My husband is from Canada, so every other year we spend the holidays with his family in Ontario and usually take some of that time to sight-see with the children in Toronto. This year I asked Twitter for some good Independent bookstore recommendations and of those, we were able to visit “Mabel’s Fables” on Mt. Pleasant, a true gem of a bookstore specializing in children’s books. To give you a brief review, I’ll adapt my normal “picture book review” categories:
Hi Blog readers!
It’s been a few weeks since I posted– the life of a teacher who is also a parent and a writer gets that way sometimes! Today I’m excited to share with you a piece of a wonderful writing project spearheaded by a good friend of mine. It’s called “Letters from the Heart,” and the concept is simple: if you could send an anonymous letter to someone (even to yourself), who would it be? What do you want to say that you can’t bring yourself to say or write? A great group of writers (and me) have contributed letters so far. The hope is that these letters will not only be cathartic for those who write them, but even more that they will resonate with those who read them and recognize similar feelings in their own lives. Maybe some of you will even be inspired to write your own letter– whether you send it to this project or actually send it to a real recipient.
Those of us writing for the project have decided to undertake a “Blog hop” to promote the letters– each of us has chosen a letter we did not write but which we found personally significant to publish in our blogs. I hope you enjoy this one (which has special meaning for me as I know many cancer survivors– you probably do too) and that you will go check out more at heartshapedletters.wordpress.com. To contribute your own anonymous letter, contact G.K. Sihat at email@example.com.
And now, I bring you, “Letter to my bald head.”
And now, a slight break from my typical posts:
There’s a movement on Facebook and Twitter right now for women to come forward using the hashtag #metoo if they have been sexually harassed or assaulted and the volume of posts is staggering– from all ages and walks of life. It’s heartbreaking. I stand in solidarity with all women and men who are harassed for their gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. I am lucky enough to come from that tiny bit of the population who actually has never been sexually harassed or assaulted. Never. At least not in any way I can remember. So, while I am really not trying to make this “about me” it’s inevitable for me to think about that. We all relate movements to our own lives and experiences. So here are some thoughts:
It’s not about me, but…every man that degrades women by valuing them for their looks also degrades those whom he does NOT explicitly speak to by implying they are not worthy of being paid attention to. How many jobs did I not even get an interview for because I didn’t look pretty enough? How many times did I feel dejected for not getting “special attention,” naively unaware the costs of that attention for those on the receiving end?
It’s not about me, but…when I see the hundreds of “me too”s, I have survivor’s guilt– no one deserves to be treated that way, and I am certainly no better a person for escaping it. This is just another way that I am privileged.
It’s not about me, but…would my experience be different if I weren’t overweight and a somewhat shabby dresser? I think that a lot. I’m not the kind of person people generally flirt with, let alone harass. I didn’t have my first real kiss until my senior year in college. And yet, I also know sexual predators frequently take advantage of young girls (and boys) with low self-esteem– people who are so happy to have attention they convince themselves negative attention is the only kind they are worthy of.
It’s not about me, but…could it have been? Could I have been harassed and not even noticed because I assumed they weren’t talking to me? Has our body-shaming and looks-based society come to the point that women practically harass themselves?
If you are one of the many “me too”s, I’m sorry. I promise to raise my two sons to respect all individuals and to avoid making judgements based on looks or sexuality. I will call out harassment and abuse when I see it.
And if you need a shoulder to cry on, I’m here.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog about words and writing. Because creating beauty is what makes the pain worth it.
Four years ago, I founded a monthly critique group for children’s writers and illustrators in the seacoast Maine/NH area. We met in the “Roast & Crumb,” a lovely coffee house just off I-95 and easily accessible to our members, some of whom traveled over an hour to attend. Although we’re a small group, I have always looked forward to setting aside two hours every month to focus on my writing and help guide other writers and artists. The coffee house was an important cornerstone to our group, providing a warm and inviting space to meet with friendly faces, especially our dear barista Albert (behind the counter with the hat!) At our meeting today, we learned that the Roast & Crumb will be closing as of November 17th. The owner had been there for 15 years and had been working in the business for 40. It was time, he said. Thankfully, not due to any economic or health crisis. Just time.
I wish the owner and employees all the best, but it’s hard to say goodbye. I have a lot of great memories of that place– the enthusiastic greeting when you see friends walk through the door is the closest I’ve felt to “Cheers” (where everybody knows your name). Not to mention the joy with which I always looked forward to leaving the boys at home with my husband, grabbing a 10 dollar bill from the cookie jar (they only take cash), and indulging myself in a coffee and one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever had. Even on days like today, when I spent part of the morning by myself writing, I still felt surrounded by friends.
For now, we’re planning to move our meetings to the local public library. It’s a wonderful space, they have a meeting room right next to the children’s area, we can bring coffee from a neighboring shop, and there’s wi-fi. We may even get new members. But it won’t be the same. Go patronize your local coffee shop this week and not just for a take away cup. Sit there and soak in the atmosphere of a small local business. Starbucks is nice on occasion, but it just can’t beat the charm of a good neighborhood haunt.
We’ll miss you, Roast & Crumb.
I haven’t had a new blog post in a bit, and if you have been following me, you know why — not only am I a high school teacher busy with new classes, but I also just wrapped up a poetry exhibit at the local library. (More on that later…) So, it was great to dive into the children’s literature world again for a while and immerse myself in some great books I’ve been wanting to read.
My focus in this blog is on recent books, often those which have had a bit of Twitter buzz. I try to avoid books by big celebrities (no offense, Chelsea Clinton, Ree Drummond, or Nathan Lane– your books are awesome, but you hardly need my press!). So, in deciding to pick books today by authors who already have big bestsellers I love, I have to apologize to all those folks with their very first books out — I’ll get to you next time!
I have to confess: I read the books for this post over two weeks ago, but was so busy I didn’t get to write the reviews. I spent last week helping direct a professional development week for German teachers and before that have been busy working on my upcoming poetry exhibit at the local library, so I’ve had a lot on my plate. On the bright side, that means my reviews will truly reflect what is the most memorable about those books. Enjoy!
Some writers complain a bit when summer vacation arrives and they suddenly have their kids underfoot to entertain, cutting into their writing time. Me? I’m a teacher, so I’m rejoicing in summer vacation right along with them. Sure, tagging along after two boys is tiring, but life is what brings us the experiences we write about, especially when you’ve got kids.
Today we visited “Planet Playground,” an excellent playground complex in Exeter, New Hampshire. The last time I took the boys there, a few years ago, I spent the whole time running around making sure I knew where they were, that they were playing nicely, etc. This time, I looked forward to catching up on my reading and just letting them run around. The weather was gorgeous, I had a shady bench, an iced coffee, and a good book (my brother’s new novel, Never Alone). Needless to say, I was a little frustrated to have my reading interrupted, but taking interest in your kids is far more important, so I wandered over and found myself at the adorable wooden puppet theater. Each boy took turns telling me their stories, with their hands as finger puppets, then it was my turn.
As I was retelling one of my latest manuscripts from memory, I realized what an awesome writing exercise this was. I’ve heard editors say that you should throw out your first draft and simply write the second from memory. I even once read an anecdote by Stephen King that he lost a manuscript and rewrote it from memory– of course if you do that, you’ll live life feeling that your new version can never hold a candle to the original, but it’s probably not true. The fact is, when you are retelling from memory, you are forced to include only the most important parts. And when you’re storytelling in front of an audience, you quickly learn what holds their attention and what doesn’t. You learn which bits of repetition are boring and which give your work that very slight predictability that kids love.
It’s the “And then…” which drives your story forward. It’s not the beautiful description of springtime flowers. It’s not the sparkling and witty dialog. It’s what happens after someone is hit and falls down. It’s what happens when the main characters are lost in the woods, or when grandma is eaten by the wolf. Storytelling live in front of little kids forces you to focus on the “And then…”
I also learned that there are essentially 4 types of storytelling with kids:
- The straight re-tell: Max told us “Little Red Riding Hood.” It had a little of his personality, but he was basically practicing how to tell a story. That’s fine, especially if you aren’t comfortable talking in front of an audience. Most kids love hearing familiar stories. (One of my most popular requests when my kids were young was a re-tell of a favorite Spongebob episode. I did not make it my own, but they still loved it. Over. And. Over.)
- The “punched up” re-tell: Robbie told us “The Three Little Pigs.” It was essentially the actual story, but he added in a lot of snarky side comments about the three pigs’ choice in materials, highlighting the superiority of the third pig who kept chiding the others (“Really? You’re using wood? It’s going to leak, I tell you!”). The first two pigs got eaten, probably as payback for their lack of good building sense. This version is great if you’re telling stories to kids who appreciate a good subversion of the expected paradigm, and it’s a good way to take off the storytelling training wheels.
- The “test kitchen”: Ok, storytellers, get out there with some new material! No manuscript handy, just me and the stories that have been living in my head, I dove in with two of my latest picture book WIPs, “Fat Banana” and “Hortensia, the Angry Cat.” My boys had heard them both, but I got at least one passerby kiddo to stop and listen as well. I chose “Hortensia” for the second story and got the little girl listening to make all the cat noises which was a huge hit. Of course then she asked for more, which is when the next type of storytelling comes in…
- The “audience participation” story: This little girl wanted another animal story. I didn’t happen to have any in my hat that seemed to work, so I prodded her a bit more– what kind of animal? A cheetah. My son decided it would be a cheetah and a triceratops. No, she insisted. Just cheetahs. So together we came up with a story about a cheetah who had to outrun a forest fire to warn the other animals. No prior preparation, maybe not a Newbery winner, but all participants were satisfied.
So, next time your kid says “Tell me a story,” try out one of the above storytelling techniques– maybe you’ll end up finding a whole new story idea, or figuring out that spot in your work in progress that has been needing attention. And even if none of those happens, I guarantee your later writing will be better for the practice, and you’ll all be richer for the quality time.