Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The World's Most Beautiful Libraries

Look what I found linked to Barbara O'Connor's blog:

Not only the most beautiful libraries, including the amazing Trinity Library in Dublin, if you scroll to the bottom of the page, you can see some pretty awesome churches, too.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Florida, Pt. 2

OK, I can't resist. These are just 2 of the many photos taken while family visited us, off and on, for a Florida Christmas. Taken at the light show at the Botanical Garden...

(That's it for the holidays. Now back to reading and writing. I'm finished with the cooking and eating.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas to all!

The Night Before Christmas...
My grandmother claimed I could recite this when I was two. I kind of doubt that. But she was a great storyteller, everything from bedtime fairytales to the latest gossip from the church ladies, so I'm sure she embellished.

Click here for a most unusal telling of the Santa story. Thanks, Jack, only a true Dylan fan could unearth this one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Florida

Is strange. Strange in a good way. 68 degrees and sunny strange. Sunsets. A walk on the beach to check out the sandcastle building contest (see below for what the professionals did). Old friends, lots of family. Singing Frosty the Snowman along with the radio - and a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old.

I'm convinced they think Frosty is that inflatable thing in our neighbor's front yard.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What I'm Reading Now

1. Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. Nice to read a first novel by a fellow Floridian, Danette Haworth. Violet's got a voice that's appealing and true. Great cover on this book, strong characters, and set in a sleepy little town in Florida.

2. What I Saw and How I Lied. I'm reviewing this one for the Christian Science Monitor, and my first reading didn't impress me that much. But, hey, the book won the National Book Award. I gave it a second read. And now a third as I write the review. I think this book grew on me and even the peachy-keen slang became an inseparable part of the appeal. Plus, I don't know a teen reader who will resist the cover.

3. Truth and Beauty. When I got the exciting news that I will be a part of Ann Hood's nonfiction workshop next month at Eckert College, I immediately went to the library and looked for the "suggested" reading list books. But I found Truth and Beauty on my own bookshelf. Ann Patchett is a favorite writer of mine. I think Bel Canto might be my top recent fiction book. The writing here is topnotch, but the subject matter is tough. I'll never be able to write like Patchett, but I'm hoping I'll learn a few tricks at the Writers in Paradise conference in January.

4. The Blues Route by Hugh Merrill. My so-far-pretty-vague-but-will-be-better-by-Wednesday (when it's due) topic for Writers in Paradise is The Blues and The Delta. I have a whole stack of books, and this is just one of the more helpful ones.

Now, back to work.

Friday, December 12, 2008

In Our Jammies, Whimsical Scribbling

"SHATTERING PRECONCEPTIONS...Contrary to popular belief, Writers & Illustrators do NOT sit around in their jammies all day!" Lisa Michaels, illustrator

Thanks, Lisa, for lending me your picture of Bunny Writer. But today in frigid New Jersey, slippers and warm jammies are just what you need for writing inspiration. OK, maybe not all day, sitting around. But those bunny slippers are first on my list for all I want for Christmas!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More books! All We Want for Christmas

It's good to read the best. And maybe just to read what the best are reading. So, click here for Stephen King's "Top Ten"- a list of books he's liked this year.

The Blog #2

You can now click over to A Good Blog is Hard to Find, and if you're clever and can figure out how to scroll down to part 2 on Dec. 9, you'll see my posting about Southern words and Roy Blount and lightning and a whole bunch of other stuff. Somebody posted on the same day that I did, a mistake no doubt but I'll forgive her, so you'll get to read two on the same day. And while you're at it, scroll down to that funny one on Nov. 24th. There's a lot to read on that blog of Southern writers.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Holiday Mail for Heroes

Just a few more days left to send a card to someone in the military. Read all about it on the Red Cross's website.

Here's the address:
Holiday Mail for Heroes
PO Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791

Cards must be postmarked by Dec. 10. You can put a whole bunch of cards in one big envelope and send it along.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

All They Want for Christmas

What a novel (pun intended) idea! Check out what your favorite writer is giving and wants to receive for Christmas. Thanks to Marjorie Kehe's blog for this suggestion.

Thanksgiving Week Sky

Gazing up at the stars is easy here in Florida. And lately it's been fascinating to watch Jupiter, Venus and the moon line up in the southwest sky. My local paper tells me that the two planets and the moon will not be this close together again until 2052. A similar night sky was visible in 3 B.C. and is considered to be a possible explanation for the Christmas Star.

This is not where I am. Click for more pictures of the sky in Paris, where I'd like to be.
Nice, huh? Or should I say, mais oui?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Slow Blogging

I promised when I started this blog that it wouldn't be navel gazing. I promised myself and others. Who cares about whether I got a good haircut on Tuesday or not. I'm truly trying to write about books and writing. Mostly.

So I was intrigued when I read in the newspaper last week about Slow Blogging. I clicked on over to the blog mentioned (click here to read it). I'll be checking that one out. Even though I guess I'm not officially a slow blogger. They write long, evocative posts about things other than haircuts and how hard it is to think of interesting things to write about.

But my real find this morning, as I blog while little ones sleep with visions of "Chicken Fries" dancing in their heads (but they'll get turkey and dressing nonetheless!), was an emailed link to a funny funny blog by a fellow librarian. This one will definitely be on my to-read list. In fact, I just added it to the Blogs I Follow. Click here if you want to have a great laugh.

This librarian-blogger is writing about writing porn. See, I thought that would get your attention.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sports Writing

OK, so I don't usually spend a lot of time in the sports section but the picture of Dean Smith caught my eye. Hey, it's basketball season, right? And almost every single UNC game is being broadcast this season, so I can already see where a lot of my TV time is heading. But back to the sports section. Today's story about the Joe Lapchick Character Awards started with a great quote, something my grandmother would have said to us children. A little like her favorite: "Pretty is as pretty does." Or maybe, even more to the point: "Don't get too big for your britches."

But this is one from Coach Lapchick, as told to his friend Lou Carnesecca:
Peacock today. Feather duster tomorrow.

I'm writing that one down.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

National Book Award

Hot off the press! Just announced today- Click here for a list of the National Book Award winners and runners-up.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Save It for the Page

I do love the stuff my critique group comes up with. This one's from my friend Teddie, who writes features for my most excellent hometown newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times.

I think we were talking about the moon. Or the trees. Or the Gulf of Mexico. How some people can creatively speak about the natural world, at length. Then there are those who look, mentally record, possibly, hopefully remember to get it right. Pray that we succeed in what Eudora Welty advises- that as writers we take care and get the moon in the right part of the sky. And the tulips blooming in the right month.

So, writers are always looking and paying attention. And from now on, I'm trying Teddie's advice: "Save it for the page." Keep those tidbits close to the chest. Write them in our notebooks. Pull them out when we need them on the page. Get the moon and the flowers right, but no need to babble on.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

More on Words

Yes, I know, I already wrote about how I love words. But now I'm in good company. What a great review of Roy Blount Jr's new book ALPHABET JUICE in today's New York Times Book Review. Can't wait to read this one. As Jack Shafer cleverly writes in his review, "Blount hangs out in dictionaries the way other writers hang out in bars."

As a huge fan of Blount's, I suspect it will be fun to "pub crawl" through the OED and Webster's Third with him.

Friday, November 14, 2008

From the Horn Book editor

You can't get any more knowledgeable in the field of children's literature than Roger Sutton. This is from an article about choosing books for kids in the November/ December issue of Horn Book. Here's Mr. Sutton on helping good readers become passionate about books. And a word or two about parenting while he's at it:

Parents of an early expert reader — heck, parents of any kind of a reader, from reluctant to ambitious — are confronted with two sometimes-conflicting sets of expectations: what they want for their child and what their child wants for him- or herself. I would suggest that, ultimately, satisfaction will be found for the former by assiduous attention to the latter. Just because your child can read at a fifth-grade level doesn’t mean he needs to at all times. (Think about your own reading: just because you can read Henry James doesn’t mean you must, does it?) At the same time, of course, just because your child is seven doesn’t mean she can’t take a crack — if she wants to — at Harry Potter, either. Given access to a wide variety of reading — both print and pixeled texts — and given the proper tools and encouragement to wade through it and choose, children turn themselves into the readers their parents want them to be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Unreliable Blogger...

Which I guess is something like the Unreliable Narrator, since this blog is supposed to be mostly about reading and writing. But click on over to the #4 Most Emailed article in today's New York Times to see the latest blogging hoax. Oh, wait, it's moved up to #2 in the time it took me to write this entry!

When I was a librarian, the second graders in my classes knew Africa was a continent, so I was a bit doubtful when that news originally circulated. Then again, I'm pretty gullible when it comes to believing what you see in print!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book Bags!

Hey, out there, all you librarians and book types. This is too good to resist. Click here to learn exactly how to make these babies! Well, some of you might be able to make them. I'm not that handy with glue and floor polish. But I bet my friend Leslie could make about a million of them in no time flat.

I'm kind of partial to book-related decorations. I actually own a beautiful Book Jacket "wrap" (as my grandmother would call it) given to me by my sister, also a librarian. And once I actually made book earrings as part of a Library Week workshop. For now, I'll just admire this picture of penwiper337's Book Purse.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Words Each Day

I've been a big fan of Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day emails for a long time. Sometimes I delete but frequently I put them in a special folder to savor later. Today I read it and remembered.
When I was in high school (click here for a link to the school's Centennial. All the other links to the school bear no resemblance to my memories), I studied Latin with an amazing teacher, Mrs. Garrett. We chanted our Latin declensions. (Amo! Amas! Amat!) That I can remember this and can't remember a friend's phone number puzzles me. 

So when today's Wordsmith word was CIRCA it brought back a lot of memories. Mrs. Garrett taught us to recognize and decipher many English words by considering their Latin roots. Something that's served me well. And circa is just one of those fun words to say. Covers a lot of ground. Makes up for incomplete knowledge.

Earlier in the week, the word of the day was MAUGRE/ Mauger. Despite its supposed Latin roots, I had no clue to its meaning. You really do learn something new every day. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Every Soul a Star

Is that a great book cover or what?!

I've been a fan of Wendy Mass's books for a while and I recently, really loved Jeremy Fink.
She writes the kind of books kids actually read, more than once, ask for by name, recommend to their friends. So I couldn't wait to get her latest, Every Soul A Star. How she comes up with these absolutely fascinating topics to write about amazes me. Synesthesia? The Meaning of Life (now that's no topic for slouches)? In her new book, a solar eclipse is about to take place and I think I learned as much about the sky reading Every Soul a Star as I remember from my college astronomy course (but that's another story...)

Click here to read my review in today's Christian Science Monitor.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I voted!

What a great country we live in! And not just for the free Krispy Kreme, Ben and Jerry's or Starbucks I could get for showing up with my "I voted" sticker on. The lines were short, actually non-existent, and everyone was glad to see me, polite and helpful. I'm wondering how everyone else feels about their voting experience today? Any comments?

After voting, I meandered a short block from the church polling place to the beach and walked for a bit. Even though the day is slightly gray and overcast here on the west coast of Florida, it was delightful. Gulls calling out, waves lapping. All the good stuff.

I followed a couple arguing over his "wasted vote."

She: Your daughter wants to know why you voted for Ralph Nader.
He: He's the best candidate! He's the one to save America! (etc etc etc)
She: She doesn't care what you think about Nader. She just wants to know why you wasted your vote.

It went on for a while like that. Only funnier. 
I should have taken notes. I could work that couple into a scene somewhere. He with his bermuda shorts, sneakers and black socks. She in lime green pants suit/ jogging suit. Me wishing for my notebook.
Now off to Starbucks. Maybe I'll even take that notebook.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Writing about Voting?

If you need inspiration for your writing on any given Monday morning, head on over to Jo Knowles' blog (click here for the link). Today she asks writers to describe  what it's like to vote, wherever they are. So far, the reports from my county say people are waiting in line for 3 hours... 
But tomorrow's the real day so I'm hoping when I show up at my little polling place, all will be well.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween in Florida

Back to St. Petersburg where trick or treating involves grownups sitting on lawn chairs greeting the little ghouls and gremlins with big bowls of candy on tables. And neat decorations. Like my favorite southern tree, the live oak, seen here spruced up for Halloween.

And very inventive palm trees with eyeballs...     

I got to go trick or treating with two cute kids, Tinkerbell and Minnie Mouse. It's nice to be back. Now back to reading and writing.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Poem for Halloween

OK, maybe I'm missing the fun of being a teacher on Halloween. At the school(s) where I worked, we always dressed in costume. One year we wore old bridesmaids dresses and paraded around on stage. Even the one male teacher dressed for the occasion, I think in a tuxedo. Then there was the year we all masqueraded as fairy tale characters.  Costumes are not my thing but I loved seeing what everyone showed up in.  I do know how to sew and attempted a few witch capes and a devil suit once, but that wasn't why I loved Halloween. I loved the great kids' books about Halloween. If I were reading to kids on this Halloween, I'd give Michael Rex's new book GOODNIGHT GOON a try.

Or maybe this poem, perfect for today. Read the rest at the Poetry for Children blog.

by Jane Yolen

We should have known when we tasted the eaves,
Breaking them off like toffee
And cramming them into our mouths.
And the dear little windows, the color of coffee,
And chocolate doorknobs,
And windowpanes striped with mint...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Trip Food

Writers need to pay attention to detail, right? So, after listening to the same songs on the radio and admiring the fall color, what do you do when driving through NC, SC and GA for almost 10 hours straight? 

I took notes on what food groups were available at the Stuckeys and other food marts at the grocery stores along the way.

Here's what I didn't eat- but was tempted.

Little bags of peanuts to put in my coke (something my mother did, fond memories)
Pork Rinds (never liked them, still don't)
Vienna Sausages (ditto)
Beanee Weanees (double ditto)

Here's what I did eat:
Diet Dr. Pepper
GA Pig barbeque (a great place in Brunswick, GA where you can sit outside and enjoy a pulled pork sandwich with slaw and beans- yum!)

Monday, October 27, 2008

New Jersey in my Rear View Mirror

Lots of "lasts" this week. Last lunch of this season with Critique Group at the Summit Diner. Lee says best hamburgers in town, and I have to agree. Last dinner for a while, at a favorite Italian place. Was it serendipity that the special salad was FIG and mango?

So, here's what we really saw driving out of town:

(just so happens that Coviello's is where I discovered the nice gardener with 37 fig trees in his back yard, but that's another story).

Sunny, bright day as we hit the road for day 1 - a 10-hour drive towards St. Petersburg.
A little known fact: Jersey Girls Don't Pump Gas (it's actually against the law in NJ for anybody to pump their own gas). So here we are on the NJ Turnpike, getting gas pumped for the last time in a while.

Drove through lots of beautiful leaves! I do love fall leaves (as previously mentioned in another fall blog). I took a ton of pictures, mostly from inside the car speeding along I-95, so Leslie shared her fabulous picture of Mt. Lake, NJ. But that's exactly what we saw on our drive. Red, orange, yellow in so many hues it took my breath away. I was trying to get my fill as I know what's in my future: palm trees!

Next stop: St. Petersburg, FL...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Skirt Under the Covers

OK. Don't let that title alarm you.
I'm just sharing that some of the Skirt! Magazine book groups I edit are now available online. Click here and here to read a couple. My friend Barbara, who has not only written about her couples group for the magazine but has led me to her cousin Beth's group, her mother-in-law Peg's group and niece Anne's group, found the links.

I'm always looking for new book clubs to feature in my Under the Covers column. Skirt's a lot of fun to read and write for, so send them my way! Contributors receive a small check and your name in print.

It was only after writing this post that I discovered how timely it is. Who knew- October is National Reading Group Month. Whew. Almost missed that one. Happy Reading to all!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Names, again, 2008 trends

For obvious reasons, names fascinate me. (I've been asked more than once if my own name is a pseudonym...) You never know when you'll need a character named Narcissus or Rivers or Big Timmy or Lil'bit, so I keep those names handy. And I also collect place names. Can't wait to use Swallowwater, TX as a setting!

One thing my sage writer friend Leslie taught me was to match the name with the "person." And not just personality-wise. Think about when the character lived, and where.

So I'm always intrigued to read what the latest trends in naming babies might be. Click here to read all about it-- Baby Naming for the current year. Short names like Ty and Dax are in because they are easy for texters and e-mailers to type? An interesting theory.
Another trend-- naming babies after presidents. And I thought I was being unique when I named two kids in a story after a president and a president's wife. Though it did seem like Mamie was the perfect name for that little girl in my story.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Good Blog is Hard to Find

I'm delighted to be a new member of this blog of Southern writers. Thanks to my friend Kerry Madden, a regular blogger there, my first entry has been posted. Click here to check it out.
Hint: I wrote about one of my favorite topics- FIGS.

Later addendum to this post:
Although you may enjoy reading all the writers' posts, if you are looking for my Fig Essay on this southern writers' blog (the click here link, above), you must scroll down to October 17th to view that essay.

The Splitters

Outside the window of the second-floor bedroom I call my office, the yellow leaves of the huge ash tree have pretty much fallen. Last week I could hardly see the across-the-court condo neighbors for the blaze of color. This morning it was like kicking through a new snowfall to reach the newspapers at the end of the driveway. There are still orange and yellow maples blazing in the distance and plenty of purplish red colors for leaf peeping, but one good rainfall will bring them all down.

I love driving on these last warm fall days, seeing the colors off in the distance. Walking's not bad either, as long as the leaves are dry and crunchy. I think it was Anna Quindlen, though I'm not sure why I think that, who wrote that we love most the season we were born in. I love "my" summer a lot, but I'm beginning to love fall even more.

What I don't like is winter. So when my husband retired, we bought a little house in Florida and became what our friend Peter (who knows more about Florida, home ownership, moving around, living in two places than anybody) calls Splitters. I couldn't see myself in Florida year around so we split our time between Florida and New Jersey. We bounce back and forth on occasion, thus the Splitter thing. So far, so good.

And now the leaves are falling, which means time to pack up my writing notes, say goodbye to my fellow New Jersey writers and friends and our quick trips into the city, and head South. It hit me this morning as I was reading the paper. Even though my husband didn't stay retired long, we did attempt it. Maybe the suggestions in Key to a New Retired Life: Get Involved might have been a better way to look at that leisure time!

Mostly what I need to travel back and forth is a decent laptop and a good library in both places we live. I don't like hauling things from one house to another. Looks like I'm on the right track. Another article in my morning paper tells me not to fret over dragging clothes from one place to another. I've mostly always traveled light, hoping to find what I forget at my destination. My sister can attest to that, even though now I've grown up and no longer swipe her favorite nightgown when I touch down in her space. (Though I always appreciated her loaners. Thanks, Sis!)

So I guess it's time to pack up the writing notes and my favorite sneakers and head South. Check out what's new at the library, check in with my Florida writing buddies. If the leaves are down, winter isn't far behind.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Book Shopping

I do love traveling to book stores. Brand new ones, hopeful and shiny. Even old ones filled with ancient books and lots of dust. Mostly not the mega-stores, though I'm not above popping my head and my pocketbook into one as nice as the just opened Barnes and Noble near me--I was there yesterday to check it out.
But on my recent trek through the Mississippi Delta, we stopped in at TurnRow Books in Greenwood. And I wanted to stay awhile. A long while. First of all, look at the building:

Yes, that's a bookstore. I promise. Isn't it gorgeous?

I asked for a book recommendation and the owner mentioned an about-to-be-published novel by Ron Rash, SERENA, which is just out and getting great reviews. There are a lot of reasons to hang out with bookstore people.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading Poetry

Here's my weekly/ daily/ whenever-I-can-manage-it poetry fix. Even prose writers can learn a lot from poetry.
My friend Ann reported in on this year's Dodge Poetry Festival. Click that link to see what you, and I, missed. Billy Collins calls it the "mother of all poetry readings." Some call it Wordstock. In the past, our Critique Group has gone together. This year Ann went without us. Our loss.

Ann told us about Ted Kooser's reading, which reminded me that I have a book of his, given to me by a poetry-loving friend. So I'm thumbing through the book and remembered why she thought I'd like it (one of the many reasons). I once mentioned Praying Hands in something I wrote. The daughter of a preacher compares her hands to her daddy's statue of hands, and right there on p. 57 is this. I'll give you a few lines to tempt you to read more of Ted Kooser's poetry:

Praying Hands

There is at least one pair
in every thrift shop in America,
molded in plastic or plaster of paris
and glued to a plaque,
or printed in church-pamphlet colors...

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Good Blog is Hard to Find

Every time I happen upon this, usually via a link on another blog, I'm delighted to be there. Here's a great essay about critique groups, by one of my favorite writers of kids' books, Kimberly Willis Holt. It's funny and smart and you must read it. Right now. Click on over there! There's even a picture of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Together. I bet that got you!

Popeye's Biscuits

Tonight I'll cook a funny dish I haven't made in a while. The "secret recipe" supposedly duplicates Popeye's Biscuits, using 7-up or Sprite and Bisquick. My friend LePoint once made it for my mother and me as the shortcake for Strawberry Shortcake. I just found the recipe on a yellowed 3x5 card in my file. Perfect for an evening still warm enough to grill outside one last time before we clear the decks, and summer ends.

And I'm reminded of a favorite quote from Eudora Welty's EYE OF THE STORY.
To make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The She-Goat

In the enthusiastic years of my early career, I worked as a librarian in one of the finest school library systems in the country, Fulton County GA. I worked at the Harris Street Elementary School with an amazing group of teachers, who were facing a lot of challenges. It was the 60s, what can I tell you.

A wonderful replica of Picasso's "She Goat" sat on a round table in the middle of the library. The students loved that statue. They loved to touch her. They loved to make up stories about her. Most had never heard of Picasso but they wanted to know more. So yesterday when I saw the real one at the Museum of Modern Art, surrounded by other intriguing, fascinating sculptures from the museum's collection, it was a thrilling moment and a memory to cherish. I looked around at my fellow museum-goers. Who knows. maybe some of those kids who admired the replica might just travel to New York to see the real thing.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bats at the Library

Today I stopped by the town library and slipped into the back work room to say hello to Diane, Debbie and Kathy, my former co-workers. They were huddled around a picture book, laughing and pointing and generally marvelling at the illustrations.

"Look, the baby bats are wearing swimmies!" "What book character do you think that is?" The questions were flying. I elbowed my way in and peered over a shoulder. Wow! Now this is one fantastic book.
I'd given Brian Lies's previous book BATS AT THE BEACH to my beach-dwelling family members, but I may have to buy this one for myself (click those links for some great pictures). All I can say is that this book has to be in contention for a Caldecott Medal. The illustrations are perfect, the story a masterpiece.
The library in the story was based on a place he loved as a child and it shows. As librarians, we noted every detail. Yes! The water fountain! Bats pretend it's a swimming pool, but at our library, the children loved to splash the water out, push for a spot, generally making messes--just like the baby bats. And the fabulous library table legs! Not to mention the beautiful windows which, at the end, let in enough light to send the bats scampering toward home. BATS AT THE LIBARY- what a great book.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Viewing the sunset from the porch...

How can you not write with this as backdrop? One of my favorite places in the world- Rapidan, VA. Thanks, Courtenay.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sometimes you can judge a Book by its Cover..

I love book cover art. Love to think about how it draws kids to books. What it says about the story, before I even turn the first page. When I was a children's librarian, I often got requests for "that book with the ferris wheel on the cover. You know, the blue one." (Ann Martin's A Corner of the Universe). Or "that dog book, I think the cover's yellow and the dog is squiggly." (Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, a personal favorite of mine.)

So this quote from an article in Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf about a reunion of employees of Eeyore's, the late great children's bookstore in New York, really makes sense to me.
Not to mention, I adored Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Brian Selznick, who used to paint the windows of the West Side Eeyore’s every month, brought along a portfolio of all of his amazing window creations. Brian said he thinks about those windows every time he does a book cover. “Book covers, like the windows, have to look good from far away, from close up, and have to make you want to open the door or the book, as the case may be.”

Banned Books

As a former card-carrying member of the ALA (that's American Library Association to those of you thinking it's a subversive secret organization), I should have noted that this is Banned Books Week. Check out the ALA site for a list of most frequently banned authors (Kevin Henkes? OK, we're not talking Lilly here. He does write for a more mature audience of maybe 12-year-olds...).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Buster Brown and Junk Poker

My first Ebay purchase...

When my sister and I were kids, we had these shoeboxes filled with "junk." Junk was skate keys, Cracker Jack prizes, probably even our baby teeth we'd lost and maybe the Tooth Fairy didn't need. We played poker and bet with our goodies. Hey, a harmless game of 21 is appropriate for 9-year-olds, right? And I'm sure our boxes were from Buster Brown shoes. So when I saw this on Ebay (thanks to Leslie), I couldn't resist.

The game and the shoebox are a big part of a story I've been working on for a while. The matches, on the right of the above photo, came with the box. Not part of my treasures as a 9-year-old. Honest. But the ones from Antoines and the Monteleone in New Orleans will be saved!

And that box is a treasure. Now back to wasting more time on Ebay.

Monday, September 29, 2008

NPR in the NYT

I'm a big fan of NPR. Even though they once bumped an interview with me, I've moved on. (Just wish I could find another use for that material that went from journeying to my sister's backyard to pick figs to searching for the perfect fig in my New Jersey neighborhood, with photographs...)

Today's papers are filled with financial news, of course. Here's an interesting article about This American Life, worth reading. Smart use of Craig's List resources, no?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Falls and Food

Falls, as in New York City waterfalls, dominated my weekend. Click here for some great pictures and more info.

OK, fall as in foliage too. As the first maple trees just begin to turn, we know beautiful color isn't far behind in the northeast, and we did see a few nice trees turning. But the 4 waterfalls installed in New York this summer struck my fancy and I mostly wanted to see them. Luckily I have accomodating family members who went along for the fun. Plus, we managed to squeeze in a pretty fabulous dinner at the River Cafe ( listed as prime territory for viewing). On the taxi from Manhattan we could see all 4 waterfalls and the one closest to the restaurant was spectacular lit up (see below for our own picture). Almost missed seeing the lighted falls because the waiter (who was otherwise very accomplished) claimed the lights stayed on until 10. They don't. Seeing them in lights was worth parading through the dining room at 8:50, sneaking outside before we'd finished my chocolate dessert shaped like the Brooklyn Bridge, with Happy Birthday written across it in script icing. Yum.

Also on the menu, a special scallop appetizer with sauteed "sunchokes." Sunchokes AKA Jerusalum Artichokes are one of my absolute all-time favorite foods. One of the best cooks I'll probably ever know, my sister's mother-in-law Christine Carlson, grew these babies in her garden, cleaned them (no easy feat) and turned them into pickles that made my trips to Mississippi worthwhile. Once I saw "sunchokes" (I think that's what they are called in New Jersey?) at my local King's Supermarket and thought about buying a few and attempting Christine's pickles. But the dirt, the peeling, the pickling was way too labor intensive and I put them aside. Wish I'd had the River Cafe's appetizer recipe back then because sliced and sauteed seems well within my culinary skills.

So, a little new fall color, a weekend filled with family and food, and the spectacular man-made out-of-plumbing-pipes-art waterfalls. Can't get much better than that!

Thanks for the great picture, Steve!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Writing History

OK, I'm not really writing history...what I mean is historical fiction--reading and writing. I love it and always have. In my 11th grade American History class we could score extra points with my teacher Mrs. Brown for books read. And historical fiction counted. Can you believe that?

The first really long book (1037 pages) I read was Gone With the Wind.

So I love the genre and think it's a great way to get kids excited about a time period. Who knows, maybe they'll even turn to a non-fiction book about the period. Stranger things have happened.

I just finished THE LACEMAKER AND THE PRINCESS, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Picked it up at the local library because the cover intrigued me and it was standing on the "new arrivals" shelf. Although not brand-new (2007 pub date), it was new to me. And I can't remember ever reading a kid's book set in Versailles, 1788. The French Revolution for young readers! Of course, it's really about a friendship between two young girls, one of whom just happens to be the Princess. Marie Antoinette figures in there and though she never actually says "Let them eat cake!" you do get the picture. A fast, well written book.

One children's literature text in my collection, by Donna Norton, says this about historical fiction: "It is not just dates, accomplishments and battles; it is people, famous and unknown." Of course.

Next up on my reading list? Brooklyn Bridge. Click here for an interview with Karen Hesse. Last night I got to page 6 and laughed out loud. "Uncle Meyer is a free thinker. He, Mama, Papa, they sit around the kitchen table. Yakita, yakita. The world twists its ankle in a pothold, Uncle Meyer calls a meeting." What a great voice.

How I love to relive the past, vicariously. Thanks, Mrs. Brown.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Friday Night Lights

I've spent a lot of time at Friday night high school football teams. My first love played in high school and college, and all my friends and I were in our school's Pep Squad. No naturally, the first book I dreamed up for kids features a pain-in-the-neck big sister who's in the Pep Squad and a hunky football player, all backstory of course. Write what you know, as long as it doesn't embarrass the family, right? OK, maybe those stupid Pep Squad uniforms were a little embarrassing. For those of you who have no clue, the Pep Squad marches around cheering and decorating players' lockers and front yards.

What, you never watched Friday Night Lights? Or, even better, read the book it was based on?

So guess what our family and friends did last Friday night? We gathered in front of ESPN-U's Game of the Week to watch the South Panola Tigers beat a Florida team with a long winning streak. And to listen to my gifted brother-in-law AKA The Voice of the Tigers call the game. To do that we had to tune the computer to and the TV to ESPN, but it worked. We got to hear George, whose day job is a Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice, explain the game with great enthusiasm. Just doesn't get much better. Go Tigers!

Here's the picture my niece Meredith shared with the family. Thanks, Mere.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


My sister and brother both just emailed this picture of the restaurant I recalled fondly in my Southern food blog entry. For more info, check out Tom Fitzmorris's website about restaurants in and nearby New Orleans.
I know, I know, nothing to do with writing. Unless you count observation of details, choosing your setting, writing about conflict, and all those other things we are supposed to pay attention to and remember. Because in that case, this picture says a lot.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Beautiful September Day

Today started out as one of those clear-skied cool almost fall mornings. My list of errands was long and straightforward. Bank, cleaners, library, friend's house-- that sort of thing. An early stop was the Chatham library.

When we moved to New Jersey, I spent my first five years minding the reference desk of that wonderful spot right in the middle of town. As I walked the brick commemorative path near the playground, I considered my New Jersey hometown. On this beautiful day, moms with babies paraded up sidewalks. A grandfather in a bright red cardigan followed his toddler down the slide. It was a great day to be walking, surrounded by happy people enjoying their friends and families.

I turned the corner and headed toward the steps, and I noticed a new park filled with yellow Black-eyed Susans and purple cosmos had sprung up outside the library's big side window. The park was surrounded by small American flags.

I've been away from Chatham for a while and didn't realize that the September 11th Memorial Park had already been built, landscaped and dedicated. Two beams from the World Trade Center 9 feet 11 inches apart rise up in the center of the garden. Names of the thirteen local citizens who perished that day are engraved on markers. Here's an article and pictures from our local paper.

What I remember about Chatham and September 11 was the day I came back to town. I had been stranded since before the attacks, visiting my friend Kay in Paris. Sounds glamourous and exciting but it was mostly frightening and sad. I finally was able to fly home, into Newark. I returned to Chatham the day our town held a candlelight vigil for the victims. As I drove into town that day, the sidewalks were filled with kids, grownups, dogs, babies in strollers-- all walking to the athletic field where the service was held. All walking so quietly with such profound sadness. But all going the same place, to do something together.

Today one man was at the Memorial sitting on the new wooden bench, watching the sun reflecting off the little fountain in the middle. In the distance, happy playground noises and busy street sounds surrounded us. I walked slowly around the circle, noting the names. Roses tied in a yellow ribbon rested on one of the markers. I remembered our family stories from that day, not something we'll ever forget. Nobody in our town or in the surrounding towns that sent parents and children off on the train that day or who waited at home with their TVs will ever forget.

But today the voices of children playing and parents laughing in beautiful late summer sunshine was a happy backdrop for Chatham's September 11 Memorial.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Eating Our Way Home

I've just returned from a journey home. Traveling the Mississippi Delta with my sister was like stepping back in time, to a time we actually never realized existed. Stay tuned for more on this topic, with pictures.

What I love about going back to Mississippi is eating the food of my childhood. Here are a few things we sampled, in no particular order, during my three-day visit:
Shrimp and grits, onion rings, cheese dip, crab dip, Diet Dr. Pepper and Nabs, brown butterbeans cooked in fatback, turnip greens cooked in fatback, cornbread muffins, cornbread sticks, fried okra, okra with tomotoes and onions, ice tea, redfish cooked in "Wooster" sauce, melba toast with butter, Mile High Coconut Pie, yellow squash cooked with onions (and fatback), Rendezvous Sausage Platter.
That's about all I can even bear to remember right now without jumping back on an airplane and going back for the Two Sisters fried chicken we missed in Jackson.

On the way back to New Jersey, I had lots of airplane time to read and was glad we'd picked up the latest Oxford American at Turnrow Books in Greenwood (more on that later also, maybe with pictures). One of my favorite things about returning to the South is sampling and remembering the food. And my absolute favorite food writer in the world is John T. Edge. If you've never read his books and essays, you're missing something almost as good as actually being there. I've reviewed his books including this one about DONUTS.

In the summer 2008 Oxford American, Mr. Edge writes about Middendorf's, a place our family never missed when we traveled from Mississippi to New Orleans: "...for three generations women have worked with cutlass-tipped knives, shaving fish into vellum filets that... emerge from the fry vats...tasting like the lovely and raspy offspring of a bag of Lays and a net of channel cats."
Now, you can't get much better than that. And I don't just mean the catfish he's just eaten.

The last time we stopped at Middendorf's it was too early in the morning to eat catfish but we were showing my Yankee offspring what it is I love about the South and did the tourist drive-by of this nearby market:

Yes, that's a sign advertising coon meat, which I have never knowingly eaten and don't intend to, and alligator meat which I suspect I have eaten, well disguised and not lately.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Strunk and White via Yardley

Wow. Great piece by Jonathan Yardley in today's Washington Post about writing, language and that famous little book, The Elements of Style. (NB, no comma needed after language...)
Strunk's opinion (and Yardley's) on word slumming, on misused and incorrect contemporary words and phrases. "If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the grounds of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. "

I could go on quoting forever, but you really need to read the article.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Art of the Essay

Having spent the week pondering non-fiction, I've now decided that a lot of what I need to know can be found in William Zinsser's book On Writing Well. The date I carefully wrote on the endpapers of my copy is December, 1982, which must be when this slim volume came into my collection. I wish I'd taken better note of the book's advice then.
But it took the encouragement of what I now think of as my Essay Writing critique group before I attempted a personal essay. Thankfully, I had some great writers guiding me through this genre. Just google fellow member Lee Stokes Hilton on the New York Times website and read any one of her essays. I'm partial to her Gumbo piece, gumbo being near to my heart. Plus I participated in her greens ribboning tutorial during one particularly important gumbo afternoon. Not only is Lee an accomplished writer, she's a terrific cook. We don't call her the Kitchen Goddess for nothing.

So now she and I are applyingfor the Writers in Paradise conference in January and, should we both be accepted, we have to come up with longer-than-our-usual essays to workshop. That's why I've pulled Zinsser off the shelf to reread. "Up to 25 pages" sounds intimidating even if the workshop topic is Life Into Words.

I stopped skimming the book and started absorbing every single thought when I came to Chapter 12: Writing About a Place because no matter what I write- fiction, non-fiction, email, letters and even this blog- PLACE is always there.

"People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built," says Zinsser.
For me, that reads characters and setting, family and home.
So now I'll get down to the details. Smells, concrete prose- statistics and names and signs, oddities and tackiness. I think I can do this.

Twenty-five pages still seems like a lot.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Quotes from my Vault...

"Per capita, the South doesn't produce all that many writers, any more than kangaroos amount to a great percentage of prizefighters. It's just that you can tell right away which prizefighters are kangaroos."-- Roy Blount, Jr.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Verla Kay and Company

Not too long ago, I sat with a group of writers and heard one say "I could never write from a male POV." Because I was writing from a young boy's viewpoint, I sat up and listened. I disagree with her statement. I think voices and characters just come to me and other writers, and we hope they ring true.

Tonight I happened upon an interesting and helpful discussion on the Verla Kay board. There's even a link to that really funny piece by Dave Barry about the difference between men and women. Click on over there if you need a good laugh. Click on over to Verla Kay's board if you need help with almost anything writing related!

But in the meantime, here's a helpful little tool posted on the board that I'd somehow missed out on: The Gender Genie. Just type in a bit of your novel or non-fiction piece and it miraculously guesses the gender of your character. In my WIP, my character plays the piano and lives with his uncle in a boarding house run by a former Rockette. But I must be doing something right. The Gender Genie figured it out, he's a boy!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Southerners Writing Books

I could get lost in children's authors' blogs. Especially those writers from the South who remind me of home. Last night I discovered the blog of Deborah Wiles. I'm a big fan of her books and heard her speak about her path to publication at a conference a year or so ago. I drooled over the blog's yummy food references- what's summer without cornbread and vegetables from the garden? Or at least reading about it...
And via Deborah Wiles, I got to "meet" another Southerner, Colleen Salley. I rushed right down to the library to find her picture books and the voice of my grandmother telling me stories jumped off the page of Epossumondas. "You don't have the sense you were born with," Possum's mama says about the truck possum drags home. (And I don't mean the 4-wheel drive kind!) I stopped by the bookstore and ordered the picture book and can't wait to read it to a child I know.

Speaking of reading aloud and books by Southerners- I think The Underneath might be a book kids will appreciate hearing out loud. Read my review in today's Christian Science Monitor. How's that for sneaking in a reference to myself? But really, it's all about Kathi Appelt's newest book, well worth reading.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Baby Animals

OK, not really talking about writing but a friend just sent these surprising and amazing pictures and I can't resist sharing. A whole alphabet of baby animals!

Friday, August 15, 2008


I might call this post Begin Again. I have a manuscript that I refuse to believe deserves to be tucked into a bottom drawer. Instead, I'm going to apply all I've learned since I put it away last year and begin again.

Some helpful advice I received most recently came from the SCBWI Western Maryland event I blogged about earlier. Compiled from my notes taken at editor Martha Mihalick's workshop "The Very Beginning: Hook a Reader (and an Editor)":

Beginnings should show something of what the book is about, something to connect to and make you want to read more. A good beginning should set everything up, create expectations. But a writer needs to hold back enough to make a reader keep turning. A good beginning is a doorway. Who, what, where -- set it up to make a reader want to open the door and walk through. It should embody the whole story without telling what the story is.

In a good beginning- make that a great beginning- we are being told a story no one else can tell. Here's where that all-important "voice" comes in. If the voice is very assured, we don't need to understand everything completely in the beginning. Begin with authority.

Has the writer begun in the right place? Obviously, we know not to start with backstory in kids' books. But know what makes your story interesting and make sure that's the exact starting point.

Ground the reader. Don't over explain, leave something to intrigue. Create expectations. Go beneath the surface. Be specific. Tell your story.

So, thanks Martha. I'm about to begin again at a more interesting place in my story. And I'll cross my fingers that I've found the doorway, that perfect point of connection.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic swimmers

I spent a lot of time at swimming meets. Not swimming, watching. My husband and my two daughters all swam competitively. So naturally I had one of those "NPR driveway moments" today when I just had to sit in the car listening to the fascinating discussion of the dolphin kick. Research for USA Olympic swimmers based on dolphins. I am not kidding. It seems to be working out quite well for Team USA.

Oprah's books

Oprah has a reading list for kids. With the help of the American Library Association, she's made some really good choices. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I doubt I'll ever travel to LA for the conference but I almost feel like I was there, just by reading Alice's CWIM Blog.
Loved her reporting from Lisa Yee's workshop on revision. Check it out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Page 69 Test

Wow. Thanks to a link on Marjorie Kehe's blog, I can now figure out if I'm going to like a book just by looking at page 69. I like this idea. She got it from another blog about books, a new one for me. And that's what I love about bloggers. You can't read one and be done. One thing leads to another, and you're reading all night.

Here are a few page 69s:

Louisiana's Song- "Love and air may come cheap, but nothing else does." And at the bottom of the page: "No way am I going to let Gentle leave us, I don't care what Grandma Horace has up her sleeve." I'd read that for sure (and I did).

Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia- "Mama said she thinks Ray must've give him some kind of deal on that room over the tattoo parlor... or else how could he pay for it, since all he's got is can money?"

Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You (paperback edition)- "I heard it's some girl who's pissed because she got the understudy role of Cinderella. She's threatening to kill anyone with a better part."

I know, I know, all kids' books. But the test worked for me, this time. Maybe I just picked books that don't have a single bad page in the whole book.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

OK, I am usually not that big on my birthday. I credit that to having a summer birthday and never having friends around to celebrate with. A party was always a moveable feast, date-wise. Plus lately I'm thinking of taking a page from my peripatetic grandmother who, as she flitted here and there teaching until a school system forced her to retire, always seemed vague about her exact age.
But it's nice to have a writing surprise appear on your birthday, and this essay I wrote last year during blueberry season (but submitted too late for summer publication) appeared in today's issue of The Christian Science Monitor. A fun way to reach out to friends and family on MY day. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Roads taken...

"We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other . . ."
-- Tim McGraw

I can't be sure Tim really said this, but I copied the quote from somewhere legit and added it to the journal I keep of my favorite quotations. I like it because until I was twenty, I'd never lived outside my home state of Mississippi. After that, in about five years, I moved 8 times. Always taking a little bit of the people I met and the things I saw around me. Now I'm pretty good about changing my places in life and taking a new path or two. But I do like to take my old friends with me, even if it's just the stories.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

My Life with Dogs

I never much cared for grown-up books about dogs. Oh, a dog sitting at his master/ mistress's feet, looking cute or mischievous, added to my enjoyment of a book. But an entire book that featured dogs as a fairly important part of the plot? Nah. Until I started reading about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Although I usually run like crazy when I hear a book touted as "a classic in the making," this book, though maybe not quite a classic-to-be, is a great summer read. I can't explain my attraction. It's the words, of course. Thinking about his beloved companion Almondine (now there's a great dog name!), Edgar thinks that perhaps Almondine will have forgiven his crimes, for which he wanted more than anything to atone...Others dreamed of finding a person in the world whose soul was made in their mirror image, but she and Edgar had been conceived nearly together, grown up together, and however strange it might be, she was his other. Much could be endured for that."
I recommended the book to my best dog-loving friend and she was lukewarm. Now I'm afraid to overly rave! But I can't put it down and last night I got to the last chapter, way past midnight, and couldn't bear to finish. It's that kind of book.

I started to call this entry Dogs in Books. But I can't really write anything about dogs without mentioning my own sweet dogs. Ginger and her great-grandson Barley, who lived to the ripe and lovable old age of 15. This is the first summer in thirty years that my family hasn't had a dog happily underfoot. Barley was a great dog, a gentle soul.

Barley at his Birthday Party

I love kids' books with dogs in them. Winn Dixie is a favorite, but there's also Harry the Dirty Dog, the McDuff stories, and the hilarious Ike in Dear Mrs. LaRue. When Ike gets shipped off to obedience school, he writes pleading letters back to his owner about his cellmates: "They are BAD DOGS, Mrs. LaRue. I do not fit in!" The book always reminds me of my friend Nonie's dog Hoops who ate both aluminum foil and a very expensive shoe. Hoops and Barley were friends at Obedience School. Barley graduated with flying colors. Hoops graduated, too.

Just in case we decide to get another dog, I'll be ready with a name. This terrific website lists dogs in fiction, from myths to movies. Ginger came to us already named but my family almost came to blows when picking a name for Barley. And reading over this list of famous dog names, I see a few I'd like to try out. Nero, Boots, Banga anyone? Maybe my next dog will be fictional.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

Perhaps a little-known market for articles written for kids? KidSpot in the Christian Science Monitor. During baseball's All Star game week, they published a piece I wrote about the song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." That short piece had a long germination period. I think it was over two years ago that I first heard about the song on NPR while driving in the car. All I could do was scribble myself a note, but my curiosity was piqued, big time. After all, the famous song was about to celebrate an anniversary and it was written on a NYC subway by a man who didn't know much about baseball.

Being a former reference librarian, I took to the library (both real and cyber) and found out more. I'd already begun to hang out in the baseball section, researching Mickey Mantle for my WIP about spring training, kind of. So this was fun research!

I submitted the piece to a children's magazine that had previously published my work and they love references. But after missing one baseball season while they considered it, I decided to look elsewhere for a market when I realized it was going to miss baseball season again-- and its 100th anniversary!

Check out the writers' guidelines for KidSpot. They are looking for short non-fiction pieces. Just the kind of work a former school and reference librarian, and a baseball fan, craves.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

SCBWI Weekend in Maryland

Because so many of my writer friends have emailed to ask about the SCBWI weekend conference at McDaniel College, I'll write my reaction here instead of repeating myself in emails to you. Because I do not have the permission of the editors and agents who were there, I have decided to speak in more general terms instead of quoting them verbatim. If any of you would like to know more, feel free to email me.

On Saturday morning as soon as I picked up my materials, I was met by Naomi who was in charge of critiques with such enthusiasm that I thought I'd won the doorprize. Nope. One of the agents (Michelle Andelman of Andrea Brown) was a last minute cancellation and they had juggled the critiques and I was up first. I hustled on upstairs to meet with my critiquer who had some nice things and some helpful things to say about my middle-grade ms: Theo, Miss Sister and 16 Rules for Living at the Rest Easy (AKA Pretty Nearly).

That meant I missed most of the talk by a different agent: "So You Really Want a Literary Agent" but he spoke about query letters and the different ways to snag that elusive agent. Of course, the best way would be a Query with a referral from a client of theirs, a published author, or an editor interested in your manuscript. A second potential agent-getter is to query with an offer from a publisher. Also helpful: query as a published author or solicited from an agent at a conference. His last remark: "No agent is better than a bad agent" had heads nodding in agreement. Judging from the Q&A afterwards, an agent is much desired and hard to get.

Next up was Jean Gralley an illustrator who opened our minds to the potential new genre of digital picture books. I admit to spending the first moments organizing my handouts for the conference but in about one minute, make that 5 seconds, I looked up and didn't let my attention waver again. Amazing presentation on what could be the next interactive, playful, multi-dimensional "book" for young readers of all interests and abilities.

The morning workshops covered the gamut for illustrators, new writers and jaded hard-working seasoned types. I chose an editor's talk on "Tales from the Slush Pile." The market is saturated, times are tight. Save time and postage by targeting the publishers who not only take unsolicited mss but might be likely to publish yours. In her opinion, the "do's" to include in your cover letter are your relevant experience, any previous (again, relevant) publications, if you're a member of SCBWI or have taken classes, etc, and the inspiration for your book if it is interesting. A very brief sentence about your professional qualifications can be included. She repeated the oft-told advice that editors are busy and impatient people who love to find reasons to stop reading. She reads like a kid so make your opening lines sing. A quote-- perhaps a paraphrase-- from Richard Peck: "You are only as good as your opening lines." Oh, and Mr. Peck says he goes through as many as 25 revisions before he gets it right.

From this editor, and often during the weekend, we heard her list of what makes a good book:

1. Authentic, true voice

2. Natural-sounding dialog

3. Deftly realized time and place

4. Characters who make things happen

5. Truths that arise organically from characters' actions and development

She's drawn to funny and quirky, a unique voice, and character-driven stories.

Sorry to report folks, sweet is not selling.

This editor recommended an article in the Sept/October 2006 issue of Horn Book Magazine about good opening lines. I'll look for that at the library.

(I'll skip quickly over lunch. It was a college cafeteria.)

The very young editor who spoke to the large group in the afternoon was bookish, well-spoken, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I loved what she had to say about VOICE: What it is and Why it Makes Editors Go Ga-Ga. From Lily's Purple Plastic Purse to A Northern Light, both personal favorites of mine, she gave examples of how much care goes into each word, the specific word choices and how they speak to voice. Text from a page of a book she edited, another all-time favorite, Ida B looked fabulous projected large on the screen. Made me think about how words, paragraphs, dialog look to these elusive editors and agents reading our mss. She cautioned us about finding those perfect words: "The ear is important. Get rid of words that niggle at you every time you read them." I have some of those words. They need replacing.

Other advice about what makes a good voice? Cohesiveness, energy--a good voice propels us through the story, and authority/ confidence. Authority is not false, not an imitation. You must know everything about the character to consider him the story teller.

I spent my afternoon workshop with Jen Bryant listening to her speak about "the marriage of fact and fiction." Just sitting there inspired me. Although she also spoke about the publishing process (multiple submissions are good), she told us about how she researches her non-fiction, how she gets her ideas. Her picture book biography about Georgia O'Keefe, Georgia's Bones, is witness to her process, a beautiful and fascinating book. She cautioned us that if we are "real" writers, we should write every day. "You'd better love the process because you spend a lot of time with your laptop, the dog, and a pb and j sandwich." I hope I'll be forgiven if that was a paraphrase. Jen said so many things worth writing down.

Our last session was an agent panel that consisted mostly of a Q&A with the two agents, mostly about their current likes. Both agreed that the agent/ client relationship is longterm.

On Sunday, our first gathering featured an amazing writer with an ability to speak succinctly, intelligently and humorously, a tall order. Over my career as a librarian, I've heard almost every writer who's on the circuit speak and Cynthia Lord's talk this morning was one of the best.

If you haven't read her Newbery Honor book, RULES, I suggest you put it on the top of your list. Writing about an autistic boy and his sibling, she went for funny. Some of the stories she told us about the publishing process and the heartfelt letters she receives from kids, teachers, parents were worth the price of the conference. She repeated what I'd heard before about how to get more emotion (her editor suggested she needed this) into a scene. Imagine a time you felt the same as your character. The details don't have to match, just the feeling. Because of her clear explanation and concrete example, I finally got this exercize. The title of Cynthia Lord's talk was The Pluses and Perils of "Writing What You Know." I have pages of notes from this talk and will revisit and absorb and perhaps blog about this terrific session later.

As she does with her younger audiences, she passed around her Newbery Medal plaque and we were invited to touch it and make a wish! Even the most cynical (that would be moi...) in the group participated...

I spent the the afternoon break-out session with the young editor who'd spoken about voice on Saturday. Her talk was "The Very Beginning: Hook a Reader (and an Editor!)" and she used lots of examples. A good beginning should give the reader a sense of what the book is about, something to connect to, and it should make you want to read more. Again, every word is there for a reason. Obvious stuff but difficult to pull off.

The agent who spoke in the afternoon to the entire Sunday group gave us Career Lessons. First we should figure out who we are, as our writing is about all we have control over in this business. Also for consideration, where are you in your career? Write your goals, say them aloud. And be sure they are goals you have control over. By selecting children's books we all know and love, she gave fun to consider examples and advice, much food for thought.

In closing, we had a Q&A with all the presenters, writers, agents, illustrators and publishers. Some of the tips that came from this panel: Editors often read the blogs, check facebook pages, go to websites of writers who submit to them. But before we scurry off to furiously send off manuscripts, we need to spend time with their take-home advice. Let things digest. Make the opening lines sing.

This was one of the best organized and worthwhile conferences I've attended. Thanks to my NYC New School former classmate Mona Kerby and her committee for a weekend well spent.

Now, off to make those opening lines sing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Opening the Book

Is there anything better than a beginning? Beginnings of many things-- with the possible exception of a head cold or a tick bite (both of which I had last week...). But since this is a book-related blog, I mean here, the beginning of a book.

Having read a few reviews that piqued my interest, I raced on over to the library (OK, I clicked on over to their website) to reserve THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. I had to wait a while to move up on the list, but yesterday the book arrived and I brought it home.

I love the mystery of a book's beginning. Where will we go on this journey? Why does Chapter 1 open in Korea, 1952? From the reviews, I thought I'd be reading about dogs, Wisconsin, farms, a family. But wait. Read on. By page 9, I was hooked, reading about Edgar's grandfather and his "extra share of whimsy." The words! The family's story! The dogs! And most of all, the amazing writing. I stayed up way too late and am now fighting the urge to move away from my work at this computer and read some more.

This is why I love good beginnings. For me, there're all optimism and anticipation, a sense that the book will take me on a new journey, entertain me, teach me. I can sense that this is a book to be savored. I think I will return this library copy for others to enjoy and hustle on over to the bookstore for my own. Then I really love opening a book, the fresh cover and the never-turned pages, the stiff spine, the smell, the new words.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Born to Read

Having just entertained two pre-readers, ages 2 and almost 5, for several days, I am remembering what Eudora Welty wrote about her early book experiences. Her mother read to her while she churned butter in the kitchen, while they rocked together, while they sat in front of a fire together.

She writes in the not-to-be missed One Writer's Beginnings:

"It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself."

Is there anything better than holding a child with a book in your lap, sitting next to a young child whose eyes grow bigger each time guessing the name of Rumpelstiltskin is attempted, or the fireflies blink on and off in Eric Carle's tiny masterpiece of a board book, or together with toddler, bid goodnight to the old lady whispering hush?

If only all our children adored books as much as Eudora Welty did.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Dreaded Plot

Just for fun (ha!), I thought I'd try to write a short story. OK, actually I'd like to apply to the Writers in Paradise conference for next January and needed something other than my short essays and long mid-grade manuscript to submit with the application. So I started to write. And write. And write. And the story was really getting boring.

I decided to clean out my stacks of Writer Magazine dating back a few, well a lot, of years. And as usual, found some excellent advice. I think I'll tack this one on my closest empty surface:

In an article on plot by Jillian Abbott (Writer Magazine, May 2004) that includes quotes from Stuart Woods, Dennis Lehane, and Gayle Lynds, Stuart Woods writes

"Plotting is a process akin to a jazz improvisation: You establish a theme, then improvise on it. I do this on a chapter-by-chapter basis, planning the events that take place, then improvising the writing. I begin this improvisation with a situation (i.e. protagonist discovers skeleton) and build from there."

Great advice, though I'll have to ponder whether it will help me with this dreaded story. Now, off to discover some literary skeletons.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The last time I saw Paris...

I keep hoping somebody will take me to Paris. It's one of my favorite cities in the world, OK my favorite. But until I get there again, I can dream. And read. And write about eating there. Here's the book review that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor this week.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Reading and Writing

Today I hid in my basement, pretending to get organized. It was cool and restful and I unpacked a box or two. You know the type- boxes you never should have moved, the ones that have been sitting in a corner for two years. We needed the space so I promised to clear out the boxes. But I kept going back to a book I was reading. At first I needed to know if Sabine and Puck would be OK. It was an adventure story, a mystery. Then the rest of Kathi Appelt's new book, The Underneath, grabbed me and wouldn't let go. As I said, it was cool and restful in my basement, a perfect place to read. I finished it tonight and can't get it out of my head.

I'm really more of a dog person, if we have to take sides. But I know exactly what Appelt means when she writes Purring is not so different from praying. To a tree, a cat's purr is one of the purest of all prayers, for in it lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Writing about Fathers

For a long time, when Father's Day rolled around, I missed my dad. I was just out of college when he died, suddenly and sadly. I missed him on Father's Day. I missed him on Election Days (because he loved to debate local politics with me). I missed him on my wedding day. But that whole time heals all wounds has a bit of truth to it and now I just like thinking about him. So Father's Day seems the perfect time to remember my dad.

He was quite a character- a small town doctor who, it seemed, had set every broken arm and delivered most of the babies in our county. My brother and sister, who live closer to "home" than I do, still meet people who tell them about the time Daddy made a housecall at 3 in the morning, letting himself in the unlocked porch door, just to check on one of his patients. He loved to fish, his only escape from the telephone, and I wrote about the Christmas he surprised us (and tickled himself) with a blindfolded circuitous car trip to a cabin on the lake where he loved to fish. When that essay appeared in Delta Magazine , perfect strangers tracked down my email address to share stories about him. Some of the stories are quite colorful, not to be repeated in polite company. Yes, he was quite a character.

I'm working on another essay, one that started out being about the house I grew up in. We had a store room attached to our carport, filled with all sorts of exotic stuff. The more I wrote, the more I realized that it was really an essay about my father. A few years ago I spent a day with my Writing Group in a workshop led by Phyllis Theroux. In a corner of her notes about "Voice and the Personal Essay," I scribbled Small examples enable you to see the large idea. That's what this essay is turning into. Tiny memories of fish smells and rusty keys hanging on nails are turning into a piece that shows a father's devotion to his family. Now isn't that what Dad's Day should be all about?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Naming Names

Choosing names is a lot more fun than picking a title. Early on I learned from the best. My friend and critique buddy, Leslie Guccione, guided me as I wrote a mid-grade novel in my first critique group. At first the sisters were named Virginia and Alice Ann. Nope, kids might be confused by Virginia. Even though the story takes place in 1964 and Virginia was more popular then, we (my critique group) decided most kids nowadays think of Virginia as a state. Then Jesslyn popped into my head, and it was the perfect name for a bossy, big sister. Alice Ann was working just fine until I read a new book, set in approximately the same time, with a main character named--you guessed it-- Alice Ann! So Alice Ann became Gloriana, Glory for short. Great name changes. Both girls grew into their names and were better for it.

In my current manuscript, the character is a 12-year-old boy who longs to play the piano. His uncle forbids him to, but he manages to find a way around Uncle Chester's rules. He started out as Shelton. Don't ask. The name appeared to me. I began this manuscript in the amazing Writing for Children class at the New School, taught by Bunny Gabel. A Southerner like me, she understands how wonderfully unusual Southern names might be but she pointed out that, on the first page of the earliest version, she didn't have a clear idea of whether Shelton was male or female. It took me over a year to go back to the drawing board and find him a new name. This piano-playing character is now named Theo, short for Thelonious Monk Smith. Destiny!

I love names, collect them in my head and in notebooks and on pieces of paper tucked into boxes. Southerners seem particularly adept at names. Names like Squirrel (it's true!), double-named girls, Big Jack and Little Jack (my brother and dad). Play around with the USA DeepSouth website if you want to know everything there is to know about Southern names.

Perhaps choosing the perfect name for a character is my way of avoiding the perfect plot. I could create names forever, but without a problem to solve, thorny issues to get in the way, and an interesting backstory, it's just a group of kids and their grownups sitting on the porch under the ceiling fan.