On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

It happened a few years after 9/11. Highlights, the children’s magazine, was having their annual writing contest. The theme was: “Write a children’s story set in the future.”

download

The reason I write for children, the reason I read children’s books, is that children’s stories are stories of hope.  A children’s primer that I have from the mid-1800’s, which shows a couple grieving over an empty bassinet, says something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have lost their child. They are grieving, but perhaps God will give them another child.”

Grim, I know. But even during an era when the purpose of a children’s book was to prepare children for a hard and unpredictable life, there was always a drop of hope.

I wasn’t thinking grim thoughts years ago when I learned about the Highlights contest. I plopped down in front of my computer, excited to travel to distant worlds or explore some facet of scientific discovery.

I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I, who grew up with Star Trek and all of the subsequent science fiction stories. I, who still read science fiction and thrill at new concepts, couldn’t think of one story set in our future that ended well, or at least had the hope of filling the bassinet again.

It occurred to me, sitting in front of an empty screen, that we will never see or know peace if we can’t keep an image of peace in our minds.

So every September 11th I try to fill the bassinet with hope. I draft a story about a peaceful world set in the future.

img_3305

Not all butterflies and kittens, but a story that brings me a little closer to understanding who we are. I write stories about how we, humans of all faiths and backgrounds, can, hope by hope, drop by drop, build a better world.

Join me. Write about a peaceful world on September 11th.

Here’s what you do. Sometime during the day or evening set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down and write about a world without war. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news?

You don’t need to be a “writer” to join me. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can join the Facebook event.

 

Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.

The Toilet Paper Superhero

You can sit down to a writing prompt and go to all sorts of fun and weird places. Recently, a friend sent me this prompt: “Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

My first thought was ugh, now I have to get all personal and deep. But then I remembered the toilet paper.

toilet paper

My dad always bought in bulk for his newspaper office, and one day this massive package of toilet paper arrived. This was long before Costco and bulk buying for the average citizen. All of that toilet paper in the back corner of my dad’s office was as good as a circus side-show to me and my friends. (I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade.) No one in my small town had ever seen so much toilet paper in one place outside of the Vasey Brothers grocery store.

Looking back, it’s possible my dad had misordered for his small company.

But for me, it was a sign from Jesus. I went to church with my family every Sunday. I knew that if something extraordinary appeared in your life, that meant that God had a hand in it. Not just God, but Jesus, who actually came down to earth and dealt with people.
So I started thinking about why Jesus could possibly have brought all of that toilet paper into my life.

superman

At the time I was a huge fan of the Superman real life adventure series. The one where a broad-shouldered man in a cape jumped off tall buildings and flew through the air. (One of the worst disappointments in my young life was that our small town didn’t have a phone booth.)

My best friends at the time were Cathy and Christy M., identical twins who loved fooling people by trading places. One of my claims to fame was that I could always tell them apart. We spent every day after school together, either at their house or at my dad’s workplace.

I decided that all three of us would become superheroes. We would jump off the top of buildings, just like Superman, and fly around and save people. Working for Jesus was somehow muddled into the plan, although the details were sketchy.

The first thing we needed to do was open the gigantic package of toilet paper and spread the rolls on the ground below the roof of my dad’s building, just in case we needed a couple of tries at flying.

Maybe at the back of my mind there was a worry that I didn’t have the kind of superpowers that enabled me to fly. Maybe not. I’d been recently experimenting by jumping off the couch onto pillows. Every fifth time or so it did feel like I was getting extra lift, maybe from Jesus, before I crash-landed.

I was sure that all of that toilet paper was a sign that I would finally get to fly. All I needed to do was convince the M. twins to jump off the roof with me.

“That just won’t work.” Christy was always the spokesman when they disagreed with one of my plans. Cathy wasn’t quite as eloquent.

“But we have to try,” I said. “For Jesus.”

“We’re not jumping off the roof.” Christy crossed her arms and got a hard look in her eyes. She wasn’t budging.

This was the beginning of the end. About a year later I was no longer best friends with the M. twins. They decided to find a best friend or friends who were a little bit more grounded in reality.

I remember exactly where I was was standing, next to that wall of toilet paper of course, when Christy turned me down. And I remember the shock of discovering that three kids who believed in Jesus could have such differing opinions on how to proceed.

So maybe my brief almost-stint as a toilet paper superhero was a bit personal and deep after all.

Your turn. Where will this prompt take you?

“Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

What About Maddi’s Story?

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school in northern Washington State.

IMG_2617

The school held a food drive and collected 1600 food items before my visit.

I spoke to three assemblies and then led two writers’ workshops. At the beginning of 5th grade workshop, I asked the kids if they had questions about Maddi’s Fridge that didn’t get answered at the assembly.

One girl shot her hand up straight in the air. “Why don’t you do a second book, this time tell Maddi’s story.” What she meant was, tell Maddi’s Fridge from Maddi’s point of view.

crenshaw

I answered her by suggesting the class read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, a middle grade novel told from the point of view of a boy who has an empty refrigerator.

I went on to the next question. The girl’s hand went straight up back in the air. After answering a few questions I called on her again.

“What I’m asking is, why don’t you write Maddi’s story?”

The reason I love school visits, the reason I love to teach, is that I am given so much more than I bring when I walk into a school. I am given the gift of looking at the world in new and thoughtful ways.

The girl was asking me why Maddi didn’t have a direct voice in her story.

At this point I need to back up and let you know that the school I visited, the school that brought in 1600 food items for their local food bank, has a school-wide Title 1 program. In this school 29% of the kids come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of 4. An additional 11% of the kids are in families that earned less than $44,000 a year for a family of 4. (If you wonder how such a student body could bring in so many food items, read my blog post “What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid.”)

Many children in that school were already familiar with a grim statistic. Over half of American children are raised in families living below the poverty level. Some of the kids I was speaking with were living with empty refrigerators and empty cupboards.

Why didn’t I write Maddi’s story from her point of view? Why was Maddi’s story told by Sofia, a girl who had plenty of food in her refrigerator?

The simple answer is that I wrote a story based on my own experiences. I was an observer of a horrific event, the indifference our prosperous county pays to the hungry children in our midst. My childhood anguish when I found out that my best friend’s family had no food was still paramount in my mind as I wrote Maddi’s Fridge years later. I wrote from my point of view.

Maddi

But what about Maddi?

There has been a lot of discussion in the KidLit community about diversity in children’s books. Maddi’s Fridge has been mentioned frequently as a diverse book because it has a character living in poverty. (Remember, that’s now 51% of our children.)

But Sofia tells the story. Is that right?

What a difficult and complex question.

Maddi’s Fridge is my first book and I wanted to, was driven to, tell that story through my own eyes.

However, one story is not enough. There are 12.5 MILLION stories of childhood hunger happening right now in the United States. Why aren’t these stories showing up in the books we are reading. Not just books about hunger, but mysteries, sci fi, romance, adventure, fantasy, etc. Why are some groups so hidden from our collective consciousness? Why are so many children underrepresented in the books we read? Not only as characters, but also as viewpoint characters?

That fifth grade girl was telling me that she wasn’t in Maddi’s Fridge. Yes, she felt a connection with the book, but what about the Maddis of the world? Don’t they have the right to tell their own stories?

I am very proud of Maddi’s Fridge. It pushed into an area that was rarely explored by picture books and has touched the hearts of thousands of children and adults.

But that young girl’s question was a reminder to me, a reminder to all of us who write stories, to pay attention to the stories we tell. Who have we hidden? What voices have we unwittingly silenced?

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

star trek

Several years ago the theme of the Highlights Fiction Contest was to write a story set in the future. I’ve always enjoyed entering this contest, and sat down to write my sci fi short story for young children.

The page stayed empty. Not for a few minutes, or hours, as sometimes happens. The page stayed empty for days. I thought of several dystopian story lines, but nothing suitable for very young readers.

It was a few years after 9/11, but I discovered that the hope I had always held for the future (I’m a huge Star Trek fan) was gone. It took me several days to calm my fears and find in my heart a story that envisioned our grandchildren and great-grandchildren living happily in a peaceful world. The story had conflict, of course, but not the dark images which had haunted my mind since the moment the towers fell and continued well into our generation’s endless wars.

Since that time I’ve stretched the ‘hope’ section of my brain by spending ten minutes each September 11th envisioning peace. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news? What games would our children play?

If we imagine what peace looks, smells, feels, sounds and tastes like, we’ll know how to get there from here.

You don’t need to be a “writer” to participate. Ignore grammar, spelling, all of those boogeyman that slow down even the most accomplished writers. Lock your editor in a drawer (internal, not the one at your publisher). Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can post your writing in the comments section here on my blog, or go to the event page on Facebook.

live long and prosper

The Blog Bullshit Meter

What I want to talk about is over-revising your writing.

Oh. Even at my desk in the Seattle area I can hear shouts from New York agents and editors: “Nooooooo! Polish your woooork!”

Ignore them. Some of us perseverate on manuscripts that we need to release. This is a real problem for me. I’ll sit on a project, anything from a picture book to a novel, and only reluctantly send it out because I know it’s not perfect.

I’ll share my favorite quote here on perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. No one likes perfectionism. It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create….Perfectionism would have God recast every sunset and chide Mother Nature for her choice of colors. If everything were left up to perfectionism, nothing would exist.” — Judy Reeves

lake kachess great

And even though I’ve read this quote to all of my students, my revisions get to the point where I am not longer polishing my imagery or strengthening my characters. I am creating a different story. And this one I will also find fault with.

The only reason I pushed to get Maddi’s Fridge published was that I read it in front of 70 people and they ALL loved it. That’s a really bad precedent. How often am I going to get 70 people in one room to approve of a manuscript?

Logically I know that I should let go. Illogically I continue to write and rewrite the same stories.

Last week, though, my blog told me to stop messing around. Not in so many words. I was revising a post, “A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts” that I’d been working on for six weeks. Yes. A blog post. Yes. Six weeks. And no, I still wasn’t happy with the shape of my writing.

Anyway, I noticed the number of revisions to the right of my WordPress page. At that point, it said 16 revisions. 400 words. 16 revisions.

If I believed that the afterlife came with a computer, or at least a pen and paper, maybe I could go on revising for that perfect story. But there’s a huge problem. Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfect. Reworking and rewriting a piece can lead to stilted, dead language, and moribund characters. If you don’t allow yourself to stretch and make mistakes as an artist, you don’t progress.

What to do? Dot. Dot. Dot. If you’re looking for an answer to this problem, you’re reading the wrong blog.

One thing I will commit to: fewer revisions before I hit “publish” on my blog posts. This is good practice for me and the bullshit meter is sitting there keeping track, reminding me to let go. (Posted with only 6 7 revisions.)

The quote above is from Judy Reeves, “A Creative Writer’s Kit.”

Diverse Books as a Basic Need

I remember vividly my first love, The Moon of Three Rings by Andre Norton. The book was on display at the top of a bookcase at my local library. I was already a fan of Saturn, and here was a beautifully colored drawing of a moon with rings.

moon of three rings 2
Yes, I took home a book because of its cover.

I began reading. The main character was quickly turned into a cat-like creature. This was my secret dream, to become a cat. I talked to cats nonstop and believed that they understood me. Here, finally, was an adventure ready-made for me.

Up until that moment I still didn’t see what all the “reading” fuss was about.

I had read other books, of course. I wept my way through the ending of Charlotte’s Web, so hysterical that my mother had to come to class to comfort me. Nancy Drew was insipid. Dr. Seuss scared the bejeezus out of me so badly that I refused to touch picture books.

The Moon of Three Rings turned me into an avid reader. My entire allowance, which I earned helping at the family business after school, was now spent on the Scholastic book order.

It only takes one book to make a life-long reader.

When you become a reader you travel to other planets and magical worlds. You also become a young girl hiding from the nazi’s, a boy raised by dogs, an artist cutting off his ear, a soldier who forgets for one moment that he is at war and raises his head to look at a beautiful bird. You live other lives. Even cat lives.

Your world expands.

When someone tells me they don’t read, it’s the same as telling me they don’t breathe.

So what is it like to grow up without books? When I visit elementary schools I already see a few children, some as young as 8 or 9, who have an empty look in their eyes like nothing in that school is for them. Not the colorful drawings on the walls. Not the laughing kids. Especially not the books in the library. Somehow, they have been shut out of the stories that can buoy a life.

I recently asked a group of teachers to imagine growing up in a world where libraries were full of books, but only books about football. Football being played by aliens in science fiction stories, historical novels featuring early attempts by the Greeks to develop football, etc.

I asked how many of them would have become avid readers.

Imagine how hard it is to read when there aren’t any books that touch your heart. The reason we need diverse books is to help all young readers find the one book that will set them free.