When Characters Become A Part of Your Heart

Recently I was asked, if I had to choose one character in a book with whom to trade places, who would it be?

If you’d asked me as a child, I probably would have said I’d love to be one of the Banks children from Mary Poppins. I mean seriously – to have a nanny who flies? A chimney sweep pal who invites you to dance on rooftops and ride a carousel in an animated dreamworld? A giggle-fest that quite literally lifts you up?

If you’d asked me as a preteen girl, I most likely would have named every single book in which the character owned a horse. Or rode a horse. Or probably, who was a horse.

As a teen, I devoured the All Creatures Great and Small series. I wanted to be James Herriot (or at least honor his passion.) I volunteered in a veterinary office in high school. I actually started college as a pre-vet major in Animal Science. 

Somewhere along the line, I realized that while I love animals, this career wasn’t meant for me.

Instead, I wanted to teach. To guide. To inspire. I wanted to spark imagination. To encourage laughter and empathy. To empower. Just like Mary Poppins and James Herriot and countless others had done for me.

Because the ultimate thing I learned from books and the characters within is that you don’t have to change places with them. They crawl into your heart and become a part of you.

Writing During the Pandemic

This post is hard for me to write. Heck, everything lately has been hard to write. Which is, well, weird.

From the time I can remember, I’ve always found solace in the written word, whether it be reading a story written by another or creating my own. Stories helped me make sense of the world. They were my safe place. My literal and literary shelter from the storm. And the door was always wide open and welcoming, like a soft, reassuring hug.

Until now.

Sure, I tried opening the door. I opened files to write, but the words wouldn’t come.  It’s okay, I tried to convince myself. You just need to fill up the well. So, I reached for a book. Then another. Then another. I read the words, but nothing resonated. I couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t connect. Not even with my old favorites. The words fell to the floor like forgotten confetti from a party long abandoned.

Music seemed to help, but only while it actively played. As the sound wound down, so did the effect.

Somewhere, somehow, the door had become locked from the other side.

lock

Maybe my heart was trying to protect itself from the chaos outside. Maybe it had grown weary from reading so much depressing news. Maybe it had broken once too many times and had forgotten how to piece itself back together.

In the midst of a pandemic, when people should be working toward a common goal – toward a common good – the world felt crueler than ever.

Then I remembered something else I’d buried a long time ago. When I was a child, I loved picture books not only for the words, but for the illustrations. I wanted to be an artist…no, as a child, I was an artist – untethered by expectation, rules or critique.

Somewhere along the lines, however, someone told me I wasn’t good enough. They ridiculed my sketches. Laughed at my attempts. And even though I designed the insignia for my elementary school in sixth grade, I soon found myself comparing my work to others’. Doubt seeped in, drowning any small amount of self-confidence I had. That ‘someone’s’ voice became my own, echoing inside my head.

I locked the dream away.

I don’t know if my heart stumbled upon that old dream because they’d bolted themselves into the same room or whether it had been screaming for recognition the whole time. But I’m grateful, because somehow, when I tried to connect to my creativity once again, I found a tiny note that had been slipped through the keyhole.

Art, it said.

My brain snorted. All the festivals, theaters and museums are closed.

No. ART, my heart whispered.

Art. I let the word sit, savoring it for a moment and I felt my heart twitch. Art? Like a verb…?

Yes, it said.

A few memories bubbled up about how much I used to draw. How even after I stopped drawing for others, I still used to draw for myself. How it calmed me. How it helped me make sense of the world.

When had I stopped?

It doesn’t matter. Start, my heart said. Art again

That’s when I realized my heart hadn’t locked itself away. It was me who’d done so. I was the one who bolted that door. But as my heart demanded, it was time to open up again. Time to reconnect. Time to art.

So, I did some research and signed up for a drawing class through Storyteller Academy.

Now, this may sound dramatic, but it’s true. I believe – no, I know – this class saved me the past nine weeks. It reconnected me to my very soul. There are days I’ve spent 10+ hours drawing – no lie – only realizing the passage of time as the room grew dark. I’ve developed new characters for my stories and fleshed out ones that already existed. I’ve been able to read again. I’ve been able to me again.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s happening. Little by little. My own personal reawakening.

It was no surprise to me that creativity needs to be fed. What I didn’t realize is that sometimes there are extra mouths in the nest that have been too long ignored.

Robin baby CHEEP

What needs to be fed to spark your creativity?

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.

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.

All Who Are Terrible at Picking Favorites Say “I”

This month on YA Outside the Lines, we were asked to share our favorite (yes, singular) character that we’ve created.

Admittedly, I’m terrible with picking favorites. I cringe when I’m asked to name my favorite book. My favorite song. Even my favorite color changes on an almost daily basis!

What made this even more difficult was that the characters that live in our books are our babies. We nourish them with our hopes. Our dreams. Our blood, sweat and tears. The gestation period can often be much longer than nine months, sometimes years, before we can dress them up and allow them to take their first steps into the world.

children w books.jpg

And now they wanted me to pick a favorite?

How could I choose between a lovable, mischievous little boy and his larger-than-life Dragon pal (When A Dragon Moves In?) How could I ignore his big sister or his little brother (When A Dragon Moves In Again, I Love My Dragon?)

What about Nelson (of Good News Nelson), who realizes that sometimes it’s not enough to just deliver the news; sometimes you need to do something to change it, and make the world a better, kinder place? And Mrs. Welsh, who runs the animal shelter? And his cranky old neighbor, Mrs. Snodberry, who ignites the passion in Nelson to find homes for all of those abandoned kitties?

What about all of the other characters in my stories that have yet to be published? Like my sweet elephants and my ballet dancers and Admiral Palmetto, the oversized cockroach who serves to protect young hearts that have been broken?

Simply put, I couldn’t.

What I did say is that characters, like children, all need different types of love at different times. I have one story that’s endured over 100 revisions. My main character, Carmen, is a tiny spider with huge dreams of performing in an opera. None of her peers or family members understand why she can’t be satisfied to weave webs. But she doesn’t allow anything to deter her…not their scoffs, not their warnings, not even her lack of vocal cords.

Maybe it’s because publishing itself is wrought with rejection. Maybe it’s because my husband and I taught our own kids to ignore the “no”-it-alls and pursue their passions. Or maybe it’s because I most relate to my sweet Carmen right now as I continue on my own path to securing agent representation.

But this unstoppable arachnid continues to occupy a corner deep within my heart, and I will continue to revise, re-envision and resubmit her story until she finds her place out in the world.

YAOTL spider big eyes

Because that’s what we do for our kids. And our characters.

Outs & Abouts

June and July have been a whirlwind of activity for me and the Dragons, hopping between blogs and book events, awaiting the arrival of our newest little member of the “family”, I Love My Dragon, a board book for the youngest dragon enthusiasts.

You see, sometimes for reasons beyond our control, book releases are delayed. While our little baby was expected May 1, his birthday was pushed to June 1, then to August 1. But he was certainly worth waiting for!

I know I may be a little biased, but seriously, how cute is THIS? Howard McWilliam outdid himself (again!) as did my editor Shari Dash Greenspan at Flashlight Press. And it’s available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller!

I Love My Dragon cover

But hey, when you think about it, what could be more appropriate than to be “expecting” when presenting at the Lancaster Baby Shower Expo in Manheim, PA?

And what a fun time it was! We shared Dragon stories:

Lancaster Baby Shower Expo me reading

And met the coolest people!

Lancaster Baby Shower Expo customer

baby shower expo child and mom reading

(These two totally stole my heart!)

The following Saturday, June 8, we “flew off” to The Chesapeake Children’s Book Festival at the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, MD, where I not only had the chance to connect with some of my favorite author buddies at a lovely dinner the evening before…

Chesapeake Children's Book Fest dinner

(Left to Right: Moi, Suzanne Bloom, Debbie Dadey, Wendy Greenley, Robin Newman and Colleen Rowan Kosinski.)

I had the honor of hanging with all of these fantabulous authors and illustrators the next day!

Chesapeake Authors

The library staff and volunteers couldn’t have been more friendly and accommodating, and the attendees couldn’t have been sweeter!

Chesapeake boy (back) reading DA

Not to mention, we had our own “Protectors of the Books”:

Chesapeake with star wars

(Left to right: Timothy Young, Robin Newman, Protectors of the Books x 2), Debbie Dadey, Moi, Cathy Breisacher, Jonathan Roth. Leaning in: Julie Gonzalez)

Thanks, love & hugs to fellow KidLit Author Club member Timothy Young and all of the organizers for their hard work – this event was extraordinary!

Speaking of extraordinary events, I was thrilled to return to BookFest PA (a part of the Central PA Festival of the Arts) on July 13! This is one of my favorite festivals, not only because of the people who orchestrate and attend it, but because it benefits my own beloved Schlow Library in State College, PA.

Bookfest 19 DJ & me

This year, although the board book was still unavailable for sale, attendees were able to preview it – and the response was overwhelmingly (and unsurprisingly) cuteness overload!

bookfest 19 denise cathy me gayle

(Left to right: Denise Kaminsky, Cathy Breisacher, Moi, Gayle C. Krause)

Of course, thankfully our other Dragons received a lot of love – you know how sibling rivalry can be! 😉

Bookfest 19 dad reading to child DA

Bookfest 19 couple reading hebrew edition

(Attendees always love trying to read the Hebrew edition!)

And of course, Larry loves showing everyone how the Dragon is made:

Bookfest 19 making dragon.png

Admittedly, while we’re sad that our summer festivals are winding down, it does give us a chance to head “down the shore” and get down to some serious “sandcastling” of our own.

Hope you’re having a splendiferous summer. May your every sandcastle is a perfect one!

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.

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.

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