Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who gets more out of a school vist? Students or the Author?

I have to confess. A school visit makes me nervous. The butterflies start weeks before the actual event. And on the day of the visit, I'm filled with the jitters.
On Friday, I drove my jittery self up north for a visit with some 5th grade classes.
(btw, "north" is Jersey talk for the northern part of the state. In NJ, the actual north/south border is a subject of great debate and even the subject of a movie documentary.)
It had the makings of a great day.The drive up was fine. No traffic. First time in ages that my GPS and I didn't argue about how to get there (okay, there was that tiny spat about that one turn in the beginning of the drive, but I did it my way and we made up after that).
My jitters were gone the moment I walked into the school. What a wonderful greeting from the 5th graders. Smiling faces. Hand made cards. It couldn't have been better.
The presentation went well. There was a minor blip. Sometime toward the end, I got a ton of blue ink on my face and looked like I was auditioning to be an extra in the movie, Braveheart. (If you've never used a Smartboard, watch out for the blue markers). I cleaned up.
After my talk, the students had a writing assignment. I walked around the classrooms while they asked questions. Good ones. About conflict and plot and characters and voice.
When that was done, I met with quite a few students for a one-on-one conference.
Each child had about five to ten minutes to talk about his/her work.
"I'd like some advice on how to engage the reader," asked one girl.
"This is the sentence I'm most proud of," said a boy.
Another girl showed me about four or five pages of a short story. "You came up with this idea and did this in that half hour you had to write?" I asked. She nodded.
I hope the students learned something from my visit, because I sure did.
After hearing them talk so enthusiastically about their writing, I learned that fifth graders are fearless. They're not afraid to pour their hearts out onto a piece of paper.
As a writer, I owe them the same thing back.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The B.E.M Awards (Best Epicurean Moments) in YA/MG Literature

There needs to be an award that combines two of my favorite things: food and YA/MG literature. I love it when book characters cook..or eat..or when food is mentioned for any reason.

Here's my list of Best Epicurean Moments in the YA/MG books of 2009:

Best Budding Chef: Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson in The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. I love Groovy and her passion for food. I hope she gets to go to cooking school one day. Her recipe for chocolate-covered strawberries is in the back of the book.

Best "Worst" Chef: With dishes like spaghetti omelets and spam manicotti,
Roy McGuire's Dad in Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta could easily be a contestant on the Food Network's new show, "The Worst Cooks in America". His crazy concoctions remind me of my own father's recipes. When my dad cooked, everything was boiled and had a bunch of secret ingredients which always included onions, vinegar and strawberry jam. (Full disclosure: I think I've had a spaghetti omelet and it was pretty good. Roy's Dad should have added in some scallions and a little soy sauce).

Best descriptions of food: Oh sure. There's adventure, romance and a little magic in Cindy Pon's YA fantasy novel Silver Phoenix. But my favorite parts are the mouthwatering descriptions of food that are stirred into this story. Don't read Silver Phoenix when you're hungry. And if there was ever a fantasy YA novel that needed a companion cookbook, it's this one.

Best "worst" meal: In C. Lee McKenzie's YA novel, Sliding on the Edge, 16 yr-old Shawna Stone is forced to make do with a dinner of ketchup soup, straight out the little packets.

Best cry over food: The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. When Peter Augustus Duchene cried in his soup, I cried too.

Best use of Oreo Cookies: No cookie defines childhood better than an Oreo (although those mint chocolate Girl Scout cookies are a close second). Hands down, the best use of Oreo cookies is in Ellen Potter's book, Slob. There's an Oreo mystery, and I love the Oreo on the cover.

Best book to inspire food cravings:
Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell In Love by Lauren Tarshis. I wish I could be in the kitchen while Vikram Adwani prepares a meal. After reading this book, I craved curry for a week. (It happened after reading Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, too.)

Best Mention of Food in a Title: Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill. The book is as fun and as clever as the title.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Big Dreams? Or Little Ones?

A few days ago, I got my hands on a copy of Storyworks magazine. I wrote a story called “Silver Dollar Dreams” for the January issue. There are incredible illustrations by Kyle Stone (which I are so amazing I can’t stop staring at them). I got to work with Lauren Tarshis, the editor of Storyworks (the very same Lauren Tarshis who created Emma-Jean Lazarus, one of the most memorable characters in children’s literature. Lauren’s books Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree and Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell in Love are among my all time favorites).

My story is about a ten-year old boy who has a dream. Two actually. A big impossible one which he calls a “buried treasure dream” (winning the lottery would be an example of a big dream) and smaller, easier to attain ones, he calls a “silver dollar dreams.”

Storyworks is a magazine for schools, so there’s a teacher’s edition that has some questions about the story. One of the questions for students to answer is "Which is more important? Silver dollar dreams or buried treasure ones."

I ask my husband while we’re chopping vegetables. Fortunately I don’t have to explain the silver dollar/buried treasure dream concept to him since he’s been forced to listen to/read/make suggestions about every single version/variation/word change/comma placement already read the story.

His answer is immediate. “Small dreams, because they’re possible to attain.”

I hand him an onion. “But don’t you think that the big dreams give you some context for the little dreams. Big dreams provide a blueprint for..

My husband interrupts... “a blueprint for the disappointments and failures in your life.” He laughs as he says it… but still.

We chop silently until carrot time. (We’re making soup) I tell him that impossible dreams fill people with hope and give them a chance to see themselves in a whole new light.

“Give me an example,” he says.

“Okay, when you were a little kid, didn’t you dream of being Superman?” It’s more like an accusation than a question. I happen to know that he was one of those kids who jumped off furniture wearing a beach towel as a cape.

“My point, exactly,” he says. “When was the last time you saw me run faster than a speeding bullet or leap over a tall building in a single bound? It’s kind of disappointing that it didn’t happen.”

“Come on. It was fun to be Superman.” I hand him a celery stalk. “By dreaming about Superman, maybe that child learns he wants to save the world. He could grow up to be a cop or firefighter.”

“Isn’t it better to dream about being a firefighter? Then that child would have reached his dream”

Frankly I’m surprised with his answers (and suspect that if I asked him another time, they might be different). This is the man whose boyhood dreams of becoming an astronaut inspired me to set my debut novel during the week of the first moonwalk. So I remind him of this fact. I also remind him about how often he says that this single historic event taught an entire generation to dream big.

He asks me if we need more celery. Then he adds, “Perhaps big dreams are good for society.”

“But not for the individual?” I ask.

He shrugs.

I’ve seen the StarTrek movie where Spock dies in order to save everyone else so I know what he’s talking about. But I’m not buying it. “If you met a boy who said he dreamed of being Superman, would you tell him not to do it? That it’s never going to happen so he should modify his dream and lower his expectations?”

“How old is the boy?”


He’s quiet for a moment. “Of course not.” Before I could shake the parsley at him and say “I told you so,” he adds, “but what would you say to a sixteen-year-old who had that same dream? Wouldn’t you tell him to consider a plan B?”

He got me. If a sixteen-year-old told me he wanted to be Superman, I’d probably go all librarian on him and start pulling out a few of those Ferguson Career Guides and suggest he think of something else.

So at what age are you expected to temper your dreams? Are children the only ones allowed to have big impossible ones? As adults don’t we get some too? Maybe there is a fine line between this-dream-is-a-little-out-there to let’s-get-you-some-professional-help-because-your-dreams-are-crazy. But people beat the odds all time. They win lotteries. They have miraculous recoveries. They do something that others said could never be done. Their giant dreams come true.

I have tons of small dreams. But I have some really big ones also. And I know there’s a good chance they might never happen. But I can’t imagine a life without big impossible dreams. And I can’t imagine a world without people who dream them.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Resolutions I'll Keep

(A version of this was posted yesterday on the AuthorsNow website, but I wanted to post this here since I think resolutions are important and also because I wanted to put up another picture of my dog in her New Year's hat. )

This year, I’m trying something different. Instead of setting goals that will be forgotten by March, I’m making ones I’m certain I’ll keep.

Here’s my list of can’t fail resolutions:

I will eat more chocolate.

And potato chips. And cinnamon candies. And tons of other foods I use for celebrations. I hope there are a lot of them. On days when nothing special happens, I will make up my own reasons for merriment. Meeting a writing goal. Getting a decent haircut. Not hitting that terminally long red light on my way to work. I will celebrate ordinary events, and I will eat accordingly (for those of you think I’ve gone off the nutritional deep end, I’m looking into a juicer. There has to be a special event that calls for a kale/spinach/parsley cocktail.)

I will get lost.

I live in New Jersey, a land of meandering roads with street signs that will point you toward your destination…eventually. I have ventured off the Garden State Parkway and found myself unable to get back. My GPS is equally perplexed by the NJ road system. When it fails, I am left to wander. With writing too, my plot will turn in unexpected ways. My characters will do something new, and I will lose my sense of direction.

Sometimes I intentionally take the wrong turn. If I’m lucky I’ll find a beach or a place to get a bucket of blueberries. I enjoy getting lost. It’s what happens when you leave the familiar behind and venture into something new. And new places mean new possibilities.

I will take on too much.

In 2010, I’m going to finish my work-in-progress, work full-time as a librarian, go on class/library visits for my debut book, spend time with family and friends, possibly buy a house and probably deal with an occasional crisis or two. Like everyone else, I’m juggling a lot. Oh sure. I’ll drop a few balls this year. Something will come crashing down. It’s one of the consequences of having a busy (and full) life. But except for that occasional crisis, there’s not a thing here I’d give up.

I will feel guilty.

There will be times when those unanswered emails, unfinished projects, and all the things I should have/could have/would have done better if only I had more time will keep me awake at night. But I know my guilt comes from doing too much (my choice) or perhaps from eating too much chocolate (my choice again) so I will try to let myself off the hook.

I will find some quiet time.

Somewhere in the chaos, I’ll find a moment to take a few deep breaths, glance up at the moon or stare out at the bay (and also go late night channel surfing and play way too many games of Spider Solitaire).

I will read a book that takes my breath away.

It’s happened every year since I started reading so it’s pretty much guaranteed. I never know which book it will be or why. A single sentence. An idea. The book as a whole. Perhaps it will make me see the world in a whole new way or maybe something familiar will be so well articulated that it will make me wonder why I never noticed it before. Everything I know about writing and storytelling will be challenged. I will hold that book in my hands, and I will feel grateful.

Happy New Year!

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009: A Look Back

New Year's Eve is a mixed bag. I never know how I'm going to feel when the clock strikes twelve. It all depends on what happened the year before. Most years, the event is one of quiet celebration. It's a time to reflect and enjoy. Of course, like everyone else, I've had my share of clunker years, the ones so filled with worry or sorrow that they make you want to sprint toward midnight so you can start over. But every once in a while, there's a really good one, a year filled with celebration and joy and dreams coming true. 2009 was one of those years.

Here's why:

It was a whirlwind year of new experiences. It was wonderful having the support of my family and friends. Plus I met so many people (both in person and through blogs, twitter and Facebook) and even made a new friend or two.

If I could, I'd take 2009 and wrap in up in a big red bow. Happy New Year! Hope 2010 is a red bow year for everyone!