The Right Book at the Right Time

Recently, I was asked to name a book (or books) that affected my life in some way. Which leads to the question…hasn’t every book?

But I don’t think that was the assignment.

Therefore, in the spirit of the “rule of 3”, I chose the following books that have impacted my life in a huge way:

One Fish Two Fish

  1. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (Dr. Seuss) – pure joy!

This classic picture book was the first book I ever read by myself. I still remember stretching out on my parents’ bed and giggling with joy about how amazing it was – how amazing I was – to be able to read. The world had suddenly opened up in ways I’d never imagined. Oh! The places I’d go…

Don't Take Teddy

  1. Don’t Take Teddy (Babbis Friis-Baastad) – the power of empathy and connection.

In this powerful book, young Mikkel tries to run away with his older brother Teddy (who is mentally challenged) after Teddy accidentally hurts another child while playing, and the townsfolk threaten to place him in an asylum. I checked this out of the school library in third grade and it not only broke my heart, it inspired me. It empowered and shaped me. It ignited empathy and reinforced the power of love and kindness.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

  1. When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold S. Kushner) – comfort and reassurance.

Although I wasn’t raised with traditional religious education, I’ve always been a spiritual person. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t talk to God each night before I fell asleep. Yes, sometimes I asked for things. But mostly, I told Her about my day. I always made sure to thank God for everything I had and end with, “I love you.” I wanted to be the person I thought God wanted me to be.

I don’t know when I started to notice things at my house were different than at my friends’. I have faint memories of wondering why my mom refilled bottles of “grownup drink” with water. Why she had a cabinet full of pills. And why she didn’t socialize like the other mothers did. But for a child, a dysfunctional home is her normal.

Then, one night when I was 15, my mom walked into her bedroom, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

I don’t think I ever prayed so hard as I did that night, begging God to let my mom live.

And she did.

I wish I could say that my prayers were answered in a happy ending way. Sadly, I cannot.

The mental illness and consequent substance abuse that overwhelmed her only tightened its grip. The bullet had ripped through both ocular nerves. Blinded, she became even more depressed. Angry. And violent.

Relatives and friends turned away.

Still, I tried my best to be “good.” To talk to God. To pray. To be thankful. Hopeful.

But sometimes I couldn’t help myself. I begged God to help us. To “fix” my mom. I didn’t understand why She didn’t. I’d accompanied some of my friends to their houses of worship. I’d heard over and over that God was in control of everything. That She made things happen. And that She could fix anything She deemed worthy.

If She wanted to.

Perhaps that was what hurt most of all. Didn’t She want to? Weren’t we worthy? The more I prayed and asked for help without results, the further I slipped down that dark hole.

I wish I had read When Bad Things Happen to Good People earlier, because it changed my perspective, and my world.

It’s hard to condense the book into a few sentences, but I’ll try. And here’s the thing: we all have our own spiritual and personal relationships with our Maker. You may read it and find it has a different meaning for you.

Basically, Rabbi Kushner compares God to a parent. He says that God loves us, Her children, unconditionally, and tries Her best to teach us, but then must step back as we venture out into the world. She allows us to make our own decisions, even if we make the wrong ones. Like every loving parent, She applauds our successes and grieves our losses. She doesn’t make bad things happen. What loving parent would? She also won’t – or perhaps can’t – stop them from occurring. Think about the Butterfly Effect that might cause!

We’re meant to learn from our mistakes, as shattering as they may be. But God is there for us, always, offering her love, comfort and support when we’re in pain.

To be clear, I do think prayer works. I still talk to God. Every night. In praying, we reach out to each other. We reconnect with our “family.” And together, we can move mountains. We can heal.

Interestingly enough, I finished the book the day the Challenger exploded. It snowed as I watched the news and wept. Only this snow looked different. It sparkled. Like fresh tears. And I knew. God hadn’t made this tragedy occur. Like a grieving parent, God cried with me.

I realized then that God had cried with me all those years ago too. I’d lost a mom. She’d lost a child.

Thinking back, perhaps God is the one who guided me to find these books when I needed them. Perhaps God, in addition to serving as a loving parent, is also a librarian.

Which would make those who work in bookstores, schools and libraries angels, right? Yep. Sounds about right to me.

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Real to Reel

“But…it was all so perfect in my head.”

Years ago, I was honored to perform in a community theater production of the play Quilters. This line, which I continually embrace and identify with, was delivered by our brilliant director several times over the rehearsal period.

She had a vision. And on those long, challenging nights, we were not living up to it. But she didn’t give up on her idea. Nor did she give up on us. And Quilters was ultimately a success.

When I read, the story unfolds in my mind in larger-than-life, cinematic glory. The same thing occurs when I write.

And it’s all so perfect in my head!

The challenge when writing, however, is to find the words, the right words, the “perfect” words, to ensure my readers are able to envision it too. When I write my picture books, I have the luxury of an illustrator to help lift my vision to heights I’d never even imagined.

But when I write my novels, it’s all me. My words alone must set the scene, introduce the characters and awaken all five senses. My words alone must ignite the readers’ imaginations. My words alone must invite them to immerse themselves in the story heart and soul.

Do I dream of my stories becoming actual movies one day? Absolutely. But before we bust out the popcorn, first, I have to get it right outside of my head. On paper.

shutterstock_401088817

On Crossing a Line

There have always been heated discussions regarding children’s books (especially young adult novels) as to whether there’s a “line”…and if authors should cross it.

Here’s the thing. I don’t believe there’s “a” line.

Crossing line street pic

I believe there are countless lines. Infinite lines. As many lines as there are people and possibilities.

And just as many opinions on what determines “the” line.

What constitutes a line marked with barbed wire for one, may present an enticing invitation to another.

What signifies a terrifying nightmare for one, may expose another person’s day-to-day challenge.

What ignites fear and confusion in one, may reveal another person’s salvation.

What’s more, crossing a line can indicate an intersection. A place for us to meet.

For readers facing adversity, introducing others who share similar challenges emphasizes they’re not alone. Consequently, it enables those who have not personally crossed a particular line to “experience” situations in a safe way. It fosters understanding. Empathy. Connection.

Of course, not every book needs to, or should, cross a line. Action must never be gratuitous, but rather, should portray the characters in an honest manner, advance the plot and be true to the story’s heart. It must deliver on its promise.

Because sometimes, crossing that line in a book is exactly what someone needs.

Crossing line Umbrella pic

When an Idea Adopts YOU

The world is filled with ideas. Sometimes they’re in our face. Other times they’re playing hide and seek. But they’re there. Everywhere.

But when is an idea “right” for us?

I often describe my stories as being my “kids”. I nurture them, try my best to prepare them for their “launch”, and then hope the world accepts – and loves – them as much as I do.

How do I know when to adopt an idea? I don’t. Not always, that is.

But sometimes, if I’m lucky, an idea will hold on tight…and adopt me.

That sounds sweet, doesn’t it? Often, it is. I’ll be sitting there, minding my own business and wham! An idea will come along and smile that smile and (as Dolly Pardon would say) there go all my defenses. I can’t help but take it in!

That’s what happened with WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN. My husband was building sandcastles and several children on the beach decided to help. One little boy stuck a piece of seaweed in the doorway and my husband said, “Wow! That looks like a dragon’s tail. Our castle is so cool, a dragon moved in!”

(How I wish all stories could be this easy…spoiler alert: they’re not.)

YAOT Dragon tail castle

Other times, a tiny little character will whisper its dreams in my ear and crawl into my heart. I have a spider story that I’ve been spinning for years now (we’re talking over 100 revisions – note: see above spoiler alert.) Though it hasn’t found a home yet, (and I’m the first one to cringe when I see a spider in real life), I can’t seem to give up on this sweet, determined arachnid.

YAOTL spider big eyes

And then there are those characters that won’t give you the time of day…

YAOTL Bird walking away

But just try and give your attention to another story. It’s sibling rivalry at its finest, like when you’re busy helping one child with homework and the other one suddenly remembers she needs you to bake last minute cookies for the team.

Or when you finally get one moment to go to the bathroom, only to have your kids sit outside the door and strike up a conversation with you. “H-e-e-e-y!” they demand. “We’re ready to share now. Are you listening?”

YAOTL bird in face

Yes, dear hearts. I hear you. I’ll be right out, er, um, there.

Finally, there are the ideas that stare at you with those big eyes and those heart-wrenching expressions. You don’t know what they want, not yet, but you know they have something special to tell you.

YAOTL Knox

That’s exactly what’s happened with this barn near my house. It’s old. It’s falling apart. It’s right behind a new development going up and I’m fearful each time I seek it out that it will have suffered the brute force of a bulldozer.

yaotl barn

This barn has adopted me. It speaks to me. It calls me back to it again and again. I don’t know whether it will end up as an inspirational springboard, a spooky setting or a fully fleshed out character, but I know it will serve as something in an upcoming story.

Something important. Something special. Something right…for me.

What ideas will adopt you?

Limiting the Limits

We are Cirque-a-holics in our family. From our first experience years ago with Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE (a tribute to the Beatles), we were hooked. The artistry, athletic skill and inspiration filled our minds, hearts and souls to overflowing.

The T-shirts in the gift shop were more than mere souvenirs. The words splashed across them allowed us to take a little piece of it home, to embrace the spirit:

I am ready. The sky is not the limit.

cirque sky is not the limit

That line spoke to us. Motivated us. It compelled each one of us to move out of our comfort zones, to burst forward, upward! To fulfill our dreams.

Nothing would hem us in. Nothing.

For a long time, I’ve believed that.

I still do.

However, there’s a difference between believing there are no limits and defining your own.

Too often, we make the mistake of boxing ourselves in. Sometimes (for multiple reasons), we accept the limits others have set for us. Other times, a lack of confidence on our part determines the weight of the restraints.

To this, I say…toss that box! Break it down. FLY. The sky is not the limit!

(I know, easier said than done.)

Of course, sometimes limits are important. For example, we need to follow speed limits or risk getting a ticket.

It’s also important to note that sometimes we need to place limits on ourselves for our own health and sanity. For example, I should limit myself to three cookies instead of eating the entire plate. I should limit my screen time to maximize my writing efforts. I should/must limit the amount of energy I spend on toxic people.

Finally, there are variables in this world outside of our control. What became achingly clear to me last month is that the biggest limit imposed upon us is Time.

I’m not talking about Age. As my husband says, “I can’t change age, but I can change attitudes.” Our younger son started studying magic at the age of 4, performing professionally at 12 and won “Best Newcomer/Magicians’ Alliance of the Eastern States” at 15 (incidentally, he’s the one who introduced us to Cirque.) I didn’t get my first picture book contract until I was 50. And the hubby who came up with that fantastic motto? He’s entering his fifth decade of providing music by request as a disc-jockey. (And a totally awesome one at that!)

larry dj ice rink

Age does not need to limit anyone.

I’m talking about time itself. The tick, tick, tick of the clock. The rapid turn of each page of our calendars. The amount of time – however its determined – that we, and those we love, spend on this earth.

Last month, I lost my dad. And suddenly, the limits that time imposes upon us hit me like a tsunami. This wasn’t a limit I’d set or could somehow overcome. I couldn’t stop it, swim through it or surf over it.

It just crashed over me.

Our family and friends huddled tight. At first, we cried with shared grief. But then, as we began to share memories, we smiled. We laughed at the funny anecdotes and held the pictures close to our hearts.

You see, it’s these memories that keep our precious ones alive.

We don’t always have control over what happens. But we can control our response.

And so, I shall write the stories…because if there’s anything in this world that’s truly limitless, it’s love.

Turn the Page

Last year, instead of sharing goals or “resolutions”, I selected a word to inspire me. The word was “connect”. There were so many amazing words to choose from, but as an author, this one spoke to me. It’s important for me to connect with my readers in order to help them connect with their world.

But at the moment, I feel more than a bit disconnected. Last week, I received a call that no one ever wants to receive. My dad suddenly and unexpectedly left this world.

Dad and me reading.png

I’m devastated. Our entire family is. He was a loving father and grandfather. He was my rock. I remember, as a child, standing at the top of our steps and jumping off with abandon, secure in knowing my dad would catch me at the bottom. He always provided that safe place to land. I guess you could say it was a living metaphor of what was to come in my teenage years, where my mom – and thus, the entire family – battled with the challenges of mental illness and the alcohol with which she tried to wash it away.

My dad never let me fall. Ever.

I started to write we never got a chance to say our last goodbye. Or “I love you”. But that’s not true. Because my dad and I were connected. I spoke to him every week (if not more) and though he lived one thousand miles away, we visited him as much as we could. I called him the day before he died to wish him Happy Hanukkah. We laughed. We talked about normal, everyday things. The price of getting a car fixed. Computer issues. Potato latkes. And the great pride we shared in our family.

And at the end, before we said goodbye, we said, “I love you.” We always did.

Of course, since life can be an unruly tangle of extreme joy and pain, the following day I was given permission by my Flashlight Press editor to share that there will be a new Dragon book next May, a board book for the littlest readers called I Love My Dragon.

I Love My Dragon cover.jpg

This is bittersweet for me. My dad knew it was coming, of course. But what he didn’t know was that it had been dedicated in part to him. It was supposed to be a surprise:

For Mom, who placed that first book in my hand, and for Dad, who helped turn the page.

I truly wish I could place this book in his hand.
 
Much love and thanks to my editor, Shari Dash Greenspan, our brilliant illustrator, Howard McWilliam, and the entire Flashlight family for making this book, this dedication, possible.

Please hug your precious ones a little harder today. Tell them you love them. Provide them that safe place to land. Connect. It’s the greatest gift you can both give and receive. Wishing you all a happy, healthy and safe holiday season, surrounded by family, friends and love.

Real…or Imagination?

This month in YA Outside the Lines, we’re exploring fact vs. fiction in our stories. This topic made me smile, and of course I wanted to share this here as well, as this is exactly what “happens” in WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN. The boy is thrilled when a dragon takes up residence in his “perfect” sandcastle and wants to share the magnificent news with his family…but no one believes him! The story, thanks to brilliant illustrator Howard McWilliam actually allows the readers to decide for themselves. Is the dragon real? Or just a figment of the boy’s imagination?

I love to share this picture book during my author visits. When I ask these questions at the end, the decision is usually a 50:50 split within the audience, and each child is adamant about his/her decision, armed with passionate arguments to back it up.

YAOT blog pic Sewell gym book trailer

Personally, hard as someone may try, I don’t think it’s possible to create anything without at least a teeny bit of our own selves running through it. After all, we see the world through our own eyes, processing it piece by piece based upon our own references.

The same can also be said of reading. We all bring our own emotional baggage and experiences to the stories we explore, which means that in a sense, we all read a completely different tale.

But here’s the question. Does an author know whether he/she is writing fact or fiction? And are the lines sometimes blurred?

This past week, I picked up a manuscript I hadn’t touched for about a year. This happens to me a lot. I get started, but then lose my way. Sometimes because I haven’t thought the whole thing through (yet). Sometimes because another project speaks to me in a louder or more insistent voice.

This project had a little of both. Although I couldn’t find the words to finish it earlier, it now seemed to call out for me like a child in need. Or perhaps it was my own inner child begging me to return…

You see, I grew up in a development of houses that bordered a golf course. In the winter (much to the irritation of the ground keepers), it made for some fantastic sledding trails. One afternoon, when there wasn’t anyone around to sled with, I decided to take myself on a nature walk through the wooded section. Near a clearing, under a tall tree, I found a baby bird. He’d obviously fallen from a nest, thankfully unscathed. I remember looking around to see if the mother was anywhere near. She wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t even hear another bird. It was just me, and this little guy.

Alone. In this big, big world.

(Note: since I obviously didn’t take pictures when I was six, the part of the little bird will be played by our dove, Bake, who has always wanted to be in theatre.)

Bake sitting

In my six-year old mind, it was up to me to save this baby. To teach him how to fly back to the nest where he’d be safe. Of course, I’d been taught never to touch wild animals, for reasons of safety…theirs and my own.

But I looked around and found a feather. Speaking in a soft voice, I explained the plan to my new little friend. And then I prodded him. Ever so gently. With the feather. He hopped forward. I praised him, then prodded again. Once more, he hopped. I must have spent over an hour doing this. Each time, he’d hop farther. A little bit higher. Soon, his wings began to flutter, then to flap. We kept working together. Tirelessly. Prod. Flap. Prod. Flap. Prod. Flap.

Until he flew.

Bake wings up

At first, he only traveled a few feet, and in the wrong direction, wobbling like Snoopy’s best friend, Woodstock. But we never lost hope, this bird and I. Over and over, he’d try, and I’d cheer. And finally, I watched as he fumbled his way up, up, up and landed in his nest.

I remember my heart filling. I remember spinning around as the snowflakes began to fall. And I remember hearing birds all around me, chirping, celebrating, rejoicing for my little buddy and me.

Did the last part really happen? I don’t know for sure. In my mind, it did. In my heart, it did. In my memories, it absolutely did.

I guess it will be up to my readers to decide whether it was indeed fact, or fiction.

May you all experience, and spread, a bit of kindness…today and forever.