Friday
Sep192014

Three Questions

A package in Tuesday’s mail reminded me of the three questions of 1999. The first had begun in the spring when I heard new children’s author Kimberly Willis Holt at our Louisiana chapter of SCBWI children’s writers. She had three books out – Mister and Me, My Louisiana Sky, and newly published When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. As I listened, I remembered the grant-writing invitation from the Louisiana Arts Commission that I hoped was still on my desk and not in the waste basket. Dreaming big, I asked if she would share her enthusiasm and writing knowledge in a workshop with my junior high language arts students in Leesville, Louisiana if I could get the grant money. We set a tentative date and agreement.

The second question arose in late summer. I opened the living section of the Alexandria Town Talk and found a spread with Kimberly’s picture announcing that Zachary Beaver was a finalist on the National Book Award list. Would she win? I had ambivalent feelings. Yes, I wanted her to win. No, I didn’t want to lose a golden opportunity for my students, which seemed inevitable with the time demands on a National Book Award Winner. I hadn’t heard from the grant, and we only had the tentative verbal agreement for her workshop.

Soon, the announcement of her NBA win brought another spread for the Town Talk. Kimberly’s grandparents lived a few miles south of Alexandria, and Louisiana is proud of its own. I was excited for her but uneasy for my students as the third question loomed. Would a National Book Award Winner have time for small town Leesville in rural Vernon Parish on the road to nowhere except Fort Polk? I still hadn’t heard from the grant.

I gave her time to enjoy her moment before I called to see if we remained on her schedule. She acknowledged the new whirlwind of her life, but said she’d discussed scheduling promises with her husband Jerry. They’d decided that an agreement was an agreement. Eventually, the grant came through.

What a week my students had! What credibility I had when she left! Here was a “real writer” telling them the same things I’d told them. What a wonderful friendship began that week as Kimberly and I found so many things in common with our military families – included our shared wedding date with her parents. How I have enjoyed the plethora of middle grade and picture books that have come from her pen in the years to follow – including her series on Piper Reed, based on the military childhood she shared with many of my students!

The package took me back to 1999 with a poster, a copy of the fifteenth anniversary edition of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and a note from Kimberly claiming memories that match mine. I think I’ll take a break and go renew my acquaintance with Zachary. If you haven’t met him, pick up an anniversary copy and give yourself a treat.

Monday
Sep152014

Nest

One would think a girl on Cape Cod in the Nixon era, nicknamed Chirp for her bird-watching hobby, would be a set up for a lighthearted nature-experiencing life. Instead, in Nest, a debut novel by Esther Ehrlich, two truths emerge. Suicide is only permanent for the perpetrator, and depression is an equal opportunity trouble, striking youth as well as adults.

Chirp watches her dancer mother lose her skills to muscular sclerosis and her spirit to depression. Her psychiatrist father is at a loss to help. Chirp’s Jewish heritage, her difficult older sister Rachel, the neglected and/or abused neighbor Joey, and her birding form warp ribbons while normal middle school ordeals form the woof in this delightfully woven story.

When life overwhelms her, Chirp takes a lesson from the birds and builds a nest for retreat in her room. She makes hers with her pillow, encircled by her clothes and blankets. Her attempt to fly from that nest with Joey amps up the danger.

In spite of its subjects, I didn’t find this a sad book overall. The realism in its dealing with suicide, depression, and even Joey’s dysfunctional family is tempered with fun. Yet, I anticipated throughout that Chirp was going to find her song again. She was just that kind of girl. The characters come alive, and the story line is engaging. I recommend it for pleasure reading at any age or for an adult and child to read simultaneously and follow with discussion.

Bonus: Check out the author website at www.estherehrlich.com for background about the author and beautiful pictures of some of the birds Chirp would have seen.

Friday
Sep122014

Feed the Birds

I’ve always loved the song “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, especially its refrain of
       “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
       Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.”

I hadn’t planned on the thought behind it becoming a theme in my life. When we moved to Hattiesburg, we already had a small row of blueberry bushes and a fair sized fig tree. Country girl that I am, I envisioned blueberries on my cereal, blueberry muffins, and blueberry pie – not to mention ripe figs eaten out of hand and fig preserves. Things haven’t worked out quite like I planned.

The first year I had blueberries for cereal any morning I wanted and enough blueberries for muffins to put in the freezer that lasted quite a while through the year. I even got one blueberry pie. The birds seemed to eat some along but not enough to bother my harvest. In ensuing years, the birds have discovered the blueberries sooner and sooner. This year I had blueberries on my cereal one morning before the birds discovered they were ripening and picked them off before they could turn blue.

The medium sized fig tree was leveled after Katrina as they dragged downed trees across it from my neighbor’s yard, the only open path to get them out. After the hurricane passed, we all did whatever was necessary as a community to help each other clean up the mess and move on. The sacrifice of a fig tree and a few nandinas seemed small compared to losses all around us.

Well, you can’t kill a nandina and evidently not a fig tree. It has come back, bigger and stronger. Most of the limbs are far beyond my reach. I’ve tried to bargain with the birds for them to take the top half and leave me the bottom half. They don’t listen. They peck one bite out of a fig and go to the next one. I did get enough figs to put up a few this year, but not enough to share with non-feathered friends as I have in the past.

I won’t get into the birds eating the few strawberries off my plants but will go on to the picture which shows a plant I am willing to share. In fact, they can have it all. A sunflower came up volunteer beneath the bird feeder this year. I caught this bird with my camera in the midst of his breakfast pecking away on the sunflower gone to seed.

I’m sure I should count my blessings – a yard full of birds and it hasn’t cost me a tuppence.

Monday
Sep082014

Personal

I read the advance reading copy of Personal by Lee Child on the planes and in the airports between Gulfport, Mississippi and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Then I tried to figure out what could be said in a review of a book that killed time predictably during a day of travel. I could honestly report that it had accomplished the purpose for which I had chosen it, but Jack Reacher can be counted on to bring justice to the criminal just like Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason, or Leroy Jethro Gibbs. That’s not new or different.

Lee Child solved my quandry for me in a book release interview on CBS This Morning. He told about watching his father search for a new book and asking him what kind of book he was looking for. His father said he was looking for one that was “the same, but different.” Those of us who retreat for pleasure to Agatha Christie or NCIS understand what he meant. Lee Child understands as well and said that was his aim when he wrote – to create something that was the same, but different.

This book, which sets Jack Reacher up as the target in the beginning, takes place in exotic places like Paris, London, and Arkansas. The international pursuit begins after a sharpshooter takes aim at the president of France. The CIA and its international counterparts give Jack a call and the chase is on. He soon recognizes the gunman as a criminal he caught once before and sent to prison for fifteen years. The shooter’s grudge against Jack is personal.

Reacher’s comfortably predictable misgivings about working with Casey Nice, a young female rookie, the series of dangers and near misses, and ultimate success satisfy the thriller fan looking for same, but different. I found Personal to be perfect airplane reading. It took my mind off the guy hogging the arm rest in the other seat.

Friday
Sep052014

Writing Rule # 3 - Shape Your Space

In an article in the August issue of The Writer, Kerrie Flanagan comes up with a new rule that I had not heard but had been following for some time. She doesn’t worry about neatness, which is good in my world. She does say to surround yourself with art, photographs, and objects that are meaningful and inspire creativity.

I think she’s right, but I would add one more important item to the list. In this world where even the likes of Stephen King and Kate Dicamillo tell harrowing stories of rejection after rejection of their work, I think writers (and maybe people who find writing as exciting as I find spending an afternoon trying to get one small ball into eighteen different holes) should also be surrounded by things that make them feel good about themselves.

For those days when yet another “no” shows up in the mailbox or via email, I have things around my office to remind me it’s not all about that particular bit of writing.
•    Atop my file cabinet to the right of my computer, I see my family of origin in a young picture of my parents when they were “courting,” Daddy’s second place domino trophy from a county harvest days contest, the country church I did for him in needlepoint, and a semi-current picture of the four McGee sisters.
•    A shelf on the next wall holds a goodbye poem written by my vice-principal when I retired, a cross-stitch made by a parent of a student who struggled to learn that reads “This is a Positive Learning Area,” and a book my daughter gave me – If You Were a Writer by Joan Lowery Nixon.
•    Wall three holds my bookcase sprinkled with family pictures – three children, their spouses, and ten grandchildren! On the top is a letter from Jessica Deen, a promising junior high writer, who wrote it as she finished her time with me.
•    Wall four holds diplomas from Ole Miss, Incarnate Word University, and the Institute of Children’s Literature, but the smiles they bring are less than the copy of my story about Ezra Jack Keats from Highlights for Children framed as an appreciation gift from my local library and a picture of workers on a beam above Manhattan that recalls an inside joke with my sisters.
•    Completing the circle back to the computer is a framed copy of my first fan letter for my story they published, thoughtfully passed along by Cricket Magazine. A full page, written in pencil by an eleven-year-old girl lauding the magazine, ends, “My favorite story in the last issue was ‘Rags and Riches’.”

The tour is completed with a faded poster given long ago by the same [and only] daughter of Snoopy typing away on top of his doghouse. The balloon bubble says, “It’s exciting when you’ve written something that you know is good” – a little reminder to find joy in the writing when the rejection pity party wants to take over.