How do you keep 40 Kindergartners from wiggling?

Read to them.

Yes. It’s true. I LOVE author visits. I love the rising terror of seeing 40 five year olds get restless and wondering, “Oh no, what should I do?” I love turning the tables on them and listening to them for a change. I love getting them up to sing a song about pancakes or miming the making and eating pancakes with them.

Thanks to the Writer’s League of Texas program called Project Wise, Austin authors can do school visits and get paid for them. It’s truly win-win for everyone

Last week, I went to Andrews Elementary. After I was done reading Snuggle Mountain, I told them the story of how it got made, including and especially the Inspiration Story. Every book has an inspiration story, I tell them, so when an author comes to your school and asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” I raise my hand and say, “Ms Author, what was the inspiration for your book?” We practiced that a couple of time. (Author pals, I hope they ask you and I hope that you are telling some great inspiration stories.)

When I was done with my presentation, I still had 20 minutes left. Gulp. They’re wiggling and I’m nervous. What to do? One of the classes had brought in a book they had written and illustrated from a mash-up off African folktales. I asked if I could read their newest, hottest of the press book, The Great Abiyoyo. They were tickled. I was thrilled. They chanted the chorus every time I got to it. It was a blast.

If those kids like books and authors a little bit more from that visit, then I did my job.

On Spring and School Visits

The lambiness of March is upon us. Or so it is said. But we still have the cruelest month to come. In New England, April was often quite cruel with snow storms landing on top of crocus and daffodil, as if winter was reaching up from the dead to pull us back under. In Texas in April, temperatures can freakishly spiral into the 90’s giving us a dreadful taste of what is yet to come.

Spring also brings school visits, something I truly love to do.

I love reading Snuggle Mountain. I love telling the story of how it got made. I love their questions. I love this little boy in the audience yesterday who put his hands to his ears and started humming when the book got scary. (I am very dramatic and I heighten the suspense of the two headed giant and the sleeping spell.) So he went over to snuggle with one of his teachers—a very wise little guy. At the end of the book, I checked in with him. Did it turn out okay? He nodded. Then, when I was telling the story of how the book got made, I told everyone that my first draft, my sloppy copy, which I show in the powerpoint, was too scary. It needed to be snugglier. I looked at that little sweetie who, in my estimation, was very brave to show that he was scared and asked him, “Did I make it snugglier?”

Big, head nodding yes.

On the Reading Table-Hard Love

Writing is an act of faith. We sit in our homes, offices and huts, alone, creating worlds with people, problems and emotions. We tell stories and hope, hope, hope they mean something to someone. Then we take a break and we read. (For me, this is like permission to go out to recess.) If you are a writer, you must read. Why? Because we need to know how other writers created their worlds. It informs how we create ours. And for me, sometimes, when I read certain books, they sustain me in my act of faith because the fabric that writer wove is similar in texture, weight and truth to the one I would like to create. Such was my experience with Ellen Wittlinger‘s Hard Love–a beautiful story about about a boy whose first love is a hard love because the girl, Marisol, is a lesbian. That sentence reduces story way too much because what Wittlinger does is create a finely textured and truthfully woven world from the point of view of John, a young ‘zine writer who’s in that awkward teenage place of hating the world he was born into and not sure in which world he belongs.

I probably would have come to this book eventually but the reason I purchased it at Half Price Books was because my friend Varian Johnson said it was THE book which helped him know that he wanted to be a young adult writer. I can see why. I can also see that Varian brings that same level of truth to his books.

Yes. Writing is an an act of faith, a leap into the unknown wilds of the blank page. I love that I can turn to the pages of other writers making that same leap and sense our comaraderie, as we tap along alone in our homes, offices and huts.

My Mother’s Refrigerator

The only messy part of her house
Was the front of her refrigerator
It was a patchwork of
Black and white
Five by seven
Eight by ten
Four by four
Faded and yellowed
Bright and new
Good times
With her
And without her.
Interspersed were
Newspaper clippings
Symphony dates.
Each one held
By magnets
Bright Pink Lips
Martini glasses
Funny Fish
Crazy Ducks.
Each one given
People in the photos
People in the invitations
People who loved her
Bright pink lips
Martini glasses
Love of
Sunny Days
Funny Fish
Crazy Ducks.
This is how love is
Messy, chaotic, stuck together
This is how love is
Moments, people, gifts
This was her alter of love.
Her headstone.
Her refrigerator.

Lindsey Lane

My mother Elizabeth Durell Lane was born on November 4, 1921. She died on July 4, 2009. Today would have been her eighty eighth birthday.

Me and Mom, Mystic, Ct. July 2008

Me and Mom, Mystic, Ct. July 2008

On The Reading Table-Alan Cumyn

Usually, I’m more direct but I have to go the long way around the barn on this one.

I am not sure what year it was. Sometime in the mid to late ‘80’s. It was a cold rainy weekend in Austin, Texas. A rarity. Something to relished and celebrated. My friend Al was visiting. He suggested we have a movie marathon. I was game. How about the Star Wars trilogy? I made a face. “You don’t like it?” he asked, incredulous.

“Umm, I’ve never seen it.”

His mouth dropped open. “You have to see it. This is great story: Romance, heroism, good and evil. We have to go rent it now.”

There are times when I resist such emphatic pushiness. Just on principle. This wasn’t one of them. “Okay,” I said.

Of course I’d heard of the Star Wars trilogy and attendant hoopla. I lived in America. But I thought it was a boy movie. Something that a Billy Wilder kind of gal (that’s me) wouldn’t like. The only girl I knew who had gone was Isabella and she’d only gone because her beloved Rod went. He was one of the lunatics who spent the night in line for each premiere. Rod’s passionate like that.

So Al and I went to the video store and rented all three Star Wars videos: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi. As we were checking out, the girl behind the counter said, “A Stars Wars marathon. Cool.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve never seen ‘em.”

Silence. Big Space in the Universe Pause. Yet another mouth within one hour’s time dropped open.

“You have NEVER seen ANY of these movies?” I shook my head slowly, not sure if I’d broken some sacrosanct movie law and a crater in the video store floor was going to open up and swallow me up whole.

“You. Are. The. Luckiest. Person. In. The. Whole. Wide. World.” Then she turned to her co-worker, “She’s never seen any of Star Wars and she’s going to watch the whole thing this weekend.” Both of them stared at me with awe. With fascination. With near reverence. The co-corker said, “Oh man, I so wish I could be her.”

I probably made this up but, as Al and I left the store, I swear the girl said, ‘I still remember my first time…”

Alan Cumyn would probably be amused by this story. To use it as an analogy to talk about his Owen Skye trilogy, well, he might accuse me of hyperbole. But I think not. Besides I’m in charge of this neck of the web universe and here’s what I think: Reading Alan Cumyn’s trilogy of books: The Secret Life of Owen Skye, After Sylvia and Dear Sylvia reminded of that Star Wars weekend: I was immersed in great story; I didn’t have to wait months or years for the next episode; and I completely left my universe to be with this character.

In The Secret Life of Owen Skye, we meet Owen, a very funny and bright boy with two brothers who either lead or follow him into trouble. I had that rich experience of hanging out with this band of brothers and wandering down all their pathways including the ones where they scare themselves silly. Cumyn gets Owen just right. Especially when Owen finds his uncle who is too scared to get married and coaxes him back to the church. It was tender, awkward and funny.

After Sylvia is even better. Sylvia, whom we met in the first book, is Owen’s one true love. In this book, she has moved to the next town. Cumyn spins out a marvelous story in which Owen finds Sylvia in her new neighborhood while selling calendars with monthly pictures of tractors from door to door.

Dear Sylvia is the end of the tale. As Cumyn said during one of his Vermont College of Fine Arts lectures where he is on the faculty, “I just wasn’t quite done with these characters. Owen had more things to tell Sylvia.”

What I love best about Cumyn’s writing is his ability to bring a depth to a ten year old’s experience and have it ring cathedral bell perfect. What do I mean that? Well, you remember when you were a kid and something happened and it was bigger than you but you didn’t know quite how to describe or hold it or even tell anyone about it. Cumyn gives Owen those moments and then shapes them so he can hold them, even awkwardly, in his ten-year-old hands. Reading those moments, we adults get to smile, remembering.

Now, off to the bookstore, you go. You have a trilogy to dive into, you lucky stiff.