The Perfect Christmas?

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving if you celebrated that holiday. This past Friday (Black Friday here in the U.S.), my sister-in-law and I made my brother turn from a Star Trek marathon so we could watch a Hallmark movie. Lest you misunderstand, I also was enjoying the Star Trek marathon. But around the fourth episode, I wanted to watch something else.

Anyway, the plot of the movie involved a woman following a list of activities she believed would make the perfect Christmas. For example, staying in a cozy cabin in the mountains (with the perfect covering of snow on the roof), singing Christmas carols, seeing The Nutcracker, making a gingerbread house, buying a real Christmas tree, baking, ice skating, taking a picture with Santa, etc.

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My brother glared at the television. “That’s every Christmas stereotype there is!” he declared, his lip curled.

I laughed, because he was right. But I couldn’t help recalling one Christmas season years ago, when a friend of mine and I followed a list of the quintessential Chicago Christmas activities. It included having lunch near the Christmas tree in the Walnut Room at Macy’s (which was Marshall Field back then), oohing and ahing over the Christmas display in the store windows, ice skating, checking out the Christmas trees at the Museum of and Industry (see photo below; it is not one of mine, however), going to see The Nutcracker (fail), etc. (Click here for a list of holiday things to do in and around Chicago.)

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We waited two hours just to get into the Walnut Room (see photo below; I did not take that photo either). While I was glad we checked that off on our Christmas to-do list, I can’t say the meal I had was memorable. It certainly hadn’t met my extraordinarily high expectations.

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And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Unrealistic expectations often put a damper on our enjoyment of the holidays. I learned that the hard way.

This year, I don’t feel motivated to rush around, doing holiday things while trying to manufacture the “perfect” Christmas season. Case in point: I skipped shopping on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. Instead, over the weekend, I took in a good movie (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) with friends.

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And I don’t plan to stress about Christmas shopping. This year, I’m focusing on the things in which I truly delight, rather than the “have-to’s” of the season. Guess that means crocheting more reindeer to give away (not a have-to, but a want-to), seeing more great films (Moana, you are next), and having quality conversations with friends and family.

What, if anything, constitutes the perfect Christmas or Hanukkah season for you? What are your plans for the season?
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Crocheted reindeer thugs stage a coupe by blocking my coffee mug. While I’m not exactly sure what their demands are, I will make it a priority to find good homes for them this season. And yes, the keyboard below them is very dusty. It’s not one that I use these days.

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Rainbow Kate and her BFF Popette finally finished hanging the Christmas lights on Rainbow Kate’s house, to the delight of the children Kate babysat. But the delight turned to consternation when they discovered Kitty in the living room, drinking the last of the cocoa.

Christmas tree in the Walnut room from anadesigns.blogspot. Christmas tree at the Museum of Science and Industry from commons.wikimedia.org. Santa from hdwallpapersforiphone.blogspot. Fantastic Beasts logo from geeknation.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Where the (Super)Girls Are

Happy Labor Day! Here in the U.S., we have the day off. Sounds ironic, huh? For more information on the holiday, click here.

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The other day, I listened to a TED Talk by a media studies scholar: Dr. Christopher Bell. Though the talk was given in 2015, it caught my attention, because I’ve discussed on the blog before an aspect of what Bell talked about. Click below for that video. Warning! It’s about fifteen minutes long.

After talking about his athletic young daughter who likes to dress up as her favorite characters, Bell said

Why is it that when my daughter dresses up . . . why is every character she dresses up as a boy? . . . [W]here is all the female superhero stuff? Where are the costumes? Where are the toys?

It’s not that Bell wanted to diss male heroes. On the contrary, his daughter had several favorites among the male heroes. Bell went on a hunt for female superhero costumes and toys, because his daughter also loved characters like Princess Leia, Black Widow from the Avengers, and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. But after searching the stores for costumes, he came up empty. He also discovered that these characters were missing in the toy aisles as well.

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I know what you’re thinking: there are plenty of female heroes. You can also find female villains who do heroic things. After Bell’s talk, Wonder Woman appeared in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will have her own movie next year. Harley Quinn and Katana were in Suicide Squad. Supergirl has a show, now on the CW. Jessica Jones has a show on Netflix. There also is an animated show for kids that has become a favorite of mine—Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, which features a Parisian teen named Marinette Dupain-Cheng, who turns into a superhero called Ladybug. She works with a crime fighting partner—a dude named Cat Noir—to foil the nefarious plans of Hawk Moth, a supervillain.

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And Raven (below right) and Starfire (below left) are on Teen Titans Go.

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But, as Bell pointed out, if you look at the lineup of superhero movies in the upcoming years, only two females—Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel—will have a starring role. (If you have heard of others, please comment below.) Kinda sad, but some progress at least. And Gamora and Black Widow will costar in some movies.

As for costumes, after Bell’s talk was given, Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted and provided inspiration for costumes. Like Rey. A little girl I know plans to dress as Rey for Halloween. Online, I saw a Princess Leia costume—the iconic white dress with the bun hairdo—at Target, which also has an adorable Captain Phasma costume. (The one below is from Halloween Costumes.com.) Since Felicity Jones will star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, perhaps her character will be popular enough to have a costume in stores.

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Also, Mattel developed a line of DC female superhero dolls (see below)—a fact also mentioned by Bell, who cautioned against only marketing these to girls. Boys too could benefit from learning about female heroes. As Bell mentioned,

It’s important that boys play with and as female superheroes just as my daughter plays with and as male superheroes.

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Interestingly, though an actress played Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the costume shown above is marketed for kids, rather than girls only.

Bell’s point is not without its supporters and detractors. I mentioned in a previous post how a little boy I know was criticized for liking the color purple, because, he was told, it was a “girl” color. In his talk, Bell brought up the tragic results after a boy who loved the My Little Pony show was ridiculed for loving it.

Some people are of the mindset that it’s okay for a girl to want to emulate a male hero, but not okay for a boy to emulate a female hero. Note that I said some people, rather than all, so please don’t yell at me if this is not your viewpoint. I think it’s sad that we live in a world where a kid is bullied for any reason.

So to wrap up, I found Bell’s talk interesting. I’m working to produce the kinds of stories that a kid—male or female—will want to read, and characters with whom they can identify. Other authors are too. But I hope we get to the point where no one has to ask where the female superheroes are.

What would you say to a kid who greatly admires a show heavily marketed to the opposite gender?

Labor Day image from wallpaperspoints.com. Ladybug and Cat Noir images from fanpop.com and sidereel.com. Teen Titans Go image from the Teen Titans Go wiki. Rey costume from costumeexpress.com. DC superheroes from TechTimes.

Saying No to Pokémon Go

Between finishing my middle grade fantasy novel (and by finishing, I mean getting it to the point where beta readers will read it), copy editing a book someone else wrote (still doing that), taking job-related tests, and attending various parties of the graduation and birthday variety, I have been a bit delayed in posting. And I had grand plans to approach authors for interviews. Sometimes life gives a “Ha ha ha” to plans made.

So instead of an author interview, you get this rambling post. (When life serves you lemons . . .)

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I’m sure I don’t have to ask you if you’ve heard of the Pokémon Go app, since that’s been all over the news. Maybe you’re already sick of hearing about it. I’ve played various Pokémon games since 1998. And I actually have the Pokémon Go app on my phone. But I clicked on it only once. I decided I didn’t need another obsession, especially with the schedule of the activities I described in the first paragraph. So Pokémon Go app, you’re about to go away.

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I have to hand it to the Nintendo Company for creating an app that has so many people discovering Pokémon and exercising while doing so. Click here to read an article on the popularity of this app. What a novel way of celebrating the game’s twentieth anniversary.

Yet I can’t help recalling some criticism I received when I played Pokémon a few years back. Some adults claimed that the game was for kids and, therefore, beneath their dignity. Now many adults around the world are playing the app version of the game. Interesting. But sadly, some players have sustained injuries while doing so. And predatory individuals are taking advantage of the game’s popularity to rob others. 😦 Click here or here for an article on other issues with the game. If you’re playing the game, a little bit of common sense goes a long way! The game might tell you where the Pokémon are, but won’t remind you that you could be hit by a car or fall into a ditch.

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon in that I can’t help turning away from items that become fads. Take Doctor Who on BBC America for example. I grew up watching the show. But when it became a fad that made entertainment magazine headlines, I wanted to give it up, especially when twenty people asked me the same question—“Have you seen Doctor Who?”—yet refused to acknowledge any of the incarnations of the Doctor before Matt Smith.

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So though I will definitely play a Pokémon game at some future point when a new one for the Nintendo 3DS/2DS is released, I will continue saying, “No go” to the app. At least for now.

What fads have grabbed your attention lately? While you think of that, here’s a random photo:

These flowers at my apartment complex are almost five feet tall.

These flowers at my apartment complex are almost five feet tall.

Pokémon Go app logo from forbes.com. Matt Smith from wallpaperup.com. Lemon image from pachd.com. Flower photo by L. Marie.

Try Everything?

I’m currently obsessed with the movie Zootopia. Now that it’s on DVD/blu-ray, I’ve seen it at least six or seven times.

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I even have the theme song, “Try Everything” by Shakira, on my phone. I love the message and the way it relates to the journey of the main character—Judy Hopps.

If you have an extra three minutes, you might check out the song (though be warned; it has scenes from the movie that are slight spoilers):

My sister-in-law is someone who embodies the message of this song. Last week, she went to boot camp, not because she enlisted in the military but because she wanted to test herself—to see if she could make it through boot camp. She had the same attitude about the half marathon one year. Six months before the event, she organized a group of her friends to train for the half marathon. Never mind the fact that they’d never done the half-marathon before. They met the qualifying time and did well in the event.

“Try Everything” also reminds me of a conversation I overheard last week while on the train. A woman was talking to a friend about her upcoming birthday celebration.

“We’re going skydiving!” she declared. I couldn’t tell if she was about to try skydiving for the first time or not. All I know is that she was excited to go.

For me “try everything” usually only comes up in regard to an all-you-can-eat buffet. (Talk about a “full” life.) But lately, I’ve worried that I’ve been missing out. Is fear of failing holding me back from “trying everything”? Have I truly tried to be all that I could be? Did I miss out because I didn’t go to boot camp with my sister-in-law?

So I had a heart-to-heart talk with Barbie today. I grabbed a cup of joe while she made herself comfortable on a napkin. Since she’s the Made to Move variety, I was certain she would have good insight.

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“The way I see it,” she said, “is this: you admire your sister-in-law for trying new things. But did you really want to go to boot camp?”

“Um . . . not really.”

“Well, let’s talk about some things you tried that were out of your comfort zone. What about the time you wrote a screenplay?”

“How’d you know about that?”

“This is an imaginary conversation, so of course I would know. Did you like doing that?”

“I enjoyed trying a form of writing I hadn’t tried before.”

“What about when your advisor challenged you to write poetry every day and you decided to also write song lyrics. What did you learn about yourself?”

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“That writing any kind of poetry is difficult. Poets like Andy Murray make it look easy, because of the high quality of their work. Still, I enjoyed the challenge.”

And that was the key. Some people enjoy mountain climbing, skydiving, and other activities that challenge them physically, because that’s what they enjoy. And I enjoy some aspects of a physical challenge. But I love anything that challenges me creatively.

What about you? Are you the kind of person who tries everything? In what way(s) do you like to challenge yourself?

For more info on Made to Move Barbies, click here.

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Zootopia movie poster from film-book.com.

Cute Collectibles: Making a Heart Connection

Are you the kind of person who goes wild over collectible figures? About four years ago, I used to buy Squinkies for my second and third grade students as rewards. They loved Squinkies! What are Squinkies? Tiny collectible figures by Blip Toys based on themes (like the ocean; aliens and space; animals). But one day the stores stopped selling them. My students used to ask about Squinkies, but I had no idea why they disappeared. Was that the end of their story? Read on.

In the last couple of years Shopkins have racked up mega sales in the toy section. What are Shopkins? Tiny collectible figures by Moose Toys. I’ve shown a photo of some of them on this blog before. There are hundreds to collect, in categories like common, rare, ultra rare, and limited edition (quite difficult to find).

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So is it any wonder that this year, Squinkies are back with a reboot and categories very similar to the Shopkins categories? Success breeds competition in the battle for the attention of children (and the shrinking wallets of their parents)! I don’t own any of the new Squinkies, but you can click here to find out more information if you’re curious.

If you’re a parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle, maybe you’re cringing right now, as you imagine your child/grandchild/niece/nephew demanding toys like this. Or perhaps you remember a painful moment when you accidentally stepped on something like this—tiny but made of hard plastic—in the middle of the night. If so, you might wish to skip to the end, where I talk about writing. (There. There. It will be okay.)

Squinkies and Shopkins aren’t the only small collectible figures in town. There are also Num Noms by MGA.

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Each of these (with the exception of the pink motorized one under the brown choco swirl on the right) is a little over an inch tall.

I’m not exactly sure what they are, besides small collectible figures. They’re scented though. One smells like chocolate cherry, while others smells like caramel and strawberry.

And then there are the erasers by Iwako. A friend sent a bunch to me from Amazon.com. These are just a few:

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These also are a little over an inch tall.

And there is the queen of small collectible figures: Hello Kitty by Sanrio.

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She’s about a quarter of an inch taller than the Iwako erasers.

And then there are these: My Mini MixieQ’s by Mattel, which debuted this year at the Toy Fair in New York. So far, the only comment I’ve heard about them is a consistent one: “Awwwww. They’re so cuuuuuuute.”

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These figures are about three-quarters of an inch tall.

And there are dozens more. But I know what you’re thinking: These seem awfully girl-centric (though I know some boys who like Shopkins and some girls who hate this sort of thing). What about stuff for boys? Well, there are Star Wars Micro Machines and tons of other Star Wars figures (Hasbro), Five Nights at Freddy’s figures (Funko), Hot Wheels (Mattel), DC and Marvel action figures (Mattel and Hasbro respectively), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Playmates Toys), Minecraft (Mattel), and dozens of other collectible figures. (Girls like these too.)

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So what does this have to do with writing? Well, I’ll tell you my reason for paying attention to toy trends (besides liking them). Toy manufacturers know what appeals to the soul of a kid; for example, the desire to nurture or to be on an adventure. I once held up one of the Shopkins while talking to someone and soon had several people (kids and adults) crowded around me with sparkling eyes. This is the kind of rapt attention you want if you’re writing for kids, teens, or adults—the kind of attention that means you’ve made a heart connection.

Granted, translating this connection to the printed page is a challenge. Yet authors like J. K. Rowling and Rick Riordan have met the challenge. (So it is possible.) But they connected to what was in their own hearts first, instead of attempting to guess what might appeal to a kid. For example, Riordan loved his son and wanted to write about a kid with dyslexia and ADHD like his son. He was also a fan of Greek and Roman mythology, having taught these stories to middle schoolers for years. Thus, Percy Jackson and other series were born. Rowling’s mom died. Writing Harry Potter was her way of dealing with her own grief. She also loved The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which combines fantasy and reality as does the Harry Potter series.

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What do you love? How does that translate to what you’re writing now?

Book covers from Goodreads. Minecraft toy from minecrafttoy.com. Star Wars Micro Machine blind bags from action figuren24.de.

It’s the Journey

The creative efforts of others often inspire me. Besides books, one of the creative outlets I turn to for inspiration is My Froggy Stuff, a crafting channel on YouTube. Even if I don’t make the projects featured in the videos, I’m still energized by the act of creating something with my hands. How about you?

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(Commercial break: Yes, I’ll get to the winner of Charlotte Cuts It Out by K. A. Barson—another inspiring creative effort—in a moment. [Click here for that interview.] And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.)

Case in point, I made the doll sofa in the photo below out of felt and cardboard (with yarn trim) after watching a video on My Froggy Stuff. It’s about three-and-one-half inches wide—perfect for a Lalaloopsy mini doll.

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In this photo, you can see all of my hand-stitching mistakes. 🙂 But that’s the beauty of crafting. You don’t have to be perfect. (Yeah, I’ll keep telling myself that.)

Anyway, in the comment section of one of Froggy’s videos, in which she explained how she made doll furniture, one of the commenters asked her why she made anything. The commenter then went on to suggest that Froggy buy everything, rather than make it. Perhaps the commenter really thought she was being helpful. Another commenter, however, promptly suggested that the first commenter shut up. (The joys of the internet.)

Yet the first commenter caused me to think about why I prefer to make things if I can, rather than buy them, even if I have to spend hours and hours doing it and make tons of mistakes in the process. Wanna know what I discovered? Come closer, and I’ll whisper it.

Because it’s fun. And relaxing. But you already knew that, right, as well as this old saying:

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Some journeys are life-shaping—we experience growth in the process. I burned myself several times wielding that hot glue gun as I glued felt to cardboard. I also pricked my finger with the needle while sewing. Okay, maybe both of those don’t sound like much fun. But they’re part of the process—hazards of the job. They also taught me to slow down and focus—also important whenever I’m writing or editing anything.

The joy of working with their hands is why gardeners take to the soil, and put up with pests like weeds, aphids, and other inconveniences. Like deer and rabbits. Last summer, rabbits and deer applauded my brother’s gardening efforts by eating just about everything he planted. Did that sour him on gardening? Nope. The joy in the accomplishment was greater than the annoyance of unwanted garden guests.

The creative journey is empowering! This is why many people spend months or years restoring vintage cars.

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And, as you know, when you continue to make things by hand, you get better at it. The first sofa I made took days to complete. The second (the one above), took maybe two hours. (Well, it was smaller, so that helped.)

Now, as promised, on to the creative efforts of Kelly Barson.

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The winner of Charlotte Cuts It Out, thanks to the Random Number Generator, is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch of Spirit Lights The Way!

Congratulations, Nancy! Please comment below to confirm.

What was the last thing you made by hand? Why did you make it? How did you feel after you did?

My Froggy Stuff logo from YouTube. Journey sign from Pinterest. Franklin D. Roosevelt quote from BrainyQuote.

What Do Girls Want? I’m Not Sure

Before I get into the post, I wanted to announce that I’m still reaching out to authors as I mentioned in my last post. Expect the interviews at some point.

Back in the day when I had a Barbie (or four), I tied a cape around her and made her a superhero. This was before Supergirl action figures existed. (More on that later.) A napkin made an excellent cape. And a parachute. My Barbie also was a spy who parachuted out of trees. She knew karate and had super strength. (Interestingly enough, the latest Barbie movie is Barbie: Spy Squad.)

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My BFF and I wanted our Barbies to be empowered before we even knew the meaning of the word empowered. Now, before I go any further, this is not a Barbie-bashing post. This doll has had enough controversy in her over 50 years of existence. (By the way, a really good book about Barbie is The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone.)

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Last week, I went to Toys “R” Us with a friend and her little son, and saw a huge display case full of Barbies in various professions. She’s a doctor, a spy, a businesswoman, a pet groomer—you name it. She’s even a pizza chef.

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Barbie’s handlers want her to be a role model. Female superheroes are getting their day too. Recently I read an article about a line of DC action figures for girls (including Supergirl)—something I would have wanted when I was a kid. You can read that article here.

Getting back to Barbie-like dolls, the Elsa doll pulls in more sales than Barbie. With her ice powers and staunch determination to be herself in Frozen, Elsa seems the picture of empowerment. (You’re probably thinking of the “Let It Go” song now, aren’t you? And after months of finally getting it out of your head. Sorry.)

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Her sister Anna, however, didn’t have ice power, but was heroic in a very moving way. (Which makes her my favorite from that movie.) Awhile ago, Time and Fortune featured articles on the empowering influence of Elsa and Anna. You can read them here and here.

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Now, many channels on YouTube feature discussions about toys, and include dolls in various fanfiction scenarios. (For example, Elsa marries Jack Frost; Baby Alive becomes a superhero.) So imagine my surprise when I saw not one but several fanfiction depictions of Elsa being kidnapped and having to be rescued. And those are just the YouTube videos. You have only to Google elsa kidnapped fanfiction to find a host of stories—some rawer than others. (There are several Anna-as-the-damsel-in distress scenarios too.) So much for empowerment!

“Now wait a minute,” you might say. “Anna had to save Elsa in the film.” True. And what a beautiful moment of sacrifice. But Elsa was not hand-wringing helpless. So many girls had mentioned how much they love Elsa’s ice powers and let-it-go attitude. And since many of the YouTube videos are fan-driven (many YouTubers asked fans, “What do you want to see?”), fans obviously desired to see the helpless-Elsa scenario. (I saw one of those videos just today in fact.) Many of these fans are girls.

You might think, Who cares? But as an author who is trying to provide strong heroines in books, I care. Yet I’m confused by the mixed messages. Last year, many people complained about Black Widow’s damsel-in-distress scene in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. (I was not one of the complainers.) Which leads me to believe that people want to see strong heroines ala Wonder Woman, Supergirl, etc.

The audience for Frozen, the YouTube toy videos, the non-YouTube Elsa fanfiction, and Age of Ultron differs to a degree. After all, Frozen had a very high preschool fan base (girls and boys) who probably did not see Ultron. I wrote probably, because I saw small children in the audience at the theater I attended. But there is some overlap, obviously, since Frozen grossed over a billion dollars. Many teens and adults loved Frozen, and were inspired enough to write fanfiction or request it on YouTube. But many younger kids also watch YouTube, sometimes with their parents. They make their desires known too. Based on what I’ve seen online, not only do I wonder what they want but also whether they have a different definition of empowerment.

What say you?

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I asked these girls how they defined empowerment, but they remained mum on the subject. I guess I’ll let it go.

Barbie images from ricardodemelo.blogspot.com, shoppingsquare.com.au, and pixmania.fr. Black Widow action figure from tvandfilmtoys.com. Barbie Spy Squad poster and Elsa doll from fanpop.com. Elsa and Anna dolls from disneytimes.com. Elsa with ice powers from blogs.disney.com. Photo of Popette (Moose Toys), Donatina (Moose Toys), Hello Kitty (Sanrio), and Strawberry Shortcake (Hasbro) by L. Marie.