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