A Birthday in the Age of COVID-19

As I wrote the title of this post, I thought about books like The Diary of Samuel Pepys, excerpts of which I read back in the Dark of Ages in my undergraduate years (Da Vinci was one of my classmates; that guy knew his way around a painting), A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, which I also read at some point, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez which I have not read, but probably will someday. Others have probably mentioned these books lately, particularly those by Pepys and Defoe, who wrote about the Bubonic plague back in the seventeenth century (though Defoe’s book was historical fiction).

So anyway, this is how I celebrated my birthday this past Sunday in these days of social distancing. First, my fellow island villagers threw a surprise birthday party for me in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which I’m playing on the Nintendo Switch Lite. I just wish my character had been allowed to change out of her night wear before the festivities began. Oh well. Back in college, birthday ambushes with me stuck in pajamas used to happen every year. But in these social distancing days, many people are using the game to have birthday parties, not just with NPCs (non-player characters, if you’re not into gaming but were curious) but with real-life friends who visit their islands to celebrate.

 

That was just one way of celebrating the day. Before I get to the rest of the Sunday festivities, let me add that the day before, friends dropped off breakfast, lunch, and dessert. There’s nothing like someone showing up in a mask to hand you a cup of coffee and a restaurant meal that says, “Celebrate good times, come on!” (By the way, the knight’s helm-looking hat on the sign in the first photo above is one I’ve worn while heading out in the world. The visor fits over my nose and mouth perfectly.)

  

Back to Sunday, I received a phone call from a friend (one of the pastors at church) who instructed me to come outside. Days earlier, she’d told me she wanted to drop something off, so not suspecting anything, I went out, expecting to see her standing by the front door. Instead, I was greeted by a line of people in cars honking their horns and shrieking “Happy birthday!” These are just a few.

 

So that’s how birthdays are celebrated in these virus days. I received some great gifts, part of the tradition of celebrating. Here are a few:

   

 

One of the above books was given by a friend who showed up with dinner on my birthday (not pictured due to having been eaten before I remembered that I needed to take a picture). The other came from my brother and sister-in-law. Speaking of books, one of the gifts I received that was not pictured was an Amazon card which I promptly used to purchase the book below, which is a must-have for the socially conscious person, especially parents looking to enhance their children’s understanding of classroom etiquette.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because you can receive what I received—a tradition around this blog. I can’t show up at your house even with a mask on to hand you a meal. But I can celebrate you, even if it’s not your birthday. So I am giving away TWO $25 Amazon cards or the rough equivalent at Amazon UK (easier to email).

That’s right:

Two $25 Amazon gift cards!

Comment below to be entered in the drawing.

Photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: WordStirs

With me on the blog today is another of my awesome VCFA classmates, the delightful Laura Byrne, who is here to talk about her news website, WordStirs, which she maintains with her son, Tim.

     

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laura:
• I’m a former sports editor and writer, whose athletic son had to remind her that there is more at stake in the world than the score of any given football game.
• Tim is a former finance student and current consultant, who plans to drown the world in unbiased, simple news so we can stop beating each other up at family dinners, and get back to arguing about important things, like whether or not ketchup should be refrigerated.
• We are a mother/son partnership that somehow works, despite a few notable differences. Example: Tim lives in Manhattan in an apartment the size of an elevator, with no car, and eats food the names of which most people can’t pronounce, from countries he’s never visited. I live in rural New Jersey, on 25 acres, and make my own bread, which is usually white.
• We bring two worldviews together to model how differences can be valued, and information shared through simple, unbiased articles.

El Space: What’s your process for choosing news stories? How do you keep track of trending news and still sleep and keep your sanity?
Laura: You know how some dogs will chase a ball forever? You toss one down the driveway for my Barney and he won’t stop retrieving it—a thousand throws, some day—until you take that slobbery ball away. That’s Tim and me with news. A thousand stories, and then we take Tim’s slobbery laptop from him. While retrieving all that news, we try to determine, given our readers’ limited time, what single story will help them to understand the world a little better.

Barney and Fred (yes, they are brothers)

El Space: The articles are so engaging! How did you come up the format?
Laura: How WordStirs is organized: Every article set is developed from one topic that is summarized in a paragraph or two in our News Made Simple. Then, that News Made Simple article segues into three additional articles, which continue to explain the topic:
   • The Geek. Want more background on the News Made Simple topic? You can click on the Geek.
   • The Debater. Want to understand two sides of the News Made Simple topic? You can check out the Debater, which is often a discussion between Tim and me.
   • The Runner. In a hurry? The Runner can get you out the door with just enough information about a current event to make you feel informed.

We take a subject, say, the coronavirus relief package, and look at the Fox News perspective. Then, we consider The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal—and more. We also go to original documents, including Congressional records and World Health Organization guidelines. We look at fact-checking sites like PolitiFact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org. If we’ve done our job, somewhere in the article set you should see your perspective. But, if we’ve done our job, somewhere you’ll also discover something that makes you think, that challenges you and your prior beliefs.

  

El Space: How has the advent of COVID-19 affected your news coverage?
Laura: The coronavirus has dominated the news, including our coverage, and it carries with it additional concerns. For example, correct information is critically important and yet harder to get than ever as so many people are armchair-epidemiologist-ing the cures, courses of action, and predictions for the future. We’re trying to be even more critical of our sources and careful with our work.

El Space: Who inspires you?
Laura: The Secret Gardeners, my graduating class from Vermont College, are the most talented writers in the world, and their voices are always in my head, reminding me of the power of words.

El Space: Yay! What’s next for the site? What else are you working on?
Laura: Tim and I are working on a podcast. We’ve tried a few practice recordings and, so far, haven’t gotten past teasing each other. We’ll get it together, hopefully soon.

Thanks, Laura, for being my guest! Click here to access WordStirs or follow on Instagram.

Check out this video at Tim Byrne’s YouTube Channel:

The unicorn helps Henry get the point about social distancing.

P.S. The winners of the next two child Yodas are Charles and Marian. Again, I had to let them know ahead of time because of the fluctuating times we live in. I am working on yet another Yoda, so it’s not too late to put your bid in for one. 😀

Author photos and logo courtesy of Laura Byrne. Breaking news image from freepik. Washington Post logo from Wikimedia. Other logos found at various places on the internet. Other photo by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln

With me on the blog today is the fabulous Shari Swanson (another great Secret Gardener classmate; for others, click here and here), who is here to talk about her picture book, Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, which was published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins and debuts today, people! Woot!

     

Shari is represented by John Rudolph. After Shari and I chat, I’ll fill you in on a giveaway of this very book. Now, let’s talk to Shari!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Shari: My favorite color is periwinkle. Actually, periwinkle is a favorite word, too. Perhaps I’ll write a book about Mr. Perry Winkle and his Phantasmagoric Adventures Through Color. (Dibs. 😀)


• I love games, all sorts—puzzles, mysteries, board games, sports, hiding pictures, and treasure hunting.
• I have a beloved dog named Honey, not, surprisingly, named after Abraham Lincoln’s dog.
• I love words—etymologies, derivations, roots, cadence, sound, rhyme—everything about words. When I was in high school, I read All About Words by Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum while suntanning on the beach. One of my favorite courses in college was linguistics.

El Space: How did you come to write this picture book about a dog and Abraham Lincoln? How long was the process of writing the book?
Shari: When I was teaching middle school literature early this millennia, we read about Abraham Lincoln’s early years from an excerpt of Russell Freedman’s book on Lincoln. It was fascinating. I hadn’t ever heard about Lincoln’s Kentucky years and wanted to know more. I thought perhaps children would like to read about Lincoln when he was their age. I had the pleasure of meeting the late Russell Freedman at an SCBWI conference in 2006 and told him how much I wanted to write a picture book expanding on those details from his book. With tears in his eyes, he encouraged me and told me what a wonderful picture book that would be. When I was deep in that research, I discovered Honey. Honey had saved Lincoln’s life! What would the world be like if we hadn’t had Abraham Lincoln? Honey was an unknown hero. Honey, I thought, would make a wonderful picture book. And then I set off to write that story. The first draft of my book was written when I was doing the picture book semester at VCFA, back in 2011. I sold it in 2016, and now it is finally in the world!

El Space: How did you get started writing picture books?
Shari: I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this. I’ve always loved picture books. But I didn’t always understand that I could write them. Somewhere along the line, I realized that you don’t have to be a master artist to write a picture book, and that made me think maybe I could try it. I took a course in picture books at UCLA Extension way back in the early 1990s, I think, so it’s been a lifelong dream. I enrolled in the picture book semester when I was at VCFA with Julie Larios, and a workshop just prior to that with Julie and Uma Krishnaswami. That six months was maybe my favorite in my entire education as it was so filled with play and words and sheer delight.

El Space: How much input did you have with the illustrator? What was your reaction to seeing the illustrations?
Shari: Every picture book author/illustrator interaction is probably different. My editor, Maria Barbo at HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen books, was wonderful at taking my thoughts and opinions into account at each stage of the process. First, she asked me if I had an illustrator in mind to suggest. That inquiry sent me on a delightful tour through bookstores and libraries, trying to find artists that had the right feel for Honey. When she suggested Chuck Groenink, she sent me links to his portfolio. [Click here for a post about Chuck and his process on another picture book.] We both loved his work, especially his use of light in dark scenes, a skill that would be important for the cavern scenes in Honey. Seeing Chuck’s first drafts for Honey was a highlight of my life. Right there in my hands was this charming beautifully-realized art bringing my words to life. As we moved forward, I had the ability at every stage to offer my thoughts. One suggestion that I am thrilled Chuck incorporated was adding more detail to the forest scenes. I wanted the readers to feel just how distracting the woods were, with all the sounds and animals, and have the reader be literally distracted by the detail on the page just as young Abe was distracted on his journey.

El Space: What picture books have inspired you as a kid? As an adult?
Shari: As a child, I loved Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Are You My Mother, by P. D. Eastman, and all things Dr. Seuss. As an adult, I love picture books that are poetic and musical; those that have wildly creative art, perhaps looking at things from unusual perspectives, and those that celebrate characters who are not stereotypic.

     

El Space: Any advice for would-be picture book writers? What do you think a twenty-first century kid needs to see in a picture book?
Shari: My best advice it to read your work out loud. Notice where the pauses and awkward phrasings are so you can fix them. I also think it is hugely important to make a picture book dummy, eight sheets of paper folded in half to make 32 pages, and block out your story. Where are the breaks? Are there interesting page turns? Is there something that is illustratible on each page? Finally, don’t give up. Take the time to create as often as you can. The joy is in the journey. I’m not sure what a modern kid needs to see in a picture book. I hope in Honey, a modern reader can both identify with young Abe—his distractedness, his love for animals, his desire to help—and think about the differences, too, like how Abe walked miles alone through a wild dangerous forest, so that the book is both timeless and grounded in its time.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Shari: I have several more works in progress, but the one getting my immediate attention is a non-fiction picture book, another heartwarming story of an animal/human interaction, this one from WWII.

Thanks, Shari, for being my guest!

Looking for Shari? Look no further than her website, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Looking for Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln? Check out your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln in your very own mailbox. Just comment below! Winner to be revealed January 20, 2020.

The first meeting of the picture book club almost ended in a fistfight. While Lazy Buns and the Squeezamal agreed that Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, is a great book, they disagreed on the refreshments, or the lack thereof. “It was your job to bring tea with honey for us to share!” the Squeezamal grumbled, Lazy Buns having only remembered to bring herself a cup of coffee.

Author photo by Christie Lane Photography. Book covers, with the exception of Shari’s book, are from Goodreads. Periwinkle flower from Wikipedia. Book storyboard from somewhere on the internet. Other photo by L. Marie. Squeezamals are a product of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company. Lazy Buns is a Pop Hair Pet, a product of MGA Entertainment.

Hidden Figures

After reading the title of this post, you’re probably thinking of the 2016 movie of the same name. But I’m thinking of this person.

Back in the day, I was really into the Waldo books. If you don’t know what those are, they are picture books in which the reader is tasked with finding Waldo, a character hidden within a crowded scene.

Like this one.

Not as easy as it sounds. How about you? Have you see the Waldo books? Were you ever a fan?

Though I knew this series was the creation of London illustrator Martin Handford (left) back in the 80s, I didn’t realize the character was originally called Wally in the UK until I looked for images for this post. The name had been changed when the books were published in the U.S. The character also has different names in other countries where the books are found.

I wondered why finding this character (and others, like Wenda, Wilma, and Odlaw [below]) was and still is popular. (You can even find Waldo on Facebook.) According to this article at Smithsonian.com, it all comes down to the satisfaction of visual search—staring fixedly at something until you find what you’re looking for. This is why word searches are so popular. Also, the search for Waldo/Wally has helped scientists study eye movement.

 

Here’s another article on the science of finding Waldo: https://exploringyourmind.com/how-does-our-brain-find-waldo/

Writing a memoir or a biography is a kind of search. Instead of looking for Waldo, the author looks for his or her place or his or her subject’s place in the vast arena of history. And yes, that’s the segue to the reveal of what you probably came for: the winner of a copy of Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl by the one and only Marian Beaman. Click here for the interview with Marian.

   

The winner of Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl is Lori of Lori’s Lane!

Thank you to all who commented.

Henry is convinced that he would make an excellent Waldo. In fact, he thinks you’ll have a hard time finding him in this photo.

Waldo postcard from blogspot.com. Book cover from barnesandnoble.com. Martin Handford photo from waldo.fandom.com. Wenda from somewhere on Pinterest. Odlaw from Waldo.wikia. Henry photo by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl

I’m very pleased to welcome to the blog the amazing Marian Beaman, who is here to discuss her memoir, Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl, which launched on September 14.

   

You probably know Marian from her blog, which you can find here. After I talk to Marian, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Marian: 1. I met my first husband on a blind date. (He is my only husband!)


2. I flunked my driver’s test twice.
3. On Sunday mornings, I like to play with two-year-olds, making abstract art with tennis balls and paint on cardboard, blowing bubbles.
4. I watch my Fitbit like a hawk. Gotta get those step in!

El Space: What made you decide to write a memoir?
Marian: My blog readers helped make the decision for me. I wrote stories about my parents, grandparents, and other relatives on my blog. Readers wanted more, and suggested, “Write a book about it!” Though for many years I have wanted to leave a legacy of stories for my children and grandchildren, these readers pushed me toward actually doing it!

Granddaughter Jenna at guest book with hostesses Judy and Carolyn at Marian’s book signing at the Deerwood Country Club

El Space: How did you decide how much to include and what sections of your life to leave out? What was your process as you wrote? Did you write an outline of events? Talk with family members along the way?
Marian: My life as a Mennonite was dramatically different from my life now, so I decided to make the first 24-year slice of my life the focus of my memoir.

A memoir is not a biography. Memoirs need a focus. My focus was the imprint of two forces upon my life: the boundaries of my life as a Mennonite and the blessings of two homes (my parents’ and my grandmother’s house close by).

The collage on the easel is a composite of various snaps of Marian’s family with Bossler Mennonite Church in the background (done by artist Cliff Beaman).

I agree with May Sarton who said that she has “never written a book that wasn’t born out of question I needed to answer for myself.” For me, that question was this: “What was the source of my father’s anger?” My memoir explores possible answers.

To learn the craft of storytelling, I took a memoir-writing course from Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner: “Writing Your Story in Six Months.” And to get me started, I wrote topics I could remember on colored sticky notes I pasted to ply-board. Some of the topics became scenes that made it into the memoir; others did not.

El Space: How did growing up in a Mennonite background shape you into the writer you are today? What did you appreciate most about your upbringing?
Marian: I grew up loving my faith traditions and my family. Also the Swiss/German stock from which I am descended has imprinted on me a strong work ethic, which gave me the strength and discipline to persevere through the five years it took to write my story.

El Space: After you described your baptism [chapter 28], I was struck by this quote from page 157: “I had to find a way to reconcile pleasing God with expressing my love for beautiful things, hairdos and clothes included.” Such a turning point in your life. What was one step you took as you were “beginning to ‘kick against the pricks’”?
Marian: My mother, aunt, and grandmother expressed their love of beauty by planting flower gardens in a riot of colors. They, along with women in my church, also made exquisite quilt designs. I wanted to look pretty like a flower, wearing bright colors and shiny shoes. My desire to buck the strict dress code enforced by my church at that time caused friction with authorities at the Mennonite School, where I was employed in my early twenties. My reaction to these restrictions is told in two chapters which bookend my memoir.

These are the most cheerful looking flowers I have seen in years. They remind me of Marian. 😊

El Space: What books or authors inspired you as you worked on your memoir?
Marian: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life—Sassy, sometimes sarcastic, but always instructive.

Jordan Rosenfeld’s Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time—A good one to read early in the writing game.

Dani Shapiro: Still Writing—If you like Shapiro’s novels and memoirs, you’d like her take on the craft of writing.

Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing—A breath of fresh air, especially if you are tied up in a wad about your story and the writing process.

Dinty W. Moore’s The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir—Book Doctor Dinty provides cures and checkups in his manual embellished with case studies. Humorous and practical!

El Space: What advice do you have for memoir writers?
Marian: 1. Write every day, even if you don’t feel like it. Inspiration comes to those who sit in the writing chair. But don’t go nuts over it; take walks, go shopping, chat with friends. 2. Don’t impose a strict Get-Done-By deadline on yourself. I hoped to finish in three years, but it took me five years. 3. Life goes on! In those five years, my mother and my aunt died, and we had to clear out two houses with scads of stuff. Last year my brother died. Three years ago we also moved from a house we had lived in for 37 years to our current address; lots of sorting, recycling, and tossing out.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Marian: When people ask that question, I say, “Give me a break! I need a vacation or at least time to relax.” 😃 However, two ideas are playing tag in my brain right now: 1. A children’s book based on the oak tree my children and their cousins planted in the Grandma Longenecker’s back yard after she died. I have an in-house illustrator—ha! 2. My year and half in the 36-foot trailer with two babies while my artist/performer husband did art and music performances all over the Southeast. The object was to keep our family together; the reality of the itinerant life wreaked havoc on my sanity!

Thanks, Marian, for being my guest!
Looking for Marian? Click on the icons below:

                    

Looking to buy Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl? Head to Amazon or to your mailbox, since
one of you will receive a copy of this memoir just for commenting! Winner to be announced sometime next week!

The book club, after reading and loving Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl, unanimously decided to shop for red shoes.

Author photo by Joel Beaman, courtesy of Marian Beaman. Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl cover designed by Cliff Beaman, courtesy of Marian Beaman. Other covers from Goodreads. Book signing photos courtesy of Marian Beaman. Book club and flowers photos by L. Marie. Neonlicious and Royal Bee OMG dolls are products of MGA Entertainment, Inc.

Check This Out: Brother, Sister, Me and You and Other National Geographic Kids Books

It’s not every day that I get to welcome to the blog one of my awesome grad school advisors. But here today is the one and only Mary Quattlebaum! She’s here to talk about the National Geographic Kids books she wrote, which were published by Penguin Random House, and include Brother, Sister, Me and You.

      

  Author photo by Michelle Rivet

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Mary: 1. I am the oldest of seven kids.
2. My favorite food is popcorn.
3. One of my favorite jobs was as an 18th century tavern wench for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
4. All the dogs I’ve lived with as an adult have been rescue dogs, in one way or the other. One dog, Charlie, even conveyed with the house we bought, because the owner was going to put him in a shelter.

Mary with her elderly border collie Shine. Photo by Christopher David.

El Space: You’ve written a ton of books for kids, including your rhyming Jo MacDonald series and other picture books like Mighty Mole and Super Soil, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans, and Pirate vs. Pirate, as well as your Jackson Jones novel series. Today, let’s talk about the National Geographic Kids books you wrote in the last few years: Brother, Sister, Me and You; National Geographic Kids Chapters: Hero Dogs; and National Geographic Kids Chapters Together Forever: True Stories of Amazing Animal Friendships! Many of your stories feature animals and the environment. Please tell us why that was important to you.

 

Mary: I’ve always been curious about the natural world, probably because I grew up in the country. And now there’s the added concern about the effect of climate change and pollution on the environment. Humans are deeply connected to other species, historically and in the present moment; we’re all part of an ecosystem. With my books—whether fiction or nonfiction—I guess I try to bring that connection to the fore and celebrate it. Plus, animals and plants are pretty amazing! Did you know that beaver kits help to care for younger siblings? And that a female guppy gives birth to live fry—sometimes 200 within a few hours?

El Space: Wow! I did not know that! How did you come to write nonfiction? What is the research process like for each project?
Mary: First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming nonfiction books! I’m looking forward to reading them!

El Space: Thank you. 😊
Mary: Now to your question: I’ve always enjoyed research, and for years I’ve written freelance articles for The Washington Post and other publications. But I had a palm-to-the-forehead moment when I wrote my Jo MacDonald books and realized the pleasures and challenges of writing narrative nonfiction for kids. Now, I’m doing both narrative nonfiction and straight nonfiction books. The narrative nonfiction chapter books often involve interviews—similar to what I do as a freelance journalist—as well the usual deep research into primary and secondary sources for traditional nonfiction.

   

El Space: I always roll my eyes when someone comments that writing a book for young children “must be easy.” What were the challenges of writing these books?
Mary: Well, when writing nonfiction, one big challenge is to ensure the accuracy of each fact, while presenting it in a way that’s going to engage kids. So, writers are always thinking carefully about sound, rhythm, sentence structure, etc. For Brother, Sister, Me and You, for example, I wanted a range of animals—not just cute mammals—and I wanted strong verbs so that children could act out the movements of the featured animals. So, I watched a lot of animal videos to make sure those verbs were accurate as well as fun. I also went to a pet store and looked at a tank of guppies to make sure that those little fish did, indeed, “flash with finny flicks.”

El Space: You teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts and you review books for The Washington Post, Washington Parent, and probably others I’m forgetting. How do you fit everything in?
Mary: Writers with families seem to juggle so much—deadlines, family responsibilities, teaching! Now, that my daughter is in college, time pressures have eased a bit, which makes for more time to walk the dog and garden—or at least think about gardening 😊—and to watch Schitt’s Creek. And I have to say, it’s a pleasure to work with motivated writing students who want to learn and grow, whether in Washington, DC, where I live, or at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had a great time working with you, L. Marie, and I’m thrilled for you with your forthcoming books.

El Space: You are making me blush, Mary! When I was a student, you told me to experiment with poetry based on the prompts in The Aspiring Poet’s Journal by Bernard Friot. I copied this quote from a handout you gave me: “The book gets one thinking not just about words on the page but about ‘seeing’ and experiencing the world in a creative, ever-present way.” Why is the exercise of writing poetry helpful for novelists or nonfiction writers?


Mary: So glad you’re still exploring poetry and wordplays! For me, anyway, there is nothing like the reading and writing of poetry to encourage a deep awareness of and appreciation for the possibilities of language. Every word and every mark of punctuation is important, sound and rhythm are paramount. And the writing of poetry seems to call for an attentiveness to the world, an alertness to the extraordinary in even ordinary moments. Dogs seem to be wonderful models for living in the present moment. I love seeing how our dog takes in his surroundings, with curiosity and gusto.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary: I’m now beavering away on an animal-related early-reader project.

Thank you, Mary, for being my guest!

Looking for Mary? Look no farther than her website! If you subscribe to The Washington Post or Washington Parent, look for her book reviews.

Looking for Brother, Sister, Me and You or any of Mary’s other books? Check your local bookstore, Amazon, Dawn Publications, Indiebound, or Barnes and Noble or your own doorstep, since one of you will be given a copy of this book or any of Mary’s books of your choosing simply because you commented below.

Since this week I will feature another wonderful author, I will announce the winners of both giveaways sometime next week!

The Squeezamals and Henry’s bear wonder when Mary will write a book about their friendship. They’re animals . . . sort of.

Book covers courtesy of Mary Quattlebaum, her website, or were found at Dawn Publications. Book spread courtesy of Mary Quattlebaum. See above for more photo attributions. Other photos by L. Marie. Squeezamals are a product of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company.

More of the Perfect Bathroom Reading

Awhile back (2013 actually), I wrote a post on the pastime described in the title. Yes, I decided to go there again. (Get it? Go there? Okay, I really should let that go. Ha ha! Aren’t you glad I stuck around four years as a blogger?)

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Anyhow, the subject came up again recently, and since I have a blog, I decided to discuss it here. No subject is too inane for me to write about. Perhaps you wish some were. Well, it was either this subject or a discussion of what I had for lunch (grilled ham and cheese—see, not much to talk about).

So, what makes for good bathroom reading? Need it be waterproof? What are the criteria? Have they changed in the last four years? Good questions. Well, I’m still very particular about my bathroom reading. As I mentioned in a previous post, novels (non-graphic novels) don’t really work for me, unless the novel is something for which putting it down is next to impossible. But if it’s that impossible to put down, I would remain in the bathroom for hours, reading. (Not a bad thing, really, if you live alone. With a family sharing a bathroom, however, this would be a bad thing.)

I prefer something I can flip through, and perhaps quickly read a section. That’s why, at least for me, magazines (the extent of my nonfiction bathroom reading), alumni newsletters, fun catalogs, and graphic novels still make the perfect bathroom reading. (Nothing much has changed in the last four years.) I love the blend of images and text, which makes finding an interesting place to land very easy. And for the most part, I don’t “cheat” by taking my reading material out of the bathroom to finish reading later. Like I said, this is bathroom reading. It remains on the shelf in my bathroom.

This is what I currently have in my bathroom. Yes, that issue of Entertainment Weekly is as old as dirt. But it’s still fun to look at. And that’s definitely not the latest issue of Game Informer. I usually pass those on to some friends as soon as I finish them. Somehow I managed to hold on to this one.

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I also have this series, written and illustrated by Kazu Kibuishi (books 3 and 7):

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For more about this fantasy series, go here (the author/illustrator’s website):

Maybe a month ago, I read a great article on the work of Sir Fraser Stoddart, a professor at Northwestern University (see photo below left) who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year. Now, an article of that depth took several sessions to read. Took over a week to read Game Informer’s article on the three doctors who founded BioWare, the videogame developer. (That was a long article.) An article on George R. R. Martin (bottom right) took a few days to finish.

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But I guess the point I’m making is that I love my bathroom reading. It’s just as special to me as my bedtime reading, though the time I spend doing it is a bit shorter. 🙂

Do you keep reading material in your bathroom? If so, what?

Bathroom image from somewhere on pinterest.com. George R. R. Martin photo from christianpost.com. Sir Fraser Stoddart photo from chemistry.northwestern.edu. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out—Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures

Today on the blog is the très fabuleuse Erin Hagar, yet another friend from VCFA. She’s here to talk about her middle grade biography, Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures (art by Joanna Gorham), which was published in May by Duopress.

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I’ll be giving away a copy of this book. But let me talk to Erin first. I hope you’ll join in the conversation later on.

El Space: Erin, it’s great to have you on the blog.
Erin: I am so excited to be on El Space! Thank you for having me!

El Space: How did you come to write a biography of Julia Child?
Erin: Your readers are probably familiar with Brian Selznick’s amazing The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007). The publisher of Duopress had the great idea to adapt this visual format—with large chunks of the story told visually—to a biography. It’s an amazing concept, and I was so glad he approached me to work with him on it. We brainstormed possible subjects, and I suggested Gordon Ramsay because my family loves Master Chef, Jr. After discussing it a bit, we thought, “Why not the television cook who started it all?” Voilà—Julia it was!

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El Space: What is it about Julia’s life that so many people find fascinating? I can’t help thinking of Julie & Julia (2009).
Erin: Isn’t that a great movie? I watched it only after I’d done a lot of research on Julia, because I didn’t want to confuse facts about her life with details from the movie, in case they’d been changed as screenwriters understandably do. But you know what? The parts with Meryl Streep were incredibly accurate! To answer your question, gosh, there’s so much that’s fascinating. I think it comes down to her personality. She just radiated energy and enthusiasm and this remarkable down-to-earth spirit, with a little sauciness thrown in. Pardon the pun.

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El Space: Ha! Love the pun!
Erin: On top of that, the details of her life are remarkable—her service during WWII, and how hard she worked to find something she loved to do, how tirelessly she worked for her success, her pioneer show on television. All of it is amazing, really.

El Space: Did you try any of her recipes while you wrote this book? If so, which ones?
Erin: I confess, right here on El Space, that I am not the greatest cook. But my daughter is, and together we made Julia’s Duck L’Orange for Christmas dinner this year. It turned out pretty great! Mostly thanks to my daughter. But I did read a lot of Julia’s recipes, of course, to get a sense of her voice and her attention to detail which is amazing.

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Julia Child’s Canard à l’Orange

El Space: I just read this article about Flynn McGarry, a 15-year-old Michelin-starred chef. How does your book motivate young novice cooks to challenge themselves?
Erin: What a great story! I wouldn’t mind getting on the guest list for one of young Flynn’s amazing supper club events. It’s funny, though, because Flynn’s experience is the polar opposite of Julia’s. Julia didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life until her late thirties. She was just an eater until her time overseas, and while she appreciated good meals later, she was a disaster at making them for a long time. So what I hope kids take away from this book is that—while it’s great to have amazing, talented young people in a field like cooking—you don’t have to be excellent from such a young age to make a name for yourself later on. That’s true in any field. Be a kid! Bumble around! It’s okay!

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El Space: What was your research process for this project? Did it involve a lot of fact checking?
Erin: I’m lucky to have had lots of information to work from. There have been several amazing biographies written about Julia Child, notably Bob Spitz’s Dearie and Noël Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life, which were huge helps. Julia also wrote her autobiography, My Life in France, with her nephew, Alex Prud’Homme. That book, along with a collection of letters Julia wrote to her best friend, gave me lots of “dialogue” for my book, which I hope lightens it up and gives a readers a sense of her voice. In addition, there is an incredible collection of Julia’s papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. I spent a good part of a week there researching, which was a lot of fun. I could have spent much more time there, actually.

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El Space: Any advice for a budding writer who wants to tackle a biography?
Erin: Go for it! In many ways, you’re doing the same thing as fiction writing: bringing a person’s story to life, using the best details you can find to show their transformation over time. The difference is, of course, the need for those details to be entirely accurate as well as telling. Knowing what to leave out is as important as what to include. I struggled a lot with that in the early drafts. Thankfully my editor, Robin Pinto, is super smart and always knew what to take out.

El Space: This is usually a tough question for authors to answer, but I need to ask it: Which authors inspire you right where you are in your journey as an author?
Erin: I have a crazy amount of respect for any novelist who finishes a novel. Seriously. But you probably want me to be more specific, don’t you? Okay, I loved Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap for its magical realism, and I love the way Kekla Magoon wove together the many points of view in How It Went Down. Lindsay Eyre just published a chapter book called The Best Friend Battle, and it’s one of the best examples of “kid speak” and “kid think” I’ve ever read.

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El Space: What are you working on?
Erin: I just wrapped up another nonfiction for Duopress—a slightly shorter book about the history of the LEGO brick titled Awesome Minds: The Inventors of Lego. Super fun! It will be out in Spring ’16. I also have a picture book coming out with Charlesbridge in Fall ’16 about the Woman’s Land Army of America during World War I. Think Rosie the Riveter, one generation earlier, on farms. And I’ve got this middle grade novel I’m trying to tame. It’s been a long haul with this story, but I’ll get there. Someday.

Thank you, Erin, for being my guest. You’re awesome!

If you’re looking for Erin, check out her website, Facebook, and Twitter. Or, visit the Facebook page for Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures.

Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures can be found here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be giving away a copy to a commenter. Winner to be announced on June 10. When you comment, please share a dish you like to make or eat. I’ll start by saying I make a mean coq au vin. Yes, I do!

Book covers from Goodreads. Movie poster from madeinkitchen.tv. Kid chef from multiplemayhemmamma.com. Julia Child photo from indianapublicmedia.org. Julia Child’s Canard à l’Orange photo from foodista.com.

Does Passion Always Lead to Success?

You’re probably familiar with this scenario: Person A gives her all to pursue her passion—practicing; researching; talking to individuals who share her passion—whatever is necessary. Person B stumbles upon this particular passion and decides, Maybe I’ll give this a shot. On her first try, Person B achieves a level of success Person A only dreamed about.

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When I was an undergraduate, I roomed with someone majoring in performance studies. She seemed very passionate about the craft, often walking around singing loudly and quoting from well-known plays. But over the years, I’ve never seen her name in lights anywhere. Yet a guy in my graduating class who never seemed to care one way or the other about the performing arts (he had an entirely different major actually) went on to gain recurring roles in television shows and in movies.

Life has its twists and turns, huh? My life has taken some strange ones. A few years ago, a publisher asked me to write curriculum for kids 3—8. “Why me?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about kids this age! I never studied early childhood development. I don’t even read books or watch TV shows geared toward kids this age!”

Don’t worry. I wasn’t silly enough to say those words out loud. Instead I said, “Okay,” thinking that project was a fluke, surely. Yet last year someone at another publisher said, “I saw on your resume that you’ve written preschool curriculum. We’d like you to write preschool and kindergarten curriculum.” Again, I thought, What?! I still don’t know why I was asked to write for this age level before!

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell mentioned opportunity as a factor that has led to success for some. He said

Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them. Page 267

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Whether or not you agree with this book, my experiences above show the beckoning fingers of opportunity. Yet when I analyze the years I spent writing preschool curriculum—yes, years—I have to say that passion did indeed have a part. I have a passion for producing a quality product. I’m willing to work hard to produce that product, even if I’m asked to write for an age level about which I know very little.

Am I always successful at that? Nope. I’ve been fired from projects. “Here’s a kill fee,” one editor at a magazine told me after reading (and disliking) an article I had written. Also, over a decade ago, I was passionate about a four-book series I had written for a publisher. Yet that passion did not keep it from going out of print within two years. But I learned something in both cases: to persevere through utter failure. So in a way, both projects were a success though not in the way that I had envisioned.

Does a lack of opportunity or opportunities that seem to lead to dead-ends mean that our passions are misplaced? Not necessarily. Sometimes failure can point you in a direction you wouldn’t have considered had you succeeded right away.

Opportunity may give us wings, but passion makes us soar.

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A good article on passion is “Unleash Your Passion to Unlock Your Leadership.” Find it here at Forbes.com.

What do you think? Does passion or opportunity lead to success? A combination of both? Neither?

Passion image from lifebites.com. Malcolm Gladwell from nbforum.fi. Outliers cover from Goodreads. Flying people from rock.genius.com.

Quiet, Please!

5600141240_29faa7aeedEvery so often, I discover a book that makes a deep impact on my life. When I was a kid, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle made me decide to become a writer of fiction for kids. As a teen and later an adult, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy made me decide to write fantasy. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a nonfiction book I’m reading right now that makes me accept what I am: an introvert.

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That’s not a newsflash to those of you who know me. And perhaps you’re shrugging your shoulders in a so-what manner at such an admission. But being an introvert always seemed like a negative based on feedback I’ve had over the years and my own observations. Who often gets the most attention in class or at the office? The one who talks the most. And how about these statements: “You need to be more assertive.” “You need to promote yourself more.” “You need to be more outgoing.” Ever hear this advice? I certainly have—even on the job.

I’ve suffered through office Christmas party activities usually chosen by extroverts who assume that “everyone” loves to shout lines of Christmas carols or act them out in front of a crowd because “it’s fun.” And if you don’t see it that way, well, guess what? You’re not fun! That’s why I especially understand this notion: “If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain” (6). Oh yes. I have felt that pain.

This bias is what Cain in the introduction to the book identifies as the Extrovert Ideal:

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual—the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” (4)

9e9eb78d63b565d97ce72d382a691b3aIf you read Divergent by Veronica Roth or saw the movie starring the delectable Theo James (oh and Shailene Woodley played the lead role) you saw this notion played out. In a post-apocalyptic Chicago that has been divided into five factions based on virtues, the coveted faction is Dauntless—the risk-taking group that leaps off moving trains instead of disembarking at stations and jumps off buildings. They are the loudest and the brashest—the ones who gain the most attention.

In an Internet poll of faction choices (http://www.epicreads.com/quizzes/pollresults/id/341/), Dauntless was the faction of choice by a large margin.

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Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley leaping off a train in Divergent

In Quiet, Cain demystifies the Extrovert Ideal and discusses times when an introvert should act more extroverted. But this post isn’t a book report or a book review, so you’ll need to read the book for yourself if you’re interested. Cain’s book is a bestseller, if that gives you any indication of how it has been received.

This post is a celebration—it’s okay to be an introvert! (And yes, it’s okay to be an extrovert too.) Many writers I know are introverts. (Not all are of course.) But the world of book promotion—an extroverted activity—is one that takes us out of our comfort zone. We have to put ourselves out there to be noticed (i.e., blogging, social media, book trailers, interviews, arranging for book signings—whatever). Even if we’re querying agents, we have to sound “comfortable ‘putting [ourselves] out there.’”

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Naturally, this is the area in which I struggle the most. But I’m willing to try out of love for my stories. It’s like being a proud parent. You want people to notice your child and love him or her, so you do what it takes to get people to notice him or her. I’m grateful for the family and friends who help me in this venture, who encourage me and give me the kind of advice that helps me do things my way.

Cain’s book also has helped me understand how I can be assertive in a quiet way without pretending to be something I’m not. And that gives me hope.

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Broadway Books, 2012, 2013. Print.

Roth, Veronica. Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

Book covers from Goodreads. Librarian photo from mrsbossa.wordpress.com. Movie still from alicemarvels.com. Balloons from bubblews.com. Theo James photo from divergentsociety.net.