24 February 2012

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

I've really been enjoying the weekly conference challenges on the SCBWI MD/DE/WV "As the Eraser Burns" website:

You read my 30-minute-terrible-picture-book in response to the first weekly challenge, and I posted my pitch for the second week's challenge as a comment on the "As The Eraser Burns" blog.

This week, I'm playing catch-up and tackling weeks three and four at once:

Challenge #3 was to write a poem.  I used to love writing poetry (I even won a couple of awards and got 2 poems accepted into an anthology when I was in high school), but I put that away when I graduated.  For some reason, I told myself that grown-ups don't express themselves through poetry... or maybe I just thought my poetry was too juvenile.

Either way, I've been itching to pick up my poetry notebook again in recent months.  The main character in my current novel is a poet, though she's too shy to share her writing with anyone.  Of course, stepping into her shoes on a daily basis as I write made me want to be a poet again.  I wanted to give Alaina's poems a chance to be heard.  So I was excited to see this challenge. 

I don't know if it's what they expected when they issued the challenge, but I stepped into Alaina's shoes and wrote a poem.

The world outside my window
is dull and brown.

A single sparrow flutters
on a bare branch.

Then, the fog rolls in and earth
is a new place.

I open my door and step
out into Heaven.

That was fun!  I've missed writing poetry, and since I still have trouble expressing my poetic side in my own grown-up voice, I think I may step into Alaina's skin again in the future to write another verse or two...

Challenge #4 (this week's challenge) was much more scary.  The challenge was for writers to illustrate and illustrators to write.  I imagine that it wasn't as challenging for the illustrators, because most artists I know are inherent storytellers, but for me, this was a little beyond terrifying.  I always say that I write because I have an artistic mind, but not a single artistic bone in my hands.  But I promised myself I'd fulfill every challenge, so illustrate I must.  The challenge: draw a portrait of your main character.

Before I could take up my story pencil and apply it to drawing paper instead of my comfortable spiral notebook, I made my artist husband promise that he would draw a real picture of Alaina that I can post on the blog - so people will know what she's supposed to look like.  (He said he will.  That picture should be coming soon - I hope!) 

My picture turned out better than I thought it would, so I'm excited.  Maybe I do have one artistic bone in my hand after all :)
This terrifying challenge went so well (it only took me about 2 hours to draw that picture!).... I'm thinking I might be able to face some other fears as well.  Perhaps I'll even finish writing that dreaded synopsis I've been putting off...

17 February 2012

When is a Child Old Enough to Make His Own Choices?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about choices, and the consequences associated with them.  More specifically, how much should parents control the choices their children make?  How do we know when they’re ready to choose for themselves?

I have a friend who has a strict rule in her house: Any TV show, movie or book where the main character is significantly older than her child is strictly off limits.  The music of current teen pop stars is similarly banned.  She has a valid reason for this rule.  “My children aren’t ready to deal with the issues older kids are facing, and they shouldn’t be trying to emulate those characters.  And so many of the actors and pop stars grow up to make such bad decisions. I don’t want my children to think that’s okay.”

Another friend recently confided in me about some troubles she’s having with her son.  “He’s always been such a good child.  He never fought or questioned me when I told him to do something.”  Unfortunately, this young man was so well-practiced in the art of following without question that he began to let some questionable friends make his decisions for him.  Now, he’s facing some serious heartache as a consequence of his actions. 

So the question of parental protection from choice was already on my mind when I received a message from my Aunt.  My thirteen-year-old son had sent her a friend request on facebook, and she wanted to make sure I was okay with it before accepting.  She wrote: “I don't say anything I'm ashamed of, however I don't always speak Disney. That's why I wanted it to be your call.”

I agonized over the decision for about a week, going back and forth on the issue time and again.  She’s correct in her assessment of her posts: she often touches on issues that a child in the middle of the Disney age range shouldn’t have to deal with. However, her daily thoughts and insights on the beauty of life and love are truly inspirational.   Should I explain to my son that, while his Aunt loves him dearly, it would be better to wait for a while before officially “friending” her online?  When is a child grown up enough to start thinking about love and relationships and sex and alcohol and the pros and cons of going out clubbing vs. staying home, curled up by the fire with a good book?  At thirteen years old, my son is definitely not ready to be doing any of those things.

I thought about my friend with the rule about limiting the media her children are exposed to, as I contemplated my Aunt’s message: “By the way, it's your comfort level I'm concerned with, not mine. Kids today watch TV, see cable, have access to the Internet. It was much easier to protect and raise sheltered children when mine were babies than it is now.” 

She’s right.  It’s tough to raise sheltered children these days.  Questionable influences abound in every aspect of our lives.  Mom and Dad aren’t the venerated sources of wisdom that they used to be. 

So the question is: Do we tighten our grip and invest in high-tech content filters to control the things they see and hear as much as possible?  Do we choose their friends and closely supervise every social interaction?  At what age do we allow our children to start taking some responsibility for themselves?

Finally, my husband pointed out that I was making the issue much more complicated than it had to be.  It all boiled down to two simple questions:

Is my son old enough to experience the same things my Aunt talks about in her status updates?  Absolutely not. 

Is he old enough to be thinking about such things?  Of course!

My son is only 13 years old.  He’s not ready to go out into the world (virtual or otherwise) completely on his own.  But he’s not on his own.  I’m here, ready to act as a decision consultant whenever he has questions.  If I don’t allow him to begin thinking about the issues he’ll face as he grows up now, when I’m here to guide and direct and discuss the choices and consequences with him, how will he be ready to make the right decisions when he’s old enough to encounter more grown-up issues?  How will he learn to choose if I don’t give him the (supervised) freedom to do so?

The hardest part about being a mother is watching your child stumble and fall, knowing that you have the power to protect him from most of the pain and trouble he faces.  But just as a toddler can’t learn to walk until his mother stops carrying him in her arms, a teenager can’t learn to be an adult if he never learns to make grown-up decisions.

What do you think?  Is there a set age when children should be allowed to think about “grown-up” issues?  How (and how much) should parents protect and control the choices their children make?

10 February 2012

Accepting the Challenge: Failing Fearlessly

If you know me, then you know I'm generally not afraid of making a fool of myself for the amusement and entertainment of others.  I love a challenge.  I love the way crazy challenges force me to come up with new and creative ways to do things.  Sometimes, I even set outrageous challenges for myself, just to see if I can do it.

When they announced that they'd be handing out an award for "Most Creative Costume" at our church Halloween party, I pulled out rolls of sparkly gold fabric and PVC pipe and turned myself into a "Trophy Wife."  Even though I was still recovering from my brain surgery and quite puffy from the steroids, the chance to get a laugh from friends and family was enough to make me climb up onto that pedestal!

A few years ago, when my youngest daughter outgrew her toddler bed and needed a regular-sized bed, I decided to build one for her, rather than buying one.  Though I'd never built anything more complicated than a bookshelf, I didn't even hesitate before pulling out my power tools and getting to work.  The playhouse/loft bed that resulted was amazing, if I do say so myself!

When I got an invitation to participate in a chili cook off last year, and the rules stated that certain ingredients were banned from the competition, I proudly pulled out my crock pot and created a chili recipe to include every single one of the banned ingredients.  I entered my "Disqualification Chili" into the competition and received rave reviews!

I'm always up for a challenge, even when it means making a complete fool of myself, trying something I've never done before, or risking the scorn of others, who might not agree with my creative interpretation of the rules. 

Except when it comes to my writing.

That's when I hide away in my little corner of the world and cringe and cower and totally channel George McFly: "What if they tell me get outta here, kid, you've got no talent? I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection."  Why? Because all those other things don't really matter.  It's okay if I fail epically at something that's just a hobby or something completely silly.  But I've always wanted to be a writer, and what if.... what if.... what if????

That's why I was so grateful to see this challenge on the SCBWI MD/DE/WV blog

We want you to fail.
And when we say fail, we mean FAIL EPICALLY. Epically, totally, and completely.
Write a short, picture book rough draft that is the epitome of your every fear. Cliche characters. Senseless plot. Ridiculous story line. Stuff that would make an editor absolutely cringe and share it with the rest of the office for a good giggle. Let your hair down. Embrace your fear of failure and run with it.
Go crazy. Get nuts. Don’t think!
And . . . you only have thirty minutes. Anything more than that and you’ll start thinking too much. You’ll over-analyze. You’ll let those nagging fears in the back door.
For example, here’s the title of my Epically Horrible Picture Book:
The Epic Adventures of Ricky the Road Kill Rattlesnake.
(I know, awesome, right?)

Fail on purpose?  And in a crazy way, so that if someone laughs at the silly story I write, I can smile because I want them to laugh?  Oh yeah.  Challenge accepted!!

So this morning, I set my timer for 30 minutes and wrote the worst picture book I could.  No meter or rhythm.  Forced rhymes.  No plot.  Boring character.  And it was fun!!  I'll let you enjoy my Epic Failure while I go tackle the next challenge.  If you want to accept the challenge and write a 30-minute picture book, I'd love to see it too.  Feel free to post the story (or a link) in the comments - remembering please that this is a family-friendly website. :)

Once upon a time,
There was a girl named Clara, who liked to rhyme.

Whenever she spoke with her friends,
She made sure her sentences had rhyming words on the ends.

Everyone thought Clara was clever and witty,
But though she could rhyme, she couldn't read, which was a pity.

One day, Clara decided to do something fun.
She wanted an adventure, a day in the sun.

(Never mind that the sky was cloudy and grey,
She wanted sunshine, so she would find a way.)

Clara boarded a crosstown bus.
The driver could take her to the beach, she thought, without any fuss.

If Clara could read, she wouldn't have made her grave mistake.
If only she knew how to read the signs, she would have known which bus to take.

Clara did not get to play at the beach.
The sand and waves were hopelessly out of reach.

Instead, she found herself stuck at the end of the bus route.
In a parking lot, full of buses, Clara wandered, but she couldn't find her way out.

All through the day, Clara searched the buses for the one
That would take her from the dreary lot to a place that was much more fun.

She searched and searched, but she couldn't find the bus that she sought.
"If only I could read these signs," she thought, "it would help an awful lot!"

When nighttime fell, poor Clara, still lost, started to despair.
"I'll never get home, and I miss my mommy.  Doesn't anybody care?"

Suddenly, a kindly stranger took Clara by the hand.
He helped her find the proper bus, because he was such a nice man.

As Clara rode away, she thought, "This day was such a waste!
I should've taken time to plan.  I skipped that in my haste!"

But now Clara is home, tucked into bed, safe and sound indeed.
And her next adventure will be much more fun, because by then, she'll have learned to read!

(Return to my list of "just for fun" stories)

04 February 2012


In honor of African American History month, I thought I'd recommend a book I received recently:
Perspectives on the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Milestone of the Civil Rights Movement by Katie Marsico.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, unknowingly setting off the spark that led to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.  With an in-depth look at the people and events surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Marsico provides young readers with a deeper understanding of this one small incident, and the role it played in the larger Civil Rights Movement.  Citing interviews with those involved, as well as news articles, police reports and legal documents of the time period, Marsico explores the perspectives on both sides of this volatile issue.  Marsico carefully presents the facts of the events in a fair and unbiased manner, so that readers can truly understand the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement.  A detailed bibliography and list of resources for further study will lead the reader to discover much more about the movement than he (or she) ever knew before. 

I didn't know, until I read this book, that Rosa Parks wasn't the first black person in Montgomery, Alabama to stand up to a bus driver when ordered to give up her seat to a white passenger.  I didn't realize she was deliberately chosen to be the face of the boycott.  I didn't realize that the organizers of the boycott originally weren't seeking to spark a nationwide movement toward civil rights.  They simply wanted fair treatment on the public transportation in their own city!  The wonderful thing about it all is that they didn't back down.  They didn't give up when the going got tough.  They kept moving forward, in the face of great persecution and threats to their personal safety, and because of their courage, the world is a little bit better today.

Here's to all the heroes - black, white, green and purple - who have the courage each day to stand up in the face of prejudice and bigotry.  Here's to all the heroes - famous or not - who stand up tall and proclaim: "We are all children of the same Heavenly Father.  We are all immensely valuable to Him.  And as heirs to our Father in Heaven, we all deserve to be treated with love, respect and kindness.  Superficial qualities are not important, because the Lord doesn't look on appearances.  He sees who we are inside!"