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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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Oh, guys, I have GOT to get caught up. Here I’ve been back from the Deep Valley Homecoming since TUESDAY and haven’t written about it. And now Comic-Con is peering around the corner in the most alarming way! Next week! Good heavens! Or O di immortales, I should say—not yet having mentally emerged from Betsy-Tacy land.
I had such a wonderful time visiting the houses and connecting with members of the B-T crowd. (The Crowd, capital C, you say if you’ve read the books.) I thoroughly enjoyed the children’s author panel on Sunday, answering questions with fellow writers Pat Bauer and Eileen Beha; and my talk about the Betsy-Tacy publishing history went very well. Plus I got to hear the inestimable Kathy Baxter speak—she’s captivating.
This is how I feel whenever I’m with Kathy. Photo by Margaret Berns in 2010.
Of course I had to reread as many of the Tomes as possible before and during the trip. Began with the high-school books this time around and made it through Betsy’s Wedding. Actually, I read Wedding twice—I always skip ahead to it straight from Betsy and Joe. I read Betsy and the Great World on the plane ride home and then tore through Betsy’s Wedding a second time that evening, happily back in my own bed.
I swear my children gained multiple inches during the three nights I was away.
Our author panel made the front page of the Minnesota Free Press:
I have yet to see a panel photo of myself in which I’m not making a goofy face. And if you tied my hands I’m not sure I could speak…
Discussing our writing processes at Deep Valley Homecoming. Photo swiped from Nancy Piccione, with thanks!
I’m not doing justice to the Homecoming with this hasty post—I so enjoyed all the other talks and made some wonderful new friends. And on my first evening in Mankato, of course I had to walk all over town past Betsy and Tacy’s bench and Tib’s chocolate-colored house and Carney’s sleeping porch and Lincoln Park and the Carnegie Library, trying not to make a whole nother series of goofy faces. I am 100% fangirl at heart.
Major props to Julie Schrader and the rest of the organizers for hosting a perfectly marvelous event.
Today begins the Deep Valley Homecoming, a celebration of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books in her hometown of Mankato, Minnesota (the real Deep Valley). I won’t be joining the fun until tomorrow—can’t wait!
I have visited Mankato once before, after the 2010 Kidlitcon in Minneapolis. The awesome Kathy Baxter took my pal Margaret and me around town, showing us All the Important Places From the Books, and I just about died of excitement (as Margaret chronicled in her photos). The brass bowl! Winona’s wall! Carney’s sleeping porch! Lincoln Park!
THE BENCH, for heaven’s sake!
Betsy and Tacy’s bench on the hill. Photo by Margaret Berns.
Yes, I looked exactly that goofy the whole time. What can I say? I’m a fan.
My Deep Valley Homecoming schedule
Sunday, June 28th
12:15pm: Children’s literature panel discussion at the Book Festival
2:15pm: I will read from one of my books
Monday, June 29th
11:30am: Presentation at the Historical Society. Topic: the publishing history of the Betsy-Tacy series.
I hope to see you there!
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
The Betsy-Tacy Songbook
Interview with Mitali Perkins, Jennifer Hart, and me about Maud’s books
Betsy-Tacy booksigning at ALA Midwinter
Photos of my visit to the real Deep Valley, as chronicled by Margaret in Minnesota
Why I love Carney
Why I love Emily
A Reader’s Guide to Betsy-Tacy
I’ll be appearing at the San Diego County Fair on Thursday, June 18. Look for me at 1:30pm in the Children’s Garden and 4:30pm in the Creative Youth Tent. If you’re planning a visit to the Fair tomorrow, please come say hello!
Garth Williams illustration from Charlotte’s Web
Rose: “Why are Huck’s dirty socks on my chair?”
Huck, much aggrieved: “They were on my chair first and I needed to sit down.”
The younger kids and I have started spending the hour after dinner having family art time at the kitchen table. They mostly paint while I practice sketching, or Huck grabs markers and continues his mission to saturate every page of his beloved Angry Birds coloring book. I’ve taken to jotting down the funny things they say in my sketchbook alongside my (mostly very bad) drawings of them at work. A few choice Huck remarks from last night:
“When I was one—I mean zero—I swallowed paint. It tasted really good, like marshmallows.”
Rilla: “I know three people named Kelly.”
Huck: “I know Kelley Jones*. He likes jelly.”
*They’ve never actually met, but he’s seen Kelley’s name when he calls Scott to talk about the project they’re working on. I’m unclear on whether he does, in fact, like jelly.
“I bet all the kids with this coloring book are doing this with their moms right now, too.”
(Yes, I melted.)
By: Melissa Wiley
Blog: Here in the Bonny Glen
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, Fun Learning Stuff
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About once a week I bring my fountain pens to the kitchen tape for refilling. My reason for making this rather quick, benign chore a public affair is to take advantage of the great parenting truism: If you do it, they will copy. Huck isn’t the kind of kid who would be too keen on formal handwriting practice (does that kind of kid even exist?), but if I get busy with some nifty writing utensil, he’s at my side in a flash, begging for a turn.
Fountain pens are awesome enough, but dip pens? There’s nothing better. A bottle of ink, a nib with just the right amount of skritch…there’s a happy kid. I didn’t suggest the alphabet practice; he filled up the page as he chose.
That’s my beloved metal brush pen he’s holding, the $1.49 treasure acquired during my surprise trip to the art supply store on Mother’s Day. (The plastic Speedball pen holder was another buck fifty. We live large.)
(That’s an Amazon link to show you what it looks like, but as you can see, you’re much better off buying local for this one. That’s some markup, eh?)
I tumbled to the metal brush pen (aka my new best friend) in Jonathan Twingley’s rather amazing class at Sketchbook Skool. It was swoon at first site. You get a broad line from the flat nib, or you can turn it on its side for a fine line. It’s on the messy side—likes to spatter ink if you change direction midstroke—but for me that’s part of the appeal. I use it when I’m in the mood for rough, bold lines and a bit of ink spray. Jonathan Twingley likes to fill pages and pages with large drawings and then cut out selected images and collage them together into a new piece of art—really quite magical to behold him at work.
And this post offers a quite detailed look at what a steel brush nib can do.
We also have a pair of glass dip pens that my parents gave me years ago with more typical pointed nibs. You can see Huck’s page of orange squiggles on the table. I know somewhere in my archives I’ve talked about the magical powers of colored chalk and a little slate, or a whiteboard and dry erase markers, for transforming otherwise dull writing into fun. Dip pens are the same principle times a hundred.
Check out this fabulous lineup! I’ll be there June 18—look for me in the Children’s Garden at 1:30 and the Creative Youth tent at 4:30 for stories and fun.
On my mind constantly of late: notebooks, sketchbooks, art journals, and combinations thereof. Conversations are swirling in several of my circles—
• at Sketchbook Skool there is always lots of chatter about what people prefer to draw on and with;
• over at Wisteria & Sunshine, Lesley has been revisiting the topic of daybooks (especially handmade ones);
• Kortney is posting wonderfully enticing things about right-brain planning;
• Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is hosting a summer “Sharing Our Notebooks” project that I plan to participate in, soon as I get a chance…
Once a week I meet a small group of teenaged girls (one of them my Beanie) at a coffee shop to discuss literature while their younger siblings take piano lessons in the studio upstairs. This is hands-down one of the best hours of my week: meaty stories; lively analysis; word-collection; chitchat. A couple of weeks ago we ran off on a tangent of comparing one another’s notebooks. The conversation coincided with a similar thread at Wisteria & Sunshine, so I was primed. I’ve been using graph-style spiral-bound steno pads for the past year or so, with a modified bullet-journal method. (Chiefly the use of an index page at the front of each notebook—that was a game-changer for me.) But I was hankering after something less utilitarian-looking, and one of my lit girls had a new kraft-brown Moleskine that set me swooning. Back at home, I looked it up and it was exactly what I wanted. Slim paperback in the size I favor (Moleskine calls it “large” but it’s only 5×8), and—this was crucial—they offer a “squared” (graph-style) version.
I’ve used Moleskines before but mostly the Volant model with the bright solid-colored covers. So pretty on my shelf but you can’t really fold them back on themselves, and I don’t like writing on a double-page spread. That’s why I’ve mostly sighed and made do with spirals. But Moleskine’s Cahier model with a heavy paper cover is flexible enough for me to fold back. And I love the pocket in the back, such a nice touch.
Kraft paper is one of my favorite surfaces for decorating, so of course the cover cried out for some decoration. I started on the back in case I messed up. Still haven’t decided what I want to do on the front.
gridded steno notebook, kraft brown Moleskine Cahier journal, Canson Mixed Media Sketchbook
I love a skinny notebook not only because it fits easily in my bag, but because it fills up faster. I am mad for the fresh start. I had a few pages left in my May steno book but I craved a clean slate for June, so I’ve been using up the steno pages with hand-lettering practice.
I use my daily notebook for list-making, idea-sorting, story-outlining, note-taking…basically anything that involves words. Words + doodles, really: my “work” pages are always margined with crosshatching and basketweave and spirals and mushrooms…whatever. I used to try to keep things compartmentalized: one notebook for current book-in-progress; one for medical & insurance notes (I always seem to have volumes of these); one for quotes/commonplace book entries; one for to-do lists…but they always wound up melded together, and then I’d have three or four mishmash notebooks going at once, which was ridiculous. So I gave up and embraced my brain’s clear need to dump itself onto a page, melting-pot style, and now I let all those channels of thought intermingle. (Messily, much like the mingling of metaphors in that sentence.)
And these days my word-notebooks are overrun with drawings, too. I have a separate sketchbook—two, actually; a smaller (5×8) hardcover Moleskine that fits in my bag, and a larger (7×10) Canson mixed-media sketchbook that is my place to experiment with drawing techniques and paint. That’s where I do my Sketchbook Skool assignments—it’s my it’s okay to screw up place. Consequently, it sees way more action than the Moleskine sketchbook, which I pretty much only use when I’m 1) away from home and 2) feeling unobtrusive enough to draw in public. I don’t mind kids looking over my shoulder but I’m way too shy about my work to want adults eyeballing it in progress.
Interestingly, the Canson Mixed Media Sketchbook is the one that got a thumbs-down from Roz Stendahl (THE source of in-the-field info on all things art supply), and when I read her review I had a major light-bulb moment: Ohhhh, so you mean the paper isn’t supposed to buckle when I paint? This Canson (I’m in my second one now) is the only sketchbook I’ve ever painted in, so I thought that’s just how it went, unless you bought one with watercolor paper. Roz’s report clued me in to the possibility that the book I picked (entirely because it was on sale at Michael’s) may not perform as satisfactorily as other brands. I’m nearing the end of this one (you guys!!! I’ve filled two whole sketchbooks with drawings!!) and may take Roz’s recommendation and try a Strathmore Journal Series’ Mixed Media book next time. Does Michael’s sell them, I wonder? Got another coupon burning a hole…
bad phone photo; can’t be bothered to scan
Okay, so I was saying that in theory I have the sketchbook(s) for, well, sketching, and the notebook for all the word things, but the truth is that ever since I started working on my drawing skills last fall, I’ve got rough sketches running wild all over my word-notebooks. Again, this is something I’ve just decided to be at peace with. So much of my work involves a rigorous process of polishing and structure, and I think perhaps my mind really needs a place to be messy and unfiltered, a place to set itself down in raw form. It’s like a test kitchen for my thoughts, I guess. This is where the index is so invaluable: it allows me to quickly locate the notes from that Very Important Phone Call without having to hunt through pages of nonsense. I try to update the index at least once a week—just a mild leaf-through to note down the page numbers on which I have recorded important information. I number the pages of my notebooks in the bottom right corner, about ten pages at a time. I like to write my to-do lists on a Post-It that can travel from page to page. As each task is crossed off, I jot it down in the notebook for a record of what I’ve done.
Since the ugly steno books all look the same on the shelf, I would run a highlighter down the sides of the pages, a different color for each new book. But so far the kraft Moleskine is serving beautifully, and I doubt I’ll go back to the steno grids. I might use a bit of Washi tape on the spine to differentiate the Moleskines on the shelf, once they’re filled.
Back to my coffee-shop girls. We had so much fun that day, comparing notebook preferences, that we decided to all bring our sketchbooks the following week. Which was truly delightful—what a treasure, this look at the outpouring of creativity from these girls. Beautiful design work (I mean really breathtaking, some of it), whimsical drawings (much more skilled than mine), and illustrated quotes, and just so much wonder, so much evidence of curious minds sifting the world. I felt really honored to have this work shared with me. We are nearing the end of the topics we charted for our class, but the girls begged me to keep going through the summer. So we’re thinking of spending a few weeks on sketching and notebooking. I have all sorts of ideas for things we can do together—heavily Lynda Barry-influenced, naturally, because who better to guide you through an exploration of all the things a sheet of paper can become?
I’m midway through a long rhapsody about pens but I’ve scrapped it for today because of this excellent post by Danny Gregory. Danny, as you probably know, is an artist and writer whose books include Art Before Breakfast (a treasure) and the empowering, inspiring The Creative License. He is also a cofounder of Sketchbook Skool and teaches week-long lessons in most of the SBS courses. (He also interviewed me about keeping kids creative for SBS’s “Q and Art” video series.)
In today’s post, Danny writes candidly about a struggle that is not unfamiliar to many of us who make art for a living.
Inevitably, Sketchbook Skool was morphing from a pure passion project into a demanding business. We had to bring on a raft of advisors to cope with the ever-shifting matrix of requirements for operating a global online business. It became clear that if we didn’t want to raise prices, we had to increase sales — so we added a bunch of marketing consultants. In order to grow, we had to address the emerging limitations of our existing platform which just couldn’t handle so many students so next we brought in a team of developers. I was working for a company again. How the hell did that happen?
It’s funny—just last night I said to Scott: The thing about drawing is, I will never be good enough at it to do it for money. It will never be my job. That’s what’s so great about it. I think I would go mad without a creative outlet that is utterly unrelated to income—all the strings and catches that income involves.
I love writing so much, and I can’t not write, but it’s my job. And I’m lucky to have it, I wouldn’t change it, but there is no denying it altogether alters the experience of writing. I love making books, I love telling stories. Oh, how I love having written. But writing is what pays my bills. Writing for a living brings many layers to the experience of making up stories and writing them down. Deadlines, of course, but also—the whole business/marketing side of the job.
Nowadays more than ever. You have to promote your work, you have to get the word out. Everyone hates doing it. Every writer I know hates that part of the job. It’s embarrassing. It feels needy. But if you don’t do it, you watch books you spent years laboring over quietly disappear. (Years back, when I broke the news here that my Charlotte and Martha books were going out of print, dozens of readers left dismayed comments vowing to run out and buy them right away, while they still could. And I thought: Oh! If you guys hadn’t already bought them, then no wonder.)
I’ve made my peace with the business side of the business by drawing some firm boundaries. I accept and expect that certain administrative and promotional duties go along with publishing books—thus it is, and thus has it ever been. I allowed my career to slow down in order to write only books I’m burning to write, which has meant turning down projects and opportunities now and then. I accept very few speaking engagements that involve travel, because it’s important to me to spend most of my time at home with my family. That, too, is a decision that doesn’t always work to my books’ advantage. I’m okay with that. You have to find your balance.
Of course that means taking on other work in order to pay the bills—I do a lot of freelance work behind the scenes to support my fiction. Again, almost every working writer I know does. They teach, or they have a day job, or they spend a lot of time on the road doing school visits and conferences. For the past six months, I’ve been writing grants (and learning. so. much!—which you know charges my batteries) as well as editing for Damn Interesting and doing website maintenance for a local yoga studio. Oh, and teaching my writing class! Lots of busy, feeding the art.
One of the boundaries I drew eight or nine years ago had to do with blogging. I had the opportunity to take this blog in a direction that would have brought in decent money (for a while, at least; the days of monetized blogs do seem to be waning), but I passed on it. Didn’t feel right; I didn’t like the idea of turning my family life into a business. I know some folks have built beautiful blogs doing exactly that, but the idea has never sat right with me. Even my short stint as a ClubMom Blogger left me feeling uneasy—I was getting paid to blog about a topic (homeschooling) that inevitably crossed over into family stories. I love sharing about our learning experiences here—it’s one of the main reasons I still blog, the joy of sharing the adventure—but I didn’t like the blurring of the boundary I was trying to protect. I was glad to let that gig go, although of course I missed the paycheck. (Boy, don’t we all. They don’t make paychecks like that anymore. Nowadays, people want you to do it for ‘exposure’. Calls to mind the cartoon about the artist who died of exposure—couldn’t pay the rent, you know.)
Danny addresses a blogging conundrum in his post, too:
I’ve also been thinking about why I stopped blogging. Busyness isn’t the whole reason. I have written even at the busiest times over the years. I think the issue has been honesty, honestly.
I’ve always tried to be painfully straightforward when I write here. Similarly in my books and when I teach classes. I try to be myself, warts, carbuncles and all. As a writer, an artist and person, I can be flawed and vulnerable. This works less well as an entrepreneur. As person taking credit card payments, I need to project an unimpeachable face.
It’s interesting to hear his take on that. He’s in a different position as the face of Sketchbook Skool, and I think he’s right. If you’re going plunk down your money to take a class, you want to feel confident about the platform and the teacher. I can imagine that he has felt the need to project a positive image in order to reflect positively on the business. I so appreciate his honesty in this post (do read the whole thing, not just these excerpts).
It’s not a face I’m unfamiliar with. I wore it for years, in board meetings, client presentations, job interviews and staff briefings. The authority. The decider. 100% sure. But it’s just not me. And it’s just not my voice, especially not the one I use here, among friends. But increasingly, as the face of Sketchbook Skool, when I came to write here on my blog, I felt I had to be the shill, the Mad Man of Mad Ave, always upbeat, bringing the most awesome! things.
I used to have a thing in my sidebar about how this blog deliberately focused on the positive, the funny, the happy experiences in our family adventure. “The truth, and nothing but the truth—but not the whole truth,” I wrote (and yes, Prairie Thief readers will hear how that idea echoed its way into the novel, whose working title was in fact Not the Whole Truth), “because some parts of the truth are private.” That’s why, I explained, you hear a lot about all the fun we have together—every word of it true—but nothing about, say, tantrums or bad habits. Because ick, how awful must it be to have your mother writing about your worst moments on the internet? In another post, I discussed how I feel free to write about my own flaws and failings (and I do; you know all about my wretched closets and my chai tortilla soup), but I won’t discuss anyone else’s. Okay, maybe the grumpy anti-pinecone guy at the post office that one time. But you know I kind of loved him, too, for the way his grousing brought the rest of us together.
But Danny is talking about something a little different, not about the question of where to draw boundaries in blogging in order to protect other people’s privacy. He’s talking about feeling inhibited about expressing his personal state of mind, his candid take on things, while at the same time representing a business. And there is so much fodder for discussion in that quandary. I’ve thought a lot, these past few years, about the blurring of the boundaries between our public and private worlds. Facebook makes total hash of that boundary, for starters. Sometimes I’m mortified at the awkwardness that arises when one’s professional contacts and one’s most familiar friends co-mingle. Here on the blog, I’ve wondered, from time to time, whether my enthusiastic homeschooling posts might seem offputting to teachers and school parents, and might make them feel like my books aren’t good fits for their kids. I certainly hope not. There are other topics I keep a polite lid on because I find it too great a drain of time and energy to field vituperative comments. I used to get all het up, SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET, and dive into the fray, I’ve mellowed. (“Someone is wrong on the internet—possibly me” is the phrase you come to in your forties.)
And yet I admire it so much when people are fearlessly frank. Sometimes when I’m reading a book that annoys me, I’ll think: imagine if I blogged about things I didn’t like? It’s so much easier to be articulate when critiquing a book’s flaws than to praise it. The only way to praise without sounding saccharine or surface (“It was awesome! I loved it! Two thumbs up!) is to take the time to write thoughtful analysis of what’s working, what’s wonderful. Which takes longer…and can begin to feel perilously like work. Work, I have enough of. And yet I LOVE analysis—reading it and writing it. Some of my best writing on this blog is literary analysis. It just takes time.
Besides, the writer in me—tremblingly placing stories before the public—has too much sympathy for the writers of books I don’t like. They’ve got enough woes to contend with; they don’t need me to point out everything that’s wrong with their last year’s (or years’) labor. And anyway, their book is probably outselling mine. I always maintain that I’m not a reviewer; I’m a recommender. I want to spend my few snatched moments of blogging time writing about things I love.
And yet, there’s a part of me that would love to tackle fraught topics with gusto. If you know me in person, you know I’m like that; I love discourse; I get fired up; I like to scrutinize ideas and assumptions. My poor husband knows that best of all. I can be pretty snarky in person, too, but I deliberately avoid snark in public writing because I think it shuts down discourse. It’s so easy to crack out a witty one-liner—but it isn’t always respectful. To the topic, or the other voices in the conversation.
As with so much else, the key is balance…being candid without being cruel or glib, being frank without breaching privacy. And when it comes to personal doubts or worries or slumps (to get back to Danny’s topic, from which I’ve meandered far), I wonder if we are all learning how to recalibrate our expectations of writers and artists and actors and others whose work has a public aspect. The internet has decreased our degrees of separation. People want contact with artists they admire. The trouble is, then they want to like them. And let’s face it, we’re not all going to like each other. I’ve felt it myself, now and then—that pang of disappointment when someone whose work you admire has said something truly disheartening on Twitter. Can you keep the work separate? Do your feelings about the book change because you now suspect the writer is kind of a jerk?
I’m a wizard at compartmentalizing, but even so I sometimes have trouble separating the biography from the novel. There’s a thing or two I wish I could un-know. But there are so many books in the world; I don’t need to feel the same degree of rosy about them all as I did when I first read them. As for everyone else—the non-jerks; the anxious, the fumbling, the angry, the laying-it-bare—here again I come back to what I have learned from sketching, from my clumsy and dogged and rewarding attempts to make drawing a daily habit these past eight months (a journey inextricably and profoundly informed by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene and their Sketchbook Skool adventure)—that line that jumped out at me way back in college when I first read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (And why didn’t I listen to Betty and start drawing daily back then?) I’ve written about it here before in other contexts. One of Betty’s students, after spending some time drawing portraits, remarks that now every face she looks at seems beautiful to her.
I think about that all the time. It’s true about drawing; you do start to appreciate all the uniquenesses (advertising would have us believe they are flaws), the bumps, the lines, the crooked features. “Warts, carbuncles, and all” is how Danny put it, speaking of how he used to blog. And oddly, these ten years of immersion in blogs and social media have reinforced the lesson. That devastatingly handsome actor who smolders on my screen is actually kind of a nerd, and it’s endearing. That brilliant writer whose prose leaves me breathless…has a bad back, is inordinately proud of her ill-mannered dog, and her roof needs replacing. She’s a person now, not a name on a spine. And she seems beautiful to me.
Oh, May. You beautiful, terrible month. I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of you. Massive workload, plumbing woes, multiple trips to the children’s hospital (which sounds more alarming than it ought to—here in San Diego they send your kids to Children’s for every little thing; for example: a chest x-ray when your child has pneumonia even though there is an x-ray lab RIGHT NEXT DOOR to the pediatrician’s office, AHEM, and a four-hour wait and a three-second x-ray later the radiologist will say, all right, I’ve just sent these to your doctor, zap)…but it’s June now, let’s put all that behind us.
I suppose, though, that May did have its moments. Scott surprised me with a trip to a big art supply story downtown, a wonderland full of pens singing at me. I came home with a metal brush pen, aka my new best friend, it feels amazing when you pull it across the page; and a tube of raw umber paint because I have been unsuccessful in mixing a shade the color of chocolate with my basic color palette. Rilla’s birthday breakfast is still waiting in my sketchbook to be painted. Since April, sheesh.
In May my boys’ writing class wrapped up—this was a group of nine homeschooled boys ages 10-14 whose mothers approached me about putting together an eight-week writing course. We had us some fun, let me tell you. A highlight of my spring was watching our freewrites transform from “TEN WHOLE MINUTES??!!?” to “Oh wait can I please have a bit more time?”
Huck discovered the delights of the Oz books—specifically the Eric Shanower/Skottie Young graphic novel adaptations that Rilla loves so much. He spends a lot of time like this:
blurry photo but it’s all I got
He’s also enjoying the Magic Tree House books, like so many of his siblings before him. Scott read him the first one to get him started. The corresponding nonfiction volumes are particular favorites, and I am once again being treated to daily factoids about sharks and pirates. Never gets old.
I’m at 90% and I THINK I JUST FIGURED OUT A THING
but I won’t say yet
don’t tell me
I bet I’m right
It’s a good theory
Also: this morning I figured out how to manage my Definitive LMM list
the post is underway
but sorry I can only think about Blackout right now
It’s our 21st wedding anniversary (though we begin our official count from our first date, five years earlier) and San Diego celebrated with RAIN, which you know is a huge big deal here these days. Glorious.
I can’t find our copy of Winnie the Pooh. Where is it hiding? So after Pooh Corner (sans final chapter) I had to (eventually) give up the search and pick something else. I’ll get Pooh from the library, I guess. IT’S JUST I KNOW IT’S RIGHT HERE UNDER MY NOSE SOMEWHERE. I bought a boxed set of Milne way back before we got married (we’d been an item for three years, though, so you know I was envisioning a house full of rugrats by then…Ingleside, to be precise) because my part-time job during grad school was at a children’s bookstore and I felt compelled to take full advantage of the employee discount. Hmm, someday I should comb our shelves for all the books I bought that year. Dear Mr. Blueberry, I remember that for sure, and every single L.M. Montgomery title I didn’t already own. I had Anne and Emily but not Pat, Jane (Jane!!), The Story Girl, or Valancy. (Valancy!!!!) Nor any of the short story collections, and I recall deciding it would be worth living on ramen for a while in order to procure every last morsel of LMM. I was right.
(Total digression: one of these days I need to do a post on LMM books in order of perfection. It might kill me to pick a #1, though. The bottom of the list is a piece of cake. Sorry, Kilmeny.)
ANYHOO. Back to the temporarily abandoned Pooh Search. In lieu of the silly old bear, I reached for McBroom. I wanted something fast-moving and full of laughs. Plus we’ve been reading Tall Tales this spring (I love the Mary Pope Osborne collection) and was in the mood for more wild yarns. Let’s see, in three days I think we’ve devoured five McBroom books. Started with McBroom Tells the Truth, of course, and then (in order of whatever the kids picked next) McBroom and the Big Wind, McBroom the Rainmaker, McBroom Tells the Truth, and McBrooms Ear. I hope they pick McBroom’s Zoo next–that’s my favorite. Our copy is the one I had when I was a kid, with the sturdy Scholastic book club binding.
Sid Fleischman’s language–his rich, hilarious, colorful turn of phrase–is simply unbeatable. And every whopper McBroom tells is funnier than the last. Oh, such good stuff.
As for my own reading, I’m halfway through Blackout and am FINALLY keeping all the dates and locations straight (more or less). And things are beginning to go crackerbots for Polly, Mary, Eileen, and Mike…You know, one of my favorite things in life is when I’m enjoying a book so much I can’t wait for bedtime (the only time of day I can count on a chunk of dedicated reading time…all the other minutes must be stolen, snatched, and squoze-in).
I meant to fill this post with throwback pictures in honor of our anniversary, but Scott just got home with a celebratory pizza. Photos, schmotos.
Poor, deprived Huck is enumerating for me the vast number of important life experiences he is missing out on because we have, and I quote, “just a big tree and sticks in our front yard instead of nice fake grass like Miss Lily up the street.”
I chimed in on a discussion on my local homeschooling list about one mom’s concerns that her son had stalled on the learning-to-read process. As usual I found I had a lot to say, so I’m scooping it here (and expanding a bit) in case it’s of interest to others.
I’ll second what E. said: Six is really very young and at this point (and every point, really), the VERY BEST thing you can do is to read aloud a great deal. There are lots of studies to back up what many of us have been discovering and advocating for years about the immense and rather extraordinary benefits of reading aloud.
Some tricks we have used
• We always turn on the captions when our children watch TV. And it’s amazing how much reading they can pick up from scrolling through the DVR. Huck could distinguish between “Little Bear” and “Little Bill” at age three—his first sight words.
• Video games! or apps, etc. My kids have all picked up a lot of reading just from encountering the repeated text instructions and captioning that is a part of many games.
• Comics and graphic novels. Great reinforcement of decoding skills and incentive to read. My 3rd child learned to read from Tintin Comics. Her older sisters read them and she pored over the pictures until she began to pick up words. (I read them to her whenever she asked but that stage didn’t last long–she just loved to explore them them on her own!) (I’ve written more about this here.)
• Word games and puns. We are a wordy, wordy family. Dinner-table conversation will often involve why a thing is called what it’s called–what the root word is, where it came from. Someone will hop up to look up a word origin. And scarcely a day passes without some terrible, groan-inducing pun trotting around the house. When I teach kids’ writing and lit classes (I’m teaching three different groups of kids at present), I begin every class by soliciting contributions to our ‘Word Hoard’—asking the kids to look out for interesting words during the week to add to our collection. They really get into the spirit of the game and we have amassed some splendid word piles over the weeks. The boys in my Friday afternoon class have turned it into a competition of sorts, unfurling mile-long words to impress their classmates. I’ve learned a lot of obscure medical terms in the past month, let me tell you.
• Riddles, jokes, joke books!
I am not a fan of 100 Easy Lessons because of so many similar stories of kids getting turned off to reading, or stressed/intimidated/bored–all feelings I don’t want kids to associate with reading.
Books of facts are great for young kids–early reader science stuff, etc. Again, lots of pictures to draw them in & help with decoding.
My primary advice is to not try to “teach” a child to read.
The process can be more organic, less structured. Help them along the way you helped and encouraged them to learn to talk. Read together, allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.* Looking for street signs (kids will pick those up as sight words very quickly and naturally). Or names of stores, etc. Text is all over our world, not just in books, and reading doesn’t have to be a Capital R academic exercise. People naturally want to find things out, and reading becomes a means of doing that–so sooner or later, every child will have an interest that drives literacy. What you can do is support that interest. Feed it! Rustle up some intriguing-looking books on the topic, preferably ones with a lot of art.
(Here I come back to video games: one of my girls got so interested in a certain game that she wanted to look up guides for it online, and HER reading took a huge leap forward as she began to devour information about this game. My role was to help her safely find resources on the internet, print out useful pages, provide supplies for assembling a binder (her idea)…so you can see there are many ways for a parent to be involved in the process, guiding, facilitating, without it looking like formal reading instruction–an activity that is so stressful for many children. Lots of so-called ‘reluctant readers’ will inhale anything you give them that’s about their favorite video game. Let them hunt for cheat sites. Who cares if they don’t figure out a game level on their own? They are learning crucial research skills–how to frame questions and find answers, and how to apply that information to a practical task. Hurrah for game cheats!)
Current example: Huck is obsessed with Rose’s Snap Circuits set. This morning I stood in the living room for the longest time, watching him—his back was to me—deeply absorbed in assembling one of the projects in the guidebook. He has worked his way through the entire project book with minimal help, following the picture instructions but also puzzling out chunks of text. Sometimes he asks for help with a mouthful word like “capacitor”—no self-consciousness, no sense that he is young to be expecting to be able to read a word like that. He can’t figure it out, he asks for help. But poring over this book, casually encountering these giant words that tell him things he wants to know, has catapulted his reading skills forward in a way no teacher, no matter how good, how patient, could reproduce. If I made him sit down to a reading curriculum, I can guarantee he would be restless and fretful within minutes. But he’ll spend the whole afternoon immersed in building projects out of this book, interacting with the pictures and text, following complex directions—and consider it ‘playing.’ As in, “Can I play with your Snap Circuits again today?” he’ll ask his big sister.
*Let me elaborate on what I said above about “allowing lots of conversation and lingering and interruptions to hyperfocus on some little piece of a picture.” This is a mistake I’ve seen many adults make. A lot of adults have difficulty tolerating interruptions during a readaloud. There’s a whole big conversation to be had about how much background activity to allow — like, Legos keep little hands busy but can be very noisy. There are ways to work around that (spread out Legos on the floor before reading, since the noisiest part is the digging through the bin–things like that). But what I want to focus on right now are the interruptions that come when a child is looking at the book with you and starts talking over the narrative–pointing at things in the art, or otherwise being chatty about the book instead of listening to the story. This activity may actually be an indication of a big leap forward in skill acquisition–but we adults don’t always see it that way!
Here’s an example — when Rose was five or six, I remember reading her My Father’s Dragon. She was right at the point of emergent literacy, beginning to recognize words like street signs and store names as I mentioned above. We were about halfway through this short novel as a readaloud when she started pointing out Elmer’s name on every page. And “the dragon” and “the cat” — words repeated often in the story. But mainly it was the word “Elmer” (the main character). It got to where I couldn’t get through a page, because she kept pointing at the name all over the place. And I had a moment of being irritated and wanting to hush her–now now, let’s listen to the story. But it hit me in a flash that what we were doing together — what SHE was experiencing in this moment — had changed. It had started out “listening to a story.” Now it was READING. She had learned a sight word and was putting this new skill to use, with numerous opportunities to “practice” it on every page. No curriculum in the world could top this skill practice, because it was completely voluntary and completely absorbing her. It was HER activity, not one imposed upon her from the outside.
So, in that hour snuggled beside her on her bed, I let go of the whole listen-to-this-story concept. I kept on reading to her, page after page, but that was merely a background activity providing the vehicle for her discovery. “Elmer…Elmer…the dragon…” — little finger pointing, skipping around the page. We finished the book that way, with Rose only half paying attention to the words I was reading. When I got to the end, she said it was the best book ever and asked me to start it over. The second time through, she listened raptly to the narrative. Her brain had finished its self-assigned task. By the time I finished the book for the second time (a week or two later), she was reading very well on her own.
So that’s what I mean about stepping back to reassess an activity and your objectives….if a child is hyperfocusing on some part of the story that isn’t your voice reading the words, there is probably a very good reason. A wonderful thing about homeschooling is we have the luxury of time and space to allow this process to unfold at the child’s pace–there is no pressure to ‘get through’ a certain amount of material by a set date.
I was delighted to learn that The Prairie Thief is a nominee for the Washington Library Association‘s 2015-2016 Sasquatch Award, the chapter book award for grades 3-6 in Washington State. Here is the whole lineup—a fine batch of contenders, I must say!
How many have you read?
Rose: Are you okay?
Me: Bit into what I thought was potato, turned out to be half a peppercorn.
Rose (sympathetically): Aw! Would it help if I told you the Icelandic word for potato?
“I like that too,” said Christopher Robin, “but what I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say ‘Oh, nothing,’ and then you go and do it.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.
“This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing now.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh again.
“It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.
We order wonderful little homemade soaps from Julie at The Parsonage, whom I met via Lesley Austin’s Wisteria and Sunshine community. Julie’s soaps smell heavenly and last a long time (much longer than the bottles of liquid soap we used to tear through). One of my favorite things about them is that they come wrapped in strips of fabric—so simple and pretty. Rilla saves these cloth strips and this morning she started to sew them into a little blanket. I was reading our chapter of House at Pooh Corner (we’re almost finished, sob!) and got such a smile out of the scene at my feet—these two each so intent on their separate pursuits. I couldn’t resist laying down the book and snapping the moment with my phone. Rose allowed Huck access to her Snap Circuits set a couple of weeks ago and he has played with almost nothing else since. He has worked through all the projects in the book and is beginning to invent his own whirring, buzzing, siren-blaring arrangements (and to drop extremely broad hints about needing more parts).
Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was Still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“When I’m–when– Pooh!”
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
I think I’m not going to read them the final chapter of Pooh Corner just yet. We started with this volume because I couldn’t find our copy of Winnie the Pooh, which comes first. But now I want to go back and read them that one (it’s bound to turn up). I flipped ahead to the end of Pooh Corner today and got teary at the goodbye scene…I’m not ready for these two, my last small fry, to contemplate leaving behind the Hundred Acre Wood. At least I know that no matter how Old they get, and how Busy with Important Things, they’ve been raised to appreciate the value of Nothing.
1. Piano recital: accomplished. And swimmingly, I might add. Particularly sweet this year because the music school divided the recital students into smaller groups (fewer classes lumped together into each recital), which meant our girls’ three classes were part of a five-class recital consisting mostly of good friends, families in our homeschooling circle. Best part: the way Huck (not yet a student) gasped in delighted recognition at the songs played by the beginner class (a level below Rilla’s group), because he recognized all the songs from last year when Rilla was learning them. Next year it will be his turn to begin! Hard to believe.
2. The drought, oh the drought, it has hit my garden hard. I’ve planted a lot of drought-tolerant natives over the years, so things are limping along, but still, it’s pretty grim out there. As it must be: flower-gardening will have to be one of the indulgences we let go in the new normal that is our hot-and-getting-hotter world. At least here in this dry-and-getting-drier state. Some of my work this year has involved a lot (a LOT) of research into California’s drying aquifers and the truly shocking lack of Sierra snowmelt and its impacts, and the sobering percentage of reduction of water deliveries to certain small towns from the State Water Project, and, well, you can’t face those facts and go on lavishing water on delphiniums. I’m becoming something of a vicarious gardener once again—the way I was in grad school when I confessed to the poet Robert Pinsky, whom I was tasked with picking up at the airport for a reading, that my habit while driving around town was to re-imagine the landscaping of all the yards I passed. Only now I’m mentally tearing up all the thirsty lawns around me in this desert. But I may have to find room for an annual trip to Portland in the spring, to soak myself for a few days in the glories of lush blossom and unfurling ferns. For now I must apply the tactic I used with much success back in those garden-deprived grad-school days: houseplants require very little water. Rilla and I went to work this week, taking cuttings and clippings to bring a bit of the bright outside indoors. And (influenced by Anne Shirley, of course) I’ve always kept windowsill geraniums with their cheery blooms perched on my kitchen sink—you can never go wrong with good old pelargonium. Thus this item belongs on a happy list even though its genesis is a bleak climate situation.
3. Kate Winslet does a smashing job with the voices in the Matilda audiobook. Rilla and I have one chapter left. We may not be able to wait for our Saturday-night ritual (audiobook + sketchbook time while the older girls watch S.H.I.E.L.D. with Scott) to finish. Which means I’d better come up with our next listen before Saturday…
4. Broadchurch Season 2. Wow.
5. Last night we watched a movie called Begin Again. Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and yet I had somehow failed to hear about it until Scott queued it up. (He has unerring instincts for films that will delight me.) I loved it. A lovely, thoughtful piece by the writer/director of Once. I’ll watch it again.
What I’m reading this week
To the kids: House at Pooh Corner (still)
Myself: Connie Willis’s Blackout (Determined to finish this time! The other times I’ve begun and set it aside, it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested. Other things just kept crowding in. We’ll see if this time around is different.)
Photo of the week
My friend Edith Hope Fine shared this photo, taken at last weekend’s Greater San Diego Reading Association awards breakfast, on Facebook, and our pal Salina Yoon dressed it up with everyone’s book covers. What a fantastic community of writers and illustrators we have here in San Diego! (Thanks, Edith, Salina, and—wait, who took the photo? I can’t remember!)
Huck came to me with How to Read a Story by Kate Messner and Mark Siegel. “Mommy, will you be my reading buddy?” Of course I will!
He starts reading me the book. And then, halfway through, only a few pages after the sneaky video I took below, he…stopped reading out loud. Got sucked into the story and read silently for the first time. Thanks to this charming picture book, I got to be there for the moment of transition. It was magical. And yes, since he’s my youngest, a little bittersweet–the last one to cross the bridge to solo, silent immersion. But only a little bittersweet. Mostly just magical.
One of the earliest lessons of having a special-needs child was learning to recognize his progress not by comparing him to typically-developing children of the same age, but by comparing him to his own earlier self. I say ‘lesson’ and ‘learn’ but in truth this was something that happened naturally and almost instantaneously after his multiple diagnoses and the beginning of various therapies—physical, occupational, speech. As soon as I had an understanding of his developmental challenges, I was able to rejoice over each increment of progress, each small accomplishment along with the big ones. It was like my brain was wiped free of comparisons to other babies, including my first three, and all that existed was this baby, making these tremendous (even when tiny) strides.
That mental shift keeps popping into my mind lately as I keep working (and working and working) on drawing. Only here, it isn’t natural and instantaneous. Here, I have to keep relearning the lesson; some days I practically have to shout it at myself. The trouble, of course, is that I have so many friends who are spectacularly good artists. Years of training, years of dedication and work. Hundreds or thousands of pages of finished art under their belts. If I compare my drawings—or my slow progress—to them, I feel bleak. I don’t have it, that thing they have. Vision, natural talent, hand-eye coordination, vast knowledge of technique—you name it, I don’t have it. All I have is…earnestness. A belief that everyone can learn to draw, and that includes me. And this long-simmering desire to learn, kindled last fall into a full-boil determination.
So I keep reminding myself, baby artist, to compare myself to the even babier artist I was a few months ago. I remember when my son was finally able to climb up stairs on his own. He was well past a year old. He had motor planning issues, and we spent hours and hours over a period of several months, moving his limbs for him up stair by stair by stair. Hand, knee, hand, knee. Or was it hand, hand, knee, knee, I don’t remember now. Either way, it took so much practice. Until one day his brain figured it out. The pattern was learned. The pathways were formed. Soon after that we could hardly remember what it was like before he learned to climb stairs. We had to scramble to help him learn how to climb down.
Stair by stair, I’m making progress. For every ten drawings I hate, I make one that I like. But I like looking at the bad ones, too, because I know that the fact that I can see what’s wrong with them is another sign of my progress. My eye is improving along with my hand. (“Your taste is killer. Your taste is why your work disappoints you.”)
Today I looked at something I’d done, a couple of quick, surreptitious gesture sketches of some women in a meeting, and realized I’d attempted people—in complex postures, no less—without even thinking about it. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have done that. It’s nice to know I’ve made it up a stair or two.
Small child straddling two barstools, running toy cars up and down the high counter. Another child sprawled on floor, drawing a picture. A third hovering by the cedar chest at the far end of the sofa, at loose ends. A leggy teenager spidering sideways in the comfy armchair. A perfectly typical scene of mild morning chaos.
I curl up in my rocking chair with House at Pooh Corner. The younger set hasn’t heard it yet, in that way that shocks me. They are six, almost nine, and eleven, for Pete’s sake! How could such a thing have happened? Answer: SO. MANY. BOOKS. With no fanfare, I open it and start reading.
The child on the floor flashes a starry grin and scoots closer, her pencils rolling under my feet. The child at loose ends looks up, ears perked. The small one zooming his cars around seems not to notice, but all the engines appear to have undergone sudden tuneups: their roars diminish to silky purrs.
It takes me a minute to find Pooh’s voice. It’s been a few years, after all. Piglet is easy and Eeyore—this revelation would no doubt astonish him—is a delight. It’s snowing, tiddley pom, but at least there hasn’t been an earthquake.
The cars have abandoned the counter and are crossing a bridge of air toward the Hundred Acre Wood. The teenager’s limbs have been transferred to the sofa. The no-longer-hovering child has claimed ownership of the big brown armchair. Nobody knows, tiddley pom, how cold my toes are growing. The postman rattles the lid of the mailbox, delivering the day’s contingent of recyclables. Pooh’s voice has settled down, and the wind must have blown Eeyore’s house over the wood because there it is, just as good as ever, and better in places.
It’s a beautiful house, tiddley pom.
Nine years, can you believe it?
Huck and I are cuddled up in the big brown chair. His hair is getting long again, all rumpled curls on top. Face a little dirty, because it’s after nine in the morning. Big sweet eyes smiling up at me, waiting for a story.
“Once upon a time,” I begin, “there was a boy named—”
“ACID FIRE,” he interjects.
ARGH, when did I go from being a daily blogger to a weekly one? When I took on so much extra work, I suppose. It’s just so. very. busy. right now. But busy is good—busy is kids with full lives and writers with full workloads.
Busy is I got my manuscript back from my editor, so I’m in revision territory now, and that’s absorbing.
Busy is Journey North Mystery Class! Which we finished today with our usual awesome party full of lively presentations and unusual food. Delicious in every way.
Busy is the three (!) homeschooling classes I’m teaching! Two literature and one writing class—I suppose if you count Journey North, which I lead (but my friend Erica hosts at her house, and in my opinion that’s the hardest part), that makes four classes. Except (as I mentioned) JN is done now, so only three. We’re having a lot of fun. I teach because I love. The reading, the discussion, the kids—oh, most of all, these energetic, deep-thinking kids.
Busy is my roster of Other Jobs—the grantwriting gig, the website maintenance gig, the editorial gig. You know, the day jobs that make the writing life possible.
Busy is Sketchbook Skool and my commitment to daily drawing. (The rhino up there was for an assignment—splatter some ink on the page and turn it into a drawing. He’s scribbly on purpose. Also because I’ve never drawn a rhino before and I was winging it.)
Busy is when the neighbor kids are on spring break and therefore practically living at my house during daylight hours. We have become That House!
Busy is evening IM chats with Jane and full days with the rest of the gang. And morning walks with Scott, because no matter how busy All the Busy is, it’s never too busy for that.
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Photo by Lori Mitchell and used with gratitude!
Yesterday I had the fun of attending an awards breakfast hosted by the Greater San Diego Reading Association, a branch of the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association). Along with fellow children’s authors Suzanne Santillan, Lori Mitchell, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Joy Raab, I received a Celebrate Literacy Award for my contributions to literacy in San Diego. Such an honor!
From left to right: Suzanne Santillan, me, Edith Hope Fine, Joy Raab, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Lori Mitchell at Pacific Beach Elementary, March 2014
The GSRDA are the folks who host the annual Authors Fair I have participated in these past two years—hands-down some of the best events I’ve ever attended. These were the schools (Pacific Beach Elementary in 2014 and Kimball Elementary in National City this year) where the teachers had spent weeks preparing their students for my visit—reading The Prairie Thief aloud (and saving the last chapter for me!) and doing some amazing writing and art projects. There is nothing, nothing like seeing kids’ art and poetry inspired by your books, let me tell you.
Student art and writing at Kimball Elementary
Prairie Thief project by 5th-grader Isabella D.