I have a secret. It is not one I share often, especially with young impressionable minds. Mine is a secret so shameful I can hardly speak the words, but I feel I must share it now, so that all that comes after will seem wondrous. As a young child, I was a…a… a QUITTER.
There. I’ve said it. Whew. That’s right, I was a quitter. It started innocently enough. The year was 1976, and my elementary school was in a fervor of patriotic extra-curricular activities. I somehow found myself elected to the Bicentennial Club, an organization much like Student Council, but devoted to the reporting of aforementioned patriotic activities. I think I attended two, maybe three meetings. Even the requisite small notepad with spiral bound top, something that said, “I have important things to say, so sit down and shut up,” could not hold my interest. My blowing off of that post was clearly forgotten a couple of years later when I was elected to the real Student Council. One meeting, tops. Church choir, quit. Clarinet, quit. Piano, well, I WANTED to quit, but by that point my parents were pretty sure they were raising a future deadbeat and so I was force-marched to lessons.
I blame the fact that every group, every organized activity interfered with recess. And if there was one favorite time of day for me, it was recess. I had no interest in athletic activities (had I ever actually begun such a thing I can assure you it would have ended with a major quit). Four square and dodge ball were the banes of my existence, but my friends and I whiled away hours and hours with on-going action-adventure sagas. With a nod to the Little House on the Prairie style of dramatic storytelling, it was one continuous blizzard/scarlet fever outbreak, blizzard/starvation or blizzard/mountain rescue for the better part of first through fourth grade. I had no time for plodding meetings. Besides, if one was late arriving at the recess rendezvous point, one got stuck in the role of the dog.
As a recent grown-up, I can no longer avoid group activities, but still find myself glancing at the clock as my rear-end goes numb and trying to remember why exactly I signed up for eight hundred million hours in a metal folding chair. I am still not a joiner, so it was with no small measure of trepidation that I committed myself to National Picture Book Writers Week or NaPiBoWriWee, begun three years ago by author Paula Yoo (www.paulayoo.com) as a way to help children’s book writers of all levels achieve that most difficult of tasks: beginning. Participants are asked to write seven picture book manuscripts in seven days, and no, it is not that easy to write picture books. These are meant to be horrible, awful, embarrassingly crappy first drafts, not suitable for public consumption, but again, a beginning, words on a blank page, something to build on for the rest of the year. Like so many of my illustrator counterparts, I have many nebulous story ideas rolling around in my brain, several Word folders with quirky titles, a list of concepts for “someday.” Could I actually keep my butt in a chair long enough to turn seven of them into stories or would I revert to my organized activity defense mechanism and quit?
Thanks to daily blog pep talks from Paula, and daily interviews with authors and illustrators and of course the lure of prizes at the end (names drawn from a hat, no actually reading of crappy drafts involved), I did it, and yes, I feel a real sense of accomplishment. I realized that even banging something out in the last hour or two of the day can count, can be something workable. Do I have seven stories with potential? No. Do I have two or three? Yes, absolutely. Am I wishing that I had stuck out Bicentennial Club? Nah.
It is the kind of coffee shop you would expect to find in Portland or Seattle. Not a big chain, but a funky converted space, an old maintenance garage in this case, adorned with mid-century modern fixtures and poured concrete floors, what urban hipsters everywhere must imagine heaven’s waiting room looks like, complete with heavily tattooed angels bearing espresso and vegan muffins. My artist friend and I meet here occasionally, mainly because if we squint and talk loud, we can blur out the crush of harried moms and screaming toddlers and pretend we’re breathing the rarefied culture-filled air of one of the aforementioned cities, instead of sipping lattes in semi-rural desert suburbia with plans to stop and check the Old Navy clearance rack on the way home.
On this day, it was particularly busy. Maybe it was a school holiday. The place was packed and the line long.With plenty of time to decide which delivery method we wanted for our caffeine fix, we turned to the Plexiglas case of baked goods. The artfully arranged piles of treats looked ready for their Martha Stewart Living cover debut, but one stack of butter/sugar/flour outshone them all. Cupcakes, with thick swirls of pink frosting and a sparkling crust of coarse sugar glinted in the early morning sunshine. Oh, we wanted one, yes indeed, maybe two, maybe two and one for later. Next up to order, poised to plunk down whatever ridiculous amount they were asking per cupcake, I froze mid-sentence as movement caught my eye. There, in the case, taking a leisurely stroll across one of the pink confections was the biggest house fly I had ever seen. Whether you are averse to the saliva a fly coughs up whenever it finds a food source, or just the fact that they land on everything–manure, road kill, public restroom toilet seats–most folks prefer to just say no to fly-pawed food. We were no exception to this. Upon closer inspection we realized that the case had no back, just a sneeze guard, and the restrooms were, in fact, right around the corner. The solemn vow was made right there on the spot to never eat anything from that case, EVER.
A few moments later, while we sat idly sipping our beverages in the Phoenix sunshine, we saw a young lady with a skip in her step and a pink cupcake shining from its plastic blister box. After a brief debate over the merits of telling her that the black specks were maybe not errant pepper, we decided ignorance was bliss and watched as she broke open her prize, crammed half in her mouth and drove away. We looked at each other, amused and slightly nauseated, and decided that somewhere in there was a truth, a life lesson if you will, only we couldn’t settle on which. Sometimes life is a pink cupcake and sometimes it’s fly poop? When life gives you a pink cupcake ask where it came from before biting? We never did agree on what to embroider on the pillow, but personally, I think it is always wise, when handed a giant sparkling over-the-top, pink cupcake, to have a good friend who will remind you to scrape the icing off. You still end up with cake.
“Write a short paragraph describing an adventure you had as a kid.”
A simple enough task. Pencils began scratching around the room. All but mine. Simple enough unless you were like me and spent the better part of your childhood going out of your way to avoid adventure. Outdoor bathrooms, dirty socks, possible tapeworm infection, poky shirt tags, weird smelling cats, bugs, worms, snakes, unavailable dental hygiene and scratchy sweaters, all these and much, much more occurred on adventures–no thank you.
It isn’t a huge deal to miss the occasional sleepover or camping trip as a kid, but the bigger you grow, the bigger the adventures become and pretty soon it’s either leap or be left with nothing but the story of the one time you switched brands of tomato soup to entertain friends with at parties. And good luck with that.
I managed to scribble out some lame excuse for an adventure, a three block bike ride to my friend’s house in broad daylight, and sat silently thankful that my recent adulthood had brought a new perspective on taking opportunities that come my way.
When I received the Highlights Foundation e-mail describing the “It’s All About Character” workshop, I had recently returned from Honesdale, and was not in any big hurry to repeat the fun that is air travel today. The workshop was being led by Kim Griswell and Lindsay Barrett George. Hmmm…I knew both of them and admired their work. Special guest speakers would be librarian Martha Vines, author Pat Thomas, and one of my personal heroes author/illustrator Suzanne Bloom. Hubby had been giving me pointed “poop or get off the pot” looks whenever I whined about wanting to write. I went for it.
It was an exhausting and intense four days. Kim’s talk “The Picture Book Hero” was especially interesting and informative for me, and I highly recommend the full workshop she does on the “hero’s journey.” She is an editor and writer who knows her stuff. Lindsay gave us an honest insight into the lengthy and sometimes futile process of developing a book (eighty-four dummies does not guarantee a sale), but the process is valuable regardless, something important for those of us who get discouraged after…well…ONE.
The guests were all wonderful and Suzanne even hung around the next day listening to readings and offering her two cents, which if you’ve ever paid a small fortune to a certain national organization to be kept away from the speakers like the great unwashed, you know what a hoot this was for everyone. Add on wonderful scenery, a cozy cabin complete with coffee and mini-fridge all to yourself and oh the food, three scrumptious gourmet meals a day; I take my eats seriously, and my palate was deliriously happy. The workshop was limited to twelve, and we encompassed the full range, from newbies to the much published, and both Kim and Lindsay were thorough and honest in their critiques, with long one-on-one conferences and meticulous notes for each attendee. No false praise or hand holding. I came away inspired to get to work.
My adventure was not without mishap: almost missing my connection in Philly, where they put you on a bus and drive you to what appears to be an abandoned warehouse in Jersey to catch your plane, a couple of warmth-seeking centipedes invading my cabin’s bathroom (see aforementioned bug aversion), forgotten dental floss, and the apparent onset of decrepitude which seems to mean I cannot sit for long periods without my knees locking up, but despite, I was very glad I went. It was an adventure worth taking.
No one could possibly want to go to Tucson. This is what the AZ Department of Transportation apparently thought when they made the decision to close all of the exits from I-10 save the first one. Miss it and you’ll be having lunch in Nogales. By some stroke of unusual good fortune, I did not miss it, having spent the last hour of a two hour drive from Phoenix hunched over the wheel squinting intently at each and every sign on the highway, from “Slow Workers Ahead” to the long abandoned Nickerson Farms turnoff (Nickerson Farms being the west of the Mississippi version of Stuckey’s, nut logs included.) I arrived at the University of Arizona’s 17th Annual Conference on Literature and Literacy for Children and Adolescents, dusty and nearly blind, but ready for my presentation. The theme of this year’s conference was Bridging Cultures-Crossing Borders and the featured guests were Pam Munoz Ryan and Rafael Lopez, both of whom have their own blogs I’m sure. MY breakout session topic was Drawing a Bridge: The Challenges and Rewards of Illustrating Another Culture, and I talked primarily about illustrating the books The Best Eid Ever and A Party in Ramadan for Boyds Mills Press. What began as a typical Power Point show became a lively discussion about differences and similarities between cultures, religions, even age groups (kids today with their hair and their music…). One of my goals in illustrating these two particular books was to make the story accessible to all kids, to show the similarities that bind us all together: love of family, sharing with others and attempting new and difficult challenges. The group consensus seemed to be that the book was successful in this respect, as well as being a much needed addition to libraries that are sadly lacking in books for kids who practice the Muslim faith. The day ended with a signing out in the Arizona sunshine complete with a Mariachi group from Davis Bilingual Magnet School. Normally, one might cringe when an eight year old steps up to the mike with a trumpet, but these kids were magnificent, talented and really, really cute, as the twenty photos I snapped can attest to.