Category Archives: Blogging Life

First Graders, Cucumber Sandwiches and Foxes

Last month on a beach in Hawaii, I met a fellow grandma named Susie. She has a granddaughter, Hannah, back in Wisconsin. Turns out Hannah’s class was just then reading my book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways. What a coincidence! Before the week was out, Hannah’s teacher Jaime Charnholm and I set a date so I could meet the class over the internet, using Google Chat.

(The class is following a Lucy Calkins reading program that uses my book as one of its teaching texts, which are read aloud or as shared reading to model effective reading strategies.)

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Here was my view of Hannah’s first grade classroom at West Middleton Elementary, Verona, Wisconsin, where the kids told me it was cold!

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Using my laptop’s camera, I walked into my studio and showed the kids my computers, monitors and Wacom tablet, and paints and palettes and brushes, shelves of books and the light table, the stack of books that I have authored and/or illustrated, Izzi the dog and her dogbed, and my cozy writing chair.

The students sent charming thank you notes. I love their colorful drawings and creative spelling.

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Who wouldn’t like to be proclaimed “the best ather in the wrld”?  Also, I loved hearing that I inspired Paul to write a book.

The first chapter in Zelda and Ivy the Runaways gets going because Dad is making cucumber sandwiches for lunch (again!). The Fox sisters decide they can’t face it and run away.

Although not many of the kids said they have actually eaten cucumber sandwiches, they were great at drawing them.

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You can see what the kids remember about our connection by taking a look at their thank-you notes. The story I told about my first grade boyfriend, Danny, who is the basis for Eugene in Zelda and Ivy and The Boy Next Door, seemed to strike a chord. As did our dog, Izzi, and my paint palette.

INSIDES*5My Fox sisters are surely thrilled at the many portraits Mrs. Charnholm’s first graders included in their thank you notes.

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I feel lucky for all these connections: to have met Susie, which led to meeting the adorable, creative, wonderful kids in Hannah’s class. I answered most of the kids’ questions about the making of Zelda and Ivy, with this exception: How much paper does it take to make your books? Good question! Anyone out there know the average amount of paper it takes to print a picture book?

I smile every time I think of the first graders in West Middleton Elementary. Thank you, each and every one, for your wonderful letters. And thank you, teacher Jaime Charnholm and Hannah’s mom, Nicole, for making the technology work on the Wisconsin end.

I love when technology makes the world as small as the lawn above Napili Beach.

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Meanwhile, Back on the Idea Farm

Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout ‘I belong in a story’?

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is “that belongs in a story.” Writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story: the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown; or our dog’s evening vigil by the gate, her feathers backlit by the sun, as she waits for John’s return. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like the three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”

Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. I think that’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they make a good story. We savor vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day.   or  “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” According to my notes, this is something Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.  or  What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a single word – ‘snarky,’ ‘hunched,’ ‘snick’ – I gather them in, always attuned for a word that fits into my work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, or Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

And anecdotes. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.

I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged cobwebby hall. Golden light streams in through clerestory windows. Some bits seem to shift on the shelves and suggest themselves for today’s writing. They attract others and start to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has that supercharged quality – that “this belongs in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be. Those are the best days, right?

SEEING WITH FRESH EYES

Earlier this week it snowed in Seattle. We woke to clear blue skies and an outdoor world blanketed with an inch or two of bright white powder. My daily walk down the driveway to get the newspaper became one of discovery: the yellow witchhazel fluffs each wore a snow hat, same for the rhody leaves.

Animal tracks on the pavement led into the woods. Who knew this was a bunny crossing?

bunnytracksI was seeing my old familiar walk with fresh eyes. So exhilarating.

Seeing with fresh eyes is one reason I love hanging out with my almost-three-year old grandson. The world is new to him. On a walk around an ordinary San Francisco city block he discovers seedpods and leaves and various ornamental details. He pays attention to everything. When the MUNI tram goes by, he notices the paint scheme (he particularly loves the polka dot MUNI). He watches the sidewalk, too, and points out letters he recognizes on the public works cement vaults signage. He finds other lines in the cement that are perfect to jump between.

I understand that our adult brains, in the interest of efficiency, stop noticing familiar details. I have walked down our driveway at least 1,000 times. I guess it makes sense to tune out. But what wonders await when I tune in.

This week my sister Kate Harvey McGee was visiting so we could work on our book, SQUEAK, which is slated to come out from Philomel in 2019. I create the black and white part of our illustrations, first painting in gouache resist, then scanning, and reworking in Photoshop.

8-9mouseK I send my files to Kate for coloring. Kate works in Photoshop, too.

Kate lives near Philomath, Oregon, and we usually work through email. So it was fun to sit in the same room and kibitz, and to be able to print out our efforts and take a look together.

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Something about printing out triggers the fresh eyes thing. We hung the print on the wall and kept returning to look at it over the next few days. Pretty soon we were adding post-its: “rounder mouse butt,” “shadow plant” etc etc.

Kate and her partner Scott were also in Seattle because we had a family event to celebrate – our niece Maia is now engaged to Chris. So we were all thinking about how it is to fall in love. It’s related, isn’t it, to seeing with fresh eyes?

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Remember when you first met the person you love most deeply – and that wonder of discovering him or her?

I wish Mai and Chris all the best – and for the rest of us, here’s to seeing all the world with fresh eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audience Research: Peril, Action, Plot and Parasites

This one’s for you, middle-grade/YA writers. Straight from the horse’s mouth – well, actually, straight from my 13-year old triplet grandnephews’ mouths between bites of pizza.

All three are avid readers. I decided to pick their brains during a dinner at Eviva’s Pizza in Edmonds: What books have they enjoyed most lately? And – helpful to us writers – why? Admittedly this is a small survey sample, but I think you’ll find the results interesting.

The oldest by two minutes said the kid version of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is his favorite book of late. He liked learning about World War II and “really rooted for the guy to get through camp.”

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All three boys play many sports and are avid sportsfans. (Last year their Christmas gift exchange had a Seahawks theme.) The oldest says that explains why he likes the Mike Lupica books. “They are easy to relate to.”

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Next up is the youngest.

His top title of late is The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer, “the Artemis Fowl guy.” He likes the action and adventure and the compelling push of this story that pits four kids against a parasite in order to save the world.

John Green’s Papertowns is another of his favorites, which he found “funny and intriguing.” Papertowns is a mystery with a boy/girl relationship at the center.

The middle of the three recommends Unbroken and The Supernaturalist. He, too, likes action in his reading. He gobbles books at a rate about two a week and noted the Supernaturalist is the kind of story that keeps him up late reading. It’s hard to put down. He likes a good plot – so mysteries have big appeal, especially mysteries with kid detectives.

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This middle brother also likes serieses, i.e. Harry Potter (of course). And he put in a word for the Stick Dog series, “even though it’s for younger kids,” and comic books, with their action appeal.

Also anything by Brian Selznik (The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Marvels are his favorites) and “all the sports books by Tim Green.”

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Nancy Pearl, the only librarian I know who has an action figure, says that she thinks readers can be divided into those who read for character and those who read for plot. My grand-nephews definitely come down on the plot side. Most of the titles they mentioned have lots of suspense and action, as well as kid protagonists they can relate to. I guess it makes sense that these active boys would want action in their books.

Thanks guys for sharing your favorite books. And happy writing to the rest of you.

p.s. Eviva’s Woodfired Pizza was voted Seattle’s best pizza, even though it is located ten miles north in Edmonds. Worth the drive. (Note added 11//2017: Now there’s a Eviva’s on Queen Anne Blvd. in Seattle, too. Same wonderful pizza!)

Imagery and the Election

THE NIGHT before the Big Election we slept at Inverness, a beach enclave north of San Francisco that is right smack on the major San Andreas faultline.

(Gotta love the hint and nudge of the objective correlative: earthquake possibilities and the election side by side.)

Election day bloomed sunny. News sources predicted that the earliest time Hillary Clinton would be declared winner was 5:30 PST, so we walked out across the dunes to Kehoe Beach to watch the sunset.

I noted details that might tell the day’s story: the miles-long empty beach, washed clean, as for the fresh start of the first woman president; the moon slashed by a jet trail, like a giant ballot mark, a celebratory green flash as the sun sunk into the Pacific.

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When, in the wee hours of the morning, Donald Trump was declared the next president of the United States, I realized I had made a big mistake in choosing metaphors. I should have noted, instead, our long slog through mud and sand, the putrid corn chip smell along the marshland trail, the huge breakers five and six layers deep that pummeled the shore. And the signs along the beach: “Riptide Warning” and “Beware of Sneaker Waves.”

WE FLIPPED on the TV Wednesday and heard our president Barrack Obama remind us again how we are One America. He said Donald Trump had spoken to him of the same intent: for America to be whole again. Obama used the analogy of the presidency as a relay race, stressing the importance of the handoff of one administration to the next.

It has been hard to sleep. Each time the heater switches on, it sounds like a distant siren. A simile of danger. But, as Obama told us, life goes on. The sun comes up each morning.

THURSDAY we hiked on Point Reyes North Beach, the outermost western edge of continental America. The horizon was lost in thick fog. A young couple walked near the breakers. He had a baby on his back. She led a dog on a leash. They held hands. I need this hopeful image in the face of the unknown.

On the radio, political experts talk about how this election pitted those who want change at any cost against those who want the status quo. They say the election reveals a deep division in America.

Children’s books can play a role in addressing this gap. As children’s books become more diverse and better represent the vast variety of human experience, young readers will come to understand our great commonality as well as our differences. Understanding leads to empathy.

When we drive from Inverness back to San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge we pass through a tunnel on each side. One tunnel is named for World War II General Douglas MacArthur, the other for comedian Robin Williams. That’s a pretty big divide, right?

Yes, it’s a bridge we’ll be needing. A Golden Gate. Maybe children’s books will help build it.

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In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part II)

 

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When I wrote my last post for this blog, I had just moved out of our rented home in London. With most of our belongings headed to Seattle in a shipping container, my husband, daughter and I felt like tourists again.

Until two days ago, when we flew back home. My re-acclimation to American life has begun. But, for my next couple of posts I will be returning to London (in spirit at least) to write more about my visits (I went back a second time before I left) to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The V & A has most of the original drawings by E. H. Shepard for A. A. Milne’s Pooh series. My mother used to read to me from Milne’s Now We are Six when I was young (the book made turning six sound very grown up) and I still hear my mother’s voice when I read it now.

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“Well? Have you been a good girl, Jane?”. . .

I was able to request several boxes of Shepard’s sketches. The drawings are all in pencil on the pages of a 9″ X 14″ sketchbook.

Shepard’s lines are fluid and confident.

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I like to see where he tried different options and erased or crossed out some.

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It’s also interesting to compare these drawings to the finished art from the published books.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 15.49.06Sometimes Shephard draws many lines till he finds the right ones (I can relate to that).

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On the sketches that were accepted for the final illustrations, you can see that Shepard rubbed a graphite pencil across the back and then traced over the image to transfer it to his drawing board.

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Shepard seems to enjoy drawing trees, especially the grand, gnarled ones.

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And of course, bears.

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THE END

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three,

I was hardly Me.

When I was Four

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six new for ever and ever.

 

LESS IS MORE

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

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Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

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I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

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When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

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There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

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TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”

ALL ON BOARD

Recently our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world. I realize this sample is very non-scientific, but it does provide a nice introduction.

CLASSICS and REPURPOSED

patthebunnyI was glad to see Emmett has Pat the Bunny on his new shelf, first published in 1940 and recognized as one of the first books in this genre. He also has the classic Good Night Moon, repurposed from its initial issue as a picture book.

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New to me are board books with roots in adult fiction. Emmett’s library includes babylit: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sherlock Holmes, by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver.

huckfinnHuck is subtitled “A Camping Primer.”  The text plucks single words from its forebear, followed by a phrase from the original. For example “RIVER,” followed by “I’d go down the river about fifty mile and camp.”

 Sherlock is billed as “A Sounds Primer.” The illustrations are dark and a little scary. The text may raise goosling bumps on the baby: “Hounds howl, Thunder rumbles, Gates screech…Doorbells ring.”

hungrycaterpilMany of Emmett’s books were first published as children’s picture books. Some seem even better in this format, like Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar, whose die-cut holes of the caterpillar munching through the pages will hold up much better in cardboard than they do paper.

areyoumymomOthers, like P.D. Eastman’s classic early reader, Are You My Mother? make me think, what’s the hurry? It is such a perfect book for learning to read. Though maybe reading it as an infant will make it more accessible later?

littlebluetruckThe Little Blue Truck, with rhyming text by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a board book that first appeared as a picture book. With 15 spreads, it has the most pages of the books on Emmett’s shelf but when his attention span expands, it will be a great introduction to the basic shape of a story. The LBT says hello to lots of animals, (fun animal sounds followed by “Beep, Beep”), then meets a big challenge which is resolved with help of the animals, especially the littlest frog.

CONCEPT BOOKS

prbBoard books do a good job introducing concepts to our tiniest readers. As Emmett devours his little library, he will learn about colors, animals and numbers, in Pink, Red, Blue, What are You? and One, Two, Three, Play with Me. These were my very first published books and I can’t wait to share them with my own little grandson.

sleepylittlealphaHe also was given The Sleepy Little Alphabet, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, in which a reluctant group of 26 lower case letters are finally tucked into bed by their capital letter parents. Last spread: “Who’s that snoring Z z z’s?”

123peasAnd Keith Baker’s wonderful 1 – 2 – 3 peas, which is animated by a cast of 100 peas in the most amusing ways.

HELLO WORLD

Then there is the bunch of books that will introduce Emmett to his world. This includes the board book that was my daughter’s favorite when she was a baby, All Together, as well as the inimitable Lucy Cousins’ Garden Animals, Country Animals and Farm Animals. I am intrigued by one that is illustrated with photos of babies, Global Babies, put out by the Global Fund for Children.

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INTERACTIVE BOARD BOOKS

goodnightconstructI’m especially looking forward to sharing Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. While I read Emmett the simple text, he will be prompted by icons to push one of five buttons that provide the sounds of the big machines settling down to sleep. No wonder it’s been on the New York Times best selling list for over 80 weeks.

peekazooAnd I know we’ll have a great time peeking our way through Nina Laden’s Peek-a Zoo, and lifting the flaps in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo.

presshereThe low tech of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has lots of simple appeal. As the title suggests, each spread invites the reader to “press here,” the result being a turn of the page to find what the pressing caused. This, too, has sat for months on the New York Times best selling list. Seems we like that return to the wonder of the page turn.

STAND OUT SERIESES

oxenburyThese books from Helen Oxenbury are especially suited for reading to babies. They each have four spreads, their format is larger, (8 x 8”), and the illustrations of babies are big and bold. Emmett’s two-year old friend Darwin noted: Dear Emmett, My favorite part is the ‘All Fall Down’.” And (on Tickle, Tickle) “Dear Emmett, This one is funny.” Nice to have recommendations from the toddler set.

yummyyukyLeslie Patricelli made her name as author/illustrator with her first board books in 2003. Emmett’s going to love BIG Little, Quiet LOUD, and Yummy YUCKY and the funny big-headed baby who stars in each book.

moobaalaLast but not least are titles by the amazing Sandra Boynton, queen of the humorous, rhyming board book: Snuggle Puppy and Belly Button Book! I will be sure to read him my favorite of hers, Moo, Baa, La la la, as well. Each Boynton book is full of love and good funny rhymes.

••••

I was forty when I turned toward becoming a children’s book creator. My kids were about grown, the oldest heading off to college.

Partly what attracted me was a desire to have my work be part of that circle of reading to a child again: to sit in the big chair in the lamplight, the kids fresh from their baths, their heads damp against my chest; the quiet of the neighborhood settling around us, the warmth of their small selves as we open the cover of a book and enter a story together.

This little shelf is where the newly-expanded family will begin reading together. They’ll share board books that offer snippets of story, or the simple naming of things in our world, or concepts like colors and numbers, and – always – warm humor.

We overheard Emmett’s parents reading to him in the nursery as we left last night. I love that our wee grandson already knows the circle of love with his parents and a book.

AUDIENCE RESEARCH by Wise Owl

When it comes to knowing your audience, nothing beats spending some time with kids.

Recently I had just such a chance. Our triplet grandnephews came over for a night at “Camp Runamok.” They enter fifth grade this week. That’s the age of the protagonist in my middle grade novel-in-progress, so I have more than a great aunt’s interest in kids of their age. My writer self was not disappointed. They are fascinating: their expressions, their songs, games, ideas, interactions. But what hit me most of all is their relationship to story.

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We made up camp names, had a treasure hunt, got started building rockets, set up a four-man tent on our scrap of lawn, ate pizza, played “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” many times on the piano, watched the movie Frozen, lit a campfire on the gravel driveway, sang, ate s’mores. I noted that ten-year old boys laugh a lot about bodily functions — as expected — but are also quite entertained by word play. These three are sportsy guys, so between planned activities there was lots of broom ball and jump rope and general messing around. We considered looking up how to throw a lasso on You Tube. We discussed the possibilities of the Mariners getting a Wild Card berth.

But what struck me most was how important stories are to them. They had seen Frozen once before, but wanted us to see it, so that’s the vid they chose. They knew it in detail, even down to reciting some of the lines. We sang along wholeheartedly, “Do you want to build a snowman?” and “Let it go, let it go.” They seemed quite satisfied with the conclusion, with how true love changes the world.

Bedding down in the tent – three boys, one dog and me – we got out the iPad to listen to their favorite scary story. This, too, they knew in detail from one previous hearing. The Axe Murderer. They loved being scared by it. They talked about some of their favorite books: Avi’s The Orphan City, Gary Paulson’s Harris and Me, James Patterson’s The Treasure Hunters, Cal Ripkin Junior’s series.

The boys’ deep response to stories points to a big responsibility. When we write for children, we hope to create stories that matter to them, that become part of how they see the world, that connect.

As the boys slept soundly, I savored the peace that was in our tent. And I wondered how to reckon such sweetness with news of beheadings, ebola virus, police violence, Russian invasions, sea star wasting syndrome, etc. etc.

I didn’t have an answer. But I do know stories can be a refuge. So I started telling myself a story about three boys and a dog camping in a tent under Seattle skies…

Writing with All Six Senses

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In just a few days my husband and I leave home once again for Oaxaca, having visited just last year and decided it’s the kind of place we want to spend more time. Slow time, slow food, slow reading, slow walking…time to slow down in general. Oaxaca has many plazas with many benches – great places for slow listening (to very fast music, sometimes) and quiet watching. Last year we had just over a week at a nice B&B, and we experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations; this time around, we’re renting an apartment of our own (with kitchen!) and staying for a month, outside the real tourist season in order to get a better feel for what the town is like for the locals. When we go to the market now and see all that delicious fresh fruit, bread, vegetables – we can buy what we want and cook it up back at the apartment. Time to give different moles a try.

A friend asked me whether I would be doing any writing while in Oaxaca, and I wasn’t sure what to answer – yes, no, maybe? One thing I do know: I’m going to open myself, Diane Ackerman-style, to all the sensory input I can – sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes (especially tastes – yes!)

Sights – the colors in the markets: flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread…

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fruit market

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 and the spectacular sky, whether stormy or bright…like this view from Monte Alban…

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 Smells – a cup of hot champurrado, especially sipped from a clay or greenware cup made in Atzompa (close your eyes and think steaming milk, corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, anise seed, plus the wet ceramic smell of the cup) and the ripe guavas in the markets(so sweet and pervasive, it can make you giddy)…

Oaxacas hot-chocolate

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Textures – the soft cotton weavings, the hard rock walls, the delicate petals of a squash blossom…

huipiles

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Tastes – so many! Moles of every color (coloradito, negro, verde, chichilo, amarillo  – here’s a recipe from Rick Bayless), tlayudas, tamales, jugos, pan dulce, pipian, and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes…

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 Sounds – birds in the trees, danzon music at the Zocalo every Wednesday

Watch this wonderful video of a midnight concert in Tlacochahuaya

and this video of the amazing organ in the church there)….

organ

Seems to me that writing which is not grounded in the senses is writing that becomes slack, abstract and dull. So I’ll let my five senses push me to write in Oaxaca. Plus one more: the sense of wonder. Can’t write without that.

Maybe I’ll be able to put those six senses together on a metate and work them, work them, work them…into a story.

metate