Friday, July 14, 2017

My Summer Office

Here at Hollins, the office I've been assigned in Swannanoa Hall (isn't that a wonderful name?) is perfectly adequate, but uninspiring. The suite of rooms I have in the Barbee Guest House are charming, but lack the essential of a desk, table, or any similar writing surface. But I have found for myself the most beautiful office I'll probably ever have on this earth: Hollins's Wyndham Robertson Library.

During the academic year the library may well be overrun with frantically studying students, but in the peaceful summer, I have the choice of so many delicious options for work.

If I need my computer, I have a favorite table on the second floor;
I love this table so much I'll leave my laptop there all day to stake my claim (not that there is any competition) even when I head off for lunch, completely confident that it will be there waiting for me when I return.

Here is the view out the window from my table of a sunlit hillside.
For my actual creative work, however, I prefer writing by hand curled up a couch. Here is the selection of couch options in the Hollins Room on the library's third floor.
Should I feel chilly as I scribble away, why, the library has anticipated my every need:
For a final tempting option I can wend my way up a tiny spiral staircase to the reading loft:
There I can lie upon cushions to read (though my students report that this option can also result in unplanned naps).
On my non-teaching days I spent all day most blissfully at my library "office." Over the past few weeks I revised chapter one of my new work-in-progress (still untitled), and went on to write chapters two and three. I finished revisions on a last-hurrah scholarly philosophy article and wrote comments on a paper that I'll be delivering, as a respondent, at the University of Colorado's Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in August. I've read and responded to student work. I'm writing this blog post there right now.

My goal when I return to my life in Boulder in two weeks is to see what I might find for a western office-away-from-home, as I'm now so enamoured of the productivity that comes from spending time in such a magical place. But I have to admit that Hollins has set a standard it will be hard for any other place on earth to meet.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Give Your Charater a Controlling Belief

One of the best things about teaching in an MFA program, as I'm doing right now in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University, is that the faculty get to learn both from their students and from each other.

Last week I heard a lunchtime talk on characterization from the incomparable Kathi Appelt, our current writer-in-residence. Listening to Kathi's crisp distillation of the process of character creation was the single most productive hour I've spent as a writer in the past year.

Drawing on a course that Kathi (herself a Newbery-honoree and two-time National Book Award finalist) had taken from writing guru Dennis Foley, she told us that we need to know five essential things about our characters. (Have I mentioned on this blog that I have an obsession with the number five? My daily, weekly, and monthly lists all have five items on them. So a list of five essential things to know about our characters is perfect for me!)

Here are the five things on Kathi's list:

1. their occupation (or role) - for a child, this "occupation" might be daughter, sister, friend
2. how well they perform that occupation, or how well they think they do
3. their controlling belief or attitude (doesn't have to be true or logical)
4. their goal (what the character has to achieve, overcome, or acquire)
5. their stakes - what is at stake if the character fails?

The item on the list that struck me most powerfully was #3: the controlling belief. Kathi gave as examples: "I can do anything I set my mind to," "Nothing I do will ever be good enough to please my father"; and (for Romeo and Juliet), "I can't live without you." A well-structured story culminates in a "crisis of faith" when the character comes face to face with the controlling belief, as the belief is challenged in some way and either validated or discarded. The controlling belief needs to be meaningful enough to the character to carry the entire story forward to its climax and resolution.

I've been struggling with my current work-in-progress: the first title of a new third-grade-level chapter book series set in an after-school program. I had written three chapters on it several months ago, but I had a niggling worry at the back of my mind that my chapters were ALL WRONG. I haven't been able to stand the thought of looking at them since, or working on the book at all - which, I might mention, is not a productive way of moving a book forward.

After Kathi's talk, I forced myself to read those three chapters. And yes, they were indeed ALL WRONG. I had idenitifed the wrong occupation for Nixie: I had thought it was daughter (she's upset that her mother has gone back to work), but it's friend (the real reason she's upset is that her best friend isn't going to attend the after-school program with her, but go to the home of a rival friend instead). Although I hadn't thought consciously about her controlling belief, if I had, that belief would have been: "Nothing should ever change." But her real controlling belief, I now can see, is: "You can only have one best friend."

Now that I know these two things I have an actual plan for the book. Nixie's goal is going to be to get her best friend back. Her attempts to implement the plan will backfire, driving her best friend ever further away. It all makes so much sense!

Thank you, dear brilliant Kathi, for giving me this crucial tidbit of writing wisdom.

Now I'm off to rewrite those first three all-wrong chapters, and write new three terrific ones instead.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Little Bits of Enchantment

I'm now finishing up my second week of the six-week term of the Advanced Creative Writing Tutorial I'm teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke. I love my class, I love my students, and I love my colleagues. But most of all I think I just love the magic of this campus in the summertime, with all the creative spirits wandering about in this bucolic space. . . where you never know whom you might meet on a stroll.

Such as. . .

These, and other beloved friends from children's classics old and new, roam the campus, thanks to the efforts of my colleague Ashley Wolff. In addition to Ferdinand (can you see the flowers he's sniffing?), Eloise, Pippi, and Olivia, I've been able to greet Madeline, Frances-the-little-badger, Sal from Blueberries with Sal, Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore, and more. And who knows? Someday one of my students may create an immortal character who will bring another bit of enchantment to this campus on some distant tomorrow.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

From Paradise to Paradise

I had no sooner arrived at Hollins University for my summer teaching in the graduate programs in children's literature (i.e., paradise), and settled into my adorable rooms in the charming Barbee Guest House on the Hollins campus, when I had to whisk myself off for a whirlwind visit to ChLA - the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association (i.e., paradise), held this year in Tampa.

I was disappointed that my two paradises had a conflict in dates, with the ChLA conference falling during the crucial first week of the six-week Hollins summer term. How could I miss my very first class with my already beloved students? But how could I miss the mandatory all-day meeting of the Phoenix Award Committee, for which I'm in the middle of serving a three-year-term? I decided to try to do both -  dash off from Hollins to ChLA for the Wednesday meeting and one conference session (the 8:00-9:15 a.m. session on Thursday, the first day of the conference proper), where I'd deliver my paper for a panel on the North American Girl's Bildungsroman. Then I'd dash back to Hollins, with a makeup class planned for my students with compensatory love to be lavished upon them.

It made for an intense few days, but also for a magical few days. What is more satisfying than to spend hours and hours talking with four super-smart children's literature scholars about the ten finalists we had chosen together for the Phoenix Award? As the award honors a book published twenty years ago, which didn't receive a major award at the time but is deemed (by us) as worthy of one now, these were all titles published in 1999 - and oh, that year had some amazing books for us to agonize over. We aren't able to reveal our choice yet, but we left the meeting most pleased with ourselves for what we had chosen.

That evening I squeezed in a dinner with three conference friends. We've been meeting together since we first met as roommates at the ChLA conference in Buffalo in 2004 - strangers to each other at that time, who teamed up to save money and ease demand on a limited bank of conference-reserved hotel rooms. That year we had our first "midnight feast" (the term borrowed from a staple scene in classic girl's boarding school books). Our feast, however, doesn't take place at midnight, but after an early dinner. We lie on the beds in one of our hotel rooms and read aloud to each other from favorite children's books while stuffing ourselves full of candy. What better feast could there be?

This morning my three co-panelists and I delivered our papers to a surprisingly large audience for our early time slot. One of them, the panel's bold organizer, Dawn Sardella-Ayres, gifted me with yet more candy to thank me for reading and commenting (earlier this year) on a draft of her now-completed dissertation for her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. The candy was TWO Cadbury chocolate bars of top-quality British Cadbury chocolate, in the largest size of any candy bar I've ever seen. Here is one of the two (alas, there isn't much left of the other one), with two good-sized mugs behind it, for scale,

Then I flew back to Hollins, from one paradise to another, with more candy than one mortal has any right to dream of this side of, well, paradise.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Off to Paradise (i.e., Hollins University)

I leave tomorrow to spend six weeks teaching in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature and Children's Book Illustration at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I will be entering the portals of paradise.
I've sojourned at Hollins twice before: as a writer-in-residence in the summer of 2005 and as a faculty member teaching chapter book writing in the summer of 2014. So I know exactly what to expect, which is six weeks of creative joy.

This time I'm teaching one of the three Advanced Creative Writing Tutorials, where students are working on their creative thesis projects, intensely workshopping them in class sessions as well as honing fine points of craft. I will have four students in the class - yes, four - and we'll meet twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays from 2-5. I've been in email contact with them already to learn what project they are planning to pursue during our time together and to ascertain how I can best assist them in its pursuit. I love them already.

That's what makes the Hollins program such a paradise. Everyone is there for one reason only: love. The students want to write or illustrate children's books more than anything in the world and have waited all year to have these six enchanted weeks in which to immerse themselves in doing this. The faculty leave behind everything else in our lives - all our cares and woes - to spend six weeks teaching what we love best to people who yearn with every fiber of their being to learn it. In most university teaching, if you end class a few minutes early, no wails of lamentation are heard from the students. At Hollins, if you try to end a three-hour class five minutes before the close of the final hour, the students say, "But - we still have five minutes left! Can we just ask you a few more questions?"

The campus itself is lovely, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Each morning I walk, very early, with two dear friends past horses grazing in green pastures. Evenings are filled with stimulating talks, or long, intense, funny, heartfelt conversations.

As if this weren't enough, my closest friend in the world lives in Roanoke. She is retiring from thirty years of teaching high school theater, and her last day is . . . TODAY. So there will time for playing with Rachel, including a weekend getaway to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, with two other beloved friends who live in Maryland.

Oh, and I'll have time to do my own writing, too. I've been preoccupied with scholarly, academic projects for the last few months, but I'll return to being my creative self at Hollins. Last time I was there I wrote an entire 15,000-word chapter book: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ. This time I have two creative projects packed in my suitcase - plus dreams of writing something utterly new of which I haven't yet a glimmer of an idea.
But one may come to me in paradise, don't you think?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"The Ants Go Marching" Song - New and Improved!!!

In the first book in my Nora Notebooks series, The Trouble with Ants, budding myrmecologist (ant scientist) Nora is irritated by the decidedly unscientific lyrics of the song, "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two" (hurrah, hurrah!). She sniffs:"'The little one stops to suck his thumb.' As if ants had thumbs rather than mandibles! 'The little one stops to tie his shoe.' Tying a shoe? Really?"

Well, yesterday I received an email from Kate Wolff, first grade teacher at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver. Her students had read Nora's story and responded by writing new lyrics for this old song, informed by their own study of ants. The lyrics are brilliant. The lyrics are amazing. The lyrics took my breath away.

Here, with their permission to post, the new and improved version of "The Ants Go Marching Two by Two."

The Ants Go Digging
A scientifically correct version of “The Ants Go Marching” by Kate’s Crew
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging one by one,
Then one emits a pheromone
And they all follow the smell down, underground
To get into the chamber
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging two by two,
Their colony is like a crew
And they cooperate
In all they do
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging three by three
Their feet are called their tarsi
And they use them to climb trees
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging four by four,
The army ants might go to war
If other colonies attack
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging five by five
They hide away to stay alive
Avoiding predators (and rain)

The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging six by six
The nurse ants give the larvae licks
To keep them moist and clean
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging seven by seven
They have two stomachs in their abdomen
And one is called a crop!
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging eight by eight,
In the winter they hibernate
Deep down under the ground
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging nine by nine,
They leave the nest in a line
To forage for their food
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah.
The ants go digging ten by ten,
The queen ant lays some eggs again
And the life cycle never ends

Thank you, Kate's Crew! I told them I only wished Nora were a real person, instead of a character I invented, so I could send these lyrics to her directly. How pleased she would be!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Kicking the [Stuffing] out of Plan B

This year May was my cruelest month.

My family is undergoing huge, heartbreaking changes. For the past four years my son and his wife - and their dog - have lived with me. Then came adored granddaughter number one, and adored granddaughter number two, making a total of six humans and two animals in my 1500-square-foot condo. I sometimes mourned the loss of control over my own space and my own time, even as I knew these intensely sweet days wouldn't last, as nothing in this world ever does.

And now it's over: my son and his wife are divorcing, and the girls and their mother moved out this past weekend to a mountain town a good four hours' drive away (not counting weather and traffic, which are huge factors for much of the year).

I'm heartbroken. Now, of course, I'd give anything to have my old crammed, crowded life with those two little girls back again, in every exhausting and exasperating detail.

But Plan A is no longer an option.

One of my writer friends has a new mantra: "When Plan A falls through, kick the [stuffing] out of Plan B." Her Plan A was having her most recent book, the one she loved best and believed in most passionately, rejected by mainstream publishers. Her Plan B is self-publishing, and she's determined to promote this book to every reader in the universe and make it her best-seller, anyway.

My Plan B is: 1) enjoy my peaceful, quiet house for three out of four weeks each month while I work busily and happily on my own creative and scholarly writing projects; then 2) have the girls come to us one week a month, where I'll be with them full time every weekday while their daddy is at work, filling every day with as much love and joy and memory-making moments as I can.

That is not a terrible plan.

It's not the plan I wanted, but I can make it a good plan. It won't be the "forever" plan, as someday the girls will be in "real school" where they will have to come to us on holidays or summer vacations - and someday they may no longer live in this mountain town - and someday everything may change yet again. There are no forever plans. I'm trying to make peace with the radical unknowability of the future.

In the meantime, I'm going to do everything I can to kick the [stuffing] out of Plan B.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Archival Rsearch at the Kerlan Collection: Part II

I've now finished three exhilarating and exhausting days of children's literature research at the Kerlan. And when I say "exhausting," I mean that yesterday I returned home to my bed-and-breakfast, put on my nightgown, and got into bed at 5:30. So many hours spent poring over voluminous heaps of paper, number two pencil clenched in my hand (no pens allowed, though laptops are permitted, and I did take lots of pictures of key items on my phone). I already have 25 pages of closely written notes.
I don't think I'm allowed, at this point, to quote directly from the collection (I need to check on what I need to do to secure that permission). But here is a little bit of what I've found.

I've spent most of my time on Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books. The Kerlan has two big cartons of MHL materials, plus another smaller box. Here I discovered:

 The typewritten manuscript of the first story Maud wrote as a precursor to the Betsy-Tacy books: "Betty and Bick [Tacy's real-life name] Visit a Hermit";

Correspondence between Maud and the childhood friends, now grown, who served as the real-life inspiration for her characters, pressing them for the vivid details to make each story come alive;

Dozens of pages of notes on Minnesota birds, trees, flowers, seasonal observations, and local history as background research;

Meticulous documention of article titles, fashion styles, popular actors and songs, from a month-by-month review of Ladies Home Journal for the year corresponding with each book;

And much more!

I have to say that I had no idea Lovelace did so much grueling research for her series, as the books are based so closely on her own childhood and teen years. Wasn't she just relying on memory? No! There is even a letter from the Hayden Planetarium in New York City answering a question about what constellations Betsy might have seen when sailing to Europe on the eve of World War I in Betsy and the Great World. I was humbled by this evidence of how hard she worked to make the early twentieth century feel so real for her readers.

The Eleanor Estes material here at the Kerlan is less juicy than I what I explored last year at the University of Connecticut; there it was a lot of correspondence, but here it's mainly typewritten and copy-edited manuscripts with relatively few changes made on them (but I did pounce on those I found with great interest.) Then I peeked into the six uncatalogued boxes on Elizabeth Enright. Oh, my! Best finds so far: a whole folder titled "Boyfriends 1925-29: with ardent love letters and Western Union telegrams from various swains, and a beautiful fan letter written to Enright by British author Noel Streatfeild (the "Shoes" books), another of my greatest loves.

What will I find today?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Archival Research at the Kerlan Collection: Part I

Last year, in my seventh decade on this earth, I learned something wonderful that I wish I had learned a long time ago: you can apply for grants that will give you money to do fun things, and if you're lucky you might even get one.

Last year I applied for, and got, a travel grant to do archival research on children's author Eleanor Estes at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the Univesity of Connecticut. This year I applied for, and got, a travel grant to do more archival research on Eleanor Estes, and also on my most beloved Maud Hart Lovelace, at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.

I arrived last nght at the guest house in the Dinkytown section of Minneapolis where I'll be staying for the week, the Wales House on 5th Street SE, about a twenty-minute walk from the Anderson Library that houses the Kerlan Collection.
I love every single thing about it so far.

When you arrive, you take off your shoes and put them in your own numbered shoe cubby. I'm number 24.
Tucked up on the third floor is my sweet little room:

I share a bath with three lodgers. We each have our own numbered towel hook.
In the kitchen we each have our own numbered cupboard and our own numbered shelf in the fridge.

I hadn't planned to fix my own meals as a continental breakfast is provided here, and the grant money covers my other eating expenses, but I wanted to have something to put in my cupboard and on my fridge shelf, so I went to the small urban Target two blocks away and bought some yogurst, berries, and of course my necessary Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

The other lodgers whom I've met so far all hail from distant lands: a man from Japan, a woman from China, another man from Spain, All are conducting research at the University of Minnesota. I feel part of a global commuity of scholars.This morning I walked to campus with Choa from China, who is doing molecular biology medical research. Then, as it happened, I met up with her by chance at the end of my day and we walked home together.

So the trip proved to be lovely before I even opened a single box of children's literature treasures at the Kerlan, the treasures from which I'll share tidbits in my next post.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Submission-a-Month Plan: Mid-May Report

My chief goal for 2017 is to submit a different project somewhere every single month. It can be a creative project or a scholarly project; it can be a big project or a little project. Options include: children's book proposal, completed children's book manuscript, academic philosophy article, academic children's literature article, personal essay, poem, grant application, and more. I don't have to have a single submission actually accepted, mind you. Whether something gets accepted is up to the universe. Whether it gets submitted is up to me.

I am loving this plan so much. As soon as I press SEND, I feel a shiver of anticipation: now, there is at least a chance that something nice can happen. Admittedly, the nice thing is unlikely to happen any time soon, as the review process can drag on for months. And in some cases, it's unlikely to happen at all. But it is definitely sooooo much more likely to happen than if I hadn't pressed SEND. Pressing SEND is key.

So far this year, this is what I've submitted:

January: grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature at the University of Minnesota for travel funds to spend a week in Minneapolis researching their archived materials on several children's authors I adore - Maud Hart Lovelace, Eleanor Estes, Carol Ryrie Brink.
VERDICT: Accepted. I head for Minneapolis next week.

February: massively revised philosophy paper on artistic integrity, submitted to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is a paper I've presented to a number of university audiences over a number of years, with increasing embarrassment at still dragging the same old thing around with me wherever I go. It was time - long past time - either to do something with it or just consign it to the flames. VERDICT JUST IN: "Accept with major edits." I'm stunned, actually, as my usual verdict is "revise and resubmit," and this is a step up from that- and for a paper I almost abandoned. This may very well be my philosophical swan song, and I'm glad I've had the chance to sing it.

March: significantly revised academic children's literature paper on Pinky Pye and Ginger Pye of Eleanor Estes, the fruit of a research trip to the University of Connecticut library last fall. I submitted this to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly last November (I think it was) and did indeed get my usual revise-and-resubmit verdict earlier this year. So my task for March was to revise and resubmit, which I did. CURRENT STATUS: waiting to hear and cautiously optimistic.

April: a children's poem submitted to Highlights. This is a first for me, to submit one of my poems somewhere, and it's a long shot, as their website says explicitly that they are overstocked with poetry right now and are especially interested in non-rhyming poems, which mine is not. But, hey, you never know, right? CURRENT STATUS: waiting to hear, but not very hopeful. Still, I kept to my submission-a-month goal.

May: an academic children's literature paper submitted to the journal Children's Literature. The paper is called "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to be Bad." This is a major expansion and revision of a paper I gave at the Children's Literature Association conference in June of 2015. It was a ton of work to overhaul it, but great joy to press SEND last week. CURRENT STATUS: waiting to hear and expecting a verdict of "revise and submit."

For June I'm trying to decide if doing the major edits on the artistic integrity paper (February's project) and resubmitting it is enough to count as meeting my goal for June, or if I need to submit something completely new, which means coming up with (i.e., writing) something completely new. I'm inclined toward thinking major edits on the paper is good enough. Anyway, I'm the one who makes the rules here, so I get to decide.

Then, that will be half a year done, with a delicious six months to go, when I'll turn my attention back to creative rather than scholarly projects. The rest of my life may be in flaming ruins (as in fact it is right now), but at least I'm sticking to my submission-a-month plan. At least I have that.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Writing an Hour a Day: Hopelessly, Faithfully

I am very happy today. I finished extensive revisions on a scholarly children's literature article that grew out of a paper I presented at the Children's Literature Association conference in Richmond, Virginia, in June of 2015. And I just sent it off to a journal - hooray, hooray!

There is no bliss greater than the bliss of attaching a document and pressing SEND. Well, except for the bliss that awaits me this afternoon of lugging all the books I needed for this project back to the university library and beholding a clean desk ready for the next project.

This article is titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The WouldbegoodsBetsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad." It examines three different texts, published over the course of a full century, which feature children who are making conscious, deliberate, intentional attempts at being good, with results that end up as decidedly NOT good. The central thesis of the paper is that all three authors (E. Nesbit, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Annie Barrows) are not satirizing children's naivety about the moral realm; instead they are satirizing the ways in which adult authorities communicate significant errors about the moral life to young readers.

Anyway, it was a HUGE project to turn a half-baked 10-page conference paper into a well-researched 30-page journal paper, festooned with footnotes and chock-a-block with citations. I really didn't think I'd get ever get it done, it was so overwhelming and I was so daunted.

But I did. 

And this is how I did it. Yes, I worked at it for an hour a day (well, sometimes even TWO hours a day), day after day after day, for perhaps a month and a half. 

That's all. 

I worked without hope - the whole project seemed hopeless. But I worked with a steady, dogged faithfulness. 

Now it's done. And submitted. And the months of waiting can begin for what will almost surely (based on my quarter century of past experience) be a verdict of "revise and resubmit." Which will mean tackling another extensive round of massive revisions. Which I will accomplish by trudging hopelessly, but faithfully and even cheerfully, for an hour a day, day after day, until it's done.

Then, once again, I'll hit SEND in a rush of rapture, and once again have the joy of returning the library books, and once again be DONE DONE DONE with a project - at least until it returns for more revision.

An hour a day. That's all it takes. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

May = "Make It Work for Me" Month

Happy first day of May! For those of you who, like me, start an entire new life on the first day of each month, may this one be infused with the buzzing, blooming energy of full-blown springtime.

I like to have themes for my months, when I can think of them. For this May, the theme is going to be "Make It Work for Me." I'm going to prioritize my happiness, my productivity, and my creative joy - all without short-changing what I owe (and gratefully give) to others. My task is going to be, in everything I face this month, to ask myself, "How I can make this work best for ME?"

A few examples as I begin my month-design pondering.

I need (and want) to spend time taking care of my in-residence grandchildren, to give their mother the opportunity to take care of herself in various ways. But I feel trapped and desperate if I'm stuck in a house for hours with small children, and I also feel nervous if I head out on ambitious adventures all alone with an extremely independent three-year-old and stroller-bound baby. Solution: this Thursday I'm joining forces with a writer friend who has a four-year-old of her own, meeting up at the Denver Zoo where she has a membership that will admit all of us for free. So while I'm taking care of grandchildren AND giving their mother some time for herself, I'll also have a delightful outing with a good friend and fun galore for all of us.

I need to take the new-to-me car I bought last week back to the dealer to have one little thing fixed on it. I'll probably need to wait an hour while the work is done. What a wasted morning - NOT. I'm going to take the book on plotting that everybody on earth seems to have read but me - Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder - and start reading it there.

I'm heading to Minneapolis later in the month for a week of research at the Kerlan Collection of children's literature at the University of Minnesota - digging into correspondence and manuscripts of favorite authors such as Maud Hart Lovelace, Eleanor Estes, and Carol Ryrie Brink. This is already going to be an amazing trip. But why not make it even more amazing? I want to make sure that I'm not lonely in the evenings by lining up some dinners with children's lit friends who live in the area. If I'm going all that way for all that time, I might as well squeeze maximal bliss out of it, right?

Finally, I need (and want) to spend early mornings cuddling with three-year-old Kataleya. But I also need (and want) to spend early mornings revising yet another children's literature paper, this one an expansion of a paper I gave at the Children's Literature Association convention a couple of years ago. How can I make this work for me? Well, the solution is obvious, but I need to remind myself of it every single morning as I glance at the clock while snug in my bed: GET UP EARLY! Not at 5, but at 4:30. It's so hard to do, but every single time I do it I feel downright giddy with joy for the rest of the day.

These are four ways I'm going to make May work for me. Are there ways you can make May work for you, too?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Back from Wisconsin

There are so many places in the world that I would be happy living. One of them, it turns out, is the Coolee region of southwestern Wisconsin, centered on the city of LaCrosse, where I just spent a lovely week speaking to children from six elementary schools (Galesville, Ettrick, North Woods, Whitehall, West Salem, and Northside), as well as visiting two public libraries (Galesville and LaCrosse), and giving a talk at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.

It's so pretty in the Midwest! I think of Carney in Maud Hart Lovelace's Carney's House Party, thinking that her Vassar classmates "haven't any idea how nice the Middle West is."

What is nicer than to walk along the banks of the mighty Mississippi in a park designed by Frederick Olmsted?

Or to wander through tiny towns like Galesville and Whitehall, with populations of fewer than 2000 people but yet boasting thriving downtowns with appealing cafes and markets? Here I stand overlooking Galesville, during a fascinating tour from my librarian friend Winna.
And meeting the town founder, Mr. Gale.
The children were uniformly delightful. My talks were a nice mix of my usual meet-the-author assembly (now complete with much-admired slides of my cat, dog, and grandbabies) and writing workshops for smaller groups on the principle of "Show, don't tell," These led to much hilarity as child volunteers acted out scenarios of being sad, mad, and glad, while the rest of us took notes on their facial expressions and body language. Great slumping shoulders, sad ones! Great clenched fists, mad ones! Great leaping into the air, glad ones!

I hadn't realized that I would be so close to Pepin, Wisconsin, site of Little House in the Big Woods, or to the homestead of Caddie Woodlawn, dear to me ever since I played the role of stuck-up cousin Annabelle in a fifth-grade dramatization. So now I have to plan a return trip to make that pilgrimage.

What a big wonderful world this is! I'm glad I had the chance to spend a week in this sweet part of it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Off to Wisconsin

Last July I received an email from the children's librarian in Galesville, Wisconsin, inquiring whether Cody Harmon, King of Pets was going to be the concluding title in my Franklin School Friends series, or if additional titles were planned. She explained that she has a section of her library for "series" books (with "series" defined as "more than five books"). Should she move Franklin School Friends into the series section or keep it with the regular collection?

I wrote back expressing astonishment at such heroic efforts to shelve my books correctly. She and I then fell into a witty email correspondence, as she happens to be one of the funniest human beings I have ever encountered. I couldn't resist dropping a hint that I'd be interested in coming to Wisconsin to do some author visits at local schools (and also admire my appropriately shelved books in the Galesville public library). Wina (pronounced Winna) passed my name onto a school librarian friend, who was indeed interested in sharing my services with her teachers and students, but lacked the budget to bring an author all the way from Colorado.

Oh, well. I tried.

But - wait - I really did want this to happen - and Galesville isn't that far from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where a new friend of mine teaches in the philosophy department (a friend I met last summer when I gave a talk at the American  Society of Aesthetics in Santa Fe). What if - ooh - what if the university would be willing to host me as a visitor? I could be both visiting professor AND visiting author, as I had recently done at Coastal Carolina University and Carleton College?

So tomorrow I fly to Minneapolis, where I'll rent a car to drive two-and-a-half hours to LaCrossse, Wisconsin. Then I'll spend all of next week presenting to children at six different elementary schools: Galesville, Ettrick, North Woods, Whitehall, West Salem, and Northside, as well as at two public libraries: Galesville and LaCrosse. I'll also give a talk at the university. And meet Wina at last!

All of this thanks to one librarian who cared enough about how to shelve my books in her library to write a hilarious email to me. And to one brilliant and generous philosophy professor friend who took time out of her enormously busy schedule to write a grant proposal to fund my presentation at her university and outreach from the university to the community.

Wisconsin, here I come!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"What You Do Most Is What You Do Best"

I promise I won't write every single blog post for the rest of my life about poetry, poetry, poetry.

But I'm still loving every minute of my poem-a-day commitment for National Poetry Month. Today, April 13, I now have 13 new poems that I've written, and I've noticed a pattern.

I'm getting better.

Even though I am doing this only for its own sake, just for the sheer creative joy of the writing itself, it's hard to break a lifelong habit of self-appraisal. I know which poems I've written are just so-so, in my own assessment, and which ones have a little spark of something special - perhaps six words strung together in a fresh way - or one burst-out-into-a-chuckle flash of humor - or some tiny insight about the human condition that may not wow anyone else but records something I want to keep in my heart. Lately, I've had more of these moments, more poems I feel like sharing with the universe.

This makes sense. I recently heard the motto "What you do most is what you do best," and it does seem to be true. Even though I have a long way to go before I've logged the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to achieve mastery in a field, just the ten or so hours I've logged this month have made a difference. I'm a better poet than I was two weeks ago. (And a happier person.)

It's self-reinforcing, too. The more I love writing poetry, the more time I spend writing it. The more time I spend writing, the better I get. The better I get, the more satisfaction I derive from both activity and product. The more satisfaction I get, the more I keep doing it. . . .

I know I can't sustain this schedule of poem-a-day writing. I'm letting many other more urgent pursuits fall by the wayside, beguiled into tarrying with my muse. My current plan is to finish out the month of poetic obsession, then turn to neglected articles and books, to preparing the course I'm teaching this summer in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins, and other tasks.

But I'm going to sign up for another month-long poem-a-day challenge before the year is out. Poetry was my first love as a child. Maybe it will be my last love as I age. I'm grateful to the girl I was for all those poems she wrote. I like to think she'd be happy to know her future self would still be writing poems. I wish I could send her one to see if she'd like it. But even if she didn't, she'd be pleased that I was still putting one word down on the page after another, for every day of a happy April, fifty years later.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Wanna Have Fun? Write a Poem Every Day!

It's Day 6 of my commitment to write a poem every day this month under the guidance and encouragement of poet Molly Fisk (see previous post for delicious details). I can now report: these six days of poetry writing have been utterly transformative.

March was a month of malaise for me. I wrote dutifully on revisions for a children's literature scholarly paper, following February's dutiful revisions of an academic philosophy article. But I wrote nothing creative, nothing fresh and new and daring and different, nothing just for the joy of it, nothing just for me.

Now every morning I hop out of bed to race to my computer to see Molly's choice of the prompt for the day. You can see them rendered photographically on her website. The list so far:
April 1:  Where are you going next?
April 2: In reflected light
April 3: Praising camouflage
April 4: What am I going to wear?
April 5: Do you want to demolish something?
April 6: Are you going to grow old?

I think the prompt that produced the best poems from us as a group (there are eleven poets signed up with Molly for the month's challenge) was "praising camouflage." I think I'm fondest of the poems I wrote today and yesterday, on demolition and aging (though I'm pleased with my camouflage poem, too, which I wrote in a child's voice).

I was stuck for a while yesterday, thinking about what I might want to "demolish." I've found it's helpful to un-stick myself by starting with some research - in this case, internet searching on "dynamite," which unearthed this gem from a website called

Q: How can you get dynamite?

A: You first get a federal explosives license. You will need to prove three things: that you are a good person, that you need the license for professional reasons, and that you have a safe, secure place to store your explosives before you use them.

Ooh! How good a person would I need to be to be in order to be able to purchase some dynamite? How would I prove my goodness? My poetic muse afire, I busily scribbled for an hour, as happy (as Grandpa used to say) "as if I'd had good sense." 

Through the poetry challenge I've already made several new friends. One of them, when I messaged her to praise her exquisite camouflage poem, wrote me back to ask if by any chance I was the Claudia Mills who was the author of the article "Redemption through the Rural: The Teen Novels of Rosamond du Jardin," which she was reading with another discussion group. And I was! 

Her group focuses on the novels of a different mid-century author, the Beany Malone books of Lenora Mattingly Weber, which I don't remember reading, though I adored a different one of Weber's books: Don't Call Me Katie Rose. I couldn't find any Beany Malone books listed in the Boulder Public Library catalog, and even the University of Colorado libraries had little to offer. So I turned to Image Cascade Publishing, which offers reprints of many beloved girls' books of the past, otherwise all but unavailable.The full set of Beany titles - 14 books - totals a whopping $149 plus $10 shipping. I hesitated for a moment and then went ahead and clicked to purchase. Why not?
After all, I'm on a joy roll this month. Poetry AND new friends AND a new series of mid-twentieth century girl books to read? 

Go for it!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Poem-a-Day for National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and in the nick of time I signed up for the perfect National Poetry Month activity. I've committed to writing a poem a day, for the 30 days of April, in an eleven-member group organized by poet Molly Fisk.

The group works like this:
1. Every evening Molly posts a prompt for the next day, which we are free to use, or not. (Oh, but writing from prompts, I finally discovered ten years ago, is SO MUCH FUN.)
2. Then the next day we have all day to ruminate on the prompt and write our poem.
3. We post our poem on the classroom bulletin board.
4. We read each others' poems, and if so moved, post brief responses, with one rule only: appreciation, not critique. I LOVE THIS RULE.

It's only April 2 now, but already I feel new creative energy stirring within me. The first prompt was:
"Where are you going next?" I think my own poem on that prompt was just okay, but some of the other poets' offerings were brilliant and beautiful. It's fascinating to see all the different ways eleven poets can respond to the stimulus of the same five words.

Today's prompt is: "In reflected light." Hmm. What would I write? I'm not gifted at close observation of nature, or arresting turns of phrase, and this prompt seemed best suited to someone with those aptitudes. But then a memory forced its way to the surface of my consciousness, and then another. . .

Here's my poem. You don't have to like it, but I do! This month I'm trying hard not to criticize my poet self, I'm just appreciating her.


I made a million dollar bet once with my husband
that he had left the lights on in the car.
I could see them gleaming in the parking lot,
unassailable proof that I was right.

But I was wrong. Their dazzling beams
were reflected from the headlamps of the facing car.
A million dollars lost like that!

I made it back, though, when I bet two million to a friend
who said Billy Joel’s marriage to Christy Brinkley wouldn’t last.
I had “Uptown Girl” and “For the Longest Time”
as irrefutable evidence that I was right.

Because nothing lasts forever, for the purposes of the bet,
we defined “last” as “at least two years.”
And I won. A million dollars richer now!

That car’s been sold, that marriage ended,
as Christy and Billy’s ended, too.
But I’d still bet on a light reflected in the darkness.
I’d still bet on a song from a car radio
heard through an open window, on a summer night.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Day Before April 2017

Today is the day before April, the day for me to reprint my now-traditional day-before-April post. 

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1959). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family holiday. Some years ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually gave my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day Before April. Maybe someday I will.

In honor of the day, I'm going to go buy some flowers - daffodils, probably. Seven years ago, when I first wrote this post, I took daffodils to my mother, who was in a rehabilitation center after a fall that broke her hip and arm; she died two months later. My daffodils today are in memory of her.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Every Day Is "The Last Time Ever"

I'm back from my annual trip to the Children's Literature Festival sponsored by the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg. This was the 49th year of the festival, and I believe it was my 20th year of attending. Held during the university's spring break, the festival takes over the entire campus, bringing in dozens of authors to talk to thousands of children/parents/teachers bused in from all over western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

The festival now has a new, young, energetic director, with ideas galore for moving forward into the festival's next half-century. Already change was in the air: lots of fabulous new authors participating this year, and correspondingly fewer returnees - maybe half-and-half old-and-new.

We still observed beloved traditions.

The ardent walkers in the group had our Sunday morning "walk to see the cows":
After a busy day of talking to young readers on Monday, we headed off to Brown's Shoe Fit, the old-timey downtown shoe store, for our shoe-buying spree:
And, of course, we adored having the chance to talk with so many kids who love reading books as much as we love writing them.Here, two members of the group who wore the best T-shirts I saw at the festival:
But I did have a sense of prophetic melancholy. This time many of my dearest festival friends weren't there: some no longer living, some no longer traveling, some not invited back this time. Next year, that could be me.

Savoring a twinge of sadness, I exclaimed to two author friends, as we stood in the lobby of the university's beautiful library: "This may be the last time the three of ever stand in this exact same spot talking together!"

One of them said: "Um, Claudia? This is actually the FIRST time the three of us have ever stood in this exact same spot talking together." And she was right.

EVERY moment is the first-ever moment just like itself, and the last-ever, too. It's true that those Warrensburg cows do look awfully familiar, year after year. But each time I've walked to greet them with a different assortment of companions, and even the same friends have new stories to share as we catch up on the year that has passed since the previous cow pilgrimage.

So there isn't any point in grieving over the inevitable fleetingness of each moment's pleasures. EVERY moment will pass and never come again. I might as well savor EVERY moment for itself, as I'm living it.