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The blog of children's book author Anika Denise, it contains author news and events as well as reading lists and craft suggestions for kids.
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1. Conference Diary: SCBWI Winter 2014

Last weekend, I attended my first SCBWI national conference with my talented author-illustrator pal, Mary Jane Begin.

It was a whirlwind of fun, inspiration, fabulous meals and networking—and it's taken me three days to gather myself to post about it. I've been looking at photos, reading over notes, filing through the many business cards I picked up along the way, and letting it all sink in.

Although I'm not exactly a newbie to publishing—and Mary Jane is a veteran with many books and awards to her name—neither of us had been to the New York conference before, for a variety of reasons, including deadlines, kids, writing and teaching.

So, we were excited. I couldn't wait to be in New York to meet some of the children's book folks I'd been chatting with for The Little Crooked Cottage and on Twitter, and to spend an entire weekend focused on all things kidlit.

I knew that I had the perfect partner for the trip in Mary Jane. She's whip-smart, game for anything, never gets rattled and loves to laugh. She also has a more esoteric quality I like to call flow. She's a magnet for positive people and serendipitous moments. And she loves dark chocolate. That's my kind of travel-buddy.

Skipping through Grand Central

When we arrived at Grand Central, we spotted a few familiar faces right away and immediately felt the energy of the conference. There's something visceral about being with your creative tribe, and I felt it the moment we walked into the hotel lobby.

Of course, our first priority upon arrival was food. We went in search of a sushi restaurant about twenty blocks from the hotel. Friday afternoon was chilly and drizzly, but that didn't dampen our spirits or our desire to walk the city, so we set out on foot. A few paces before our destination, we spotted a charming little restaurant on the corner, and remarked on how cozy it looked.

Tiny trattoria tucked in beneath the Queensboro Bridge

This was fortunate, because the sushi spot we'd chosen didn't open for another two hours. Whoopsie! That's the thing about New York—when one restaurant door closes, another adorable one with tall windows and little twinkling lights opens. We sat and enjoyed a delicious meal, and raised a glass to the great weekend ahead. 

Happy MJ with vino. Saluté!
Dining under the twinkly lights

Jane and I were not faculty or part of the illustration portfolios, so we weren't able to attend the Friday evening VIP cocktail party; however, after entertaining brief giggle-worthy notions about various ways to crash the festivities, we settled on the lounge upstairs, which had a stunning floor-to-ceiling view of 42nd street towards Park Avenue.

View of 42nd and Park

Fortunately, not long later, some VIP's came to us; including, to my delight, my editor at Harper Children's, Nancy Inteli. Nancy recently acquired my new picture book, Monster Trucks! (Summer, 2016). It was lovely to be able to meet Nancy person and give her a thank you hug!

Nancy Inteli, Editorial Director,  Harper Collins Children's Books 
Hangin' with the fabulous and talented  Caryln Beccia!

After a fun night and another great meal at The Smith Midtown...

Two words: creamed kale. Heaven.
You can't tell in this pic,
 but we're doing the happy food dance.

...and a brief stop here... we called it a night.

Saturday morning, we were up and at 'em early (miraculously).

Badges, notebooks, coffee: check! (Ok, we look a little sleepy. )

All the presentations for the weekend followed the theme of Seven Essentials. Jack Gantos (Newbery award-winner for Dead End In Norvelt) was up first with a keynote titled, "How everything I learned about fiction and nonfiction in picture books, poetry, short stories, novellas, or, angst, dialog, a hundred drafts, and good luck all end up in the crown jewel of literature: THE NOVEL."

That title speaks to Jack's electric personality. He's all spitfire and energy and humor and talent. He spoke about finding habits that work for you, content and structure, focused rewrites, connecting the dots with theme, and adding emotional depth to your stories.

Beyond his very helpful pointers, I think what came through was his passion and commitment to telling stories in all forms, as well as a joy an irreverence one can't help but love.

It was a fabulous kick-off to the keynotes.

After a morning of enlightening discussions, including a fascinating panel on The Future of Authorship, and breakout sessions in the afternoon, Mary Jane and I decided to seek a little inspiration outside the conference halls and head over to the NYPL to see Leonard Marcus's exhibit at the New York Public Library: The ABC of it: Why Children's Books Matter.

The weather had turned springlike in Manhattan and as much as we were enjoying the talks, we needed some air—and some art. Library Way, which cuts directly to the front entrance of the NYPL, is paved with quotes from literature. I snapped a few shots of my favorites.





The exhibit itself was similarly paved in riches. Expertly curated and gloriously designed, it was the perfect end-note on a roundly inspiring day.





We arrived back to the hotel feeling glad we hadn't missed the opportunity to see the exhibit, but barely able to catch our breath before the cocktail party—which was a blur of fun connections, old friends and new faces.

It was great to meet Ame Dyckman (Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author of Tea Party Rules) and Drew Daywalt (New York Times bestselling author of The Day The Crayons Quit) in person, after becoming friends in the Twitterverse, and featuring them both on The Little Crooked Cottage.

Ame Dyckman, Drew Daywalt and moi. 

Another unexpected treat was bumping into talented YA author, KM Walton. I met Kate years ago, before her first novel published, at the home of good friends. Since then, Kate has published two novels: Cracked (2012) and Empty (2013), with another title, The Lies We Tell, forthcoming in 2015. It was lovely to be able to reconnect after cheering Kate's successes from afar. Keep an eye on KM Walton. She's one to watch.
Striking a pose with KM Walton

But my favorite moment of all came on Sunday. Kate Messner delivered the best, I mean it, the best speech I have ever heard at an SCBWI event. Her keynote on The Spectacular Power of Failure was inspiring, moving and full of hope.

Who among us hasn't faced the fear of failure in our work? Kate encouraged us to take a moment to celebrate each of our successes, large and small, instead of automatically moving the bar before we've had the chance to appreciate our accomplishments.

She turned the entire notion of failure on its ear by putting it in perspective. "You can't have brave without scared," she said quoting Linda Urban's novel Hound Dog True. We learn from failing, and reevaluating and trying again."


She encouraged us all to "live our creative lives bravely," and to do the same by our characters. "Let them be flawed, let them fail, and let them survive."

Kate ended the speech by reading a poem.

What Happened to Your Book Today
by Kate Messner (Copyright 2011)
 
Somewhere, a child laughed
on that page where you made a joke.
Somewhere, she wiped away a tear,
Just when you thought she might.
 
Somewhere, your book was passed
from one hand to another in a hallway
busy with clanging lockers,
with whispered words,
“You have got to read this.”
And a scribbled note:
O.M.G. SO good.
Give it back when ur done.
 
It’s looking a little more love-worn lately,
rougher around the edges than it did on release day.
There are dog eared pages and Gatorade stains.
Someone smeared maple syrup on the cover
because she read all through breakfast.
Pages 125 and 126 are stuck fast with peanut butter
Because Chapter 10 was even more delicious
than lunch.
 
Somewhere, tiny hands held up your book
And a little voice begged, “Again!”
Somewhere, the answer came,
A grown-up sigh…and a smile…
And the fourteenth read-aloud of the morning.
That same book. Again.
Your book.
 
Somewhere, a kid who has never read a whole book on his own
(Really. Not even one.)
picked up yours and turned a page.
And then another.
And then one more.
And it was pretty cool, turns out.
He brought it back – huge smile on his face –
(and I mean huge)
And asked for another one.
And he read that, too.
 
Somewhere, a teenager who thought she was alone
Opened your pages and discovered she’s not.
And somewhere, somebody who thought about giving up
will keep on trying,

keep on hoping.
Because of that book you wrote.
 
Somewhere tonight – listen closely and you’ll hear–
A child will turn the last page of that book,
That book you wrote,
and sigh.
Can you hear it?
It’s the sound of a story being held close
Right before a young voice says,
“It feels like this was written just for me.”
 
And it was.

I don't have a photo to share of this moment because a.) I was blubbering and wiping my nose, and b.) I was on my feet, clapping and joining in the standing ovation that Kate received for her uplifting, heartfelt and encouraging words.

I looked to my left, at my friend Jane who was teary-eyed and clapping, too, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.

This is why we do what we do. Kate summed it up beautifully.

Even without all the rest—which was magical—that one reminder was worth the trip.

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2. Ideas beget ideas. . .



When my first child was a baby, I remember the pediatrician saying to me that I should not be afraid of letting her take a long nap. Like any new mom, I worried about keeping her on a schedule. Eat, play, sleep, repeat was the conventional wisdom of the day. But sometimes she slept right through the next feeding time. Should I wake her up? What if she sleeps so long that she doesn't sleep at night?

Then the doctor said something to me that really helped: "Sleep begets sleep."

And he was right. On the days she took long luxurious naps, she tended to sleep through the night.

As I embarked on my first PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), I realized that creativity works much  the same way. The more energy I put towards it, the more it flows. Ideas beget ideas! I should know this. I should believe this. But somehow, I sort of... didn't.

On day 1, it felt forced, like I had to try a little too hard to squeeze out one measly, puny idea. My inner worry-wart piped right up. If the first idea is this hard, how will I possibly come up with twenty-nine more?!? 

But then something I wrote in my notebook sparked the seed of another idea, and then I had two or three more after that. And the next day I was reaching for that notebook all day long. Eureka! This works.

Sure, not every idea is a keeper. Most aren't. But so what?  Even if they are just roundabout, mixed up ways to a decent idea, then they are worthy.

Phew.

I guess I never really realized it, but until now, I sort of believed in the Magic Muse. Somedays she shines her light on you, other days--not so much. The knowledge that I have the ability to turn on the tap of ideas and get it flowing is empowering. (And a relief.)

So thank you, Tara Lazar! And thank you to all of you PiBoIdMo-ers who are scribbling and blogging and cheering each other on. Inspiration begets inspiration! And you guys are super-inspiring.

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3. Ode to Procrastination

<!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE <![endif]-->

Monday looms,
worry blooms,
deep within my chest.

Too much work,
deadlines lurk,
words ignored, protest.

Tuesday dawns
stretches, yawns,
promises success.

Laundry calls,
writing stalls,
must clean up this mess.

Wednesday waits,
doubt abates,
ready to create!

Cell phone bleeps,
meeting… eeps!
twenty minutes late!

Thursday’s here,
dear, oh, dear…
only one day more.

Cupboard’s bare,
do I care?
(Better hit the store.)

Friday’s free,
words and me
waiting to set sail!

First, a snack,
hurry back,
think I hear the mail...

by Anika Denise
*curtseys*

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4. BYHWO Books

Recently, I wrote a post over at The Little Crooked Cottage on self-doubt and the creative process.

It was an honest post, complete with an unflattering photo. But hey, I work in my jammies most days, so why pretend?

I wrote the piece because self-doubt happens, and I wrote it to help others (and myself...)



SNAP OUT OF IT! And move beyond it... to inspiration.

One of the ways I do this is by reading books I call the BYHWO's, or the "Break Your Heart Wide Open" books.

Reading them is a little like kidlit therapy. They're the books you can't stop thinking about. Perhaps they've made you cry. They're soulful, honest, heart-wrenching, hopeful books that change you in some way after having read them.

I thought it would be fun to share a few of the current titles on my BYHWO list, and hear which books would make yours. This is by no means a complete accounting. That would take all day and would veer into the other scourge of the freelance writer: procrastination.

The following are just a few books I've read (or reread) recently that broke my heart wide open, and left me feeling grateful that these stories -- and the writers who wrote them --  exist in the world.

The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate




Wonder by RJ Palacio



One for The Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt




See You At Harry's by Jo Knowles



Nowhere Girl by A.J. Paquette




The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo




The Magician's Elephant by by Kate DiCamillo




A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness




Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea




The Fault in Our Stars by John Green




The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider




Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai




The Underneath By Kathi Appelt




Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan



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5. My Summer of Rainbows

I seem to have taken up a new tradition of writing a reflective post just after back-to-school. Last year's post was: My Summer of Laughter and Forgetting. It was about my first fragile attempt at putting the pieces back together after losing my mom. It was apt, and it was honest. Reading it now, I wade in the emotions of that time and emerge on the other side, feeling stronger than I did then; just a little bit more at peace with what happened.

Sadly, the summer of 2013 came on the heels of another loss for our family. A heartbreakingly similar one. My aunt, my mom's sister--whom I loved dearly--passed away in June, after a long illness. I know I'm not alone in my big, close-knit extended family when I say, we are all feeling a measure of shock that this could happen again, and so soon. But it did.

My aunt's services were different than my mom's. Ever the nonconformist, my mother had requested a party, not a memorial. (There was a band.) My aunt's took place at my childhood church. They were more traditional, but no less beautiful.

The evening of the wake was gray and drizzling. The weather seemed to reflect our heavy hearts. And then, when calling hours were over, we stepped outside. The rain had stopped. The pavement was slick and glistening. I turned my face to the sky. And there it was--a rainbow--stretched wide across the sky just above us.

Days earlier, only hours after my aunt had passed, a friend emailed me a picture of a huge rainbow over the lake where she'd lived. And here it was again.

Now, I understand rainbows are naturally occurring (and not all that uncommon) weather phenomena. But you simply can't look up at the sky, feeling as bereft as we all did, to glimpse the most exquisite rainbow you've ever seen, and not wonder if there's a message in it.

Divine--or not, I chose to see it as an affirmation of the belief my aunt held until the end--that she was blessed, that we are all blessed, and that we should feel grateful for all the the good and the love that surrounds us.

This summer I saw more rainbows than I can count. It seemed after each rain, there one was. Friends saw them, too. Many a morning I'd wake up with a picture waiting in my inbox of a rainbow they'd seen the evening before, or on their morning walk.

I feel like a My Little Pony character when I say: it was a rainbow-filled summer.

So much so, that I began to ask, "Where's the rainbow?" after each storm. And not just the literal storms, but the metaphorical ones, too. Late in the summer, my husband faced some professional challenges that kept him up more than a few nights.

Amidst the worry and weight of it all, I asked, "Where's the rainbow?" A few days later, there it was. In the form of a newer better solution that has made him happier and more successful.

Now, when darker moments happen, I wait for the splash of color in the sky. I remember that the truest gift is having the mind, body and spirit to weather the storm--and move forward.



[G Love playing at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet, MA this summer. I turned to my friend and said, "I hope he does Rainbow." A moment later I heard the chords to the lead-in for the song. ]

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6. Ode to a Crumb

The first submission in my call for silly poems is in! I love the simple silliness of this delightful ode to a tiny crumb.


Ode to a Crumb
 
A crumb is so cool!
People eat them
and sweep them up
and throw them in the trash
and they live -
in your sandwich!

- Adam, from Texas, age 5

Keep the submissions coming! One young poet (selected at random) will receive a signed copy of PIGS LOVE POTATOES and BELLA AND STELLA COME HOME!

Submission deadline: May15th. 

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7. Monkey Bean


My favorite poems as a child were the silly ones. I loved all the classic Mother Goose rhymes and poured over books by Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. 

I even tried writing my own funny rhymes, filling notebooks with silly verses and scribbles--a few of which my mom was kind enough to rescue from the attic and save for me.  

Here is one I found recently in a notebook from when I was about 10-years-old.

I thought it would be fun to share - in honor of National Poetry Month - a silly poem from the very earliest days of my writing career.  













Monkey Bean

I looked into my jellybeans

and found

a jellybean that wasn’t smooth

or round.


It was a Monkey Bean

shaped like a monkey

shiny and green.


I cannot say

I was too keen

to try this bean

I’d never seen.


Is it mean,

to eat a Monkey Bean?


And how would it taste?


Would my Monkey Bean –

be a funky Bean?


I had to know.

I had to try.

I closed my eyes,

and opened wide.


Frozen where I stood

I gulped it down.


It tasted good!

~by Anika (Aldamuy) Denise circa 1983.


Do you have a favorite funny poem?  Or better yet, can you try writing a funny poem of your own?  Try it, and then ask your grown-ups if it's ok to send it to me to be posted on this blog. And remember, the sillier, the better! :)

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8. Thoughts on a tragedy

I don't often write blog posts in the aftermath of tragedies.

I guess it's because at times like these, words fail me, and I'm sensitive to the pain and grief of those directly affected. While I'm truly grateful for the reflection and comfort offered by others, I'm wary of feeding into what can sometimes feel like a collective appetite for sensationalism.

Also, I tend to cocoon with my family in the wake of tragic events. I turn off  television and social media and hold my children close. When my husband and I discuss what's happened, we do so in hushed whispers after the kids have gone to bed. We do this to protect them. To keep them safe.

But this morning, when I turned on my computer and saw on a good friend's Facebook feed that she was asking for prayers for their dear friends, The Richard family, who lost their 8-year-old son in yesterday's Boston Marathon bombing, I was unable to hide my grief.

I had heard yesterday that a young boy was among the causalities, and like all of us in New England and around the country, I felt a mix of shock, anger and despair for the city of the Boston and the victims of this terrible act. When anyone is harmed in an event like this, it's heartbreaking, but there is an acute and singular anguish when it's a child.

Then, when I read my friend's post, I realized I had met this family, years ago, at our friends' wedding. Suddenly, it all became even more immediate, and terrible, and the emotions that I'd been hiding from my kids came spilling out.

I called my friend. She lives in Texas, now. She was doing what I was, what so many of us as parents do, putting on a strong, reassuring face for her kids while sneaking into the bedroom to catch bits of news, to cry--and to grieve. I told her I remembered her friends from their wedding. She told me a bit more about them. What remarkable, beautiful people they are, beloved in their community, civic-minded and actively doing all they can to improve their town and make it a better, safer place to live.

She told me how helpless she felt being far away. She and her husband are longtime Bostonians but work has brought them west. Her voice tight and thick, she said, "This is my city."

I understood.

I remember feeling the same way after 9/11--wanting to be back in the place where I grew up, to do something, anything that would make me feel less helpless. I feel it again, now.

I wished I could say something to ease her pain, but all I could do was tell her I love her, and that she and her friends were in my prayers.

When I hung up the phone, I thought about the Richards. I remember the conversation we had at the wedding because we were doing what all new parents do when out for a blissful night of freedom without kids: talking about our kids. Like us, they had a baby at home. Like us, they were learning to balance having a new family with work, marriage, etc. Like us, they would go on to have two more children and build a life in a tight-knit New England community.

They are just like us.

I imagined the countless ways, big and small, they made sure to keep their children safe. I saw them buckling their babies into safety seats and holding the back of the bicycle to keep it steady; dolling out veggies on the plate and keeping a bedside vigil when one had a bad cough or a fever. I saw the look of heart-wrenched worry that first day they watched their kids go off to school after Newtown. Imagined them fingers crossed at their son's game, hoping he'd get a hit, or score a goal.

Like us, I know they did everything within their power every day, to keep their children safe.

And yet...

My kids saw me crying. I told them what happened. Then I reassured them, as best as I could, that things would be ok. I told them the stories of the heroes of yesterday. How the people of Boston came together to help each other. I told them what I know to be true--that the city will heal, and I asked them to pray for the Richards, and all the families affected by the tragedy.

I hope that is enough to keep them safe.

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9. Two-A-Day-Wog-Write Challenge, 2013!

Yesterday I found one of those "belly bands" in my closet from when I was pregnant.

For those who don't know, the purpose of a belly band is to be able to stay in your "skinny jeans" a little longer while accommodating your ever-expanding waistline.

It's a genius invention.

The problem is, when I pulled the belly band from my drawer, a horrifying thought ran through my head: "Maybe I should keep this. It could be useful."

Oh, no, I didn't! (Oh, yes, I did.)

That's when I realized I need to get back on a plan of daily exercise--STAT! I've also been woefully lax about sticking to a regular writing routine. I blame the holidays--and cheese--for my recent slacking, but the holidays are over. Time to lose the excuses. And the muffin top.

Then I had an idea! Why not combine my two goals into one big challenge with a silly name and declare it publicly on Facebook?

Brutal. But brilliant!

Since I don't want to start, then fall short and get discouraged, I'm making the challenge manageable.

I hereby pledge to writing two pages (if it's more, GREAT, but at least two) and "wogging" two miles a day, for the next two months. ("Wog" is a term my friend made up which means you jog a little, then walk a little to catch your breath. It's perfect for out-of-shape runners like myself, who need to start slow. I'm hoping after a few weeks, I'll be be more jog--less wog.)

If any of you out there who want to join my 2-A-Day-Write-Wog Challenge then go ahead and make the pledge (keeps you honest) in the comments section of this blog or on Facebook.

We can post updates on our progress and cheer each other on! Illustrators, filmmakers, crafters, knitters and artists of all kinds are welcome! Please feel free to join in and customize your "2-A-Day" however you'd like. (Two small drawings? Two sketches for a new pottery design? Whatever works.)

Good luck and "wog on!"

-Anika

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10. Resolute


At the dawn of 2012, my husband and I stood at the edge of one of our favorite places on earth - Lake George, NY - and made our new year's "resolutions." Except they weren't resolutions, exactly. We both wrote down three things we felt were holding us back in 2011, and three desires for 2012 on pieces of paper. Then we struck a match, burned them one by one, and watched as the ashes caught the wind and disappeared into the lake. 
It was a nice ritual. A moment of peaceful reflection after what had been a difficult, tumultuous year. I liked this better than making traditional resolutions which are inevitably broken by the end of February. Because whenever I get resolute about anything, the universe tends to throw me a curve. As if to say, "Not so fast. I bet you weren't expecting THIS!" 
And 2012 had its share of the unexpected.
A writing project derailed and then got back on track in a new and ultimately wonderful way.
After losing my Mom to cancer in 2011, her sister (my aunt, who supported us all throughout her illness) began her own battle with a rare and aggressive cancer. 
My best friend since we were five years old was also diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatments.
I left a job, then wound up coming back to it only to appreciate and enjoy it more than ever.
A conversation with a writer friend of mine sparked a writer's critique group with three phenomenally talented children's book authors whose counsel (and friendship) has been a gift.
Despite the highs and lows, as I look back on 2012, what I feel most is gratitude. My children are thriving. My family is happy. My husband and I still make each other laugh and even go on dates occasionally. I've met generous inspiring writers who are are invigorating my own writing and showing me that having a toddler and a successful writing career is indeed possible.
And although Chris and I both still struggle with some of the emotions and self-preceptions we sent up as embers into the crisp Adirondack air one year ago -- and some of the desires we scribbled on our bits of paper have yet to come to fruition -- we are steadily moving toward them, together.
If I make one "resolution" this year it will be to remember to count my many blessings every day of 2013, particularly in the context of recent events like Hurricane Sandy and the tragedy in Newtown, CT.
In this one goal, I am most certainly and wholly resolute. 

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11. 10 Lessons From My Social Media Diet

Recently I embarked on a monthlong social media "fasting" experiment in order to focus more on writing. The following are my somewhat surprising, slightly alarming findings and observations:

1. I am something of a procrastination virtuoso. When deprived of my distraction of choice, I simply invent a new one to take its place. Examples: Wandering the aisles at BJ's Wholesale Club; purging my paperback collection; offering to host a pre-holiday direct sales natural foods party for a friend.

2. I have comically bad timing. November was National Picture Book Month. I am a picture book author. Enough said.

3. After 13 years of marriage, my husband and I would definitely lose The Newlywed Game were we asked to play today. I know this because despite multiple attempts to guess the Facebook password he reset and kept secret from me, I couldn't hack, I mean log into my account.

4. People who quit Facebook gain an average of 5 lbs. And by people, I mean...me.

5. Some moments are harder to let pass than others without posting about them on Facebook or Twitter. Examples: My Uncle Dave leading the family in a rendition of "Let There Be Peace On Earth" before Thanksgiving dinner; Christina Aguilera's pink afro on The Voice.

6.Without Facebook you have to remember people's birthdays. And send a card.

7. Robbed of social media's barrage of election commentary, snarky political banter and ludicrous aggrandizing nonsenseI had absolutely no idea who to vote for. (Just kidding!)

8. My kids like me more when I'm not checking the twitter feed on my phone in the middle of a conversation.

9. I like me more when I'm not checking the twitter feed on my phone during a conversation.

10. Social media is greatin moderation. And it's at its best when used as a forum/community to lift-up, cheer-up, help, serve, give, laugh, share, illuminate, inspire, and occasionally... procrastinate. ;)

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12. "No-mo-so-me"


Maybe it's because November is National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a "Na-no-wri-mo," or maybe it's that we are nearing the end of 2012 and I'm revisiting the professional goals I set for myself at the start of the year, but I'm feeling the need to limit (in the precious few hours of the day that I designate for work) my distractions.

And the winner for the most distraction-causing, time-sucking, manuscript-thwarting activity?

You guessed it: Facebook. Not just Facebook, but all social media: Twitter, Pinterest, Linkdin,Tumblr, Instagram and on and on.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not making a statement, here. I'm a proud consumer of social media. I dig it! Truly! I love connecting with friends and family on Facebook; love reading my Twitter feed during a debate; love hearing news from colleagues about new books and exciting projects. It's awesome, especially for a stay-at-home-part-time-writing-mother-of-three like me.

But sometimes, I love it too much. And on days when I'm in the throes of a full-on fit of procrastination--social media is an enabler.

So, I'm declaring the month of November: "No-mo-so-me" (No More Social Media) for me. Hopefully, this break will accomplish what's intended, which is to refocus my time and creative energy, make me more introspective with my work, and more productive, overall.

I've asked my husband to change my passwords and keep them in a sealed envelope in his studio, so that I won't be tempted to sneak a peek when the going gets tough. (Yep, had to get drastic.)

If you need to get in touch between November 1st and November 30th, send me an email, give a call, write a postcard, send up a flare or knock on my door (if you're in the area and aren't a stalker).

Until then, to all my friends, tweeps and compadres in cyberspace... wish me luck! I'll see you on December 1st!

One note: I will make a teeny tiny exception to go on Goodreads to vote for some of the talented authors I've met this year who are nominated in the "Goodreads Readers' Choice Awards," and that activity feeds into my Facebook page. Other than that, though, the goal is cold turkey!

Ok, I better go so that I can get my fill of all the Facebook pics of your kids/ pets in silly costumes before midnight!

Happy Halloween!

-Anika


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13. My summer of laughter and forgetting

Laughter is good medicine.

This summer I had regular and hefty doses of it.

Last year on July 8, I was at my mom's hospital bed saying my final goodbye. The months that followed were a blur. I faced the daily struggle of balancing my own grief with my responsibilities as a wife and mother. My daughters measured their own emotional states by the tenor of my moods. The more short tempered or despondent I was, the more anxious and untethered they became. They looked to me to provide solid ground beneath their feet, after a loss that rocked their world.

It was up to me to make them feel safe. And some days, I just wasn't up to the task.

When we arrived at the one-year anniversary of my mother's death, I confronted varying emotions: Disbelief that a whole year had passed, profound sadness, but also a pull to come out of the dark. Watching someone you love go through a protracted illness, seeing their suffering, is a trauma. It takes time to actually want to heal. Perhaps it was the influence of my Jewish friends, whose faith ritualizes a year of mourning, but at the one-year mark, I felt the first stirrings of that desire.

To do it would take a mix of forgetting, and remembering. Trauma stays with you. You have flashbacks. The images aren't pretty. The only way I could think of dulling their sharp edges was to seek pleasure. Grieving people sometimes shun enjoyable activities because they're depressed, and because they feel detached and maybe even a little guilty doing them. I knew for me to begin to heal, I was going to have to lose the guilt—and invite joy.

I needed to remember my mother's words. She told us in a letter she wrote before she died, that the best way to honor her life, was to savor the sweetness of ours.

I began planning our summer days with that simple purpose. Find joy. Savor it. Laugh.

As a result my family and I had the summer of our lives. We visited the places and the people we love. We read books. We didn't rush anywhere. We said no to things we didn't want to do and yes to things we did. We cooked our favorite meals and ate them together. We told jokes at the table. We took long walks on the beach and looked up at the stars.

In early August, I spent a weekend in Maine at a writing retreat where I met a group of amazingly talented and generous women. We picked blueberries, enjoyed a lobster dinner al fresco, and yes, even did a little writing. On numerous occasions that weekend we laughed so hard, we cried.

Each of those moments was an offering and a prayer of gratitude to my wise and beautiful mother.

My year of mourning is over. My summer of laughter and forgetting has allowed me to remember what's important.

1 Comments on My summer of laughter and forgetting, last added: 9/8/2012
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14. Stories and Art In The Park

I'm doing this tomorrow with Chris! http://www.kennedyplaza.org/2012/06/kidoinfo-storytime-art-in-the-park/

Come join us for stories "al fresco" and Art In The Park.

This year's theme is Harold and The Purple Crayon (one of my all time favorites).  We'll be reading and drawing the morning away.  If you're in the Providence area -- bring a blanket and join us!

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15. What a night!

Group photo with the 2012 LAL State Winners!
Last night, I had the pleasure to present award certificates and deliver the keynote speech at the Rhode Island Center for the Book's 2012 Letters About Literature Awards.

Letters About Literature is a national reading and writing program of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, presented in partnership with Target and supported locally by RICB.

60,000 young readers from across the country participated, including nearly 800 Rhode Islanders. Students were asked to submit letters describing how an author's work -- novel, non-fiction, poetry -- changed their view of the world or helped them realize something they didn't know about themselves.

With a focus on reader response and reflective writing, one winner and several honorable mentions were chosen in three competition levels, ranging from grades 4 through 12.

I had the chance to read the winning letters beforehand, and heard them read-aloud by the winners at the event.  All of the letters had a powerful narrative voice and displayed a talent and wisdom beyond the young writers' years.

It was honor to present the students with their awards, and an inspiration to hear their words.  All in all, it was evening I won't soon forget.

Click here to learn more about Letters About Literature and Rhode Island Center for the Book.

Below is a transcript the address I gave to the students, their families, and members of RICB.


Keynote Address
by Anika Denise
Rhode Island Center for the Book Annual Meeting and Letters About Literature Awards
Williams Hall Library, Cranston, Rhode Island
June 4, 2012

Good evening, everyone.  First, I want to say thank you to the Rhode Island Center for the Book for inviting me here to speak to you tonight.  It’s an honor and a privilege.  Not to mention, great fun to be spend an evening celebrating reading, writing, and the books that inspire us!  So thank you, for including me in the festivities. There's even balloons... it's a party!

Second, I’d like to CONGRATULATE all the winners, honorable mentions in the Letters About Literature Competition.

It takes courage to submit your words, to participate… to put something of yourself out there into the world to be judged.  Writers must do this all the time.  And it’s never easy.  

But, you did.  You wrote something compelling and meaningful, and tonight, you’re being recognized and celebrate

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16. The Present

While getting my two oldest girls off to school this morning, there was much groaning and dragging of feet and "do we have to's?" Usually they head off to school without a fuss. But we've all just come off a lovely holiday weekend. The weather was warm and sunny. We enjoyed the beach at the end of our street. The "big girls" spent a day up in Boston with their Auntie eating gelato in the north end and visiting the aquarium. We gardened a little, and cooked out.

It feels as though summer's already here. And then this morning, they had to get their heads back in the game for THREE MORE WEEKS OF SCHOOL! Even I was dragging my feet and groaning. We're all a little burnt out on the school year, and the taste of summer's freedom was just too sweet.

On my second cup of coffee, I realized I needed to do something to boost morale. It was time for a speech. [Insert eye-roll here.]

"We have 18 more days left a school," I said. "And we could go into these three weeks like we are now, bumming, or we could focus on the things we like about school and try to enjoy some part of each day."

No reaction. They weren't buying it. And in truth, I wasn't yet, either. But I pressed on.

"Come on, what's one thing you do enjoy about school? There has to be one thing for each of you."

"My friends," said Sofia. "Sally and Staci, Anna and Caroline."

"That's right!" I said, excited she was playing along. "And Sally will be away for the summer, so you can look at these days as the fun time you get to spend together before she leaves for vacation."

I was getting somewhere.

"And four-square!" Isabel chimed in "Yeah, I like four-square too," said Sofia. "And I have a really nice class. This is the last time we'll all be together."

"Exactly. So, when you're all outside at recess together, look around, and think about how nice a class it is, and feel glad you're there."

It was my turn: "I'll miss the moment when I get you both to the bus and I can have my coffee in the quiet. I'm going to savor that moment everyday until the end of school."

Now, I was starting to believe my own words. "It's called living in the 'present' and enjoying it."

"Like Kung Fu Panda!" said Isabel. "'Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present.'"

(Thank you, Master Ooguay.) "That's it," I said. "You've got it."

There was no more groaning. They packed up their things and headed out the door. I won't exaggerate and say that they were excited, but they were considerably less bumming.

The lesson of staying present, of not resisting what I can't control, is one I learn and relearn again and again. But when I remember it, and live by it, my life, my writing, my family is always better for it.

So, for these last few weeks of the school year, I'm going to take my own advice (and Ooguay's) and find something to enjoy and appreciate in each day. Because as corny and cliché as it sounds...today truly is a gift.

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17. Invisible Ink

Another goal in my renewed commitment to "full-time-part-time" writing, is to SEEK HELP. Not in the clinical sense (though I believe any good critique group is one part therapy, one part invaluable counsel, and one part snacks), but more in the way of finding resources that will help me hone my craft and become a better writer.

Recently, my husband gave me the book, "Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate," by Brian McDonald. Brian has taught story seminars at PIXAR, DISNEY FEATURE ANIMATION and George Lucas' ILM. He's an award-winning short filmmaker and a sought after speaker from Los Angeles to Wall Street. 

His book largely references screenplays, but his advice on the mechanics of story and plot can be applied to all forms of storytelling, including writing a novel.

Here's what it boils downs to, according to McDonald: Seven easy steps to a better story. Come on, that can't be right! If there were seven easy steps, I'd have known about them long before this!

But there are. And yes, in some form, I have known them all along, but I love the way he presents them in his book, so simply and succinctly. He credits the steps as being taught to him by his writing teacher Matt Smith, who learned them from a fellow named Joe Guppy. To Joe Guppy, I say, thank you! And to Brian McDonald: Bravo, for having the sense to put them in a book, and for adding his own sage advice on how to apply them.

The Steps:

1.) Once upon a time

2.) And every day

3.) Until one day

4.) And because of this

5.) And because of this

6.) Until finally

7.) And ever since that day

These are the elements, the "invisible ink," McDonald says are in every story. And he's right. If you can fill in the blanks of your story after each of these steps, then you do, in fact, actually have a story. 

He also discusses other important pieces like dialogue, and subplot and tension, but even if you had only his first chapter, only his seven steps, you'd be on the road to becoming a stronger storyteller.

I have been looking at my stories in a new way, thanks to Mr. McDonald. 

And I urge any writer, every writer to read it, too.

You can read Brian's blog, "Invisible Ink," here.

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18. Just Dance

After a lovely vacation week visiting my family in the southeast, this is the official start of what I'm calling my "full-time-part-time" writing career.

I'll admit, day one (yesterday) consisted of not so much writing, but more desk-clearing and laundry. Still, it was a good first step.

This morning, as the cursor on my screen blinked in anticipation, I felt the first real wave of panic hit me since making this decision. All the usual fears invaded my brain: What if I get a massive case of writer's block? What if writing during nap-time and evenings isn't enough? What is no one pays to me to write a single word EVER AGAIN!? 

Typically, when in the throes of a good "career freak out," I head out for a walk. I'm not great at meditating in stillness, but a brisk walk often helps me quiet my mind. This morning I had two problems: First, the baby was napping, hence me, "butt-in-chair" in front of my computer. Second, it's pouring rain and chilly here in Barrington today, and I needed to be distracted -- not drenched.

So, feeling a tad desperate, I decided on another type of movement meditation: My kids' Just Dance game for X-Box 360.

I know very few people over the age of 17 who look cool doing Just Dance or any of those Wii or X-Box dance games, and I assure you, I am no exception. But this was an emergency.

So, I pulled the drapes, cranked up the volume, and just... danced. Until all I was thinking about was how to a master a move that no one looks good doing who isn't in a boy band.

I let go. And laughed at myself. And when the music stopped, and I realized I'd bested my high score in "Shake Your Groove Thing," I felt better.

My lesson for the day? Sometimes butt-in-chair isn't going to happen, until you shake off the fears (even if it's only temporary) that are holding you back.

And if a quarter turn and a hip slap is what works... then do it. Just dance.



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19. Play to Your Strengths

This morning, my thoughts are on school visits, due in part, to the wonderful presentation I listened to by Alexis O'Neill over the weekend at Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat. Alexis writes the column for the SCBWI Bulletin, "The Truth About School Visits" and she gave us some great tips for creating or revamping a school visit program.

Another reason school visits are on my mind is this is Reading Week season, and I'm preparing to visit the Hathaway School in Portsmouth, RI on April 4th, along with my husband, Chris. We'll be unveiling a short film about kids and books we created with the help of videographer Adam Wasilewski, some wonderful kid volunteers, and the Providence Athenaeum.

Starting an assembly program with a film is, on the one hand, passive, but if it gets the kids laughing and warmed up (which I hope our film will), then it can be a nice ice-breaker.

One thing that's important, especially with a younger audience, is to get them involved interactively in the presentation right away, and not just be a talking head in front of the room.

Some authors take a more theatrical approach, such as bringing puppets or the playing an instrument -- but if that's not quite your style (puppets make me break out in a cold sweat, for instance) there is always an opportunity to recite a poem, sing a song, or play a rhyming game.

In the short time I've been doing school visits, one thing I realized is you have to be yourself, and this is something Alexis stressed in her presentation too. Figure out what you comfortable with, what makes you unique, and play to your strengths.

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20. Your Board of Directors

A friend gave me a wonderful piece of advice today.

We were talking about self-confidence and silencing the little voice that tells you you're not good enough, smart enough, talented enough, etc.

Writers are notorious for letting this voice get in the way of their work. Starting it, finishing it, touting it, or all of the above.

She advised me to create a figurative "Board of Directors" for my life. A circle of people I hold in my mind who nurture, encourage and inspire me, but never criticize. The best part is, I don't even have to know them personally. (Yes, Oprah Winfrey can be on my board.)

Nor does a board have to be comprised of those in the here and now. The deceased qualify. This was a revelation to me because my mom, who passed away last year, was my best sounding board and biggest champion. The idea of her as "Chairman" (or chairwoman, as the case may be) of my board is a lovely, powerful thought.

The only requirement for my Board of Directors, is that they be people who surround me in positive, encouraging light--either in how the treat me, the messages they put forth to the world, or how I remember them.

So when doubt creeps in, as it is wont to do, or I'm in a situation where I feel somehow "less than," I can consult with these trusted individuals, know that they believe in me, and move forward.

Creating my Board of Directors has been enlightening. I must say, I'm quite happy to have them around.

Go ahead, try it. Who's on yours?

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21. B.I.C.

Jane Yolen says the secret to her prolific writing lies in three little letters: BIC. An acronym for "Butt in Chair."

My former editor Patti Gauch told me the same thing. Write every day. Some days it will flow, some days in won't, but the key is showing up.

Today, I'm one step closer to fully committing to BIC. It wasn't an easy decision, but I'll soon be resigning from my post as Events Planner for Barrington Books. Anyone who knows me, knows how dearly I love this book store -- the staff, the customers, the incredible children's section -- all of it. In the last four years, I've made cherished friends, met amazing authors, and have enjoyed being a small part of helping this little neighborhood gem grow into a bona fide "Destination Store."

Sometimes, though, the path forward becomes clear. My husband (and picture book-partner) Chris, recently signed on to do a new project. It will mean longer hours for him, and needing to look at the balance of our work schedules in a new way.

So, if there was ever a time to leap, it's now.

Every experience shapes us as writers, and I have no doubt my experiences and the people I've met at Barrington Books will make their way into a future story. (One that takes place in an enchanted bookstore, perhaps? Hmmm.)

Until then, you know where to find me. I'll be here, at my desk..."BIC."

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22. "How much do you get paid for a book?"

The Q&A portion of a school visit is always an enlightening, entertaining experience.

Time and time again, I find myself impressed and delighted by the intelligent, incisive questions even very young children ask. Questions about process, inspiration and creativity that reaffirm what I already know: Kids are infinitely clever, and we as authors and educators should never underestimate them.

Which is why I was not surprised when at a recent school visit, a little boy raised his hand and asked: "How much do you get paid for a book?"

I was not surprised, but not exactly prepared, either. First, I made an attempt at humor.

"A million dollars," I said, with my pinky to my chin, doing my best "Dr Evil" impression.

[Crickets]

These kids are in first grade. They're too young for Mike Meyers.

Then I gave the standard and probably all-too-confusing answer about how a publisher pays the author some money in advance of the book coming out, which is based on a guess of how many books the publisher thinks will sell. Then, if a book sells more than what they guess, the author gets paid a small amount on each book sold after that.

[Huh?]

I tried to move on, but the little boy was undeterred. And on to me.

"But how much do you make for a book you write?" he asked.

"It varies, depending on the length of the book."

This is true. Sort of.

Then it hit me. He didn't really want a dollar amount. (Well, probably he did.) But what his infinitely clever little mind was actually trying to work out was: Can I do this as my job?

To which my answer was, "I can tell you this, Chris and I make our living creating books for kids, and it's the best job on earth."

The little boy smiled, and I did too. Because it's true.









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23. "Please call back later, I have a world to build."

I've been thinking a great deal about world building. It's an odd phrase, really. Sounds more like a subject for the Geneva Convention than the concern of novelists. But if you write fantasy, world building is key.

Currently, I'm at work on a middle grade novel featuring mice as the main characters. And although I don't have the daunting task of creating an entire universe with its own class, culture, government, technology, botany and imagined creatures that many high fantasy middle grade and YA authors do, it's still vitally important that the world in which my mice exist be plausible and interesting.

There are a number of questions I must answer in order to avoid causing the reader stop and ask them, too.

First, is the issue of scale. How do the mice interact with larger animals in the story in a believable way? Will my characters and plot follow the natural order of our world, or will it break those rules with a purpose?

What about clothing? How do I integrate clothes into the story so that it seems perfectly natural that a mouse would don a trench coat and fedora?

And the most important question of all: Is this an alternate universe where mice rule the day, or are they an adjunct, hidden part of a larger human world?

Believe it or not, when I first began writing this novel, I hadn't decided the answer to that question. It's only now, in the editing and rewriting stage, that I'm fully addressing (and sometimes grappling with) that issue.

And whenever I'm grappling with some aspect of craft, I find it helps me to look to the masters for inspiration.

Here are a few authors who build "critter worlds" like nobody's business.

EB White, Stuart Little

















Mary Norton, The Borrowers


















Robert C. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH




















Richard Adams, Watership Down




















Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows

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24. What's in a name?

I enjoy naming characters, but I'm hardly scientific about it.

I know writers who've given more thought to naming their characters than their first born. They do exhaustive research, try out several variations, and go back and forth with their critique groups to find just the right moniker.

And this is wise, because a character's name is extremely important. It's the first impression, a clue to his or her personality.

But I just don't seem to do it that way.

For me, it's a gut thing. My characters' names just happen. If it wasn't such a cliche, I'd be tempted to say they name themselves. (It really does feel like that sometimes.)

Perhaps it's because I tend to take a Dickensian approach. Oftentimes, my characters will have names that embody who they are and what they do: A mouse named Tibbles for instance, or a hare called Mr. Fops.

Sometimes the connections are more nebulous, but nonetheless, when I hit on the perfect name, issues of its appropriateness to time period and genre seem to fall into place.

Conversely, if I'm struggling, I know there's more work to be done in fleshing that character out. It's actually a fine litmus test for character development.

If you're looking for more (reliable, instructional, scientific) information on naming characters, I found this fabulous four-part series from "The Prairie Wind," Newsletter of the Illinois chapter of SCBWI.

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25. La Sangre Llama

"La sangre llama," said my father as my baby daughter bounced contentedly on his lap. Typically, she'd be a little strange with someone she doesn't see regularly scooping her up out of my arms and whisking her away, but she wasn't. Her eyes were taking him in, moving over his bearded face in that intense way of hers, when she popped the chubby thumb from her mouth, and a sweet smile spread across her cherubic face.

La sangre llama. It means: "The blood calls."

It was something my Titi Rosie first said seven years ago when she and my father visited us from Florida. My middle daughter Isabel was still a baby, and despite having just met my dad for the first time (and battling her first bouts of stranger anxiety), she snuggled up on his lap like he'd been rocking her to sleep every night.

Now, I'm someone who values the family we choose as much as the one we are are born into. I come from divorced parents who remarried, have a large extended family, and several friends who are as dear to me as blood relatives. I know very well that the bond of blood relation is not all there is to it.

I feel fortunate for all of my familial relationships, including ones that have been made through marriage, or the long history of friendship.

But in the case of my dad, who lives far away, I'm so grateful the blood calls, and that despite the distance and the long months between visits, my children are drawn to their Pop-pop like magnets.

As I spend time with my dad, his wife, my sister and brother, and all my relatives here in Florida this vacation, I fall into the relaxed rhythm of family... and my soul feels restored.

My Pop, with my youngest daughter Esmé


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