Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ellsworth of Chincoteague

Winchester, we're going to play a game.

Oh, boy! Are we going to play Chase the Crumpled Aluminum Foil Ball? Or Hunt the Mousie? What about my favorite game--Dig the Carpeted Stairs Then Run When The Writer Yells?

We're going to dress up and act like our favorite children's book character.

That doesn't sound like much fun.

Sure it is. Can you guess who I am?

Let's see . . . you've got string on your head. You're Miss Hickory the Mop.

That's not string! That's my mane and tail. I'm Misty of Chincoteague. Now I'm galloping over the dunes, making pony noises. Whinny-whinny, neigh-neigh, nicker-nicker.

I don't really have to play this lame game, do I?

Yes, you do. I want to see who you pick.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Paws for Reading

Winchester, The Writer has a new job for you.

I'm already a star. What more does she want from me?

The other day The Writer was in the library. She saw some dogs in the children's room. They were lying on the floor and children were reading books to the dogs! One boy leaned against a boxer as big as a sofa. The dog was listening to the boy's story. The Writer found out the dogs weren't ordinary dogs. They were part of a program called Paws for Reading. These specially-trained therapy dogs go into classrooms, school libraries, public libraries, even homes to help improve the literacy skills of children.

So what's the big deal?

Well, according to the National Assessment of Education Programs, kids who don't read for fun generally have lower reading scores than those who do. Some children are intimidated by reading aloud in a group. They are more willing to interact with an animal than a person. When they read to a dog, they forget about their limitations. School Library Journal has an interesting article on how children who were reading below grade level brought their scores up and enjoyed reading by being paired with a reading dog.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a dog.

That's the best part! You can be the first Paws for Reading cat! You and I will practice. There are even books I can read to you, like Three Stories You Can Read to Your Cat and Three More Stories You Can Read to Your Cat, by Sara Swann Miller, with really cute illustrations by True Kelley. I may become a Reading Stuffed Animal. There is a book called Three Stories You Can Read to Your Teddy Bear by that same writer and illustrator.

How does this reading gig work?

I pick out a book and read it to you. When I say "The End," your handler gives you a treat.

Now you're talking! Start reading!

"Once upon a time there were three bears. Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. One day they went for a walk . . ." Oops, I missed a word. I'll start over. "Once upon a time there were three bears. Mama Bear and Baby Bear . . ." I messed up again. I'll start over. "Once upon--"

You'll never get to the end! You're doing this on purpose so I won't get my treat! I quit!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Writing Monday

The Writer wants all writers out there to repeat this phrase: Location, location, location. No, she's not talking about the setting of your book. She's talking about where you write your book. For the last 26 years, The Writer has worked in a home office--usually a converted bedroom. It's good to have a place that is just for your work with a door you can shut to keep out family distractions.

You mean cats.

That's why The Writer has a steel door on her office with a deadbolt. Anyway, this set-up has worked fine until last year when The Writer found herself overwhelmed with office work in her own office. E-mail, the phone, papers, school work, books, research material. No matter how often she cleaned out the clutter, it was all too distracting. So she left her office. She moved downstairs to the study, set up her laptop on a TV tray, and was able to concentrate on her current project.

She got this idea from a book called Chapter after Chapter by Heather Sellers. Sellers writes: "Moving a book-in-progress is like fluffing the pillows or shaking out your pockets or cleaning out the junk drawer. Next time you're stuck, move." Since reading that The Writer has also driven to a nearby park and sat in the parking lot to work. Being office-bound is sometimes counterproductive to creativity.

The Writer still reads books about how to write books?

Yes. It doesn't matter how many books a person has written--she can always learn more. It's an evolving process.

Evolving, my paw. You're telling me that The Writer doesn't really know what she's doing! I knew that all along.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Winchester Is Cured

Ooooh. I'm still so sick from this computer virus. All I can do is lie around. And maybe eat a little chicken fricasee.

You shouldn't eat solid food. I have the very thing for you.

Ellsworth, can you cure me?

Yes. I made you some chicken broth.

I've never heard of chicken broth. What part of the chicken does it come from?

The whole chicken. I took a chicken and squeezed really hard. What came out is chicken broth.

Ewwww! Water from a wrung out chicken! No way am I touching that stuff! I feel much better!

I told you I could cure you. Heheheh.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Winchester Writes His Will

The hospital threw me out because I was there one minute longer than the allowed twenty-three hours and 59 minutes. But I'm still sick with the computer virus. I'm not going to make it. Goodbye, cruel world...

Wait! You haven't settled your affairs yet.

Wow, you came out of nowhere. Who are you?

Your lawyer.

I didn't know I had a lawyer.

Everyone has a lawyer.

Like everyone has an angel?

Except that angels don't bill by the hour. Who is your beneficiary? Who are you going to leave your all your money and stuff to?

I haven't thought about it. I've been so sick...

In that case, leave it all to me. Here's your last will and testament. Sign, please.

I have a feeling you are definitely not my angel.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Winchester Goes to the Hospital

Nurse Ellsworth! I'm so feverish. Bring me a cold cloth for my forehead.

Mr. Winchester, my chart says cold cloths are not covered by your insurance. Chew on an ice cube instead. Ice cubes will cost you twenty dollars.

Twenty dollars for ice cubes! What kind of a hospital is this?

Be glad we had a bed for you. A lot of sick cats are in the hall because they don't have insurance.

Will you shut up about insurance already? I'm so sick from this awful computer virus. Give me another pill. And maybe a filet mignon.

It's not time for a pill yet, Mr. Winchester. But it is time for me to take your temperature.

Oh, no! Not that again! You know, I'm feeling a teeny bit better. I think my fever is down.

In that case, your insurance requires you to get out of bed and go home.

Ooooooooh. My computer virus is coming back. Nurse Ellsworth, take my pulse . . . and don't tell me my insurance doesn't cover it!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Winchester Catches a Computer Virus

Winchester, did you hear? The Writer's computer had a virus. The Writer's husband worked for two whole days and two whole nights to get rid of it.

What's a virus?

It's like a germ, a teensy, tiny nasty little bug that makes you very, very sick.

Is it catching? I don't feel so good.

That's because you got in the garbage last night and ate leftover barbequed chicken.

No, I have that computer virus. Oh, Ellsworth, I'm soooo sick. What am I gonna do?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Writing Monday Plus an Interview

It's Monday again, which means The Writer will talk about writing. But first, she wants to tell everybody about her interview in The Edge of the Forest. It's a really good interview.

Am I in it?

Yes. There's a picture of me and one of you.

I see it! I look so debonaire!

Don't forget the camera adds 10 pounds. Now, today's writing topic is journaling. The Writer was never a good journaler. The diary she kept as a kid is incredibly boring ("Got up. Went to school.") In grad school she often wrote journals for certain classes, so she began keeping journals regularly. She has several. One is a general work journal. She does her whining here. Also talks to herself about her career in general, her schedule, what she wants to do next. She even records her dreams.

She also keeps separate journals for major projects. Right now she has three different book journals going. She can't work on these books every day, but the journals help her stay in touch with the book and record her thoughts before they disappear. When she is deeper into a project, she also writes letters to the main character. Gradually the letters take the place of the journal.

The best thing about journals, she says, is that they are portable. You may not feel like lugging a laptop around, but you can always slip a notebook in your purse or pocket. When you go back home, you can transfer those entries into the appropriate journals. Journaling is a great habit to get into.

This poem is from The Writer's friend Connie. Thanks, Connie!

What's In My Journal by William Stafford, from Crossing Unmarked Snow

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone's terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

Okay, enough about that stuff. Be sure to read all about me in that interview. Who is that strange cat in the picture of The Writer?

Maybe your replacement?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Winchester's Snowcat

Winchester! Did you just come in from outside?

Yes, and look what I made! A snowcat! Isn't it cool? Get it? Snow, cool?

You aren't supposed to go outdoors. How did you get out?

Checked the dryer vent lately?

You couldn't get in that vent if you greased your whole body with butter! How did you do it?


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Real Winter Weather!

Winchester! It's snowing! Our first real snow of the winter. Isn't it pretty?

Wow, look at those flakes! I hope it snows for days and days and it gets really deep.

You don't want the snow to get too deep or else The Writer won't be able to go out and get you more cat food.

Oh, right. Well, just deep enough to make a snowcat. And you can make a snow-elephant.

You aren't allowed outside, remember?

You're spoiling the whole winter thing! I'll find a way to make a snowcat. You wait!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More on ALA

Yesterday some kidlit bloggers posted about the books they are most looking forward to this year. The Writer saw a lot of books at ALA that she wanted to read, but this book is the one she simply can't wait for.
The Writer happens to be a nerd--

This is news? Tell me something I didn't already know.

--a children's book nerd. The Writer doesn't just read children's books. She especially loves books about children's books. She began collecting books on children's literature when she was 21 and saw a copy of Children and Books at a yard sale. She bought the textbook for $1 and from then on, she has bought every book--new and old--about children's literature she can get her sticky little hands on.

So at ALA when everyone was oohing and aahing over this book or that, The Writer saw a poster for a new book by Leonard Marcus, who is living the life The Writers wants to hijack. Leonard Marcus has written about Margaret Wise Brown, Ursula Nordstom, and other books about children's writers and illustrators. He gets to wallow in research about these great people and The Writer is deeply envious. She can't wait to get a copy of Minders of Make-Believe.

What else did The Writer do at ALA?

She went to the Reading Terminal Market, this fabulous market with all kinds of wonderful food. Everywhere she looked there were people selling oysters and ducks and steaks and homemade pasta and bread--

Now you're talking! What did The Writer buy? A thick juicy lamb chop?

You know The Writer doesn't eat red meat. Actually she bought a piece of art. A small framed German paper cutting of two children and four rabbits.

She was in a place with a ton of food and meat and she bought a picture? The Writer isn't just a nerd. She's certifiable.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Back from ALA!

The Writer came dragging back from the ALA convention in Philadelphia last night. She says her feet and legs still hurt from walking the convention floor three days. But she loved the show! It was so exciting to see the new books and listen to various discussions. A lot of people were interested in her Time Spies series.

Did she mention me?

Yes, she showed people a purse she made that has pictures of you and me in it. Everyone said you are really cute. If only they knew the truth.

One of the best things The Writer did was go to a meeting in which teenagers talked about young adult books published in 2007. The meeting starting with a surprise speaker, Kareem Adbul-Jabbar. As a child growing up in Harlem, the library was very important to him. When he left the room, his head almost touched the high doorframe. He is really tall!

The Writer noticed that most of the teen girls liked books about people that were dead or dying. At first The Writer thought those girls were morbid little creatures, but then she remembered that she loved to read books where somebody died. She would read the part about Beth's death in Little Women just so she could have a good cry.

Her favorite sob book was The Abandoned by Paul Gallico. It was about a little boy who wanted a kitten but his parents wouldn't let him have one. He runs out in front of a car to save a kitten and is hit. He becomes a dirty little kitten (though he is really in a coma) who is befriended by a street cat named Jenny. Jenny teaches him to survive. The boy loves Jenny more than anything. Then she is gets into a fight and dies. The boy/kitten is grief-stricken and at this point, The Writer was always a blubbering mess on the sofa. The boy comes out of the coma and his parents get him a kitten. But he never forgets Jenny . . .

Sniff, snuffle. That is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

That's the power of books! They make us feel all emotions. Tomorrow The Writer will tell us more about her trip to ALA.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Envelope, Please

This month everyone is focused on the Newbery, Caldecott, and other children's book awards from the American Library Association. We will all know Monday, January 14 who the 2008 winners are! Meanwhile, The Writer and I want to discuss our favorite awards. And we'll finish with Winchester's award for--what else?--his favorite cat food.

The Gryphon award is one a lot of people don't know about. It is for the title (and honor titles) that "best exemplifies those qualities that successfully bridge the gap in difficulty between books for reading aloud to children and books for practiced readers. The Gryphon award was conceived as a way to focus attention an area of literature for youth that, despite being crucial to the successful transition of new readers to independent lifelong readers, does not get the critical recognition it deserves."

The award is sponsored by the Center for Children's Books at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The Writer is particularly interested in promoting the needs of transitional readers and is delighted that an award for those books exists.

As for the Newbery, The Writer has often found her favorite books are chosen as honors, not the winner. The Hundred Dresses was an honor book (1945), as was Misty of Chincoteague (1948), and, clearly a case of someone dropping the ball, Charlotte's Web (1953). The Writer was heartbroken in 1981 when her favorite book of the year, The Fledgling, was chosen as an honor instead of getting the gold. She enjoyed Jacob Have I Loved, but Katherine Paterson already had a Newbery. Years later, The Writer became good friends with a librarian. She learned that this friend chaired the Newbery committee in 1981. The Writer told this friend, well, never mind what she said. But if you give The Writer a sheet of Newbery seals, she won't stick them on her own books. She'll put them on every copy of Jane Langton's The Fledgling she can find.

Is it my turn?

Yes. Are you peeking through that blindfold?

No! I can't make up my mind. I think I need another taste of all these kinds of cat food.

The Writer will be off to ALA Midwinter tomorrow. She'll be back with a full report next week!

Maybe a little more of the one in the yellow bag . . .

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Winchester's New Bed

Winchester, how come you're still in bed?

The Writer bought me this new bed. I had a miserable night.

Hee-hee-hee! It is a little small.

What was The Writer thinking? I guess it's like when she tries on a dress in a size four when she's really a size--

Or it's like you trying to squeeze in a place your whiskers can pass through, but the rest of you can't.

Is there an ejector button on this thing?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Spring in January!

It is 77 degrees here in Virginia today! Yesterday it was almost as warm. The Writer saw a few robins. And she found this robin's nest in the pear tree. It has some ribbon woven in it and there is a separate "nestlet" built on the side, like a mother-in-law apartment. Isn't it the sweetest thing? Winchester, did you ever wonder how birds weave nests with only their beaks and feet?

It's not that hard. I've done it myself.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Writing Monday

Hey! How come there isn't a picture of me being my cute self today?

We don't need to see your big mug every day, Winchester. The Writer and I were talking about the blog. We've decided to add a new feature: Writing Monday. The blog post will be about different aspects of writing children's books.

One thing The Writer is asked a lot is where she gets her ideas. She always jokes that she has more ideas than she'll ever have time to make into books. The Writer's biggest problem isn't where to find ideas, but how to keep other book ideas from intruding on the current project. She has idea files and notebooks salted all over her office--scraps of paper with a cryptic word or two, some a few sentences, a character sketch, etc.

In her book Chapter after Chapter, Heather Sellers says you can't save ideas. They turn into ashes. Ideas must be acted upon, not tucked in files. This theory works for those who are having trouble getting started writing a book. But what about writers who work steadily on projects with very little "free" time between? Ideas will come at the most inconvenient times. They hover and pester. They are seductive. They want your attention now and, if you've been working a long time on the current project, they can lure you away. Sellers addresses that issue too, by stating to turn away from those glimmering, new ideas. But if you can't, if the new idea is so tempting and wonderful, then devote a single day--no more--to exploring that idea. Run with it down the road as long as you come back the same day.

The Writer has been doing that for some time. She develops the new ideas as far as she can to a) see if there really is a book there, and b) accomplish some of the spadework so when she returns to it, she can start at a more exciting place. It is true that a single small idea cannot be preserved for a long time. But if that idea has been explored, with notes taken and resources listed. Maybe write down why you were so enthralled with the idea originally. And also write down what you were doing when the idea hit. There may be a connection.

Is that it? That's the post for today? Bor-ing. See you tomorrow!

Maybe. Remember, Winchester, you are not indispensible.

Friday, January 4, 2008

One Hundred Years Ago

The Writer and her husband had a discussion this morning. The Writer, who longs to go back to the early 1900s, talked about what people did for entertainment back then. They played the piano and sang, kicked back the carpet and danced, or played games. Word games like Nouns and Adjectives or acting games like charades and dumb-crambo. The Writer has read memoirs from those days. People did things together and that's what made them memorable. Who's going to remember playing their iPod or some computer game?

Nouns and Adjectives? Dumb-crambo? The Writer is clearly living in a fantasy world. Nobody wants to play anything so stupid. Give me a catnip mouse and I'm good to go.

Her point is that people did things as a community, not isolated in front of electronic screens like today. Her husband said the people back then didn't have any choice. It was play dumb-crambo or nothing. If somebody gave them an iPod, they might have chosen that instead. Then The Writer got all mad because she can't argue with logic since she doesn't have any. But if she gets a chance to go back to 1908, she's leaving!

Well, I'm not. I bet the cat food back then was horrible.

Why are you here anyway? Only I'm supposed to be in this picture with the 1908 magazine edited by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When The Writer snapped the picture, you were in it!

Heh heh heh

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Writer Graduates!

Winchester, what are you wearing?

Some robe thing I found in the closet. I think I'll take a nap on it.

That "robe thing" is the hood from The Writer's graduation ceremony in 2004 when she earned an M.F.A. in writing for children from Vermont College.

In all the fuss with the holidays, The Writer's second graduation came and went. She received her diploma right before Christmas. It says she has a Master of Arts in Children's Literature from Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virginia. She worked very hard for this degree. She will attend commencement this May.

What's all that other stuff you've got?

The Writer had the bear made in 2005, when she first started school. She hoped she would finish in 2007 and she did! The class ring is a present from The Writer's husband. And the black book is her bound thesis. It's a memoir, her life from age 3 to 11.

That great big thick book is about nine years of her life? Who does she think she is? Henry Kissinger?

If you had to do a thesis, what would you write about?

The history of cat food, of course. With lots of research!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

Winchester, it's the first day of 2008! These old postcards are 100 years old today. So what are your New Year's resolutions?

I don't know. What's a resolution?

It's a promise you make to yourself about how you will change your life. For example, The Writer's New Year's resolution is to lose 20 pounds.

She said that last year. Only it was 15 pounds. If she broke her promise last year, she'll probably do it again this year.

Well, you're supportive. So what's your resolution?

To eat even more. I'm going to eat constantly, all day, every single solitary chance I get. What's your resolution, Short Stuff?

I'm no dummy. I don't make resolutions.