Monday, December 28, 2009

What's the best thing about being an author?

One of the best things about being an author is knowing other authors.

My 12 yr old, Emily, just finished Sarah Miller's brilliant
MISS SPITFIRE: REACHING HELEN KELLER Atheneum Books, 2007, about which Richard Peck says, "Miss Spitfire is high drama about how language unlocks the world." I adore Sarah and I love her book and I love her brain.
When Emily announced she'd found the book on my shelf, started reading, and just finished it, I was excited to hear what she thought of it.
The Helen Keller story has always fascinated me, but I may have been over-zealous in introducing Em to it. She's watched The Miracle Worker (w/various casts) several times and wasn't as obsessed with it as I am. I, uh, kind of forced her to watch.
So I didn't shove Sarah's book at her and encourage her to read it. She found it when the time was right for her, in between readings of the Lightning Thief, Sisters Grimm and Twilight series. I'm so glad she did.
There's not much more satisfying for me as a parent than seeing my kid discover something great on her own.
When Emily entered my studio and started talking, I listened. Then I started taking notes, typing what she was saying. With her permission I mailed her stream-of-consciousness review to Sarah, who responded with a lovely note and an offer to mail a signed bookplate.
So I am happy.
My kid is thrilled.
Which makes me even happier.

I'm an author. At four family events in the last week, kids who are Ellie McDoodle fans who happen to also be my relatives engaged me in discussions about Ellie.
Now, I'm accustomed to meeting with kids at schools, libraries, bookstores, chatting about my books, asking what they liked or didn't like, and I'm always happy to discuss future plots or give a sneak peek at the work-in-progress.
But I'm not used to talking with fans at family events. It's a little weird to talk about work with kids anyway; they were never interested in the logos or brochures I used to design.
It's good, though. I love connecting with all readers.

My status is up a little higher than it used to be, due to my books.

But it really shoots up if I have a special connection to a relative's new favorite author.
At Christmas I learned my niece Alex likes Gail Carson Levine's books. I met Gail! I sketched her in NYC. I told Alex that Gail is a lovely person and is petite, like Alex's mom. Bing! My status bumped up.
When I handed my nephews Chris Barton's THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS with a flourescent bookplate and told them I know the author, and he's really cool, my status went up a couple points. Bing! Bing!
When I handed my oldest daughter Liz Scanlon's ALL THE WORLD (illustrated by the fabulous Marla Frazee, who I got to help shadow at an SCBWI conference), she read it to her baby and she was very touched by the message of the book. When I told her I know Liz -- and also Marla! -- and I saw the book before it was published, and it's going to be a Cheerios book and probably also a Caldecott contender, my Mom status bumped up a few more notches. Bing! Bing! Bing!
My niece is a fan of Libba Bray. I don't know Libba, but I did meet her husband (and he likes Ellie McDoodle, and he's a friend of my agent's)... Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing!
My grandson loves THE POUT-POUT FISH, by Debbie Diesen. I know about her new books; she has some amazing work coming down the pike... Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Status shoots through the roof.
It just occurred to me: I could send Amy Huntley's THE EVERAFTER to my cousin's teen daughter. I bet she'd adore it. And I know Amy well! Bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing!
And now Sarah Miller is sending a bookplate.
I could go on forever. I have hundreds of writer friends who can make me look good by association.
What, me, namedrop? Heck yeah.
Wish I knew that Wimpy Kid author...

Post script: Sarah Miller's bookplate for Miss Spitfire arrived -- it's in Braille! Is that cool or what?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah!

Wishing you a great holiday:
This is my sketch on Christmas morning for the back of our card.We're off to a party at my cousin's. Then a party tomorrow at my sister-in-law's. Then a party the next day at my brother's. Then I think we're celebrating Thanksgiving at my house on Wednesday (because we never celebrated it with our little family -- too busy running to all the relatives' houses). In between all that, I have book deadlines. I should bring the work to the parties. Hmm...

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Drawing on life for a tribute

I was going to do a card to hand out at the funeral, with Mom Barshaw's picture on it. Then I decided not to. Then one of my nephews asked if I would, so that night I drove 90 miles home, set pencil to paper not knowing what would come out of it, and drew.
Then I slept fitfully and got up for the long drive back to Detroit for the funeral early in the morning.
It was almost magic, how the image came out of the pencil without much anguish, in the middle of the night. This doesn't happen often; generally funeral cards are a difficult labor of love.
Maybe I'm getting better at this.
Here's my mother in law:

As it was coming out of my pencil, I first noticed the eye on the left looks just like some of her daughter's eyes. This astounded me.
And there's my husband's chin, and another daughter's eyebrows.

It always surprises me when I see someone I know in my drawings.

It's also odd to meet someone on the street who looks like one of my recent drawings. I want to rush up to them and shake their hand and ask a lot of personal questions because I feel like I know them well.

Taking these cards to the funeral, I felt self-conscious and awkward, as usual. I always worry that the rest of the family will hate the art, or that they'll think I'm uppity for printing copies, or greedy for getting self-promotion during a sad time. In this case I didn't hear any bad comments, but the funeral director put the cards in a place where I doubt many noticed them. Someone took home a stack of these. Maybe they'll go in thank-you notes. Maybe they'll be lost to the ages. It doesn't really matter; I did my part, giving what I could give. I drew Mom. The original sketch will go to the nephew who asked me to draw.

And I'm back to working on my book.

My editor has gone home for the holidays. They're closed all next week. They wanted the final art done before Christmas; earlier this morning I was thinking, if I can manage 30 drawings a day plus revising text, I can still get it out by Christmas. Thinking in the wee hours of the morning, it wasn't quite a dream. More like a nightmare.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to get through loss

Of course, death comes to us all (even Kirkus, the venerable book review company). Until it does, we're charged with the task of living. I have learned that death gets easier to handle with each new loved person lost. I've learned a few other things too:

When a loved one dies and someone asks what they can do, give them a small task.

Feeling helpless in the face of a loved one's misery is one of the more awful human emotions.
My daughter-in-law asked what she could do, begged. My first inclination: "Nothing, honey, we're fine." But I remembered prior deaths, how important it was to me to feel useful. And so I gave her something to do: bring a pizza. She wanted a list. Less than an hour later she was at the front door with pizza, crazy bread, orange juice and milk, a sympathetic smile and a warm hug. (she's wonderful)

When someone dies, know that you will have visitors.

I'm glad I thought to clear the dining room table, always a mishmash of newspapers, crafts and homework. We had an impromptu party with most of my kids, reminiscing about their Grandma Katie. It felt good.

Surround yourself with loved ones and talk.

It will be unforgettable. In a week where a lot of things will happen that are also unforgettable, but unpleasant, this will shine as something good.

Do something strenuous.

Something safe that makes your heart pump and reminds you that you are still alive. At midnight, Katie, Emily and I walked a couple miles in the snow with our big, at-first-uncooperative puppies. It was ridiculously cold, one leash broke. We stayed out until my legs ached -- it was better than a Wii Fit run. And the peace of a neighborhood at midnight in winter, the silent Christmas lights in windows, felt like prayer.

Get the word out.

Deaths don't only affect close friends and family; no man is an island. Grief shared is greatly diminished. It's why we have funerals. I have been deeply touched reading memorials to people I never met, tributes I stumbled upon, on the web. Reading how beloved people chose to live always inspires me to do better, myself. If someone important to you dies, tell me. I want to know.

Don't make decisions if you don't have to.

Today I stopped at Walgreens for immunity boosters. I noticed they sell contact lens solution. I've gone through extra amounts in the last day. It became a difficult decision, the cheaper store brand or the name brand? Is there a difference beyond price? One's for sensitive eyes. Are my eyes sensitive? Will the name brand last longer? Because I don't use the stuff that much, normally. Single bottle or money-saving double? Give the second bottle away?
It was almost overwhelming, trying to decide. My eyes teared up.
Thank goodness something broke the loop in my brain and I grabbed a bottle (I won't tell which; I won't start second guessing the decision).
Conventional wisdom says, don't buy or sell a house, don't do anything drastic in the wake of an important death. I'd add: Don't make *any* decisions if you don't have to. Change what you must, otherwise stick to routine; there's a reason it works for you.

Be kind to yourself.

Walking around the store I saw things I wanted to buy for Mom Barshaw. She wasn't one to accept gifts, by the way, and went to great lengths to give them back. It was a challenge to give her something she liked and would keep (and I so love a challenge). I saw a magazine on angels, and another on faith, perfect for my mom and for her too, for Christmas. Then I remembered she is dead. Instant grief. I bought the second set, not for Mom Barshaw, but for me.
I'm glad I didn't see a Snugglie there. I'd have likely bought it as well. She was cold, the past few months. I get cold sometimes.
See where this is going?
I looked in the reader glasses mirror, and I didn't see me. I saw my mother-in-law. Tired, older than my age, eschewing the candy aisle. If there had been a small child in the store I'd have fussed over it.
In that moment I understood why Mom often called to let us know about special offers or holiday shows on tv: It made her feel useful. She gathered information and coupons and disseminated them among her children, always considering who would benefit most. Suddenly I saw myself doing the same thing.
I came home and squashed a bug with my bare hand. Mom Barshaw did that all the time; I thought I never would.
It's depressing being 80 years old 30 years early, but I accept it, knowing it's temporary.

Forgive yourself

There are always things I wish I'd done sooner. I'm the Queen of Regrets, dating back to my father dying when I was 12 with love unspoken. I don't make that mistake anymore, but I sometimes let other regrets haunt me. There's limited time, limited order in life, don't waste emotion on guilt that isn't really earned.

Know that grief comes in waves.

At unexpected times the reality will overcome you and it might bring you to your knees. You might doubt your sanity. Keep doing what you're supposed to do. The wave will subside.
Death isn't something to "get over," it's more like a permanent fixture in the living room of your life. It's a lamp you won't be rid of. It's always there, sometimes almost beautiful, other times hideous, always unwanted, but it's something you work around, something you deal with but always know is there. Over time as more people die it's another table, a sofa, a painting you never wanted to accept from a giver who won't be refused. You can close off that room so the stuff won't crowd out your life and kill you, or you can learn to arrange it, live with it, make it work. I choose to make it work.

Throw yourself into a creative project.

Speaking of work, back to it. This book won't write itself.
I'm making the last revisions to the text (am on page 108) and inking final art (am on page 92). I'm glad Ellie McDoodle isn't a long book; 170 pages seems do-able. My pace is slowed but not stopped.
Tonight I'll draw a portrait of Mom.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mom Barshaw

Hospice has been called in for my mother-in-law, Mom Barshaw (her name for herself; we called her "Mom").
So here I am, stuck 90 miles away, on deadline for this book, and trying to keep my head in the book, when my heart is in Detroit.
Mom's in good hands. Her kids are gathering. My husband Charlie is headed there now. He was there yesterday and all weekend; he was there when the decline got worse. He's been at her side often this past few months.

This started in August. The kids had a birthday party for her (she was turning 80) and she didn't want the day to herself so she made Eddie, her youngest, and me share it. He's 40, I'm 50.
It was the typical party at Rosemary's, wonderful, with great food because most of the Barshaws are excellent cooks -- we're talking chef quality.
Mom didn't look healthy at the party. It was alarming enough that the kids took her to the hospital on the way home. Since then she's had a couple surgeries and procedures, some wicked meds interactions -- deplorable care by some of her "doctors" but good care from nurses and therapists -- and her kids have given vigilant 24-hour care.

Mom Barshaw had 9 kids. One, Mike, died when Charlie was 18; they were best buddies starting to take opposite paths. There's a novel in that, I keep saying, but it isn't mine to write. Charlie's a writer and after a long dormant stage he's writing again; maybe he'll tackle that story.
Recently Charlie was given his dad's wallet. Inside is a clipping, a newspaper article about a writing competition Charlie won as a kid. His dad carried it for years -- you can imagine how touching that is.
Mom has been cleaning out boxes and living spaces for a couple years, giving us such things as old photos and books. We have the sweetly-inscribed book she gave to Dad about the time when they married.
And she gave us the story Charlie wrote at age 13. It's very, very good! I knew when I married him he was the best writer I'd read; this is proof he had early talent.

Mom and I butted heads on a few things. Sometimes I did funny things just to exasperate her, like cutting a piece out of my birthday cake before dinner -- and cutting it from the center of the cake. (I was 35, young and silly)
But we didn't leave love unsaid. She closed every phone call with "God love you, God bless you." I saw her in person a few times over the past couple months, while picking up or dropping off Charlie (we only have one car) and I said it aloud, "God love you, God bless you, Mom," and she looked pleased.

Mom has always had rock-solid faith. She believes in prayer's deep power and potential; we called each other when we needed prayers. I liked to think I was the devoted biblical Ruth.
I knew her death was coming. I've been warning Charlie and my kids so it wasn't an awful surprise. Funny how you can plan for something and it still surprises you. With every person I lost, I felt they left too soon.

I was close to Charlie's dad. Mom gets to join him now, and her son Mike, and her parents who died when Mom was very young (orphaned, Mom raised her two sisters, sacrificing her own dreams for theirs; there's a book in that, too). She has had a tough life, but I believe Mom will be very happy soon.

Mom is a good, honest, strong, hard working, determined woman. She loves me despite my many shortcomings.
So how do I get this book done when all I can think about is Mom?
Pray for focus, I guess. Go easy on myself. I've lost enough dear people to know that this won't be easy. But Mom believes hard work is prayer; I will work hard.
So, back to work now...
I have 85 pages of final art done. The second half is due ASAP -- hoping to have it done this week. It's a stretch, even in ideal circumstances. I'm good under deadline, though.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On the passing of Kirkus: A eulogy

Kirkus Reviews: 1933 - 2009

My goodbye:

Kirkus, I wanted to love you. I yearned for your attention, but you spurned me. You gave me no stars. You said a few good things about my first novel, but you didn't gush. In time I realized that was a good thing. If too many reviewers had gushed, I might not have pushed myself to produce better work the next time around.
I worked hard on the second book. Worked my poor fingers to cramps, and my back to aching. And did you give me a star that time? No. You withheld your affection, doling out a few little gift words like a tightwad who'd already overspent his budget in early December. No matter; I worked harder on the next book. I was determined to win your favor. Determined to get a star. I studied. I stayed up late. I read until my eyes dried and my contacts stuck. I developed a permanent squint.
My third book is almost done. I was giddy with excitement, sure that this, finally, would earn your smile. But you died before even getting a chance to hear my book's heartbeat.
I would dedicate this book to you but frankly I have a list of other people I owe more to. And people would think I was sad and desperate, carrying a torch for someone who, if I had been the one who died first, would not even blink.
Alas, Kirkus, I hold no grudge.
May you rest in peace, and may we meet again, someplace where fallen writers gather to argue about syntax, and where unkind words are drowned out by harpists. I do mourn your passing, even though you did not love me.


Book 1 quotes: "Part journal, part graphic novel, all fun (with echoes of Harriet the Spy)." -Kirkus Reviews
Book 2, Kirkus review:
(Audible sigh of relief, here, when this one came out, but then I celebrated -- though there's no star. I hoped book 3 would bring a star)


"Although Ellie McDoodle knows that moving means the end of everything good, her sketch journal (which, glumly, begins, “The End”) shows her gradually making a place of her own in her new house, finding friends and conducting a successful nonviolent campaign to improve the school-lunch situation. Ellie is lucky in her move; her house is roomy and her neighborhood full of young people who gather for evening group activities. This sequel to Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen Will Travel carries healthy messages: Ellie finds a new friend in the librarian; reading is more interesting than TV and video games; her new friend’s Down syndrome brother is just another piece of a complicated life; peaceful protest works. But readers won’t notice as they gobble down this fast read, enjoying the jokes and riddles, familiar situations and interesting instructions for group games and paper-folding woven into the story. An appendix includes an interview with the author and suggestions for making and keeping a sketch journal." --Kirkus Reviews

The end of Kirkus Reviews


Kirkus reviews, which has been around for 75 years, is ended. And apparently its brother, Billboard, is in trouble too. (Maybe because Billboard gave Taylor Swift the Artist of the Year title? Hey, my kid's a big fan, and after what Kanye did to Taylor at the MTV awards, she deserves a great year)

When Kirkus gave my first book a "not bad" sort of review, my editor said that's a good thing; Kirkus was "known to be persnickety." I liked that quote and used it often, especially to console other writers who received less-than-glowing reviews.

Kirkus was, to me, a curmudgeonly uncle whose favor I was always hoping to win before he died.
RIP, Kirkus.
And best of luck to the staff, who I hope find new jobs soon. We've been doing the Unemployment Shuffle at our house for most of the year. You learn the steps quick enough, but it's not much fun.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I've been up to lately... Book 3 cover!!

Here's a sneak peek at the rough art cover for Ellie McDoodle: Best Friends Fur-Ever:

I am thrilled -- what a cool cover! Not much pink on it, that's a good thing. ;) I have a lot of readers who are boys.
The parrot in the book is an African Grey, not a macaw, so the colors of the bird will change.
And the layout will change a little -- the bird won't be weighing down her shoulder anymore.
You'll see. :) It'll be in stores next summer. Amazon says August 3; they know more about that than I do!
Watch this blog for sketches to be uploaded in the coming weeks. I'm very excited about this book. Fans of the series will love it, I am sure.

Ellie, one of the decade's top chapter books, says a very smart reviewer

Ellie McDoodle makes the list of Best 25 Chapter Books of the Decade, by this mom-librarian who's keeping track of such things and seriously knows her books.
My book's in impressive company. Woo hoo!
Just wait til the world sees the next Ellie book, coming out next summer. I'm working on crazy deadlines for it right now, and it's my best book yet. :)