Friday, August 10, 2012

Out to Play's Moving Day

Hi! I'm happy you have found me.  Please join me at my new blog address, here.  Come on over! I hope you like what you see.

Thank you to all who have supported me in my blog endeavor.  A special thank you to my "followers."  I'd be honored if you would continue to follow me at my new venue.
Happy reading!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Prepared or Unprepared?

      My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Williams, took attendance by barking our last names, then asking, "prepared or unprepared?"  You were to answer "prepared" if you had done last night's homework, or studied the topic at hand, or completed a project.  All others were to answer, "unprepared."

      I was 1) a nerd and 2) really afraid of Mr. Williams, so I always answered "prepared."  The kids who were brave enough to answer "unprepared" were met with his steely glare, but then he would nod and move along to the next name.  The worst was if you said prepared, but were later outed as unprepared.  He had no tolerance for that, and vengeance was swift.  No one left that class with any doubt that honesty is the best policy.

      When my kids got off the bus on the last day of school, I was excited for summer. I was prepared.  We had camps lined up, outings planned, berries to pick, and swim lessons to enjoy.  Summertime and the livin' is easy was playing in a loop in my brain.

     It took just a few days of heat, humidity, and togetherness to change that tune to Crazy Train.  One moment, the kids are bickering like cranky old men, and the next they are cheering as both sets of ears hear the ice cream truck.  Parenting in the summer can be blissful and frenetic, all in the same day.  A few weeks in, I'm finally willing to admit: I was unprepared.  Unprepared for the incredible longing I feel for a moment alone.  Unprepared to play so many games of Battleship, all in a row.  Unprepared to just let go and see where the day takes us.

      Maybe that's the best way to approach summer.  With a little less structure and a little more flow.  A little more ice cream for lunch and a little less schedule.  That way, when the natives get restless, I can get restless right along with them, and set off for an adventure that no one prepared for, just for the fun of seeing what happens.

    Sorry, Mr. Williams, but when it comes to parenthood, my answer is: unprepared!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Critique Groups - a gem in the writer's arsenal

       I'm feeling very grateful to NESCBWI (the New England chapter of The Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators) for their commitment to helping new writers get plugged in to local critique groups.  It was through this channel that about a year and a half ago I walked on shaky knees into a meeting of other children's book authors.  I remember clutching my notebook like it was my mom's hand and I was headed to my first day at Kindergarten.  And just like school, I was greeted by smiling people who have turned into wonderful friends and teachers.

      One of the most important things you can do to improve your writing is to take the scary step of reading it aloud to other people, with the hope that they will tear it apart and tell you what's wrong with it!  If you have taken this step:  bravo for brave you!  A critique group is ideally friendly, as mine is, but not so friendly that they are not going to steer you away from dangerous cliffs, such as confusing dialogue or repetitive adjectives.   The most helpful comments are usually "gently ruthless."

      Author Marion Roach Smith, in her slim but powerful book The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, recommends you try to find a place between "nastiness" and "uber-kindness," as the former doesn't move you forward, and the latter "kills excellent writing."
      She also cautions against turning to family members for feedback, as "...gratuitous support begins at home, where reading your work to someone who depends on you for food, shelter, or sex can garner only one response: 'Nice,' or worst of all, 'Neat!'"

      Trust me, you really don't want people to tell you your first draft is "great!"  So, take the plunge.  Seek out some people who don't care what you made for dinner, but do care about helping you elevate your work.  If you are looking for a critique group, you often have to look no further than Google to hit on some good online support.  I prefer the face-to-face kind, because so much of what is being communicated can be picked up through someone's tone of voice or flicker in their eyes.  It's not always what you want to hear, but it usually is what you need to hear.  

     You might get as lucky as me, and a few years later, find yourself sitting around a cozy farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by a fantastic group of talented pre-published writers (and one published author, sharing her beacon of light and hope!), swirling a glass of wine and thinking, "so this is what it feels like to realize a dream!"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Ethnic Stew

xenophile  (ˈzɛnəˌfaɪl) 

(n): a person who likes foreigners or all things foreign

     I've got a real thing for the people, foods, and customs of cultures different from my own.  Even though I could have been the kid sister of Beaver Cleaver, I was not sheltered from the global world.  Foreign exchange students, graduate students from other countries passing through on their way to higher study, and foreign business associates of my father's frequently stayed with us (or at least came to dinner).  
     I learned early on, thanks to my mom's adventurous cooking, to appreciate foods that delighted my tongue with unique and new tastes.  I remember her rolling her own egg rolls, and flattening and frying chapatis to serve with Indian food cooked for a birthday feast.  What a lucky child I was. 
     I'm an even luckier grown up, to have married a man who brings such rich culture to our pairing.  As I like to say to him, "you had me at samosa."   Thanks to my German mother-in-law and Indian father-in-law, our children are exposed to people and places well beyond what I saw at my dining room table, and that excites me.  
     I'm happy to say that it seems that publishers of picture books are beginning to broaden their depiction of our global world, as well.  However, there is a lot of room for growth.   In a recent article, (Diversity:  Everybody in the Pool! - SCBWI Bulletin May/June 2012), author Suzanne Morgan Williams points out that "more than 90 percent of children's/YA books published in the US in 2010 were by white authors and illustrators, and about white protagonists."
     I can name a few books with diverse voices from when I was young, including Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, and of course the controversial Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman.  (We cringe now at the political incorrectness, and apparently Helen does too, as she has rewritten the story as The Boy and The Tigers).  All I remember was being fascinated by that pool of butter.   
     For my own children, there were many more choices.  Some of their favorite books that included diverse cultures were:

 Something Special, by Nicola Moon
and Yum, Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger
and Bee-Bim Bop by Linda Sue Park.

My most recent favorite is Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, by F. Zia.  
     "Dada" is the Hindi word for grandfather, and Dadaji is the name my children call their own paternal grandfather.  It was a thrill to come across this book and to be able to give it as a gift to my young nephew, who will never know there was a time where it would have been difficult to find a title like this.  Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji tells the story of visiting grandparents and how they share their heritage through play.  It is a story of an Indian family, but it has universal appeal.  
     I'd like to see even more blending of cultures in books for young children, for kids like my 8-year-old son (1/4 Indian, 1/4 German, 1/2 Swiss/English, and a few other things...) who still struggles with his ethnic identity.  
    "Am I black?" he asked after a day at the pool when another child had commented on his skin color.
    "Is the reason I'm so good with my bow and arrow because I'm Indian?"  (Kid logic - I love it!).  
      I answer these questions imperfectly, usually starting with, "what do you think?"  Then I go into my extended rant about what a wonderful blend of loving people he is, and when we mixed it all together, look what we got!
     Suzanne Morgan Williams says, "Having a broader ethnic/racial base of published authors and illustrators as well as characters will benefit us all."
     I agree with that, and would add that the xenophile June Cleavers of this world might have something to add as well.  At least I know I have the food part of my research down pat.  In fact, I think I'll go research some Phở ([fɤ˧˩˧] right now.  Slurp!


Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Mom Network

        It took me about a minute after hearing my sister-in-law's phone message to take action.  I needed a moment to process what she was saying, and to get my head around the changes it would make to my day.  You see, she was experiencing the "perfect storm" of the working mom:  your child is sick on a day that both you and your husband absolutely, positively, cannot stay home.  Where do you turn?
       Some of the most stressful memories of my early parenting days revolve around this very dilemma.  We didn't live near any family; not the ones you could turn to when your child is sick.  My husband, Raj, was mired in surgical residency.  Every sick day fell on me to figure out. 
       As irony (or fate?) would have it, in the days just prior to my sister-in-law's call, I had been working on my memoir of the time Raj was a resident, and had just finished revising the chapter on balancing kids with work.  I had just been looking at these words: 

When my kids are sick, which is always, I long for that kind of family involvement [I’m referring here to having parents or siblings nearby].  I have many wonderful friends, but most of them have their own kids and don’t want to share our germs, or they work themselves.  There is no substitute for family when things get ugly.
“Thank goodness my mom could watch my son today,” says a co-worker one day.  “He has a fever, so there was no way I could leave him at daycare.”
          A big green wave of jealousy washes over me.  I wish I had that kind of back up.  I need that kind of back up... I end up taking the kids to daycare even when it would be better to keep them home.  Unless they have a fever, or pus coming out of their eye, they go.  They spend their days sharing snotty, drooled on toys with other kids whose parents need them to be there, too.  The day care rooms sound like TB wards, little babies with chronic coughs, hacking away, germs flying.   

          So when I heard the words, "I wouldn't ask you if I didn't really need your help," I was happy to spring into action.  Finally, after all those times that I was the one scrambling, I was going to be able to be the one to help!  It was a wonderful feeling.  But the Mom Network didn't stop there.  With me an hour away, I would need someone to watch my own kids at the end of the school day.  So I reached out to another mom, my neighbor and friend who understands and always says, "yes" whenever I ask for help.  We need these people in our lives.  It's what makes the Mom Network so powerful.  Then, when her own son came home sick from school, my other sister-in-law stepped in to take the post.  It was a round-robin of care, the kind of "village" pulling together that we need to have more of in this world.  
        Needless to say, my day did not go as planned.  I had to cancel and reschedule some appointments.  I didn't get any writing done.  But I did something so much more important than anything I had previously scheduled:  I spent the day with a little man I love, holding him quietly and letting his little body rest and fight the illness that he technically could have taken to daycare and shared (i.e. no fever, the daycare deal-breaker!).  It was really special to have that time with him.  The best part was, I was finally paying into the network that I've withdrawn from so many times.  
      So, today, I'm feeling grateful for the Mom Network.  Sometimes you give, sometimes you take, and I don't know where I'd be without it!  For all who need help:  hang in there - we've got your back!  For all who've helped:  THANK YOU!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Unique Voices

     Two of my favorite recent middle grade reads feature main characters with unique outlooks on life.  
     In Wonder, by RJ Palachio, we meet August Pullman, who is navigating life from behind the mask of severe cranio-facial abnormalities.
     In Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, we're introduced to a Caitlin, a fiesty young girl with Asperger's Syndrome who is dealing with a tragic loss.  
     I appreciate both of these characters for their unique voices, and for bringing awareness and sensitivity to people living with conditions that are challenging, but enriching at the same time.
     Immediately after I finished Mockingbird, I began asking my friends who are parenting children with Asperger's Syndrome if they had read the book (none have yet).  I'm always so curious to know, did the author get this right?  The stories resonated with me, but I'm not there, on the front lines, entrenched in the day-to-day world of Apserger's Syndrome.  In fact, one of my friends had to point out (and has been so patient in trying to explain this to me) that her son actually has PDD-NOS, which is on the same "end" of the Autism Spectrum as Asperger's, but is in fact a different diagnosis altogether. 
     I would love to explore a character with unique challenges, but I have a great fear that I would "get it wrong" and offend the very people I was trying to illuminate.  In fact, I often feel like I'm "getting it wrong" in my everyday life as well.  
     That is why I really appreciated a recent article by Maria Lin:  7 Things You Don't Know about a Special Needs Parent.  I'm always trying to "know better and do better" by my friends who are parenting kids with special needs.  Even as write these words I'm thinking, "is that the way I'm supposed to say it?" I want to be helpful and encouraging, but a lot of the time I feel like a bumbling idiot. 
     "Your daughter didn't want to do the swim lesson?" I asked a woman sitting next to me on the pool sidelines.  Her daughter, playing nearby, looked close to my son's age, and there was plenty of room in the class.  
     "She'd love to," was the answer, "but they don't have the capacity to deal with her specifically."
     Blank stare; I'm not getting it.
     "She's blind."
     Panic-panic-panic- don't say anything stupid!
    I'm not exactly sure what my response was (I think I asked something like, "Are there other opportunities for her to swim if she wants to?").  I must not have screwed it up too badly, as I'm still friends with that woman today.  
     If I ever do write a main character with a disorder, syndrome, challenge, or special need, (again, wondering, which one is the 'right' word?) I hope I do them justice, highlighting the person they are and the uniqueness of their gifts.  It would be devastating to take on a job like that and screw it up.  
     I also hope I can do better in my everyday life.   In fact, in response to Ms.  Lin, here are:

9 Things Parents of Special Needs Kids Should Know About Me:
1.  I am ignorant.  I don't mean to be, I just am!  From the minute you got your child's diagnosis, you have probably spent hours reading everything ever written about their particular condition.  You have become an expert, while I have maybe heard of, or read a few magazine articles on, the topic.  I want to learn - please be patient and tell me what I need to know.  In the meantime....

2.  I am sorry!  I do not mean to offend you, ever.  But it happens.  I know first hand that it does. I say things that are insensitive, I stumble over my words, I stare too long, or I don't look closely enough.  Even when I'm honestly trying to be sensitive, I don't always do my best (see #1).  So, for the record, I'd like to say, "I'm sorry!"

3.  I am honored when you let me help with your child.  This is a big deal.  It means you trust me to do a really important and difficult thing.  I want to give you a break, and spending time with your child is probably the best education I can get.  So, thank you for sharing; it means a lot!

4.  I'm an idiot. (See #1 and #2).  Sometimes I complain about my typically developing kids in front of you, because as a mom, that's what I do.  You are my mom friend, and I forget that what I'm complaining about could be the very behavior you wish your child was able to exhibit.  (#2!)

5.  I think about you.  Even when I don't have the courage or time to call, please know I am thinking about you.  I am sending you prayers, good wishes, and positive vibes.  You're on my mind when I'm having bad days, and when I'm having good days.  I don't forget about your daily struggles, but I could definitely do a better job expressing it.

6.  I am impressed by you.  You are a dedicated, passionate advocate!  I admire your strength and determination.  I watch you going the extra mile for your child, again and again, and I learn how to be a better parent myself.  You rock!

7.  I want your child to succeed.  When you celebrate your child's milestones, I am cheering right alongside you!  I hope the best for your child, and I want to live in a world where they are accepted and cherished for who they are.  

8.  I want my kids to be friends with your kid.  Your child enriches my child's life.  Period.  Thank you for spending time with us, so my children won't be as (#1) as me when they grow up.

9.  I need to do better by you.  Thank you for informing me, educating me, and being patient with me.  I will try to be less boneheaded and more sensitive.  I need to be better about helping you on this journey:  you and your child deserve my best efforts!

Friends, please feel free to comment here or in person if I ever need to be "set right."  I want to learn!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Bravo: One For the Murphys

       We've all been there.  You can tell the moment you answer the door that this person is there to sell you something.  Usually magazines.  Sometimes new windows.  Or the deal of a lifetime on a lawn care system.  Almost always, I'm pretty militant about sending them on their way.  I don't even open the door, just shout a hearty, "NOT INTERESTED, THANK YOU!" and watch them fumble with their pamphlets as I move back into the safety of my house.
        But today was different.  For one thing, I was outside, weeding.  Nowhere to hide.  For another thing, the woman who approached me (for the record, yes - she was selling magazines) started with her life story instead of her sales pitch.  Or maybe that was her sales pitch.  Who knows.  But whatever it was, today was different.

        "I never thought I'd be going door to door," she told me, after introducing herself.  She said she was in a job training program through a nationwide organization (that much, I later confirmed, was legit).  
        "I'm working hard to finish this program and prove to the state that I am stable enough to get my kids back."  Uh-huh, okay, what are you selling, and how much is it going to cost me? Still, there was something in her eyes.  She looked so tired.  I stood up, brushed off my knees, and moved toward her.  Maybe her story was real, maybe not.  Without a door to shut between us, I figured the least I could do was make eye contact with her.
        Then she seemed to deviate from her script.  She told me she had recently been hospitalized after being beaten by her long-time boyfriend.  She kicks herself for not listening to her 12-year-old daughter who begged her to leave him.  And she was working hard to get her life in order so that she could get her kids out of the foster care system, where they'd been ever since the beating.

        This is where the hairs on my arms and neck stood up.  Sadly, I know this is not an uncommon story. However, the particular familiarity of it was freaking me out.  I felt like one of the characters in Lynda Mulally Hunt's newly published One For the Murphys (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books) was standing in my driveway and talking to me.  
         Here is an overview of the story (From Barnes and Noble, One For the Murphys):
        "A moving debut novel about a foster child learning to open her heart to a family's love.  Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she's blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong—until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She's not really a Murphy, but the gifts they've given her have opened up a new future."
        So yeah, my hair stood on end.  The book moved me, and I haven't stopped thinking about it's story and message.  In the story, Carley learns that you can lean on good people to help you in a bad situation.  Something about the similarity between Mullaly Hunt's tale and the one this woman was sharing with me made me listen to her, instead of brushing her off.  Maybe I'm a schmuck.  But just in case, when I went inside for my checkbook, I also picked up a signed copy of the book I had gotten at a recent Wellesley Books event.  I gave it to the woman, and wrote her daughter's name inside.  When I explained the premise of the book, the woman said she couldn't imagine how her daughter would feel reading it, knowing she is not alone.  
        Then she said, "I wish I had had a book like this, when I was young.  My brothers went to Gramma's, but I was too little, and went to foster care."  How would her life have been different if she'd had Gilly Hopkins (from Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins) as a childhood companion?  
        So maybe I'm a shmuck.  Or maybe there is a little girl out there who is hurting, scared, and confused, and will be able to read One for the Murphys and know she is not alone, and that good, caring people do exist, and sometimes they are all you need to get by.  
        Well done to Lynda Mulally Hunt for the perfectly paced writing in this fantastic novel.  The characters are real, flawed, and quirky, just like you and me.  I highly recommend this book for girls age 9-13, or anyone who loves a good hero story.  You will be enlightened and enriched.