Mentors or Peeps?

Definitions for “peeps” as a shortcut for associates or friends cite slang and Internet use. One goes on to editorialize that she dislikes the term and hopes the word is short-lived. Real usage seems to include a layer that indicates a very close connection between members as signified in the expression “my peeps.” I have peeps who also serve another role.

For about fifteen years, I’ve been active in the monthly critique meetings of Louisiana SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. I thought of them this week when this quote turned up on A.Word.A.Day:
    "Just as mentors come in different shapes and sizes, they fill different roles. Ms. Brooks said the common denominator is that they are good and active listeners willing to offer constructive, but blunt, criticism and, at the same time, share stories about their own failures." Mark Evans; Age No Barrier; Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada); Mar 30, 2012.

Check the picture taken at a monthly meeting and you can see some of the physical differences of my mentors, but variety goes beyond what you see. My mentors come from different political and religious persuasions, different marital and family statuses, and different cultural backgrounds. Trust me, they are good and active listeners.

They play different roles in this listening. Ears on one are sensitive to overly repeated words, and she is quick to suggest good synonyms. Another spots plot inconsistencies. A third says, “Scrap your first chapter. The story starts in the second.” All pronounce the death sentence on “ly” words.

But my peeps go beyond critiquing as they share rejection letters and sad stories or rejoice over acceptance or even near-acceptance. Without fail, they reassure the writer, suggest rewrite options, and offer ideas about which editor or agent should be the next recipient of the manuscript.

My mentors may not even realize they also furnish motivation to stay on track. Lollygagging in the yard, checking Facebook, or stirring up a batch of cookies seems pretty reasonable to me until the meeting date looms on the calendar.

I know the question I will face. “What are you working on?”

“Nothing,” doesn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.

Mentors or peeps? Actually, both. Thanks, Peeps.


Candles . . . Quilts . . . Books

The candle connection metaphor began for me with friend Martha Ginn’s fiber art quilt presentation. She pointed out the proliferation of candles and quilts, both necessities in days gone by, now used in homes for beauty and atmosphere.

Coincidentally, I came home to read Roger Sutton’s editorial in the May/June 2012 Horn Book Magazine. He used a comparison, which he in turn borrowed from Eli Neiburger, of book publishing as being akin to the candle industry. He says both candles and books are utilitarian as well as glamorous; may be the center of attention or shine light on something else; may be life-saving or dangerous; and frequently one serves to light another. He points out that with candles and printed books, we can still read if the lights go out forever.

I’ve enjoyed personalizing Martha’s and Roger’s metaphor. I have a drawer that holds candles for emergencies if the power goes out and seasonal ones for decoration. A heritage of quilts, many lovingly stitched by ladies in rural churches as gifts for my parents, provide cover for a good night’s sleep or hang beautifully from my husband’s handmade quilt rack. Assorted stacks of books occupy my house, some needing to be read and others awaiting free time fun reading.

And I’m thinking if the lights go out on a cold winter’s night, it’s not going to be that bad. I can always light a candle and read a good book snuggled up in one of those quilts.


About Those Wild Things

I’ll get my two part confession out of the way first. (1) I never read Where the Wild Things Are to my students. My reason is the second part of the confession. (2) I didn’t like it. Early in my teaching career, I heard a sound piece of advice in a workshop. The presenter said, “If you don’t like a book, choose something else to read aloud to your students. They will pick up on your negative feelings.” So I chose to read aloud other Maurice Sendak books that I liked. There were plenty to choose from.

My students shared my love for Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, giggling at its absurdities and feeling very superior to the brat who answers everything with “I don’t care,” including the lion’s suggestion that he could eat Pierre.

We started every new month with a poem from his Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months. A sample to get you ready for June:
            In June
            I saw a charming group
            Of roses all begin
            To droop.
            I pepped them up
            With chicken soup!
            Sprinkle once
            Sprinkle twice
            Sprinkle chicken soup
            With rice.

Now I had no personal quarrel with the wild things and was shocked to find among Ezra Jack Keats papers an exchange in the March 1969 Ladies Home Journal. In the previous issue, an expert pediatrician had a conversation with three irate mothers in which they denounce the book as being too damaging to children’s psyches. Keats had written a scathing letter to the editor defending the book and berating the physician who had admitted that he had not read the book. The magazine published Keats’ letter along with a lukewarm semi-apology from the pediatrician who claimed to have come to his original conclusion after he read the book before the article actually went to publication. Shame on him and hooray for Ezra!

I joined the multitudes in the book world in feelings of loss when the news came of Sendak’s death last week – not just for his own books but for the gazillion or so that he illustrated.

My own feelings about Where the Wild Things Are remain unchanged. (Sorry about my taste. While I’m confessing, I also hate Moby Dick.) But I’m very glad I didn’t pass that feeling on to my students. I have good memories of looking back after a trip to the school library with my class and seeing a reluctant second grade reader sitting at his desk absolutely lost with Max and the Wild Things. So glad I didn’t spoil it for him!


Mama's Cooking Lessons

Daddy’s eyebrows jumped all the way up to the double deep inverted V of his hairline when I said, “Mama did a good job of teaching me to cook.” To understand his surprise, you have to know a bit about Mama’s relationship with the kitchen. Things she cooked well were:
•    Cobbler – with any kind of fresh fruit
•    Chicken and dumplings
•    Chocolate covered cherries (only at Christmas)
•    Cookies
•    Biscuits

That’s about it, and I’ve used only one hand to count. Now she was adamant that meals were balanced and healthy to the point that when I needed to remember one more of the seven basic food groups for a home economics test, I only had to go through our menu for the previous day to find it. The food just wasn’t what my brother-in-law would call “tasty.”

When I was nine, I suggested that I might learn to cook. Even then, I favored “tasty.” Mama jumped on the idea like a duck on a June bug and handed me a cookbook. I knew where everything was in the kitchen from years of dishwashing duty. She told me where she would be working if I needed her and left me with the run of the kitchen.

I didn’t need an advanced degree to know I was better off with the cookbook than her advice so she was rarely disturbed. The plan worked to perfection since I was happy in the kitchen and she was happy out of it. Waiting for pots to boil and sauce to thicken, I even found a new source of reading material – cookbooks!

As I’ve thought about Mama on this Mother’s Day weekend, it has occurred to me that Mama taught me many other things in the same way she taught me to cook. She gave basic information, pointed out resources to use, offered her availability if needed, and then trusted me to figure out the process and add my own stamp to it. It’s not a bad parenting model.


Waiting for the Train

What kid doesn’t love a train? My early four-year-old love for trains got my fifteen-year-old aunt in a peck of trouble. Her assignment was to sit with me in church while Daddy preached and Mama sang in the choir. Daddy tolerated a lot of things, but had no patience with Aunt Ruth’s intermittent fits of giggles that ran throughout his sermon. He took her to task as soon as we got home. “Berton, I couldn’t help it,” she said. “Virginia Ann knew the first two hymns and sang along. She didn’t know the last one, so she sang ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ instead.”

Phase Two of my love for trains came in our next home in Hardy Station perched atop a hill that was slashed in two for the train track. [Note the train reference even in the name of the village.]  Train whistles day and night and the ground shudders accompanying them were lullaby and rocking chair for a good night’s sleep. We watched daily for the train that swung a heavy bag of incoming mail onto the hook while it lifted the outgoing bag. One engineer, a longtime friend of my parents, blew his whistle as he passed if he saw one of us out on the rope-and-board swing hanging from the oak tree.

Fast forward many years to my husband’s Army assignment in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Our family traveled on the train through the night for a visit in Berlin. We woke up as the glide of the tracks became a rumble traveling the miles over rough track through East Germany. Having become accustomed to West Germany’s trains that went everywhere and ran on time, I had to rethink my reaction when I traveled home for my father’s funeral and found myself stranded in the Atlanta airport. A January ice and snow storm covering the South grounded planes flying west of Atlanta and left me with little hope of getting to Mississippi. My first thought was, “It’s okay. I’ll go downstairs and take the train.” Then I remembered I wasn’t in Germany any more.

Partial redemption for this American shortage has come in our move to Hattiesburg, although my husband insisted that we not buy a house anywhere near a railroad track. The noises do not say “comforts of home” to him. Hattiesburg’s newly refurbished depot beautifully hosts exhibits and community events. And they still sell tickets to exotic places like Birmingham where I can visit my sister Beth. The train trip takes about the same time and money as the drive with seating that is spacious and comfortable. I take some reading, some writing, some cross stitch (no ‘rithmetic), and enjoy my journey.

Tomorrow, May 12 is the fifth National Train Day. If you are also a train lover, find local events at I’m celebrating by imagining an American rail system where passenger trains go everywhere and run on time and travelers waiting for the train sing “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”