Risk, Broken Bones, and Writing

In early June my son and his friend, both college students, were skateboarding on a Friday night in Portland. They chose a street that each thought the other had gone down before. As they picked up speed both realized they were in trouble. My son’s friend purposely headed into a wall of blackberry brambles. His was a good decision.

My son thought he could slow or stop. He came to a few minutes later with a broken collarbone and trouble speaking. His concussion cleared enough for him to ask his friend to call 911. His friend’s phone was shattered and the friend flagged down a passing motorist. My son spent the night on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room. He said that being in the hallway was a good thing. People were dying in the rooms.

A week after the crash, my son had his third orthopedic surgery in four years. (#1 a collision off of a snowboard jump. #2 a fall while bouldering.) My son is doing well now. His full recovery from the accident was faster than mine.

I spoke to my son about his general risk assessment skills. So did his professor (my son was working in a lab for the summer). So did most of his friends. Even for the 20ish crowd, three sporting accidents requiring surgery seemed extreme.

Here’s the strange thing: part of me was envious of my son and his broken collarbone. (I can publicly admit this because none of my children read my blog.)

It’s been an incredible year for Maddi’s Fridge. It’s been a tough year for my writing.

I have been slow, tentative, and reluctant to take the risks necessary submit finished picture books to editors and polish my current novel. My inability to take chances is pulling me under like quicksand.

I know that some of you will say “Unknown steep hill, skateboard, that’s a risk. But what’s going to happen to you? Is your laptop going to fall on your big toe?”

You are right. I am under no physical threat. Emotional fears, though, cause their own damage. Fear of losing self-respect though failure, fear of ridicule (you wrote what????) and fear of rejection can paralyze even someone with a few accomplishments under her bra strap.

Then I look at my son who stands at the top of a steep hill with a thin piece of wood, four wheels, no helmet, and is excited and happy to see what happens next. My son is modeling behavior for me.

I don’t want to be as physically adventurous. I do want to emulate his excitement and the willingness to leap.

For the record: I am not advocating that you or any member of my family skateboard, skydive, etc. But I’m beginning to realize that extreme sports are so popular because they show you both the joys and risks all in the same moment. You overcome your fears and the reward (or occasionally, the punishment) is immediate.

You will not find me standing on a steep Portland hill with a skateboard in my hands. Hopefully, you will find me rebuilding my excitement and enthusiasm for writing. If I can rediscover that passion, I know I will leap

skateboard

And yes, all thanks to my son.

Humbled — Maddi’s Fridge Wins a 2015 Christopher Award

So you’re writing a story and the protagonist wins an award. She gets up on stage — maybe you have her trip on the stairs for humor’s sake or to break up the pacing — and then she begins her big speech. The only thing she can blurt out is, “I’m totally humbled by this award.”

This is first draft stuff, where clichés rule. You need to cut that dialog and have the protagonist thank her cat (hmm, that might be cliché too) or, I don’t know, do jumping jacks. Anything but say the overused “humbled.”

Maddi’s Fridge has won a 2015 Christopher Award in the Books for Young People category.

christopher medal 1
The only word that I can think of, even a week later, is…humbled.

Humbled because I don’t know where my friend Liz, whose empty refrigerator was the tear in my heart that began this story, ended up in adulthood.

Humbled because the manuscript for Maddi’s Fridge somehow landed in exactly the right place: the talented and competent hands of my editor, Shari Dash Greenspan at Flashlight Press.

Humbled by the incredibly fun and beautiful illustrations drawn by Vin Vogel.

Humbled by all of the great books published in 2014 that also “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” They are out there lighting the darkness. Find them.

Especially humbled by all of the volunteers in food banks across the United States. No one is throwing them a party or giving them a medal. They lug heavy boxes and sometimes search nearly empty shelves. They hold hope in their hearts while working to feed hungry kids and the elderly. They help families that have no where else to turn.

While clichés may not work in literature, in the real world some still have deep meaning. (“Hearts of gold” comes to mind when I think of the volunteers at food banks.)

I’m totally humbled by this award.

If you’d like to help your friends and neighbors who might have empty refrigerators, here’s a link to Feeding America.

What Writers Can Learn from the Seahawks

I’ve had a real slump in my writing life recently. And not one that people see. On the surface everything looks great. I’ve got a fantastic picture book out, reviews are excellent, and I’m having a blast doing school visits and helping young children with their stories.But in my daily life I am struggling. Despite many drafts that I love, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I only had one really good book in me.

I watched with incredible dismay on January 18th as my team fell apart. Russell Wilson could neither run nor throw a pass. Correction, Wilson could throw a pass to the Packers defense without any problem. I’m not sure that the Seahawks even made a first down in the first half of this crucial playoff game.

After the third quarter and another interception, I thought, okay, we’ll be back next year. Even a great team can have a horrible day.

Then I thought about my writing. Why wasn’t I giving myself the same break? Sometimes the day-to-day setbacks of the writing life — rejections, meandering plots, and flaccid characters — stop me cold. I won’t write for weeks. How stupid is that? I have dozens of stories in my head demanding to be written.

The Seahawks, unbelievably, turned the game around.

And this isn’t the first time that they’ve pulled a win out of their ****. (Okay, I can’t think of a substitute for a rather rude but accurate description of where the Seahawk’s often bizarre victories appear to come from.) The Seahawks have a pattern of winning games they shouldn’t. Often the other team looks better. It drives my California relatives, 49’ers and Packers fans all, into red-faced rages.

The truth is that the Seahawks never give up. Richard Sherman playing defense with an injured elbow may have been one of the stupidest moves in pro football I’ve seen, but it speaks to heart. He wouldn’t leave the field when his team needed him.

Forget that you are down by 16, that your quarterback has just thrown another interception, and that your fans are saying goodbye on Twitter and filing out of the stadium. Do you want to win the game? If so, forget the yard markers and the calls that go against you. Ignore the score and keep playing with all you’ve got.

No matter what the outcome this Sunday, or what your team, the Seahawks are a great example of how to keep working when the game becomes impossibly tough.

seahawk 12

Laughter, Misty Eyes, and Maddi’s Fridge

A few weeks ago I was responsible for tears shed in Washington State, Connecticut, California, and cyberspace.

Don’t be alarmed; kids do not cry when they read Maddi’s Fridge. I was very careful to ensure that the story gently entertains children. Elementary school children respond to the friendship between Maddi and Sofia.

Always

They laugh at eggs in backpacks and Vin Vogel’s great illustrations.

eggs and backpacks

And have you seen that dog looking at the fireplug?

took all of the colors with it

It is true, though, that Maddi’s Fridge leaves some adults misty-eyed.

The same week that a librarian in Connecticut and a reviewer on Goodreads had tears in the corners of their eyes, a woman in Washington State couldn’t even finish Maddi’s Fridge because of personal experiences with hunger.

Years ago this woman was a single mom with two young girls. They ate nothing but pancakes for 6 months as she worked, paid rent, and struggled every day to provide food to her little girls. She called her now-adult daughter to talk about Maddi’s Fridge and had to hang up. She was crying too hard.

She, like so many other American parents, had been thrust into a situation – a single parent supporting two young children – that she had never imagined. She’s fine now. Her daughters are fine. But the weight of her story stays with her, along with the knowledge that not everyone makes it out.

It is this weight that some adults feel when they read Maddi’s Fridge.

Why don’t kids cry when they read Maddi’s Fridge? Kids get that there are problems, but each child’s heart contains unlimited hope. They respond to Maddi’s Fridge messages of friendship and community.Stories of hope are the focus of my school visits. We talk about friendship. We talk about promises. We talk about helping our friends who might have empty refrigerators.

All smiles at school visit

We also explore the importance of sharing stories. Kids write, draw, and tell their own experiences of when they helped someone or were helped.

helping stories

The fourth person who cried was a 2nd grade teacher in California. Tears in her eyes, she told me that two of the boys who read their ‘helping stories’ with me were special needs kids and had never before volunteered to share in class. Maddi’s Fridge had touched their hearts.

Our community is strongest when we explore the stories that move us. Laughter and tears are the sweet and sour of life. They are the parts we remember. They are the heart of our lives.

To those adults who get misty-eyed reading Maddi’s Fridge: Thank you for caring and being touched by this story.

To those who have experienced hunger: You are not alone. You are part of our community and we are listening.

Over fifteen million stories of childhood hunger are happening in the United States at this moment. We can honor these stories by taking action.