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This image is currently on my desktop and that little kid puts a smile on my face and makes me think.

When I look at her, I see she is doing exactly what she – a mountain goat kid – is supposed to be doing and what comes naturally. Leaping. She’s not thinking about it or getting all nervous about it or wondering will she twist her ankle if she leaps really high. She just leaps.

Were it that easy for us humans. Okay, I’ll speak for myself. Over the course of my life I have taken numerous leaps of faith, and often without any tangible safety net. Each time, I truly amazed myself because clearly, I didn’t think I had it in me.

I was musing earlier about the time when I got on a plane to Portugal at 21 years old to visit my cousin who lived in a tiny fishing village in the farthest point north of the country. I’d only been on a plane once, and never abroad. What was funny in retrospect is that I was too young and naive to even know what a leap of faith I was actually taking. My flight was delayed at JFK by 6 hours and was going to get me into Lisbon far later than my cousin and I had planned and I had critical train connections to make. There were no cell phones, no means of communication like that and I was alone. In my utter panic, because of course I had not thought to learn any Portuguese other than “Bom Dia”, I began asking about for help using my high school French and entreated a bi-lingual Portuguese gentleman to help me. He wrote notes for each of the two train masters and one for, hopefully, a cab at the other end. I arrived after midnight in the pitch black of the countryside, but got delivered safe and sound to my cousin’s house. How did I do it?

Over 10 years ago, I took a very conscious leap of faith to leave a secure job and go freelance so I could pursue my dream of writing and illustrating children’s books. My income was not even covered, but I believed that somehow, despite my many apprehensions, I would be okay. I’d be lying if I said that the time in between hasn’t had its stress, crises and challenges, yet I made it. Except for one thing. I haven’t made nearly the progress I had hoped towards my dream. The next leap is before me.

And that’s where that little mountain goat comes in. Sometimes we can feel like we are suspended in mid-air. We know we jumped; in fact it may have been necessary to jump, or we sorely need to, but how we land depends on us. I want with every fiber of my being to be as sure-footed as that little kid, who knows in her heart of hearts, in the deepest recesses of her mountain goat soul, that she will land safely and securely, most likely on all fours.

Søren Kierkegaard once said, “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.”

I stand at the edge, breathe in my inner mountain goat, and leap.

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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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Serene is sure a feeling that can escape us when we’ve got a lot on our plate. And lately, this photo is what’s been bringing me back to some semblance of serene.

Beautiful orcas in a sea of calm. I feel like perhaps they are dreaming. Diving, resting and just breathing in the night air. The last few weeks have been far too busy with one thing or another and although I know – we all do – that from time to time, it’s just how life is, I found myself longing for a touch of the serenity I see in this photo. I found myself wishing I could weave among them as kin where they would welcome me, not be afraid, and just share with me whatever they know and feel in the moment captured above.

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
~ Cormac McCarthy

But this period of so much going on has had its up-side, too.  I have been on a real reading tear, loving diving into one book after another, middle grade, adult, picture books, no matter. Perhaps these books have all given me the respite I needed, new places to go, people to know, situations that grabbed my attention and heightened sensation. What a rich world books bring us.

OK, change of plans. I’ll sit on an outcropping of rocks next to the orcas, they with their dreams, me with my book, one in spirit under a full moon. Join me?

 

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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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Journal-BlkLime2More and more lately I’m looking around and wanting to let things go. Personal things. (Well, aren’t they all personal things?) OK, some very personal things. Journals, things related to past loves, books, and of course, clothing. There’s always clothing we could lose. I really am not someone with a lot of clothing, yet I want it gone.

The journals. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I journal almost daily. I write in the vein recommended by Julia Cameron of An Artist’s Way, and use it as kind of a morning dump. Get all the crap out of my head that’s swimming around unpleasantly so I can move on with my day. I find it quite healing, comforting, and if nothing else, it keeps me writing something. When I’m done one journal, I move on to the next that I have recently purchased. (TJ Maxx, BTW, always has a great selection of journals, if interested.)

The completed journal sits on a shelf with numerous others. But why save them? So today I was in the mood to skim through one of them to see if, indeed, I had left any pearls of wisdom behind before sending it to the great beyond, aka a dump of its own. Skimming reveals certain patterns – things that I have been struggling with over the time period it covers, my search for answers, where I find clues, what I’ve accomplished, what’s made me happy, where I’m going, and what’s keeping me from getting there. It yielded one important piece of information about a medical issue, so I ripped that page out.

And now I can give this journal the old heave-ho. There’s several more that I think will get the boot in the next day or so. It will open up a small bit of physical space, but more importantly, it will open up space in me. Letting go is always helpful. Not to say we shouldn’t preserve some memories, but at a certain point, they’re not even us anymore. Do they matter? Do they all matter? or can we just let some go?

Because when we let go, we make room for what we want to come in. We are always in transition, at some times more intensely than at others. But when we’re looking to grow and change, making room in our hearts, our minds, and even the actual space in our homes can be welcoming. It can be a little scary. It can be very good. We have to be willing to … just … let … go.

 

 

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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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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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If you had asked me 5 or 6 years ago if I liked historical fiction, my answer would have been “Meh.”

Sadly, I was effectively turned off to all things history as a child, when my first learning experiences labeled “History” were nothing more than an endless dry and boring series of names, dates, places and events to be absorbed and later regurgitated on tests. In retrospect, our teachers had to cover 7 or 8 different subjects daily, so what were chances that any of them would be a real history buff and would teach us history with great enthusiasm and insight? Apparently, pretty slim.

KiteRunner-KHosseiniIt wasn’t until college when I had an exceptional professor who taught Contemporary Civilization in the context of art, (I was at an art school), and for the first time someone teaching history had neurons in my brain firing rapidly. History suddenly came alive! Unfortunately, at that point, I had very little mental framework in my brain to hang it on. But I started to take an interest in the subject.

What really kicked my interest into high gear has happened in more recent years when I would come across a novel set in a particular place and time period, so rich and textured, that I wanted to learn more. One of those books was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it sent me flying to the internet to learn about the Afghani people and what was transpiring in Afghanistan during the time this novel took place. I cannot recall the country of Afghanistan mentioned once in history or geography in my childhood education, but now, here was a piece of fascinating history.

ShanghaiGirle-LSee2The two novels that recently afforded me that desire to delve into history were those by author Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.The first novel begins when Shanghai was known as the Paris of Asia, and sisters May and Pearl were  “beautiful girls”, models. With their father having lost all their money, the sisters, with their mother, must flee Shanghai as the Japanese invade China. The sisters were forced to emigrate to the United States in arranged marriages. From their interment on Angel’s Island to creating lives for themselves and their families in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we follow the complex relationship of Pearl and May and Pearl’s daughter, Joy.

In Dreams of Joy, Joy, now in college and angry at her family’s deception and distraught over one family member’s suicide, secretly runs away to China to find her true father. Her studies have convinced her that Communism is the best of all systems, and she is determined to start her own life, although  DreamsOfJoy-LSee2she is soon to be profoundly discouraged and isolated. Pearl leaves the states to search for her daughter, encountering endless roadblocks along the way. The backdrop of much of the novel is the time under Chairman Mao and The Great Leap Forward, a time of alleged progress in which a famine took the lives of millions of Chinese people. (From Wikipedia – “The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of deaths, estimated from 18 million to 32.5 or 45 million. Historian Frank Dikotter asserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history”.)

Lisa See writes about family and relationships and this alone would have held my attention, but told against the backdrop of both China and the United States in times of political change and turmoil of every kind, I searched to know more. My knowledge of history is still spotty, but through the pages of beautifully written historical novels, I continue to learn. It seems history stands at my back door, always with a hand raised, always ready to knock.

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One of the (many) wonders of books is that they sometimes arrive at just the right time. Perhaps it’s not exactly a magical book but it’s the one that’s juuuust right for where we are and what we need to read right now.

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For example, a dear friend of mine came upon a book not long ago and was just over the moon about it. She got me so excited that I went immediately to my local library and borrowed it. I began to read. I was not excited or over the moon as I’d hoped; in fact, I was occasionally disenchanted by the author’s style, which was quite different from what I’d read of hers previously but seemed to me to be trying a little too hard to be hip and cool. I continued reading, sometimes really enjoying it, and while I felt it got better towards the end, it never made me jump up and down.

So I returned the book to the library, and talked about the book with my wonderful librarian, who is also familiar with the author, and she said she’d give it a try. Her response was that she liked it. Not crazy about it, but what had bothered me did not bother her, and she would read some more. And there you have it. Kind of like Goldilocks and the three bears, I thought.

For one of us it just wasn’t the right fit; for another it was enjoyable, but not fabulous; but for the original reader it was exactly the right size and the perfect book for her right now. And that’s what makes books so wonderful. Certain books come into our hands, into our lives, and they are exactly what we want – and/or need – to read at that moment in time. I’ve certainly encountered books like that – haven’t you? The story, or the information, is so meaningful right then that it just couldn’t be any better.

Sometimes it takes a while for that book to appear in our hands, but we always know it when it arrives. For those of us who write, or at least for me, it is my dream to write that book for children that will be exactly what they want – or need – at that moment in time. Even if it’s only one child, I’ll be happy.

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