustrations appear throughout these chapter books.

Pre-order the first books of this series by  clicking this link. 



Creativity should be celebrated. New ideas should be encouraged. And yet Clint McCool does live in the real world where escapades have consequences. Octopus's arms will come off––if you yank on them. Jars of brains will break––if you drop them. Flooded streets are impossible to cross. Your best friend Marco will get mad––if you ruin his XL7 Ray Bender. Especially if you took it without his permission.

Things go wrong! That is unavoidable. But whenever Clint gets in trouble, he learns a lesson. His imagination finds a delightful way to fix the disaster. And he also sincerely apologizes. Because we should also use our powers of imagination to think about how it feels to be someone else.

That's how I love to use my brain.

Zing, zong, zing!