Author Archives: Elizabeth Duncan

Breaking Barriers; Inspiring Others: Author Julia Alvarez

In early November,  I had the opportunity to hear Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez (say Hoo-lia!) speak about her life and books. Julia was in Denver to celebrate her book In the Time of the Butterflies, which had been chosen as the “Big Read” for the Denver Community for 2019.

Since her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published in 1991, I have been an avid admirer of her writing. Her works are known for their vivid characters, multiple points of view, poetic language and her sharp insights into human nature.

Julia Alvarez signing her book, In the Time of the Butterflies.

Julia Alvarez is a powerful female voice in American and Hispanic literature. Her early novels became the first Latina works to find their way into the mainstream of American literature. Now, her books are regularly read as part of the American cannon in schools around the country. At 69-years old, she balances writing, teaching and public appearances with a calm grace.

Dwarfed by the Newman Center stage, Julia reminded me of Yoda: diminutive, humble and infinitely wise. She spoke about her life and her writing, while encouraging and inspiring the packed house of writers who filled the seats.

Here are some highlights from Julia’s wisdom about writing, reading and life. These were culled from a several sources, the presentation that I attended and others I searched out on the internet:

On Inspiration: Where do I get inspired? By the pebble in my shoe, by the thing that unsettles me, by the story that takes me out of myself and makes me see things differently. It’s the story that won’t let me go… the story that I feel I must tell. Curiosity is the place I begin.

On being a “Real Writer:” I used to think real writers started at the beginning and went through to the end, maybe making a change here or there. So I thought I wasn’t a real writer because what I did was so messy. But I know now that writing is messy, but that, when it is all said and done, being a writer is a great blessing. It’s such an honor to be able to do what I was put on this earth to do.

On History: History is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. What we remember is always filtered through a point of view. A novel is a lens to see a story and is the truth according to character. Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Just the facts can’t begin to tell the full human story.

On the Power of Stories: Stories have the ability to transform, encourage empathy and spur the imagination. Stories have the ability to show us our full humanity. I believe stories have the power to change the world.

On Books: I found, at the table of literature, a place where all were welcome. Here, I entered worlds, between the covers of books, that I longed to know more about. Being a reader is the beginning of being a writer. Once you become a reader, you realize that there is one story you haven’t read… it’s the story only you can tell.

On Revising: I am an endless reviser. When you begin, you write the best book you can write at that moment. Revision is part of the process of growing and improving as a writer. Through revision you read your book as your reader would and change your book for them. You become the best advocate for your reader through revision.

On Reading and Writing: Whether we are reading or writing a book, when we see with clarity all the complexity of another person, it is an amazing connection to humanity. When we walk in another’s shoes, it is a radical, transforming experience.

On Process: I am a person of ritual and I like structure. I write every single day. Sometimes the muse comes and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing is a muscle and needs to be exercised everyday. A dancer doesn’t just dance when she feels like it, she dances and practices everyday. This is the same of a writer.

On Characters: Give thanks to your characters and the stories they came to tell you. Honor them and put them to rest. The truth your characters speak is multifaceted, and what I love about a story is that it can hold all of the complexity that exists in that situation.

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Revisiting Misty of Chincoteague

This summer I went to a writing retreat (at the beach home of my friend and critique partner, Susan) on the pleasant shores of Delaware. The house was just north of Chincoteague and Assateague, the setting of my all-time favorite book from my elementary years, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but when I looked at a map and saw how close I would be, I knew I had to reread the book and to try to catch a glimpse of the famous wild ponies for myself.

A Newbery Honor book in 1947, Misty of Chincoteague was already considered a classic when I discovered the book. The book tells the story of wild ponies, who washed ashore from a the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s,* and lived on the island of Assateague “alone and forever part of the rocks and streams and wind and sky.”

Set in the 1940s, the nearby town conducts a yearly round-up of the wild ponies, swimming them across the narrow part of bay and selling the foals. Paul and his sister Maureen buy the sweetest little filly, who is named Misty, along with her mother, Phanotm, the most elusive, wild mare in the herd. Through heartwarming trials and tribulations, Phantom returns to the wild and Misty remains with Paul and Maureen.

It’s always interesting to reread books we loved as children as adults. Rereading Misty of Chincoteague, I was able to reflect on what was so delightful about the book to the 10-year-old me. But, rereading the book through the lens of adulthood, there were also some disappointments.

As an animal and nature loving girl growing up in suburban Denver, the wild ponies, the windblown island, and the adventures of the Paul and Maureen, siblings who live with their grandparents on a pony farm, captured my imagination.

As I reread the book, I could remember imagining myself as Paul or Maureen, galloping my horse through the ocean surf, riding a pony into town to do chores for the neighbors, and laboring on the pony farm where I mucked the stalls and gentled the mares. In my imagination, I raked clams and gathered oysters, halter-broke colts, rode in and won a big race, and hurled myself into the sea to save a colt from drowning.

It should be noted I have never done any of those things and I never will. But as a child I loved the idea  someone out there had. The book opened up my world and let me know there are many exciting and different ways that people live.

As an adult reader, I cringed at the underlying assumptions in the book. Paul, the brother, made all the decisions and experienced most of the excitement, while Maureen was stuck in the farmhouse doing chores. It was hard to read Paul’s constant belittling of his sister for being a girl. There were volatile social, economic, and environmental issues simmering beneath the text. The grandfather’s dialect was nearly impossible to read and his over-the-top adult moralizing set my teeth on edge. It wasn’t the exciting adventure story I remembered. In many ways it was just a flawed, old-fashioned children’s book.

But there I was… one hour away. Despite the summer traffic and tourist crowds we woke early and made the pilgrimage to Assateague Island National Seashore. We knew from our research the wild ponies are elusive and often visitors do not see them.

When we drove over the bridge onto the Assateague Island, there they were. The band of wild ponies grazed on the salt grass as the wind blew their manes and tails and the sunlit Atlantic sparkled behind them. The stallion imperiously watched his band, as a trio of juvenile males hung around looking wistful. A little foal with Misty’s coloring, gold and silver with a blaze down her forehead nuzzled and nursed as her mother, reminiscent of the wild mare Phantom, eyed me warily.

Just as my 10-year-old self knew, the wild ponies were special beyond belief. Seeing them was absolutely delightful. All my adult cynicism was suddenly gone and I was left with the magic of the moment. I was in a spectacular place, led by the power of a book, imagination and memory.

 

*This is a myth. Assateague National Seashore scientists have determined that the ponies are descendants of ponies grazed by colonial farmers on the island to avoid taxes.

 

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Hot Trend: Picture Book Biographies

Picture book biographies are one of the hottest trends in children’s book publishing. From mathematicians to ancient astronomers to obscure inventors, picture books are bringing inspiration and understanding about how real people impact the world in which they live.

My published works are early reader biographies, so I have experienced researching and writing about people with an inspiring story to tell. I admire the people I write about and enjoy the challenge of conveying their story, as well as their life and times, to young readers.

My next project is a picture book biography. To understand what publishers are looking for, I have read hundreds of picture book biographies, which has been an education in itself. I have been awed and inspired by the lives depicted in the books.

Over and over, I have learned about people whose stories are not well known, but who lived compelling lives. The new crop of picture book biographies contain stories of courageous people who overcame challenges, while others highlight someone who saw a problem in the world and dedicated their life to a solution. The books show how creativity and inventiveness led to inspired lives or how a person’s moral or intellectual strength gives a person direction and meaning. Such stories inspire readers to pursue their own passions with hope and determination.

A picture book biography is limited in scope- 32 or 40 pages, 1,000 or so words. It also must be written to appeal to a child’s understandings. A cradle to grave exploration of a person’s life is not possible given the format or the audience. These authors have winnowed down the stories to their essence in purposeful and imaginative ways.

As an author and not an illustrator, it has been interesting to me to study how the text and the pictures work together to tell the story in a picture book biography. The author does not need to expend words describing how their subject looks or the setting, because the pictures can surround the words with those details. The text is as carefully rendered as the pictures, with each of the words adding to the story.

After reading so many picture books biographies, I highly recommend them for children and adults. I’ve included the titles of twenty books that stood out for me… and left many more off this list.  I hope the intriguing titles will draw you in and make you want to read them or to share them with a child. Prepare to be inspired.

  • I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley
  • Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee
  • The Boo-Boo’s That Changed the World: A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really!) by Barry Wittenstein and Chris Hsu
  • Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone and Steven Salerno
  • Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood and Sally Wern Comport
  • Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic and Brett Helquist
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Melissa Iwai
  • The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone and Kathryn Brown
  • The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanetter Winter
  • The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant
  • Away With Words” The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen and Kristy Caldwell
  • When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin and Jose Ramirez
  • Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins and Lucy Knisley
  • Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu
  • The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham
  • Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and Laura Freeman
  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson
  • Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor and Laura Beingessner
  • Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh and Raul Colon

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A Blizzard of Ideas: Storystorm, 2019

I was in the doldrums. It was the end of December and I had just completed my most recent writing project. My writing life stretched out in front of me. What, I wondered, would I write next? I had half-formed ideas for the picture books I wanted to write. The ideas were best when I roused in the middle of the night. “Brilliant! That’s it!” I would think, before drifting back to sleep. In the morning, I could only revive that feeling and not the idea itself—lost forever in the ether of dreamland.

Fortunately, like a blast of fresh air, I learned about the Storystorm Challenge. It’s a month-long brainstorming event held each January. Picture book writers are challenged to generate thirty story ideas in thirty days. For me, Storystorm was exactly what I needed to jump start the new year. It gave structure and purpose to my musings and a solid goal to work toward. By the end of January, come rain or shine, the 11,235 participants and I would have a list of at least thirty ideas to flesh out into concepts and premises in the coming year.

Started and coordinated by the esteemed picture book author Tara Lazar, the object is to heighten the idea-generating senses. Her January blog provides inspiration in the form of daily posts from published picture book authors and illustrators. They offer advice and insight into where they find their ideas and how they spark their creative process. Plus there are potential prizes! A “Winner” certificate! And it’s free!

My own list started off slowly, one idea per day. Then, one of the daily blogs would inspire me to imagine something new, and then that would morph into another idea altogether. I remembered books I had thought of writing years ago. I started to see picture book ideas everywhere and they would come to me when I was not expecting them. The act of writing down my ideas was transforming, and numbering them was surprisingly motivational. By mid-month, I had at least 30 ideas and their related iterations.

A blog by author Jess Keating described of the way an author for children must view the world. “Find everything inspiring,” she wrote. “When the whole world is interesting, you don’t need to hunt for ideas. They grow around you and wait for you to pick them.”

Another blog, by Andria Rosenbaum addressed how to tell difficult stories that I have sometimes considered writing. She wrote, “Hard stories … can’t change history but they have the ability to heal … and build empathy and understanding.” She continued, “If you have a tough story to tell, I hope you find a way to share it. You never know who may be waiting for your words.” That day, a variety of long-standing ideas that I had thought were too hard to write about for children found their way onto my list.

Other bloggers encouraged picture book writers to remember things they misunderstood as children, to imagine the world as a child might, to explore their own childhood memories, to listen to their own children, to play with words and puns, to explore historic events and their anniversaries, to celebrate the “weird stuff” and a flurry of other advice.

Author Shutta Crim wrote that Storystorm is about beginnings: first ideas, first notes and first drafts. That is exactly what Storystorm is for me—the perfect storm.

Ready with my ever-growing list of ideas, I’ll embark on another challenge to inspire me for the rest of the year. I’ve joined other picture book writers in the online group, “12 x 12.” This is a year-long writing challenge in which members write twelve complete picture books drafts, one per month.

After Storystorm, my only issue will be deciding on the lucky few (only twelve?) stories to take to completion and which ones I’ll have to save for a rainy day.

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The Journey from Idea to Publication: Writing “Explorations in Science”

I am pleased to announce the publication of Explorations in Science: Independent Extension Projects for Gifted and High Ability Students. The book will help teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms for their advanced learners. A companion volume, Explorations in Social Studies,is due out in January.

Gifted education was my specialty during my teaching career. I worked directly with small groups of gifted and high-ability students, as well as functioned as a resource for teachers who taught in mixed-ability classrooms.

Gifted students have abilities that place them in the top 10% of the population and their needs are often overlooked in a one-size-fits-all educational climate. These students are expected to sit through the presentation and review of information that they already know or that they learn very quickly.

To address this problem, over the years I developed extensions of curriculum that advanced students could work on independentlyduring class, while the teacher and other students in the class were involved grade-level instruction or review. I found these worked well to keep advanced students engaged in school and excited about learning. These were the genesis of Explorations.

My colleague, friend and co-author Rae Harris and I thought these kinds of projects we had developed at our schools would be helpful to teachers and welcomed by students. After much thought, we started to call our projects “Explorations.” We knew there were few, if any, resources that were similar to what we wanted to write.

We contacted a publisher of gifted and talented resources and proposed our idea. We included some sample Explorations and the many reasons we were qualified to write thisbook. “Pieces of Learning Press,” a leading publisher of gifted and talented materials, wrote back saying, “We like it!” A contract, reviewed by our legal team (our husbands), was promptly signed. Then we went to work.

Consulting the NextGen Science standards, we determined the curricular topics we needed to cover. The science standards led us to divide the book into three sections: Earth Science, Life Science and Physical Science. We decided that ten Explorations per standard would allow teachers and students ample choice. Our Exploration topics would include topics like volcanoes and space, endangered animals and human body, and electromagnetism and light waves.

Rae and I designed a teacher and student-friendly, two-page format that focused on interesting topics that extend the science curriculum for 3rd-6thgrades. We wrote each Exploration with an educational focus, complex and rigorous important questions, several creative project options and a structured project completion tasks. We dreamed up all the extras we knew teachers would need, like student directions and evaluation rubrics, and created these as well.

Over the course of several months, we met weekly at our local library work on the book. We delved into topic areas and explored resources. I immersed myself in each topic, researching (for example) physical scientists and their theories, the newest missions in space or alternative energy sources. The best part was thinking up the creative projects that were challenging and interesting, as well as do-able by a student working independently in a classroom.

We did final edits on the book and it was submitted. We received and reviewed the proof and found a surprising number of errors. We corrected the proofs, got a second proof… it was getting there… more corrections, then it was finalized. We were excited to get a peek at the cover and back of the book in an email.

Finally, it was done and we held a copies of the finished product in our hands. And, it is ready for the publisher’s booth at the National Association of Gifted and Talented (NAG/T) annual conference, which starts today in Minneapolis.

I imagine my book, Explorations in Science,finding its way into the hands of teachers in a variety of settings- in a large urban classroom or a small rural school or a homeschool table. I picture students, like Trevon or Katie or  Maria or Edwin (real people I have taught) connecting with learning at a deep level while working through an Exploration. It is my great hope that my own creative work and ideas will make a difference in the education of a child.

 

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Lunch With Author Lois Lowry

Lois LowryI recently had the opportunity to have lunch with Lois Lowry … along with 1,184 other participants in the 2018 Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference in Los Angeles. For me, it was the highlight of the conference.

For this lunchtime conversation, the 81 year-old author was seated in an oversized easy chair set on the stage and interviewed by Lin Oliver, founder of SCBWI. Their discussion was broadcast on two gigantic screens and Lois’s face filled the banquet room. With her pale blue eyes, short-cropped white hair and intelligent, no-nonsense demeanor, she commanded that attention of everyone in the room. Over mass-produced conference salads at large round tables, the experience was surprisingly intimate.

Lois, of course, is the beloved children’s book author of over 40 books, who won the coveted Newbery Award for Children’s Literature … twice! Those two books were ground-breaking and changed the landscape of children’s literature forever.

Number the Stars LowryNumber the Stars(1990) was one of the first novels for children about the Holocaust. Set in Denmark in 1943, an ordinary 10 year-old child, Annelise, finds her life transformed by Nazi occupation and rises to heroic heights when she helps to save the life of her Jewish friend.

The spare, simple language transports elementary school readers to imagine themselves in untenable situations and to dream that they too can be heros. As a teacher, it was one of my all-time favorite books to use in my classroom. I watched my young, gifted students read the book and connect with history and learn about the realities and consequences of war. “Number the Starsis about the role we humans play in the lives of others,” Lois said.

The Giver LowryThe Giver(1994) changed adult ideas about the topics that could be explored in children’s literature. The first dystopian future novel for children, it imagines the terrible underlying darkness of a seemingly perfect world in which there are no memories and emotions. Her character, Jonas, unveils the lies and manipulation, and escapes the community, while saving an “imperfect” baby.

Lois explained the genesis of the book was her own father’s struggle with memory loss. “I began to think about writing a book about people who have found a way to manipulate human memory, so they don’t have to remember anything bad.”

The Giverhas become a classic, selling millions of copies worldwide and placed on the required reading list of schools. It also remains high on the list of most challenged or banned books, although Lois mused, “I still wonder what they are so upset about.” She believes The Giverspeaks to readers of the fundamental interdependence of people with each other, their world and its environment.

So how did a college dropout and 1950’s housewife end up being the agent of tremendous change in the publishing world? Lois was enrolled in the writing program at Brown University, but she quit, like so many other women of the era, to get married at age 19. By the time she was 26, she was the mother of four children. She started writing again at age 40, when her marriage ended. “I started writing for children because I needed a job,” she explained.

Lois is known for writing about difficult subject matter in her work for children. Her first book, A Summer to Die(1977), was a semi-autobiographical novel about the death of a child. Her own older sister died of cancer at a young age. Many other books followed, written for children of all ages and with varying degrees of seriousness.

When asked if she ever planned to write an adult novel, Lois quipped, “That’s like me asking a pediatrician, “When are you going to get a real job and become an internist?”

Lois spoke about her next book, Gripped,due out in 2020. Focusing on the connections between people, the book is about how she and fellow Newbery winner Allen Say crossed paths as children in post-war Japan. Always the storyteller, Lois mesmerized the audience with her dramatic retelling of part of the book, which ended with a collective gasp from the audience. “This new book is more about human connection than any other I have ever written,” she said.

Lois believes all her writing is about “connection” and that is the key to her success as a children’s author. “If I had to choose one word, it would be intimacy… me flowing through the character and connecting with the reader.”

At its heart, Lois Lowry’s writing is about kids making sense of a complicated world. It is what all writers of children’s books aspire to do. She is a master of creating intimacy, whether in her writing or at lunch with me and 1,184 other writers.

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Plug-Ins, Widgets and Jet Packs

Okay. I get it now. There’s more to being a writer in the 21st century than just writing. If you really wanna make it, you gotta have your “online presence,” your “author platform,” a fancy-schmancy website and up-to-date, clever blog. You need to identify your “target market” and “target audience” and be “discoverable” by current and potential “readers” and “industry figures.” Through your web presence, you need to create “connections” and be “accessible,” as well as be “a source of inspiration and motivation.” You need to “create,” “grow” and “maintain” your “fresh and engaging” author platform.

Oh dear. I just wanted to write children’s books. I thought that my wonderful books would speak for themselves. I believed that my focus should be on my creative process and telling the stories that have floated in my head for years. I wanted to be discovered by a publishing company who would nurture my image and take care of all those tiresome details. It could happen… right?

Nope. Not anymore. In today’s publishing landscape writers apparently need to be on top of their online presence almost as much as they need to be on top of their writing. Or so I am told. So what’s a writer to do?

I did what anyone else would do. I went on the internet. Just like my “target audience.” I learned what current and potential readers, agents and publishers expect from an author in this digital age. I acquired a whole new vocabulary related to creating a web presence. I consulted a website developer to help me get oriented and begin. Exploring and analyzing the author platforms of both successful and unknown children’s writers helped me see possibilities and what works for them. I registered for a class on website design. My own tech-friendly children and colleagues gave me advice and I started to figure it out.

As I involved myself in the process, I started to believe that this might even be a good idea. Surprisingly useful. Kind of interesting. Possibly even … exciting?

So, I am now in the process of creating that all-important author website. I am finally putting to good use a domain name that I claimed years ago. I have a “theme” and an outline for my “pages” and the draft content for each page and sub-page. I’m learning about “plug-ins” and “widgets” and “jetpacks.” Yes, jetpacks!

Soon, I’ll move onto mastering social media. Facebook (no problem), Instagram and Pinterest (sure, why not?), YouTube (well, maybe), and Twitter (maybe not!).

While I would rather be spending my time just writing, I have come to appreciate the creativity and purpose of this process too. It has forced me to think deeply and differently about my writing. I am beginning to know how I want to present myself to the wide, wide world that can be accessed with the touch of a button. The idea of such immediate access is challenging and important. I’m focusing on the ways I can reach and interact with my readers and am considering what they might want from me. I want agents and publishers to know that I can contribute to my own success. Embracing the idea of a web-presence will enable me to connect to the world ways that would have been impossible a generation ago.

And using a jet-pack, even a digital one, is really, really cool.

 

 

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Writer’s Block…

It is a perfect day for writing.

I have characters impatient to move forward, ready to endure things getting a little worse before they get better. My plot is waiting to advance and my characters are growing and changing, all according to the outline that I hammered out months ago. Two people I created are literally trapped in a tree and the person they are hiding from is striding toward them. They need me.

So why can’t I write?

I keep trying, but every time I sit down to write, I come up blank. I write a sentence or two and it seems so… wrong somehow. I think back to the way the story flowed out of me in the beginning, the characters putting on their personalities like layers of clothes, filling out and surprising me with their actions and words. It was fun and exciting. I anticipated my writing time, eager to watch how the story I wanted to tell would find its way into the world.

But now, my frightened characters hide in the branches. I need to write the words get them out of this chapter and into the next. But there they wait, feeling confused and abandoned. I know them and they are very, very disappointed in me.

It turns out that I am not the first writer to experience a phenomenon known as writer’s block. Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”

Looking for answers, I decided to survey what some of my favorite authors had to say about writer’s block. They provided interesting and sometimes contradictory advice, but I was buoyed by the wisdom that their words spoke to me.

  •  Hilary Mantel: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
    • Lesson from Hilary: It’s okay to take a break and to wait for the right way to tell the story to come to me. Plus, it’s fine to find some time to bake that pie. Oh… and scowling does not help.
  • Orson Scott Card: “Writer’s block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I’ve just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I’ve already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. … [If] you haven’t solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, it still won’t work – for you or for the reader.”
    • Lesson from Orson Scott: I need to pay attention to what I have written and analyze if it feels true. If not, I’ll need to change it and make it both believable and interesting in order to move forward. My unconscious mind will be telling me things my conscious mind does not know.
  • Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
    • Lesson from Margaret: My book is not going to arrive perfectly, so obsessing about each word or sentence is counterproductive. I can revise a bit as I go, but I can always go back and change everything if I wish. My first draft is just one part of the process and I need to get it down from beginning to end, then see about moving it closer to perfect.
  • Maya Angelou: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
    • Lesson from Maya: Some of what I write will be boring and awful. But that “the muse” is waiting and inspiration will come when I am ready for it…or when it is ready for me.
  • Jeffrey Deaver: “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen… it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”
    • Lesson from Jeff: I need to trust the story and allow myself to veer from my plan if something isn’t quite right. I need to let go of some things, things that seemed important and essential at one time, and leave it out if it doesn’t belong any more.
  • Barbara Kingsolver: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
    • Lesson from Barbara: I need to make sure that the book is my own, not what I think other people want the book to be. My book is historical fiction for children; I worry about making it marketable, politically correct, and always age appropriate. I need to set aside those worries for now and just tell the story.
  •  Mark Twain: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
    • Lesson from Samuel: I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the entirety of the book, but just move forward one incident at a time. If that is how he got that fence whitewashed and Huck to his own funeral, I can get those characters out of the tree.
  • Warren Ellis: “Writer’s block? This is when a writer cannot write? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing.”
    • Lesson from Warren Ellis: I’ve never read anything by Warren Ellis, in fact I’ve never heard of Warren Ellis, but I appreciated what he had to say. I probably just need to get over myself and just write the @#$%$#ing book.

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On the Road to Find My Story

Each fall, my good friend Martha and I choose a theme to explore and then we read all we can about the topic. Then, come summer, we take a trip to further explore all that we have learned. These yearly “theme trips” provide inspiration for my writing.

It began with our “12-year-old Boy Tour of England.” Martha and I made our pre-teen sons read and research, then took them to England. We did everything 12-year-old boys would want to do: torture chambers, hedge mazes, knight and castles, Jack-the-Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Stonehenge. Those boys, now young adults, will always remember the combination of focused reading and exploring. They knew more about the places we visited than the tour guides. Young Alex said to me at the time, “It’s really better in person because it makes it real!”

Since then, Martha and I have “made it real” on our yearly theme trips. We went to New York City to explore the theme of “Immigration,” visiting the Lower East Side tenements and Ellis Island. The “Civil Rights Tour” took us on the Selma to Montgomery Trail, to a Birmingham Baptist church and to a Memphis balcony. A “Native American” theme sent us to the Wounded Knee site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and to the Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota. Over the last decade we have done many other trips- “Jane Austen” in the English countryside, “Prehistoric Peoples of the Southwest” in Colorado and New Mexico and “Abraham Lincoln” in Springfield, Illinois and Washington DC.

The trips help me to direct my reading and provide me with a thought provoking topic for the year. I start my preparations with nonfiction- reading encyclopedia articles and books, then I move on to primary source materials. My favorite part of preparing for a trip is reading any relevant adult, middle grade, and children’s fiction I can find. I focus on the way the authors integrate historical details and how they portray culture and place into their books. All this allows me to get the most out of the trip and to understand how to improve my own writing.

I’ve just returned from our “Underground Railroad” trip that we chose for our theme this year. We were inspired by a family story about one of my abolitionist Quaker ancestors who harbored freedom seekers escaping slavery. We went to the small town of Vandalia, Michigan for “Underground Railroad Days” and to Detroit’s sites that memorialize the dangerous journey from slavery to freedom. This year’s trip focused on those who helped strangers and broke the law of the land because it was the right thing to do. Michigan, as I learned, was an abolitionist hotbed and the crossroads of secret pathways that led to Canada and freedom.

It was a sobering topic. The realities of our nation’s shameful history of slavery are painful to explore indepth. I learned more about the inhumane conditions that made enslaved people risk finding a path to freedom. The people who helped them were heroic. Much of the story of the underground railroad will be forever hidden, because it was secret and dangerous. But some stories remain and are important to understanding our collective history.

When I am on one of our trips, I look for the stories that are hiding below the surface and have particular resonance for me. I note details that I could never know from just reading—the feeling of standing where a historical event took place, the details of the landscape, and the atmosphere that surrounds a place.

I never know if the topic I have learned about during the year will find a place in my writing. Sometimes, our yearly theme is just for me and satisfies my own curiosity about the world. I understand more about our world and its complexities. My compassion for others grows as a result of pursuing a deep and connected understanding of a topic. Other times, I discover a story that needs a voice and a storyteller. I try to imagine the story that will help a young person understand more about a time and place. This is when I find inspiration and focus for my writing for children.

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The Magic of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking

On a recent trip through Scandinavia, I committed myself to reading the works of Scandinavian children’s authors. I wanted to reread the books that I had loved as a girl, to view them from the perspective of a writer and to read them in their native lands. I delved into the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the whimsical odd adventures and wisdom of Tove Jansen’s Moonintrolls and the very dark adventures of Astrid Lindgren’s Lionheart Brothers. But the best part of my reading journey through Scandinavia came from becoming reacquainted with Pippilotta Comestibles Windowshade Curlymint Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking.

I loved Pippi Longstocking. I wanted to have red, wild hair, to live alone in my own wacky home, to create my own rules and (most importantly) to have a pet monkey. All along, I knew in my heart I was just another Annika, a regular, good girl… but wouldn’t it be fun if I was different!

With a statue of Astrid Lindgren at Junibaken, a museum that celebrates children’s literature in Stockholm, Sweden.

Pippi has enchanted millions of children like me over the decades since she was created in Sweden in 1945. Forever nine years old, she sprang to life in the post-WWII world and has been shocking the world ever since. Pippi is still wildly popular in Scandinavia and is one of their most notable literary exports. Astrid Lindgren is a national hero and is even pictured on the 20 krona banknote. A children’s author… imagine that!

Pippi is quite the child. She turns the tables on bullies by hanging them from a tree, terrifies policemen who want to put her in a children’s home, refuses to learn her “pluttification tables,” rolls out her biscuits on the floor and heroically rescues children from a burning building. The fantastical is presented as commonplace and the world Pippi lives in is magical. The books are funny, irreverent and entirely enjoyable.

I realize that my girlhood admiration of Pippi was because she was a person who could do anything and was never bound by the rules that govern everyone else. The books are anti-authoritarian, with an undercurrent of feminism. It turns out that Pippi Longstocking often ends up on banned book lists because of these themes. One of the hallmarks of her character is that she never conforms to societal norms and that the adult world is held up to scorn and critical evaluation.

Pippi is inspirational to me as a writer because she breaks with conventional ideas about how children, especially girls, should behave. Re-meeting Pippi made me want to write children’s books that make them imagine something different from what they think they know. Pippi Longstocking may not have the same effect on the current generation of young American readers that she had on me. But today’s girls and boys need to have characters like her to love. They deserve characters who can help them look at their world with a more discerning eye and give them the courage to act in new ways. We need to make sure that our children have their own “Pippi” to encourage them to have fun, to be a bit more daring and to have faith in their own abilities.

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