Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Inspiration at the Birmingham Zoo

I am excited to be visiting Seattle and Mercer Island and Bellingham this week, but I wanted to share with you a fun bit from last week: I got the chance to go with a friend to pop in on another friend who is a keeper at the Birmingham Zoo. She does a lot of work in the Children's Zoo area, training raptors and goats and pigs. Yes, she's a multitalented gal! And she's living her dream of being a zookeeper. Makes me happy!

Here are some pics:
me & Amy & an irritated owl :)

Pat with a giant leaf!

hibiscus (?)
Pat goofing off at the pretend outhouse
in the Children's Zoo

And here is the bear exhibit where I read this poster and got an idea for a book (love when that happens!). I'm not going to tell you MY idea... but maybe it will give YOU an idea, too!

Not pictured: we got to go behind the scenes to watch the river otters being fed! They are active, smart, enthusiastic creatures... when I asked their keeper Elizabeth what was the most rewarding part of her work with them, she said it was their recognition of her, their connection with her. They know who feeds them. :)

Monday, September 26, 2016

BOOKED by Kwame Alexander

Last April at TLA, it was my good fortune to meet and serve on a poetry panel that included Kwame Alexander. Here's the group shot:

I've since seen Kwame (somewhere -- where was it?) wearing a t-shirt that said "I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie," which I thought was super fun but didn't know it had significance related to his new book BOOKED. Well, the t-shirt-- along with other equally clever book-love t-shirts -- appears in the book thanks to one dynamic librarian Mr. Mac who pretty much changes main character Nick's life. (I have met a real-life Mr. Mac in Decatur, Alabama! Seriously. Dynamic librarian, and his name is Mr. McDonald. :)

Confession: I was about 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized the different meanings of the book's title. Sometimes I'm slow like that! But then Nick took a while to turn into a bonafide book-nerd, so I guess it's never too late, right?

Anyhow, I'd like to share with you a poem from the book. It's a response to an amazing poem by Langston Hughes called "Harlem" that begins with this line: "What happens to a dream deferred?"

Fun fact: "Harlem" also inspired one of my forthcoming picture books: POP BAM BOOM - Exploding Poems. So I especially loved seeing this poem. Enjoy! And if you want to read a story about a boy who learns to love books (among other things), read BOOKED!

What happens to a dream destroyed?

Does it sink
like a wrecked ship in the sea?

Or wade in the water
like a boy overboard?

Maybe it just floats
around and around. . .

or does it drown?

- Kwame Alexander (BOOKED)

Friday, September 23, 2016

TALKING IN THE DARK and other Poetry Memoirs

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit lovely poet-teacher Catherine at Reading to the Core for Roundup.

First a couple of newsy items: FRESH DELICIOUS will be representing Alabama this weekend at the National Book Festival. Yippee! I'm excited to see Laura Shovan's THE LAST FIFTH GRADE representing Maryland. Yay yay yay!

And second, thanks to friends in poetic places, I will be speaking to students in the Seattle area (thank you, Sarah and Ramona!) before meeting so many great folks in Bellingham for POETRY CAMP. So excited!!! This probably means I won't be posting next week, but who knows?! I may get a spare moment, in which case I will of course say hello.

So, poetry memoirs. There's HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY by Marily Nelson and BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson and ENCHANTED AIR by Magarita Engle. There's YOU REMIND ME OF YOU by Eireanne Corrigan, which I haven't read yet. And others... readers: any poetry memoir titles to recommend?

Meanwhile, have you read TALKING IN THE DARK by Billy Merrell? So, so good! Indeed, each poem is a stand-alone poem, which I appreciate. Here's an example:


I know neither how to open nor to close. - Peter Sirr

How does it happen? That flicker in the dark
like a candle lit and then blown out.
The smoke after, the smell of it. I need you

to hear this. Do you ever stop, halfway?
Or having crossed the street do you ever cross back
to look more closely at something in the road?

Do you walk on? Washing dishes,
do you catch yourself wandering
toward the light on the glass?

I don't know, finally, how to love.
And yet I do. Daily and wholly,
and not only people. We live:

stop at the bank, have a cup of coffee,
forget to write, remember to lock the door.
How often do we live,

having that steady nostalgia even as we live it,
feeling memory create itself as we stand there,
wandering? Wondering? Both, I think, together.

Do you ever wonder if these moments
are what life really is? These lit moments
you rise into will be what is cut together

to finally be your life. We open into it,
we catch ourselves, and we stop. Who saw me
staring into the candle like that?

What must they imagine I'm thinking?
Let us catch ourselves opening
and then catch ourselves stopping

and not. Let us open and open,
without knowing how.

- Billy Merrell

I'm actually working on a memoir. NOT poetry. So I am reading a bunch of memoirs right now. One I've loved recently is THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING. Please shoot any recommendations my way! Thank you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

THIS poem


To be given all this --
My one incredible life
Day after day of secret blessings
To be held from the beginning
In such loving, holy hands.
How can I not be lucky?
How can I not trust love?

-Sheila O'Connor


Monday, September 19, 2016

5 Questions to Ask Your Manuscript

So I reached THE END on my first draft! Woohooo!

Before I set it aside for a few weeks, I will spend some time while it is fresh and raw and I'm still engaged to ask the manuscript the following questions:

1. What does the protagonist want most?

2. What's at stake for the protagonist?

3. What obstacles hinder (or define) the protagonist along the way?

4. What hidden key or gift turned things around?

5. At end of book, what do you want reader to feel?

The answers to these questions will serve as a guide and focus when I start revisions.

Happy writing!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Because I Believe in Miracles.

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit Michelle who gives so much beauty to our community at Today's Little Ditty for Roundup.

Tomorrow would have been my father's 70th birthday, and I've got miracles on my mind. My father WAS a miracle, and he taught me to see the whole world that way. Little by little I've been going through his scrapbooks from the years he lived in Bismarck,  ND, and what overwhelms me is how despite health and other difficulties, he found beauty everywhere. Here are a couple of quotes from a newsletter he wrote for the Bismarck Cancer Center quarterly newsletter:

"One of my favorite quotes is by David Ben-Gurion: 'In order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” I know that there a lot of folks who can’t bring themselves to accept that concept, but, from my own experience fighting cancer, I believe it true.'"

"Not surprisingly, faith and hope are huge factors in their fight against cancer. Quite often, they will express belief in and hope for a miracle in their lives—a miracle that they do not simply wish for but make considerable personal effort to encourage through active participation in their treatment."

He was a regular Walt Whitman. So, today, for him, I give you "Miracles" by Walt Whitman.

by Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
        with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so
        quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the
        ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Today I am pleased to welcome author Ginger Rue, who has a new middle grade book ready for readers: Tig Ripley, Rock 'N' Roll Rebel (Sleeping Bear Press). 

Ginger and I went to high school together (!), and she is a fellow Alabamian, and she writes smart, fun, wholesome books. Plus, she's an excellent teacher/speaker (currently offering school visits FREE!), so if you need someone, she's your gal! Contact her at ginger (at) gingerruebooks (dot) com.

Here's the review from School Library Journal: Gr 4–6—This novel chronicles Tig Ripley's quest to start an all-girl rock band named Pandora's Box. The 13-year-old protagonist does not play an instrument, and she's been brought up with Southern good manners. In spite of these obstacles, Tig wants to be the band's drummer and leader. The narrative is slow to start as Rue establishes the band members' recruitment and skill set, but once the band forms, the book's pace picks up and readers are drawn into a story that has plenty of girl drama and social angst but very little actual rebellion. The message of finding individuality in middle school is a positive one, and Tig is a flawed but likable narrator. VERDICT For fans who are ready to graduate from Megan McDonald's "Judy Moody" and Charise Mericle Harper's "Just Grace" but aren't quite ready for YA fiction.—Sarah Wilsman, Bainbridge Library, Chagrin Falls, OH 

And now, here's Ginger responding to prompts as they relate to Tig Ripley:

The Difficult: I was a single mom teaching school full time when I got the idea for this book. I was dying to write it, but I had my full-time teaching job, plus a part-time job (which I did on my days off and after school), and suddenly I started getting all these great freelance magazine assignments including cover stories, and I couldn't turn them down because anyone who's ever done magazine work will tell you that plum assignments are hard to come by. All this and being a single mom! I literally never had a day off. I was so exhausted but still wanted to write this book so badly. I was working at a very good school, and I knew I was lucky to have that job, but something had to give. My part-time job was also amazing and I hated to give it up, too, but I couldn't keep doing both, and I certainly couldn't keep doing both and continue writing. I took a leap of faith and was honest with my principal. Then when TIG didn't sell immediately, I thought, a la ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, "I think I've made a huge mistake." But in the end, it all worked out. It was pretty scary, though, for a while. Good thing my part-time job held out for the next couple of years!

The Delicious: I had these characters in my head for such a long time before I was finally able to sit down and write the book. It was so fulfilling to finally have time to bring them to life. You really don't appreciate writing time until you don't have it.

The Unexpected: My editor at Sleeping Bear has put so much into these books, really above and beyond what I would've expected. One thing I love about the publishing process is making so many new friends along the way. It's fun to have conversations about people I made up. My editor and I both want to be Robbie Chan (the book's band's guitar player) because she's so cool. We are kind of living vicariously through Robbie together!

Ginger, just as gorgeous now
as she was in high school!
Ginger Rue is the author of Brand-New Emily, Jump, and the forthcoming Aleca Zamm series (Aladdin, June 2017). She's a former advice columnist for a teen magazine, and her work has appeared in Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Girls' Life, Family Circle, and other publications. She is currently a contributing editor for Guideposts. Ginger lives in Tuscaloosa with her husband, two daughters, and stepson.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Poem for my Firstborn - a Sestina

me & my firstborn
Today the boy who made me a mother turns 22.

Happy Birthday, Daniel!!!

I always wanted to be a mother -- always always always. I still feel like it is the most important thing I will ever do.

So, 22 years ago today I was marveling over those big eyes and sweet cheeks and how right he felt in my arms... and, apparently I wrote a poem about it. A sestina, no less! I found a copy in a folder recently when cleaning out my studio. I'm sure it could benefit from some editing, but I've decided to share it with you just as I found it. Thanks so much for reading!

For My Firstborn

You were conceived under an orange moon,
my skirt hiked up, his hair in my fingers.
When I told him I’d soon be a mother,
he just chuckled, said that wasn’t so hard.
I dreamed of you nights, swimming in water,
eyes just like your father’s, electric blue.

Soon veins streaked my belly, a map of blue,
my breasts hung heavier than two full moons.
Your father would fill the tub with water,
play you like a cello with his fingers.
My skin stretched tight, became a drum beat hard
soft soft hard. Your toes and elbows. Mother-

love flowed through songs I learned from my mother,
who said to labor with thoughts of blue
waves, to howl and breathe through it, the hardest
work you’ll ever do. I‘d lasso that moon,
I glowed with the challenge, swollen fingers
and stretch marks at home as boats on water.

Past due, still no sign of breaking water,
doctor said, come, I’ll make you a mother.
I said thirteen prayers and crossed my fingers,
couldn’t wait to meet our Little Boy Blue.
Nursery ready with painted stars and moon,
we never knew waiting would be so hard.

In the hospital contractions got hard,
then out you rushed in a gush of water.
We cried and whispered our thanks to the moon,
I felt I’d been born to be your mother.
Your father gave out cigars wrapped in blue,
I watched you sleep, fist gripping my finger,

stroked your cheek with the tip of my finger.
Lovely, but still, saying goodbye is hard;
empty womb cramped – hello, post-partum blues.
Now for the message penned in blood, not water:
from the start I’ve loved being your mother,
I shine with your light like a hungry moon.

Your fingers quench thirsts unknown to water,
hard journey is done, now rest with your mother--
I’ll give you blue milk and show you the moon.

- Irene Latham

Friday, September 9, 2016

FINDING WONDERS by Jeannine Atkins

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit Amy at The Poem Farm for Roundup. I know she'll have something wonderful to share with us!

I'm delighted to share with you today the latest from Jeannine Atkins -- Finding Wonder: Three Girls Who Changed Science, new from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and already sporting some lovely starred reviews. And how gorgeous is that cover?! Congratulations, Jeannine!!

It's another beautiful verse novel about real women, in the spirit of her much acclaimed and beloved-by-me Borrowed Names. Jeannine knows these girls, and by the end of the book, the reader does, too.

So who are these three girls? Maria Sibylla Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell. While they are from different places and time periods, they all found wonder in the world and helped us to understand better the workings of metamorphosis and fossils and the night sky. Read on for an excerpt from each girl's story! The book also includes a note from the author, some suggestions for "reading past these pages," and a bibliography. Great for wonder-ers of all ages!

MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN (1660, Frankfurt, Germany)

In the attic, a silkworm silently spins
a silk cocoon around itself,
like a dancer twirling
or a baker frosting a tall cake.

does the silkworm get dizzy,
making a spoon-sized bit of sunlight
where self and home are one?
Can watching what caterpillars become
show Maria where they came from?
How long must she wait
to see what will emerge?

MARY ANNING (1809, Lyme Regis, England)
After the Storm

The next morning, birds slice a way through blue sky.
Mary and Joseph find broken ledges
covering the spot where the sea dragon used to be.
Joseph spits and walks away.

Tears fill Mary's eyes. But she knows
where to dig. She has time.
She pries away fallen stone,
smashes what can't be lifted,
sweeps off dirt and rubble,
hoping the sea dragon is underneath
and uncrushed.

For weeks she works alone, heading out
straight after breakfast, stopping only
to pet friendly dogs along the way.
She misses her brother, even the arguments
about who first saw a face in the cliff.
Seeing isn't a race,
but is as layered as the rocks.
It's gone, Joseph says, when stopping by
late one afternoon. It's no use.

I'll find it, she says, though she's uncertain
as she pries and shovels. Her shadow blends
with Joseph's and lengthens into the cliffs.
Dragonflies dart as they do before darkness.
She sweeps away dust with a light hand.
Rocks aren't as permanent as they look.

MARIA MITCHELL (1831, Nantucket, Massachusetts)
Playing Planets

Schoolmasters don't make much money, so Father ears more
by walking around the island to take measurements for maps
that mark shorelines and shoals. Maria suspects he also asks
relatives for news of Andrew, who disappeared last week.

While Father is gone from his school room, Maria arranges
primers, chalk, and slates. Taking out the wooden spheres
to give an astronomy lesson, she remembers Father holding
the largest ball, bringing the sun to their parlor.
The children ran around him like orbiting planets, taking turns
as Saturn, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Uranus.
Holding a baby, Mother was Earth.

Maria loves how planets take measured places in the sky,
but also hold mysteries. Once, she wished she could be a comet,
soaring close to the sun to be seen,
appearing as if from nowhere
among the whirls of sisters and brothers,
her father steady in the center.

Thank you, Jeannine, for writing this book. You are an inspiration! xo

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Me & Lady Godiva

So, I have a new love, and her name is Lady Godiva.

Longtime readers may remember this post about my violin, whose name was Half-Pint. I named her for little Laura Ingalls, of course. That was the pet name Pa had for his second daughter. It was perfect for my violin! And, just like my teacher said, it made me feel like I was in a relationship with my instrument, rather than merely playing it.

Fast forward to my adventures as a cellist. My first instrument was a loaner from my teacher. It was a great starter instrument! For the next year or so, I rented an instrument on one of those pay-as-you-go arrangements... each month I was building equity for an eventual purchase. I thought perhaps in early 2017 I'd be ready for my very own cello.

As it turns out, I was ready in mid-2016. :) On a day trip last month to Atlanta, Paul and I stopped in at Atlanta Violins. I thought I'd just try a few cellos, see what's what. And then I spied her - a dark German beauty with all kinds of nicks and scars, circa 1875. Even though she was out of my price range, I tried her out. And she had the sweetest sound! I was in love, and I came home with her on a trial basis. I couldn't wait to introduce her to my teacher!

Well. My teacher wasn't impressed. Instead of the rousing enthusiasm I'd been hoping for, she said, "It's okay."

It's okay?! She didn't feel the instrument was resonant enough. To her, it just didn't sing. She suggested I take it back and let them work on it some, and maybe that would help? So I called Atlanta Violins, and they said, sure we can hotrod the bridge (coat it in superglue, then let it dry, so that it has a hardness to it for better sound), work on the tailpin, adjust the bridge, etc etc... so Paul and I headed back over for another cello date.

While they were working on the cello, I tried out some others. I shared with Megan that the sound I was wanting was that mellow, sweet sound with some hints of mystery and moodiness -- all the sounds that made me fall in love with the cello in the first place. And I played a few, and Megan played a few for us, and there was this one that made both Paul and I lift our eyebrows and smile -- it was THE sound, yes it was! AND, it was awfully forgiving to play. It just felt easier somehow, smoother, better.

But it wasn't the dark German one with all the history! I realized I was attached to the hidea of a cello with a STORY. But more than that, I wanted a cello that had the chocolate-y sound I adore. So it came down to this: the dark German cello with a history that wasn't quite as resonant and was a little harder to coax sound out of... OR... a new (2015) Czech Thomas Karvina cello with a beautiful resonance and sweet, mysterious chocolate sound??

It broke my heart, but I said goodbye to the dark German cello with a history. Megan, who helped me the whole way through helped me re-frame things when sh said, now I would get to start a new story, with this new cello. And doesn't every cello's story start somewhere?

Wise words, don't you think?

So I brought home my new cello with its beautiful poplar wood and it's chocolate sound. My teacher thought it was a great choice. "Nice!" she said. And I set about naming her, because yes, this is a relationship, not just an instrument.
by John Collier

I was thinking about that chocolate sound, andabout how my favorite chocolate is Godiva chocolate. I remembered the story of Lady Godiva, who rode naked on horseback through the streets of Rome to protest taxation of her husband's property.

I thought, isn't that how I want to play? With the boldness and vulnerability of Lady Godiva?

And so, there you have it: me & Lady Godiva!
Home alone, so here I am using my practice
mirror to take a selfie with cello. Ha!

A few things I learned while shopping for a cello:

There is no perfect cello. Each one is different. There are all sorts of tricks to help cellos sound better, like weights on the strings (for wolfing), etc. Also, it's really hard to stick to a budget! If you have a firm budget, do yourself a favor and don't play an instrument that's out of the budget, because then you'll only want that cello. Which is why you should really be as generous with your budget as you possibly can be. Yes, it can feel a little crazy to spend a lot of money on a instrument, when it will only be played as a hobby. But, a wise cellist-friend advised me to think of it this way: an instrument can be for your whole life long. And don't we spend a FORTUNE upgrading computer and other tech equipment from year to year? You won't have to do that with a cello. It's one and done. Yes, there's maintenance, but really, you'll only do this once, so why no get the cello you're going to love forever and ever?

From Half-Pint to Lady Godiva. I'm thrilled!

Friday, September 2, 2016

5 For Poetry Friday

Hello, and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit Penny at a penny and her jots for Roundup.

While I had hoped to post a poem today, that just didn't happen. And so, instead... I give you 5 for Poetry Friday!

1. I am reading -- and loving -- WISH by Barbara O'Connor. I love Barbara's books. They are just perfect middle grade stories, and this one is my favorite of hers so far! I put it with THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson and ONE FOR THE MURPHY'S by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. I love main character Charlie Reese. I know this kid. And I know kids who need to know this kid or who ARE this kid. (Have already gifted 2 copies of this book!) I want to write books like this. You gotta read it!

2. My 2017 poetry book, which I so happily and proudly share with Charles Waters and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko has gotten a new name! What was IT'S NOT BLACK & WHITE will now be CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship. 

3. After hitting my 1000 word a day goal every day since I started two weeks ago, yesterday I stumbled a little -- I was only able to cobble together about 660 words. But. Am I giving up? NO. I trust I will catch up today. And if not today, tomorrow. Sometimes the hardest part of achieving a goal is refocusing after failure... it helps to remind myself that hey, I DID write 660 words, which is more than I had yesterday! I return to these words often: Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong. It's just like when teaching -- encouragement is far more powerful than criticism.

4. Poetry Camp is coming! I'm excited to get to meet so many Poetry Friday friends in Bellingham, WA later this month. Liz Steinglass and I will be presenting on Metaphor & Simile. It's going to be fun!

5. My blue Christmas quilt is coming along! Here's the top. (At the last minute I thought to add the red pieces... I really love the contrast!)