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One of the joys of reading a good book or watching a good movie is that of surrender. When I open to the page where I last left off or the theater lights go dim, I breathe to myself (hopefully not out loud), “take me.”

Take me into some neighborhood I’ve only passed by; let me smell their food, hear their music and experience the love, joy and anger that is so essentially human, but through the heart of another culture. Or take me to another land so I may breathe their icy cold into my lungs or feel the heat upon me that breeds crimes of passion. Take me to the stark loneliness of outer space to be in awe of galaxies; to live inside the utter loyalty and devotion of a scout dog in the Vietnam War and see through her eyes.

Take me where creatures walk among us who look like you and me but harbor lives beyond our imaginings. Tease me with unexpected twists and discovery of villainy or delusion. Speak to me in ways that make me work a little to understand the subtleties of another tongue, or variations of my own from another place and time.

Take me where I may know the deepest and most heartbreaking love, be outraged and demand justice, or laugh because sometimes life is just funny.

But whatever you do, be well-written with characters that ring true to the very end (but can still surprise me) and where I can get lost in your world without hesitation. I am ready to surrender.

Take me.

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There are just periods when one cannot find the time – or brain – to post. Really, I’m kind of still in one of those, but I guess I had to share my love of books – and this amazing haul – with you book lovers out there. Today was day #1 of the annual Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. And below is what I brought home, limited only by the fact that I literally could not carry any more. (Though the library folks said they’d be happy to help me get more to my car. 🙂

This year, I went with a list – some MG/YA (since I continue to write children’s books, I always want to read the good stuff out there): a goodly bunch of fiction titles; and a selection from a list my friend had recently sent me from Buzzfeed entitled 37 Books with Plot Twists that Will Blow Your Mind. Hey, that sounded promising, so I perused the list, eliminated those I’d already read, and added those of interest to my library sale list. Now I was ready to go!

Amazingly, I actually found 6 from my list – The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin and Savvy – Ingrid Law (both MG/YA); The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield; Fingersmith – Sarah Waters; and The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee from the “plot twist” list. While I couldn’t find others from the Buzzfeed group, I did find alternative books by a couple of the authors, so picked upThe City of Falling Angels – John Berendt, in place of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Infinite Plan – Isabel Allende, in place of The House of the Spirits – a chance to check out new authors.

And then there were these that I just happened upon – The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry because The Giver and Gathering Blue were excellent; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver because she’s one of my favorite authors; I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak because The Book Thief is one of my favorite all-time books and I promised myself I’d read something else of his and try not to compare; Forever – Pete Hamill because I love the premise and he’s an excellent writer; Morality for Beautiful Girls – Alexander McCall Smith as I love his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series; The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky (MG) – just wanted to read it;  same for Evermore – Alyson Noel (YA) and Ape House by Sara Gruen.

And then, The Art of Racing in the Rain –  Garth Stein, recommended highly to me years ago by my dearest friend, since passed over; Pushing the Bear – A Novel of the Trail of Tears – Diane Glancy, because I know this will touch me deeply; and Louise Penny’s Still Life in excellent condition, a wee gift to my own town’s small local library for their shelves (I had to borrow the copy I’d read from the county library). And there you have it.

The two big questions: where will I put them all? and what will I read first after I finish the wonderful book I’m already reading? The first is a minor problem but solvable; the second – just a delicious conundrum. I wish you all happy reading – it is truly one of the riches in our lives.

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I reached for a pocketed folder on my office bookcase and heard a small crash. I looked down and it was a little volume titled Great “Quotes” from Great Women!

I hadn’t looked at this in quite some time, but I am never one to ignore books jumping off a shelf! I always assume events like these are the Universe’s way of pointing out something to me, even if just to slow down my workday and take a look. I had a business meeting coming up and wanted to get all my ducks in a row, but then there was this.

I picked this little collection up back in 1984. It is dedicated to “all the great women whose words have motivated, inspired and brought tears and laughter into our lives.” I suspect were this book published today it would be greatly expanded.

Those quoted are a cross section of women in politics or whose husbands were in politics, leaders, authors, actresses, singers, even comediennes. One of my favorite quotes is by Elaine Boosler, “I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body.”

My little break of inspiration was much needed when this book landed on the floor. I’m still smiling as I think of it. I hope these few quotes do the same for you. Here’s another, this one from Edith Armstrong: “I keep the telephone of my mind open to peace, harmony, health, love and abundance. Then whenever doubt, anxiety or fear try to call me, they keep getting a busy signal and soon they’ll forget my number.”

Now why my little Jazzy, you may ask? Well, first, because I can. And second, because that peaceful repose is a reminder to be sure to take in some sun and some time to relax whenever you can. I accept that as her inspirational contribution to the post, as it’s always great advice.

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At the end of my street is the river … the moody, enchanting, ever-changing Delaware. Sometimes she is soft and shy and all wintery gauze. Though I haven’t in a while, I can go over the broken tracks, down an incline, across a small plateau where someone builds fires, and touch her. Yes, I see this river as female, though I cannot tell you why. Sometimes I take her presence for granted, yet I never forget she is there.

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Lately I’ve been thinking. Oh, about so many things. The words of others drift through my head. These are the words I want to share with you today. I may have done so before; if I have, they are no less true.

“You were born with potential. 
You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. 
You were born with wings. 
You are not meant for crawling, so don’t. 
You have wings. 
Learn to use them and fly.”

~ Rumi

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FoggyMorning

Nature XXVII, Autumn

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

~ By Emily Dickinson

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PiBoIdMoJournal2We’re halfway through November. For some writers, you are feverishly striving to complete your 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writers’ Month). I have to say, while I need a swift kick in the butt to get writing as much as anyone from time to time, 50,000 words in one month is more of a kick than I’d ever want.

I much prefer PiBoIdMo, the picture book writer’s alternative for November – Picture Book Idea Month – created by Tara Lazar and in which we are challenged to come up with an idea a day for a picture book. (Though really, this could just as easily apply to ideas for novels, short stories, songs, etc.)  I find that the one idea per day happens most of the time, but sometimes the creative juices seem to produce two ideas today, brain too work-slogged for an idea tomorrow, two PB ideas the day following and so on. I just do my best to have a minimum of 30 ideas by the end of the month.

If you are doing PiBoIdMo, I suspect, like me, come Nov. 30 you find some of your ideas are laughably useless, some have a certain amount of potential, and some are actually quite promising. Where do you get your ideas from? Personal experiences past and present can inspire ideas, as well as family, friends, and pets, but also what’s going on in the world – news of all kinds, music, stuff you read. Sometimes, even an old story we’ve already written gives birth to a brand new – and better – idea.

Here’s the best idea – have fun doing it. And if this is the first you’ve heard of PiBoIdMo, join in and challenge yourself!

 

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We all know that reading has incalculable benefits of every kind. And although it seemed so obvious when I read an article about fiction readers having more empathy, it never had occurred to me that way.

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It makes perfect sense that as we read about the experiences and feelings of others, putting ourselves into their shoes, we consider these things from an entirely different perspective. But now science is bearing out that each time we’ve opened a book of fiction we have been learning to understand and empathize with others in real life from when we first began to read.

Scientists have determined these results through studying the effects of reading on the brain through MRIs, polls, surveys and experiments. And when the book is more challenging, it helps us become smarter as well as more empathetic.

An example comes to mind. Some time ago I read Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter was a monster with no conscience and terrified many a reader of this novel. Later on I picked up the “prequel”, if you will, of this book, Red Dragon. What truly blew my mind about this book is that Harris, in describing the cruel childhood of Hannibal Lecter, actually made me feel understanding and empathy towards him. No small feat, but a comment on the power of the well-written word to do just what science is now proving – reading fiction engenders empathy towards others, even in as extreme a case as this one, and this was a character of fiction. The implications of how this translates to the real world are immense.

So all you readers and writers of fiction – forge on. You are making the world a better place.

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While I have been rather remiss in blogging, at least I have been reading. Life can pull us in many directions, and some take our blogging time. So be it.

ByTheLight-FathersSmile-AWalker2As I am beginning a new book – chosen from among the many that sit on my shelves waiting to be read – I remember exactly why I picked it up at the big book sale awhile back. I’d read a short story titled am i blue? by Alice Walker over 20 years ago in a magazine. It was about a horse in a meadow alone, bored, betrayed. The meadow was outside a home where Walker was living, and her experience of Blue told me volumes about her appreciation of the hearts and souls of animals. This story was later banned, I found, by the California School Board in 1994, as was, of course, The Color Purple, by all those who feel they know best what you and I should read and think. (You can read am i blue? and some commentary on the The Westcoast Post blog.)

At some point later in time, I came across this (now very famous) quote by Alice Walker, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” And though it was not a period in my life when I had the time to read novels, I simply liked her even more.

Fast forward to a few years ago, and I came upon her novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that?  Knowing that, if nothing else, she and I shared something so important in common – a respect for, and appreciation of, animals.

LayItOnMyHeart-APneuman2I’m looking forward to starting this novel by Alice Walker, but admittedly, my heart is still half living with Charmaine Peake in Kentucky. I just finished Lay it on my Heart by Angela Pneuman, a novel about a 13 year-old girl whose father is, or believes himself to be, a prophet. Living in a small town crammed with churches of every faith possible, where one third of all the men are preachers or studying to be one, Charmaine and her mother Phoebe have been barely getting by in the year while her father has gone to the Holy Land, instructing them to live by their faith alone. This is a coming of age story where Charmaine must come to grips with all that is implied in having the father described, a mother who has felt compelled to honor his wishes, and a growing awareness that perhaps she isn’t and cannot be the holy and God-fearing person that has always been expected of her.

Charmaine’s relationship with her mother is best-described as that beginning struggle for independence, yet she feels constrained by her father’s beliefs of how she should behave as defined by the Old Testament and her desire to please him. Charmaine makes her own way in this story slowly, finding hypocrisies and truths all along the way. She grows to find friendship where she would have least expected it and a willingness to look at life in a way she would have never thought possible. The characters and relationships in this novel are very well-defined, so much so, that you are almost unaware at times of the truly impoverished state she and her mother are forced to live in because of her father’s choices. My one criticism of this book, even though I understand why they’re there, is the seemingly never-ending quotations from the Bible in the first third to half. I have no doubt that this is indeed the reality for the population written about (especially since the author is from Kentucky), but it often felt excessive, and made me wonder should I continue on. I’m glad I did, and I’m still digesting it all. Alice may have to wait just a wee bit.

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Well, we see how much time has passed since that last post … so this will be a bit brief, as time, even to blog, is sometimes hard to find. Among the things I particularly enjoyed about this June Conference were several workshops which enriched my life as a children’s book writer and illustrator and added to my knowledge of craft, inspiration and TUESDAY-DWeisner2curiosity.

A workshop with the children’s book illustrator and author David Wiesner was terrific. He gave the opening keynote, but I also took a workshop with him titled “Reference Is Your Friend.” He’s a brilliant, phenomenally talented and very humble person, and listening to his process as he designs and works out his world-renowned books was fascinating. His recommendation for all the attendees if we would take away one thing? Draw from life.

A workshop by Donna Galanti on world-building was another favorite because  no matter what type of novel we write, whether fantasy or one taking place in our town, we need to create a world for readers. Donna really broke it down, and also provided the rare handout so we could be listening to her presentation without our heads down scribbling notes frantically. She came up with so many useful points that I will refer to as I’m delving into my own novel.

There were more excellent ones, and one or two that were not so fabulous, but we only know by opening ourselves to the presentations and finding out what there is for us to learn. I’d also signed up for two one-on-one critiques for my WIP novel and another for a WIP picture book. One of these was outstanding and gave me some very good direction.

By the end of the first day of the conference, I didn’t see a soul who wasn’t looking a little wiped out, just from running from class to class and then to individual critiques and roundtables. Of course, I could go on. And on. But I’m going to stop here, with a suggestion for all of you who might be reading this and who are interested in writing and/or illustrating children’s books and not already a member of SCBWI.

Join. Join a whole bunch of other talented, dedicated people who want to reach out to children with amazing ideas and stories and visions. Join an organization whose sole existence is to provide everything you’d want to know and more about how to become a writer or illustrator for children. Become familiar with your local branch of SCBWI and see what they have to offer. In New Jersey, we have the annual June Conference, but also some smaller events during the year. You can learn more here on the SCBWI site and check out the chapter nearest you while you’re there.

Maybe I’ll see you at the conference!

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I can hardly believe t’s been a week already since I’ve returned from the 2-day children’s book conference in Princeton. I know I’m not alone when I say I come home exhausted, exhilarated, optimistic, grateful, exhausted, happy, enriched, hopeful, challenged, and oh .. did I mention exhausted?

ExhaustedWoman-AntonioGuillem2

Jumping into my standard 40+ hour work week the very next day does not leave a lot of time for reflecting on all that transpired, reviewing materials, notes from critiques, etc. But numerous thoughts and conclusions were ribboning through my mind on and off all week long, even while I looked forward to this weekend to catch up on some rest and start seriously considering where I was going with children’s books.

And a direction became clear. One of the big attractions of the New Jersey SCBWI Conference is that we offer “one-on-ones” to both writers and illustrators. This is often the focal point of the weekend for those writers who wish a detailed critique from agents and/or editors on their children’s books and illustrators who can have art directors review their portfolios. This year, I went full steam ahead and booked two agent critiques for my middle grade novel and one editor critique for a picture book I’m working on. Of the three critiques, one was so incredibly helpful, I was just thrilled.

In the past I have submitted manuscripts that were as finished and polished as I could get them. They’d been looked at by my critique partners, gone through numerous revisions, and perhaps even been seen at previous conferences. This year was different. The picture book is in the very early stages of development and I sought some insight  and direction. The novel had once been a picture book, and through a number of professional critiques had moved through the chapter book phase to its true calling, middle grade. But I had questions, and I wanted to hear an agent’s opinion.

ADogsPurpose-WBruceCameron2The good news is that one agent confirmed my story is unique and not on the market, and she really liked the concept. The not-surprising news is I have a lot of work ahead of me, as in, now I have to write the rest of the book! This agent really paid attention when looking at my synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript, and offered solid advice. I also came armed with lots of questions, and the ensuing discussion helped to highlight areas I need to focus on, existing concepts I might change to improve it, etc. So for that critique alone, the conference was worth it.

Am I writing today? Not yet. But I am making a plan on how I’m going to get this book written. One aspect of the plan is what I read. You know how you sometimes buy a book but when you get it, you know it’s not the time to read it and temporarily shelve it? The book I need to read right now is pictured here, A Dog’s Purpose.  It was recommended to me at least 4 years ago by the CSR of one of the major printers I work with in my capacity as a graphic designer. As little time as she and I had to chat beyond the work-related, she highly recommended this book for me, and said she knew I’d love it on every level. I know the timing is now perfect and reading it will also enrich the story I’m writing.

More on the conference here …

 

 

 

 

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“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Statue-ChildReading

With the annual New Jersey Society of Children’s Books Writers and illustrators (NJ SCBWI) June Conference on the horizon one has to think – there is something so amazing about so many individuals all streaming into one location from all over the country for a single purpose – to share, to learn and to grow in the one thing that unites us all – children’s books. We meet old friends and make some new, share and see amazing illustration, and have the opportunity to sit in workshops and at lunch tables, not just with our peers, but with editors and agents from some of the finest publishing companies and agencies in the U.S. Cheers to us all!

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This little phrase is bandied about all over the place nowadays; it’s on mugs, tee shirts, posters and more. And like so many sayings that become pop sensations, there is an undeniable element of truth in it.

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I was reading, (kind of re-reading and reflecting on, actually), Deepak Chopra’s small volume titled The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, which are, according to Chopra, really the same as the Seven Spiritual Laws of Life. In the chapter about the fourth spiritual law, the Law of Least Effort, he writes about how easily we can fulfill our desires by learning, as nature can exemplify, how to do less and accomplish more. There are three little lessons within this law, and the one that reflects this post’s title is the one I am currently pondering.

The idea is to accept people, events, and situations exactly as they are in this very moment, versus what we would like them to be. Sounds so easy, but it’s not always the case. So much of our unhappiness comes from our disappointment and frustration that people and situations are not what we’d hoped, expected and/or planned. Think about it. We did something nice and so-and-so didn’t even have the courtesy to thank us, or didn’t thank us enough, soon enough, or whatever. We planned so carefully for a party and it rained. In addition to that, some people didn’t show up, and they never called or texted, etc. And we become miserable. The variations are endless, and of course, run the gamut from day-to-day occurrences to life-changing events.

7SpiritualLaws-DChopra2Life is filled with all kinds of disappointments and we have a choice to accept them and let them go … or not. When we don’t, and we grab on like the proverbial dog on a bone? we become yet more miserable. We can make ourselves crazy. This accepting of “It is what is is” seems to me to be a lifelong lesson, to be learned again and again in different circumstances and at different levels of awareness. While expending less energy on what isn’t or what might have been, we gain so much more for other things.

Chopra makes analogies with nature, such as fish – they just swim, or grass – it just grows. Imagine if grass worried if it would be mowed or chewed on by cows or destroyed by weed killer. It doesn’t — it just grows. We can do that, too. Accept this exact moment as it is. It’s not to say we can’t intend for things to be different in the future, but right now? It is what it is.

It can be easy. Or a worthwhile challenge. Or the ruin of our day. Our pick.

 

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