Time to Play!

My brother and his family used to live in San Diego. I wrote that just to give you a little context. One day when I was visiting, I had ordered my nephew, then five years old, to do something. You know how much fun it is to order kids to do stuff for you—tasks you’re perfectly capable of doing but are too lazy to do. While I can’t recall exactly what I wanted him to do, I’ll never forget his response.

“I’m busy,” he said.

“Busy doing what?” I asked. Obviously not busy doing what I’d just told him to do, which annoyed me.

“Playing,” he said.

I was so taken aback by his answer, and the seriousness in which it had been uttered, that I just stood there, staring at him. Finally, I said, “Okay. I can’t argue with that.”

His response might not seem profound to you, but it was to me. My attempt to interrupt his schedule had been met by a rebuff I couldn’t refute.

Lest you think I’m one of those adults who think children should do whatever they want whenever they want (newsflash: nope), let me just say that this is not a post about teaching children responsibility or anything else. You see, my nephew taught me something that day: the value of taking playtime seriously.

Oh, I see that look. Adults have to behave responsibly. We’ve got mortgages, car insurance, and other bills. Can’t always sit around building with LEGOs, right?

Right?

Playtime is even better with a crowd.

I’m a better writer when I take time to play, when my nose isn’t always to the grindstone and I’m trying to force myself to write something whimsical and delightful. How many people know that you can’t force yourself to write anything with that description if your attitude is, “I MUST do this. I MUST suck it up and put words on the page because, y’know, that’s what you’re supposed to do”?

Yeah, yeah. I totally get the need to sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Sometimes, you have to do that. But sometimes, you have to allow yourself time to just play, whatever that might mean for you.

Playtime is like ma space, a rest (or space) between periods of action. (Look here for the Wikipedia article on ma space or here for a post on this blog about ma space..)

My friend Jill puts puzzles together. My friend Sharon takes photographs and draws. My friend Laura hikes or kayaks. My friend Lyn builds awesome things with LEGOs. Some of us play videogames or crochet lambs. (Yes, I consider crocheting playtime.)

What do you do to play?

Here in America, today is a holiday called Labor Day. What is Labor Day? According to this website on the history of Labor Day, “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

What better day to kickback and play? I have deadlines tomorrow, yeah. But today, I’m gonna play. Today’s playtime could usher in tomorrow’s inspiration.

Hopscotch anyone?

Donatina Shoppie with mini Donatina and locket by Moose Toys. Hopscotch photo from toysperiod.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Yoga Frog

With me on the blog today is one of my wonderful classmates from Vermont College of Fine Arts—the awe-inspiring Nora Carpenter. Nora is here to talk about her picture book for young readers, Yoga Frog, which debuts today, people!

 

Nora is represented by Victoria Wells Arms. Yoga Frog was published by Running Press Kids and was illustrated by Mark Chambers. Nora also is the author of Yoga Frog: Reflections from the Lily Pond, which was written for adults and published in April (also illustrated by Mark Chambers). Check it out here. One of you will be given a copy of the Yoga Frog picture book for for young readers. Stay tuned after the interview to find out how. (Or skip ahead if you so choose. But you won’t be given any cake.)

Let’s talk to Nora!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nora: 1. I grew up in rural West Virginia, where my closest neighbor was a mile away. I loved roaming the woods, but the distance from people was also challenging because I’m more extroverted than introverted.
2. I’m passionate about the environment and conservation, so I’m a super active board member and incoming president of the Friends of the Western North Carolina Nature Center in Asheville, where I now live. The Nature Center is an AZA-accredited zoological park that cares for animals that either couldn’t survive in the wild or are part of species survival and management programs.


3. I’m a Suzuki-trained violist, though I’ve been known to fiddle on occasion. 
4. I have three kiddos, ages 4 months, 3-1/2 years, and 6 years. I am . . . busy. And need to practice lots of yoga and mindfulness. LOL.

El Space: How did Yoga Frog come to be?
Nora: I’ve been practicing yoga since the early 2000s and became a CYT—certified yoga teacher—back when I lived just outside DC. I taught both adult and children’s classes, but I really fell in love with teaching yoga to pre-K kids. At that time, there weren’t a lot of quality materials for teaching yoga to young children, so I decided to write the book I wish I’d had as a teacher. It turned into a collection of yoga poems for children, and my graduate reading at VCFA included some poems from that collection. Several years later, a fellow alum who loved the poems went on to work for Running Press Kids, the publishing house that approached me about writing the book. I had never let go of the dream of introducing the healing world of yoga to kids through literature, so of course I jumped at the opportunity!

El Space: How long did it take to write? What was the path to publication for Yoga Frog?
Nora: Once I found the right framework, it didn’t take me super long to write, because I’m a yoga teacher and have had a yoga book idea for years and years! But like everything I write, the book went through numerous drafts. The first draft was a story about a little frog who learns yoga from Yoga Frog, whereas the final draft ended up as nonfiction with Yoga Frog as the sole character. Maybe one day I’ll revisit and reshape that original story. But I think Yoga Frog is definitely a better teaching tool in its final form.

Illustration by Mark Chambers

El Space: The illustrations are great! What was it like working with the illustrator, Mark Chambers? How much input did you have in regard to the illustrations?
Nora: Aren’t they adorable?! I’ve only met Mark virtually, because he lives in the UK, but he’s incredibly talented and kind. He made a Yoga Frog activity sheet for me to use at presentations, which was just so nice. And I LOVE the way he brought Yoga Frog to life. I viewed numerous versions of the illustrations and poster, including preliminary pencil sketches. My input included minor changes to the character’s body position to make sure Yoga Frog was clearly and accurately modeling each pose. Oh, and once I noticed that on one page he didn’t have eyebrows. LOL. But really, Mark did such a great job that I didn’t need to make too many suggestions. Also, he taught himself animation, which you can see in the Yoga Frog book trailer.

   

Book poster. Lemony Limes especially loves the resting yoga pose.

El Space Note: I wanted to feature the book trailer. But this post went live before the book trailer went live. You can find it online.
El Space: In 1935, famed author Margaret Wise Brown said, “A book should try to accomplish something more than just to repeat a child’s own experiences. One would hope rather to make a child laugh or . . . lift him for a few minutes from his own problems.” Would you agree? Please explain. What do you hope children will take away when they read Yoga Frog?


Nora: I absolutely agree. I designed the opening lines of Yoga Frog to help kids identify with Yoga Frog, but also to set a fun tone that will, I hope, take them away from their own problems for a bit. I also hope that the book gives them a fun, accessible way to manage those problems and stresses, which is why the poses have kid-friendly names in addition to their Sanskrit names. If kids have fun practicing yoga, they’ll want to do it again. And again. And again. Before they know it, they’ll have developed a life-long healthy habit that they can practice anytime they feel anxious or need a little mental or physical boost. The book includes an Author’s Note for parents with more explanation of yoga’s benefits for kids.

   

Left photo is Nora teaching an interactive presentation of the book at the Greensboro Bound Literary festival. Photo on right shows Nora’s sons.

El Space: Based on what you’ve learned in writing Yoga Frog, what advice would you give to a newbie picture book author? Why?
Nora: That’s a big, important question. Definitely READ current picture books, of course. Lots of them. And write. Constantly and ferociously. The longer I write, the more I understand the necessity of looking fear in the face and tackling your project in spite of it. This applies to all kinds of writing. Heck, any creative endeavor really. If you’re like me, there’s always that inner critic nagging at you: What if I’m not writing this story the right way? What if no one likes my idea? What if—heaven forbid—I make a mistake? To the best of your ability, tell those What Ifs where they can go. You’re going to make mistakes. You must. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not writing enough, and you’ll never uncover the rich ideas beneath them, the ideas that wouldn’t have emerged if it hadn’t been for those previous mistakes. Oh, and get yourself a writing group whose members will both give you honest, constructive feedback AND boost your confidence when you need it.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Nora: I’ve got a couple projects up in the air, but my primary writing focus right now is my next young adult novel.

El Space: Thanks for being my guest, Nora.
Nora: Thank you so much for having me, Linda! Always great to chat.

Looking for Nora? You can find her at her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

Looking for Yoga Frog? You can find it at your local bookstore or online at Amazon, Barnesandnoble.com., and Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Yoga Frog just by commenting. That’s right. Comment below and you’ll be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on June 11. Why then? Because another classmate is coming on the blog soon. That’s right. I’m hosting two giveaways!

Now, free cake for everyone! It’s gluten free!

Author photo, book cover, Nature Center sign, book illustration, and yoga photos courtesy of Nora Carpenter. Author photo by Chip Bryan Photography. Yoga Frog illustration by Mark A. Chambers Book birthday image from romancingrakes4theluvofromance.blogspot.com. Goodnight Moon cover from barnesandnoble.com. Cake from goodtokmow.co.uk. Lemony Limes photo by L. Marie. Lemony Limes Shoppie doll is a registered trademark of Moose Toys.

Fireflies

Happy Independence Day to those who celebrate it.

Happy-4th-of-July

Is there an image that is the quintessential summer image for you? On a night like velvet not long ago with a soft breeze and the moon like a pearl in ink, I rejoiced at the tiny pinpricks of light flickering by the flowers yards away. Fireflies. They fluttered too fast to document on film (especially with my phone buried in my purse). But fireflies always signified summer to me.

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Last summer, I saw very few fireflies. Maybe even two. This year, I saw three on one night. I welcome the return of these tiny treasures.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I chased fireflies (or lightning bugs, as we called them), seeking their capture in rinsed jelly jars with holes drilled in the lids. But mostly, we sought to capture the magic of a summer’s night and hold it forever. Sadly, we weren’t gentle in our handling of these tiny creatures. Not with our tendency to poke and push.

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Isn’t it funny how we try to hold on to things, as if we could freeze time in a jar?

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But I realized, watching the fireflies’ bioluminescence light the night, that something had been captured for me: a little bit of the magic of childhood in the graceful flight of a firefly.

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The flowers in the yard are lovely this time of year. Hope to see some fireflies tonight!

Firefly photos from nativeplantwildlifegarden.com and Pinterest.com. Fourth of July image from healthline.com. Clock jar from sbcanning.com. Flower photos by L. Marie.

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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Shopkins

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.

Gender Talk

When you see photos like the ones below of girls talking in a group (just hanging out at a sleepover or at some other gathering), what do you imagine they’re saying to each other? (Okay, yes, I know they’re all dolls of a sort. Just pretend, okay?)

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Raise your hand if you think they’re talking about boys. Or hair and makeup. Or collections of tiny things like Shopkins. Or perhaps you think they’re gossiping about their friends or other people. Now, raise your hand if you think they’re talking about quantum mechanics (“the science of the very small,” according to Wikipedia), earth science, psychology, or what’s trending on the internet. Anybody? Hello?

Now look at the photo below. Think of them as boys having a conversation. (Um the one in purple is Batzarro, who is in Lego DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League vs. Bizarro League.) What do you think they’re discussing? Sports? Quantum mechanics? Girls? Cars? Videogames? Collections of tiny things like Shopkins?

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Many of us have preconceived ideas about what girls or boys talk about or like. Some of these ideas have to do with how we were socialized, and the expectations with which we grew up. You know the ones: girls like dolls and colors like pink and purple; boys like cars and trains and colors like blue or green. Girls talk about boys and hair at a sleepover. If a kid stepped out of the “bubble,” he or she was “corrected,” sometimes by other kids.

Think times have changed, now that we’re so “enlightened” about preconceived gender issues? Think again. A little boy I know used to love the color purple until he was told by another kid that purple is a “girl” color.

If we have kids, we want them to be all that they can be. But sometimes what we think someone else “should” like or be like has more to do with our own frustrated hopes than that person’s natural bent.

I read an article a few weeks ago (wish I could find it again) where a father mentioned the Girl Toy of the Year and the Boy Toy of the Year for 2015. The Girl Toy of the Year was the Shopkins Small Mart Playset (by Moose Toys). The Boy Toy of the Year was the Zoomer Dino (by Spin Master). There was a general Toy of the Year too. But in the article I read, the father complained about the girl toy and how it lacked action. Never mind the fact that a girl moving a doll around the market shows action and especially imagination. I can’t recall if this father had daughters or not. If he did, more than likely they should not expect to get this Small Mart Playset. (By the way, I’ve seen kids play with remote-controlled toys. They grew bored with them fairly quickly.)

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I wonder if this dad would be appalled if he saw some little boys I know happily playing in the giant toy kitchen set up in their home. They know their way around the kitchen, because their dad is an awesome cook who probably could open his own restaurant.

At this same house, I watched the kids at a birthday party recently. Now in this family, there are three kids: a girl and two boys (same as my family). The family will soon grow with the addition of a baby girl this summer (also the same as my family, though my sister didn’t live).

It’s fascinating to me to see to what toys and games children naturally gravitate. Though lightsabers and Nerf guns abounded in this house for anyone to use, the girls at the party chose to play quietly in a bedroom away from the raucous lightsaber/Nerf gun battle in which the boys participated. Every once in awhile, the girls would emerge from the room with a doll or doll blanket. (All of these girls were under the age of eight.) But they refused to join the battle.

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Yet when I babysat the children of the host family, all of the kids participated in a game I introduced to them that I used to play with my brothers. We called it Houseboat. The couch was the houseboat. The floor represented the shark-infested waters. The object was to dive for pearls or other treasure and make it back onto the houseboat without being attacked by sharks. The lookout (usually me) would call out, “Sharks!” Everyone would have to get out of the “water” and back to the houseboat. There were always some casualties. 🙂

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It’s fun to watch kids be kids whether they pick up a doll or a lightsaber. (And I’ve picked up both.) They can be all they can be as long as they know there is no shame in what they choose.

By the way, a girl at church who has been the beneficiary of some of my Shopkins mentioned that her brother wanted some of them too. Just sayin’.

Shopkins Small Mart Playset image from crossencreations.com. Zoomer Dino from norcalcoupongal.com. Shark from download32.com. Lightsaber from unity-technology.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Roll Deep as You Whip and Nae Nae

On Christmas and New Year’s Day, my family played a game with some slang flashcards my sister-in-law was given for Christmas. Each card had a word or phrase the meaning of which we had to figure out. Like roll deep. What do you think it means? (See the end of the post for meaning.) We knew what it meant, since we used terms like this and others back in high school. But there were some we didn’t know.

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Knock Knock’s Slang Flashcards

I was interested in a discussion about slang because of my middle grade WIP. Slang, dances, celebrities, and technology unfortunately date a book. Case in point: have you used the term the bees’ knees lately? Played with a GameBoy Advance? The inclusion of these people and items is the tricky part of writing contemporary novels for kids and teens. Members of this audience mention celebrities and use slang and technology out the wazoo—an old slang term now in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. (See also out the yin-yang.)

Frequenters of the internet quickly pick up the lingo of the internet. Like the term ship. As in “I ship Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy.” If you’ve been on the internet for even a day, you’ll have seen that term. (Go here if the term still mystifies you.) Or mansplaining.

So, what do you do when you want to use slang, but don’t want your book to sound as archaic as using Windows 95 in 2016 and beyond?

One way to do this is to make up your own slang and use it in context often. James Dashner, the author of the Maze Runner series, made up his own slang. This article tells you about that. If you saw the show Firefly and the movie Serenity, you know that many terms were made up to reflect the culture. Go here to learn some of those terms. By making up your own slang, you need not worry about slang becoming outdated.

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Don’t feel up to creating your own slang? Then carefully choose slang terms that will stand the test of time. Like the word cool. Be selective about the mention of currently popular activities that have given birth to slang. Like dance crazes. You might think twice about having your teen characters whip or nae nae at a party if your book will debut years from now. Kids and teens keep current with dance crazes and will cry foul if you mention out-of-date steps. Even I cringe whenever I see anyone in a show or a movie doing the Running Man.

You might also avoid terms so oversaturated in pop culture that even you’ve begun to hate them. If a phrase has become so mainstream that aging celebrities and your great-grandparents are using it (and giggling as they do, because they’re now in touch with “the young folks”), chances are a teen may avoid it, thinking that adults have ruined it for them. So if you sprinkle it throughout your book, they might avoid it like the plague. You feel me, homey? (I know. My use of that statement makes you go, “Arrrgggghhh.” As Senator/Emperor Palpatine might say, “Good, good. I feel your anger.”)

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As I considered adding slang, celebrities, and items like game systems and phones to my book, I decided to go the route of imagination and make up my own. Too many celebrities nowadays are fifteen-minute wonders (or, sadly, pass away). And technology changes very quickly. You have only to look at the phones Cher and her friends in the movie Clueless carried to see the difference.

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Cher and her oh-so-boss mobile phone

Another thing to consider in the use of slang is how to make a judicious use of it, rather than allowing only certain characters (i.e., ethnic characters) to use it. All cultures and subcultures have a slang of some kind. Geeks, jocks, adults, warriors—people from all walks of life use terms that are familiar to their specific group. Many people also adopt the slang of other groups or cultures too.

How do you use slang or other aspects of pop culture in your writing? Is staying current with slang or trends really necessary for you? Why or why not?

Want to whip or nae nae? Watch this video by Silentó.

Roll deep means hanging with a large group of friends who have your back. They’re your posse, your entourage.

Cher on a phone from metro.co.uk. Book cover from Goodreads. Firefly from tvposter.net. Slang flashcards image found at knockknockgoods.com. Palpatine from momybaby.net.

Thanks, Mom

Happy_Mothers_Day_wishes_greetings_wallpapers_celebration_love(www.picturespool.blogspot.com)_02Hope you had a lovely Mother’s Day. If you’re not from the U.S., here in the States we celebrated mothers everywhere on May 10. I don’t have children of my own. Can’t have any. Nieces, nephews, and other people’s kids have become mine over the years. So when someone tells me, “Happy Mother’s Day,” I say, “Thanks,” and keep on swimming.

I’m grateful that I have a wonderful mother, one who even goes the extra mile by reading my blog posts! I gave Mom a hard time growing up. She wanted the best for me. I didn’t always see it that way—like when she would tell me that the guy I dated was not right for me. Grrr. She was always right. Also, she never stopped pushing me to do my best. I called it nagging; she called it “helping me succeed.”

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Mom has an uncanny sense of knowing when I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. Like in my freshman year of college when I took codeine pills for pain that unfortunately gave me insomnia for three days. Mom called me at 7:30 one morning to ask, “Okay, what did you take?” This is the same woman who once told me she had eyes at the back of her head. When I was a kid, I believed her. But that day, she told me she’d had a dream about me, which prompted her to call.

She has prayed for me every day of my life. Judging by some of the stupid situations that I survived (like running out into the street without looking and getting hit by a car), I needed the help. Remember Natalee Holloway? What a sad story. A friend and I faced a slightly similar situation during a vacation we took in Montego Bay, Jamaica, right after we graduated from college. (Natalee was a high school student who traveled to Aruba.) While at a party, we each met a guy and wound up separated from each other on different sides of the city. That’s a long story that I won’t fully tell here. (Sorry.) Obviously, this story ended differently than Natalee’s. When I heard what happened to Natalee back in 2005, I felt chilled to the bone, knowing that the same thing could have happened to me. (This is not a story any mom likes to hear.)

Mother’s Day reminds me to say thanks to all of the women who were surrogate moms to me—women who cared enough to reprimand me whenever I behaved in an idiotic fashion (which, growing up, happened a lot). In a day when some parents yell at you for reprimanding their kids—“Yeah, he broke that window. But you can’t tell my kid what to do”—I’m grateful that someone cared enough to tell me when I was wrong. Teachers, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, advisors, and authors through their wonderful books—fabulous surrogates all. It really does take a village to raise a child.

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On Mother’s Day, after we ate a meal that my brother and his father-in-law helped prepare, two of my sisters-in-law, their mom, and I sat two teenage nieces down and asked them what they would do if they found themselves in difficult situations. For example, “If you’re at a party and your friend has been drinking and wants to drive, what will you do?” Perhaps our questions might have prompted some eye rolling (like I used to do when I was a teen and my mom, grandmother, and aunts talked to me about life). But maybe, just maybe, we might save them from a bad situation (like some of the ones I went through). That’s all a mom can hope to do.

Thanks, again, Mom. I’m grateful to God for you.

Mother’s Day image from fun-gall.blogspot.com. Flowers from sprout-flowers.com. Village sign from jeannie-ology.com.