Kid Lit Salon was great while it lasted

Lissa and me at the last Kid Lit Salon

I always looked forward to the fourth Monday of every month because that meant I would drive across the Richmond–San Rafael bridge to the Book Passage in Corte Madera for Kid Lit Salon, hosted enthusiastically by Lissa Rovetch.

For three years, Lissa arranged for children’s book authors, illustrators, editors, agents, and publishers to speak on a panel and answer questions posed by a smallish audience of mostly aspiring children’s authors and illustrators. Mostly aspiring because a few lucky souls actually got published, and so had graduated from the aspiring category.

Those thirty-four Mondays kept us writing and submitting even when faced with minuscule odds of landing a book contract. In a business where rejection is the norm and the work is a solitary occupation, Kid Lit Salon was a place we could gather as writers and illustrators to vent our frustrations and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

Lissa asked us to share news, probably because she knew that the salon might be the only forum where members could brag about landing an agent or completing their middle grade novel, and other members would be genuinely happy for them. It was a group of individuals who generally toiled in silence but enjoyed the camaraderie of peers who truly understood that writing for children is hard but rewarding.

But the best motivation she provided was introducing us to published authors who were once in our shoes, letting us know that we weren’t crazy for dreaming that we might one day be signing books with our names on the covers. Hearing their paths to publishing and realizing that getting published is possible were gifts more valuable to us than tips on how to improve our platforms or telling us the latest trends in publishing.

And of course we got to meet some of our children’s writing heroes or discover new ones along the way. I talked to Thacher Hurd, whose books I’d read and taught from for years, while waiting in line for the restroom before the salon even began one night.

We heard some great stories, even some news that bordered on gossip. Gennifer Choldenko confessed how low she sank while trying to get published. I found out that Margaret Wise Brown didn’t really care for children all that much. And more than once we were privy to bad author/agent relationships that illustrated that the drama wasn’t always just on the pages of the book.

I had a front row seat to hear published authors describe their creative process and I got some great advice. (Don’t quit your day job, but never give up.) Mostly I felt like part of a writing community of kind, hopeful souls with Lissa cheering us on.

I happened upon Kid Lit Salon right when it started, which was shortly after I’d lost my job teaching elementary school after 24 years and had decided that I wanted to write for children. It was just what I needed.

Thank you, Lissa.

The composer may be dead, but the book lives on

I realize I’m a bit behind the curve here since this book was published in 2009, but it’s never too late for a book review because whether a book was published last month, last year, or in the last century, if it is still in print, then I can recommend it. Or not.

And I can happily recommend this one. I quite enjoyed Lemony Snicket’s book The Composer Is Dead. I never went to the show of the same name even though it was right here in my home town of Berkeley. And I regret it. But life is full of regrets, and I’m still much better off than the composer in the story, who after all, is already dead on the first page. But it’s not like I’m spoiling anything. I mean it’s right in the title, so you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Snicket’s playfulness with words is one of his great strengths. And this book provides some wonderful examples of that. After it is established that the composer is indeed no longer among the living, he writes that he is decomposing. And my particular favorite play on words happens when the inspector is interrogating the percussion instruments who answer: “We drummed. We percussed. We employed xylophoniness and cymbalism.”

In the tradition of Peter and the  Wolf—but done in a much funnier way—Snicket introduces the instruments in an orchestra and reveals aspects of their personalities, such as explaining that Second Violins are more fun at parties than are First Violins. Which is funny because everyone knows is true. I did think that the bitter victim-like behavior assigned to the violas was unjustified, however. That’s just stereotyping pure and simple.

The inspector is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Once he decided who the murderer was, he didn’t even bother to question him. There was absolutely not a shred of evidence pointing at the conductor. One wonders what sort of training this so-called inspector had if indeed he had any at all. It’s never mentioned in the book if he was part of the local  police force or a private detective. He wore no uniform, and his clothes were unlike anything worn in the last century. Probably someone’s eccentric brother needed a job. Nepotism is alive and well, my friend.

The ending will disappoint those who purchased this book in hopes of hunkering down to read a good murder mystery. There’s little in the way of intrigue, and there wasn’t even a red herring.

However, if you are a fan of words put together in an interesting and amusing way and mildly drawn to orchestral music, this may be just the ticket.

(But don’t actually try to use the book as a ticket to gain admission to a symphony because the ticket-taker will look at you as if she has no idea what you’re doing and the manager that she calls over will not have the slightest sense of humor about the whole thing.)

Autumn in Berkeley good enough for me

I love fall. I’ve been told that I don’t really know what fall looks like if I’ve never experienced autumn in New England. Which I haven’t. But from my window I can still see gold, red, orange leaves on the tree across the street.

And, okay, here in Berkeley, CA, we don’t have the cool, crisp wind and people bundled up in lots of wooly scarves and sweaters, but our Indian summer has passed and we’re now turning on our heaters and getting out our umbrellas. So we do experience a change of seasons, if not a wild dip in temperature. Which is okay with me.

Today I just want to spread some beauty by sharing a blog that I have often enjoyed. Pictures are reposted from Serenity in the Garden.

Siri is not a good listener

I read somewhere that  Siri, the honey-voiced font of knowledge who resides in my iPhone, has actually received marriage proposals from grateful men who love having at their disposal a calm, helpful being that responds to them any time night or day.

Well, that is not my experience at all.

First of all, she keeps asking me what I want when I haven’t even summoned her. To reach her, you’re supposed to press down the button for a few seconds, but my hand is nowhere near the button when that little microphone icon pops up with the speech bubble that reads “What can I help you with?”

To which I respond, “I don’t need help.”

Her answer: “If you don’t, you don’t.”

Now to me, that sounds vaguely passive aggressive and a little pouty, almost as if I can hear her thinking “Look, I just wanted to help, but if you don’t need me, I’ve got better things to do…”

Secondly, she calls me Sonny, even though I have told her several times that my name isn’t Sonny, each time more vehemently. Sonny is my brother’s name, but it’s not like we look that much alike or anything. So I say “My name is not Sonny.” And Siri responds: “I don’t understand. Your name is not funny.”

It’s like she’s purposely misunderstanding me.

I say (admittedly through gritted teeth) “MY NAME IS TANYA.”

Siri: I’m sorry. I don’t have directions in Kenya.

Me: I just want you to call me Tanya.

Siri: Ok.

But I don’t believe her, so I test her.

Me: What’s my name?

Siri: You’re asking me?

I feel like I have a bad history with technology. When we first got our TiVo, it regularly recorded little kiddy shows like Dora the Explorer and Spanish language programs. Now, I have nothing against either of those, but our daughter was already past that stage of television programming, and I don’t speak Spanish.

It’s like our TiVo didn’t know me at all. And now Siri taunts me.

I’m all for technology that makes life easier, but when my phone provokes me by interrupting whatever I’m doing and calls me the wrong name, I have to take action. I can’t let her know how much she annoys me or she’ll just do it more. So I plan to keep a professional distance from Siri, and I’m not even going to answer when she asks if I need help.

Or maybe I’ll just start calling her Sara…

“I like to write day” has to be every day

I enjoy listening to Joe Burke’s Almanac on KALW every weekday morning. (That’s 8:49 on 91.7 for those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area) Today Joe informed me that it is “I Like to Write” day.

I have no idea who gets to decide these things or why November 15  is the day so dubbed or why it isn’t “I Like to Write” week or”I Like to Write” month.

Except that it is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it’s come to be known), so maybe someone chose the middle of the month to help all those ambitious writers—who at this point may be starting to burn out—reaffirm why they are doing what they are doing.

Because we all know that the only reason writers write is because they like to write. Though some say it is more that they are driven to write, which doesn’t necessarily include affection for the craft, I suppose.

You can’t write because you think you’re going to land a million-dollar book deal or become famous like Stephen King.

You can’t write because you think you’re going to win a Pulitzer, the Booker Prize, or a Newbury Award.

Sadly, you can’t even write because you know it’s a steady income with health benefits.

Because none of those things happen except for a tiny percentage of writers out there. So striving for those highly improbable goals will likely end in frustration.

But if you truly like to write, you can reach attainable goals:

  • Write the best poem, story, novel, essay, play, or memoir that you possibly can.
  • Revise that piece of writing so that it’s even better than it was.
  • Be in a writer’s critique/support group. (Or even two!)
  • Join a professional writer’s club.
  • Teach yourself the basics of the book biz by going to conferences, taking classes, reading the trade magazines, and immersing yourself in the writer’s community.

The reason you can reach the preceding goals is because you have control over all of those. You can make those happen. The truth is you can’t control whether or not you sell a million copies or win a prestigious prize because those depend on some other entity—either a publisher, an editor, an agent, judges, the book-buying public, fate, trends, chance, etc.

Okay, you can buy health insurance, but you can’t guarantee that your writing alone will support you.

So even if you never win an award or get to talk about your book on TV with Jon Stewart, even if you never get published, you still get to do what you like to do. So just keep telling yourself: I like to write…I like to write…I like to write…



Handler and Van Allsburg library event a great way to spend an afternoon

Another reason to love libraries: the amazing free events they sponsor.

Yesterday the San Francisco Main Library celebrated Chris Van Allsburg’s latest book, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Local author Mac Barnett interviewed the venerable and acclaimed Van Allsburg and the always witty and entertaining Daniel Handler (a.k.a Lemony Snicket), who wrote the book’s foreword.
Because the Friends of the San Francisco Library sold out of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick just as I reached the front of the book-buying line, I don’t yet have a copy of the book, but rest assured I will get a hold of a copy somehow and review it in a future post. Since I definitely wanted something for both of them to sign, I bought the only two available titles that I hadn’t already collected—Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead and Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls, his only non-fiction work to date.
The Koret auditorium was full of kids from babies to teens with their parents, as well as children’s lit bums such as myself, who were there sans kids.
A longtime fan of Van Allsburg, Mac Barnett was an excellent choice as moderator. He even brought along copies of Van Allsburg’s books his mother had given him when he was a child. 

Barnett asked Handler and Van Allsburg questions, and Handler answered them in his uniquely dark and funny way, causing much laughter, especially among the adults in the audience. Van Allsburg answered thoughtfully and seriously with a dry humorous undertone, musing that if Burdick were still alive, he would be quite old, always maintaining that Burdick was an actual person.
Van Allsburg told the story of Harris Burdick, a man who mysteriously appeared at editor Peter Wender’s office one day almost sixty years ago and dropped off this set of fourteen detailed drawings with only captions to represent the books he had at home. Wender loved the illustrations and asked Burdick to bring in everything, but Burdick was never heard from again. Then in the early ’80s, so the story goes, Wender saw some of Van Allsburg’s earlier picture books, noticed the similarities,  and showed up at one of his book signings, where he introduced himself and asked the children’s book author to come with him to see the drawings. They put together The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which became the most famous set of writing prompts known to school children in the English-speaking world.
I was one of those teachers who read this book to my second-graders, handed out photocopies of the storyless illustrations, and assigned them to write their own stories around the gorgeous, intricate pictures. Van Allsburg reports that he has  received basketfuls of these stories over the years.
Daniel Handler deftly pointed out that he and Chris Van Allsburg have something in common: they both represented mysterious children’s authors, since he (Handler) is the person through whom Lemony Snicket has contact with the world.
(Here I have to note that Daniel Handler does not sign books written by Lemony Snicket, but instead uses an embosser to stamp in a seal that says “Library of Lemony Snicket.” But he does handwrite the date and a short note—in my case “To Tanya, who ought to know better.”)
When Q & A was opened up to the audience, the microphone was handed mostly to children, who asked a variety of questions including some that on the surface seemed quite boring but invoked interesting answers nonetheless.
Kid: What’s your favorite color?
Handler (without hesitation): Dark gray.
Van Allsburg: A color isn’t anything without comparing what it’s next to…but I do happen to like orange (indicating his pumpkin-colored vest), which goes well with black…
Kid: I thought you’d say black!
The library staffers knew that they had to be organized when it came time for the authors to sign books, so they sent one row at a time to get in line against the wall of the auditorium. Being near the back, I waited from 3:30 until 4:45 before I reached the booksigning table.
Daniel Handler (middle), Chris Van Allsburg (far right)
When I was within earshot, I could hear Handler’s booming voice cracking wise with each book he signed. When asked to sign a book as a birthday present for a boy’s friend who was turning eleven, Handler wrote “I hope you make it to twelve.”
When a particularly obnoxious boy who looked to be about twelve reached Handler, he asked, “Do you remember me? I’m the sarcastic little prick that asked you a question.” The convivial chatter that was flowing stopped abruptly to hear Handler’s quick response: “No, I remember you, I just don’t think you look much like that part of the anatomy.”
Despite not being able to buy the book I wanted and having to wait so long, it was a great afternoon. After all, it’s not every day that you get to meet not one but two of your favorite children’s authors of all times.

The Mockingbirds hooks, engages, and teaches

The Mockingbirds, Daisy Whitney’s debut novel, is set at a highly prestigious boarding school where the faculty and administration have their heads in a collective academic sand when it comes to social issues and discipline.

The story hooks you from the first sentence:

“Three things I know this second: I have morning breath, I’m naked, and I’m waking up next to a boy I don’t know.” 

And so begins Alex’s painful journey trying to recollect the night before—the confusion, the horror, the self-doubt, and the shame that victims of date-rape often experience.

Luckily for her, she has two strong, devoted roommates who help her stand up for herself. And because the adults in her life are oblivious to the seamier side of life at a boarding school, she turns to those who will listen to her and see that justice is served—the Mockingbirds, a self-selected group dedicated to righting wrongs among the students at Themis Academy.

The reader follows Alex through a myriad of emotions in the months following the rape, and Whitney never allows her tale to devolve into a two-dimensional story of revenge. Her characters feel real even while they accomplish much under the radar of the teachers.

It is an empowering story that should be required reading for all teens because girls need to know that rape is not their fault, and boys need to know that it’s not okay to inflict non-consensual sex on someone under any circumstances—that is the definition of rape.

The Mockingbirds tackles a serious subject that unfortunately is all too real, and it does so without fear-mongering and without sounding preachy. In fact,  the protagonist stands up for herself and comes out the other side stronger, and the tale ends with hope that society is changing and progress is being made.

Whitney definitely had a message to impart. But The Mockingbirds is also an engaging, powerfully written story that keeps you turning pages.

Poor Oklahoma—tornadoes and Texas are bad enough

It used to be that when I’d visit family in the city where I grew up, people would ask how I liked living in California. A few admitted they were envious of my access to beaches and mountains, two things Oklahoma is sorely lacking.

I do love being close to both the Pacific and the Sierras, although I don’t ski any more, and I never had the urge to sail or scuba dive. But I enjoy their beauty and their possibilities. But that’s not really the draw for me.

When curious storekeepers, gas station attendants, or acquaintances of family members asked why California, my answer depended on the situation, the person asking, and how much I felt like divulging at the moment.

One of my default responses is that the weather is the best—never freezing, rarely that hot. We had a freak hailstorm last year, but generally we stay right in the comfort zone. I have no fond memories of the uncomfortably hot, humid summers growing up in Oklahoma City where the mosquitoes ruled once late afternoon set in. Nor do I miss having to carry a bag of cat litter in the back of the car in case I got stuck in snow.

If the person is still listening, I’ll brag that the Bay Area has the best food, great theater, top museums, a wonderfully diverse international community, and a reverence for books and higher education that is almost unparalleled.

Which is not to say that I was raised in a wasteland: the steaks at Cattleman’s Cafe have no match, I enjoyed many shows at Lyric Theatre where I ushered one year, and as long as you brought along enough mosquito repellant, Shakespeare in the Park was fun.

But I digress.

If it was just polite chatter to begin with, it usually ended with the discussion of climate. But it was often followed up with some variant of this: “But how do you live with all those earthquakes?”

Having grown up with tornado watches, warnings, and drills, I always felt the two natural disasters inspired the same amount of fear, which is to say: not a lot, and not too often. I’m of the opinion that once you get used to the idea of a tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, a monsoon, or whatever geographically appropriate natural disaster comes to your neighborhood, that’s the one you’re more comfortable with. But those others—the ones that do damage elsewhere—those are the ones you’re more afraid of. 

I was just as likely in my childhood to get whisked away by a tornado as I am  today of plunging headlong down into a crack in the earth, so for me, it’s a wash. But the look of fear in their eyes told me that they would never live in earthquake country.

Which is why it seems so unfair that the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma has exploded. I was unaware of any earthquakes at all in my 17 years there, but apparently Oklahoma has regularly experienced about 50 a year, albeit many so small that nobody felt them. But in 2010 there were 1, 047. I’m no math whiz, but a leap from 50 to almost a thousand more seems statistically significant. And the most recent one was 5.6, the biggest in Oklahoma’s history.

So now they’ve got tornadoes and earthquakes. Plus the flat, boring landscape, the extremes in weather, the lack of decent Chinese food, and all those mosquitoes. Poor Oklahoma. And they’re stuck next to Texas too.

Single Shanghai seniors hook up at IKEA


Need some inexpensive bookshelves, Swedish meatballs, or, uh, a love connection? Look no further than the IKEA in Shanghai where on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons dozens of retired, single, divorced, or widowed senior citizens take over the cafeteria.

This is the story I heard on NPR’s Morning Edition today.

The coffee is free and everyone knows why they are there.

“You can find a boyfriend or girlfriend, or just make friends and chat. It makes you a little bit happier,” says Ge, who retired this year and didn’t want to give her full name.

Ge’s friend who accompanied her (and also failed to provide her name) agreed that IKEA is the place to go to find a suitable companion, but she never tells her family where she’s going:  “We don’t tell them we go to IKEA, because IKEA is the place to find boyfriends and girlfriends.”

remains after lovelorn session

IKEA is getting a little tired of providing a hook-up spot for the lovelorn who never buy any furniture. After a recent ruckus, management cordoned off an area for the elders looking for love and posted a sign:

“Your behavior is affecting the normal operations of the IKEA cafeteria. Frequent fights and arguments do serious harm to the image both of Shanghai residents and IKEA.” 

I imagine the conversation once they leave the store and go back to one of their homes: “You want to sit on my EKTORP or go straight to my double MALM?”
Maybe they should stop giving out free coffee…

For more photos, go to