A Working Writer’s Career, Part One

Posted August 11th, 2017 by Candice

Note:  This is my latest Knock Knock essay for Bookology Magazine, an online publication about children’s books.  I am one of several contributors to the Knock Knock column. 

One Sunday morning in May, 1970, I sat on the mustard-colored sofa in our living room with the Spring Children’s Books issue of the Washington Post Book World.  I studied the reviews as someone who intended to have her book reviewed in that publication, preferably the Spring 1971 issue.  The back page featured an ad for Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard’s new list.  “My publisher,” I decided, because I liked the titles of their books.

I was seventeen, graduating from high school in three weeks.  Even though I had to get a job instead of going on to college, and I lived in the sticks far from New York’s publishing hub, I was dead serious about becoming a writer of children’s books.  Since I was fifteen, I’d been submitting my work to publishers.

Forty-seven years later, my much older self can still feel the scratchy fabric under bare legs, still see morning shadows tented over the sparsely-decorated living room.  I think, “Where did that kid come from?  How did she have the nerve to even dream such an outlandish thing?”

I didn’t come from reading family, but I read anyway.  I read and read and read, anything and everything, even in bad light, even in no light, until words crawled like ants on the page and my mother swore I’d ruin my eyes.  When I ran out of stuff to read, I scribbled my own stories with myself as the main character.

In my stories I was smart and clever and brave, not stupid in arithmetic, not slow in games because I couldn’t remember the rules, not afraid of heights and water and especially heights over water.  Writing stories gave me power.

Books gave me even more power.  I could go anywhere, be anything:  an ouzel bird nesting behind a western waterfall, a misfit Minnipin who rescued all the villages in the Land Between the Mountains, or a nosy old woman who stowed-away on a rocket ship to Mars.  Why shouldn’t I be part of the world of making books?  There was no other choice, nothing else I wanted to be, education or no education, support or no support.

That summer I traipsed off to the first day of my secretarial job, where I made history by breaking all the Xerox machines on each floor of the twelve-story building. My eye was on a bigger prize: At 25, I’d be a best-selling children’s book author, maybe have my own secretary.  I only began to have doubts that the universe might not quite be on my side when I turned 24, still a secretary (for a different company), and had sold exactly one tiny article to Highlights for Children, which was never even published.

Then I met the man who would be my husband.  He supported my dream.  I quit my job on a Friday, bought a desk that Saturday, and started working the following Monday.  I kept office hours and put myself on a Five-Year Plan—if I hadn’t sold a book in five years, I’d quit and go back to being a secretary.  The thought of breaking more Xerox machines lit a fire under me.  I sold my first book in two and a half years (though not to Lothrop, Lee and Shepard).

I was in!  I did it!  Then I waited with my hands folded for publishers to knock my door down for my second book.

[To be continued]

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Off the Grid

Posted July 16th, 2017 by Candice

Saturday I jumped in the truck with a bottle of water and a 25-year-old Virginia topographical map.  Where I was going Mapquest, Garmins, and smartphones were useless.  I drove north on Route 11, then west on Route 220, then, after some miles, made a left onto a windy road that doglegged around Tinker Mountain, ran parallel to the Appalachian Trail and crossed three county lines, Botetourt, Roanoke, and Craig.  Soon there was only sky, mountains, and road in front of me.

My destination?  An old one-room church and its cemetery.  I’d found lists of forgotten cemeteries in Botetourt County, most of them transcribed from county records in the early 1990s.  I liked the names in this particular cemetery (the last person was laid to rest in 1941) and wanted to photograph the one-room church.  It had been ages since I’d taken a photo-jaunt.

I followed the vague directions: “2 miles from Lone Star Concrete Plant, west on Rt. 600, sits up on a hill reached by foot across the road.”  The concrete plant is still there, with a different name.  Route 600 is clearly marked, though it’s a hard right on a curve.

Then I was in a leafy green cathedral.  Pavement became gravel as the road narrowed and twisted.  I glimpsed silos just beyond the tree tunnel, but few driveways.  Typical Virginia back country–no place to turn around, no place to pull off.

It occurred to me the one-room church, if it hadn’t already melted into the ground, was hidden from my view.  I could park in one of the driveways and scrabble around on foot, but it was already in the 90s.  The best time to explore alone is in January when the trees are bare and the snakes are hibernating.

Disappointed, I managed an awkward K-turn without sliding into a creek, and headed back.  A sign pointing to Haymakertown popped up and I went that way.

There was no town, only a scattering of eight or so brick ramblers braced against the mountainside.  The houses sat on three-acre lots, with tidy lawns, flowerbeds, and basketball hoops nailed to shade trees.  Instantly I fell in love with this tiny community backdropped by tremendous beauty.

I imagined everyone knew each other, helped shovel snow-blocked driveways, shared bumper crops of zucchini and tomatoes, watched out for children who missed the school bus, picked up extra gallons of milk for neighbors.  These people live off the grid.  Stores, banks, and schools aren’t a hop, skip, and a jump away.  Trips to “civilization” are more deliberate and special.

As I passed the hamlet, I thought about how much time I fritter running errands.  Every day I have a to-do list:  buy cat litter (with two large, always-eating cats, we go through a lot of cat litter), drop off library books, stop by the pharmacy.  If I crammed all my errands in a single day, I’d be gone for hours, just tooling around.  If we didn’t live in a town surrounded by stores and activities, I’d feel less pressured.  Have more time for work and play.

Short of moving to Haymakertown, I could pretend we live off the grid.  Ignore the siren call of the shops, tamp down the “need” to buy coffee because it’s on sale.  It might work . . . until we run out of cat litter.

 

Hitting the Refresh Button

Posted July 9th, 2017 by Candice

Confession:  I don’t know where the refresh button is on my computer, or what it does.  I only know I’ve been told to “refresh” a page for up-to-date information (I think).  I just click out of the Internet and start over.  Don’t laugh.

In 1982, when my husband bought my first PC (an Osborne we still have) and dragged me kicking and screaming into the home computer era, things were pretty simple.  Then came the Internet around 1997 (for me) and that wasn’t too bad either.  I could find books from my childhood!  Twenty years later, the digital world is out of control, so many changes, so many updates, that I find myself in front of the Mr. Coffee maker, unable to figure out which button to use.  Sometimes I feel like running away.

Here at Hollins University this summer, I’ve listened to a number of guest speakers.  The question of social media platforms has come up.  People are anxious about what they should be on and to what extent (worries too often from people who haven’t even written a book).  What about the pitfalls of creating a brand too soon?  If your online persona reflects the sexy YA you just published, what if you write a picture book next?

Discussions expand to the types of social media and I remembered how MySpace was all that and a bag of cats until it was overrun with “older” people.  Young people jumped ship to Facebook, but darned if their parents didn’t follow them over there so they could post embarrassing baby photos and play Candy Crush, so next the hipsters defected to Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.  Somehow Facebook and Twitter became “musts” for writers and illustrators, along with websites (blogs seem to have fallen out of favor), and now I’m hearing murmurs we should be on Instagram, too.

I have a website (woefully out of date and in the process of being re-done), a personal FB page and a fan FB page that I forget about most of the time.  I will never have a Twitter account and, because I don’t own a smart phone, can’t use Instagram.  As the digital world leaves me in the dust more each day, am I in danger of not being published because I don’t maintain a broad social platform?

Tomorrow I turn 65.  (Medicare!)  I have been in this business more than half my life.  Writing for children is my life.  Yes, times have changed but I’ve managed to weather those changes and stay fresh.  Didn’t nobody draw those 137 books I’ve sold.  Yet I spend more hours now working than I did back in the day.  I’m older and slower, but also more thoughtful.  Age has given me perspective and experience, things I can’t describe in 140 characters or less, or prettied up through a digital lens.

Being at Hollins allows me to refresh, away from housework and errands and the hunting and gathering of food.  I walk out the door into cardinals singing, cicadas drilling, muskrats foraging, herons stalking, buzzards gliding.  Trees and mountains and fields.  Oh, how I love fields.  Give me a blanket of chicory and Queen Anne’s lace, horses under blue skies and I’m in heaven.

Every chance I get, I ditch screens and emails.  It’s enough I do my work at a computer.  My body isn’t meant to stay hunched over a laptop, much less have a phone clamped to my hand.  What’s better than driving the little red truck down a winding road, windows down, into the deep green of a Virginia summer?

What I see won’t be Instagrammed, what I experience won’t be crammed into a YouTube video.  Real, unfiltered life seeps into my work, far more important than broadcasting on any social media.

I’m glad to be 65, old enough to have lived before the digital age and know I have a choice.  If I need to be refreshed, I don’t hunt for a button.  I just go outside.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 25th Birthday, Big Green Pocketbook!

Posted May 14th, 2017 by Candice

About this time 25 years ago a box of books landed with a thud on my front porch.  Comp copies of my first picture book.

The idea for this book came to me in the summer of 1981.  We were living in our Greenbrier rental house.  My niece Susan was staying with us for the weekend.  She lay on the sofa reading.  I was sitting on the green shag carpet thinking about nothing when I had a flash of the green pocketbook Mama gave me when I was five.

I left my pocketbook on the Trailways bus once, and the kind bus driver returned it to me.  That memory made me think of all the times we rode the bus to Manassas to run errands, just two girls going to town.  I loved those trips, knowing our day would end at Cocke’s Drugstore for ice cream.

A picture book was born.

Flash forward to June 1988.  We were living in our own house and the story was finally finished.  I sent The Big Green Pocketbook to my editor at Scholastic.  The comment inside the BGP folder says, “She didn’t much like it but passed it to another editor there.”  That editor rejected it as “too quiet” on Oct. 11.  Never one to let grass grow under my feet, I sent it to Harper the very next day.

In the spring of 1989, my mother was very ill.  I forgot about the manuscript until the morning of April 11 when I picked up the mail on my way to the hospital.  I saw the return envelope, but was too worried about my mother to care.  Later I noticed, in very tiny letters across the front, Not a rejection.

Laura Geringer requested a few changes (so minor, I don’t even remember them) before she acquired the book.  Next she told me Felicia Bond agreed to be the illustrator, but it would be a while before the busy illustrator would get to it.  I could not believe my luck.  Felicia Bond!

In 1992, at ABA in New York (what Book Expo was called back then), I met Laura for coffee and she showed me Felicia’s final dummy.  A year later, the book arrived!

At the next ABA, Harper gave away a promotional poster created by Felicia to announce the book and also tie in her other book characters.  The poster hangs in my office.

Pocketbook was the lead title in Harper’s spring 1993 catalog.  It got good reviews.  No stars.  No fanfare, just a nice little picture book.

Felicia’s fresh, breezy illustrations made my personal story universal.  Readers everywhere could follow the simple day out with a mother and little girl (who Felicia called Pearl).  She added the cats.  She made the town so charming, I wish I could live there.

The book went into paperback in 1995.  It was a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate when it first came out, and then a Book-of-the-Month Club selection two years later.

I went on to write other picture books, and middle grade novels, and chapter books, and biographies, and easy readers, and straight nonfiction.  As I churned out books, The Big Green Pocketbook kept selling quietly, year after year after year.

I featured the book in countless school and library programs . . . and still do to this day.  Around 2000, the book gained new life as a text for second graders to learn economics.  Maybe those second graders all became bankers because they wanted to work in a place with “cool marble walls that smell like pennies.”

Over the years, mothers told me, “You wrote The Big Green Pocketbook!  That’s my daughter’s favorite book!”  Then those comments became, “My daughter is in college but she still loves your book!”  And then, “My daughter has a little girl and she reads your book to her.”  (I was starting to feel like Mr. Chips from James Hilton’s novel.)

When the book reached its 20th birthday, I realized it would be considered a classic if it hung on another five years.  And it did.  I don’t know how many more years Pocketbook will stay in print.  Forever, I hope.

Some things have to be explained to today’s children, like buses that aren’t school buses, and five and ten stores, and drugstores, and typewriters, as Miss Eileen the Story Teller does in her enthusiastic reading.

My mother left us in June 1989.  She never got to see the book I wrote for her.  But she is alive, not just in my memory, but as the mother in The Big Green Pocketbook.

Every time I open my book, I see her hooking her purse over her arm, and taking me by the hand as we walked down our driveway. In my mind, we are waiting for the Trailways at the bottom of the hill, just two girls going to town.

Mama at the Greenbrier house, summer 1981

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama.

 

 

 

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Meet the Boys . . . Faulkner and Edison!

Posted February 7th, 2017 by Candice

The November afternoon I took Atticus to the SPCA, I didn’t leave empty-handed.  I brought home two boys because a house without a cat isn’t a home.  They were in the same condo at the shelter, but their stories are very different.

This is Edison (my name—at the shelter he was called Yogi Bear).  His picture and story on the SPCA website tugged at me.  If ever a cat needed a home, it was Edison.  He and his siblings were brought in as tiny kittens.  They were fostered a month, then taken back to the SPCA.  One by one, Edison’s siblings were adopted.  But not Edison.  Never Edison.

Months went by, then years.  Edison stayed in the condo with four or five other cats that came and went as they were adopted.  No one looked twice at the quiet brown tabby.  When I entered his condo that day, he looked at me from his bed, then away.  He had no expectations.  Why should he, after two and a half years?  His life was his bed, a shared food dish, a scratching tree, and shared litter box.  A glass door where people peered in but always passed him by.

That brown tabby was mine.  When I told the shelter people, you could hear them down the halls.  “Yogi’s being adopted!”  I brought him home first because his adjustment was the greatest.  In my office, he immediately ducked under the dresser.

Then I went back to the SPCA for a second cat.  “Blackie” was so new, only there a week, his picture and story wasn’t even posted.  I never learned why he was surrendered.  Faulkner, as I named him, is the opposite of Edison.  Outgoing, a love muffin.  He went in my office with Edison, still under the dresser, and settled right in.

Within hours, I began to figure out why Faulkner had been given up.  First, he lied about his age.  He was not “three years old,” but more like six or seven (bad breath and an I’ve-been-around-the-block look in his eyes).  Second, he lives to eat.  All.  Day.  Long.  Third, he talks a lot.  A lot. Meowmeowmeowmeowmeow.  All.  Day.  Long.  Also?  He came with the handy skill of opening cabinets, cupboards, drawers, and doors.

I discovered this when I went in the bedroom and found a dresser drawer partly open, the latched cabinet door that covers the middle section of drawers wide open, and one of those drawers open with socks pulled out.  From the doorway, I could see into the bathroom.  One side of the double vanity cupboard was open.  About that time, Faulkner strolled through the other side.  Now when I come home, I don’t panic because our house looks like it’s been tossed.

Edison was very hinky and shy at first.  Everything was new to him.  Furniture.  Things to smell.  Space to run!  And windows.  The first time he jumped on the windowsill and watched a leaf fall, his whole body quivered with wonder.  I wanted to cry.

Faulkner showed him the ropes fast.  I swear they conspire.  Edison will whisper in Faulkner’s ear: “I’ll distract her while you get the goods.”

They are best friends and get along great.  In the evening when they tear through the house, it sounds like a rumble.  They stay in my office at night.  At first I wasn’t sure who slept where.  I bought Edison a bed because he was used to one and added soft cat mats in chairs for Faulkner.  At fifteen and half pounds, he can’t sleep just anywhere.

Then I discovered they slept in the same bed.  I imagine this conversation:

Edison:  How much did you eat today?

Faulkner:  On the count of three, we both turn over.  One . . .

Edison:  You have to do something about your b.o.

Faulkner:  Be still.  Just be glad I love you like a brother.

So I got them two beds and pushed them together.  They remind me of Lucy’s and Desi’s twin beds on I Love Lucy.

Life in the house with two new cats?  They are always three steps ahead of me and somehow they’ve trained me to feed them like hobbits:  breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, and supper.

Two people.  Two cats.  Sounds even, but it’s not.  Cats will always keep us hopping!

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What Happened to Atticus?

Posted February 4th, 2017 by Candice

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted any funny pictures of Atticus on Facebook, or even mentioned him.  The truth is, Atticus hasn’t lived with us since November.  Here is a look back at two years with Atticus, and what happened.

I got him from the SPCA in December 2014 at age five months.  He was adorable, fluffy, funny . . . and nearly drove me insane.  From the start he would attack us, “play-bite.”  I realized early on that I was his mother, sibling, playmate, and prey.

It was a long road with this cat.  He was into everything.  Everything.  And his moods were unreadable.  Of course, you’re thinking; He’s a cat.  Despite the fact we hadn’t had a kitten in 35 years, I’ve been around cats for 64 years.  I know them pretty well.

As Atticus grew, his play-biting became serious.  He would stalk us and attack unprovoked.  Worse, he held a grudge.  If he was about to attack, I’d walk away, or toss him a toy, or distract him with food.  Hours later, he’d pounce anyway, when I least expected it.  He had to have the last word.

Last summer, as I was getting ready to leave for Hollins, Atticus went beserk.  He refused use his cat box.  He tore up the rugs.  He peed on the rugs.  He knocked over dishes and other valuables.  We had been through his wild kitten phase, but as a grown cat, he’d settled down from that behavior.

We took up all the rugs, put a litter box in the kitchen (the only place Atticus would tolerate), and I figured I would straighten out whatever was wrong when I got home.  I came home to a different cat.  He seemed the same funny, sometimes sweet Atticus, but something was different behind those round yellow-green eyes.

It took months to inch his litter box almost into the laundry room, where it belonged.  Gradually we put the rugs back down.  Meanwhile, he stepped up his attacks and biting.

I took him to the vet twice.  Medication didn’t help.  None of the behavioral therapy I’d read about helped.  I became wary around him.  You couldn’t pass him on the stairs, or pet him on his head, without him attacking.

On Halloween, he bit me so viciously, I nearly went to the ER.  I knew in my heart that Atticus would have to go.  The day after Thanksgiving, I went to the SPCA to discuss bringing Atticus back (it’s policy to return animals to them).  The director believed that Atticus needed a “party house,” one with people coming and going and, most important, other animals that wouldn’t take his crap.

Our house was definitely not a party house.  I made an appointment for the following Monday to bring him in for an evaluation.  He would need to be put in a condo with other cats and learn some manners.

On Monday, Atticus was quiet on the drive over.  But when we pulled up in front of the building, he began to shake.  I started to cry.  When I brought him in, the director took him into the intake room.  I opened the door and saw Atticus on the table as she examined him.  The look he gave me made me burst into tears.  I sobbed in the hallway.

The director said they’d take him.  Because he was young and part-Persian, he would go quickly once he’d learned to quit biting. She assured me I’d done everything and putting up with a biting cat for two years was more than most people would do.  But I felt awful.

Since November, I’ve worried about Atticus.   Finally I contacted the shelter to see if he’d been adopted and learned he had.  Yet I still cry because I feel I failed him.  Why wasn’t love enough?  And if I couldn’t understand and manage a thirteen-pound cat, what makes me think I can understand and manage the changes coming as I turn 65?

I hope Atticus’s new family knows he loves boxes and sunny floors.  Gives him pens to steal.  Lets him play in the sink.  I hope he’s happy.  Though he’s probably forgotten me, I hope he knows I still love him, wherever he is.

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The Winter of Our (My) Discontent

Posted January 22nd, 2017 by Candice

Inauguration Day.  Except for exercise class, I stayed home.  We have no TV and my husband took the newspapers with him to work.  But the Internet sprayed me with the day’s events.  People would not stop talking.  Talk, talk, talk.  By the time I went to bed, my stomach was in knots.

Saturday I left the house for Richmond.  I wanted a day away from politics and hoped another 50 miles from D.C. would do it.

The weather was gray and mizzly.  I wanted to catch the Jefferson exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.  Most of Jefferson’s personal papers are archived in the Massachusetts Historical Society and select letters, books, and drawings were on loan. The show would close on Sunday.

I arrived too early and walked around.  Sometimes I think I might like living in the city, with its different houses, runners, dog-walkers, coffee shops, bookstores, quirky boutiques.  In the city, I could be left alone with my own thoughts.

If I believed I’d avoid other people’s conversations, I was wrong.  Even though no one spoke a word to me, their voices were broadcast loud and clear.  These photos don’t reflect my opinions, they only document what I encountered on one street.

These people intruding on my thoughts, pushing their agendas at me, made me grumpy.  I decided I didn’t like the city.  I don’t drink coffee and have no desire to work on a laptop in a coffee shop.  Boutiques are generally filled with things I don’t need.  Even the bookstores were disappointing (no real children’s section).

My feet hurt by the time I trudged back to the Virginia Historical Society.  But I felt lighter when I entered the gallery featuring Jefferson’s papers.  Much has been written about Jefferson and in recent years he’s become a popular target.  Many people think they know him, but in truth, no one does.

I was delighted by his drawing of the “Pigeon House,” no mere dovecote, but a dwelling I’d move into tomorrow.  I marveled at his very tiny handwriting in his Farm Book.  Unlike most of the founding fathers, Jefferson’s cursive is readable; his thoughts clear as a Virginia creek.  He was a writer and I am, too.

I stood a long time before his handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, the document that began the journey toward our right to free speech.  Those people on the sidewalk were entitled to their way of thinking, just as I’m entitled to mine.

Across the hall in another gallery I found a surprise: an exhibit of original  illustrations from recent children’s books.  My spirits lifted higher.  After viewing the art, I sat down with the collection of books.  Nothing soothes like sitting with a lap of picture books.

Frazzled nerves calmed, I drove home.  Okay, I like some things about the city.  Museums.  I’m overdue for a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  Soon I’ll board the commuter train to D.C.  I’ll ignore coffee shops and political chatter and enjoy the part of the city that belongs to all of us, but can be mine for a day.

 

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Tooth Fairy’s Night: The Story of One Book

Posted January 10th, 2017 by Candice

tooth-fairy-amazon

Today is the launch day of my newest–and first 2017–book, Tooth Fairy’s Night.  It’s a Level 1 Step into Reading, written for the newest readers.  And here is how it came about.

In the spring of 2015, I was restless and in need of “filling the well,” as most long-term career writers must do from time to time.  I went to New York City by myself, not to attend a conference or sign books at a convention (something I hadn’t done in years anyway), but to find my own New York.

I had written two Step into Reading books for Random House, Pumpkin Day and Apple Picking Day.  So I arranged to stop by Random House and met with Heidi and Anna, the SiR editors.  They asked me to write a Level 1 (the hardest!) on the Tooth Fairy.

I gulped.  Fantasy and imaginative writing is not my thing.  All of my books are grounded in reality.  But I have long admired children’s writers who reach for the impossible, who make something out of nothing, who don’t need a bit of research.  I said yes.

From there, I went to the American Museum of Natural History for the first time ever.  My other RH editor, Frances Gilbert, urged me to go and told me I’d be astounded.  She was right.  From the first second I entered the AMNH, I knew I’d found my New York.  I stayed till closing time.  The next day I was there when it opened and again stayed till closing.

The exhibitions in the museum are very much grounded in the real world, but it took the imagination of many naturalists, scientists, and artists to make this one of the most famous, and most attended, museum in the world.

As I roamed the halls, I thought about my assignment.  What about the Tooth Fairy?  The practical side of me compared her to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny who only work one night a year.  The Tooth Fairy, however, works every night.  And she doesn’t have a bunch of elves to help her!

The Tooth Fairy, I decided, was a shift worker.  She carried a lunch box (union rules state she must take a break).  She had to pack her supplies.  She had to feed her pet.  Before she left her cottage, she checked to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything.

And off she went to work.

Meanwhile, back at home in Candice’s Office/Workshop (also without elves), I got ready to go to Hollins for a summer of teaching.  After I’d been at Hollins a week or so, my SiR editor asked how the Tooth Fairy book was coming.

I gulped.  It wasn’t coming at all.  I hadn’t even started it!  Random House would like the book to come out in time for Dental Health Month in 2017.  But if I couldn’t do it, my editor assured me, then 2018 would be okay.

What would the Tooth Fairy do?  She never slacked off because she was busy with something else.  Nope, she showed up, every single night because it was her job and she couldn’t disappoint all those children.

I told my editor she’d have a manuscript by Tuesday.  This was Friday.  Then I stayed in my apartment on campus that weekend and wrote and wrote and wrote.  Draft after draft.  Level 1 readers must rhyme, must use meter, and–clearly–must make sense.

By Monday I had a draft to send to my editor.  It needed work, but we would make our 2017 deadline.  When we were finished, I was thrilled with the story.

Now it’s out with Monique Dong’s cheerful illustrations that show the impossible.

Of all the books I’ve written, this one–and my new picture book coming out this summer–make me feel like a children’s book author.  The kind that can write stories from the imagination.

Update from Monique Dong, illustrator:

“Working on Tooth Fairy’s Night was a dream come true for me as a new illustrator! The story was so sweet and charming and drew me in from the first read. It’s such a creative take on the tooth fairy concept that will delight children for years to come!

I had the wonderful opportunity in this project to work with Random House. They were supportive and encouraging, from the rough sketches through to the final colour. I’m so excited to see this book on the shelves!”

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Flipping the Switch: 2017

Posted January 2nd, 2017 by Candice

painting-web

I’m late putting up a New Year’s post, owing to the fact I had a book due, I was hospitalized, and there were all those holidays.  Being in the hospital for three days (and three mostly sleepless nights) gave me plenty of time to think about the coming year and change.  A new year usually generates resolutions, goals, or “word of the year.”

I have no resolutions because, like most people, hard resolves tend to shatter within a matter of weeks.  I’m too old to have goals:  it’s all I can do to keep moving forward with my writing career and teaching.

I used to have a “word of the year.”  I remember my first word of the year, claimed back in January 1987.  It was “onward” (stolen from my Mary Engelbreit calendar).  I was all ready to charge onward into a year of writing when, just after New Year’s Day doctors gave up on my ill stepfather and sent him home to die.  Not the kind of onward I’d hoped for.

The magazines I read while I was sick devoted whole articles to promoting “no” as word of the year, perfect sense for people who hurl themselves from one place, one activity, one day to the next.  I’ve felt that way myself this past year.  To me, “no” sounds strident.  I plan to practice saying “no,” but I don’t want to wave that banner for 2017.

If I had a word of the year, it would be “wonder,” a commodity we have precious little of when every question can be answered with a swipe.  Pull out a phone and curiosity is immediately smacked into fact.  Close on the heels of “wonder” is “pay attention.”  (Two words, so I cheat.)

All around me people chatter, multi-task on phones and laptops, drive while eating and drinking, walk with headphones, eyes straight ahead.  Everyone seems to have tunnel vision.  I’m the only one who stops in the Walmart parking lot to watch a flock of Canada geese fly low overhead.  It’s an astonishing sight, always, and deserves our attention.

The end of the year is also time for assessment.  Since I’m deep into my career, I’m not about to flit off in another direction (that too-old thing again).  I ponder why I’m doing what I do, and that inevitably leads me back to my childhood self.  At ten, I was so full of wonder, I could barely stand up.  Everything was fascinating:  dirt, birds, stars, rocks, dinosaurs, clouds, trees.  I couldn’t get enough of the world around me.

Annie Dillard talks about waking up in her book An American Childhood:

Who turned on the lights?  You did, by waking up.  You flipped a light switch, started up the wind machine, kicked on the flywheel that spins the years . . . Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you . . . Do you remember, remember, remember?

I do remember. And I want some of that feeling back.  It’s still there, underneath the dailyness of cleaning toilets and buying milk and washing the sheets.  The planet ripples a little when I have to sit down to emails and go to appointments.  I’m older, not dead.

So here’s what I’m going to do this year.  Wake up.  Be wide-eyed with wonder.  Because I’m a grown-up, I’ll call it a project.  I’m keeping a nature journal, writing down what I see, what I’m paying attention to.  Even if I can’t go outside, I’ll observe from the window.  I’ll draw in it, maybe paint a little.  Use photos.  The important thing is that I’ll make note I was aware of this world, every day.

I’ll share some of what I see and hear and experience with you (which will be mercifully better than my endless whining).  You can come, too.

Flip the light switch again.  Pay attention with me.

Wonder.

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Angels in the Woods

Posted December 16th, 2016 by Candice

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It starts in late October when I pick up special-issue Christmas magazines.  Something fires in my brain.  Visions of cut-out sugar cookies, homemade breads for neighbors, our house turned into a picture-perfect vintage winter wonderland . . .

For Type-A control-freaks like me, Christmas represents the pinnacle of overachievement.  Pull out garland, lights, and mistletoe!  Dig out candles, ornaments, and tinsel!  My head teems with craft projects and design decor.  Never mind I have a ton of work.  Forget that perfection isn’t a realistic goal.  On with the show!

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After I’ve browbeaten my husband to hang the outside lights, I go to town with fake greenery and bead garlands.  No demure holly branches or pine cones for me.  Pile on the glitz!  This year I added a vintage tin barn on our porch as a touch of the unexpected.

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The inside of the house is next.  Rather than install one lavish display (I used to put up a seven-foot tree loaded with Victorian ornaments and would dress fifty bears), I “curate” vignettes of heirloom and vintage decorations.  My mother-in-law’s putz village always resides on the hutch in the dining room, but everything else is featured in different displays each year.

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I enjoy unpacking family treasures, aware I’m the final caretaker of these fragile old things.  I honor other people’s traditions—my husband’s, my stepfather’s, my grandparents’.  And of course, my own.

In my memory map, the Christmases-that-actually-were sit at a crossroads with the Christmases-that-never-existed.

~ ~ ~

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Each year when I set out my out my tiny plastic nativity, I am ten again, spending a precious dime on my first decoration.  That year, 1962, my stepfather cut down a cedar tree, scraggly and with a “bad” side, from our woods, and nailed two crossed pieces of lumber as a stand.

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My mother brought boxes of ornaments down from the attic.  I decorated the tree by myself, as I would the rest of my life.  My mother set out the gold-painted turkey carcass sleigh pulled by three mismatched reindeer.  Holiday cards of carolers were Scotch-taped to the mantel.  I wanted more.

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When I grew up, I decided, I’d decorate my whole house.  I’d open all my presents on Christmas Eve, not just the one I was allowed.  Supper would be party food eaten under the tree: cashews and French onion dip with potato chips, sugar cookies and ginger ale punch.  Christmas Eve held all the magic.

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With money from my first job, I bought decorations from Dart Drug, glitter-dusted sugar-plum garlands, candy canes, and pink plastic gumdrops.  At seventeen, I was already into themes.  Since then, I’ve blasted through several phases: Victorian, early children’s book, primitive Americana.  None of them felt genuine.

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One dusky December afternoon, I went into our woods and climbed a half-fallen oak tree.  I took two package tie-ons shaped like angels from my pocket.  Wrapping the pipe cleaners around my fingers like puppets, I listened to the angels.  I was nine and understood every word they whispered.  It was the only time Christmas ever felt real, that cold afternoon alone in the woods, but not that far from home.

~ ~ ~

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I was 35 when my mother died and wanted nothing to with Christmas.  I bought a small artificial tree and decorated it with miniature Charlie Brown ornaments from Hallmark.  Christmas Eve day, I insisted we go to Williamsburg.  It grew dark and still I had no plans to drive home.  As the Royal Albert outlet store was closing, I rashly purchased a set of bone china, originally priced at $1200, for $200.  I craved beautiful things but they did not bring back my mother.

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We ate Christmas Eve supper in a Holiday Inn on the way back home.  I glimpsed my reflection in the window, noting the tightness around my mouth.  We used the china exactly once.  And when we moved, I never found the little artificial tree or the Charlie Brown ornaments.  They had vanished.

I learned you cannot run away from Christmas, but for years and years, I dreaded the holiday and raced through the season like I was running through a burning building.

~ ~ ~

Heartburn started in August.  The only way I could cope with Christmas was to bury it in elaborate decorations and cookie exchanges with people I barely knew and rich lunches in restaurants where I was never comfortable.  I wrote zesty holiday letters and agonized over selections of Christmas cards.  The postage stamps had to coordinate.

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I created a schedule:  shopping done by Halloween, letter written before Thanksgiving, cards started on Thanksgiving evening, packages mailed by December 8, cards mailed by December 9, tree up December 10.  The check-list was less a tradition and more a set of marching orders.

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December 26, everything was put away except the tree.  No Southerner, even one as anal as I am, would tempt next year’s fate by taking the tree down before New Year’s Day.

We did “city” stuff, like attend The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center and hear The Messiah by the National Symphony.  I wore velvet and diamond earrings.  I was thin back then and always cold.  Inside and out.

~ ~ ~

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In my heart, I wanted to live in the country.  I wanted to cut our own Christmas tree and haul it back to our farmhouse in a red ’55 Chevy truck.  I wanted to stay up on Christmas Eve and hear the animals speak at midnight and see angels.

I wanted to make peace with Christmas.

I wanted to go home.

~ ~ ~

After a while, I realized that the house I live in is home and I could keep fighting Christmas or reach a compromise.

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I let go of the schedule (mostly).  I cut my present list.  I choose the parts of Christmas that are important to me.  But I still make a huge decorating fuss.

Eventually I wound my way back to the old mercury-glass ornaments and my mother’s mismatched reindeer.  Creating artful displays lets me feel like a window designer.

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Yet I get tired and cranky, as many women do this time of year.  We’re the ones who pull it off like a rabbit out of a hat.  For me, the stress of unattainable perfection weighs heavily and, in truth, no one gives a rip if the pink pre-lit tree clashes with the red pre-lit tree next to it.

For some reason, I feel Christmas gives me a chance to make right the failures and goals I didn’t achieve the previous eleven months.  No one heaps those expectations on me.  I do it all by myself, just as that ten-year-old girl took on decorating the tree all by herself.

 

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If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I need to do less.  To be still and quiet.  To find a patch of woods.  To wait for the angels.  If I listen,  they might whisper to me again.

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