Category Archives: Thoughts and Insights

How Minecraft is Crafting Our Minors

If you know me at all, you probably know that I am one of the last people on Earth that would promote kids playing lots of video games.  But it doesn’t really matter whether or not I would promote it, because kids are playing lots of video games.  And, as a creative writing and art teacher, I made an observation recently that I think is worth sharing (and that makes me sound way less curmudgeon-y than normal).

During my last creative writing residency, when I asked my students to write personal narratives about family memories and then fictional stories about a family member overcoming a made up conflict, they asked if they could write about computer games.  I discouraged it, but said that they could do it if they avoided violence and really focused on the experiences of their family members and not just what was happening in the game. They largely ignored me.

And you know what?  Their stories were awesome.

Ducks Typing photo (2)
Ducks understand the joys of computer games better than I do.

When I let go of my personal biases, I saw how excited they were to write their stories.  Kids who could hardly stay in their seat for 4 minutes were hashing out 3 page stories that ended with “to be continued,” because they did not want to stop.


Their stories were filled with action, adventure, and drama while sticking to a cohesive narrative arc.

I did not have to prod them for detail like I normally do.  They drew out descriptions of how they built houses or escaped from evil ‘animatronics.’

And, most interestingly to me, their narrative voices sounded unlike any other 3rd grade narrators I’d heard.  They were mature and sometimes even archaic, one student referring to the reader as “my child.”  They wove lots of dialogue into their stories, and one student even embedded short fables of the protagonist’s parents’ youth into his longer tale.

The same phenomenon was happening with my art students.  A group of boys who had all but stopped participating in the activities now got excited about any art form they could apply to their favorite characters.  There was no denying that computer games were encouraging kids’ creativity.  And I wasn’t the first to notice it.  A Michigan State University study linked video games to creativity in kids years ago.

The point of all this is not at all to say that parents should go encourage their kids to spend lots of time playing computer games.  It’s to say that since computer games are something that many kids are excited about, we should use that excitement to make connections with other things.  Encourage kids to draw their favorite characters… and then make up their own.  Ask them to write stories or act them out.  Build actual models of what they build in the games or create costumes of the characters.  Come up with math problems about them.

When kids get passionate about something, whether or not it’s something you care about yourself, make the most of it.



Filed under Featured Posts, Thoughts and Insights

One of my Favorite Things

I have a lot of favorite things, but one is that every three weeks, my voicemail makes me listen to all of my saved messages and decide whether I want to re-save them before I can hear any new ones.  I’ve kept some of my favorites from as far back as 2006, including several…um…totally on-key renditions of ‘Happy Birthday,’ an impromptu rap, a friend playing the bagpipes, my nephews learning how to leave voicemails (older nephew in the background: “Say: Hi, it’s Will.”  Will: “Hi, it’s me.”), and even a personalized voice message from Samuel L. Jackson urging me to watch Snakes on a Plane.  Feel free to do the math if you want, but I’ve listened to them a lot, and I still smile every time.


The personalized Snakes on a Plane call site is gone, but you can download an awesome Samuel L. Jackson voicemail here.

All of that just to say that not all of your words have to be monumental to change the world.  Sometimes, they can change the world just by making someone smile – maybe for longer than you’d expect.  So if your writing or your work is ever feeling too heavy or daunting, take a break and call a friend.  Or send them some snail mail.  Or invite them over to watch Snakes on a Plane.  It’ll be time well spent.


Filed under Thoughts and Insights

An Oldie but Still Relevant Goodie

Although many people still hold the idea that children’s books are saccharine bedtime stories, they are actually often at the forefront of bringing into conversation controversial or complex issues facing society.  Sometimes they even take concepts that adults still tiptoe around and hand them openly to children to think about and discuss.

tuck_everlasting_1_largeA book that I remember loving as a 4th grader came to mind recently.  Tuck Everlasting, published by Natalie Babbitt in 1975, deals with the concept of immortality.  It tells the story of Winnie Foster, who discovers a family guarding a secret – that they inadvertently drank from a ‘fountain of youth’ – and the tragedies that come with their timelessness.

Of course, there are many stories – modern and ancient, for kids and adults – that take on the idea of immortality, but the relatable characters in Tuck Everlasting make the topic very accessible to young readers and the emotion in it is believable.

As crash-preventative self-driving cars are developed, fatal diseases prevented and cured, organs grown in labs, and mechanical body parts engineered, it’s obviously important to keep this topic of immortality in conversation.  Of course these innovations are noble and have already improved the quality of life for many.  But at what point is it okay to just let people die?

There’s a HUGE part of me that wishes a doctor could have stuck a robot heart into my dad so that he’d be around to meet my kids some day.  But I also know that my dad, wary of Aspirin and baffled by how to turn on a computer (… says his flip-phone wielding daughter), would have hated that.

And it’s not only important whether increasing lifespan is valuable for individuals, but how it affects life on earth.  If these innovations extend the lifespan by 25 years, then that’s an entire extra generation of people on this planet in addition to the already growing population.  Even if it’s widely agreed upon that extending life is a good thing, our innovative energy needs to go into systems for supporting the growing population without increasing hunger or homelessness or environmental degradation before we eliminate all the main ways that humans die.

Or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon afraid of progress.  But to me, progress means a better life, not an endless one.

I didn’t mean to make this quite such a soapbox-y (or, you know, paranoid technophobe-y) post.

What I did mean to do was to recommend reading Tuck Everlasting.  It’s a great book.

And to ask your thoughts.  What is your outlook on immortality?  What’s your idea of progress?  Are there any books you recommend that take on an issue that’s been resonating with you lately?

Thanks for bearing with me.  And remember to try to live life in a way that, when it comes down to the end, you’ll be glad whether a doctor comes and sticks a robot heart in you or not.


Filed under Picture Books, Thoughts and Insights

Radical Copyediting

I love writing because it inspires, empowers, and opens doors to new ideas and worlds.  But language can also be elitist, exclusive, and oppressive, sometimes in ways we don’t intend or are not even aware of.  Language, as my friend Alex eloquently puts it, transforms reality.

rad copyeditor

Alex is a radical copyeditor, a job they created to help authors to ensure that their words align with their values.  Check out Alex’s insightful radical copyeditor blog  for ideas on how you can use your words to empower, not oppress.

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Writing Diverse Children’s Books: the 2015 SCBWI-Carolinas Conference

I came away from yet another SCBWI conference with inspiration, helpful information, new writer friends and idols, and writing momentum, but without much time to process it or actually write.  But even though I’m late, I especially wanted to share what I learned this year since the conference’s “Your Story, Your World” theme is one that I feel a special passion for but don’t always know what I can do about: diversity in children’s books.

Check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign!

An incredible faculty of Pat Cummings, Lamar Giles, Minju Chang, Daniel Nayeri, Kelly Starling Lyons, Monika Schroeder, Alan Gratz, and many others shared how important it is for all children to be able to see themselves in the heroes of children’s books.  Not only that, but books should show children that are already well represented the diverse world they live in. As this article in The Guardian explains, reading helps people to develop empathy, and so diverse books can also help children empathize with those who are different than themselves.

So, as a white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual writer that believes children should have access to books with diverse characters, what can I do?

This is the insight I gained from this year’s conference:

  • Keep a broad definition of “diversity.”  Think in terms of race, religion, gender, geography, sexuality, class, physical and mental abilities, and age.
  • Write stories with diverse characters.  While this seems like the simplest solution, it is actually the most difficult and comes with a lot of disclaimers.  If you write about a culture (use a broad definition when considering culture, too!) other than your own, write from the heart and not because it is a market trend.  Make sure to empower children through your characters rather than victimize them, and be cautious of stereotypes.

Be aware that it may be uncomfortable and you may be accused of “voice appropriation.”  Monika Schroeder’s response to this is that no one owns a culture, but that if you are going to write about a culture other than your own, get it right.  Do your research, including making authentic connections with people from that culture.  Immerse yourself in it if you can!

Also be aware that some publishers have limited spots for these diverse books and that your story about another culture could crowd out someone from that culture’s stories.

  • Biographies are a great way to depict diverse heroes.  Because they fit in with the common core curriculum, this is also a great way to get diverse books into classrooms.  But, as mentioned above, write them from the heart about people whose stories you connect with, research to portray the culture and perspective authentically, and don’t write them just because they are trendy.
  • Bring existing stories from other cultures to your own.  Research international stories and folklore.  Explore diverse storytelling and illustrating styles.  If you have translation skills, use them to bring in international perspectives.  Very few children’s books are translated into English from other languages.
  • Explore your own diversity.  What part of your own story is under represented?  Although my own race, class, and geography may be well represented, I come from a family of Italian immigrants and we carry on their traditions.  My own family is non-standard, with half-siblings on both sides who are much older than me.  I have a Brazilian exchange student “sister.”  What part of you is not often reflected in children’s books?
  • Illustrate or make illustration notes for pictures with diverse characters.  
  • Buy, read, and tell booksellers about books by and about people from other cultures.  There is not only a need for more diverse children’s book characters, but also for people from diverse cultures to be creating these books.  So what can you do if you are from an over represented culture like me?

As Kelly Starling Lyons eloquently put it, “Lift people up as you climb.”



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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

Wild thingsLast spring, a children’s librarian that I regard very highly recommended a book, whose author happened to be giving a talk at a local bookstore that week.  I went to the talk and read the book, and it is hands down my favorite book I’ve ever read about children’s literature.  The book is Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

The book defies “fluffy bunnies,” or the misconception that all books for young readers are simple and sugary-sweet.  It is packed with examples, anecdotes, and author interviews that show instead the subversive side of kidlit.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

For example, illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, who had recently been knocked in a Kirkus review, painted a graveyard scene for the picture book Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? that snuck in a headstone with an epitaph for Virginia Kirk.

Or how about when librarians, teachers, and parents objected to Charlotte’s Web including death, and the author, E.B. White, responded by telling his editor, “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a littler of hyenas.  The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

The book delves into many other controversial topics addressed in children’s books as well as some behind the scenes mischief in the lives of the writers themselves, and even a media uproar fondly referred to as “Scrotumgate.”  Needless to say, I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

The best thing about the book is that, while many of the stories are shocking, it’s not a book advocating for shock value.  Julie Danielson, one of the book’s three authors, said that when she gives talks on the book, audience members will sometimes remark that they should write more subversively.  “Don’t be subversive just to be subversive,” she said.  After all, there is a time and a place for fluffy bunnies, too.

“Don’t be subversive just to be subversive.”

Instead, the book advocates for children’s writers to be genuine.  It shows that children’s literature must adapt to the times, and that often it is even at the forefront of helping the times to adapt.  It shows that the most successful writers were not condescending, that they were good writers who wrote from the heart whose audience just happened to be children.

That takeaway was a good reminder for me when I received feedback from an editor on a picture book that I entered into a contest this summer.  It was a story based on an experience that was important to me, and he gave me high marks on my writing style and even compared me to *blush* a young Oliver Jeffers!  Yet he told me that the story was essentially unmarketable.

Should I scrap the story and write to the market? I wondered.  But with Wild Things! in mind, I determined to persevere writing from the heart and then trying to find my market, or tweaking my stories to make them marketable, but making sure never to lose the heart in them.


Filed under Picture Books, Thoughts and Insights

Playing Off Rejection

Even we creative, out-of-the-box, mold-breaking writers have to play by the rules if we want to get published (let me know if you find any good loopholes!), and rejection is part of the game.  Of course, it helps to remember that rejection is not the end of the game.  A rejection letter does not read, “You Lose” or “Start Over” or even “GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200.”

Rejection is simply a stop along the game board, and a square that nearly all the big winners have landed on.  Repeatedly.

I actually get excited when I receive rejection letters.  To me, they mean that very important people in the publishing business are actually reading what I write.  They mean that I’m in the game – and not just starting out, but in that heated, adrenaline-pulsing part when you are nearing the end.  Sometimes, it’s hard to get off of the rejection square, but you’ve made it so far!  You just have to keep rolling the dice.

To remind you of that, here is an actual game of literary rejection.  Match the rejection letter excerpt from the wildly successful classic novel.  Try to beat my lowly score of 9/12.  Enjoy!

Play the “Sporcle” Literary Rejection Letters Game



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Wordplay: Not Just Nerdplay

logophile \ˈl-gə-ˌfī(-ə)l, ˈlä-\, noun, a lover of words. (Merriam Webster)

That’s me.  I delight in the geeky rush of puzzling together a witty play on words.  I double over at the hilarity of an unexpected pun.

mistrel cramps

But wordplay is not just clever or funny.  One thing I love about words as an art form is that sometimes as I read or write or think them, they reveal things to me that I didn’t see before.

Yesterday morning, I made a mistake that I could have easily been hung up on for the rest of the day.  Not long after, one of my students asked me the date.  I told him.  Then I smiled.  Then I marched forth.

I’ve also been letting go of some anger I had toward a person that I’m not in touch with anymore.  I didn’t plan on telling them or getting back in touch, but I wanted to forgive them for my own peace of mind.  But then I thought about that word and it became clear that it’s not something meant to be kept to oneself.  It’s literally for giving.

It’s a gift I know I would always love to receive.

When are some times that words have unexpectedly revealed something inspiring to you?


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But Does “Happily Ever After” Pay?

Last week, my SCBWI Carolinas chapter sparked an important and honest discussion of the various ways that people financially support themselves as writers.  Their stories ranged from balancing full-time jobs, parenthood, and eking out early morning writing time, support from spouses, writing after retiring, and some, after many years of invested time and multiple publications, who were able to support themselves with just writing.  They shared this article of a writer’s full disclosure of relying on spousal support.  Among all of these stories, there was a consensus.  It’s tough to pay the bills with writing alone.

It just so happened that the same week this discussion blew up, I received my first ever advance (YAY!).  Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job.  By which I mean day jobs.  I have five.  But I thought that I would add my own story to this healthy conversation that brings clarity to writing as a career and dispels the myths that writing generally leads to typing on an antique typewriter whilst sporting silk robes in your Swiss chalet.  Although maybe one of these days I’ll come back and un-bust that myth…

Anyone want to pay for me to go get inspired here?  Don't all jump up at once...

Anyone want to pay for me to go get inspired here? Don’t all jump up at once…

I wrote a story on a whim that I submitted to a couple of children’s magazines on an even bigger whim.  Spider Magazine shockingly accepted it at a time when I was feeling disillusioned with trying to make “saving the world” into a viable career.  I decided that the time was right to come back to my childhood dream of becoming a children’s book writer.

After the incredible luck I had with Spider, I decided to try my hand at writing for one whole year, and if it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, I would step onto a more solid career path.  With that addendum, my family was very supportive.

So I took a part-time job bussing tables, and I wrote for a year.  Then I wrote for three more years.  It still wasn’t going anywhere.  But my part-time jobs were.

During these four years of trying to make it as a writer, I moved through part-time jobs that grew closer and closer to my heart, becoming jobs that I would hope to be involved in even if I could afford that Swiss chalet.  They allowed me to pay my bills and still find time to write, but they did much more than that, too.

For one thing, they provided me with a safety net.  If I threw in the towel on writing while bussing tables, I would also throw in the rag that I was wiping crumbs with and have to start fresh.  But working jobs that I loved gave me something to believe in those times when I didn’t believe in my writing.  It took some of the pressure off of my writing, and so I wrote more and better.

Loving my jobs also gave me confidence.  It was hard spending so much time at a job that paid my bills but was unfulfilling (and yes, I know how lucky I am to be able to choose fulfilling work!).  It was hard telling people that I was bussing tables and trying to make it as a writer.  But telling people that I taught kids creative writing and art and Spanish and that I was a writer?  That felt great.  And so I told people more and more.

It was working one of those part-time jobs that I love and putting myself out there as a writer that led to the fortuitous circumstances of my picture book contract.  I still haven’t “made it” as a writer.  Not even close.  And that chalet?  Well, let’s hope I have enough saved up to pay my taxes this year.  And I don’t have a family yet or a house or big medical expenses, so I know it will get harder.  But just making ends meet by teaching kids creative writing and art and Spanish and writing is by far the happiest I’ve ever been in my work.

Among all those stories of the various ways writers support themselves, I said that there was a consensus, but actually, there are two.  It is tough to pay the bills with writing alone, but there are ways to make it work.  And if you’re not in it for the money, but for the love of writing, then being a writer really does pay.


Filed under Featured Posts, Thoughts and Insights

Nous Sommes Forts

There is nothing to say about the tragic attack on Charlie Hebdo that hasn’t already been said by thousands. And thank you, thousands, for saying it.

A children’s writer may be a far cry from a political cartoonist, but I believe in being able to express myself in words just as I believe in political cartoonists expressing themselves in comics, directors and actors in films, musicians in song, and every person in the non-violent ways that they wish to express themselves.

In addition to writing, I’m a teaching artist, and it’s my job to help children believe they have a voice that’s worth sharing.  I hope these kids, whom I keep encouraging to express themselves, can grow up to a world where they can do this without fear.  But even if they don’t, I hope that they will be as strong as the world has been these past days, standing up to violence in support of our fallen artists and defenders of free speech.

Here’s one of the many powerful images that’s been circulating the internet in response to the attack.  Stay strong, and keep speaking, painting, or singing what is true to you.

Charlie Hebdo response

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