Monday, December 15, 2008

Twilight (abridged)

I read an advance reading copy of Twilight shortly after it came out, and was not impressed by the writing, Bella's self-sacrifice and submissiveness, or the thinly disguised Mormon propaganda about abstinence. So I haven't been even slightly tempted to see the movie. But I did enjoy this synopsis of the movie: "If 'Twilight' was 10 times shorter and 100 times more honest."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Art & Fear

When I need encouragement with my fiction, I turn to certain books for inspiration. One of the best is Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland. I am now working on Into the Fire, version umpty-million, so this passage resonated with me:
William Kennedy gamely admitted that he re-wrote his own novel Legs eight times, and that "seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel and they were both about the same height."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Yes You Can Obamafy yourself with this PhotoBooth plug-in by Dubi Kaufmann. If you have a Mac running OSX 10.5 Leopard, that is. Download it here:

Monday, December 1, 2008

Local Matters WRFU Benefit

If you live in the Champaign-Urbana area, or even if you don't, I'll be at the Jane Addams bookstore as part of the Local Matters art sale in downtown Champaign from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, December 6. The art sale is part of the Local Matters benefit for WRFU at the Cowboy Monkey, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. The benefit is being held to raise funds towards a new permanent tower for WRFU (104.5 FM), a local progressive radio station collective operating out of Urbana committed to social justice, focusing on public affairs issues, and the arts.

I'll be selling signed copies of Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery. There may be prizes!

For a detailed schedule of the show, go to

Friday, November 21, 2008

Prairie Writers' Day 2008

Writers and other publishing types who live on the coasts tend to feel a bit sorry for those of us who live in those flyover states of the Midwest. Maybe not so much anymore, now that our President-elect’s vacation home will be in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, but still. What they might not realize is that we can get the cream of east-coast children’s publishing to come visit us, thanks to our fantastic local SCBWI chapters.

I present to you: Prairie Writers’ Day 2008, courtesy of the Illinois Chapter of SCBWI. On November 15 2008, 175 published and pre-published childrens’ writers from Illinois (as well as a few from neighboring states) gathered for the 4th annual Prairie Writers’ Day at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. You might want to make yourself comfortable, because this is long!

First up was Harold Underdown, editorial consultant, go-to-guy for all things KidLit on the internet at The Purple Crayon and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing. Harold introduced his two sidekicks, Mr. P (a.k.a. Mr. Glass Half Empty) and Mr. O (Mr. Hey, That There Glass is Half Full!) for an overview of the childrens' book publishing industry. Mr. P got his say first, as he so often does. Yes, the publishing industry has consolidated to the extent that the Big 5 publishing houses account for 1/2 of all the published books in the U.S. Many of the houses have closed their doors to unsolicited (or unagented) manuscripts. This has led to a loss of institutional memory in the industry, which seems now to be more interested in publishing safe spin-offs of old series and pushing movie and toy tie-ins than finding and cultivating new talent. And then, of course, there is the huge elephant in the room: the recession. Could things be worse?

Enter Mr. O! Not only could they be lots worse, but there’s much to be hopeful about! Turns out, Mr. P gave you only part of the picture. Yes, children’s book publishing has gone multi-national, but so has the rest of the world. Live with it. And there are still many independent presses and small imprints within the Big 5 that understand and love the children’s market and continue to do well. There are still many opportunities for unagented authors to reach editors, especially in the nonfiction and picture book markets.

But isn't technology rotting our childrens’ minds? Not necessarily! Consider the wonderful audiobooks that bring children’s books to entire families trapped in a car as they drive from, say, Illinois to Kansas for Thanksgiving. Think, for example, Bruce Coville’s Full Cast Audio books. E-books? Just another way of reading.

Loss of institutional memory? Dig a little deeper, my friends! The next speaker on the panel, Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, can trace a direct lineage back to the great Ursula Nordstrom. Take that, Mr. P! Yes, there is some schlock being published nowadays, but---who knew?—that sort of stuff has always been around. We just don’t remember it because it hasn’t lasted! Ha!

And as for the 800 pound gorilla that is the recession—well, perhaps it weighs only 600 pounds. Look at it this way: would you rather be making and selling SUVS, luxury jackets and the like, or books? ‘Nuff said.

Harold’s virtual handout is available on

Next up: Martha Mihalick, editor with Greenwillow Books. She drew the “character” straw in the craft discussion, and a good thing, because she said that she is strongly drawn to character-driven books. She most often finds herself turning down manuscripts when the characters fall flat. Populate your books with memorable characters! This is not just true for novelists, but picture book writers as well. Think of Lilly, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Max (the Wild Things) and the Pigeon who wanted to drive the bus. Characters should be identifiable as types (jocks, nerds, etc.) but there should also be characteristics that set them apart and make them memorable.

Using some Greenwillow books, Mihalick illustrated the categories that can reveal character: objects/possessions; people around them; actions (and reactions); opinions. I’m looking forward to reading or re-reading the books she mentioned with an eye to character: The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner); Tracking Daddy Down (Marybeth Kelsey); Me and the Pumpkin Queen (Marlane Kennedy); Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse (Kevin Henkes); The Last Apprentice series (Joseph Delaney); Deadline (Chris Crutcher). Well-rounded characters, Mihalick ended by saying, gain the reader’s trust.

Editor Cheryl Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) talked about plot. There are two types of plots, she said: those based on character, and structural plots. But in either case, any plotline must also include an action plot (the changes in circumstances) and an emotional plot (changes within the protagonist). I won’t go into Klein’s talk in detail, because she has posted the outlines of some of her talks on plot on her website, Talking Books. Highly recommended, especially for those of us who struggle with plot.

Caroline Meckler, Wendy Lamb Books editor, took on that most elusive beast, voice. We all know it when we read it, but what is voice exactly, and how do we find our story’s voice? The elements of voice, she said, are diction (choice of words); detail (life and color); imagery (sensory details); syntax (sentence structure, length, cadence, etc.), and tone. The voice that works for I Capture the Castle (one of Meckler’s favorite books) would obviously not work for, say, a John Grisham novel. Author Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) wrote, “Nothing encourages the flow of a story so much as the discovery of the voice in which it is to be told. I once sat down and began a book with the lines, ‘It was dusk—winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…” In those fourteen words I had already fixed the whole mood and atmosphere of the story so firmly that, though the book they began was interrupted after three chapters by outside circumstances, and not recommenced until after a gap of seven years, when I took it up again, I had not the slightest difficulty in going on from where I had left off.” (The Way to Write for Children: An Introduction to the Craft of Writing Children’s Literature, p. 33).

Jennifer RofĂ© (previously Jaeger), of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, works closely with her clients on revisions. Using her clients’ books as examples, she outlined some of the revision questions you need to ask yourself when you’ve finished your first (or second, or third…) draft. Is there a good balance between direct and indirect characterization? Read Milagros, Girl From Away, by Meg Medina, for good examples of characterization. Make sure you—and your reader—understand what motivates your characters. She cited The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (coming out February 2009) as a good example of character motivation. Is the story moving forward effectively, and are all the scenes and dialogue necessary? Check out The Farwalker’s Quest, by Joni Sensel (coming out in February 2009) for a well-paced read. And finally, are the plots and subplots sufficiently developed? Is the storyline unfolding sensibly? Read Cynthea Liu’s Paris Pan Takes the Dare, coming out in June 2009.

Pretty rich stuff for writers, no? But SCBWI-Illinois, much like the Cat in the Hat, had still more tricks to throw at us. Sharon Darrow, faculty chair of the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, did a terrific teaching session using a complete rhymed picture book manuscript and the first few pages of two longer manuscripts submitted by SCBWI-Illinois members. SCBWI-Illinois’ very own Carol Grannick, a licensed clinical social worker, talked about Learned Optimism for Writers (check out Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E.P. Seligman). And SCBWI-Illinois member and fitness instructor Mary Loftus led us in two much-appreciated fitness breaks, with specific tips for staying fit while writing. (This might be a good time to stretch!)

If you’d like to improve your craft, whether you’re published or just starting out, I highly recommend attending an SCBWI writers’ event near you. You can find a local chapter at Many of the editors who come to these events agree to accept unsolicited manuscripts from attendees (after the event, of course!). I know of quite a few people who say that they sold a manuscript as a direct result of attending an SCBWI event. And you never know when you’ll meet someone who can help you advance your writing career—or just make a new friend.

Happy Writing!
--Sara Latta

(cross-posted on KidLit Central News)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Prairie Writers' Day teaser

What do Harold Underdown (The Purple Crayon), Martha Mihalick (Greenwillow Books), Jennifer Rofe (Andrea Brown Literary Agency), Caroline Meckler (Wendy Lamb Books), and Cheryl Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books) have in common? Well, aside from being some of the top names in children's publishing and really nice people, they all joined 175 aspiring and published childrens' writers at Dominican University in River Forest IL on Saturday for the 4th Annual Prairie Writers' Day. I'll be blogging about the conference over at KidLit Central on Friday, November 21, so if you're interested in writing for kids be sure and check it out. I'll post my report here as well.

In related news, I recently stumbled upon the Illinois Authors Wiki, a project of the Illinois Center for the Book. I'm pretty pleased to be listed on the same website as Jane Addams, Sherwood Anderson, L. Frank Baum, Ray Bradbury, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among many others. Pretty cool!

A gem of a book

The Newberry Library's exhibit Artifacts of Childhood: 700 Years of Children's Books was interesting but ultimately disappointing. The chronological organization was vague and often confusing, with a case featuring a 1970s-era book sitting willy-nilly by one featuring Renaissance-era books. And although the individual descriptions of the artifacts were well-done, I didn't think the exhibit conveyed the overall theme of the evolution of children's books from rather grim, moralistic teaching tools to the books we enjoy today. Still, worth a visit if you're in the area.

But I was to be richly rewarded! Outside of the bookstore (which is excellent and part of the Seminary Bookstore and 57th Street Bookstore co-op, so I got a discount) there was a small library cart of used books. I found this lovely little volume of poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002 National Book Award Finalist):

I was thrilled with this find, because I'd been wanting to read her poetry, and at $2.50 you couldn't beat the price. And then I turned to the title page and read this inscription in Shihab Nye's neat hand: "For Senator Obama and his beautiful family. Naomi Shihab Nye, 2007."

I was thrilled, of course, but part of me is sad that Obama (or more likely, some staff member) didn't hang onto this book. I think that he, Michelle, and especially their sweet daughters would love these poems. So, First Family, if you want the book back, it's yours. For $2.50.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans' Day

Thanks to those veterans who have given so much of themselves in the service of our country. I came across this amazing book of poetry, Here, Bullet, written by Iraq War vet Brian Turner. As a science writer, I was particularly struck by this lovely poem. A note at the back of the book explains that the poem refers to Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, a scientist from the turn of the first millenium who made advances in the fields of physics, among others. (For a longer review of Here, Bullet, visit Guys Lit Wire.)

Alhazen of Basra
by Brian Turner

If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunset, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn't ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind's great repository
of dream, and whether he's studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Canvassing, revisited

I've been thinking about my canvassing experience in Indiana a lot lately, and so I was fascinated to come across this letter from a book I found in a used book store recently, Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 (Lisa Grunwald & Stephen J. Adler, eds., The Dial Press). The poverty Les Johnson describes sounds terribly familiar.

The summer of 1964--"Freedom Summer"--would remain among the most memorable in the lives of hundreds of students participating in the efforts of the SNCC to register Mississippi blacks for the vote. Volunteer Les Johnson wrote home...the same month that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Canvassing is very trying, you walk a little dusty street, with incredibly broken down shacks. The people sitting on porches staring away into nowhere--The sweat running down your face! Little kids half-naked in raggy clothes all over the place--this is what you face with your little packet of "Freedom Forms."
We don't canvass except between 4 and 7 at night because most people are in the fields in the day.
I've spent 3 hours, talking and got only 2 forms signed, other times I've gotten 10 in an hour.
We've gotten almost 2000 registered now in Clarksdale.
Unfortunately, Freedom registration is terribly remote to these people. I almost feel guilty--like I'm playing for numbers only; for you walk up to a porch, knock on a door and enter another world. A world made up, mainly, like Pop Art. The walls are inevitably covered with a funeral hall calendar, a portrait calendar of President Kennedy, old graduation pictures. Maybe a new cheap lamp from Fred's dollar store.
You meet an afraid, but sometimes eager, curious face--one which is used to--many times over 70 years worth--saying "Yes Sir" to everything a white man says--and not really listening. You see their pain, the incredible years of suffering etched in their worn faces; and then if you convince them to sign you leave. You walk down the deteriorating steps to the dirt, to the next house--the next world and start in on your Sales pitch again, leaving behind something which has broken you a little more. Poverty in the abstract does nothing to you. When you wake up to it every morning, and come down through the streets of it, and see the same old many playing the accordian on the ground, the same man selling peaches out of a basket too heavy for his twisted body, the same children, a day older--a day closer to those men--after this everyday, pov erty is a reality that is so outrageous you have to learn to be unshocked and become jaded for the moment--or else be unable to function.
Little hands grope everyday for a nickle--it's hard to say "no" to kids who's lives are already a Hell which White America refused to care about.
These children represent a tremendous amount of energy, a talent, and value--all of which the white world says--"let this energy pitch cotton, and clean up after me, and do work I don't want to do." That energy is finally coming to the surface in Harlem and Rochester and as Mr. Baldwin has said, "if we don't find a productive channel for that energy we will be destroyed by that energy."

The children that Les Johnson describes are my age or a little older now. The folks I met in those broken-down neighborhoods are white and black and Hispanic now, but the most notable difference between Les Johnson's experience and mine was the palpable feeling of hope for a better future.
Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A night to remember

Meet the next First Family of the United States: Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama. Barack--and all of us who knocked on doors, made phone calls, gave money, and of course VOTED--made history yesterday. Three hundred eighty nine years after the first African slaves landed on our shores, 145 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and 43 years after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, we have come together to elect a black man, Barack Hussein Obama, as president.

This is an historic event not just for all of the African-Americans whose dreams seemed to be so often deferred, but for all Americans. Barack Obama showed us how to look beyond the divisions of class and race, red and blue states, "real" and I guess "fake" America, and embrace our common goodness. His refusal to engage in name-calling and partisianship in this campaign, his cool in the midst of the financial crisis, and his intellectual curiosity are all encouraging signs of the kind of president he will be.

Over the course of the campaign, I've spent days canvassing for Obama in Indianapolis and Lafayette, Indiana. For anybody who has never knocked on the doors of complete strangers to talk about politics, I recommend it. Seriously. It will force you to examine your stereotypes. At times, you will be way out of your comfort zone. And often, it will warm your heart. A few anecdotes:
  • A bright 18 year-old with a developmental/medical disability who had decided to vote for Obama after studying each candidate's health care platforms. He was clearly excited about being able to vote for the first time.
  • A 39 year-old woman of very modest means who recently registered to vote for the first time because she saw in Obama a man who cared and would make life better for her and her family.
  • A man who told me that his entire family, including his son in Iraq, had already voted for Obama. He saw in Obama the candidate who would be most likely to bring his son home safely and to ensure that vets receive the care and benefits they deserve.
  • An older black woman who wanted an extra door hanger as a keepsake to pass on to her grandchildren.
  • And even a 76-year old white man who admitted that "he'd like to see the n****r in the White House. I don't like black people," he said, "but I think he'd make a good president."
Given the amount of time I've spent in Indiana, then, I felt a special thrill when I read--only this morning--that the state went for Obama. First time Indiana has gone for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. I like to think I own a tiny part of that achievement!

I haven't been blogging much lately because obsessively checking the political blogs eats up a lot of time, if you know what I mean. Obama's win has put my world to rights again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Do the math

A lot of folks seem to think that the Republicans traditionally beat the Democrats on economic issues.

Wrong. Since World War II the Democrats have been overwhelmingly better at running the economy. Hands down, case closed, beyond any statistical doubt. They've borrowed less money, created more wealth and opportunity, and left the next generation in better shape. YA author Scott Westerfeld does the math and shows us why Obama is the candidate to lead us out of the fiscal mess that the Republicans have gotten us into. Check it out: YA for Obama.

KidLit Central

I'm blogging today over at KidLit Central about interesting behind-the-scenes stories about childrens' literature. (Teaser: Did you know that Margret and H.A. Rey were German Jews who bicycled out of Paris in 1940 on the day the German army moved in to occupy the city; they eventually made their way to the U.S. via Brazil. One of the few things they carried with them was the manuscript for Curious George. True story!)

Monday, September 22, 2008

YA for Obama

YA author Maureen Johnson recently started a social networking site for YA writers and readers, YA for Obama. Loads of talented YA authors have joined. I did too; so can you! Check it out by clicking on the widget below. Here's what Judy Blume has to say in a post titled, "Why I support Obama":
All I ask is that you make an informed decision. It's about the issues. It's about health care, the economy, education, the environment, a woman's right to choose, equal pay for equal work -- it's about who will be appointed to the Supreme Court, and it's about never rushing into war again - not without all the facts, not without trying everything we can to prevent war first. This election is too important for all of us to decide in any other way.

Visit YA for Obama

Monday, September 15, 2008


Remember that April Fool's joke I made on this blog about my manuscript, Mommy's Visit to the Tattoo Parlor?

Sminthophile, aka Jacqueline, alerted me a new book, Mommy Has a Tattoo. From the website:

For the LOW cover price of $16.95 you will receive a SIGNED first edition copy of MOMMY HAS A TATTOO, while supplies last! MOMMY HAS A TATTOO tells the story of a little boy named James, who is afraid of his tattooed neighbor until he discovers that his own mother has a tattoo as well. Tattoos are a source of pride for lots of Mommies, and a source of endless curiosity for their kids. Discover why tattooed families across the country are falling in love with this book!

Who's laughing now? Phil Padwe, that's who. It's self-published, I think, but I bet there's a pretty decent niche market for it. My sister and I could be raking in the dough if we'd run with this. I know at least one reader of this blog who was looking for this VERY book.

Meanwhile, for those of you unwilling to make the jump to permanent ink, I have just the thing for you, especially if you have to be an assistant prof of information science at the University of Iowa. The Illustrated Librarian: 12 Temporary Tattoos for Librarians and Book Lovers. Available at Patina Stores.

David Foster Wallace

When I heard that David Foster Wallace had killed himself, I felt momentarily sucker-punched. Not just because I love his nonfiction (no, I never tackled Infinite Jest), although I do. I felt as though I knew him, although I have never met him. He grew up in Philo, a small town near Champaign-Urbana, the son of academics here in town. He wrote about our particular spot in the midwest with bitingly funny detachment. Harper's Magazine has made available, in PDF form, the essays he wrote for them. Two of my favorites are "Tennis, Trigonometry, and Tornadoes: A Midwestern Boyhood," and "Ticket to the Fair."


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin's choice

I have been talking with a number of my women friends about Sarah Palin's choice to have Trig. We are all pro-choice. One of them has a brother with Down Syndrome; another has a niece with Down. The brother and niece are both loved and cherished. Personally, if I found out that I was carrying a child with Down Syndrome, I know I would have the baby and love it with all my heart. But the point is, that would be my choice. And thank goodness that Sarah Palin had a choice.

My friend Beth Finke has a disabled son, now 22 years old. She writes movingly about the decision she and her husband made to carry that baby to term, despite the risks to her own health (she has Type 1 diabetes). But the point is, no one forced her to have Gus. It was a decision that she and her husband made.

You can read Beth's op-ed piece here: "When choice is part of the equation."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 memories

Today, of course, is the seven-year anniversary of the day that changed all of our lives. It started off as a beautiful day--sunny, with just a hint of fall's approaching crispness. I remember it so well--the kids had gotten off to school and Tony was at work. I was sitting here in the kitchen, finishing my coffee and getting ready to go upstairs and write when I heard the news on the radio. First one plane, then two, and then a third. And even as this darkness seemed to descend on us all, the sun continued to shine as brightly as ever, indifferent to our hate and fear and sadness. And so life went on for those of us left behind.

Butterflies on the sedum in my backyard. 9/11/08


Sorry for my prolonged absence; as Barack Obama said on the Letterman show last night, we've entered the silly season of politics. All I could think of to write about was politics, and I didn't want to turn this into a political blog. So I just kept quiet. I'm in the process of revamping my website and hope to get back to blogging on a more regular basis.

But for today, anyway, I had to jump back into the action and give a shout-out to my husband, Tony Liss, and all of the other physicists involved in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN! Because, amidst the "lipstick on a pig" flap yesterday, the world learned that the LHC finally turned on. He and his colleagues at the U.I. were interviewed for an article in the local paper, "UI Team Takes Part in Worldwide Science Experiments," and they appeared on the local TV news stations. Even though they they won't begin collisions or taking data until October, it's still pretty exciting. Either they find the Higgs boson--which will be pretty cool--or they won't, which in its own way may be even more exciting, because physicists will be forced to re-evaluate their theories. And then there's the possibility of determining the nature of--drum roll, please--dark matter!

Stella Brite, the sequel. Yes?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Stop GOP handouts for big oil!

I know I've been absent for quite a while...but here is the video I made from the clean energy rally that took place today in downtown Champaign:

More to come later on the skull I found in my backyard, my worm farm, and my new gadget.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

KidLit Central

I'm blogging over at KidLit Central today--check it out: KidLit Central News.

Having been alerted to the fact that there may be a link to the blog on Cynsations, I decided against posting a cute video of a sleepy bear cub in favor of something more, oh I don't know, more useful to writers. That said, I still think it's really cute, so a special treat for you:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

CERN rap

Well, in case you wanted to know more about the science behind Tony's sabbatical in Switzerland, here you go. Laugh and learn:

CERN Rap from Will Barras on Vimeo.

KidLit Central

Hey, all you writers! I'm going to be a regular contributor at a new blog, KidLit Central News, featuring children’s publishing news, reviews, entertainment and more. It will feature folks involved with children's literature in and around the Central U.S., including Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. I'll be blogging on Friday, August 8. Check it out!

The science of satire

Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has a good article called "The Science of Satire" up at The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It's free.) Lots of smart people have weighed in on why the notorious New Yorker cover is not good satire, but Banaji explains why depictions of the Obamas as terrorists leaves an indelible imprint on our brains, even if we do not believe it to be true:
For decades, psychologists have described the "sleeper effect" — the idea that information, even information we might reject at first blush, ends up persuading us, contrary to our intention, over time. That often occurs when the content of the message (Obama=Islamist) and the source providing the message (The New Yorker trying to be cute) have split off in our minds. When satire isn't done right, as in the case of the Obama cover, the intended parody easily splits off from the actual and more blatant association. The latter then has the power to persuade over the long haul, when conscious cognition isn't up to policing it. Communicators of mass media should be alert to that, so that decisions about particular portrayals are based on knowledge of their full impact, and the justification for the supposedly sophisticated cognitive function they serve offered in light of such basic knowledge.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The wisdom of Mark Twain

I spent an entire semester reading and studying Mark Twain in college, and it was one of the most enjoyable classes I ever took. My novel in progress owes a huge debt to Twain. So when I saw Time magazine's recent cover feature on Twain, I had to read it. The first article was written by Roy Blount Jr. (talk about a writer who owes a huge debt to Twain!). Blount points out much of Twain's scathing commentary could have been written about today's news:

What about those Abu Ghraib photographs? In "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a fulminating essay he published in 1905, when he was a very cantankerous 70, Twain imagines the ruler of Belgium pitying himself for the inconvenience of photos showing natives of the Congo whose hands have been cut off by Belgian exploiters. In the good old days, Leopold complains, he could deny atrocities and be believed. "Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak--and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe."

Waterboarding? In 1902, American soldiers were involved in a war to suppress rebels in the Philippines, which the U.S. had taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War, then decided to keep for itself instead of granting the Filipinos the independence they thought they had been promised. That outcome enraged Twain. So did "the torturing of Filipinos by the awful 'water-cure.'"

"To make them confess--what?" Twain asked. "Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless."

The companion article to Blount's is by Stephen L. Carter, "Getting Past Black and White," in which he argues that Twain was the "man who popularized the sophisticated literary attack on racism...Twain, raised in a slave state, briefly a member of a Confederate militia, and inventor of Jim, may have done more to rile the nation over racial injustice and rouse its collective conscience than any other novelist in the past century who has lifted a pen.
Or typed on a computer."

The articles sent me back to my 2-volume set of Twain's Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, published by the Library of America in 1992. In response to a lynching that occurred in Missouri, Twain wrote an essay titled, "The United States of Lyncherdom."
But what struck me, in the context of my novel, was this passage:
It is thought...that a lynching crowd enjoys a lynching. It certainly is not true; it seems impossible of belief. It is freely asserted--you have seen it in print many times of late--that the lynching impulse has been misinterpreted; that it is not the outcome of a spirit of revenge, but of a "mere atrocious hunger to look upon human suffering." If that were so, the crowds that saw the Windsor Hotel burn down would have enjoyed the horrors that fell under their eyes. Did they? No one will think that of them, no one will make that charge. Many risked their lives to save the men and women who were in peril. Why did they do that? Because none would disapprove. There was no restraint; they could follow their natural impulse. Why does a crowd of the same kind of people in Texas, Colorado, Indiana, stand by, smitten to the heart and miserable, and by ostentatious outward signs pretend to enjoy a lynching? Why does it lift no hand or voice in protest? Only because it would be unpopular to do it, I think; each man is afraid of his neighbor's disapproval--a thing which, to the general run of the race, is more dreaded than wounds and death. When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children. Really to see it? No--they come only because they are afraid to stay at home, lest it be noticed and offensively commented upon.
Twain proposes that we remedy this situation by stationing one morally courageous man in each community to "encourage, support and bring to light the deep disapproval of lynching hidden in the secret places of the heart." But Twain doubts that there are enough brave people for the task, and so proposes bringing American missionaries in China back home to the lynching fields, because "our country is worse off than China."

My novel is about a boy who becomes one of those brave men. I hope to do him justice!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Just got back from a lovely, wonderful long weekend in which Tony, Alison, Caitlin, Eli and I converged to celebrate birthdays and general family togetherness. I like this picture of the five of us:
As well as this one, taken in front of the storefront of a place called Gray's Papaya, which according to Tony is an institution on the West Side:

Oh, yes we can!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Concerning books as art, daughters, writing, and the circus

That's just a lazy title to say, this entry is going to be about a lot of things, because there's been a lot of water under the bridge since I wrote my last entry. And also to tell you about a bunch of new pictures I've posted on my Mac web gallery.

Last Sunday I drove up to St. Paul to visit Alison, one of my lovely daughters, who just moved into new digs along with about 50 of her friends. OK, eight of them are renting an entire duplex. Nice place with a backyard in a great neighborhood. I saw more of the Twin Cities on this visit than ever before; I'm beginning to understand why people love them so much, despite the cruel, cruel winters. We visited the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I'm quite sure that if I lived nearby I would be taking classes on hand typesetting, book binding, paper making, and book art design. As it is I contented myself with a handmade book--Pulling Wire, a short story by Barry Lopez. Quite reasonably priced.

The next day we visited the Bakken Library and Museum, "a center for education and learning that furthers the understanding of the history, cultural context, and applications of electricity and magnetism in the life sciences and their benefits to contemporary society." Despite that rather dreary-sounding mission statement, it was really a pretty cool place, especially the historical exhibits. There was a working theremin, the first electronic musical instrument. You play it by moving your hands around two radio antennae, one controlling pitch and the other, volume. We weren't able to get much out of it besides squawks, but it was a lot of fun. There such amusements as the magnetic hairbrush, which in the 19th century was thought to help prevent balding. There was a terrific multi-media tableau of Victor Frankenstein's laboratory and Mary Shelly's study (Shelly was influenced by Luigi Galvani, who conducted a series of experiments on severed frogs' legs that led to the discovery of animal electricity). And Alison was thrilled to learn that the library contains a large collection of primary works on mesmerism and hypnotism, which might be helpful in writing her senior honors thesis on feminism and the spiritualist movement in 19th century America.

AND that is not all we did! We visited the Walker Art Center sculpture garden (the museum itself was closed) and saw many cool things, including Claes Oldenberg's famous spoon with cherry sculpture and this fun kinetic sculpture, featured here with the lovely Alison.

On Wednesday, I said goodbye to Alison and the Twin Cities for the second half of my writer's vacation and drove down to Baraboo Wisconsin, home of the Circus World Museum, for a couple of days of research for my novel and quiet writing time. Baraboo, it turns out, was the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. If you love the circus, you should visit this place. Loads of history as well as ongoing shows. I feel a little guilty for enjoying the dancing elephant act as much as I did, but what can I say? Hannah Louise charmed me:

You can view more circus photos, including old wagons and a video of a working calliope, here and here. Be aware that many of the figures depicted on the wagons are pretty objectionable--you know, stereotyped and exaggerated ideas of "exotic" folks. (Look at the "Americas" wagon and you'll know what I mean.) There is ample fodder here for a thesis, if it hasn't been done already. My visit to Circus World actually answered a couple of questions I had about framing the circus in my book, so it was totally worthwhile.

And then let me end tonight with a plug for the Willowood Inn, this terrific little mom and pop motel that I stayed in near Baraboo, just up the road from Devil's Lake State Park. At only $60/night, I was a little afraid that it might be a flea bag. I was wrong! It was charming:
Each room has its own theme; I got the western room:
And to top off my really fun writer's week, I had lunch in Madison with Sminthia, aka Jacqueline Houtman, who until Friday was my email/bloggy friend, but is now a real face to face friend. Hi Jacqueline!

Oh, and on Saturday the lovely Alison and her equally lovely sister Caitlin celebrated their 20th birthdays! Happy birthday to my favorite twins!

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I finished researching and writing up proposed outlines for two new books for Enslow's new True Crime: Forensic Science series (this should make for interesting dinner table discussions) and finally, finally I'm hunkering down and making good progress on revising my novel.

Which is not to say that I haven't done a little procrastinating. Wordle is a fun little application that makes word clouds from text that you provide. Here's what I made for Little Red Cap (aka Little Red Riding Hood):
Try it--it's fun!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Words in the Woods

Just got back from Words in the Woods, a wonderful children's writers retreat near Springfield, Illinois. Joining us for the retreat were speakers Barry Goldblatt (agent extraordinaire); Holly Black (author of the Spiderwick Chronicles, among other excellent books); and Namrata Tripathi (super-savvy editor, Hyperion Books for Children). For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the retreat were the suggestions and feedback from my critique group on my manuscript. I'm intent on finally finishing my revision of Into the Fire this summer, and I came away with some great ideas. From the speakers, lots of great stuff on plot, building characters, setting, and revisions.

The super-duper organizers of the retreat, the Springfield Scribes, wrote some incredibly funny skits to introduce some of the sessions. I'll try to post a video of one of the skits later. In the meantime, I got to play Pink Pain in the character catwalk. Apparently I had an alter ego I never knew about:

Yes, that's a whip I'm wielding. And I'm told I handled it convincingly.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Remind me why these the the legal union of these two women, in a committed relationship for over 50 years, pose a threat to the institution of marriage:

Congratulations, Phyllis and Del.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Happy Day After Father's Day! (That's only an official holiday in my house.) Did you know that Father's Day was not recognized as a national holiday until Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972? Me neither, until I heard it on NPR.

My dad, like many of his generation, was not a particularly hands-on kind of parent. It wasn't that I didn't see much of him--quite the contrary. A dairy farmer is seldom far from home, and we were often together, milking cows and doing other chores. But the business of overseeing schoolwork, music lessons, etc.--you know, parenting--was mostly left up to Mom. Not that she minded; I think Mom loved raising us.

A funny thing happened when my siblings and I became adults. Dad began reaching out to us in ways that he never had when we were younger. A few years ago, he began sending us letters on Father's Day, telling us how important we are to him. I always open his Father's Day letters with a mixture of gratitude and resignation, because I know that in addition to his now kind of sappy expressions of love there will also be a good amount of preaching. I know he still hopes to bring this strayed lamb back into church, but I guess the bright side is that he won't give up on me.

So, thanks Dad, for the Father's Day gift. We may disagree on many things, but I think we both agree that we love each other.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sexism and the media

In keeping with the idea that Ida B. Wells did not receive her due in part because she was and independent, outspoken women, I'd like to offer up this excellent video by the Women's Media Center:

You can sign a petition to send a message to the media that "Sexism Sells, But I'm Not Buying It!" here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Books, art, and rain

It was that kind of weekend. The Great Basement Flood of '08 is small potatoes compared with the terrible floods in Indiana and elsewhere in the Midwest; I know that. Still, I had been looking forward to the Printer's Row Book Fair and the 57th Street Art Fair in Chicago for weeks, and I really needed to get away from that basement.

Am I glad I did! On Saturday afternoon, Eli and I picked up my sister and her daughter from Park Ridge and drove down to Hyde Park for the 57th Street Art Fair and a chance to use our 20% member's discount at the 57th Street Bookstore. I have a real soft spot for Hyde Park-- that's where Tony and I met and began our lives together. But I also have fond memories of the Art Fair, not least because that's where we discovered Aaron Macsai, the jeweler who would make our wedding rings. And of course, the bookstores. Just as it began to rain, we hit 57th Street Books, and Powells, a terrific used bookstore right across the street from our old apartment (and place where I spent too much money back in the day).

The next day was even more bookish. Eli, my niece and I (my sister had to work) took the train into the city for the Book Fair. First on my agenda was a talk by Paula J. Giddings, the author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions. Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. Her talk, which was being taped for CSPAN (archived on Book TV), was interesting, particularly her observation that Wells' campaign against lynching went unacknowledged or was marginalized in the writings of white and black activists of her time. Giddings noted that the oversights could be explained, in part, by her reputation as a "difficult" woman. She writes,
Wells was certainly that, even when taking into account the double standard applied to assertive, independent women. During the latter period of her life, Wells was more militant than all of the reform figures mentioned above and publicly crossed swords with them...On the other hand, history books are filled with the names of combative and highly individualistic people...I concluded that Wells's legacy was the victim of those same progressive movements of which she was a part. Predominantly white reform organizations could never subscribe to her views about race; those with race-based agendas, sucha s the NAACP, the NACW, and to a lesser extent the Urban League, could not accommodate her views regarding leadership and class.

After the reading and booksigning, I browsed the bookstalls for a few minutes. It was starting to sprinkle when I popped into the poetry tent to join my niece to hear Maxine Kumin's poetry reading. It wasn't long before the sprinkles turned to torrents, and for once a poetry reading was jam-packed. She gamely read on, if a little rattled, as the wind and rain whipped the sides of the tent, and thunder periodically drowned out her words. At some point, soaking fair organizers ran into the tent and called the reading to an end, saying that they would have to turn off the power and get us to a safer place. As I was leaving the tent, I couldn't help but notice that all of the tents had metal spikes in the middle, surely tempting targets for Zeus's lightening bolts.

There was so much that I missed at the book fair: my pal Beth Finke; Chicago Tribune Young Adult Book Prize recipient S.E. Hinton; Marianne Wiggins, who wrote Evidence of Things Unseen, one of my favorite books ever and more recently The Shadow Catcher, which will probably be one of my favorites when I get around to reading it. But all in all, a great bookish weekend.

On the drive home, we had to detour around a section of I-57. The reason, I found out when I got home, was downed power lines due to a tornado touch-down. Enough already!

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Pat Bracewell, a writer friend and reader of this blog sent me a link to her most recent essay, "Circles," in the June issue of Skirt!.

She writes about singing Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" for at her friend's 20th birthday party, and then playing it again for her friends 38 years later. And now, of course, they all have sons and daughters of their own, and the words take on a new meaning. It's a good read, and if you, like us, also have college-age kids, it may even bring a few tears to your eyes.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A day to remember

I love this picture of Barack and Michelle doing a fist bump before his speech in St. Paul. It marks a historic day in American politics, and I can't wait to see them in the White House. (Note to Hillary: you lost. Really. So it's time to admit it and rally your troops around the Democratic nominee.)

But June 3 was memorable, to me anyway, for another reason. I woke up around 3:30 a.m. that morning to a terrific thunderstorm. I made the rounds, closed all the windows, and settled in on the couch beside a very agitated Gracie, who panted and whined until the storm died down. Neither one of us got much sleep. So I was not in a very good state of mind when I got up at 6:45 yesterday morning. And then I found an inch of water in the basement.

A piece of advice: put on rubber boots and rubber gloves before picking up your son's live X-box 360 from an inch of water. Because otherwise you might get a little shock. I speak from experience.

Our main sump pump chose this moment to die (although I guess you wouldn't know if it died when it was dry, would you?) and the valiant little back-up sump pump just couldn't keep up.

So I spent the day cleaning up a big mess (it's still not done). And of course, Tony was in Geneva. We have a joke that some calamity always happens when he's gone, and it's at least partly based in reality. When the girls were toddlers, one of the hoses in our aquarium popped off, pouring 40 gallons of salt water onto the floor. Tony? At Fermilab. When Alison was a little older, she fell down the basement steps. You now where Tony was. Of course, he feels terrible about this, but there you are.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Bird brains

OK, for my pal Sminthia, who has been suffering through my prolonged silence while her DH watches Kung Fu movies (did I get that right?), I have some interesting science-related links:

The first one is New York Science Festival, which I would be attending if I were anywhere nearby. Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and festival organizer, said,
“We all start out as little scientists,” Dr. Greene said, but adults often lose touch with that, which is dangerous. “Science is an element in our lives,” he added. “We need a general public that is willing to engage with the ideas of science.”
That is one of those things that I like to remind myself of when I am writing science books for young people. I really hope that I am inspiring future scientists, or at least kids who are engaged in science.

The other thing is that I just discovered an interesting website, 3quarksdaily, a collection of science, design, current affair, literature, and art. Here is a great video from the blog about the intelligence of crows. I love this:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obama: coolest presidential candidate ever

As evidenced by this picture:

Note the shades, the patrol car in the background, his casual-yet-elegant clothing. And of course, there's the finger holding his place in a book. Other women can swoon over men in uniforms; give me a man who reads any day. And now I have a confession to make: I was contemplating photoshopping in Stella Brite and the Dark Matter Mystery for the book he's really reading (Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, interestingly). But alas, I lack those skills.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


OK, so I had come just THIS close (imagine my thumb and pointer finger poised a millimeter away from each other) from writing farewell, friends and family. A blog suicide, of course, not a real one! It not so much that I had nothing more to write about--although living in Illinois v. Switzerland does remove some of the novelty, doesn't it?--but that there were just too many things that merited comment. How to choose? Current events (aka the primaries and Obama), writing, etc. I felt paralyzed. And when it came to current events, by the time I got around to commenting about something, it was already old news.

But then I finished reading a book titled What I learned about beauty, sex, work, motherhood, going gray, authenticity, and everything else the really matters, by Anne Kreamer. Purchased, dear reader, because I have been considering throwing off the shackles of coloring my hair monthly and going natural (aka gray). And now I think I might have one or two more thoughts to contribute before putting this blog to rest.

The good news is that going gray does not, in general, signal your eminent demise. Unless you live in L.A., unless you are Jamie Lee Curtis, role mode extraordinaire (more about that later) or hold an upper-level managerial post that values, um, experience. Academics and creative types, unless we are trying to sell to Hollywood, are just fine. And as a science writer, I kind of consider myself to straddle both of those fields.

So what bothered me about this book, which is supposed to empower women considering going gray? It's the fact that when she talks about gray-haired women whose look she admires, they are nearly always "slim," or "well-dressed," but usually both.

Well, I'd love to drop about 25 pounds, and I struggle to get dressed when the occasion doesn't call for jeans and a t-shirt. So I have a problem with Kreamer's thesis that gray hair can be awesome if you are slim dress fashionably. But I think I'm pretty fit, even though I can't help but see my mother every time I look in the mirror. So am I doomed to dowdiness?

Still, I think that I am ready to go ahead with this. When I was in Geneva, I noticed a lot of older--well, very old--women who obviously colored their hair. These 85 year old ladies would have chestnut-red hair in their coffins. At some point, sooner rather than later, I decided I would rather just go natural. Cutting my hair short was the first step. I thought it would be easier to transition to gray that way. But eventually I may very well go back to long(ish), because I like that.

So, at least for now, the blog lives. But for long? I don't know. But you've been warned, and I'll keeping checking in on your blogs.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


I flew out to Hartford, CT last week; the plan was that my parents would meet me at the airport a couple of hours after I arrived and we would drive to Smith (at Northampton, MA) to visit daughter Caitlin, and then drive up to Hanover NH to visit my niece Cassie, a first year resident at Dartmouth Medical Center. Well, we eventually got to do all of that, and we had a lovely time, but my planned three hour layover in Chicago and unplanned additional 2.5 wait for Mom and Dad in Hartford gave me lots of reading and working time.

So I started and finished a book that'd I'd been meaning to read for quite some time: the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. Please don't berate this poor former English major for not reading Beowulf until after the movie, which I must say was alternatively entertaining and embarrassingly awful. (Hint: in the book, Grendel's mother bears little resemblance to Angelina Jolie.)

Heaney's translation lived up to its stellar reputation--no surprise. Heaney is my favorite living poet. I was struck by one passage in his translation notes:
...the poet who had first formed my ear was Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a chip off the Old English block, and the earliest lines I published when I was a student were as much pastiche Anglo-Saxon as they were pastiche Hopkins: 'Starling thatch-watches and sudden swallow/ Straight breaks to mud-nest, home-rest rafter" and so on.
Read aloud (and, like Hopkins, much of Beowulf is best read aloud) this passage, describing Grendel's defeat:
He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain,/limping and looped in it. (975-976)
Pure Hopkins; not just for the imaginative choice of words and alliteration, but also for the rhythm and cadence of the poetry. For sheer beauty of language, there are few poets who surpass Hopkins at his best. And so, in celebration of the season which finally, FINALLY, seems to have arrived, from Hopkins' poem Spring:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightenings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Millennium Park, Chicago

Tony and I celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary on Saturday. We celebrated--a day early--by visiting Millennium Park in Chicago and eating out at the terrific MK restaurant. If you go, you MUST have a side order of pommes frites with truffle cream. You will not regret it.

Here's our anniversary portrait in "The Bean" and a shot of Frank Gehry's band shell. I've been to Chicago tons of times since the Park was completed in 2004, but for some reason I'd never had a chance to visit.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dialogue and class differences

One of the things I try really hard to do in in my fiction is pay attention to dialogue, especially dialect and vernacular. Even though my novel in progress takes place in rural Indiana, I find myself re-creating the rural Kansas dialect I grew up with. When I listen to midwestern speakers, I find that the differences are more pronounced between rural versus urban speakers than in, say, Indiana versus Kansas speakers. Believable dialogue reveals loads about the character's class, attitudes, and mood.  

So I was happy to see that there is a prolonged discussion of dialogue over at Through the Tollbooth. It's fascinating and required reading for fiction writers. She provides several links to sites devoted to dialects, including the International Dialects of English Archive from my very own University of Kansas. My favorite sound recording is of a Kansas grave-digger and grave-witcher in his sixties; both for the homey familiarity of his dialect and for the story he tells!

Also worth checking out is the Pop vs. Soda page. I'm pop, by the way. What I really don't understand is the Southern tendency to call carbonated beverages "coke." Especially since, at least in the past, that used to be R.C. Cola territory. Am I right? 

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Weekend in Indy--part 2

I stayed an extra couple of nights in Indy after the race to volunteer for the Obama campaign. On Sunday and Monday, I canvassed for Obama, talking and distributing information to literally hundreds of people. I figure I probably walked at least another half marathon over the course of those two days. (Actually, I recommend a good healthy dose of walking following a distance event; I felt great.)

I had some memorable conversations along the way.

One retired white guy who had previously been an enthusiastic supporter of Obama was now furious over the Wright affair; he said he wouldn't be voting for Hillary or Barack. He went to great pains to assure me that he wasn't a redneck racist, but...well you get the picture.

My last precinct was one of the most rewarding. Largely African-American and relatively poor, nearly every person I talked to was both a supporter of Obama and planning on voting in the primary. With the exception of one old black guy who, with a few front teeth gone AWOL, looked like he'd been around the block more than once. No, he was not registered to vote, but he had plenty of opinions. The main one being, no black man will ever be elected president. First he tried to tell me that the constitution says that the president has to be Caucasian. I assured him that wasn't the case. Then he said that white folks would never accept a black president. I pointed out that I'm white, and that there a whole lot of white folks who feel the same way I do. Then he said that if Obama were elected, he'd just be assassinated. That, I said, was a risk that Barack and Michele had decided to accept. Then he asked me for my Obama pin. I gave it to him, and I could see that even though he doubted that the U.S. had come so far, he harbored some hope that maybe, just maybe, he'd see a black man in the White House.

So you can imagine that I was more than a little obsessed with the primary results on Tuesday evening. And given his big showing in North Carolina, his close second place finish in Indiana looks a lot like a win.

via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A big weekend in Indy--Part 1

I had quite an exciting weekend in Indianapolis! I drove to Indy on Friday afternoon for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon, which many of you know I ran this year to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Thanks to the generous people who responded--and many of you dear readers are among them--I am happy to say that I raised over $2300. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.

At the Team in Training pasta party, we heard from the mother of a young leukemia survivor who talked about how important the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has been in her son's recovery. This was one of many tear-inducing moments that evening. I was really struck then, when that talk was followed by one by a man (I don't remember his name) who had won the Mini-marathon with a time of about 62 minutes in the past and is now working with Team in Training. I know that elite athletes often disparage charity runners, or recreational runners in general, as bringing the sport down. It's a long-standing debate. But here was a guy who was really in the game, looking out at his audience of folks who were pretty fit and not so fit, and he got it. He listened to the Mom who talked about her 5 year old son who had to undergo chemotherapy, and he got it. He surprised the audience and himself, I know, as he teared even as he was talking about this cause. And that? That made me tear up, too.

The weather was perfect for the race; overcast and cool at the beginning, then warming up to maybe the mid-60s and sunny later on. I wasn't really expecting much for my performance--I'd been injured, and hadn't really trained much--and so I wasn't too disappointed with my time. If you want to know what it was, you have to look it up.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"My Beautiful Mommy"

For those of you who thought "Mommy's Visit to the Tattoo Parlor" was an April Fool's Day joke (and I have to admit, I thought it was too, especially since I was the one making it), Newsweek reports that there is a book about Mommy's visit to the plastic surgeon:

"My Beautiful Mommy" is aimed at kids ages four to seven and features a plastic surgeon named Dr. Michael (a musclebound superhero type) and a girl whose mother gets a tummy tuck, a nose job and breast implants. Before her surgery the mom explains that she is getting a smaller tummy: "You see, as I got older, my body stretched and I couldn't fit into my clothes anymore. Dr. Michael is going to help fix that and make me feel better." Mom comes home looking like a slightly bruised Barbie doll with demure bandages on her nose and around her waist.

Doesn't she look really, really pretty and sparkly? The book is self-published by a plastic surgeon wanting to help his "mommy-makeover" patients explain the procedure to their little tykes.

Yes, Johnny, carrying you around in my tummy for nine months, the last of which I thought my skin would break, and nursing you (see Milk Pistols) so long that my breasts came to be on speaking terms with my knees, well, that totally, totally ruined Mommy's body. It's all your fault, and I wouldn't exactly say you're not WORTH it, but Dr. Michael will make it all better.
Now playing: John Mayer - Gravity
via FoxyTunes

Friday, April 18, 2008

I felt the earth move...

Yep, like a whole lot of other Midwesterners, my husband and I were awakened this morning by the floors shaking and the windows rattling. Now for some of you, a 5.2 magnitude earthquake may be just another day in sunny California, for us it was a pretty big deal. The epicenter was in southeastern Illinois, near the Wabash Valley Seismic Zone (which I'd never heard of before) and not the New Madrid fault. Apparently it was felt as far away as Kansas, upper Michigan, and Georgia. I went to the U.S. Geological Survey website to learn more about the quake, where I was intrigued to read, "...earthquakes east of the Mississippi are felt more widely than those in the west."

Now why is that? Do the mountains in the west somehow dampen the tremors so that they can't travel as far? Any thoughts?

In other news, I see Busby and Berkeley, as we have taken to calling our pond ducks, less frequently. I am afraid that she has found another spot to lay her eggs. I was going to take a video of the ducks for your viewing pleasure, but now all I have is an earlier photo of Berkeley, and then the fish wanted to get in on the fun, so here they are:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Safe and Sound gets a shiny silver medallion

My friend and fellow SCBWI-Illinois writer Beth Finke just won an award for her book Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound. She's getting the Henry Bergh Children's Book Award, given out every year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA is flying Beth and Hanni out to Anaheim in June to receive the award at the American Library Association conference. You can learn more about it at Beth's blog.

Congratulations, Beth!

Dark matter

I think it's not an overstatement to say that it's quite a challenge to explain dark matter to elementary school kids. To convey to kids the idea that something like 95% of the universe is this mysterious dark matter and dark energy, I used this:

That's right. The stuff that we can detect--you and I and the world, the stars and planets in the universe--are represented by the colored jelly beans. All the rest? Licorice jelly beans.

The guy at Art Mart was very helpful when I told him I wanted to buy a mixture that was 95% licorice and 5% colored. I told him it was a teaching aid and commented that it must be an unusual request.

"Oh, you'd be surprised," he said.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I'll be playing a bit of blog catch-up today...seems like I've been doing quite a lot of that lately. You'd think from my silence that I don't care about the Jayhawks' win--but I do, I do! Or about Obama's Wright problem, or now his supposed elitism--not true! It's just that, sadly, blogging has taken a back seat to other concerns.

Such as: my visit to Havana. Hola, everyone! No, not that Havana. On Thursday I did a school visit at New Central Elementary in Havana, Illinois. Havana is a nice town of about 4,000, two hours west of Champaign on the Illinois River. They were a great bunch of kids, not to mention the teachers, administrators, and the PTO folks who coordinated everything.

Since most of my published books are about science, I talked about the importance of curiosity and imagination for both scientists and writers. As proof of my childhood imagination, I brought a prop:
Members of my family will remember that I once had a pet tumbleweed. Named Tumbly, of course. (My good imagination did not extend to names, it seems. We also had a pigeon named Pigey, a possum named Possie, I named my calico cat Callie.)

I didn't have my original Tumbly, of course, and tumbleweeds are not common creatures in central Illinois. But of course you can find anything on the internet. Sure enough, I found the Prairie Tumbleweed Farm in Garden City, Kansas. For $15-25 dollars (depending on size), plus shipping and handling, I could have my very own tumbleweed. That seemed a little steep. So I asked my brother Eric, who also lived in Garden City, if he could send me one. And he came through, with not one, but two, and I think you'll agree that he had a good time doing it:

That's right, I got a couple of rescue tumbleweeds. I'm trying to take good care of them. More visuals in the next post.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Milk Pistols

I don't have time to write a thoughtful post about writing or spring (although the ducks are still on the pond!), so to make up for it I give you an ode to breast-feeding by a U.K. all-women punk group called The Mothers. It's called "Milk Pistols," and it's a hoot.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Good news!

I just got email from an editor in response to my query for a new picture book, Mommy's Visit to the Tattoo Parlor. She wants to buy it! Hooray!

I've posted my query letter here in case you'd like to read it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Signs of spring, part 2

I woke up at 6:30 this morning to what sounded like a duck in distress. "Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack..." And on and on. Was there a duck stuck in our backyard fence, maybe? I couldn't see anything from the window, so I put on my bathrobe and went outside to see what was going on. The quack-quacking was clearly coming from the pond. As I got closer, it stopped. And then I saw them: a male and female Mallard duck, swimming around, trying to look innocent. "Quacking? I didn't hear any quacking. Janet, did you hear quacking?"

This is a family blog, so all I'm going to say is that I don't think anybody was in distress. But I hope to see some cute little ducklings paddling around on my pond soon.

I realize I've been neglecting my blog, but these past couple of weeks have been busy. I finished the revisions for Lava Scientists and have nearly all of the photographs rounded up. I think it will be a great-looking book!

Now playing: Mark Knopfler And Emmylou Harris - All the Roadrunning
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Signs of spring

Yesterday my sister--yes, the one with the lovely snowflake tattoo, which I would showcase on my blog if she were to send me a picture of it--said that I seemed to be having writer's block. It's more like blogger's block, but she has a point. Whining about being too busy cuts no mustard with Susan, and with good reason. She knows that I have time to do other things.

Like running with my pal and fellow kids' book writer, Alice. Once a week, through rain, sleet, snow, and sometimes even sunshine, we run in beautiful Meadowbrook Park. Two loops through the park--with a recreated tallgrass prairie and groves of trees, bisected by a creek and featuring sculptures scattered throughout--is four miles and plenty of time to talk about writing, family, and politics.

This morning, we ran in a cool gray misty rain--and everywhere I looked, there were signs of spring. There seemed to be red-winged blackbirds on every other stalk of prairie grass, filling the air with their chirr-chirrs. Pheasants and robins were out in force, and I saw a hawk with a white breast--too large for a red-tailed hawk, it seemed. (I wonder if anybody who might be reading this and taking an ornithology class at Macalester would know what kind of hawk it was.) And then, most surprising, a good-sized crawdad in the middle of the concrete running path. I picked up the confused little guy, his claws waving furiously, and put him back by the nearby creek.

I suppose spring makes everyone a little foolish at times.

When I got back from my run I spotted these snowdrops peeking through the leaves in my front border. Yes, we're all ready for spring.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Yesterday I got back from the Illinois Reading Council's annual conference in Springfield. This is the second time I've attended this conference, geared primarily toward teachers and librarians. Not my immediate audience, but the people who bring my books to my readers--the kids. So it was great to sit with a table of educators--with a centerpiece designed and created by school kids, no less!--to talk about the books they'd like to use in their classrooms. And you know what I heard?

We'd like to see more science integrated with literature.

Well, holy cow. Me too, because these are the kinds of books that I really dug as a kid: science as literature. Here are my two favorite books I read as a kid: My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. And what they had in common was this: a kid on his/her own, dealing with the natural world. And although I read everything placed in front of me as a kid, I can only imagine how much more inspired I would have been about science and literature if I had been given the opportunity to study them at the same time.

So it was so nice to hear teachers say, "Yeah, bring on the science!"

Here is a picture of me with a couple of the teachers at the table, along with the awesome poster designed by kids at the Mt. Olive School:

That was one highlight of my trip. The other highlight was hearing Christopher Paul Curtis give the closing talk at the Saturday luncheon. I was introduced to his books when I was at Lesley, and I thought he was a genius. Now I know that to be true, and he's funny too! ("If you've seen pictures of me before, you know that I look different now. [He used to have dreadlocks; no more.] There's nothing more pitiful than getting out of bed in the morning, only to find that two of your dreads decided to stay in bed.")

But what you need to know about Curtis is that he went straight from high school to putting doors on cars in an assembly line in Detroit, worked there for 13 years, and wrote his debut novel, the astounding and award-winning The Watsons Go to Birmingham after his wife encouraged him to do so.

What I got from CPC--aside from writing inspiration, no small thing--was an idea of how to incorporate my story into my next school visit.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

First lines

Every writer knows how important first lines are. It's the equivalent of having a storyteller pull a chair up real close to to someone, saying, "You ever hear about..."

The reader is your captive. Or so you hope, if you're a good enough storyteller.

Richard Peck did a whole session in last weekend's workshop about opening lines. And while he made the comment that the first chapter should foreshadow the entire book, the opening line is what pulls you in to the first chapter.

The classic perfect first line in children's literature (or perhaps any literature) comes from E.B. White, in Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that axe?"

Where, indeed? And, Papa, WHY?

And so I'm beginning my own mid-week (because there's too many other things to write about on Monday) feature on great opening lines.

Here's one of my recent favorites:
If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close: my careening, zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in God, my collisions with joy and affliction, all of it has come, in one way or another, out of that moment on a summer morning when the left rear tire of a United States postal jeep ground my tiny head into the hot gravel of the San Carlow Apache Indian Reservation. -- The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall.
I'm hooked...are you?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Richard Peck wisdom

I'm still recovering from this weekend's Richard Peck writer workshop. We had a great turnout, and I heard lots of comments that this was one of the best workshops they'd attended. What a relief!

Richard was terrific. I've long admired his writing (A Long Way From Chicago; A Year Down Yonder; and A River Between Us being some of my favorites) but a good writer is not necessarily a good teacher. In Richard's case, those qualities exist happily within the same body.

I'm not going to write a summary of everything he said, but he suggested one technique that I found especially intriguing. When you are writing a scene, block it out, as if you are directing a play. Stand up, move around the room, speak for your characters. (Don't do this in Starbucks.) I will often speak dialogue to myself while writing, but I tend to do it in my chair, in front of my computer. I'm interested to see how blocking will help me in writing scenes.

Richard was kind enough to pose for a picture with me:

Now playing: Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova with Marja Tuhkanen and Bertrand Galen - This Low
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Virtual Barber Shop

What with getting ready for the Richard Peck workshop this weekend (which I think will be awesome, and I'll blog about it when it's over), raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through their Team in Training program (click here if you're interested in contributing to a great cause and helping me meet my fundraising goal), and working on revisions and getting photo permissions for the Volcano Scientists book, I haven't had much time to blog. But I just had to give you a heads-up for one of the coolest auditory illusions I've ever heard: The Virtual Barbershop.

Listening to it, you feel as though you are in a barber's chair, with the barber moving around you, clipping away at your hair. The illusion demonstrates our ability to locate sounds in space; by comparing the inputs to the two ears, we can work out where a sound is coming from. You'll need to listen with headphones:

Aren't you glad it wasn't the virtual dentist?

I discovered this and four other auditory illusions on The New Scientist's web exclusive, part of their special music issue. I've been interested in auditory illusions for years, since I went to a talk by Diana Deutsch, who studies the perception and memory for sounds and has discovered a number of musical illusions and paradoxes. I think that this kind of stuff would make for a great kids' book--but it would have to be accompanied by a CD. I wonder if anybody would be interested. Hmmm.

Now playing: Sam Moore with Wynonna, BeBe Winans & Billy Preston - I Can't Stand the Rain
via FoxyTunes