Friday, October 31, 2008

Poetry Friday--Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair

In honor of Halloween --

Consider printing out a few copies and doing a reading with your co-workers or family.

I'd give them (and yourself) some time to read it over a bit before you do.

Or, you could read it out loud all by yourself.

Use your best witch's voice.
Get into it.

Deliciously disgusting --
so much fun --
and absolutely brilliant.

Drink up!

Witches Chant

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and caldron, bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangl'd babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,--
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our caldron.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire, burn; and caldron, bubble.

Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

-- William Shakespeare

For a bit about the history of Halloween (the Celtic new year called Samhain -- pronounced Sow-in by most modern-day speakers) see Halloween History.


Note: This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is at Poetry for Children--put your hand in the bag and pick a poetry treat!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague of mine yesterday. She teaches kindergarten and reads at least 2 or 3 picture books every day to her lucky students. Because she's teaching in a very inclusive private school, she has been able to work any and all holidays into the curriculum. Until this year.

Apparently, one of her students is afraid of witches. His mother has insisted that no books featuring a witch character be read to the class. There'll be no Piggie Pie! in that classroom this year. Margie Palatini's Gritch the Witch is going to have to find some other group of kids to delight. That's too bad. Gritch just may have helped that child deal with his witch issues.

I know this mother is well-intentioned, but I don't believe she is doing her little one any favors by screening out the witches. I think that we give our personal demons great power when we close our eyes, cover our ears, and run screaming from them. Face your fears, I say!

In my opinion, when we over-validate a child's fearful reaction, we are telling that child s/he needs to be afraid. S/he needs to be very afraid. That mother could easily turn the fear switch "off" and empower her son. All she needs is a lap and a few thoughtfully chosen picture books. She could start with Tomie dePaola's Strega Nona, and follow up with Julia Donaldson's Room on the Broom. Even though it doesn't feature a witch, I'd recommend reading Linda Williams's The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything. Talk about facing your fears! That old woman is chased through the darkening woods by clomping shoes, wiggling pants, a shaking shirt, two clapping white gloves, one nodding black hat, and a pumpkin head. They scared the hell out of her, but she dealt with it. "I am not afraid of you!" With those simple yet powerful words she took control of the fearsome pumpkin head and his disembodied accessories. She directed them to assemble themselves into a scarecrow in her garden. What a completely satisfying ending!

Unless this mother rethinks her approach, this little guy is doomed to live in fear. He'll never get to that satisfying ending, because he isn't allowed to read the book. It has been placed out of his reach.

Now that's scary.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rules for Writers

Courtesy of those who know a thing or two on the subject . . .

Don't write about Man, write about a man

-- E.B. White

Writing simply means no dependent clauses, no dangling things, no flashbacks, and keeping the subject near the predicate. We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don't always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it vital and alive.

-- Theodor Seuss Geisel

Never use the passive when you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

-- George Orwell

Get black on white.

-- Guy de Maupassant

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

-- Thomas Mann

The first discipline is the realization that there is a discipline – that all art begins and ends with discipline – that any art is first and foremost a craft.

-- Archibald MacLeish

The adjective is the enemy of the noun.

-- Voltaire

There is but one art . . . to omit. O' if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knew how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson

If you keep working, inspiration comes.

-- Alexander Calder

The more particular, the more specific you are, the more universal you are.

-- Nancy Hale

Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan – that is the rule.

-- John Fowles

Don't say the old lady screamed – bring her on and let her scream.

-- Mark Twain

Friday, October 24, 2008


I'm fascinated by the themes in my life and those of my friends. Themes have a way of informing the characters, plots, and settings of our writing. For me, nuns have been a recurring theme.

Until I was thirteen years old, I lived in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie has a really large Jewish population, and I had lots of Jewish friends who helped me appreciate their religion and culture -- and food. I was raised a Methodist, growing up in the shadow of St. Lambert's church . My best friend was Catholic, and often told me I'd be going to h - e- double hockey sticks for not being Catholic. I didn't believe her. The mysteries of these very different religions made for an interesting childhood.

My brothers and I would encounter nuns gliding along in their habits on their way to church or back to their home. Even at that age, it seemed unfair to me that the nuns had to walk so far from their church while the priests lived right 'on

Even today, nuns remain an enigma to me. Friends have told me stories of their amazing brutality and great kindnesses. I imagine a nun will figure in one of my books some day.

Until then, I offer up these two views by Maxine Kumin, who was -- for a time -- New Hampshire's Poet Laureate and former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress back in the 1980s. Thankfully they're now called Poet Laureates.


by Maxine Kumin


O where are they now, your harridan nuns
who thumped on young heads with a metal thimble
and punished with rulers your upturned palms:

three smacks for failing in long division,
one more to instill the meaning of humble.
As the twig is bent, said your harridan nuns.

Once, a visiting bishop, serene
at the close of a Mass through which he had shambled,
smiled upon you with upturned palms.

"Because this is my feast day," he ended,
"You may all have a free afternoon." In the scramble
of whistles and cheers one harridan nun,

fiercest of all the parochial coven,
Sister Pascala, without preamble
raged, "I protest!" and rapping on palms

at random, had bodily to be restrained.
O God's perfect servant is kneeling on brambles
wherever they sent her, your harridan nun,
enthroned as a symbol with upturned palms.


O where are they now, my darling nuns
whose heads were shaved under snowy wimples,
who rustled drily inside their gowns,

disciples of Oxydol, starch and bluing,
their backyard clothesline a pious example?
They have flapped out of sight, my darling nuns.

Seamless as fish, made all of one skin,
their language secret, these gentle vestals
were wedded to Christ inside their gowns.

O Mother Superior Rosarine
on whose lap the privileged visitor lolled
-- I at age four with my darling nuns,

with Sister Elizabeth, Sister Ann,
am offered to Jesus, the Jewish child-
next-door, who worships your ample black gown,

your eyebrows as thick as mustachioed twins,
your rimless glasses, your ring of pale gold --
who can have stolen my darling nuns?
Who rustles drily inside my gown?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Jacket Flap

Beginning children's writers should always be looking for quality resources to learn more about the craft. It can seem an enormous task -- besides that, how do you know if a book or a website is valuable?

The internet is a great place to find out more about how children's writers work. You can find answers to your questions, connect with other writers, learn about great children's books to read, and so much more.

Here are a few sites I feel are worth a look:

Friday, October 17, 2008

Poetry (or at least Verse) from the heart

When emotions run high, even the non-poets among us sometimes turn to verse. In that context, I share the following bit of doggerel:

October 16, 2008

Past eleven – day is done
Red Sox can’t score even one.
What an ending to the season
Has the Curse returned? we reason.

All this feels just too familiar.
Tampa’s champagne’s getting chillier.
Fenway faithful’ve started leaving.
Diehards stay, but clearly grieving.

Wait – Pedroia comes alive
Papi hits a trademark drive
J.D.’s homer shrinks the gap
Wake up, Pa, no time to nap!

Just past midnight, cheers arise
“Sox live on!” the Nation cries.
Coco says a silent prayer
Joined by Sox fans everywhere.

Off to bed, the night is short
Stay tuned for the next report!

Other Sox fans are more consistently poetic than I am:

Enjoy! And get some sleep.


Note: This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is hosted by Becky's Book Reviews.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dreams, Goals, and Deadlines

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a journal that I keep. It is not the usual kind of diary. Instead of summaries of the day's events or collections of story ideas, I write down words from books or magazines that inspire me. When I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed or un-creative, I pull out my journal and peruse the pages. The journal connects me with other writers (always a good thing) and sometimes helps me solve the immediate dilemna
One of the problems beginning writers face is the lack of recognition. It's sort of like housework. What's the point if nobody's going to notice? If you clean and decorate your home for guests, you feel gratified when you can share a comfortable space with the people visiting.

Writers want to share their work. Too many beginners aren't sure how to do that. Perhaps it's because new writers don't feel competent or worthy. Perhaps they just don't understand that they're in charge of their own writing destiny.

I first began to sell my work because of suggestion from my husband. He told me to make a business plan. The question I should ask myself , he said, was "How much can I expect to make as a writer this year?" I had never thought of setting a monetary goal for myself. I instead thought I should submit work and hope to be paid. As a business owner, he showed me the folly of this way of thinking. Nobody opens a restaurant or a tire store or a dry cleaning establishment and "hopes" to be reimbursed! So, why do so many writers "hope" to sell their work or see it in print?

His suggestion changed the way I thought of my writing and my goals for myself as a writer. As a result, I made goals which forced me to be more vigilante and organized about submitting my work. I began to look for ways to get assignments. I get paid!

From my journal, here's another version this suggestion from an article by Kelly James-Enger, The Writer March, 2005, pp. 43-44 called "Break Out of Your Box:"

"...Even if you don't write full time, you may discover writing for a lifetime means discovering that ther's no finish line. You never hit the mark, and think, 'That's it--the end of the road.' You re-create yourself and your career along the way.

That may mean writing in a new genre, covering differnt topics, teaching or switching forms--say , writing books instead of magazine articles.

If you've reached the point in your career when writing is starting to feel like a drag, it may be time to set long term goals Even if you're newer to writing it never hurts to have some kind of plan for the future. Consider, for example, what parts of writing you find most--and least--satisfying. Imagine your perfect 'dream life' as a writer. What kinds of projects would be working on? How does that differ from how you're spending your time today?"

So, go ahead. Dream, then set a goal, and give yourself a deadline for accomplishing that goal. Your writing will improve, I guarantee it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Poetry Friday--Thanks for the Memories

Last Friday, Muriel asked if teachers have time to let children memorize poems. I'm guessing, probably not. What a shame. I understand that today's students face a slew of curriculum requirements, and today's teachers barely have time to cover those mandated requirements. That doesn't make it any less a shame.

I'm glad that I teach preschool. Reciting simple rhymes and singing songs are expected parts of the curriculum. What many people don't know, is that little children are capable of so much more. My students have happily memorized Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening and Emily Dickinson's A Bird Came Down the Walk. A few years ago, a mother of one of my kindergarten students told me she was moved to tears when she realized that her 5-year old was softly reciting Stopping By Woods to himself as they drove through a light snow. I bet that poem will still be with him when he's an old man.

Mur got me thinking about poems I've been carrying around for decades. Many of them came from Sister Genevieve St. Joseph. Barberries is one. (I tried unsuccessfully to search out the author.) A Bird Came Down the Walk by Emily Dickinson is another. I'd have to say my favorite, however, is a snippet of a much larger work. It's the first twelve lines of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ...

I had to memorize it for an English class my sophomore year in college. I spent hours in the language lab, gigantic headphones gripping my skull, trying to nail the pronunciation. There were probably 50 of us enrolled in the class. Guess who was the only person the professor randomly picked to recite. I achieved the pinnacle of panic when I heard my name called, which was really very silly because I nailed it. I owned Geoffrey Chaucer that day. Still do.

Today's Poetry Friday Round-Up host is Picture Book of the Day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Power of the Picture Book

I consider 3, 4 and 5-year old children to be "my people." I've spent thousands of hours observing and interacting with them in my classroom at the Hogarth School these last 29 years. They are a source of endless fun, fascination and inspiration for my writing. In fact, the lines between my teaching life and my writing life are so blurred as to be almost nonexistent. My teaching informs my writing, and my writing informs my teaching.

Today was a great day for this teaching writer. It was the first Show-and-Tell day of the school year. Here at Hogarth we call it "Sharing Day," and I'm always curious to see what comes through the door, especially the books. Each month, I can count on at least one or two books being in the treasure trove.

Today 3-year old Arthur brought in one of those search-for-the-hidden pictures books in the Where's Waldo vein, except it tied in with the Disney movie Cars. 4-year old Hayden brought in When I'm Big by Sam McBratney, which I read to the class. They liked it just fine, but were more interested in finding pictures of Lightning McQueen in the Cars book. (How do you compete with Disney and the mass merchandising of Cars?)

The thing that really caught my eye was a globe. Mounted in a highly polished stainless steel (I think) base, the different countries were fashioned from mother-of-pearl, jade, and God knows what other kinds of stone. It was fantastic. One of a kind. I asked Brady, the 3-year old who brought it in, to tell us about it. He immediately spun the globe and found South Korea. "That's where I was born!" He searched out another spot and planted his little 3-year old finger. "That's New Zealand!" I'm not sure what special meaning New Zealand holds for him, but I hope to find out. Another 3-year old, Dev, had shared a dohl drum from India, so we searched out India on the beautiful globe.

I asked Brady if he'd like to tell us anything else before we moved onto the picture John was going to share, and he immediately gave the globe a final spin. Without even having to hunt for it, he jabbed his finger onto Spain. "This is where Ferdinand lives!"

I was flabbergasted. Ferdinand! One of my favorite picture book characters of all time! The fact that this barely 3-year old boy could find Ferdinand's home on the globe speaks to the power of the picture book. (And the power of involved, loving parents.) This little guy connected so strongly with Munro Leaf's classic story of peace and the strength of the individual, that when he was learning about important places in the world, he wanted to learn where Ferdinand lives.

I'll be reading The Story of Ferdinand to my students tomorrow. I can't wait. I really need to thank Brady.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Poetry Friday--Do Teachers Today Have Time ...

to let children memorize poems? Probably not. My days as a classroom teacher are not that far away but I know my curriculum was pretty well monitored. I remember filling out forms that showed exactly how many minutes I planned to have my students learning math, social studies, science, etc.

Sister Jeanne, my third grade teacher at Saint Jean Baptiste School, believed children should memorize and perform poetry. I must have been a bit of a ham, because I remember volunteering to stand at the front of the class and recite. Sister's desk was set on a wooden platform. We were allowed to stand on the edge of the platform and speak--good facial expressions, hand gestures, and expressive voices were a requirement.

Of course, Sister Jeanne did not have to deal with all the interruptions that today's teachers must take into account. We did not have school picture day, lice checks, school nurses monitoring ing our weight, or intercoms interrupting with announcements (yeah, I'm THAT old...). Our school did not have music, gym, or art classes. We just went to class and learned stuff.

Kids today have so much more to learn than we did. It's no wonder that memorizing poetry had to go by the wayside. Still, all these years later, I cannot wake on the first day of October without reciting the title of this particular poem. So, Sister Jeanne, this one's for you:

October's Bright Blue Weather

by Helen Hunt Jackson

O suns and skies and clouds of June,

And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather.

When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,

And Golden Rod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;

When Gentians roll their fringes tight,
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;

When on the ground red apples lie

In piles like jewels shining,

And redder still on old stone walls

Are leaves of woodbine twining;

When all the lovely wayside things

Their white-winged seeds are sowing,

And in the fields, still green and fair,

Late aftermaths are growing;

When springs run low, and on the brooks,

In idle golden freighting,

Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush

Of woods, for winter waiting;

When comrades seek sweet country haunts

By twos and twos together,

And count like misers, hour by hour,

Octobers' bright blue weather.

O suns and skies and flowers of June,

Count all your boasts together,

Love loveth best of all the year

October's bright blue weather.

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Lots of good poetry to check out!