Wednesday, July 1, 2020

ISWG: To Write in Summer


I don’t know about you, but I always make big writing plans for summer.

I used to read Dr Seuss' Please Try to Remember The First of Octember with my kids when they were little. In this hilarious book, the narrator keeps suggesting different outlandish wishes (like a skateboard TV?), and promising to deliver on the “First of Octember.” My boys loved it!

Sometimes I think summer is my Octember. Throughout the school year, especially in busy spring, I tell myself that I will have all the time in Octember the summer to finish that novel, write numerous short stories, submit my work, or [fill in the blank]. When June comes, my list of dreams is sky high.

But then August appears out of nowhere it seems, and I’m disappointed. I haven’t crossed everything off my “wait till Octember Summer” list.

I'm starting to realize my dreams are doomed to fail whether I call someday summer or Octember or retirement. If I put things off to some far off date, I'm not taking small steps now.
Who would not want to drink doodle delight?

So, my goal this summer is to set manageable goals. I will continue to revise my MG fantasy chapter by chapter revise. I'll do my short bursts of writing, like this blog and responding to writing prompts (my new favorite thing). And if I make some progress by August, I’ll call it good.

But even better, I won’t have worn myself so ragged that I will be able to continue those baby steps into September.

How do you pace your writing in the summer months?


This month’s question: What changes in the industry would you like to see?
 
I come at this from a reader's perspective: More middle grade stories that are geared to boy readers, more stories that appeal to kids (and not just teachers and librarians), and less darkness/political correctness.






For more information or to sign up for ISWG, go HERE
 

Monday, June 15, 2020

MMGM: Jonathan Auxier



I first heard about Auxier in a MMGM blog post a few years ago when someone was praising The Night Gardener. Although it sounded intriguing, I thought it might be too dark for my tastes, so I stayed away.

Last summer, one of my friends recommended Auxier as an author her kids like. (And she is the last person to recommend scary books.) So, I checked out everything by him from our library and thought I’d finally give his books a try.

My younger son devoured Peter Nimble, Sophie Quire, The Night Gardener and Sweep in days.

I am a bit slower of a reader than him, so I only got through Peter Nimble, The Night Gardener, and Sweep.

But I loved these books and am so excited to find a new favorite author. And as far as being scary—yes, these books have some scary parts, but the good part is that evil is always vanquished by fantastically wonderful protagonists.

Auxier writes books that are everything a middle grade book should be: full of adventure, nods to classic literature, well-rounded characters, high stakes, lyrical language, and meditations on the meaning of life and death.

There is much to love for kids and grownups alike.

Here are my individual reviews:

Sweep is probably my favorite, although it’s tied with The Night Gardener. I loved the Victorian English/Dickens-esque setting, which reminded me of Oliver Twist. It was easy to root for the main character, Nan, a chimney sweep, and her Golem, Charlie, who is anything but scary. I also loved what this said about love and loss, and how those we love remain a part of us even after they are gone.

The Night Gardener reminded me of Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury with a Victorian twist. Molly and Kip, brother and sister, had incredible gumption and drive, and the mystery had many layers, always keeping you at the edge of your seat. The message of this book about the power of stories was very satisfying.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes: The world building is fantastic, and I loved all the layers of mystery. And then there's the knight who's been turned into a cat! The violence was more intense in this one, and the climax didn’t have the same resonance as his other books. But I’d still recommend this for kids (or adults) who like fantasy and adventure.

Have you read any books by Johnathan Auxier? Which one is your favorite?


*As we just finished the school year around here and my older son graduated from high school, I will be taking a break next week from blogging to spend some time with my family and celebrate my birthday. I will be back the first week of July to co-host the July ISWG!

Monday, June 8, 2020

If You Love Agatha Christie, Meet Dorothy Sayers


I stayed away from Dorothy Sayers for years. I tried one of the Peter Wimsey books several years back, but found it too intellectual for my tastes. (Now that's a fancy way of saying her books made me feel stupid.) And the dialect! I have a pet peeve about reading dialect. So I never picked it up again.

Then I read Mind of the Maker. I loved how she connected creativity to faith in God. That warmed my feelings toward her a bit. I knew she was friends with C.S. Lewis, too, so I swore I’d try her again at some point.


Then my son was reading Gaudy Night for English last year, and I usually read the books my sons are reading if I can. I read it last summer while my younger son was taking swimming lessons. I’ll never forget a stranger approaching me and saying, “That is my favorite book. You’re going to love it.”

And I did.

Since then I’ve been hooked on this detective who is like Wooster (of the Jeeves and Wooster series) with a brain. I love how he knows a little bit about everything and isn’t afraid to allude to the classics or theology. Your brain can’t go to sleep while you’re reading Sayers, but it’s well worth the exercise.

Here are my favorites:


Have His Carcase

All the books with Wimsey and his love interest, mystery writer friend Harriet Vane are good, but this one is my favorite, maybe because it's a puzzle mystery with Russian undertones. Harriet finds a body on the beach, and she and Wimsey solve the case together, interviewing a cast of well-developed secondary characters. The best thing about this couple is their conversations. They have deep, meaningful discussions and aren’t afraid to argue about real things.





Murder Must Advertise

This novel is probably the most humorous of Wimsey’s novels. He goes undercover at an ad agency, while at the same time, pretending to be a harlequin to infiltrate a dope ring. The mystery itself is interesting, but what Sayers has to say about advertising, its psychology, and its effect on culture is fascinating as well.





The Nine Tailors

One thing I love about Sayers work is that you always learn something—whether it’s about advertising, gentlemen's clubs, the moors, or Scottish art colonies. In this novel, which centers on a rural parish, you learn about bell ringing. Nine tailors refers to the nine bells that are rung when a man dies. I loved how the back story enriched the main story and all the different Biblical allusions like the Flood, cherubim, which tie into the mystery. Very rich.

TV Adaptions:

Most of her novels have been made into BBC/Masterpiece productions. The Harriet Vane/Wimsey books (Strong Poison/Have His Carcase/Gaudy Night) from 1987 feature Harriet Walters (Mrs. Dashwood from the 1995 Sense and Sensibility) and Edward Petherbridge. *This is my favorite adaption.




The productions of the Wimsey only by the BBC (1972-1975) featuring Ian Carmichael are wonderful as well.





What have you been reading or watching lately? What are your favorite mysteries?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

ISWG: Art v. Craft



At the first writing conference I attended, one of the editors said something that has stuck with me: “Master the craft, and the art will come.” (This is a loose paraphrase.)

And I tend to agree. I have been working very hard on that craft. Writing. Having my work critiqued. Reading craft books. Attending conferences.

But recently I got one of my short stories published in a local anthology as a winner of a local contest. This contest is only open to residents of my county, and the whole purpose is to encourage writers, who often work in isolation.

Of course, it’s always a boost to see your work in print and to think the hard work of learning the craft is paying off.

But I learned the most from reading other people’s stories and poems.

What struck me is these stories were written out of people’s experiences with a lot of skill, but they were not written to sell many copies or appeal to a wide audience.

Some of the stories talk about sad experiences, weird happenings, or just reflect ordinary life. Half the stories and poems are written by children and teens.

As Picasso said, “Every child is an artist, the problem is to remain an artist once we grow up.”

What I see at most writing events and conferences is a huge emphasis on getting an editor's or agent's attention. (Or in self-publishing, how to make a lot of sales.) But when we focus too much on pleasing other people, we forget to see writing as an art,  an expression, as part of who we are.

My county’s art association also sponsors a writing festival, which is not a conference in the usual sense. Yes, there are workshops by writers on improving the craft, but there are also readings by local artists, and no agents or editors are in attendance. Although there is a place for the regular type of conference, going to this agent-less festival feels like going on a retreat. I get to focus on why I’m writing in the first place, without worrying if “I’m good enough.”

I just get encouraged to “make great art.”




How do you get rejuvenated as a writer? How do you balance the tension of art v. craft?

Sorry I didn't answer the question this month! I don't have any big secrets to reveal. :)

To sign up for Insecure Writer's Support Group, go HERE.



Monday, May 25, 2020

MMGM: The Hippo at the End of the Hall



I picked up this book when our library was still open. I was immediately taken with the illustration and knew from the description that it would appeal to my animal-loving 15 year old. I was right. He loved it, especially the talking animals.

It took me awhile to get to it myself. First, I had to read through my whole TBR list. (One good benefit of the libraries being closed is that I can’t keep checking out more and more books.)

I loved it. It’s been compared to Edith Nesbit, and the description is apt. This is good, old-fashioned British fantasy with a modern twist.

The invitation was delivered by bees. It wasn’t addressed to anyone at all, but Ben knew it was for him. It would lead him to an old, shambolic museum, full of strange and bewitching creatures. A peculiar world of hidden mysteries and curious family secrets . . . and some really dangerous magic.

Filled with her own wonderful illustrations, The Hippo at the End of the Hall is Helen Cooper's debut novel. (from Amazon)


What I loved:

1. Illustrations: The illustrations by the author-illustrator added a lot of whimsy and fun to the story. Who can be scared of a witch when she’s so tiny? The illustrations of the animals and their expressions made this story come to life.

2. Talking animals with distinct personalities: Usually I’m not a fan of talking animals, but these animals had personality and drive and agency of their own. This is how talking animals should be done.

3. An involved parent: So many children's books make parents the enemy. I loved how this mom was involved in this story (even in the climax!) in a way that was realistic, yet did not take away from the main character’s ability to solve his own problems.

4. Layers of mystery: I loved how the book started with a strange invitation, which led Ben to find a very unusual museum, which led to…There’s a lot of layers to peel back in the story, which kept me engaged as a reader.

5. Whimsical/lyrical writing: The metaphors and images in this are so kid-lit and unique. It’s always nice to see an author who can straddle unique metaphors without lapsing into purple prose. I also loved the little details that reminded us this story is written by a British author and set in England.

Have you read The Hippo at the End of the Hall? What books or movies do you think do talking animals well?


To participate in MMGM or find more MG reviews, please check out Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.

Monday, May 18, 2020

When You Can’t Travel, Dream



In Vermont in 2017--my first plane trip in over 20 years!

If you look at my bio, you’ll think I’m a world traveler. But most people don’t know that most of my world traveling was done in my 20s. After I returned from Honduras, it was over 20 years before I got on a plane again.

I know a lot of people are feeling disappointed about not being able to travel right now. If you’ve had to cancel plans, what to do?

Here are a few things I’ve done over the years when I wanted to travel, but couldn’t for one reason or another.

1.    Explore your own town: Right now, it may not be possible to do much locally, except walk local trails. We are taking in all of our city’s parks, which are still open. Getting take out treats from our favorite bakeries and ice cream stores can feel like a vacation.

2.    Do research for your next vacay: Make a Pinterest mood board or an old-fashioned collage or idea journal. Before all this happened, I was planning a trip to the Redwoods. I can still read travel books and collect ideas, even if the trip is not as soon as I hoped.

3.    Read a travelogue: Some of my most memorable reads have been travel accounts.


 
How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger—A book about a family who takes their children to England to explore all the settings of their favorite children’s books

The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severi—A story of a man who builds a boat trying to replicate the voyage an Irish monk took to the new world.

4.    Watch a travel show. I’ve always loved Rick Steve’s European specials, but I’ve recently discovered Samantha Brown’s Places to Love. All three seasons of her PBS specials are free on her website. She travels to other places besides Europe, and I really enjoy watching her travels in the U.S. as well.

Have you had to cancel any trips due to the current crisis? What do you to quell the travel bug when you have to stay home?

Monday, May 11, 2020

Teaching Writing to Nonverbal Students Online



What I love about my day job as a teacher is that every year holds a new challenge. Often it is how to teach a particular student or a particular subject. It has been an ongoing challenge to teach students who are nonverbal or have low language skills. Especially online.

A few months ago, one of our speech and language pathologists recommended this resource. What struck me about this series of videos on teaching language arts was one phrase: “Writing is communication.”

Now as a writer, I know that’s true.

But I forget that my students are trying to tell me things too, even if they don't always use words. Once I focused on writing as communication (instead of just a rote skill to be learned), my ability to engage and reach my students greatly improved.

Here are things that have worked for me:


1. Make writing engaging, even writing your name: Since so many of my students are working on this skill, I have them practice it often. But now I’ve started making it more exciting by have them sign their name to answer a question.


2. Enjoy books with your students. Sometimes teachers—and parents—forget that reading is supposed to be fun. Peppering students with questions can overload students who struggle to communicate. Instead make comments. Notice things. Get excited. You are modeling for them what it’s like to enjoy reading.


An example of a book my students and I wrote together.

3. Make writing meaningful. There is a place for worksheets at times, but don’t forget to think outside the box. Recently, I’ve been doing patterned books with my students. I come up with a sentence frame (ex. “I put on…”) and provide pictures or show objects to give the students choices. Students communicate the ending of their sentence in various ways (orally, by pointing or holding up an object, or by writing). We put these sentences together to make a book and read our class book.

Resources:

Tarheel books: A great website for finding books with lots of visuals (They even have a version of Holes by Louis Sachar!). You can also make your own books as a class and add photos.


Project Core Professional Development Videos: Videos about teaching language arts to students who have low language and/or use a communication board.

How are you surviving virtual education as a parent or a teacher? For writers: how do you communicate as a writer? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

ISWG: How To Get in the Zone



I wish I had a recipe for getting in the zone as a writer. More often than not, I am surprised when my writing flows.

And with my busy, crazy life, it’s hard for me to keep a strict schedule or cultivate a perfect atmosphere. I don’t have an office or a writing space. I’ve learned to write in the midst of a lot of distractions.

Yet here is my ideal:

1. A quiet space: Often this is a corner of my bedroom, but I used to go to our cultural center to write in the lobby on Saturdays. I cannot write in coffee shops. It’s too tempting to listen in to conversations (a.k.a. research).


2. Writing longhand: I have discovered recently that I write better if I write in longhand. I’m less distracted, and a notebook is more portable than a computer. Right now I’m mostly working on my computer because I’m revising, but longhand is ideal.

Longhand draft of this post

3. Music: I’m not a huge fan of listening to music while I’m writing, but I do use it to inspire me or get me immersed in my setting. (Ex: Celtic music while writing about Scotland or Renaissance instruments for a historical.) But if I want to get pumped and inspired, it’s the La La Land soundtrack all the way. Especially this song:


4.  Beverage: If I have a big mug of chai next to me, I feel like writing is a treat. Which it is. It seems the busier I am, the more I cherish my writing time. And when I see it as a gift, not a burden, I tend to focus better.
One of my favorite places to walk: Herbert Hoover actually swam in this pond as a boy.
5.  Walks: Walking, which I don’t do often enough before writing, helps me write better. It’s amazing how many plot holes can be solved once you step away from the computer.

But other than that, the only secret I’ve discovered is that getting in the zone only happens when you show up. I love that moment when plot points come together or a character does something unexpected but just right for the story. Unfortunately, I can’t predict when those moments will happen. But they are more likely to happen if I write as often as I can.


This month's question: Do you have any rituals for getting in the zone as a writer? Please share in the comments!


To find out more about Insecure Writer's Support group or to sign up, go HERE.

Video of "Audition: The Fools Who Dream" from Fandango via Youtube.
Photos are my own.

Monday, April 27, 2020

MMGM: MG Comfort Reads

With all that's going on, I thought I'd post some links to some MG books that either make you laugh or take you to another world. Books can heal. They can also take you to other worlds when travel is not an option. I've also added a few classics at the end of this list that are in the public domain should you not be able to access your library.

Funny MG:

Alvin Ho--This kid who is afraid of everything will appeal to the younger middle grade set. My favorite is his book about traveling to China.

Ungifted--I've enjoyed all Korman's books I've read so far, but this one about an ungifted boy who ends up in a gifted school is especially hilarious.

Watsons Go to Birmingham--This is a serious book about the civil rights movement, but it has many funny moments. I especially enjoyed how this family dealt with their teenage son. :)

A Whole Nother Story--I'm always surprised this title is not more well known. How can you not chuckle about this family with their ever changing secret identities, a pet sock puppet, and a narrator doling out unsolicited advice? A favorite of my senior in high school when he was in late elementary school/middle school.

Take Me Away MG:


Penderwicks: I've enjoyed this whole series. This is a great title for anyone who likes to live with a family who's creative and intelligent and has adventures in our ordinary world. Great inspiration for ways to have fun that's not digital.

Gail Carson Levine Books--This link will take you to The Two Princesses of Bamarre review, my favorite, but all of her books take you away to another world with intricate languages, customs, fairy tale elements, and cultures.

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place--This series about children raised by wolves and their governess reminds me of The Series of Unfortunate Events, but not as dark. It has a lot of literary humor woven throughout by the omniscient narrator. And its settings include the seaside, London, the English countryside, and Russia!

Bloomability: I don't have a review posted for this book yet, but it's my favorite Sharon Creech. A girl unwillingly goes to a Swiss international school and learns to "bloom." If you have had to cancel travel plans due to the epidemic, this book might help ease the pain.

Classic MG:





Railway Children or The Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit


Nesbit was one of the first writers to write for children. These are my two favorites. Railway Children, like the Penderwicks, will inspire you to find fun in the ordinary. Five Children and It is a fantasy about a creature who grants whatever you wish with hilarious results! (However, I don't recommend the movie. The book is so much better!)





The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I include this one, because Sara is a great example of how to keep your dignity when your life is turned upside down. She acts like a true princess, being kind to everyone no matter her circumstances or how she is treated.The ending of the book is different (and more believable) than the movie.


Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter


Pollyanna gets a bad rap for being too perfect at times. But personally, I needed this book to remind me to play the “Glad Game” and count my blessings right now.

I hope that you are finding solace in stories right now. What are your favorite comfort reads? What you watching right now? Let me know in the comments!

To join the MMGM fun or read more MG reviews, go to Always in the Middle.


 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Why Best-Tacy Books are Still Relevant 80 Years Later




As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy series, which was published in 1940, but the books are set at the turn of the last century. The series is loosely based on Maud Hart Lovelace's experiences growing up in this time period.

I fell in love with these books as a child and can still read them with the same wonder. I related to Betsy and her desire to be a writer from a very young age. And like Betsy, I have a friend like Tacy, a kindred spirit I met at six. We're still in touch (through snail mail, of course!), though we live miles apart.
 

If you’re looking for a comfort read, don’t look any farther. And since it’s Lovelace’s birthday on Saturday, I thought this would be a great time to revisit her.

But apart from the nostalgia and the desire to read about a simpler time, what makes these books relevant now?


Here are a few thoughts:


1. Betsy is a woman of her times, yet before her time. I love that Betsy never questions for a second that she can be a woman and a writer. A wife and a writer. She is a trail blazer, yet she doesn’t think family and a creative passion are mutually exclusive (unlike in the most recent Little Women.)


2. Betsy has wonderful, strong female friendships. It is so rare to see strong female friendships in  middle grade and young adult fiction. Boy-girl friendships are far more common. Maybe authors are trying to appeal to both boys and girls. But as some of my best memories of my childhood were with my girl friends, I’d love to see more of this in modern kidlit.


3. Betsy grows with you. Lovelace did something groundbreaking with her books for that time. The books when Betsy is young are simpler in language and plot for the younger middle grade reader. The books about her teens are geared in language, themes, and complexity to readers in what we now call the young adult genre. 


4. Betsy has adventures. One of my favorite books is Betsy Tacy and the Great World. This novel is loosely based on Lovelace’s travels in Europe. Who can forget the scene when Betsy is in England waiting to hear if England will declare war (WWI) on Germany? Betsy is the kind of character who goes places.


5. Betsy has the best family. It’s lovely reading about a family that has so much fun together as Betsy’s family with their music nights and Sunday suppers and muffins on the first day of school. Although think I might skip Dad's onion sandwiches myself. 


These books are rich in the details of ordinary life. And that’s why we love them. They make us feel like our lives, however ordinary, can be exciting too.



If you'd like to celebrate Maud Hart Lovelace's 128th birthday next Saturday, here more information about the virtual celebration: Betsy Tacy Society Page.


What kind of book to you like to read for comfort? Have you read any Maud Hart Lovelace? What is your favorite? Tell me in the comments!

Monday, April 13, 2020

MMGM: Restart


I picked this book up because it was my Goodread's Middle Grade book club’s choice for February. I have enjoyed every book I've read by Korman. He captures the middle grade voice and angst so well. The premise reminded me of Liane Moriaty's What Alice Forgot, and if you don't take it too seriously, you will enjoy it. 

From Amazon:


Chase's memory just went out the window.

Chase doesn't remember falling off the roof. He doesn't remember hitting his head. He doesn't, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name.

He knows he's Chase. But who is Chase? When he gets back to school, he sees that different kids have very different reactions to his return.

Some kids treat him like a hero. Some kids are clearly afraid of him.

One girl in particular is so angry with him that she pours her frozen yogurt on his head the first chance she gets.

Pretty soon, it's not only a question of who Chase is--it's a question of who he was . . . and who he's going to be.


From the #1 bestselling author of Swindle and Slacker, Restart is the spectacular story of a kid with a messy past who has to figure out what it means to get a clean start.


What I liked:


1. Chase gets a second chance. While this plot point is a little unbelievable—most amnesia plots are—it was fun to watch Chase realize who he used to be and want to change.


2. Multiple POV. I’m not normally a fan of multiple POV, but it really worked well in this book. Hearing from the bullied characters built sympathy for them and showed us what Chase was like before.


3. Lots of humor. There was a really fun subplot about a boy obsessed with becoming a You Tube sensation. My son and I laughed ourselves silly over some of those chapters.


4. Redemption. What can I say? I love a good story where a character gets redeemed.


5. Pace. This was a fast-paced read that was hard to put down. Korman really knows what appeals to kids and gets inside their heads. He’s certainly popular at my house, and pacing is part of that.


What I didn’t like as much:


The jocks and the artsy students were a bit stereotypical. Not all jocks are jerks, and not all art students are nerds or bullied. And I couldn’t believe that the administration took the side of the jocks. But I did like how the Dad (a former jock) had some glimmers of change.


What do you think? Are jocks always the bullies and art students the bullied? Have you read any Gordon Korman? Let me know in the comments!

Want to get on the MMGM fun?  Go to Greg Pattridge's Always in the Middle  to sign up.











Monday, April 6, 2020

MMGM: Red Scarf Girl



I wasn’t sure about highlighting this book right now with all that is going on with Covid 19. I thought people might not want to hear about a serious book right now, especially one set in China. But then I realized that I often like to read books about people surviving extraordinary times when my own life is difficult. It puts things in perspective.
 

Red Scarf Girl was recommended for kids who were old enough for YA, but not ready for edgy YA on the Read Aloud Revival, a great website for finding book recommendations!

I'm drawn to books about communism, because I lived in the Crimea in the 90s right after communism fell. It surprised me then how many of my Russian friends were nostalgic for communism, despite how their families had suffered under it. But it was all they’d ever known. This child’s perspective on the Cultural Revolution might surprise you as well.

From Amazon:


In the tradition of The Diary of Anne Frank and I Am Malala, this is the incredible true story of one girl’s courage and determination during one of the most terrifying eras of the twentieth century. This edition includes a detailed glossary, pronunciation guide, discussion questions, and a Q&A with the author.


It's 1966, and twelve-year-old Ji-li Jiang has everything a girl could want: brains, popularity, and a bright future in Communist China. But it's also the year that China's leader, Mao Ze-dong, launches the Cultural Revolution—and Ji-li's world begins to fall apart.


Over the next few years, people who were once her friends and neighbors turn on her and her family, forcing them to live in constant terror of arrest. And when Ji-li's father is finally imprisoned, she faces the most difficult dilemma of her life.


Written in an accessible and engaging style, this page-turning, honest, and deeply personal autobiography will appeal to readers of all ages.


Ji Ji Jang, the author, from her website, jijang.com


My thoughts:

While reading this book, I couldn't help thinking of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a fictional account of a boy in Stalinist Russia. My son, 15, read the first part of Red Scarf Girl, and said, “But she thinks communism is okay!”  We had a great discussion about propaganda and its effect on people.

What endeared me to this book was its simple story telling. The author doesn’t use a lot of fancy language. The occasional metaphor doesn’t detract from the prose. I liked how she included an afterward on what happened to her and her family after the end of the book.

Like Breaking Stalin’s Nose, it’s Ling's connection with her family that helps Ji-Ji break free from the brainwashing/propaganda she’s believed. Both books are really about the triumph of the human spirit and love for family over a system that seeks to separate families and neighbors and pit them against each other.

Highly recommended. Although Red Scarf Girl takes place in the 60s and was written in the 90s, the message is still very relevant today.

Content warning: While there is some violence in this book, the one death (a suicide) happens off the page. Of course, you know your child or students best, but I would recommend this for MG readers.








To learn more about Ji Ji Jang, go to www.jijang.com


What kind of books do you like to read during difficult times? Let me know in the comments!




Wednesday, April 1, 2020

ISWG: Writing and Adversity

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan is one of my favorite books about writing. Tan's story about finding CliffsNotes about Joy Luck Club is hilarious! Most of the book, however, is about being a daughter of an overbearing, critical mother. What I found most interesting is how her adversity shaped her. She says that if she’d had a more “normal” mother, one who was encouraging, she might’ve been a doctor instead of being a writer. Her experience of feeling like an outsider was good training for writing. It taught her to observe.

Sometimes we tend to think that life gets in the way of our writing. While I’ve enjoyed a lot of posts lately on “how to write through difficult times,” I think ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you keep writing during difficult times or wait till life settles down. It matters how you use that pain.

I’ve had my share of difficult times, some of which I’ve written through, some of which I didn’t, and some too personal to share. 


But all those difficulties shaped me. They’ve caused me to feel like outsider at times. They’ve caused me to understand pain and the human condition. They’ve given me empathy, an important trait for a writer.  I know adversity has given my writing—and my life--depth.



Writing is life. Life is writing. You can’t separate the two, and even if you’re not writing right now, you are still storing up material for later. Darci Pattison uses Frederick in Leo Lionni's picture book as an example of this in "For the slow times of writing." While all the rest of the mice are storing up seeds for winter, Frederick seems to be doing nothing. But when winter comes, he entertains them with poetry. Maybe like Frederick, you are storing up life to create poetry later.

How are you managing during Covid-19? Are you writing or taking a break?


My update on this month's question:

Covid-19 isn’t affecting that severely. My husband and I already work from home, and our children attend an online school. We do miss seeing our friends and being able to attend church and other activities (and toilet paper in the grocery store!) My heart and prayers go out to those of you who are harder hit.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Indoor Nature Walk: Exquisite Creatures and Order in Art

A few months ago we visited the Exquisite Creatures exhibit at OMSI, Oregon's Museum of Science and Industry. 



This exhibit included artwork by Christopher Marley, an Oregon artist who makes art out of nature, including bugs, birds, flowers, and other living creatures. Rest assured, none of these creatures have been killed. They are all animals in captivity that died a natural death. Marley, who was once an artist who liked to draw monsters, decided after traveling the world to capture nature instead.

What stood out to me about the exhibit wasn't just that beautiful artwork can be made out of the most unlikely of materials, but what Marley said about nature. We seek nature because it's orderly. We crave order, an order that is behind all creation. I found this interesting, especially as so much art (in all its forms) tends toward the random at times.

I have never been a fan of modern art. Perhaps for this reason.

But it made me think of writing. A sonnet is beautiful because it has form and rules. A novel, follows a form: beginning, middle, end. A picture book can only be 32 pages.

More skill is required to create art when there are limits.

Recently I attempted reading a classic modern novel. I'd read chapter one, for instance, and get hooked in the story, only to have it end at a cliffhanger. But chapter two was not a continuation of the plot, but the start of another story. There was no order. It was frustrating to say the least.

Some might call that beautiful, and we all know that awards committees often grant awards to what is novel or different.

But it is beautiful?

The sights of the Exquisite Creatures exhibit are unexpected, yes. Art should surprise you.

But it is orderly.

Just like nature. And good art.

What do you think of relationship between order, nature, and art? Can good art be created without order? Share in the comments below!

*All photos are my own.