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Melissa Wiley is the author of The Martha Years books about Laura Ingalls Wilder's great-grandmother, Martha Morse Tucker, and The Charlotte Years books, about Laura's grandmother, Charlotte Tucker Quiner.
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1. Oh, is that all?

Wonderboy, perusing the family calendar as he is wont to do, observes: “We don’t have much going on in December. Just Ron and Larry’s visit, and Grandma and Grandpa’s visit, and Jane coming home from college, and my birthday and Dad’s birthday and your birthday, and the piano recital, and Christmas.”

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2. Garden notes, Thanksgiving week 2014

photo (48)

Faded: the sunflowers. They’re drooping in sad-Charlie-Brown fashion all along the side wall. They amuse me.

In bloom: yellow daisies, masses of them. Pink geraniums, always. Orange zinnias, still going strong. Sweet alyssum and snapdragons, recently added. (The summer alyssum crop, grown from seed, carpeted a corner of the yard all summer, then went brown and weedy. We missed them and put in a few nursery plants to tide us over until the next batch of seeds comes up.) Bougainvillea, small but promising. Lavender, keeping the bees busy. Basil, because I forgot to pinch it off.

In fruit: Tomatoes! Hurrah! I moved them to the front yard this year and voila, they are producing abundantly.

But overshadowing all of these by a mile: the renegade pumpkins. Last year (Halloween 2013) we had one jack-o-lantern and two smaller uncarved pumpkins. These got left alone when we tossed the melting jack-o-lantern. (That’s what carved pumpkins do in Southern California. They dissolve on the stoop.)

The two little pumpkins became a quiet science experiment during the course of the year. One was partly under a bush and retained its integrity for months. The other, in full sun, decomposed rapidly. All of us enjoyed comparing their progress during our comings and goings from driveway to front door.

By July, the shaded pumpkin had joined its mate in the circle of life: its skin crisped and cracked like old, brittle paper. Seeds spilled out everywhere. Did I pay them any mind? I did not.

In August, we noticed sprouts. Not only at the site of the departed pumpkins, but also along the side wall near the sidewalk.

photo (49)

By October, we had vines. Big sprawling vines with huge leaves, trailing all across the lawn and beyond. We had to keep kicking them off the sidewalk back onto the grass lest they trip up passersby.

And now, two days before the final pumpkin holiday of the year, we have (at last count) a crop of six young pumpkins of modest size in various shades of green and yellow. Not orange. No, not quite orange yet.

pumpkin

I figure they’ll be ripe in time for Christmas.

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3. Learning in Public

pens

Something I think is wonderful about social media is the way so many creative people share their efforts and progress in various arts. I don’t just mean professional artists sharing their finished work, though of course that too is a great delight—this abundance of gorgeous, polished photography and painting and stories and poems and quilts and handwovens and other creations we find displayed all over the internet. Just Google artist sketchbook blog and you could be absorbed for weeks upon weeks.

But even more so, I appreciate the working-it-out pieces, the I’m-undertaking-something-new-and-here’s-how-it’s-going-so-far posts. Years ago, a bunch of us were doing this with quilting—posting pictures of our blocks, sometimes the first ones we’d ever made, crooked seams and all. You see it often with knitting and sewing and all kinds of handcrafts. Look what I made! I know it isn’t perfect, but… Sometimes shy, sometimes fearless, always inspiring, this sharing of incremental progress.

Even people who are accomplished in one aspect of an art sometimes do what I’ve come to think of as “learning in public” when they undertake another aspect of it—a kind of unabashedness I thoroughly respect, since it means admitting to gaps in skills or knowledge, but speaks to a desire to always be learning, always be stretching one’s abilities. I think about the very wise advice of that great sage, Ms. Frizzle: “Take chances! Make mistakes!” Our mistakes are what spark growth.

Certainly you may challenge yourself in private, and do plenty of chance-taking and mistake-making without an audience. Most people do, I think. Or they do it in the context of a relatively intimate setting: a knitting club, an improv class, a private piano lesson. I understand that, I respect that desire for privacy. But it makes me all the more grateful to see someone willing to fumble along in public, so to speak, encouraging the rest of us by posting rookie work online. Then, too, you create an archive of progress, not just for yourself but for future students of the art.

Lisa Congdon, a very accomplished artist, decided to improve her lettering skills by posting a handlettered image on her blog every day for a year. Every day of 2012, she shared her work. About a hundred days into the project, she wrote:

Hand lettering everyday is a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. Some days it feels really fun. Some days it feels like a chore (and I have to redo something 5 times to get it as right as I can). I do like the discipline of the process. When I did my first daily project in 2010, I felt the same way. The daily encouragement from people who read my blog and follow me on twitter also helps tremendously!

Artist Jennifer Orkin Lewis (I’ve posted about her before) does a daily 30-minute painting in her sketchbook and posts each page on Instagram. They are a feast for the eyes, let me tell you. In an interview with Lisa Congdon, Jennifer said, “I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.” I think there’s a lot to be said for using a blog or other public medium to help yourself stick to a goal—spurred on both by the sense of accountability Jennifer describes, and the encouragement and support Lisa speaks of.

***

I wrote the above more than a week ago and left it sitting in drafts because—despite everything I said up there—I personally feel really shy about sharing my rookie drawing and painting efforts. (Confession: the one time I went to a karaoke party, I was dying to get up and sing—and would have died before I’d have volunteered.)

This morning Tammy Garcia posted the following at Daisy Yellow:

When I started drawing I didn’t know that I would or could get better. I thought that people were either born with innate drawing talent or they were not. Perhaps they skipped the queue. But the truth for me has been that my coordination and control have improved over the years. If you are having trouble getting the pen to do what you want it to do. Maybe you just need to draw more lines.

When I started drawing in about 2008, I was an accountant – a financial analyst – with no particular drawing skill set. I started drawing doodly lines simply to pass the time while my kids were doing stuff. I drew in moleskine journals. On airplanes, at swimming lessons, while the kids splashed in the tub, at Starbucks and book stores.

The boxes looked like wonky kites. Parallel lines intersected instead. Circles looked like cracked eggs.

But looking back, I can see that every time I challenged myself to try something new {what about a mandala without any curved lines? what about ivy leaves that cover each page? what about a mandala where the lines focus on negative space? what about a new alphabet?} I made a step forward. In understanding, in pen control, in art. With trial & error & practice, I now know how hard to press, how to move my arm, my hand, to get a reasonable facsimile of a straight line. I can draw curves. I still can’t draw great faces, but I believe that one day I will.

(Read the rest—there’s a lot more including a list of ways to improve your line work.)

Tammy teaches online art classes and sends out regular art-journaling prompts that inspire masses of people. What a delight to see her discussing her (relatively recent) learning curve. I was nodding excitedly as I read along, because I’ve been drawing lines almost obsessively ever since taking Lisa Congdon’s Creativebug course in early October—pages and pages of scallops or triangles or short parallel lines in interlocking patterns. It’s meditative and relaxing, a good busying-of-the-hands for me when I want to think for a bit. But mostly I’ve been doing it simply for the pure pleasure of feeling the line. Of making my pen do what I want it to do. Of figuring out, bit by bit, how to do it better.

varsity

Now Rilla and I are watching all these Koosje Koene drawing videos and I’m trying to push a little farther. This month my sketchbook is full of staplers and tape dispensers and colored pencils—whatever’s lying around on my desk when I sit down to draw. I’m working on watercolor, too. SO MUCH TO LEARN. Scott gets cross with me when I start pointing out all the flaws in my work—he thinks I’m way too hard on myself, being a novice and all—but I remind him that as professional writers, our entire day is laced with editing and revising—the constant practice of seeking out places in our writing that could be made better, stronger, zingier, lovelier, fresher, truer, something-er. I don’t feel pained about cataloguing the ways a drawing isn’t there yet. I enjoy it, actually. Especially since reading that Ira Glass quote and recognizing that it’s my “killer taste” that allows me to see the weaknesses in my own work.

mwileytomatoes

Because at the same time that I’m self-critiquing, I’m also feeling a tremendous sense of pleasure in having a Finished Thing I Made. This was a bit of a revelation I had the other day after I painted these tomatoes from my garden. It’s my first real attempt at a proper watercolor. And even as I was scrutinizing its shortcomings, I felt giddy: there it is. This thing I made. In one sitting! I’ve been working on my current novel for four years. Even books I’ve written quickly took months—and then another year or more to reach publication day.

I can grow a tomato in my sketchbook in an hour. To me it feels like magic.

I don’t think I’m brave enough to commit to posting a daily drawing—much as I would like the accountability and encouragement! But maybe I’ll try to keep learning in public once in a while. Something I want my kids to know is that you have to be not-great at something on your way to getting better at it.

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4. Sing, cuckoo, sing

640px-Red_deer_stag_2009_denmark
Pardon me!
Image source: Bill Ebbesen | Wikimedia Commons

Today is the last meeting of this year’s Poetry Club. The fall session was short, just six weeks (minus one when we all suddenly realized Halloween fell on a Friday). We’ve expanded to three age groups now: littles, middles, and bigs. In the older group, we’ve been looking at some poetic forms and doing close readings. Today we’re going off on a different tack and hunting up poems about food. I challenged the kids to write their own poems about food or Thanksgiving, and that’ll be the best part, seeing what they’ve come up with. :)

Last week in my littles group, the funniest thing happened. We were looking at animal poems, and I had put out a stack of children’s poetry books for the kids to rummage through. They would find a poem and either read it aloud or have me read it. Usually they wanted me to do the reading. We ended with the selection of one small girl from a lovely collection of nature poems. She had picked a spread that featured the medieval song “Sumer Is Icumen In” with a contemporary translation on the recto. “You read it,” she urged, sliding the book across the floor toward me. I dove in and was well underway when I remembered that one line in the middle—the one that brought my college Medieval Lit class to fits of giggles. The modern translation hewed pretty close to the original.

“Bullock starteth, buck farteth.”

This is a group of six-to-eight-year-olds. You can imagine the hilarity. That’s one poem they’ll never forget. :)

I really think what I love most about that poem, more even than its exuberance and exultation over the return of lovely weather, is its window on human nature. Seven hundred years later: we still enjoy a good fart joke.

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5. States I’ve Visited

This make-your-own map is going around Facebook and I couldn’t resist.


Create Your Own Visited States Map

I’m a little tortured by that Arkansas gap! On our cross-country trip four (!!) years ago, we just barely missed that state; our route eastward took us through Tulsa and then northeast to Mansfield, MO, to visit Rocky Ridge Farm (naturally). We almost nicked the top corner of Arkansas then, but nope. And on the way back, we took the southern route through AL, LA, TX and so on.

I’ve been back and forth past RI several times too, en route from NYC to Massachusetts. But somehow we never drove through it.

Funny that two more of my missing states (so far I’ve been to 40, which ain’t bad) are major Little House milestones! One of these days I’ll get to DeSmet, SD, and Pepin, WI, for sure.

Beyond the borders of the U.S., I’ve been to four countries: Canada (for a wedding in Toronto, but I really need to hie myself to PEI one of these years, too); Germany; France; and Spain. Germany & France were one summer during high school, when I got to stay with a German family for a couple of months. They took me all over the country, with a week in Montélimar, France (nougat capital of the world) to boot. And Spain was the awesome week in Barcelona with Scott in 2008. A life-changer in some ways, that one.

But then I suppose all travel is life-changing!

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6. Art Resource: Koosje Koene’s Draw Tip Tuesday

drawtiptuesday
(Added the shadow color before the cookie was dry, and the yellow bled. Whoops!)

Saturday night, as I’ve mentioned, is one of the best parts of my week. My boys go to bed early these days—7:30, ever since the time change. (Ahhh…) Rose and Beanie watched S.H.I.E.L.D. with Scott. And Rilla and I cozy up on my bed to listening to our current audiobook—right now we’re midway through Matilda, having had such a delightful time with The BFG—and our sketchbooks.

Sometimes we start off with a few short art videos on YouTube for warmups. Lately we’ve had some of our most fun bouts of clip-watching yet, because we have discovered Koosje Koene’s Draw Tip Tuesday. Koosje is a Dutch artist who teaches online art classes at Sketchbook Skool and via her own site. Her clips are clear, fun, and super helpful. Rilla and I are having the best time making our way through all of them. I’m learning a lot!

I’ll share only a few here. It was hard to choose which ones! You can click through to see the whole series. We have subscribed to Koosje’s Youtube channel so we won’t miss anything.

We had fun with this tangerine:

(direct link)

And this cookie quartet:

(direct link)

Of course we couldn’t resist the one about popsicles:

(direct link)

This tip for how to draw both edges of a banner at once was new to me and is very cool:


(direct link)

Enjoy!

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7. I prefer to think of it as late, LATE October

zinnia

I’ve been unusually (for me) quiet here lately. Partly it’s due to some unexpected work keeping out of the house a lot more than usual. But also I’ve just been taking some breathing-in time. Reading, thinking, sketching, a bit (a very little bit) of painting. Reading, hoo boy, my Cybils pile means a whole lot of breathing in…I have so many books I want to tell you about! I’m hoping next week sees a return to a more usual blogging schedule for me.

But (gasp) here it is practically mid-November already, and the kids are practicing for the Christmas recital, and I’ve booked Jane’s train tickets for Thanksgiving (hoorah!), and my editor plans to send notes on my manuscript before the holiday, and—well, I guess it’s a good thing I took a little time to be pensive because there will be precious little time for that during the next two months, eh?

Pumpkins have overrun our front yard. Last year’s decorative pumpkins decomposed quietly under a bush all year; at first we meant to throw them out but then it became so interesting to watch how much more quickly the one mostly in the sun deteriorated than the one completely in the shade. Eventually the heat desiccated them both and the brittle, papery sides split open and exposed the seeds to that one little bit of rain we had. Voila, sprouts galore. Now little green globes that promise to be autumnally orange right around, oh, I’d say Christmas. Right on track for the topsy-turvy seasons of this crazy place.

Glorious right now: my zinnias, which I don’t remember planting. They came up intermingled with the sunflowers, so perhaps someone spilled a seed packet back in June. I did have a lot of helpers that day. Garden surprises are the very nicest kind.

(One of the only kind of surprises I like, come to think of it.)

A neat thing from yesterday: the Stone Writing Center at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, named me their “Writer Crush” for the day. :)

Even cooler: this comment from Dori White’s niece on my Sarah and Katie post!

Making my life easier: Google Inbox. Anybody else using it?

Yikes, I’m out the door again in 15 minutes. Your turn. I’m way behind on blog-reading (blame Cybils) and I miss you guys! What’s new?

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8. “Your taste is still killer”

I came across this Ira Glass quote (direct YouTube link for my iPad readers) and was struck by how accurately it describes my relationship to my drawing efforts.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Such a good point. It’s because you can recognize what good art (writing, music, etc) is that you know yours isn’t good…yet. And so the daily habit becomes almost an imperative, if you want to improve. My writing is best when I’m writing every day. If I keep up the sketchbook habit for eight or nine years, I just might be able to draw the way I want to. :)

sketchbooknov10

Not there yet.

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9. Huckisms

“Do you like it better when yoyos have names? Because I named this one Ghostie.”

***

“Did you hear what I played on the piano? Like this—” (hums a melody) “But in a different tune.”

 

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10. Huck-and-Rillabooks, October 2014 Edition

It’s been a while since I did a big fat Rillabooks post. The books are piling up! Literally and figuratively. When I want to blog about a book, I leave it out after we’ve read it. This means:

1) There are stacks of books on every flat surface of this house; and

2) We keep reading those books over and over, because they’re out where we can see them.

Which is fine, because I wouldn’t have had the urge to blog about the book in the first place if it weren’t in some way delightful.

Another thing that’s happening a lot lately is that Huck collects favorite picture books to read in his bed at night. I could probably skip writing about them and just post a picture of his headboard every morning. No stronger recommendation for a children’s book than being made part of a five-year-old’s hoard, is there?

But here, I’ll do a proper post. Kortney, consider this my thank-you note for that lovely write-up the other day. :)

NEW:

mixitupMix It Up by Hervé Tullet. Here’s a book that beckons a child in and invites him to touch and “mix” blobs of color on the page. Drag some red into the yellow blob, and when you turn the page, naturally you’ve got orange. What interested me is how completely Huck entered into the conceit, touching and swirling those painted spots on the page just as if he were playing an iPad game. “Like this?”—tentatively at first, touching the dot as instructed, and then turning the page and crowing in glee at the change. He engaged just as thoroughly as if it were an app, red + yellow magically turning to orange under his finger. This thrills me, I have to say—the willingness to enter into a game of make-believe with a book when so much in his world trains him to expect animations for every cause-and-effect. The book is full of fun, with dots of color skittering across the page as if alive. Gorgeously designed, too: big bold colors against clean white space. We also enjoyed Tullet’s Press Here which similarly invites interaction. At five, Huck seems to be exactly the right age for these books. We’ve read Mix It Up together several times but most often he carts it away to his bed to enjoy solo.

(You’ll want your watercolors handy after you read this book. Or do as we did and whip up a quick batch of play dough: 2 cups flour, 3/4 cup salt, 1 cup water [add slowly; you may not need all of it]. Knead until it isn’t sticky. I go sparingly on the water and leave a lot of loose flour in the mixing bowl for the kids to rub their hands in before I start handing out lumps of dough. Then, for each lump, a drop of food coloring. They love working it in, watching it marble its way through the blank dough. After the colors are well mixed, I like to add a tiny drop of lavender or cinnamon oil, or a bit of vanilla extract. The smells make them so happy! “I’m probably going to play with this for one or three hours,” Huck informed me when I got him set up the other day—after I’d remembered such a cheap and easy cure for listlessness existed in the world. Why do I forget about this for months at a time? A batch will last in the fridge for about a week. Rilla can measure and mix it by herself. Very handy when, say, an older sister is wrangling with Algebra 2 and needs mom’s attention for a while.)

OLD:

borreguitaBorreguita and the Coyote by Verna Aardema, illustrations by Petra Mathers—over and over and over again! Beloved by Rilla too (and all her older siblings before her). Utterly satisfying rendition of a Mexican folk tale in which a clever little sheep outwits, repeatedly, with comic effect, a coyote intent on eating her for dinner. Might I recommend reading this one while lying down so that all of you can stick your legs in the air when you get to the part about Borreguita “holding up” the mountain.

 

creepycastleCreepy Castle by John S. Goodall. Out of print but if you can track one down you’re in luck. All six of my kids have loved this book to pieces. No! Not to pieces, fortunately! It’s got flaps inside, each spread flipping to become a new picture. An almost wordless book, which means the kids and I get to narrate the adventure as the two hero mice make their way through a seemingly deserted castle. There’s a sister fellow hiding in the bushes; he locks them in a scary room with a dragon guarding the stairs, but they climb out the window and splash into the moat. My littles especially like the moment when the villain gets his comeuppance at the end. I can’t count how many dozens of times I have read this little book. They never seem to get tired of it.

Another book back in circulation these days is Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime. (Sniffle: two-year-old Huck in that post.)

Meanwhile, I’m making my way through the leeeeennnngggggthy list of Cybils YA nominees and will have some to recommend in a post coming soonish.

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11. Honored

to have been included in Kortney’s “Women Who Inspire” series at One Deep Drawer. So kind!

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12. Sunday morning

I’m up early, hanging with the three youngest. Huck’s tummy is a bit off today. He climbed into bed with us before dawn and slept snuggled against me in a way that hardly ever happens anymore; he’s getting so big and busy. He was restless, and after a while I reached for my phone and read mail with his arm flung half across my face. It’s not that I ever want my kids to be sick—honestly, I’ve dealt with enough childhood illness for three lifetimes—but there’s something very sweet in the moment, when you’re cuddled up with a heavy-limbed child who just wants to curl into you as close as possible. My baby will be six in a few months (the mind boggles) and these moments don’t happen very often anymore. I enjoyed this one, while it lasted. Then suddenly he clapped a hand over his mouth, ran to the bathroom, and threw up into the tub.

I’m just impressed that he made it that far.

He’s getting the Gatorade treatment now, watching cartoons. (A few sips of Gatorade every ten minutes for an hour, a trick gleaned from the Dr. Sears Baby Book* a million years ago.) I brought my laptop out to the couch to be near him and am trying not to listen to the squeakings of Curious George. At least it’s not Caillou.

*ETA: Scott has chimed in to say he thinks it was The Portable Pediatrician, not Dr. Sears. We gave ‘em both away ages ago, so I can’t check. I’m sure he’s right—he’s been the one handling the timing of this absolutely tried-and-true method for, yikes, almost 20 years now.

***

I’m still getting requests for those notes I promised to share from my habits talk way back in August (gulp). I’ve realized I’ll have to post them in notes fashion, for sure, because writing up the talk essay-style makes it all seem too formal, too authoritative. The idea of coming across as authoritative about parenting gives me the willies—it’s far too subjective and individual an endeavor for me to ever feel comfortable making pronouncements about the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to do things. All I can do is say ‘here’s what’s worked great for us’—after the fact, you know, speaking from personal experience, same as I do with homeschooling. There’s a reason my whole Tidal Homeschooling thing is a description, not a method.

So maybe I can just take my habits-and-behavior talk notes and spit them out just like that, as notes, not, you know, entire sentences. Sentences are hard. They need verbs. I’m okay with past-tense verbs (did, tried, practiced, worked, laughed)—it’s the imperative ones that spook me, the kind with the implied “you.”

***

For my memories file: Several times over the past couple of weeks, after the boys were in bed, while Scott watched S.H.I.E.L.D. or a movie with Bean and Rose, Rilla and I sat on my bed with our art journals and listened to The BFG on audiobook. Colored pencils and markers all over the quilt. (Imprudent but comfy.) Natasha Richardson doing a bang-up job with the voices.

There you go, a bit of parenting advice I can pronounce in the imperative: Do that. It was delightful and you should totally try it. :)

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13. Photos from my SCBWI talk on middle-grade and chapter books

Photo by Roxyanne Young, used with permission

The talented Roxyanne Young took these photos of my talk on Middle-Grade and Chapter Books at SCBWI-San Diego last weekend and kindly gave me permission to use them. My school visit/speaker page needs a massive updating and I’m so grateful to have some recent images to include.

Apparently I talk with my hands a lot? What’s funniest to me is that this Boston Bay slide was onscreen for barely a minute. That’s an awful lot of glasses-waving going on there.

Photo by Roxyanne Young, used with permission

Photo by Roxyanne Young, used with permission

Photo by Roxyanne Young, used with permission

Photo by Roxyanne Young, used with permission

The rest of my slides were all about other people’s books—my favorite things to talk about, as you know. Here’s a taste:

Melissa Wiley SCBWI presentation slide 09 Melissa Wiley SCBWI presentation slide 10

Melissa Wiley SCBWI presentation slide 12

Melissa Wiley SCBWI presentation slide 15

(Just a sampling from the Chapter Books part of the talk.)

 

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14. Picture Book Spotlight: Sophie’s Squash

Here’s a book I thought I’d blogged about before, but it seems I only mentioned it briefly.

sophie's squashSophie’s Squash

by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf.

We first read this absolute gem of a picture book last year during the CYBILs. Fell so utterly in love with it—the lot of us—that a library copy wouldn’t do; we had to have our own. Huck and Rilla were overjoyed when I pulled it out this morning. Sophie’s instant bond with a butternut squash is utterly believable, and not just because Huck formed a similar attachment once upon a time. “Bernice” becomes Sophie’s best friend and closest confidant, all through a bright and beautiful autumn. But as winter approaches, Bernice begins to get a bit squishy about the edges. Sophie’s parents make gentle attempts to convince Sophie it’s time to let her friend go, but since their suggestions involve treating the squash like, you know, a squash, Sophie’s having none of it. Her own solution is sweet and heartwarming, and it makes my kids sigh that contented sigh that means everything has come out exactly right.

 

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15. A day in the life of a first-round Cybils panelist

As soon as your category chair begins approving nominations, you’re on the library website, putting titles on hold like crazy. You’ll have barely two months to read dozens, maybe even hundreds (depending on your category), of books. The sooner they come rolling in from branches all across the county, the better.

I gave my branch librarians a heads-up to let them know I’d be reserving a tremendous lot of novels. Promised to stop in often to pick up new arrivals, so as not to overfill the hold shelves. “No worries,” they told me. “We’ll move ’em to the bottom shelf if we need to.” There’s an empty slice of shelf there, under the Last Name T-Z reserves.

I stopped by today expecting to find the P shelf squeezed full of my holds. Nope, although as usual P—, LYD (last name redacted) had a small handful of appealing titles awaiting her. I’m assuming she’s a she—Lydia? Lyddie? No idea, but for the eight years I’ve been glimpsing her reserve books next to ours (PETERSON, SCO) on the shelf, and when it comes to books we are clearly such kindred spirits that I’ve been tempted to leave her a note in one of them. Except that might seem a little creepy. Whereas blogging about it totally isn’t weird at all. Ahem. MOVING ON.

Okay, so I’m expecting a bunch of books but they aren’t on the P shelf, and they aren’t on the spillover bottom shelf either. I run my (okay, Scott’s; I lose things) library card under the scanner next to the shelves, and it says I have 16 titles ready for pickup. I’m just about to track down a librarian when I spot the cardboard box on the floor.

Aha. Now we’re talking.

cybilsbox

I just love my librarians. :)

P.S. Nominations close tomorrow. Here’s the link! 

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16. Piles o’ Books

If you, like me, missed Kidlitcon this past weekend, Leila has a delicious recap & link roundup for you at Bookshelves of Doom. I haven’t been since 2010, the Minneapolis gathering, and I had many a pang of longing as the tweets and FB updates came rolling in. But it was delightful to see so many of my blog-pals having what was clearly a Very Good Time.

One reason I couldn’t be there is because I was engaged to speak at SCBWI-San Diego on Saturday. (The other reason is because I have a hundred children and am therefore Always Broke. You know how it is.) I’m happy to say my SCBWI talk seemed to go over very well. The topic was Middle-Grade and Chapter Books, two categories of children’s publishing I can speak about with considerable enthusiasm. What’s more fun than speaking to a full house about your very favorite books? The crowd was wonderful, with really smart questions afterward. The only thing that could have made it more fun would have been having the Kidlitcon crowd there. :)

Sunday felt amazingly luxurious: nothing was required of me but to read. This was convenient, as the nominee tally in my CYBILs category is currently 100 novels, with more contenders coming in every day. Only two more days, guys, until the public nomination period closes. People are starting to compile lists of worthy books that haven’t yet been nominated; you can find links to those posts here.

Speaking of piles of books, the younger set and I finished The Boxcar Children over the weekend (it’s a mighty quick read) and today it fell upon to me choose the next readaloud. Sometimes I know EXACTLY what book I want to reach for next, and other times I have option paralysis. Today was the latter sort of occasion. I got Rose to go around the house with me, pulling likely candidates off shelves, and when we had a comfortable stack, I decided on a Jane-Rose-Beanie favorite, Rowan of Rin. Chapter one was well received. I’ve never read this one aloud before, and there’s always a risk—some great books just don’t make great readalouds. But so far, so good. So gripping!

readalouds

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17. Spinning around again

Rilla, as you know, is eight years old, which means it’s her turn for the family tradition called Daddy Reads Mommy’s Martha Books to You. Which for all four of my daughters now has meant, as sure as the sun will rise, a sudden burning need to learn how to spin. I understand; the passion gripped me, too, when I was writing those books. I never did score myself a spinning wheel (it’s on the Someday list) but I had to have a drop spindle so I could know what it felt like to fumble along like beginner Martha. She got good at it way faster than I did, though. In my defense, she had Auld Mary for a teacher, whereas I? Didn’t even have YouTube yet. It was 1997, which means the internet helpfully told me what books to read.

Now this ladyher I could have learned from.

How to Spin Yarn Using a Drop Spindle.

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18. A most useful tome

Rilla: If you see a book called Trolls with a troll on it who has a very long nose, it’s out because I’m using it for the scarf I’m making.

Me: Oooh! What kind of scarf?

Rilla: One that’s twelve inches long. That’s how big the book is.

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19. Thoughts on YA

So I wrote this really long post about YA fiction on tumblr, and then I was like ARGH, maybe it should go at Bonny Glen instead, what am I even doing? So now you know exactly how decisive I am.

Well, it’s there, and I’m leaving it there, but here’s a piece of it, and if you have trouble commenting on that site you’re welcome to bring the discussion here.

Something I’ll be thinking about as I gorge is what stories these writers are telling and why. (Not just how, which is a primary measure of a book’s merit—how is this story being told? How well? How vividly? How compellingly? How convincingly? How searingly? Does it leave something behind? A scar on the mind, a rune engraved on the heart? A face you can’t ever forget? How? How?)

In an endeavor like this, selecting a Cybils shortlist, the what and why questions are equally pressing. What makes this book stand out from the crowd—and a crowd it will be. Why this plot, this narrator, this voice. Why verse, or why prose? When you read a lot of books at once you can’t help but spot patterns and trends. Small details, perhaps, like the naming of cars—in 2010 we had a gaggle of them, including not one but two cars named “Holden,” (totally by coincidence I have no doubt). But larger trends as well, clusters of books exploring similar subject matter. In realistic YA fiction this very often means suicide, addiction, medical or mental disorders, sexual or physical abuse. And that, I think, tells us a great deal about what the world is like for teens. And is why the best YA is both gripping and probing—that’s what teens do: they grip tightly to each other, to ideas, to hopes, to identity, to music, to fears; and they probe and dig and ponder and search. In this light the naming of cars makes perfect sense—the quest for identity, the assignment of personality to objects of significance, the search for the real, true meaning of things. Naming a thing helps define the thing. Naming it Holden—oh there’s so much to unpack there. Holden Caulfield, the original teen gripper and prober.

You can’t read a book that is gripping without being gripped, and that’s what I’m preparing myself for. To have my mind shaken, my heart squeezed.

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20. Poetry with kids, Storified

Today on Twitter Sally Thomas wondered aloud what a ‘poetry-centered curriculum’ would look like, and a marvelous discussion ensued. Kortney of One Deep Drawer went to the trouble of Storifying the conversation—what a gem she is! Do hasten to her blog and enjoy it. (This link goes to her intro post, which links in turn to the Storify.)

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21. Home Again and New Books

sun and sea

We drove up the coast this weekend to move Jane back into school. My parents held down the fort here at home. Scott and I stayed in Pismo Beach and I was swooning every minute. California’s Central Coast is as lovely as it gets.

Now home, and the house seems so quiet with only five kids. Only, heh. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our regular routine. I have a stack of books awaiting me at the library, which is closed on Mondays. I was itchy all day for it to open. :)

Speaking of new books: two launches today made my heart go pittypat. One is Sarah Elwell’s latest, this one delivered in an innovative serialized-ebook fashion. Each week for three months you get a new installment. Sarah’s work is haunting and lovely, and I can’t wait to read this. A novel in weekly installments might just suit my jam-packed Cybils season schedule.

deepinthefaraway

Deep in the Far Away by Sarah Elwell

And the other is Scott’s latest! A YA novel available on Kindle. For readers of his UNCIVIL WAR series, this is NOT the next volume of that (but it too is coming out as soon as possible).

Game Over by Scott PetersonGame Over by Scott Peterson

What are you reading right now?

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22. Serious business

So today I wrote this thing and then I wrote that thing, and then I spent a long time on that other thing, the result of which is that I didn’t finish writing this thing here. So all I have to report today is a long, amusing moment waiting outside Trader Joe’s while Huck painstakingly read the entire cautionary messaging on the seat of the shopping cart.

serious business

 

My favorite bit: “ALWAYS buckle up child in cart and fasten seriously.”

You probably can’t make it out in the photo, but what it really says is “fasten securely.” But Huck’s version certainly made sense to him. He took these instructions very seriously indeed and stoutly refused to stand on the end of the cart as is our usual arrangement. No, Mommy, look at the picture. (Pointing to another placard on the end of the cart.) The circle with the line through it means NO STANDING. 

He’s getting too big to ride up front, but today he insisted, and he buckled the seatbelt both securely and seriously.

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23. No post today because

I’m playing with my sidebars again. Not finished yet, but I’ve run out of time for tonight. Just popping in to say hi. Hi!

(You may need to clear your cache to see the new header image. Which is actually an old header image. Sort of.)

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24. Oh dear

Rilla: The next time I eat an apple, can I plant one of the seeds in the back yard?

Me: Sure!

Rilla: Oh good. I’ve really been wanting a climbing tree back there.

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25. Yet another of life’s eternal mysteries

Huck and Rilla and I have just finished reading three chapters of The Boxcar Children—they wouldn’t let me stop—and now I give Huck a big squeeze and say, “Okay, baby, time to go play.” He’s surprised I’ve called him “baby”—I usually say “monkey” or “my love” (same difference)—and shoots a reproachful gaze my way.

“I’m not a baby.”

“I know. But you used to be, so it still pops out sometimes.”

He considers. “But I am still little.” Burrows a little closer into my side.

“Mm-hmm.” His hair has that magical small-child scent, half fruity shampoo and half little-boy-sweat.

He takes a deep breath, as if about to unburden himself of a trouble. “That’s why I’ve been wondering…”

“Yes?” The moment has become suddenly fraught; whatever is coming, it’s clearly a serious matter.

“I’ve been wondering why nobody cuts the crusts off my sandwiches.”

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