The Anti-Resolution Revolution

This year I participated in Julie Hedlund’s 12 Days of Christmas for Writers. As part of the process, Julie challenged us to reflect on our 2016 successes so we could build on them for 2017. This is a more positive path than creating New Year’s resolutions, which are often built on negativity and efforts to fix things that went “wrong” in 2016.

I enjoyed the time spent combing through my 2016 journals and reviewing all I was able to accomplish. Julie challenged us to share our lists, so here is mine in no particular order:

  • Signing with my wonderful agent, Lara Perkins of Andrea Brown Literary. I couldn’t ask for a bigger cheerleader, better brainstorming partner, or tougher editor.
  • Having Lara submit my first picture book to publishers. Though it hasn’t sold yet, we have been close a couple of times, and many editors offered encouraging words about my work.
  • Finally holding nine of my books written in 2015 in my hands. They include the six-book Protecting Our People series (Amicus), my first book with Capstone (Special Ops), and my two latest from Rourke.
  • Receiving a good review from School Library Journal on the Protecting Our People series.
  • Writing six new books for the school and library market, including four for Amicus, one for Capstone, and one for Rourke.
  • Researching and/or drafting five new picture books.
  • Revising four existing picture books.
  • Finishing a young adult novel I started as part of 2015’s NaNoWriMo and partially revising it.
  • Reaching thousands of young readers and writers during visits to seven schools and one public library.
  • Taking two courses that stretched my writing: Novel Writing through UC San Diego and Renee La Tulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab.
  • Reading many books on writing and creativity, including Big Magic, Creativity Inc., Story Genius, The Originals, Year of Yes, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out, On Writing, In the Palm of Your Hand, The Artist’s Way.

Putting together this list has me excited to start work in 2017. What did you accomplish in 2016?

 

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Summer Fun: Petite Poetry

Grand Canyon

We recently returned from a 12-day trip that took us through seven National Parks. One of our favorite activities was writing poetry about some of the places we visited.

Originally I planned to use a technique called “poem sketching” by poet Steve Kowit to help keep the kids entertained. I thought it would be fun to include their poems in a family photo book about our trip. Here’s how it works:

  • Someone looks outside and brainstorms four words, for example, canyon, sunset, vulture, joy. Typically three should be objects, the last an emotion or something that gives the word group a twist or sets it in motion.
  • Using these words, everyone writes a poem of no more than four lines. It’s doesn’t have to rhyme. Just think of it as a long sentence.

The National Park Service beat me to the punch however. My kids love earning their Junior Ranger badges by completing workbooks about each park they visit. Sure enough, the Grand Canyon book included instructions for writing a cinquain.

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That’s Finley’s cinquain. He’s 7.

This activity prompted Cooper (age 9) to write a few haiku and even an acrostic poem.

Forest (Rocky Mountain National Park)

By Cooper

Fun
Old
Red
Exploration
Super beautiful
Too much to visit in one day

I think the kids would have rebelled against Mom’s poetry workshop, but when the National Park Service requires it, who can argue?

 

Summer Fun-Coding Class

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We’ve all become a little frustrated trying to program our Mindstorm robot because we don’t understand the basics of programming. So, one of my goals for this summer was to work through Code.org’s Code Studio, a series of free, online coding classes designed for kids and adults so we can learn the basics.

The basics???

Well, it’s been 2 hours today, and I can’t get the boys off the iPads. They are moving through the lessons so fast I lost track of their progress. It’s a good thing Code.org keeps track though, so they can pick it up again later.

Finley even sent me one of the video games he created. Here’s the game if you want to check it out. (Note: I have not figured out how to win this one. Finley tells me not to move left or the Stormtroopers will appear and kill me.)

Summer Fun – Learning to Cook

IMG_3120It’s day one of summer vacation! Woo hoo! No hurrying, no rushing, no (ok, less) nagging! Now it’s all about keeping the kids busy. This summer we will try tennis, ride horses, take swim lessons, and go on lots of field trips. I am also teaching the kiddos to cook.

For a couple of months the boys have been making their own breakfasts and packing their own lunches with help. They have a chart with breakfast and lunch ideas, and they pick one item from each column, like fruit, dairy, main dish, etc.

I’m hoping to build their confidence in the kitchen this summer using ChopChop Magazine’s Cooking Club and recipes. This morning, the boys became “Blender Bosses.” Cooper made the Berry Bold Banana Smoothie, while Finley made his own, dubbed “Fruit Ninja” (banana, orange, mango with chia seeds). Side benefit: Finley, normally quite picky, drank his entire smoothie because he made it himself.

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Tomorrow the boys will make Black Bean and Corn Quesadillas and Ole! Guacamole for dinner. I ordered these kid-friendly knives so I would not be as nervous about letting them chop.

I’m also printing out and collecting all their recipes into a looseleaf binder so they have their own cookbook.

What are you doing to keep your kids busy this summer?

PiBoIdMo: The Nonfiction Perspective

My PiBoIdMo Notebook

It’s PiBoIdMo! In layman’s terms, that’s Picture Book Idea Month, brought to you by children’s author Tara Lazar. The challenge involves coming up with one picture book idea each day for the month of November. It’s a fun way to get your creative juices flowing and hopefully come up with a few executable (is that a word?) picture book ideas.

I have a special notebook I’m using. My friend Sheyla bought this for me when I decided last year to write for children. Each day’s idea gets its own page, so I can do a bit of research and flesh out the ideas when I have time. I already have one I’m pretty excited about. Perhaps I’ll make it my 12 x 12 manuscript for the month.

Honestly, I am hardly ever short on ideas. It’s often a case of too many ideas and too little time. I have to sift through my ideas and see which ones I can execute and which ones have a wide enough audience.

Even though I write nonfiction, I bet many of my ideas come from the same places as those of fiction writers. Here are some places I’ve found ideas:

  • Books (mostly nonfiction). My very first children’s book idea came from a footnote in PACKING FOR MARS.
  • Articles: newspapers, magazines, online. The truth is often stranger than fiction. A capybara loose in a waste water treatment plant once inspired a piece.
  • My kids. Sometimes it’s things the things they say. Sometimes it’s the way I have to explain things to them when they ask, “Why?” or “How?” Children are an endless source of inspiration.
  • Fiction picture books. Today’s idea came when my six-year-old cuddled in my lap. (He is so big!) It reminded me of the classic picture book, LOVE YOU FOREVER, which was a recent topic of discussion among some 12 x 12 writer friends. A few more things fell into place, and voila!
  • Museums and other cultural institutions. I’m a real tourist. When we visit somewhere, I take as many pictures of the exhibit signs as I do of my family. There are always interesting tidbits I can mine for ideas later. Which reminds me, I have a few pictures from this summer that I haven’t looked at…

I’m curious, if you are a fellow writer, where do you get your ideas?

Inspiration – Another SCBWI Takeaway

Inspiration is a much-discussed part of the creative process. There are two parts to inspiration: all the inputs that feed inspiration and the moment of inspiration itself. While we may not be able to control the flash of inspiration and its timing, we can help lay the groundwork. The key is to expose ourselves and our children to experiences that can inspire us.

A childhood walk in the woods inspired nonfiction writer Melissa Stewart and her writings. Her father asked Melissa and her brother to look carefully. What did they see? Melissa noticed smaller, younger trees surrounded by taller, older trees. She was right; there had been a fire years before, and the young trees had sprouted after the fire. That experience — thanks to her dad — helped Melissa see the narrative in nature and influenced her career path and writings.

While I was at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, my husband texted me at 10:o0 p.m. Sunday evening. Should he wake up Cooper to watch the Curiosity rover land on Mars. Yes! Yes! Yes! When we visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory months ago, I was struck by how many members of the Mars Science Laboratory team remembered watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on television. They pointed to that experience as the inspiration for their work in space science. That same event, along with the book, THE RIGHT STUFF, inspired my husband to become a test pilot. I knew letting Cooper witness the event might provide him with the inspiration he needs to study Mars or other planets some day.

As a parent, I know we can provide opportunities and experiences that could inspire our children’s career path, creative work, hobbies or interests. As a writer, I know the more knowledge and experiences I have to draw from, the richer my work will be.

The Importance of Imagination-SCBWI Los Angeles

I have been remiss in blogging since my return from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Los Angeles. I’ve had a hard time processing all of the wonderful inspiration and information and distilling it into something more than just a transcript of the proceedings. However, I think I’ve finally hit on some takeaways in keeping with the spirit of Creating Curious Kids.

First, imagination: Rock star Tony DiTerlizzi’s tag line is “Never abandon imagination.” (And when I say rock star, I mean it. There was an hour wait for his autograph, and I half expected people to ask him to sign body parts.) DiTerlizzi told a powerful story in his keynote. The summer he was 12 and refused to play outside in the South Florida heat, his mom told him to go into his room and find something to do. Tony stuffed a Trapper Keeper full of drawings and encyclopedic notes, using paper, art supplies and his imagination. These drawings would later spark his blockbuster SPIDERWICK series.

Boredom, I think, is a necessary ingredient for imagination to run free. Kids — and grown ups too — need to be bored so we have room to imagine and create. We need time for quiet without distractions. Deborah Underwood, author of THE QUIET BOOK, reinforced this point. The quiet while she waited for a concert to start inspired her popular book, as it allowed her to observe several different types of quiet. Had she been checking Facebook on her phone or talking to someone beside her, THE QUIET BOOK may never have come to be.

Aside from boredom, we also need access to the tools of imagination: art supplies, papers, pencils, computer programs, flour, LEGOs, whatever media you or your children work best in. Famed illustrator Bryan Collier didn’t take an art class until high school, but he remembers the magic of watching the watercolors bleed together on the paper. Meanwhile, puppeteer Kevin Clash (aka Elmo), works in fabric and thread. He famously used the lining of his dad’s good coat to make a puppet when he was a child. Everyone is an artist or creator in his or her own way, we just work in different media.

In my next post, I’ll talk about moments of inspiration and how we can hopefully provide these for our children.

The Olympics: Studies in Geography and Perseverance

My children are obsessed with the U.S. Women’s Volleyball team and their quest for gold. The boys cheered on Destinee Hooker, Jordan Larson and the others during their first two matches against South Korea and Brazil. Now we are waiting for the Wednesday match against China. My oldest son also has asked to watch swimming and archery (inspired by the Marvel Superhero Hawkeye, I’m guessing). Though we don’t watch a lot of daytime TV, I’m indulging him, because the Olympics can be a valuable learning experience for curious kids.

The most obvious Olympics lessons include geography and map skills. With each volleyball match we look up the competing countries on the globe and read about them in our atlas. The Web site Living Montessori Now has some wonderful Olympic geography activities including DIY globes and a whole Montessori-inspired unit for those who are interested.

Still, I think the real value in the Olympics is teaching children the value of perseverance and mastery. The kids and I talk about what it takes to win gold and to be the best in the world. It requires some natural talent, luck and timing but also practice, practice, practice. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that one reason greats like Bill Gates or the Beatles are so successful is they’ve accumulated 10,000 hours of experience and practice in their disciplines, essentially 20 hours a week for 10 years.

So let’s look at 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who just earned gold in the 100m backstroke. (Go Missy!) She’s extremely young, but she swims 2 to 4 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week, essentially 20ish hours a week. She started swimming 12 years ago at age 5, so she’s probably pretty close to the 10,000-hour mark despite her young age.

Now, before you go all “Tiger Mother” on your kids and force them to practice the piano for four hours a day, bear in mind that your child’s passion and desire has to underlie all this practice. Psychology Professor Todd Kashdan, author of Curious, had this to say on Huffington Post: “Try to ensure that the bulk of activities in their lives map onto their interests and give them challenges that push their skills to the limit,” he wrote. “Children need to feel a sense of ownership over their own actions instead of feeling controlled like ‘pawns’ by pressure, guilt, and the rules and regulations of adults.” With young children, it’s great to try out lots of things — not all at the same time — and see what sticks. They might try gymnastics today and cooking club next month. But once they really enjoy something, encourage them to master it.

Are you watching the Olympics with your children? What’s your favorite part of watching the games with your kids?

Nonfiction Writing: Wielding the Microscope

I’ve been hard at work on my first-ever fiction manuscript. While the piece is a made-up story, I am trying to make my lead character — a groundhog — as realistic as possible. My first task was to brush up on hibernation facts by checking out a few nonfiction children’s books from the library.

I started by skimming Pamela Hickman’s Animals HibernatingLet’s face it. I know the basic groundhog story: go to sleep and wake up in time for Groundhog Day, see shadow (or not) etc. But reading Hickman’s book, I became so fascinated by the topic of hibernation that I slowed down and started reading more slowly. She captures perfectly the principle of wielding the microscope: choosing a very narrow topic, becoming an expert and finding something interesting in the familiar.

Clifford Stoll talks about this process in his article, “How to Build a Curious Child.” As he says, “if you are bored or think you know, narrow your focus.” This is exactly what Ph.D. students and college professors do. They don’t write a thesis about the entire Civil War or the whole subject of astronomy. Instead, they pick a smaller piece: a little-known battle or Civil War-era family or the genesis of Mars’s moons and spend years researching and writing the topic.

Psychologist Todd Kashdan talks about this principle of making the familiar unfamiliar in his book, Curious? One technique he suggests is to pick a totally unappealing task or topic.  As you do, try to find three novel or different things about it. Then talk about it with someone else, sharing your new-found thoughts and expertise. Kashdan’s research in a laboratory environment showed that people completely changed their view of the distasteful activity when they approached it in this way. And they were more likely to practice this technique in the future when faced with familiar or unappealing tasks and topics.

So, are you ready for some fun facts about hibernation courtesy of Hickman? You’ll never find hibernation boring again.:

  • Actually few animals are true hibernators — groundhogs are one — but several animals are “deep sleepers” including black bears, skunks and raccoons. The difference has to do with body temperature. Deep sleepers’ body temperatures lower only slightly, while hibernators’ temperatures can dip below freezing.
  • Remember all those sci-fi movies where people are cryogenically frozen and then return to life? Welcome to the world of hibernating reptiles. A number of frogs, turtles, fish and insects literally freeze in the winter. Their hearts can stop and their blood can stop flowing. But then when the air warms up, they literally come back to life.
  • Many hibernators don’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom during hibernation. But others, like certain mice and chipmunks, like to nosh throughout the winter. They wake up from their hibernation from time to time and have a little snack. I guess they don’t worry about getting crumbs in their beds.

Wielding the microscope is what makes some nonfiction writers truly great, and I’ll talk about one such writer during my Perfect Picture Book Friday book review.  Stay tuned!

In praise of museum memberships

Yesterday we went to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. After having a membership both there and at the LA Zoo for a couple of years now, I’ve become a big fan of membership. Here’s why:

  • If I have a membership, I have to go. I am notoriously thrifty. If it takes me two or three visits to see a return on my investment, you better believe I’ll be visiting the requisite two or three times. Membership provides an incentive for taking the kids every couple of months. We pack a picnic lunch, and it’s practically free (if you don’t count the gas money).
  • We don’t have to see it all every time. If I’m at a new museum, and I know I won’t be back for years, I try to see every single animal, painting, etc. It can be exhausting, but I just hate to miss anything. Membership offers the flip side: we visit over and over again, so we can see as much or as little as we like each time. Today we skipped whole galleries, because it was super crowded, but we watched the sea lion and seal show for the first time, and saw the scuba divers feed the tropical fish. Finley spent a good 15 minutes listening to various whale songs at a kiosk. We didn’t see the otters or the penguins at all. That’s ok, because we’ll be back. As members, we have more freedom to let the children’s curiosity be our guide.
  • As a writer, I love to visit the gift stores repeatedly and see what kind of books are for sale. Now that the aquarium has installed a new polar regions exhibit, there were lots of new books about the Arctic and Antarctic. Visits always generate at least a book idea or two.

So yes, the gift store discounts are nice. The member events can’t be beat. But I love our memberships because they guilt me into visiting; they let our curiosity be our guide; and these visits are always a source of writing inspiration. Do you have a favorite museum or other cultural attraction your frequent?