Monthly Archives: April 2017

Magic Spell

I have a new book out called Magic Spell.

Magic Spell is a book about spelling in all senses: the spelling of words, the spells of magicians, and the spells that people cast over each other.

I have always liked puzzles and wordplay. With a flick of your pen a word can change meaning completely – night becomes light,  a toy turns into a boy, a ball becomes a bell.

In 2012 I drew the character Aziz – a magician who was a mighty speller.

I wrote a story where Aziz performed prodigious feats of spelling. But it wasn’t enough. He needed an assistant. And the story needed a plot. Along came Zaza.

The story became about their relationship and their struggle.

In the beginning Aziz is the star, the main attraction.

He has all of the power and his beautiful assistant doesn’t even have a name. She does all of the dirty work – such as picking up fish, wrestling with a hose that had been a rose, or putting out a fire.

She goes along with this until he turns her wig into a pig. That is too much.

She lets him know her name, Zaza, and tells him that she can spell too. They fight over the wand.

A series of spelling battles ensue.

Aziz turns a bug to a rug to a rat to a cat.

Zaza turns his coat to a boat to a boot to a book to a rook.

They cast spells back and forth. The argument escalates and things get bad.  Beads become beans become bears.

Aziz and Zaza must learn to work together pronto.

And they do. TADA! A new show is born.

If a magic spell is done well it seems effortless. The same is true of a book. But with both (with everything) there is usually a lot of work behind the scenes. I rewrote Magic Spell many, many times in an effort to strengthen the story and to make the word transitions smooth. Before it was accepted for publication my critique group helped,  Linda Pratt gave advice and encouragement and Andrea Spooner gave helpful editorial feedback. After it was accepted by Simon and Schuster, Kristin Ostby and Liz Kossnar were wonderful editors. Art director Laurent Lynn added his magic touch including SPARKLES. Katie Johnson consulted to make sure that the spelling changes and word choices were appropriate for learning readers. Many people waved their wands and – voila – five years after Aziz fell out of my pen a book was born.

You can buy Magic Spell at your local bookstore or click here to buy it from Secret Garden Books in Seattle. I hope you will enjoy it.

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Science Lit

On this eve of Earth Day, 2017, with marches for science scheduled tomorrow in cities around the US, I got to thinking about science books for kids, and what they’ve meant to me.

It’s important for children to see real worlds as well as imaginary ones. They can be equally wondrous. Children love stories. Science is the narrative of the universe.

Looking through my science books as a child, I dreamed of seeing cardinals, and fireflies, and the Northern Lights. A bright red bird, a bug that lights up, colors in the sky – they seemed like magical things, in spite of being real.

I still have some of my childhood science books, and I’ve added a few more. I continue to use them as reference for my work.

Even though I spent a lot of time making things and drawing pictures when I was growing up, I also loved reading about insects and dinosaurs and rocks (I lean towards biology and geology). My family and I went on rock hunting expeditions in the California desert. When asked when I was five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said An Archaeologist. I did eventually go on to get a degree in anthropology (as well as art).

This is my parents’ fossil book that I poured over as a kid. Fossil hunting continues to be my idea of Big Fun.

There are wonderful books on scientific topics being published every year. My daughters both loved Cactus Hotel and Spoonbill Swamp, by Brenda Guiberson, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

Douglas Florian writes and illustrates quirky poems about areas of science. I especially enjoy his Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars.

The Minor Planets

Sometimes known as asteroids.
Sometimes called the planetoids.
They always help to fill the void.
Tween Jupiter and Mars.

Named for sweethearts, daughters, sons.
Some are small as breakfast buns.
Others larger, weighing tons,
But none as grand as stars

Florian knows how to be both funny and informative without either getting in the way of the other.

Several years ago I bought a book on the work of Charlie Harper. When I first saw the book I felt a pang of nostalgia. He was an illustrator in the later half of the twentieth century and created the images for The Giant Golden Book of Biology. I must have read that book at some point, because looking at his work gave me flashbacks of being in grade school.

You may recognize Harper’s work from recently produced coffee mugs and calendars. I have bought fabric with his birds on it. He is having a posthumous revival of sorts. But some of his most beautiful and innovative images are his illustrations about science.

Science is a varied and expansive topic. That is good, as there is something to spark interest in just about anyone. I applaud all authors, illustrators, teachers and parents who find inspiring and creative ways to introduce young people to the wonders of science. Let’s make sure students  continue to have access to a wide range of scientific ideas, exploration and knowledge in the future.

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

A Few Thoughts about Competition

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Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a piece, personality-wise. Well, I’m sure it’s many pieces, given how many go into any given personality and how often I wonder. If you put the metaphorical pieces end to end, would they stretch from here to the metaphorical moon?

But one piece in particular (better said, the lack of it) puzzles me, and that’s the piece governing competitiveness. I look deep, but I can’t find it. What happened to it? It must have snuck off in the night some time back. And I’m not bragging about this — it’s not like I’m so zen-blessed or Buddha-like that competition is beneath me.  It’s more like I don’t really care anymore about being the fastest, the best, the most. I can’t think of anything I would be driven to win at.

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When I was a kid it was different. On the playground I wanted to be the best at everything. If my friends and I ran around pretending we were wild horses, I wanted to be the fastest and the wildest horse. Playing tetherball or dodge ball, I wanted to beat everyone who challenged me – not just beat them, but crush them, and I did crush them.  Many kids thought I was mean.  I practiced yo-yo tricks so much it hurt, because I wanted to be the Yo-Yo Champion of the World. If I couldn’t master something (like the strategy behind games of chess) and knew I couldn’t win,  I simply didn’t engage in it.

How things change as you age, no? If I do something well now (write a good poem, for example) I’m happy, but I’m just as happy to have a friend write a better one. Nothing eats away at me if I’m not The Best – I don’t curse and tell myself I’ll win next time.

So, I’m really curious: Do most of you reading this feel that competition is healthy? That it shows energy and self-confidence? Even in an adult? My lack of competitiveness –  rather than representing a state of blissful Nirvana, does it only represent inertia? Even worse, does it suggest a lack of confidence and/or depression? On the other hand (lots of hands waiting for their turn) could a lack of competitiveness, seen by some as a problem, mean I’m ready for sainthood?