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Sunday, January 24, 2016

On 20 Years as a Children's Author

I just realized the other day that my first book, PUTTING THE WORLD TO SLEEP, came out in November of 1995. Wow. 20 years ago.

Feeling a little old here.

But with age comes wisdom, right? So I decided to reflect on what I have learned about being a writer and being an author (because they are not always one in the same).

1. Writing life ebbs and flows. There are times when I am on fire with new ideas--I can't write them down fast enough. And then there are times when I slog through a piece of writing, questioning where it is going, wondering if it is even worth it because it is so sloggy.

And then there are times when it is hard to even write at all. :(. I hate when that happens, but the truth is that is does indeed happen. I have learned to trust the process. I have made my peace with the cyclic nature of my muse. Hopefully, when she decides to appear, she will find me sitting at the desk, ready.

2. Author life ebbs and flows, but not in the same way.
This is even harder to accept. But just like your mom always said, you can't be the best at everything all the time. (Okay, maybe your mom didn't say that to you, but it is a pretty good lesson.) There are times as an author when I am a hot commodity. There are times when I cannot visit all of the schools that ask because I am too busy visiting other places. There are times when my twitter pings with congratulations, private messages, and all sorts of authorly banter. There are times when I am in talks with my agent and various editors constantly about author stuff. There are days when the mail brings something wonderful and cool almost every day.

And then there are times when it is quiet. So very quiet. So quiet it is hard not to feel like chopped liver. However, it is difficult for me to create when there is too much bustling about, thus the quiet times, when not a lot is going on for me as an author, are the very best times for me as a writer. Those are the times when I feel like I have nothing to lose--because there is nothing really "happening". And when I can let myself write with that sort of freedom, I am always more pleased with what I produce.

3. There are books that I tried to get published but did not--and I am glad they did not get published.
I don't quite know what else to say about this except that some books stand the test of time, and some do not. There are a couple of manuscripts I have written that, well, upon reading later about the best thing I can say is "meh". I don't want to publish books that make me go "meh." This forces me to make my peace with the fact that not everything I write, not everything I spend a lot of time on, is "good." (However, each piece makes me grow somehow, so there is that.)

4. There are books that I have written that I adore and did not get published.
Who knows? Maybe they will someday. I still love them every time I read them and can't seem to let them go.  Ahead of their time, maybe.  But again, the reality hits that not everybody sees things the same way I do, which brings me to----

5. Not everyone sees things the same way I do.
There are books out there that everyone loves and I just kind of like. And there are books out there that everyone loves and I really do not care for at all. And there are books out there that no one else seems to notice that have changed my life tremendously.

6. Writing does not seem to get easier.
Each book makes me feel like I am starting over again--because I am. Perhaps that is what I love about writing so much--the fresh start with each blank page. The hope that come from the seed of a story as it plants itself in your heart and you don't even know quite what it is yet, but you can feel it start to unfold and take root in your soul. However, just like in real life, a person doesn't really get to go back to high school with the knowledge of a 40 year old and the body of a 17 year old. Every time I face the blank page, it is new. And new is not the same thing as easy.

I'll probably reflect more on this's quite something to have survived this industry for 20 years and still be standing.



Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Legend of Sleepy Elf

When I was little, one of the thrills of Christmas was decorating the tree. What I loved absolutely best of all was unwrapping each of the decorations, cradling them in my hands, and recalling (or inventing) a story about them. There were the tiny-china-angel-bell and the tiny-china-snowman-with-the-top-hat bell who were best friends. Of course, there were the trinity of fairy angels with their gossamer skirts and netted wings who resided in heaven, which could only be reached by climbing to the very top of the Christmas tree.

And then there was Sleepy Elf.

My sister and I loved Sleepy Elf. LOVED HIM. My little brother probably would have too, if we ever let him hold him. But we were too busy fighting over Sleepy Elf ourselves to ever let him out of our own hands.

 So yes, he became a little bit worse for wear over the years

And his head began to flop over to the side in a not-very-alive sort of way.

When I moved out, I'd always look forward to finding where my mom had chosen to place Sleepy Elf. Personally, I always liked him under the tree, but he found his way into baskets and onto mantles from time to time. When I brought my children to Nana's for the holidays, the first thing they did was search for Sleepy Elf.

And then I moved with my little family to California. The only time we saw Sleepy Elf now was occasionally in the background of Christmas pictures from home.

This year at Thanksgiving, my family traveled back to New Mexico to visit my folks. My mom had decided to pass on many of her Christmas things to her children and grandchildren, so she set up a room displaying all of the ornaments that were looking for new homes. Tiny-china-angel-bell and tiny-china-snowman both found a new home with my daughter Cali.

Sleepy Elf lay there on the table, My daughters nearly squealed (and they are mostly grown up) "Mom! You have to get Sleepy Elf ."

But I had already decided that my gift to my sister would be to let her have him. Maybe I would devise some sort of game and let her win him. Or maybe I'd just claim to be the bigger person (which I was being--haha) and let her have him. We had both loved him so much as children, but I would be willing to be satisfied with my memories.

She was touched. She cradled Sleepy Elf in her hands the way she cradles so many new lives when she brings them into the world as a midwife. Yes, Sleepy Elf was going to a good place.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my Christmas package from my sister and there, wrapped in a Christmas napkin, was Sleepy Elf. No note--because there was nothing to say. I had given him to her, and she now gave him back to me.

That's how it is with love.

You give.

You receive.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Teaching

On twitter, I have been obsessed with the hashtag ncte15, which refers to the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference.

Truth #1--I have never attended this conference.  I long to, but November is a difficult time of the year to be gone from my classroom, especially this year. Our staff is taking an International Baccalaureate class and already having to miss 8 teaching days this year. That is kind of a lot. It is hard to justify missing even more days.

But anyway, I follow along on "the" twitter (as my kids call it), looking for those gems about teaching reading and writing to young children, hoping someone out there will say something I truly believe in so I can give a virtual fistbump of solidarity through my computer screen. Hoping someone will say the things that sometimes I am afraid to say.

Because sometimes I am afraid to say things that I really think. Like this:

Truth #2--Even though I write a lot, even though I have published books, I am not an expert on the teaching of writing. I have no magic gadgetries, no perfect 5 step lesson plan, no cute template that makes children produce amazing, thoughtful responses on a writing prompt every time they attempt it. The more I am in the classroom every day with my students, the more simple everything becomes. If you want children to write, you must allow them to do it. You must encourage it. You absolutely MUST give them time. Time to succeed. Time to fail. Time to reflect. Time to actually LEARN.

Truth #3--And you must try not to do things in your teaching that have the exact opposite effect you are going for. When you make a child feel like less of a writer, guess what?  She becomes less of a writer.

It is so affirming to read snippets of presentations on the twitter that mirror these thoughts. My teaching heart is bursting.

So anyway, a big shout out to all of the NCTE folks who are both living the dream and keeping it real. Perhaps someday, I'll manage to attend a conference and hear Donalyn Miller and Lucy Calkins in person. But for now, know that if you are sharing your special moments via twitter, via #ncte15, your reach is very far. You are having an impact on my teaching.

By sharing your thoughts and reflections, you are making a difference in the life of this teacher.



Sunday, November 15, 2015

November Thoughts

This school year is no harder than any other school year. Really. My class is delightful--on Friday we had a writing session together that just blew me away. So many little pencils furiously scratching the page. I was inspired and humbled by their writing pursuits. And their talent.

No, the climate in the classroom is not the reason for the tremendous fatigue I feel. Nor is there anything I can point to easily. I think it's simply the usual.


Or lack thereof.

I feel like a mouse on a see-saw, running up to the writing end of my life, then back to the teaching end. Back and forth. Up and down. High and low. (Except that this see-saw has more than two ends. There's home/family life in there somewhere, too.)

I recently gave a talk to interested folks about writing for children and the question invariably came up: "How do you do it all? How do you write and teach?  Where do you find the time?" I joked that I steal time, because that's what you have to do. Steal it. (Nobody is going to give it to you willingly.) Then I talked for a bit about how I manage to balance it all.

I kind of exaggerated about the balancing, because the truth of it is that I'm not doing it as well as I'd like.

*cues mouse to begin running back and forth again*

And now, somehow, I find myself on the cusp of Thanksgiving. THANKSGIVING.

How did that happen? Where did the time go?  (This is my constant whine.) Have I been so busy being the mouse running around like crazy that I missed the entire Fall ???

I don't know.  Really I don't even know.

 My gut says that I need to just embrace the mouse--that the mouse's struggle for balance is really just part of the human condition. Is my purpose really simply to balance the see-saw?  Or is it to make my peace with the ups-and-down-of-it-all?

The reflection continues.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Oh October!

I really don't know how it became October.

It was August---and now October. September was a lovely blur.

I always forget how all-consuming the beginning of the year is. I should know by now. I have taught for many years. And yet, the tidal wave of September always, every single time, crashes down upon me until I find myself eventually in October, treading water, finally able to breathe again (thank goodness).

The thing about teaching is that you really have to know your students, and making that kind of a connection takes time. So you have to give it time.

And then there is the fact that I am in a new classroom this year, so I have to re-learn everything spatially. The room is a different shape and it is messing with my ability to decide where I want to put everything. (Or to remember what I decided...)
But I am getting the hang of that, too.

The year has begun and all of the players are in their place. I'll blink and it will be parent-teacher conference week, then Thanksgiving.  Time is moving quickly.

And still, I am striving to write during all of this. Worse yet, I am revising.

I am a goal setter by nature, so here are the Autumn 2015 goals:

1. Finish WIP (It involves a rabbit, destiny, a sinking island...and lots of weird stuff.) I am so close to the end, yet so far. Maybe this weekend I will be successful.

2. Revise space-animal picture book. It needs more of an ending...but I really like it. Actually, you can put just about anything in an astronaut uniform and I'll think it is adorable.

3. Revise Chapterbook featuring robots. I am really struggling with the kind of story this will be. A chapter book/novel from 5,000 to 20,000 words. Yes, that's quite a gap. It's either Princess in Black length, or Sarah Plain and Tall length. BIG discrepancy.  And I need to figure this out, because I love this book so much.

4. Revise middle grade sci-fi novel (AGAIN). I am currently awaiting some notes of a project that I love. I am looking forward to this revision, however, I am fearful as well. I really want to hit the mark with this book. It is not autobiographical or anything, but it carries within its pages the insides of my heart.

AND, I'd like to do something completely unexpected in writing....eager for a new idea to thwack me upside the head.

So that's where I'm at.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Finally---The Launch Party for Secrets of Selkie Bay!!

I know, I know. It took long enough.

But you see, having a launch party in the summer just doesn't make sense for me--I need to celebrate with my "people".  (And most of my people are still in elementary/middle school, so it just makes sense to do it when school is back in session.)

Here are the details:

Wednesday, September 23rd, 6:00 p.m.
Barnes and Noble, 
Oceanside, CA

I'll have some of my puppet friends, of course, including Opie, the seal. (He has generously agreed to play the part of a selkie for the evening, so anyone who wants a "Selfie with a Selkie"* have only to ask him.)

I am going to raffle off chances to adopt these lovely little seal plushies:

They are named after the baby seals in the book!!

My dear friend Mr. Schu premiered the trailer for Secrets of Selkie Bay on his blog here.

Yes, it is a busy week here.

I'd love to see you at Barnes and Noble on Wednesday if you can make it:)



*Brainchild of the amazing Nikki Loftin who blurbed the book:)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

There is No Try

I have a long standing philosophical debate with Yoda and his famous line, "Do or do not, there is no try."

Most of the time, I think, Yoda, dude, you are so wrong. There IS a try. Try exists.

But then I think sometimes that maybe he is right. Perhaps, if we work hard enough, we can will things into being, or into becoming the way we want them. We either succeed, or we do not.

I found a great quote by Margaret Mead this week, "I learned the value of hard work by working hard."

As teachers, we always work so hard at the beginning of the year to get things off to the right start, to make sure everything is in place for the year to come--and this is even before we meet our students. There is just so much behind the scenes stuff.

 Then we meet the students.

And this is where the magic happens. This is where there is no try. You, as teachers and students, either come together to create an awesome year...or you do not. Except the "do not" is not really acceptable for me. For anyone.

So, here are some of the things that WILL happen this year in room 303:

1. My students will feel valued and cared about by their teacher.

2.Together, we will appreciate literature and literacy.

3. We will ask good questions and seek answers.

4. We will learn to love writing and help each other grow as writers.

5. We will OWN math and make it part of our lives.

6.  We will strive to learn even when we leave the classroom.

7.  We will make the school a better place because of our very presence.

For me, these are non-negotiables. There is no try--these things must happen or my very purpose is in question.

This week, I asked my students what they were curious about. One student replied, "The point of life."


Eight years old and he already is asking one of the big ones.

This year I decided to give myself a one word teaching goal--Mindfulness. I must always keep in my mind what I am doing and why I am doing it. If what I am doing is not addressing one of my non-negotiables, then I have to ask myself some pretty tough questions. I am not a puppet of curriculum creators. My job is not to open a box (or a binder) and simply spew out lessons, fling them against the wall and hope some of the stick (like spaghetti). My job it not to scour internet sites searching for the cutest math worksheet.

My job is to be mindful. My job is to know my students. My job is to create a place where they can learn and thrive. My job is to be mindful, to use my knowledge and expertise to create the best possible learning situation. School is not only about meeting standards. It is about enriching the lives of humans, and in doing so, creating a better world.

There is no try.