Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Five Ways to Get an 8-year-old to Love Your Book

Every day watching my 8-year-old enjoy her summer vacation is like looking in a time-traveling mirror at my own childhood self. This girl loves to read. I’m pretty sure she would spend the entire day curled up with a book if I didn’t force her to actually do some essential things such as, you know, eating, drinking, and going to the beach.

However...Lu is extremely choosy about her books. She was kind enough to share with me her criteria for giving a book her complete attention, so I thought I’d share with all of you early MG writers out there.

1. “The beginning has to be exciting or interesting.”
Action beginnings won’t necessarily meet this criteria. The books Lu loves begin with interesting characters and, in most cases, intrigue. She doesn’t like ones that start with tons of action but no character development. And, unlike me, she will rarely give a book a chance past the first ten pages. (Examples of ones with beginnings she loved: The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Lost Track of Time, The Magic Half, The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.)

2. “The story should be magical and different than my life.”
Lu is instantly drawn towards fantasy stories. Exploring the worlds of fairies and elves and time travel and fulfilled wishes instantly captivates her. (Examples--besides those listed above: The Chronicles of Narnia, Half Magic and the other books in this series, Zita the Spacegirl, Peter Pan in Scarlet, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.)

On the flip side of that coin: 3. “The story should be like my life, not magical.”
While fantasy is at the top of Lu’s list, she has a deep love for the few books that really speak to her life and make her identify with a main character. At this age, she is NOT into reading about real world characters unless she can identify with them right away. (Examples: The Penderwicks, Little House on the Prairie--which is more like our life than one might think, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Bobbsey Twins, All-of-a-Kind Family, The Secret Garden.)

4. “It should be funny.”
Enough said, right? (Examples: Calvin and Hobbes, Buster Bear’s Twins, 101 Dalmations, Beezus and Ramona, Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg.)

5. And her general word of advice: “All books should be funny, mysterious, or magical.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Perfidious Mrs. Cowbird

I know you haven't heard from me much lately. My most sympathy-worthy excuse is that I am 36 weeks pregnant and deep, deep into nesting. My cupboards are organized, my mirrors sparkle, and for the first time in about 21 months (since, you know, the last time I was nesting) I am totally on top of keeping the dirty laundry basket empty. Better yet, I accomplished this last feat through actually washing laundry. I haven't hidden so much as a sock. :)

Since nesting is on my mind, I thought I would devote this post to: a nest! A real one, with real, live birds in it, who have no laundry to worry about at all.

Do you remember that last year a family of wrens made their nest in the flower basket outside our dining room window? Here's a picture of it:

Well, this year, some of their progeny, presumably, decided to return and raise their hatchlings on familiar territory. The pansies do have a lovely curb appeal, so I can't blame them. (And, yes, even though I can write all cool and collected about it here, I totally started jumping up and down and stage whispering, "The wrens came back! The wrens came back!" when I noticed.)

Like last year, we watched (sneakily, through the curtain) as Mama and Papa Wren built their lovely, little hobbit hole of a nest and laid and tended their eggs. When the eggs hatched, we listened to Mr. Wren's proud and gorgeous warbling and smiled at Mrs. Wren's cautious hops all around the basket to be sure no one was going to steal the bugs and worms she brought her babies.

Then one day, a hatchling--almost a fledgling at this point--hopped out of the nest. And we gasped. This thing was enormous. It was a full inch taller than its parents, with a wider beak, bigger eyes, and a very demanding squawk! of a cry. Suddenly a memory from 20 or so years ago popped into my mind, of a book I'd read then about a little girl who went to live with birds and was warned by her mentors about "the perfidious Mrs. Cowbird" who laid her eggs in other birds' nests....

Baby Cowbird
 Sure enough, the baby was a cowbird. Happily, Wren baby survived, and flew away a few days after its aggressive adopted sibling. (Wrens appear to be very good parents, as they were careful to shove past the bigger bird's gaping beak to feed the little one as well.)

Clearly, this is no delicate wren. In fact, doesn't he look like a grumpy old man?

Which left me to focus my energy on that old book memory. What was that book, anyway? I had no memory of title, character names, plotting... only that phrase: "the perfidious Mrs. Cowbird!" So I googled it. And thanks to modern technology, I found the blog of a homeschooling mother who had reviewed the book, which turned out to be called The Tune is in the Tree, and was written by one of my favorite authors, Maud Hart Lovelace (of Betsy-Tacy fame).

Then modern technology failed me...because after getting all excited, I couldn't find anywhere to buy the book unless I wanted to shell out over $200 on Amazon. It's been out of print since the 50' library system doesn't have a copy...and now I'm dying to read it but have no means of doing so. Anyone randomly have a copy they'd like to lend me?

So that's my nesting story. And now I will return to organizing my baby clothes. :)

Monday, June 8, 2015

What We're Reading: The Eclectic Edition

Ready for the randomness?

All-righty, then. Book #1: Everblaze, Book 3 of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, by Shannon Messenger (Middle Grade Fantasy). This is that last-last book I have to finish from the library, because I'd had it on hold for forever and couldn't really betray the library by not reading it after all that. Like the first two books in the series, this is a light, easy read and lots of fun so far. Super great character development with the secondary characters.

Book #2: Spiritual Midwifery, by Ina May Gaskin (adult non-fiction...hippie non-fiction). I could also count this one as humor, though at its heart are a lot of beautiful things about natural childbirth with which I totally agree. My midwife warned me it was "psychedelic"...which truly is the best word for it. I loved all the first person birth accounts, even as I laughed my head off at the hippie vocabulary which related how things/people got "real heavy" or "stoned" by a spiritual "high" while they shared their "telepathic energy" with each other. Groovy, dude. (I read a different book by the same author before Lucy was born, and from what I recall, it was a lot more accessible to the non-hippie reader, if you're looking for a good read about natural birth. Also, her Ted Talk is mostly great.)

Book #3: By Mouse and Frog, by Deborah Freedman (picture book).  Deborah is not only one of our very favorite author/illustrators, she is one of our favorite people ever. I love having such talented authors living nearby (Connecticut is seriously chock-full of them), because it means we get the fun of going to all their awesome book signings and release parties--and Debbie's presentations are super, super fun. As are all her books! So far, Lucy's favorite is Scribble (go figure--there's a girl named Lucie in it), Ginny's favorite is Blue Chicken, and Zoe's favorite is this newest. Fish and Snail, though, is also pulled off the shelf enough for the dust jacket to be worn out already. If you haven't discovered these delightful, whimsical, creative stories and pictures yet, you need to make a trip to the library or bookstore posthaste.

Book #4: Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words (adult non-fiction/spiritual/biography/historical document). This is just what it sounds like...the actual words of Joan of Arc, mostly from the testimony given at her trial. I had no idea these documents were still around until my sister gave me the book (as I've become a little obsessed with Joan of Arc the past few years). It's a very interesting book, though, like the story of Jeanne herself, not exactly....comfortable. Can you imagine being put to death by members of the very institution you held most dear? Jeanne was never trying to be a rebel, she was trying to be faithful. Which is why that same institution now honors her as a saint.

Linking up with Jessica--go see what everyone else is reading this month!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fear Unmasked

Last Tuesday, Mark and I gave a short speech at the celebration of the Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children's Literature, an amazing contest for unpublished children's writers and illustrators in Connecticut. (Mark and I both won the contest in past years and are now on the committee.)  Because several people mentioned they'd like to be able to turn back to the text again later, I decided to write it up for anyone interested here.

Obviously, a speech is not a blog post, so it doesn't completely "translate," much of the humor was ad-libbed, and some of it is specifically geared towards the night's attendees. But hopefully you will all find something encouraging and/or humorous here to keep you making art. :)

Veiled virgin 400.jpg

Mark: Good evening! We'd like to first offer our congratulations to the winners and finalists tonight, and a special congratulations to everyone who had the courage just to enter.
For all the quiet, introverted writers and illustrators out there, we know how hard that was.

Faith: Yes.... We're both introverts. We'll even admit that our decision to give a talk together was mostly based on the theory that if you put two introverts together, you might get an extrovert...
We wanted to talk tonight about what we see as the biggest challenge that writers or illustrators--or any artists, really--have to face. And that is--

Mark (the parts in caps are in his best Christopher Lee impression): THE VOICE OF FEAR.
Steven Pressfield wrote in his book, The War of Art, "Resistance is fear. But resistance is too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Why? Because if resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear."

Faith: Because of that, if we artists want to grow in our craft, we need to unmask--


Faith: So for the sake of illustration, we'd like to present a few examples of how Fear disguises itself and tries to prevent us from doing the work we're meant to do.
Raise your hand if you've ever heard this voice:


Faith: The fact that you entered the Tassy means you conquered this voice at least once. Deadlines are its kryptonite. Every time you hear it, remember that there will always be something easier to do than making art. Pinterest isn't going anywhere...but your time is.
So take what you learned getting those envelopes out through the snowstorm to the Shoreline Arts Alliance, and give yourself little, daily deadlines to meet. (And then you can use Pinterest and Downton Abbey as rewards!)

Next is a disguise that fools me a lot, especially when I get a rejection letter or lose a contest. Have you heard this?


Faith: Now if you are a winner or finalist, you can say, "Ha! Professionals think my work is good!"
But  the truth is: none of us is good enough. Art is bigger than we are. It comes to the unqualified and demands that we make ourselves better for its sake.
I think a problem with our current culture is that we've redefined hard work and now call it "genius." Sure...Michelangelo could do great things--he was a genius. But Michelangelo wasn't born knowing how to paint. Louisa May Alcott had to get some really awful writing out of her system before she could create Little Women.
If you work hard enough, the art will come to you, and that is the important thing.

Here's one you may have heard when you considered entering the Tassy...or anytime you sit down to make art:


Faith: The idea that art is a "waste of time"--that's a total lie. Every time you sit down to draw or write or paint, you are positively impacting your life.
Sometimes it's your artistic life: you're training yourself, practicing, getting better. For a contest like this, you're polishing your work, learning how to properly format a manuscript or portfolio, meeting a deadline.
But creating impacts other areas of your life, too. It makes you grow in virtue: in self-discipline, in patience, in understanding. It actually forces you to become a better person.

Mark: Neil Gaimain said, "If you dare nothing, when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained." Whenever you make art, you are gaining something.

Faith: I've saved the most sinister disguise for last. Raise your hand if you've heard this:


Faith: I hope you know this is a lie. Especially as creators for children, your work has the power to change lives, in small or big ways, one at a time.
As a kid, I lived ten different places before I turned 16. Luckily, my mom was wise enough to find a library in each new town before she even figured out where the grocery store was, I think, because without books I would have become a depressed, strange child.
Books gave me a sense of normalcy. They taught me that friendship survives difficulties. They also gave me something to write ten page letters to my friends about, as we discovered Narnia and Green Gables and Hogwarts together, though we were hundreds of miles apart.

Mark: We forget sometimes, too, that the books we create offer opportunities for desperately needed quality time between children and the people who love them. A three-year-old, sitting on her mother's lap and listening to Guess How Much I Love You, will be experiencing love in a way that no TV show or movie or video game can provide. Those experiences will become a lens through which that child will view the world for the rest of her life.
Not bad for a 32-page picture book.

Faith: And that's why we have to face our fears and resistance, and keep making art. Keep entering contests, submitting to publishers, sharing your work with the world.
Thank you for doing that. And thanks to those who will share their art with us, tonight.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The secret to getting your kids to eat new foods and like them, too (or why Alton Brown deserves my thanks)

Here's a really family-oriented, non-writerly post for Friday...but it's all about the blending of life and art, so I hope it's not too out of place here!

A few days ago, one of the farmers at our local farmers' market was selling the most gorgeous, luscious-looking leeks. Instantly our imaginations started going wild with the possibilities: leek and potato soup (or, heck, a million other soups that are better with leeks)...grilled leeks...who knew what? The minor snag, of course, was that we would expect our culinary endeavors to be appreciated by four little girls ages eight and under whose greatest skill may be artfully turning up their noses. (Okay, no, talking is their greatest skill. But nose-turning is close.)

Luckily, I learned this lesson a few years ago: the more children understand and appreciate a food, the more likely they are to eat it.

So we turned to our good friend Alton Brown. My girls have never heard of Justin Beiber or whoever the new kid star might be, but they do have crushes on chefs Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, Michael Symon....but mostly Alton Brown. His show "Good Eats" is by far their favorite thing to watch on our weekly "movie" night, as it approaches a single ingredient or dish artistically, scientifically, historically and gastronomically. Occasionally I'll put on an extra episode during the week in cases of dire necessity. Like getting the girls to want to eat leeks.

I pulled out the laptop and the "Sprung a Leek" episode of Good Eats yesterday afternoon, and by the end of the half hour, two girls were arguing over whether we should make grilled leeks over a fresh green salad with bacon and feta cheese on top, or deep fried leek rings. We decided on the former, and then came the important (and often trickier part):

I let them be my sous chefs.

They instructed me on how to cut the leeks; they washed them; they gathered the lettuce from our garden; they crumbled the cheese and bacon. As we went along, we talked about what each component of the dish was adding to the whole. We tasted little bites, alone or with another ingredient. They helped me plate the dish to be sure it looked beautiful.

By the time those salads were on the table, the girls owned the whole experience and couldn't wait to dig in.

And my three-year-old, who last week told me that scrambled eggs were the "most yuckiest, terrible food ever," proclaimed that leeks were her new favorite food and cleaned  her plate.

Thanks, Alton Brown.