It started with someone sending me a link to a YouTube video of a cat being wrapped as a Christmas present. The short, charming video makes it look fun and easy. You’ll be eager to try this at home!
First, buy cheerful wrapping paper you think your cat will like. Cut the paper ahead of time and tear off pieces of tape and have it ready. Then go get your unsuspecting cat.
So far, so good.
Uh, oh! Cat on the loose!
His fur has static cling and the paper won’t come off. He gives a good shake.
Gamely, I tried to wrap the tattered paper back around him. You can see how thrilled he is.
Oh, well. Who wants a 16-pound cat for Christmas anyway?
Friday I was going about my business, doing my work, when I was hit by a Greyhound bus of a virus. One minute I was helping my husband take apart one of the desks in his office (my Christmas present to him is to re-do his office in a vintage cowboy theme, really my sneaky way of getting him to clean up that rat’s nest of a room) and the next minute I was in bed, thinking, "Wha hoppen?"
And so out the window went all my weekend plans: to help my husband clean out his room, address holiday cards (yes, I’m one of those), finish making a Christmas present, maybe start wrapping the presents that need to be mailed. Instead I lay in bed and slept, tried to sleep, threw up, and wondered, like Nancy Kerrigan, "Why me?" Well, it was just my turn.
Winchester spent three days in bed with me. My husband would check on me and there we were, sprawled in tangled covers, dead to the world. Cats love sick people, as long as they’re not too sick. Noisy coughing and whooping and nose-blowing annoys them. But quiet sick people–that’s the ticket. My husband used to tiptoe into the sick room with a plate of fried chicken or spaghetti, trying to tempt my appetite and not realizing the thought of fried chicken would send me staggering into the bathroom. Our former cat, Alaric, loved those meals. Food in bed with a sick person! Didn’t get any better than that.
While I lay in my dazed state, words floated in my head. Brilliant lines for my new Iva book. Killingly funny stuff. I couldn’t hold a pencil, but I’d remember it all. Sure I would. When I was able to get up, I re-read Michael Connelly books. And when I could eat, it was only Tastee Cake powdered donettes. Soft and sweet, like little pillows. Ahh.
This morning I opened my eyes, amazed I could actually do it without pain, and realized the runaway bus hadn’t left me for dead after all. One look at my house almost sent me back to bed (one husband (cooking) + one cat = messy house). I wobbled into my office to begin answering e-mails. Then I thought about all those killingly funny lines for the new Iva book. Must jot them down.
Now what were they? Maybe another powdered donette will help me remember.
In July 2002, I left home for my first semester at the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I thought I wouldn’t know a soul, but one of my classmates and I had been emailing since we were accepted into the program. Connie Van Hoven and I met at the airport in Philadelphia to wait for our connecting flight to Burlington. She said, "People say I look a little like Cindy Williams." She does!
We are almost the same age but come from different backgrounds–me from Virginia, Connie from Minnesota. That first residency, we went to to seminars and lectures and ate meals together. After our first winter residency six months later (where it was 40 below zero!), we decided to move off-campus into a bed and breakfast. Evenings were spent talking about our lives, our work, our hopes and dreams. And so began an enduring friendship.
Me at my graduate reading, Vermont College, July 2004
We graduated in July 2004. Connie spent two years writing picture books and tall tales with her Minnesota flair. I wrote everything from a poem-memoir to board books. It was a challenge for me to manage the workload at Vermont while continuing with my contract books. Connie faced some challenges herself during our two years in the program. On graduation day, we celebrated with our families, knowing we had done some of our best work and had some of the best times in our lives. We promised to stay in touch.
And we did, helping each other through post-graduate blues, traveling to SCBWI conferences (New England and New York City) to re-connect. In January 2008, I saw my Sterling editor Meredith Mundy at ALA Mid-Winter in Philadelphia, where Connie and I had met in person years before. Over a lunch in the Reading Market, I asked Meredith about the Twelve Days of Christmas state book series Sterling was doing. Virginia was taken, but she needed a writer for Washington, D.C. I was born in the nation’s capital. The job was mine. A short time later, I asked Meredith about a Twelve Days book for Minnesota. Yes, Meredith said, that book was coming up in the schedule. I told her about Connie, an excellent writer who knew more about Minnesota than Paul Bunyan. The job was hers.
Connie’s book, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota, came out last fall. Connie blew me away with her publicity ideas and dedication to promotion. Her book sold out of its entire edition in two months! This fall, Connie’s Twelve Days has been reprinted twice and both editions are sold out again! My Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington, D.C. came out this fall. Sarah Hollander did the wonderful illustrations.
Me and Sarah in Alexandria, Virginia, November 14, 2010
This past weekend both Connie and I had signings for our books: Connie’s at a bookstore in Red Wing, Minnesota, where she and her husband braved the first major snowfall of the season. Mine was with Sarah Hollander at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Virginia. The weather was balmy and Sarah’s Powerpoint presentation of our books was terrific.
Connie and I spoke on the phone last week. We talked about our long journey from meeting six years ago in the Philadelphia airport to having books in the same series and signings on the same weekend, half a country apart. Who’d a thunk it?
People often ask me why I entered the MFA program at Vermont College so far into my career (I’d had 80 books published). I tell them that a writer’s journey isn’t a straight upward trajectory of one success after another, but a series of highs and lows. I was at a low point and needed to bring my work to another level. I had hoped the program would enable me to deepen my work, write more meaningful projects. I did–I sold five books from my creative thesis.
Connie in Ft. Myers, Florida–she had invited me to come visit her and her husband (and their dog!) for a few days, January, 2010
But I didn’t know I’d find a new friend in the program. Someone who would become like a sister. And that is worth more than all the book contracts in the world.
It’s that time of year! The holiday season will be on us sooner than we think. In the evenings, I work on handmade gifts. Last night I made this ribbon board–it’s a tackless inspiration/memo/photo board. You simply slip photos and tickets and so forth through the ribbons without poking holes in your memorabilia. The original idea came from an old issue of Somerset Life that I adapted. [Click on the photos to enlarge for detail.]
I bought a 9 by 12 art canvas and painted it a butternut color. One coat only–I wanted some of the canvas to show through. This particular ribbon board is going to a friend who has her first granddaughter, so it’s girly. Then I tore scrapbook paper and glued it to the upper right corner. The paper is gorgeous–pink glitter and a French postcard background in lighter butternut, from the Lost and Found collection of My Mind’s Eye. I added a Prima birdcage in smoky rhinestones on the other side.
Next I dug out my ribbon bag and tied ribbons tightly around the board. You can staple them on the back of the canvas, but I don’t have a stapler that goes through wood. I tied some of the ribbons in the front for interest, dangled an initial charm from one ribbon, and added two crocheted flowers.
Viola! You can add a long ribbon at the top as a hanger, but I opted not to. This board works well propped up on a dresser or on a bookcase shelf.
I bought a pink-glitter Princess card from the My Mind’s Eye collection to insert when I give this as a gift. You can find all these simple craft supplies at Michael’s. However, use real ribbons and sewing trims–the craft ribbons you can get for a dollar a spool are too stiff and shiny.
Since my husband and I never go anywhere except the grocery store, we needed a fall getaway–two and a half days in the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I booked us a nice room at Big Meadows Lodge, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. I fixed a picnic hamper with new magazines, mini Moon Pies, Turtle Chex Mix, the new Elizabeth Berg and Stuart Woods from the library, and other goodies. I also took my nearly-finished novel. I’ve been writing so many years, my work practically hops in the car like the family dog.
Apparently thinking we were attending the Butterfly Ball, I packed thin clothes in shades of chocolate, peacock, and berry to match my purse, never realizing it might be cold in the mountains. Our room was delightful–two queen beds, pine-knot furniture, vaulted ceiling. Heat blasted out of the radiator and about seventy-five flies flung themselves at our picture window. With a rolled-up brochure, I made short work of the flies until the windowsill resembled Little Big Horn.
When we unpacked, we saw we had brought toothpaste but no toothbrushes, baby powder but not my husband’s special soap, a DVD of "Lost" but had no TV to play it on. We’d also left behind combs, floss, shampoo, conditioner, razors, my face wash, hats, gloves, scarves, and heavy socks, all of which we’d need. The Lodge gift shop and nearby campstore carried Advil and that was about it.
We had a nice dinner in the Lodge, then went back to our room. Dark dropped like a painter’s cloth. We read a while and went to bed. The next morning (still very dark), we stood at the fly-massacre window and looked longingly at the lights of Luray down in the Valley. "Can we go there?" I asked hopefully. "Yes," my husband said. Unwashed, uncombed, and unflossed, we walked to the Lodge for breakfast. It was twenty degrees and snowing!
We drove down off the mountain and into the nearest town, where we pushed our cart through Food Lion, marveling at all the goods as if we were in Neiman Marcus. Yes, a grocery store was nearly the high point of this trip! What does that say about us? After buying floss, toothbrushes, razors, more magazines and snacks, and children’s gloves for me, we ate lunch in a diner where Frank pigged out on chicken parmesan and spaghetti with meatballs. Then we toured the town.
This condemned house, with its lovely bones, had No Trespassing signs plastered over every inch of the property, but I walked through the gate and all around the house. Feral cats streaked out from under the rotted porch floorboards. In the still air, the house whispered secrets. Next we stopped at an antique shop–a former restaurant with junk piled higgledy-piggledly in the booths and even the kitchen. I found a pack of vintage red thumbtacks–I’d actually been looking for them!
Back on the mountain, we hiked and counted wildlife species. In two and a half days, we spotted one chipmunk, a pair of red-tailed hawks, one crow that sounded like he had a head cold, a busload of senior citizens that stripped the gift shop like locusts, and either four or twenty-eight deer.
The deer sightings were always in groups of four–in front of the Lodge, crossing the road, in the field behind our room. We decided the park hired four deer to show themselves at various sites: "C’mon, y’all, we gotta be at the Visitor’s Center in ten minutes."
This was the last weekend Big Meadows Lodge was open for the season. The service staff was wonderful but you had the sense they were rolling up the carpet behind us. In the restaurant our waiter remarked with a sigh, "One more day!" Still, the kitchen produced marvelous food. The butternut squash soup was too rich for my husband’s taste, but I loved it.
Not only did we book the final weekend of the season, it was also the weekend the time changed. Yesterday morning we got up and went to the Lodge for breakfast. No fires lit, no one stirring, no food smells. The clocks had gone back an hour but our stomach clocks hadn’t. To kill time, we drove around. Deer were everywhere, not just the hired four. We saw three does on alert as their six yearlings chased each other around the field. Those deer ran and jumped like the wind, white tails up like flags!
Just down the road we were astonished to see two six-point bucks fighting. They paid no attention to us idling in our truck as they locked antlers and pushed each other almost into the road. In the end, they came to a decision. They stopped pushing and pulling, looked into each other’s eyes, then one buck walked away, dejected.
Back in our room, my husband read and I worked. Outside our window four deer grazed. Then they lay down, nearly invisible in their winter coats (look for three of them here). I finished editing my novel, feeling a peacefulness I hadn’t experienced in some time. Deer are wonderful animals to have around, hired or not.
Late last year I was asked by Christine Jenkins, Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (whew!), to contribute an essay on series books to a scholarly children’s literature text. Realizing my name and the words "scholarly children’s literature text" would never be mentioned in the same sentence ever again, I agreed.
I was sent the chapter, "Dime Novels and Series Books," by Catherine Sheldrick Ross (Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario) and was asked to write about my experiences as a writer of children’s series books. Many scholarly chapters were followed by "Point of Departure" essays by such authors as Lois Lowry, M.T. Anderson, Leonard Marcus, Julius Lester, Jacqueline Woodson, Philip Pullman, and David Wiesner.
Catherine Ross’s chapter is comprehensive and elegant, chronicling the rise of cheap fiction for children to the importance of series books to today’s readers. I was stunned by her thoroughness and wondered what on earth I could possibly add. I wrote several poor pontificating pieces in which I was trying to come off at least half as knowledgeable as Ross. It didn’t work. My thoughts were like shrapnel, ineffective because I never hit the target.
Then I remembered my "work small" theory. When in doubt, take a subject to its smallest, most personal denominator. So instead of writing about my work in series children’s books, or what I thought about them, or how they contributed to the development of transitional readers, I wrote about my introduction to series books, the first Trixie Belden book I discovered mysteriously in my house. By relating one incident with one book, I was able focus my scattered thoughts and aim for the heart of my subject.
There were some back-and-forthings over the summer with the editors, proof-reading and such. And then last week, one of the editors informed me the book was on its way! The package arrived on my porch the next day. I opened it and there it was, the Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Shelby A. Wolf, Karen Coats, Patricia Encisco, and Christine A. Jenkins.
It’s gorgeous! 555 pages! I wanted to order a few copies to send to friends and relatives, but I didn’t see a price. I checked the publisher, Routledge. The book sells for $119.95!!! One hundred, nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents! (Amazon sells it discounted for $93.) Needless to say, I won’t be buying copies to drop in my relatives’ Christmas stockings.
I’m thrilled to be included in this comprehensive text, a "landmark volume [that] is the first to bring together the leading scholarship on children’s and young adult literature from three intersecting disciplines: Education, English, and Library and Information Science. Distinguished by its multidisplinary approach, it describes and analyzes the different aspects of literary reading, texts, and contexts to illuminate how the book is transformed within and across different academic figurations of reading and interpreting children’s literature."
Yeah. What they said.
Okay, I’d love for you to run right out buy this wonderful book, but I’d understand if you had to decide between paying the electric bill and getting this book, keeping your lights on would win. Still, it’s a worthwhile text for anyone interested in children’s literature because it covers so many aspects of the field. Look for it in your library. If they don’t have it, tell them to order a copy. It’s worth every penny.