Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Did You Want to Be?

What did you want to be when you “grew up”? Or, what do you want to be? I love this question, either version. It says something about a person, don't you think? In fact, I sometimes ask my characters, as I’m getting to know them, what they want to be—in case you were wondering.

Anyway. . .

At a recent gathering, a few friends and yours-truly started talking about what we once wanted to be and how things turned out. Some talked about what they still want to be when they grow up (probably best not to ask too many questions about ages here). One good friend was determined to be a veterinarian. These days she isn’t practicing veterinary medicine, but she shares her life and home with two horses (one arthritic and in need of constant care), an irritable pony, two dogs, three cats who had once been homeless, a lizard and an elderly snake. Clearly my friend didn’t miss the veterinarian target by all that much.

Someone else aspired to be a psychologist when he was younger, but ended up a locksmith. Not much connection, right? Ah, but you should hear this guy’s stories about how some clients open up about their personal problems (issues that have nothing to do with locks or safes, by the way). Customers who sense a good listener with a big heart--a one-time psychologist wanna-be.

Another guy thought he’d be a chef. He sort of is, but not in the way that he’d planned. By day, he’s an accountant. By night (and by weekends), a chef for his family and friends. And he doesn’t just serve up simple pasta throw-togethers or frozen meal heat-ups, either. Oh no. This guy whips up serious, homemade dinners. The stuff my family only dreams about.

Is it the writer in me, or is all of this kind of fascinating?

Oh, and in case you're wondering: I wanted to be a jockey. I grew out of that career choice, though-- literally. Still, I'll always love horses and riding. Don't be surprised to find a horse or two in my stories. *wink*

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fainting Goats

It’s an overcast, rainy Monday in my part of the world. Which somehow makes fainting goats even more hilarious than usual. Or, maybe I’ve downed too many cold pills (as in enough to medicate the free world).

Anyway, here’s a clip that I find hilarious. To kick off your week. Oh, and a big “thank you” to my wacky nephews who enlightened me to the wonder of fainting goats. Enjoy!

P.S. Is it me, or should fainting goats be incorporated into a story somehow?

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I’m willing to bet that most writers will tell you that writing and the pursuit of having a book or books published can sometimes be grueling. Blood, sweat, tears. . . the works. A friend of mine, for example, has been working very hard for double digit years honing her writing and storytelling skills, striving for publishing success—her dream. She’s been discouraged, she’s been beaten down, she’s been sucked under by doubts thicker than the worst kind of quicksand. Yesterday, though, she called me to share awesome news. A renowned and very famous, award-winning author came upon one of my friend’s manuscripts in a critique situation. The author deemed this manuscript to be stellar. Not only did the author praise my friend’s writing, plotting, and character development to a large audience, but the author offered to hand-deliver my friend’s manuscript to the author’s very own editor!

I can’t get this story out of my head. Not only am I beyond thrilled for this writer-friend who has never given up in the pursuit of her dream, a person who truly deserves this encouragement and praise, but because the author’s kindness and generosity blow me away.

This story reminds me of wonderful words from Confucius:

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Cheers to perseverance!

Monday, January 18, 2010


In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day, a couple inspiring, thought provoking quotes. Enjoy.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

I know, I know—only a week ago I wrote about a fabulous novel, The Help. But apparently the gods of great books are smiling on me in these early days of 2010, because I picked up another wonderful novel--The Adoration of Jenna Fox. I have to share.

In The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson, seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox has just awakened from a coma caused by a horrific accident. She remembers almost nothing. As part of her recovery, Jenna watches home movies of herself through the different stages of her childhood. Snippets of what her life had been slowly return to her. With these recollections, come more questions. Unfortunately, the answers are hard to face, but Jenna must tackle them as she discovers and comes to terms with who she was and who (what?) she is now. What all of this means and could mean makes for compelling reading.

I found this novel to be a thought provoking story about choices and consequences. Even after putting the book down, questions about what makes someone human and the nature of the soul lingered with me. As did questions about how far a person or persons should go to save something as deeply loved as a child.

I love a novel that makes me ponder long after I’ve put it down.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Opinions: They come in all shapes and sizes, right? Book reviews are really someone’s opinions, no matter how thrilling or frustrating. Or confusing. Have you ever read a review of a book that you have adored only to wonder if you and the reviewer read the same novel?

Happily, Buck Fever has received lovely reviews. Except for this: “…its rural Pennsylvania hunting-community milieu sets it apart—just don’t expect kids who hunt to want to read it, because it’s not for them.” What? Okay, I won’t lie: I obsessed over this line. It’s true that Buck Fever is not about hunting, really. Still, the reviewer’s point escaped me. Eventually I let this go, but not before family members threatened to disown me.

Why am I writing about this? Because recently I have received a few letters from young readers who have read Buck Fever. Kids who, yes, hunt. One thirteen-year-old in particular wrote: “It’s good to see some books written about hunting.” Another reader thought that Buck Fever should be the start of a series of books, each having something to do with hunting. Be still my heart.

What does this prove? That, yes, opinions come in all shapes and sizes. They can be entertaining, educating, sometimes confusing, but almost always interesting.

Maybe I should remember this.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Research and Bull Riding

Today's topic: Bull riding. Yes, bull riding. This
past weekend, hubby and I went into Madison Square Garden, NY, for the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Invitational. What a blast!

Now, if you know anything about me, you know that I am ever concerned about the treatment and care of our furry friends. I don’t blink watching a quarterback get slammed to the turf by a linebacker during a football game, but before heading into Madison Square Garden, I wanted to be sure the 2,000-pound bucking bulls were not being treated badly. What can I say? So, I put on my writer’s research hat and looked into the matter.

Did you know that these bovines are star athletes and that only the most belligerent and skilled of them make it to the PBR level of bull riding? Sure, each rider earns 50 of the possible 100 points given in a ride, but the bull's performance determines the other 50 points. Bulls with speed and power, bulls that drop their front ends, kick up their hind quarters, spin, change direction, and body roll (when a bull in mid-air kicks either his hind feet or all four feet to the side), score the most points. Riders want to be on these bulls because they give the best performances, are the greatest athletes that provide the biggest challenges. And these animals looked to be as well taken care of as any top athlete. More times than not, they were the winners in the ring.

You might ask: What makes a bull buck? According to what I was able to dig up, genetics is key in determining a bull’s desire and ability to kick up his hooves. In other words, he is born with attitude. This reminds me of a horse I used to ride. If in the wrong kind of mood, he’d do his best to buck someone off of his back. And he threw me more than once.

But what about that strap tied around the hips of each bull? Apparently, one of the most common misconceptions about bull riding is that this rope is connected to the animal’s private parts. In truth, this soft rope is tied between each animal's ribs and hips to enhance kicking. And the rope is loose. The ornery bull has usually flung the thing by the time he exits the ring, usually with a victorious swagger, I might add.

I guess it’s not surprising, then, that the bulls have as many fans as the riders. Some of these fans even wear belt buckles honoring bulls such as Code Blue, Bones, Big Tex, and Voodoo Child. Go bulls.

So, after a bit of research, I no longer worry about these burly animals. I worry about the guys climbing onboard.

Sometimes research really can be interesting and fun.

Friday, January 8, 2010

An Interview: Maryann Macdonald

Today I am happy to be sharing an interview with the talented and wonderful Maryann Macdonald, author of The Costume Copycat, Hedgehog Bakes a Cake, and Rabbit’s Birthday Kite, just to name a few. Little Piano Girl, released only a few weeks ago, is Maryann’s latest picture book.

Congratulations on Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend. What inspired you to write this book? Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing with another author?

Little Piano Girl was a new writing experience for me in a couple of ways. First, it was my debut in non-fiction. Second, it was my first published collaboration. The two events came about in the following way: my sister, Ann Ingalls, kept telling me about this wonderful jazz pianist she had discovered who lived in Kanas City for a time, where Ann lives. “She had an amazing life!” Ann said. Ann is a great nag, so finally, I did read Mary Lou Williams’ biography, Morning Glory, and I was hooked! After that, I read everything I could find about Mary Lou, visited places where she had lived and played, talked to people who knew her, pored over photos of her and visited the Rutgers University archive where her papers are kept. I was inspired by Mary Lou’s courage, and her refusal to allow racial and sexual barriers to limit her career. After I had absorbed as much as I could about Mary Lou’s life, I was ready to write. I talked it over with Ann and we decided to write the book together.

I think Ann wrote the first draft, telling Mary Lou’s entire life story. I thought we had too much info, so cut it back to tell the story of Mary’s remarkable childhood only: she was a prodigy who began playing piano at 4 and played professionally by the age of eight! Ann and I traded drafts for a long time, working to make our prose sharper and more vivid, to reflect Mary’s music with rhythm and rhyme in our prose, and to find exactly the right (but few!) words to tell Mary’s story. Next came the hard part: selling the book. We found an agent who sent it to Houghton Mifflin, but the editor she addressed the manuscript to had left the company, so the book ended up in the slush pile, where Erica Zappy found it. Lucky for us!

Erica went over it with a fine tooth comb and Ann and I discussed her comments over the phone, making adjustments. Erica also shared illustrator Giselle Potter’s sketches with us as they became available, which we really appreciated. Together, we all worked to make the book the best it could be.

You have written more than 23 children’s books, which is impressive and amazing, Maryann. How do you keep finding fresh and wonderful story ideas?

I have to write about subjects that really capture my imagination. Otherwise, the stories fall flat. This happens in different ways. When I began writing, my children were small and I was seeing the world through their eyes. In my book, Hedgehog Bakes a Cake, a woodland character decides to bake a cake, but is hindered by the “help” of his none-too-careful friends who make a huge mess. That incident and the humor inherent in it came directly from an experience I had baking a cake with my youngest daughter and her friend. I find everyone identifies with Hedgehog’s predicament in that book.

Another habit of mine is to keep a file of ideas that interest me. Occasionally I’ll find that an idea crops up again and again…then I know it’s time to take a deeper look at it. Once, while listening to a lecture, a title popped into my mind: Fatso Jean, The Ice Cream Queen. I knew nothing about Jean, but I did know what it was like to be fat, and I had sold Good Humor ice cream off a truck when I was in college, so I used those experiences when I sat down and wrote the first page of that book. It became a middle grade novel.

An editor once asked me, “Do you specialize in emotional trauma?” She was joking, but I took her point. A plot can’t exist without a problem, and my characters’ problems often stem from emotional pain: shame, envy, fear, etc.

What advice would you give other people interested in writing books for children?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. You will want to do this anyway if you are a writer. Build contacts with others who share your interest in children’s books and talk to them. Try to develop a thick skin when sharing work with others. Listen to their criticism and try to see how it can be useful to you. Be persistent. My first book was rejected 15 times, but stayed in print for 15 years. If you believe in your story, never give up on it.

How do you promote your work?

By sheer luck, the publication of Little Piano Girl coincides with the centennial of the birth of Mary Lou Williams. Concerts are being held at the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian. Ann and I have made connections at all of these places and are working to introduce our book elsewhere, too. Ann will give a talk at the Kansas City Jazz Museum in February, and has organized a book party at Reading Reptile, a well-known children’s bookstore in Kansas City. I met a TV producer at a party here in NY, and told her about the book. She has suggested an interview, so I’m following up on that, even though I’m feeling nervous about it. I tell myself it’s not about me; it’s about The Little Piano Girl…and about the fact that I want her inspiring story to reach as many children as possible!

What is in the future for you, Maryann? Can you share anything about what you are working on?

I have two more picture books coming out with Marshall Cavendish: How to Hug and The Pink Party. I am really enjoying working with my editor there on these as she’s such a good listener and includes me in the process of reviewing sketches for the books as we move along. I have also just finished my first YA novel, Scavenger, which tells the story of a seventeen-year-old secondhand fashionista who goes to Paris for the summer to study French and finds herself visiting the past in the old clothes she finds there. I had a lot of fun writing that, but I’m not sure yet whether I pulled it off. Still, I’m ever hopeful.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Help

A good friend recommended that I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. As I usually do when someone tells me about a new must read, I explained that I would consider the novel after I worked my way through the pile of YA and middle grade books waiting for me. This time, though, Sue insisted that I check out The Help. Since she is one of those treasured friends who shares my taste in reading, I listened. Wow, am I glad that I did. I loved The Help. Enough to blog about it in the hope of sharing the joy.

The Help is set in 1962. In Mississippi. The story is told in the unique and alternating voices of three women: Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter, a recent college grad; Wise Aibleen, a black maid raising her seventeenth white child; and Minny, Aibileen's sassy and mouthy best friend who also happens to be a black maid. Each of these characters is appealing and likeable, complicated and tragic. The kind of characters that hang out with you long after you close the book cover on them.

Skeeter’s mother is make-you-cringe critical. And determined to marry off tall Skeeter with the out of control hair. So, it’s not even a little surprising that Skeeter misses the friendship and support and love of her beloved maid Constantine, the black woman who raised her. But Constantine has mysteriously disappeared. Those in the know won’t say why or where she has gone, at least in the beginning of the novel.

Aibileen is appealing, at least to me, because something has shifted inside her since the tragic loss of her only son, who died as a result of questionable circumstances. Despite the racial injustices she has spent her life living with, feeling them down to her bones, she is devoted to the little white girl that she looks after. Yet Aibileen knows that her heart is destined to be broken when the little girl grows old enough to acknowledge the difference in their skin colors. Talk about compelling.

Minny is total entertainment with her spunk and sass. I adored Minny because she knows very well that her acid and vinegar get her into serious trouble, yet she can’t help herself. And under all of that attitude beats a big heart. Despite herself, she feels compassion and sympathy for the dippy woman that she works for. This relationship becomes a story within the story. And it’s great.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just tell you that these women come together for a clandestine project that puts them at incredible risk. However, it also defines them as well as the biases, politics, and race relations of their times.

This is a novel about the lines that are made by some and crossed by others for the greater good of humanity. The story moved me, made me laugh and brought a tear to my eye more than once. It is a story about courage and hope. I am really grateful that I read it just as 2009 came to a close. And now it sits on my favorites shelf, waiting to be revisited.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Welcome 2010

Hello 2010. Who are you and what will you bring? How will you begin and how will you end? What events will mark you, cause the world to remember you with either a smile or a tear? Of course you will have your share of surprises. And you will be predictable in many ways, too.

Welcome 2010. And what better way to begin our time together than with some wonderful quotes and sayings? Here are some of my favorites:

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man." - Benjamin Franklin

"For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning." - T.S. Eliot "Little Gidding"

We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day. ~Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Welcome 2010.