Let Them Read What They Want…& What They Need

When our boys were toddlers, we’d read a stack of books every night before bed. And they’d always ask for ‘just one more’.

Sure, part of it was extending bedtime. But I also recognized the enchantment in their eyes with each tale. The excitement of each page turn. The love of story.

As they grew older, we’d giggle over the antics of Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones,

captain underpants

weep as we read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, sadako

and tremble with our own goosebumps after volume upon volume of R.L. Stine.

goosebumps

Then, one day…we didn’t.

Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. But it happened. And it wasn’t just that somehow we’d stopped sharing books together. It seemed as if they’d stopped reading for pleasure.

I tried to convince myself I hadn’t failed as a parent. (And failed.)

But then I realized they hadn’t stopped reading. Steve – who was devouring every magic book the library had to offer at age 8 – told me that David Copperfield said, “It’s not the trick, but the performance” and informed me he needed acting lessons. Alex, at 10, was already writing code for our computer.

It’s said that the body will crave what its lacking in nourishment. Our sons were reading what they wanted to. What they needed to. What their minds and hearts craved.

And it was important, as a parent, to let them do so. Whatever category. Whatever genre. Whatever format.

Now, we giggle over the hilarious video games Alex develops. And just recently, we wept over a stunning production of Spring Awakening that Steve directed and choreographed.

They never stopped loving story. They simply knew what they needed to read to create their own.

Coloring Outside of the Lines

This month on YA Outside the Lines, most of the blog entries focus on teen interviews. After all, it’s important to reach out to your audience. To be able to fill the void in their world. To know their wants. Their needs. Their hearts.

And after all, the name of the blog is YA Outside the Lines.

I thought about this assignment for weeks. You see, my audience is different. I write picture books. And although most book selling sites will categorize the target age as 4-8 years old, it’s important to realize you not only have to engage the children, but their adult readers as well.

So, rather than do one interview, I’ve decided to share some of the questions, comments and thoughts that have offered insight into my target audience over the years.

  1. Kids are empathetic.

1st Grader: “Can you write a book about the boy’s sister next? All the bad stuff in When A Dragon Moves In seems to happen to her.”

Others joined in: “Yeah, she needs a dragon too!”

Spray sand from Dragon
Illustration from When A Dragon Moves In (Flashlight Press), artist Howard McWilliam
  1. It’s not the kids who have the short attention span:

Kindergartener: “I wish the book could’ve been longer, but I guess you’re pretty busy.”

(Note: This comment squeezed my heart. We’re constantly told that kids don’t have the patience to sit through longer stories. Methinks it might be the adults…?)

  1. Kids listen to our words and look to us for inspiration.

Letter from 4th grader

I received this note from a fourth grader. Children are bursting with potential. Be the wind beneath their wings, not the one clipping the feathers. (This squeezed my heart too, but in a good way.)

  1. Kids are smart. They want to read, but we have to let them choose their own stories.

I’ve participated in too many festivals where children ages 8 on up pause in front of my booth to pore over my books. You can see their eyes light up as they absorb each page, each word, each illustration.

And then, the tug from the adult. “You’re too old for that book. Look at these over here.”

What these parents don’t often realize is that picture books are mini art museums, where each turn of the page offers a new delight and an avenue for the imagination to embark on a fresh journey. Plus, some readers are more comfortable connecting to stories in a visual sense.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to sway some parents to acknowledge and embrace the power of graphic novels. And look what happens when my own Dragon is interpreted by a brilliant, young artist:

Dragon graphic novel

  1. Kids need to see themselves in books, physically, psychologically and emotionally.

I’m a great supporter and advocate for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Please read more about it here.

Girl Power

I’d also like to share a personal experience.

During a signing event for When A Dragon Moves In and When A Dragon Moves In Again, a woman approached me and asked what the books were about. I wasn’t even sure she was listening as she paged through a copy, lost in Howard McWilliam’s brilliant illustrations. But when I explained how “Dragon” acts a little naughty when no one believes he’s real, she looked up. “It’s about a child’s frustration?” she asked. And that’s when she shared a bit of her story with me. I felt my heart splinter. Without divulging personal details, suffice it to say that her granddaughter was dealing with challenges no child should ever have to.

With tears in her eyes, she said she thought her grandchild would identify with the boy and his dragon in my story. Would see herself. And that it would help her. We both cried then. And hugged. (Ya know, long ago when we were able to.)

  1. Finally, kids inspire US.

During one school visit, I mentioned that I’m working on a middle grade novel as well as a YA. “How long does it take for a book to be published?” one second grader asked.

“It can take years,” I told her, and described a bit of the process for them.

“Perfect,” she said with a grin. “That means I’ll be old enough to read it when it does.”

And with that beautiful smile in mind, I must go write. Because if there’s one thing I know for sure,  I don’t ever want to let any of these kids down.

Dare to Fail Gloriously!

Years ago, I happened upon a poster that said:

“Dare to Fail Gloriously!”

Since then, it has become somewhat of a family motto, as each one of us is involved in some form of the arts, including music, theater, design, directing, choreography and writing. And while we love what we do, there’s no guarantee others will.

You see, one of the true challenges of any artistic endeavor is to create honestly. We owe it to our audience. We owe it to ourselves.

It can be scary to put oneself out there. Because when we share our art, we share the most vulnerable parts of ourselves…our hearts.

But it can also be exhilarating and rewarding beyond measure.

Through art, we have the power to make people pause. Think. Feel. We can make them laugh. Cry. Remember. We can inspire empathy and understanding. And we can promote connection.

Pretty powerful stuff, no?

So, how do we deal with the ‘dare to fail’ part?

feet in pool water
Come on in! The water’s fine!

First, you need to jump in. You need to start.  A blank page can be intimidating. Inscribe that first word. Craft that first sentence. Hey! It’s not blank anymore! Keep going. Write that initial terrible draft. Odds are, it will be just that. Terrible. But that’s what revision is for. And getting started puts you way ahead of those who simply talk about it.

Second, don’t listen to the ‘no’-it-alls. Yes, this business is filled with rejection. There are countless people out there, from family and associates to professionals, who will tell you ‘no’ for a variety of reasons. But all it takes is one ‘yes’. And if I can do it, so can you.

Finally, connect with others who share your passion. Consider joining professional associations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org), and/or participating with online communities such as the 12×12 Challenge (https://www.12x12challenge.com/), #PBParty (https://michellehauckwrites.com/contests/picture-book-party/),  Storystorm (https://taralazar.com/storystorm/) and Reading for Research (http://www.reforemo.com/p/reading-list.html), to name but a few. These groups not only instruct, inspire and guide you, but they’ll open your world to a treasure-trove of potential critique partners and true friends…ones who will be there to celebrate your successes and hug away the hurts.

And if that isn’t glorious, I don’t know what is. Will you accept the challenge?

Confessions of a Flop-timist

Not gonna lie. This past year was rough.

I lost my dad December 2018, so 2019 was a year of difficult ‘firsts’: the first New Year’s Day I wasn’t able to share my silly resolutions with him. The first birthday of his I wasn’t able to call him on the phone to say, “I love you.” The first birthday of mine I wasn’t able to hear him say that to me.

Full disclosure? I told him anyway. Yep. I talk to him all the time. About my day. About our family. About my fears. About my dreams. Sometimes, I feel his hug. Other times, I can hear him roll his eyes. Both make me smile. (Okay, since I’m in full disclosure mode, both have prompted tears as well.)

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself this year, it’s that I’m a ‘floptimist’. You know, that tenuous soft spot between optimist and pessimist, that fragile balance between “if it’s not okay, it’s not the end” and full-on dystopia? In other words, if you evaluate my emotion on a scale of 1 to 100 Acre Wood, I’m a total mashup of Tigger and Eeyore.

A floptimist is someone who believes in oneself fully and unconditionally, except when one hits a bump in the road (a.k.a. “flops”.) A floptimist will then cry or rant, but ultimately understands that a rejection, diversion, or even an overwhelming loss, however painful, can eventually be redirected, revised or crafted into something positive and/or inspiring. We acknowledge it hurts, but also recognize it promotes growth.

It’s a useful tool for me as a writer.

This past year, I found it a lifeline as a daughter. I wanted to create a scrapbook to honor my dad’s memory, to honor his legacy, to help us heal. But my Eeyore was in full swing. Like many families, ours had suffered some dark times, where there were limited photographs to commemorate birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. What’s more, the current politics were inflicting even more cracks. How could I do this? Where could I even start? Thankfully, Tigger bounced in right when I needed him most.

Tigger hugging eeyore shirt

(Note: I found this t-shirt advertised on Etsy. It’s by Miko Tees. And now I want it, lol!)

Sure, there were things that had tried – and still aim – to tear us apart. But there was a lot more that we shared, that connected us, that bonded us: our love of music, of art, of sportsmanship. Our love of dancing, of parties, of food. Our love of holidays, of animals, of each other.

Our love.

Because ultimately, that’s what matters.

At least to this floptimist.

Do The Hustle

This month, we’re talking about side hustles.

*cues song*

Wait…what?

The Hustle, by Van McCoy, the father of disco? Isn’t that what you asked for?

Oh. *smacks head* *giggles* You mean a side job, the thing that helps us creatives to pay the bills and all that. Please forgive me if I misunderstood, because my side job may actually involve playing The Hustle. Perhaps rock, country, hip hop.  Or the newest song by Billie Eilish.

You see, my side hustle is playing music by request. I’m a DJ. And not a radio DJ, but a mobile/club DJ, which means I play in front of a live audience, including everything from parties and charity functions to corporate events, from weddings to reunions to Bat & Bar Mitzvahs, in bars and clubs and event halls. I’ve played parties inside and outside, under tents, in ice arenas, sports centers and even in a few corrals.

I may be biased, but I was trained by the best: my husband. You see, I helped him DJ a fraternity party on our first date. And I was hooked. On him and on the job.

You see, I’d always loved music, and prided myself on knowing the titles, artists and words to the songs. What I didn’t realize is how much else is involved. When I tell people what I do, they say, “That must be so much fun!” And it is. But as with anything worth doing, it’s worth doing well. So, before there’s fun, there’s work to be done.

It’s not just the equipment and the music, it’s the knowledge, preparation and experience of how to piece the sets together to facilitate a dance floor. It’s being able to figure out what someone is insisting you play when they give you a line in the song rather than the true title. It’s teaching the electric slide 100 million times. Dealing with people who may have had a bit too much to drink. Honing the skill and intuition to “read a room.” And being responsible for the minute-to-minute timeline of a 48-hour dance marathon.

It’s calming the bride who rips her special stockings with the bells embroidered on the ankles because she trips and skins her knees on her way to the chapel…

Oh wait. That was me.

But you get the picture.

The pay is much more than monetary. We both inspire and build memories. We’ve had the great honor of playing a couple’s song who never got to hear at their wedding 75 years ago because it wasn’t in the band’s repertoire. We’ve helped an elderly man stand so he could dance with his great-granddaughter on her wedding day. And we’ve played that special number for the child who just finished her final round of chemo.

DJ Larry me Steve

(Pictured: Larry, me and our son, Steve. Along with our team of DJs, both of our boys, Alex & Steve, helped whenever we DJed Penn State’s THON. It was definitely a family affair!)

Along with music, we’ve shared more smiles, hugs and tissues than we ever could have imagined.

Here’s the thing. We do have fun. And whenever I’m fortunate enough to DJ with Larry, we always sneak in a dance at the end. Because how can anyone else have fun if we’re not?

Keeping Secrets From Ourselves

The secret to writing is honesty.

We’ve all heard Ernest Hemingway’s famous quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” (Well, at least you have now.)

But I think we too often keep secrets from ourselves.

Sure, we tell ourselves we’re being honest. Open. Authentic.

And we do try. We strive to create believable characters. We work to write captivating stories. We scramble to find the best words to make our readers laugh. Or cry. Or think. We dig deep to develop the best plots and scenarios to help people remember. To feel connected. To heal.

It’s one of the reasons so many of us create.

But we’re also human and fiercely protective of our secrets. We too often bury what has hurt us in the past. We lock it away and insulate it in an effort to keep it suppressed.

lock

We dust off our hands and think our secret is safe. And we think we can forget.

Then one day, something somewhere begins to gnaw away at that insulation. The secret we thought we’d entombed finds a crack. A portal. It presses for release. Thoughts begin to bubble up that give us chills. Words eek through our typing fingers and emotions leak out of our eyes.

We find the secret staring us in the face.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing. Distressing. Other times, it’s grounding. Freeing.

It’s a personal decision as to whether or not we wish to share it, but very often, we do. Because as writers, we know that some of our readers may be struggling with the same secret and need to know they’re not alone. And we know that the rest may need to be made aware of the challenges the others may face.

However, in the spirit of “the rule of 3”, there’s something else I’ve recently learned.

I’m currently working on a “secret” project, one that I’ve put off for years, but that I’m now ready to confront. Because even writers need to know we’re not alone.

(Note: this blog was originally written for and featured on YA Outside the Lines.)

Featured

And Baby Board Book Makes Three!

It’s been a long wait, but as my friend Kim says, babies often go past their due dates…and who among us really knows the gestation period of a dragon?

But alas, we are proud to announce the birth of our newest little Dragon, a board book for the tiniest Dragon enthusiasts. Arriving 12:00 AM August 31, and measuring 7 x 0.6 x 7 inches, I Love My Dragon is 10.6 ounces of color-splashed adventure for the chubbiest of teeny fingers. I Love My Dragon cover.jpg

Of course, Larry had to build a sandcastle to commemorate the birth and our other two Dragons were on hand to celebrate!

Dragon Board Book castle

Published by Flashlight Press and illustrated by the brilliant, Howard McWilliam, I Love My Dragon joins its siblings When A Dragon Moves In and When A Dragon Moves In Again, and is now available through your favorite bookseller.