Kid Lit and Junk Lit—Two Peas in a Pod

Whitey, the proverbial elephant in the living room, shows up where you least expect him

I’m pleased to announce a new project I’m working on with Tim Elhajj, all-around awesome guy and my hubby of close to 15 years. We’re launching an online literary magazine, Junk, that focuses on addiction. Check out our press release, look for us on Facebook, and consider submitting your work to us. Your story can be written, photographed, drawn, or sung. You don’t have to be an addict to submit to us, but you must have a story of addiction, yours or someone else’s. And your story must be a true story, well told.

Some of you might be surprised to hear that I’m working on something that is not children’s literature.  I don’t write memoir and I’m not an addict, at least not to liquor or other drugs. So why Junk? For the same reason I write children’s literature, because stories have saved me more than once, and I’m looking for ways to give back.

My own childhood was backlit by booze. I hid out in my bedroom with the door closed, reading piles of books. I read to escape, and those stories nurtured me through some pretty hard times. I am grateful to the writers of those books. I know from personal experience that there can’t be too many good books to feed kids who hunger to read. I intend to write a few.

Junk was born from a similar inspiration. At the bleakest time of my adult life, I stayed sane by going to meetings and listening to other people’s stories about the effects of addiction. I hid out in those rooms with the doors closed and heard stories that saved me yet again. Eventually, I learned to open up to the strangers in the room and share my own story.

Truth telling about addiction is a powerful process that doesn’t require a literary magazine to deliver, but Tim and I think the literary community will be a little livelier with a bit of Junk. We’re excited to showcase your best work. For our inaugural issue, we’ve published a lovely piece by Elizabeth Westmark, Detritus.

Please join us in celebrating Junk: a literary fix.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

In my seemingly eternal quest to finish a rough draft of my own middle grade novel, I continue to turn for inspiration to the books I enjoy reading. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is one of those books.

I am no illustrator but I do enjoy writing picture books, which is probably why I like this book so much. Adam Rex is blessed with a talent for story-telling using both written word and illustrations—his story is original, imaginative, and often hilarious. The format of this book harkens back to children’s novels of the 60s and 70s, peppered with black and white sketches and illustration notes, but it functions more like a modern children’s picture book, with cartoon strips and ‘photographs’ supplementing the plot rather than reflecting it. Don’t skip over the images—though you may be tempted because the book is a real page turner—you’ll miss important story details if you do.

The main reason I keep coming back to this book is because the plot is smart and the dialog funny. The story line posits a pair of unlikely heroes who run away from—and later defeat—colonizing aliens. The narrator, Gratuity Tucci (Tip for short), and her alien sidekick, J. Lo, are so good together that this daring duo are high on my list of all-time favorite odd-couples.

Art, voice, and a kickass sense of humor blend to make this one of my favorite reads, and a source of inspiration anytime I think that the plot of my own middle grade novel might be too bizarre. I remind myself that there’s always room for original stories, like The True Meaning of Shrekday, that take the mainstream and tweak it until we can’t stop grinning.

A Paper Thanksgiving

A Paper Thanksgiving

At ten years old, Kennedy embodies the creative process. As soon as she was old enough to handle pencil, scissors, tape, paint, and glue, she started creating things, and she hasn’t stopped.

The day before Thanksgiving, she sat down (when she was supposed to be doing something “responsible” that mom wanted her to do), pulled out some computer paper, sketched some quick shapes, grabbed the scissors and tape, and started to build something. At first, the something was incomprehensible. But after a few minutes of focused, studied work, she made an announcement.

“Look, Mom, I made a paper thanksgiving for dad.”

Her 3-D paper sculpture sat on the table in front of me. My jaw dropped.

Kennedy doesn’t create to impress. She creates because she can. Because she wants to. Because she has a vision and an impulse to bring it to life. Sometimes she gets mad at herself because she can’t realize her vision. Other times, like this time, she is proud of herself. No amount of praise can take the place of the happiness she feels when she’s created something she likes.

That feeling will take her everywhere.

No Krispy Kremes for Swim Team

None. Not ever. Not when the little darlings did well at regional trials. Not for birthdays. Not when you want the teenagers to come to the pool early on picture day. No conscionable adult should ply children–who are trying to turn into athletes, for cryin’ out loud–with these belly bombs. You should see the number of overweight kids on our swim team.

Nutritional info for JUST ONE puny Krispy Kreme Original Donut (who can eat just one? I dare you to prove it):

200 calories, 12 gr fat, 6 gr sat fat, 5 chol

Obama says the G Word and Prop 8 passes

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer…It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, GAY, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”

Barack Obama shone a powerful light on gays and lesbians when he said those words in his acceptance speech last night. I woke up last night and had to pinch myself to remind myself that it was true that we elected Obama as President. I was too giddy to sleep.

Then I heard the news that California’s Proposition 8–the repeal of legal gay marraige–passed, and the joy I felt last night–which I knew couldn’t last for long–is today mixed with hurt and sadness and anger.

To be claimed as part of the fabric of America one moment and the next moment torn out of that same fabric–this is the painful schizophrenia of being gay in America.

Election Anxiety

I’m not as worried about the outcome of today’s election as I probably should be. Instead, I’m focused today on the next four years. A lot can happen over four years, even more over eight. I’ve got the scars from the past eight years to prove it. When I was young and single and basically penniless, a presidential election seemed more of a philosophical issue to me: I cared passionately about the politics, but didn’t feel a direct impact on my life by the particular person who held the office of president.

Well, I’ve got a lot more to lose now that I’m raising a family. And on this election day, I understand that it’s not just the person holding the office whose choices make a difference in my life, it’s all the people who surround the president–people appointed by the president or friends of the president or people who have got the president’s ear. Those are the people who have made decisions over the past eight years that have affected my family, and although the faces will change, it will be the same group of people who will make decisions that affect my family for the next four years. Those are the people I’m not voting for and whose influence worries me. Those are the people who I will have a hard time pointing a finger at when things go wrong.

So, even though I’m as excited as anyone about this presidential election, and I’m pretty sure that my pick will prevail, I must admit, I’m anxious about the next four years no matter who is in office.

That’s so gay

I started hearing this expressionfrom my son and my son’s friends starting in the 4th grade. Of course, I’d heard the expression before. My own family used to use the expression right to my face even after I’d come out to them.

But that was a while back and I’ve gotten married and had kids since then. I never hear it anymore from family or friends and I guess I’d hoped that this particularly hurtful expression had disappeared. But I just must be travelling in different social circles, because I’ve had to have this conversation, almost word-for-word with my son. In fact, I’ve had this conversation with my son’s friends. It’s pretty funny, because the open-mouthed goldfish reaction was identical to that shown in this public service announcement.

I think this expression is a social virus for a myriad of reasons. Each of us need to give this short and sweet speech to everyone infected.

In Praise of Audiobooks, Part 2

In a previous post, I offered praise for audiobooks because they opened up a world of books for my twins that they would likely otherwise have never read.

One year later, we are still listening to audiobooks in the car, which is a great goodness, because—sad to say—I’m not sure how much reading either of them would be doing otherwise.

My son isn’t reading much because he is a “reluctant reader.” Given a choice between reading or doing anything physical with his body, he will always choose the physical activity. In the car, however, when he’s a captive audience, so to speak, he enjoys listening to a variety of audiobooks. He definitely prefers The Lightening Thief or Peter and the Starcatchers, but even action-boy can find himself being drawn into the magical story line of A Single Shard.

My daughter isn’t reading much because the rigors of 5th grade have sucked up much of her free time. She is normally a voracious reader, but these before she can crack a book, she must go to school, do her homework, practice cello; then comes sports and girl scouts; and finally—the activity that trumps all other activities—playdates. But when we listen to an audiobook in the car, she and her brother become so engrossed that they sit in the car listening long after I’ve parked the car and gone into the house.

There are many forces that keep children from turning into bookworms. These days, videogames and television are given much of the blame for both low literacy and childhood obesity. Recent trends to keep kids active encourage parents to sign up kids in multiple sports instead of hanging out together in the library and curling up on the couch together with a good book. Active lifestyles and bookworms aren’t ready bedfellows, it seems.

But listening to audiobooks in the car can help to combat low literacy and childhood obesity in one stroke! Exposure to literature expands children’s minds whether they are reading the book or listening to the story. Even though kids are signed up for two or three sports, they still need to find time to get lost in a good book!

So next time you are driving your kid to school, soccer, ballet, chess club, swim team, tae kwan do, whatever! turn on an audiobook instead of a DVD. Go to the library, pick out a blockbuster and get started. Audiobooks are great entertainment, and they promote literacy while you all stay active!

First Crush

My ten year-old son’s best friend (also ten) has turned girl-crazy. Lots of my son’s other fourth grade buddies have crushes, too, but none of them are keeping up with this particular friend in the fantasy department. This particular friend talks openly about “inappropriate dreams,” and claims that all he wants is to see his girlfriend wear a bikini to the swimming pool. He wants my son to hook up with his girlfriend’s best friend.

My son isn’t buying into it. He’s skeptical about the whole girl situation. He covers his eyes with his hands at the kissing scenes in movies (though he peeks through his fingers). The other fourth grade girls flirt with him all the time, but “Mr. Cool” doesn’t give them the time of day. So far, he expresses passion through sports—he’s a consummate jock. His idea of flirting with a girl is to start a game of It-Tag.

In his full ten years of life, he never breathed a word to me about a crush. I know lots of his friends have crushes because I’ve got big ears. But I’ve never overheard him mention a crush of his own. I even made multiple attempts to pump his twin sister for information on the subject, but she’s either amazingly consistent in her loyalty or she’s just as clueless as I.

Crushes will figure prominently into my son’s life someday. My hope was that we’d have a conversation about crushes so I could put in a plug for being careful and safeguarding his heart. But given my son’s reticence on the topic, I was resigned to the likelihood that our first crush conversation would probably end up being after the fact and consist mostly of emotional triage.

So nobody was more surprised than I at how the first crush conversation first came up.

My son and I had just taken a tour of this new health club we’d joined. Everything about this club is big. It took me several days before I stopped getting lost in its serpentine hallways. Once I got my bearings, I took my son for a look around. Jock that he is, I knew he’d be excited.

The centerpiece of the club is “The Pavilion,” a huge multi-sports complex with basketball courts laid out in a four-square arrangement. Retractable walls divide the space into four individual basketball courts for games; when the walls are raised, the space is a gigantic paean to basketball. They also play volleyball, badminton, table tennis, and dodgeball in the Pavilion.

It doesn’t stop there. We took in three swimming pools, two floors of crystal-clear racquetball and squash courts, three dining areas, a gazillion big screen TVs, miles of fitness equipment, and a kick-ass weight room. But who’s counting?

We were walking through the club a few days after I’d given my son a tour of the place when he first broached the topic to me.

“Momma?”

“Yes?”

“How did you first feel when you saw the Pavilion?”

“How did I feel?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I liked it. It’s pretty cool.”

Pause. “Did you feel nervous?”

“Nervous?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Um. Not really. Did you feel nervous?”

Shrugs. “Sort of.”

“Oh. Well.” I scramble to connect with him. “Maybe I felt a little nervous around all the basketball players. There are some pretty big guys playing out there.”

My son nods his head. Pauses. Slips his hand into mine.

“I love the Pavilion.”

His voice is soft and earnest. It’s hard for me to not giggle at the seriousness of his declaration.

And all of a sudden, I love the Pavilion, too. I love it because my son loves it. I love it because it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that my son will have any inappropriate dreams about it. I love it because he will never see it in a bikini or want to double date it. I love it because he doesn’t have to safeguard his heart against it. Not yet.

Brendan Buckley’s Universe And Everything In It

Sundee Frazier has written a book that I’m excited to read to my kids. We’re going to have some great conversations! Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It is about 10 year-old, bi-racial Brendan Buckley’s experiences when he meets his estranged white grandfather. Brendan’s mother is white and his father is black, and black and white are complimentary colors in Brendan’s world. Brendan’s life is largely unproblematic until he discovers a deeply hidden family secret involving his white grandfather.

Brendan is a born scientist (which is very cool. He taught me stuff I didn’t know about rocks, minerals…and he threw in some Tae Kwon Do, as well!), so once he’s discovered the family secret, he has to know more. When he looks for evidence of the problems in his family, he has complete confidence that he will be able to draw logical conclusions from the facts. But racism (and its effects) is a wily foe, and using the scientific method to understand it doesn’t work out quite the way Brendan expects.

I won’t give away the whole story here–you’ve got to read it yourself! But I think the thing I like the most about the book is that it shows how racism wounds all families–black, white, and biracial alike.

My Dog Has An Eating Disorder

Poor Pace.

He’s restricted in his diet to boring Costco organic kibble because of health-related conditions. That means, no leftovers. It kills him to smell the food we eat and not get some. His eyes follow me when I’m in the kitchen, especially if I’m cooking meat. He hovers. He stares. His ears perk way up and he bounces to his kibble dish every time I move in that direction. He tries desperately to stay out of my way (he’s a very sensitive dog who hates to hear the words, “Go on now, Pace”), but his nerves are stretched so tautly by the mere possibility of a leftover, that he can’t bear to let me out of his sight. So, he hovers at a discreet distance.

Pace is so keenly attuned to his food dish, that when I drop a piece of food (any kind of food) into his bowl, he comes skidding around the corner, awakened from a deep slumber in a back bedroom, just by the faint sound of something moving in his food bowl. If it is nothing more than boring co-op food (the kind “Hank the Cowdog” disdains), he looks so disappointed.

Sometimes I wonder who really has the eating disorder.

Celebrating Eid at OCB

Last Friday, my kids and I hit the Old Country Buffet, or OCB as its patrons affectionately call it.

I usually try to avoid dining at the OCB. I’m just not crazy about eating so much plain American food. Even its ethnic selections are plain. I’m fortunate to live in an area with so many wonderful ethnic restaurants, and I enjoy not only ethnic food, but also the cross-cultural experience of dining in restaurants where English is not the primary language.

But I still end up at OCB often enough, because my kids love buffets, especially ones with multiple desserts. And of course it’s all you can eat, which has its own unique appeal. I have reconciled myself to eating there once a month or so, and I’ve found a way to eat mostly healthy food there (they have a good salad bar and serve decent fish every day).

But on this Friday night, something different was going on at OCB. We ended up dining with over a hundred black muslims, who were dressed in their most beautiful headdresses and clothing to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan and fasting. What a unique dining experience!

This got me thinking about our other dining experiences eating at OCB. On Sundays, we sit next to African American families, dressed in their Sunday finest. I see more African Americans at the OCB on Sundays than I see anywhere else in Bellevue. On other days of the week, OCB is full of extended Asian and Hispanic families.

I’ve had to rethink my attitude about eating at this haven of Americana. At OCB, the food might not offer a cross-cultural experience, but the dining experience definitely does.

The Book of Story Beginnings

 

I really enjoyed reading The Book of Story Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup. It had many of the conventions of children’s literature that I like–adventure, time travel, likeable kids fighting tyrannical adults. But I got most excited about the book’s theme: that the stories we tell ourselves determine the choices we make.

The plot revolves around a magical book called The Book of Story Beginnings into which the children write their own story beginnings. The story beginnings take on a life of their own, becoming real and pulling the children into living (thus creating) the middle and end of their stories.

I won’t give away more of the story, but suffice it to say that, as the author of a couple of unfinished novels, I could relate to the struggling protagonists who lose themselves in their story and try to find their way to a satisfying ending.

The Fine Art of Floating

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When raising kids, sometimes the smallest struggles feel epic in their proportion.

My nine year-old son, Aaron, is an gifted athletic kid with Sever’s, a heel condition that makes him prone to foot injury. His sports medicine doctor suggested swimming or water polo to condition for fall sports to keep him off crutches or out of casts.

There’s only one problem. Aaron sinks when he swims.

I don’t know why Aaron sinks instead of swims; someone told me it’s because he’s so muscular, and muscles weigh a lot. He’s had swim lessons over the years, but he just isn’t naturally gifted at it. And Aaron doesn’t like doing anything he isn’t naturally gifted at.

So I figured swim team was out, but maybe water polo would work. Despite not being a strong swimmer, Aaron loves playing in the pool, especially with any type of ball, and I thought he wouldn’t mind swimming so much if it was oriented around a game with a ball.

So, I did the “conscientious Mommy” routine, and when I heard that there was a water polo team at the swim club we belong to, I asked Aaron if he wanted to try it.

Sure, he replied. He’s such a gamer. So, I signed him up for pre-season clinic.

The introductory clinic turned out to be an hour-and-a-half of swimming laps and treading water in the deep end. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure whether Aaron was swimming or drowning. It was a little nerve-wracking.

Aaron had gone with two friends who were also trying water polo out for the first time, both very athletic kids like Aaron, and at the end of it, all three of them said they hated it and never wanted to do it again.

But I did the “conscientious Mommy” routine again, and told Aaron that his friends could quit if they wanted, but he needed to stick it out, and at least give the clinics a respectable try.

So, his friends quit, and I made Aaron go to two more clinics.

But it was hard. Not only for Aaron, but for me. I ached the whole time, watching him desperately try to stay afloat and not drown. A “conscientious Mommy” would find another way for her son to get in shape for soccer season.

After the clinics were over, I asked Aaron if he wanted to continue with water polo. I got a resounding NO in reply. Ok, buddy, I said, you gave it a good try.

And I obsessed over the summer about how he was going to get in shape for soccer without reinjuring his feet.

Water polo was completely off my radar as the summer progressed. Then, unexpectedly, right before the water polo season started up, one of the water polo parents asked Aaron and his sister Kennedy if they wanted to come to the team practice, I opened my mouth to say something like: Thanks, but we tried it; it’s not really our thing.

Before I could get the words out, and to my complete surprise, Aaron and Kennedy both shrugged and said, “Sure.”

The first practice, I stood on the sidelines and chatted with the other moms, trying to act casual and not be too obvious about watching Aaron’s reaction to the practice.

Kennedy took to the water with ease; she’s had the same amount of swimming lessons and practice as Aaron, but she’s a natural for swimming. She doesn’t sink, she floats.

Aaron, on the other hand, swam several laps, and while he was in the middle of treading water with his arms over his head and trying not to drown, he caught my eye. He shook his head unhappily and gave me a clear look that said, I really, really don’t want to do this.

I still can’t believe what I did when I saw him give me that look.

I walked away.

I walked away from the plea in his eye. I walked away for his need for help.

I felt like such a cheap crumb. For the rest of practice, I hid behind a wall next to the pool, and spied on the practice. Even though I’d just bailed on my kid, I had to make sure that no one had to call a lifeguard to perform CPR on a drowning child; that no ambulances had to be called; that when they started asking, “Where’s his mother?”, I’d pop right up and nobody could accuse me of negligence.

People saw me crouched behind the wall and stopped to ask me if I needed help.

Smiling lamely, I replied, No, thanks.

For an hour I hid and watched. I was pathetic.

At the end of practice, I strolled out poolside casually, as if I’d just come back from a refreshing workout in the gym or a soothing massage. Wrapped in towels, Aaron and Kennedy both looked water logged and tired.

I couldn’t bear to ask them how practice was; I was sure I’d be hearing all about it, and I preferred the privacy of our car or home for that conversation. So, with a fake and cheery matter-of-factness, I said, “Come children, it’s time to go.”

But I couldn’t get away so easily. The parent who’d invited them to practice saw us leaving, and called out so all could hear, “Aaron and Kennedy, did you guys have fun?”

I cringed and kept walking, pretending not to have heard.

But from behind me I heard my children yell, “It was great!”

I turned around to stare at them.

“Do you guys want to join the water polo team?” the parent called.

“Yeah!”

I just about passed out.

They loved it. Aaron loved it.

The season is just about over now. It’s a short season, only a month, but it’s intense. The team practices every day and ends each week with two grueling games in one day, so it’s probably a good thing that the season is so short.

Aaron still sinks a lot, but it’s ok for now. He’s figured out that he’s not going to drown, so he relaxes and sinks, then kicks back up to the surface. He’s playing so hard that the coach promoted him to team goalie.

We were at the last practice of the regular season, and out of the blue, Aaron looked at me and said, “Mom, when I’m a father and I have a son or a daughter, I’m going to sign them up for water polo. And if they tell me it’s too hard, and they want to quit, I’m going to tell them that when I started, I wanted to quit, too, but that just made me play worse. I’ll tell them they have to keep practicing.”

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between drowning and floating.

The Clams Have Eyes

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This weekend we went camping on the Hood Canal and made some friends with a father and son in the campsite next to ours. The father was big into clamming, and invited my twins to join him and his son for an afternoon of clamming. They enthusiastically agreed, had a great time digging for clams, and we took home a nice haul of clams.

When we got home, the kids clammored to build a meal around their catch. Aaron, Kennedy and I made a lovely meal of pasta and clams in a sauce of butter, wine and garlic. It looked and smelled terrific.

Kennedy set the table for dinner, but it looked a bit askew, with Tim’s place setting and chair too close to hers. I moved them back, straightening out the seats, so that everything looked as good as the food would taste.

We all sat down to the table with steaming bowls of angel hair pasta with clams swimming in garlic wine broth. I noticed with a tinge of annoyance that Tim’s chair and place setting was back next to Kennedy’s, but it was too late to correct the misalignment.

We commenced eating with no delays, but under cover of the slurping sounds of food being inhaled, I overheard Kennedy whisper to Tim.

“Daddy, are these the clam’s eyes?”

I looked up and saw Tim’s startled look. He recovered nicely. “Um, no, sweetie, clams don’t have eyes.”

“They look like eyes,” she said in a high whisper, and pointed with her fork to the two little black dots on the clam meat.

“That’s their necks, Kennedy,” Aaron said matter-of-factly, as he scooped a clam out of its shell and popped it in his mouth. “One neck they use to breathe and the other they use to spit out the sand.”

I laughed, hoping to lighten the tension. “How do you know that? Did you learn that in school?”

Both Aaron and Kennedy spoke at the same time, “No, on the Magic School Bus!”

“Wow, that’s a great show, isn’t it? You learn all kinds of things I never learned in school.”

I looked at Tim and cracked, “I guess that’s why they call them bi-valves. Sounds like the title of a bad movie: The Clam With Two Necks.”

Kennedy set down her fork. Her voice rang high and tight. “I’m scared, Daddy.”

“Oh, you don’t have to be afraid, little girl,” Tim said in his most reassuring voice, and I understoond now why the chair had been moved.

In a calm voice, I said, “That’s fine, Kennedy. You don’t have to eat the clams. Just eat the pasta and bread.”

In my own bowl, I made a show of neatly prising the clams out of their shells, tossing the empty clam shells with a flourish into the common bowl, and grating lots of parmesan cheese over the pasta and clams.

I smiled widely to show my daughter what a relaxing meal of bivalves should be like.

But we both ate our pasta and neither of us ate another clam.

I wish I were ambitextrous

Anyone able to blog and write their book at the same time? I can’t seem to do both things in the same day. I’m feeling a bit uncoordinated! Hopefully, I’ll get better at it, otherwise one or the other of my projects will suffer for days on end. When my blog was first born, my novel suffered. Now it’s my novel getting my quality time.

Vacation without Pooch?

After my twins were first born, Tim and I didn’t travel anywhere for a year-and-a-half. Purely for reasons of sanity. Mostly mine. But then we figured out how to travel with kids, and it got easier. Now, it’s really easy. Nine year olds travel really well. Better than 47 year adults, it seems.

But six months ago, we adopted Pace, our lovable Irish Coated Wheaten Terrier. He and the family are inseperable. He is hardly ever out of the presence of one of us, and Tim and I always fret or start changing plans if it means leaving Pace at home in his crate for more than three hours.

So, how the heck are we going to take a vacation this summer?

Continue reading “Vacation without Pooch?”

Preparation

Ways that 9 year-old son, Aaron, psyches up for big baseball games:

* Wear different colored socks (red and black) and pull baseball pants up to knees to show off the colors.

* Rub Bed Head coconut smelling hair creme into buzz cut to make ends spikey even though he will wear a baseball cap or batting helmet the entire game.

* Go number two.

* Listen to Lee Greenwood’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” as many times as he can until his sister yells at him to turn it off.

Christopher Myers Interview

Christopher Myers says a couple of things in this Reading Rockets interview that really stand out for me. One of his points is that “reading is not like a vacation in Hawaii,” reminding us that basic literacy is a huge concern in this country. I get so caught up in writing for literate kids that I forget that sometimes. Another point that stands out for me is when he says how important it is, as a writer and as a person, of knowing where you come from, knowing the things that make you feel special, and celebrating those things. Check this interview out.

The Best Mothers Day Ever

My family presented me with my very own iPod, which just ROCKS. It is the smartest machine I own. I feel like a genius just being in its presence. (I guess all the times I said, “No one gets an iPod until Mom gets an iPod,” must have registered.)

My 9 year-old daughter, Kennedy, took me out to breakfast at the 12th Street Cafe, and we had a surprisingly enjoyable discussion about what songs and movies we’d put on “our” iPod.

Spent the afternoon at Safeco Field, watching a Mariners vs. Yankees baseball game with my 9 year-old son, Aaron. We had great seats along the third base line, Aaron got his first ball souvenir from batting practice, and the Mariners won in a pitching duel. What a fantastic game. We screamed our lungs out.

After I put the kids to sleep, I rocked out on “my” iPod, couldn’t contain the overwhelming goodness of it all, and drove to the gym where hubby Tim was working out, just so I could tell him so.

What an excellent day.

In Praise of Audiobooks

I don’t go anywhere in the car with my kids without an audiobook. No personal listening devices allowed. We all listen to the stories together–we crack up together, we talk about what’s going to happen next together, we look forward to the next time we all get in the car together. I can check audiobooks out from the King County Library for thirty days (up to sixty days with a renewal) with just a library card. For free. What a treasure that library is.

Audiobooks have opened the rich world of children’s literature for both my kids, but mostly for my son. The other day he begged me to go to the bookstore to buy him the actual paperback book of On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth book in the Little House on the Prairie series. That would have never happened before we listened to Little House on the Prairie on audiobook.

It’s not like I didn’t try to read many of these same books during our nightly bedtime reading. But my son steadfastly refused to listen to me reading them, even though his twin sister would. I used to think that it was the gender divide at work and that my selection was to blame. I must be picking the wrong books, books for girls, and that was the problem.

But after listening to some of these children’s books on audiotapes, I can appreciate the difference between someone like Jim Dale reading a story and me. He is amazing! There are many fabulous readers of audio recordings and they are opening a wonderful world of books to my children in a way that I wasn’t able to do. Not all audio recordings of good books have good readers, however, so you must be choosy, because it doesn’t matter how good the book is, if it has a crummy reader, it’s not going to entertain.

My kids are a much more captive and willing audience in the car than they are at the end of the night after school, when they are cranky and tired (moreso now that they’re in elementary school). Listening to audiobooks in the car helps to relieve boredom and bickering, and I think my kids appreciate that as much as, if not more than, I.

I’m not suggesting that parents stop reading to their kids and substitute audiobooks. My kids still demand that I read to them at night. But what they don’t have the attention span for at night, we listen to in the car. And everyone’s happy.

Children’s books that my children and I have recently enjoyed on audiobook:

Jim Dale reading Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Cherry Jones reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Robery Llewellyn reading Pig Scrolls by Paul Shipton
Annie Kozuch reading Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Ryan
Henry Winkler reading Hank Zipzer by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver
John R. Erickson reading Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson
Lana Quintal reading Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park

If you know of any other good audio recordings of favorite children’s books, please leave a comment and share it!

Brain wasting illness or creative lifestyle?

Ever since I quit my day job as uber-manager at a major university and taken on the responsibilities of a full-time stay-at-home mom, I’ve felt my most excellent multi-tasking skill set ebb away. Meaning, I forget stuff all the time, I have become notoriously lax in my obligations to others, and I just don’t have a grasp of the bigger picture like I used to.

Granted, instead of managing a budget of millions of dollars, I now manage a weekly budget in the three digit category; and instead of managing a staff of twenty or thirty wildly diverse people, I share the provocative and enlightening company of my 9 year-old twins pretty much 24/7; and instead of flying around the country, meeting with scientists and government officials, drafting work plans, creating budgets, and writing grants, I meet with brain-numbing control freaks in our school PTA to talk about whether it is appropriate to fund Krispy Kreme donut parties in our children’s classrooms with PTA funds.

But, still, motherhood is a full time job, and it keeps me very busy. So, why does my brain seem to be sprouting more holes than a sieve? Could it be that I’ve contracted a brain-wasting illness? It’s gotten so bad that when I wash my hair, I regularly check the shape of my skull for signs of tumor growth. After all, a tumor might explain why I just don’t seem to fire on all cylinders like I used to.

But recently, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t there is another explanation. Shortly after quitting my day job, I started writing children’s fiction. I have noticed, over the past few years, that in trying to integrate a creative lifestyle with motherhood, if push comes to shove in a battle over deadlines and priorities, motherhood wins every time. But I haven’t given up. I’d committed to the 10-year plan for writerly success, just like I’d been told to do by countless successful writers before me.

But it isn’t easy being a mother and a writer.

When I go through my richest periods of creative development, and I give myself permission to wallow in my story, to listen to my characters, and to wonder what will happen next, I tend to forget about things like making dinner. Or washing the dog. Or taking a shower. Or remembering my mother’s 70th birthday. I become a combination bag lady, early Alzheimer patient, and sloppy housekeeper from hell. My friends stop calling me because I turn down lunches and retreat into the comforting loneliness of my house. I snap irritably at my husband and children when they have the nerve to interrupt me as I hunch over my laptop at the empty dining room table, the kitchen remarkably free of any smells of food. Can’t they see I’m busy?

I have no idea as to the real cause of this early onset of dementia. Is it motherhood? Is it living a creative lifestyle? I do know one thing, though: if it ends up that I do succumb to a brain-wasting illness, I’m pretty sure that no one will have noticed until after I’m dead.

The Higher Power of Lucky

Susan Patron’s book, The Higher Power of Lucky, won the Newberry Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. That’s why I read it. I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise. At first, the title confounded me, and then, when I read the summary and figured it out, I have to admit, I did this dismissing thing, thinking that anyone writing a book with a 12-step theme is sure to get it wrong. I can’t tell you the number of bad stories I’ve read with a recovery or 12-step theme. And I’m in a 12-step program, so you’d think I’d be more willing to forgive writers whose hearts are in the right place, but who can’t quite pull it off. But I’m not. I’m a demanding reader, even of my recovery material, and I don’t have patience for poor writing or themes that don’t resonate.

So, imagine my total surprise when I couldn’t put The Higher Power of Lucky down. Susan Patron has gotten it right. Viewing 12-step recovery through the eyes of a child works beautifully to capture the messiness, the magic, the irony, of how 12-step recovery works. I’ve read gobs of 12-step books (official 12-step literature only, if you please), but they are only hollow echoes of the actual meetings themselves. The meetings are where the real stories are told. And the best meetings are like those Lucky listens to–meetings where stories are told about hitting rock bottom, finding a higher power, and turning your life over. Although the details of Lucky’s journey to recovery from her painful childhood were not the same as my own, her spiritual journey was the same as mine. It is the same as every person whose life is transformed by the power of the 12 steps.

But The Higher Power of Lucky is not a testament to 12 step recovery. It is an entertaining, beautifully written story about a girl named Lucky. It deserved to win the Newberry Medal. Like many of the stories I hear told in 12-step meetings, it is powerful, bitter-sweet and real. But unlike the stories told in 12-step meetings, this story can be heard by anyone. You should go read it now.

My mother reads my blog

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I wasn’t sure if I should tell my mother that I had a blog. I wanted to share it with her. We’re such good friends now, and we live so far apart. Sharing my blog would be a way to bridge some of the physical distance between us, and she could read my stories about my kids, her grandkids.

But we’re talking about the woman who read my journal when I was eleven years old. At the time, I assumed that my journal was private, that my mother would never dream of reading my journal even if she found it. I never even tried to hide it from her. She just stumbled upon it while cleaning my closet.

But then she opened it and read it.

That fateful breach of security compromised my ability to honestly write about my feelings for years afterward. Or at least that’s what I told myself until I turned 35, when I realized that the words “honest” and “feelings” couldn’t really be strung together to describe any part of me or my life. But that’s another story.

Not that I’d been particularly honest in my journal writing, even at eleven years old. At least half of what I wrote were made up stories inspired by Go Ask Alice, a 70s best-selling novel about a drug addicted, sexually active teenager. No wonder my mother been shocked by what she’d read in my journal! But though most of what I’d written in my journal was lies, I’d just been trying to create gritty, compelling literature that would hopefully catapult me into fame some day, just like in Go Ask Alice. I figure I had James Frey beat by about three decades.

After I tearfully divulged to my mother which were the lies and which was the truth in my journal, I still found that I had a bit of ‘splainin’ to do. Like about the part where I stole money from our neighborhood library.

I was one of this library’s most faithful patrons. That library was my home away from home. I checked out books daily, read as many of them as I could, and returned for more. The expression ‘voracious reader’ didn’t really do me justice, because my book addiction wasn’t only inspired by a love of reading. Alcoholism had infilterated our family in earnest, and I hid in my room and read to escape.

But for this escape plan to work, I needed books. Books, books, and more books. If a Sunday happened to roll around and I didn’t have a book to read, I despaired because the library was closed. I tried to make it a habit to always check out tons of books on Saturday, enough to hold me over until Monday afternoon after school.

It was on one such sad and bookless Sunday, that I walked to the library to return some books that I’d already read. I pushed the books through the book slot, but before I let go of them, I stopped. Through the book slot, I spied a heap of already returned books on the book table right underneath the book slot. All I had to do was stick my little fingers through the book slot, pull one of the books off the book table, and my problem would be solved. I would have a book to read. I could hole up in my room and escape happily for hours.

I reached in and grabbed. It worked!

I pulled out several books, just to get a good selection. While rifling through one of the books to see what the book was about, I found an envelope. It wasn’t sealed, and inside the envelope were nestled three dollar bills and some change. An overdue book fine.

I’d felt quite rich enough just having found a way to get some books out of the library on a Sunday. I never intended to steal the books, I would just borrow them, sans library card, until the libary opened again. But that three dollars was tempting like no book could be. Cash! I was still at an age when I had very little, and my allowance barely covered the cost of a quarter candy bar.

I promptly went to my best friend’s house, told her about my windfall, and we went on a Guild Drug Store shopping spree, purchasing hats, candy, and bracelets.

When my mother read about this escapade in my journal, I couldn’t deny it. Because she had been so thoroughly convinced by all my fictional tales of drugs and debauchery, I was forced to cop to what little truth there was in my journal, or risk her going completely overboard thinking that it was all true. I admitted to the library book crime.

She took me to the library, made me apologize to the librarians (all of whom knew me, of course, from my daily visits). She took me to Guild Drug Store and made me apologize to the manager. She even took me to the police station and made me talk to a police officer.

What toil and trouble over journaling!

I’ve long since forgiven my mother her indiscretion for reading my journal. But now that I’m blogging, I couldn’t help but hesitate. Should I risk telling her about it?

The answer was, after some thought, obvious. Blogging is, by definition, letting my mother read my journal. Telling her about it just saves her the consternation of stumbling upon it in my internet closet.

Runaway Family

We all have to run away from our family sometime or other. My twins turned nine a couple months ago, and I’m seeing signs almost daily that they’re practicing to run away. But today was the first day my nine year-old son officially ran away.

I guess he was really mad at me. I’d caught him sneaking something into his mouth and challenged him about it. When he refused to tell me what it was, I told him to spit it out. He did so, but he spit it where I couldn’t see what it was. Then he calmly walked back into the house, packed his backpack (I later found it packed with a glow-in-the-dark football, sunscreen for the scar on his nose, heel cups for his shoes and a Calvin and Hobbs book) and informed me that he would be running away.

I told him to clean his room first since his grandmother was coming to town in a couple days, and after he’d finished with that, he could run away. His eyes widened with hurt that I could be so callous about losing him forever, but that was the only sign he gave of any of the emotions he was feeling.

I decided to leave him to his running away and go shopping for groceries. We had none in the house, which was why I hadn’t made any dinner yet even though it was dinner-time, and which was why, I guessed, the big dramatics.

It was hard to leave. Part of me wondered if he’d really take the whole running away thing to hell in a handbag. What if he got snatched away? What if I’d really never see him again? Panic set in, but I still went shopping. He needed to run away. I needed to let him run away.

I called my husband for reassurance that I was doing the right thing, but he was at work and didn’t answer.

So, when I got to the market, I called home, hoping that my son would answer.

But my daughter answered the phone, and she told me Aaron had disappeared and she didn’t know where he was.

My insides quaked, but I calmly told her that Aaron had decided to run away.

She said, he had?

I said, yes.

She asked me if I wanted her to go into the field and look for him.

I said no, she should stay put.

She told me that she’d seen him go out through the back gate into the field and he was wearing his backpack.

I told her Aaron wanted to be by himself.

She said, ok.

I told her I’d be home shortly.

A couple minutes later, while leaving the grocery store, I got a phone call. It was Aaron.

He said he’d tell me what he’d had in his mouth if I let him watch the Mariners baseball game.

I told him I’d think about it.

He said he’d had a Hershey’s kiss in his mouth.

I couldn’t help it. I chuckled and asked, why didn’t you just tell me earlier? I’d have let you keep eating it.

He said, Goodbye, in a sulky tone. And hung up.

When I returned from the store, all was normal. My son was home. I was home. I let him watch the Mariners game while I made dinner. It was like nothing had happened.

Only something had happened. He’d run away. I’d run away.

I’ve had a lot more practice running away from my family than he. But he’s growing up. He’s going to be running away sooner than I’m ready for.

But, at least for today, we’ve both come back home.

Sleepless and Sad

My sadness about the Virginia Tech massacre is keeping me up tonight. And today (now yesterday), I couldn’t focus on writing. Every time I sat down at the computer, my mind wandered. I’m grieving about those kids, the teachers, the parents…and the creative writing student who has become the main character of all the newspaper stories. It’s hard for me to focus on my story right now or wrap my mind around the problems of my own main character, with this still fresh in my mind.

As understandable as this creative inertia may be, it’s not insignificant. In the past, grief has taken away my urge to write creatively for years on end. And while today I know that I will find my way back to writing my book in a day or two, at the moment, I am suspended between unfolding stories: the story I never wanted to have to read and the one I have been writing every day for months. I must have told myself a hundred times today to just sit down and write, because I’m a book author now. It’s my job to write.

So, here I am. A sleepless and sad book author. Sitting down and writing.

Little League Lucky Charms

My son plays Little League baseball. He is already wildly superstitious at age nine. For luck, he wears socks in mismatched colors or a cheap necklace or an unwashed baseball cap. Sometimes, he wears them all at once. Whatever he does, it seems to work well for him. He gets big hits, makes great plays, pitches good games.

Out in the bleachers, I wish I had a lucky charm to help me through the baseball season. Like every parent in the bleachers, all I want is for my son to be successful, but baseball is no picnic in that department. Failure is a much more likely outcome than success, even when you’re one of the best. Batting .300 means getting an out seven out of ten at-bats. By the end of the season, I’m wiped out.

The other day, my son asked me, “Mom, is it possible to bat 1.000?”

I replied in a kindly tone, “No, buddy. That would mean for a whole season you’d never make an out hitting. It would mean you’d have to be perfect.”

He thought about it a moment. Then he nodded and said matter-of-factly, “That sounds hard, but I bet I could do it.”

Man, I need one of those lucky charms really bad.