Atoning for Pencil Freeze

To borrow a phrase from my friend and writing buddy Virginia Howard, there are speakers who “freeze your pencil” resulting in no notes on their talks. Ruta Sepetys, for example. Engrossed in her story at the Los Angeles SCBWI Summer Conference, I forgot the steno pad and pencil I had in my hand until they dropped to the floor when I joined the other 1233 attendees in a standing ovation.

I’ve atoned by taking notes as I read her book Between Shades of Gray. [I know – there’s another popular gray book this year. This is not it.] But this book is a New York Times notable book, an international bestseller, and a Carnegie Medal nominee. Billed as a young adult novel and set in the reality of Lithuania’s disappearance from maps from 1941–1990, its fictional account of Lina’s journey grips and holds a reader of any age. Lina’s unrelieved courage and creativity, from the moment she and her family are arrested in the middle of the night, carry her through inhuman living conditions sparked with hope in the drawings she secretly creates and passes along.

A few quotes will give you a small taste:

“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”

From Lina’s view as the train pulled away from the platform:

“The priest looked up, flung oil, and made the sign of the cross as our train rolled away. He was issuing last rites.”

As Lina watched over her brother Jonas, near death from scurvy and starvation, and remembered her dashed hopes of going to art school and her favorite artist Edvard Munch:  

“Each time I closed my eyes, I saw the painting of ‘The Scream’ in my head, but the face was my face.”

The truth in this fiction came from Ruta’s search in real life for her family roots, which took her to a happening the world has forgotten. She has brought it back to life in Lina. Lest we forget . . .

P. S. This was a hearty meat-and-potatoes grow-your-soul kind of read. You might want to follow, as I did, with a light strawberries-and-cream-dessert – French by Heart by Rebecca S. Ramsey.


Overlooked Hurricane Hints

The Red Cross gives a valuable list of preparations for upcoming hurricanes during this season, but they missed a few. Here’s my top ten list of missed items, many of them related to the expectation of electricity going out – as ours did for 13 days and 6 hours after Katrina.
1.    Assemble a tall stack of books to read.
2.    Print out the manuscript-in-progress for editing.
3.    Charge Kindle, cell phone, and camera batteries.
4.    Clear the dining table and get out a jigsaw puzzle.
5.    Harvest all the cut flowers and bring them inside for bouquets.
6.    Gather gardening tools and lock them in the shed so they don’t become missiles in the wind.
7.    Make weird meals from things that might spoil in the fridge or freezer. Examples? You don’t really want to know.
8.    Shower today whether you need to or not. There may be no clean water tomorrow. [There’s an irony here, since more than enough comes down.]
9.    Send a memo to weather reporters: (A) It is Gulf-port, not Golf-port, although people are known to play golf there. (B) Biloxi is pronounced Bi-luck-si, not Bi-lock-si. Don’t ask me why, but residents get to choose how to pronounce their own cities. (C) The Land Mass between Mobile and New Orleans is called Mississippi.
10.    And most important - eat that last dark chocolate Klondike ice cream bar so it doesn’t melt.


Beware August 29

My woods trying hard to come back

When I planned this blog several weeks ago, I had no idea we would be experiencing Hurricane Isaac on the seventh anniversary of Katrina. While Isaac has dumped way too much water and worn out his welcome as he drags his feet getting out of here, we are thankful he has not left as much damage as his sister in his wake. I wrote this poem as part of my own recovery after Katrina.

Eleven years ago –
Mississippi woods out back
clinched the sale
of a home to grow old in.

The woods turned me
into a child again –
ambling down Papaw’s lane;
watching squirrels play tag through the treetops;
seeing cardinals and Eastern bluebirds
swoop from tree to tree;
listening to woodpeckers rat-a-tatting;
surrounded by majestic oaks, swaying pines, “hicker-nut” trees,
beautyberry bushes.

Seven years ago on
The morning after Katrina’s
opaque white rain and roaring wind,
in my woods,
pines stood popped off like
little boys’ pencil fights,
roots and trunks of stately oaks
lay fallen crosswise
like too many grandchildren
sleeping in the same bed.

I felt pieces of my heart shatter into

grief with searchers
for family and friends;

mourning for lost
jobs and homes;

anger at those who would
loot, shoot, and gouge;

relief that Katrina was gone and
we were safe;

gratitude for
our intact home;

and one sizeable shard of
lament for woods
that will not renew in my lifetime.

This poem was published in the “When Things Get Back to Normal” issue of Thema Magazine [Vol. 20, No. 3; Autumn 2008]



First day of school, first plane ride, first kiss, first grandchild – there’s something about firsts. Today is my first appearance on a blog tour!

Preparation is underway for the upcoming fall conference sponsored by Southern Breeze Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Birmingham, Alabama on October 20, aptly called Writing and Illustrating for Kids (WIK).

A blog tour, which will be a first for me, introduces the workshop leaders.  I will be leading a workshop called “Story of a Story” about the possibilities in writing for children’s magazines. Beginning today, Bonnie Herold carries my interview at She picked up on the butterfly metaphor on my website and carried that thread through her interview. I’m honored to have someone who pays attention interviewing for my first blog tour.

If you are interested in learning about writing for children, meeting editors and agents, or connecting with other writers and illustrators, learn more about the event at - after you’ve followed me on the blog tour, of course!


Advice Not Taken

Not!A distillation of advice I’ve heard for conference attendees is, “Listen to everything, consider advice carefully, keep what works for you, and feel free to discard the rest.” Come to think of it, that’s not a bad plan for life as well, but I diverge.

Deborah Underwood’s topic at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles was “The Power of Quiet.” She emphasized the importance of quiet for the creative person. I listened and agreed with much of what she said, knowing that good ideas often come with my mind unoccupied while my hands are busy in the garden. [They also come sometimes during Sunday sermons, but that’s another story.]

Then Deborah made a proposal that almost sent me screaming from the room. She suggested that we sit on the edge of the bed for twenty minutes doing absolutely nothing. Talk about torture! I can’t even watch TV without busywork in my hands! That part of the advice careened directly into the discard pile. Maybe it will work for someone who’s a little less frenetic.

But since I am in need of a new idea, I think I’ll go out and pull a few weeds.