Launch party love

I feel incredibly blessed. Last night was the launch party for Second in Command. Friends, family, and coworkers came out to help celebrate and many others shared their well wishes throughout the day. I even met a few new people who heard about the event and wanted to check out my book.

I wanted to share my speech here for anyone who missed it because I think so much of writing is about the journeys we take and the people who help us along the way.

Thank you, Gina for that perfect introduction, and a huge thank you to Mary and the Burchfield Penney Art Center for hosting this event. Mary runs a book club here on the first Thursday of every month – it celebrates local Buffalo authors and it’s a wonderful way to learn about the history and culture of Buffalo and be exposed to some of our amazing talent. *(Note: the next book club is March 7)

At the risk of sounding like I’m at the Oscars (if I go too long feel free to cue the obnoxious music), there are a bunch of people I need to thank for getting me up here. My parents, for believing in me and traveling back from Florida into the icy grips of Buffalo to help celebrate and bake cookies. My mother in law, and my sister and her family for their support and encouragement, my kiddos for inspiration – this is the first thing I’ve written they could actually read (usually there’s a tiny bit of swearing in my books). And that handsome man in uniform who endures endless rounds of brainstorming, as well as my fits of jealously and self-doubt and all the other demons we writers face. He’s always there with practical advice like, “Just sit down and write.” As many of you know, he was active duty Navy for five years and now serves as a Reservist. We were apart for most of 2003 and I pulled on some of those memories when writing the book. But more about that in a bit.

I want to thank my friends and family – coworkers, both past and present, scout friends and writer friends – especially my Wednesday night and sometimes Sunday afternoon clan, members of our local children’s writers and illustrators (we’re known as BNCWI), Kristy my cheerleader, Jenn for our writing slash counseling sessions, Dee for introducing me to this crazy world of children’s books, my beta readers – CJ, Claudia, Carla, Gina, and Lilly. Sam, who designed this beautiful cover. Caitie, and everyone at West 44 who took a chance on my idea and helped make a lifelong dream come true. Everyone here today for coming out and supporting me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Okay, cue the music. Onto the juicy part. How did I get here? No wait, that’s a Talking Heads song. Here’s the condensed version. When I was 16, I wrote a lot of angsty poetry. Like Leo, the main character in Second in Command, I was trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in the world. That’s the great thing about young adult literature. We can all relate to those feelings of identity and fitting in – they’re universal. And writing, for me, as a far from 16-year-old who still carries a few wounds on her heart, is a form of therapy. You present readers with a character who has a goal, give him/her obstacles, and then here’s the fun part – you help them figure out how to solve their problems. And unlike real life, there are revisions – you can change the course of events and your characters’ reactions, you get to be in control of their fate.

I get the YA part, you say, but what is a verse novel? A verse novel is a story told entirely through poetry. Poetry is beautiful because it strips everything down to raw emotion – much like the teenage experience. When Caitie told our critique group about her new imprint that would feature verse novels for struggling readers I thought, YES! Brilliant! I used to teach high school students with learning disabilities, and I remember how some of them struggled to find accessible literature that spoke to their experiences in a way that didn’t feel dumbed down. Poetry can be intimidating to some, yes, but it can also be freeing in a way because there’s all this white space on the page and the sentences are bare, the emotion is right there for the reader to see and feel.

I was excited to be part of something like that – and to be able to write poetry again. While that might frighten some writers, I immediately started to think about the different types of poems I could use and how I’d be able to play with language and structure. The clincher? One of the possible topics was deployed parents. Poetry, young adult book for struggling readers, about a military family. Around our house we call that the Trifecta.

So I created Leo, and I gave him a goal – he wants to earn Eagle Scout and become a police officer, and I gave him conflicts – Mom, who he admires and depends on to a degree, gets deployed and younger brother Jack quickly takes advantage of the situation by getting into trouble. It’s clear the brothers are close, but they fight – in the way brothers do. Not that I have any experience with that or anything. And Leo feels this strong sense of responsibility, especially when it comes to his siblings, but he’s also freaking out a little. And when I sat down to write I had to dredge up some difficult memories of my husband’s deployment. I wanted the story to be real for my readers. I had to tap into those feelings and remember the other families from that time. It was 2003 and everyone in our little military town knew someone who was deployed. Leo’s family was inspired by our next door neighbors. Mom left with the hospital ship. Dad commuted over an hour to work each day. The kids looked out for each other. It was sweet and heartbreaking, and they stayed with me for a long time.

I pitched my idea, and they liked it. Then came drafting, deadlines, revisions – all that good stuff.

Writing isn’t easy. It’s lonely. Sometimes it feels like I cut up my heart and put it onto the page. And when you’ve got a world of other things on your plate – work, family, volunteering – you squeeze it in whenever and wherever you can. I wrote most of the book on a picnic table inside Epic Sports Center while my kids were at soccer practice. But then there was a book. With my name on it. And that was pretty awesome. The most rewarding thing for me is the opportunity to tell a story people connect to. When someone reads a poem and thinks, yes, this speaks to how I’m feeling. That is really powerful.

There are moments in my life when I felt so, so lonely and I would turn to my journal, or I’d turn to a book and get lost in the story. Words have a weird way of healing. My hope is that you pick up this book and whether you’re part of a military family or you had someone in your life that you depended on and now they’re gone and you’ve gotta figure it out on your own – of if you’ve ever had to decide where your loyalty lies, you’ll pick up this book and you’ll feel a connection to the characters, you’ll feel understood, you’ll feel a little less alone.


me, being authorly

The art of letting go

One of the great contradictions of my personality: I want to be a minimalist, but I have difficulty letting things go. I also struggle to follow through on the ever popular resolution of being more organized. Nevertheless, it’s a new year and once again I’ve committed to paring down and organizing the house. Inspired (as many of us have been based on the amount of trash I see at the curb each week) by the Marie Kondo Netflix series, Tidying Up, and a helpful guide to living with less by one of my favorite You Tubers and blogger, Pick Up Limes, I hit the ground running.

If you haven’t watched the show or read her book, Marie’s approach to taking your home from disaster area to peaceful organized bliss is to focus on one category at a time; examine each item one by one and decide if it sparks joy. Start with clothing. For some people, that is a struggle. Not me. I easily purged several bags of clothes and donated them to a local charity, and I plan to donate my formal dresses when it gets closer to prom season. I folded my t-shirts into the cute little packages as demonstrated by Marie, which I have to say does actually bring a smile to my face when I open the drawer. Even my socks got the treatment!

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I felt energized and quickly moved onto the next item: accessories. Makeup and toiletries, easy-peasy. Purses and shoes, no problem (I loathe buying them in the first place). Jewelry was a bit tougher, but I decided which pieces held special memories or that I enjoy wearing and organized them so I would actually wear them more often.


Next stop: books. Now some of you may have seen the controversy on Twitter regarding how many books is too many books. I have always had a problem with book collecting/hoarding. My grandmother left me her collection of paperbacks and my frequent trips to used book stores/book sales, etc. have caused a bit of a build up at our house. Moving around a ton in our early years of marriage should have put a damper on my compulsion, but it didn’t. We moved far too many extremely heavy boxes full of books. Each new place I would unpack them, shelve them in alphabetical order, then stare at them and smile.

Books give me joy. There’s no doubt about it. But it is time to let some of them go because all they are doing now is collecting dust on the shelves. Most of what I currently read comes from our local library, and the majority of my purchases are to support author friends. It is time for the others to find new homes. Yesterday I started in the youngest boy’s room. His bookshelf was bursting at the seams and filthy with dust. I pulled everything off the shelves and got to work.


Seneca supervises the sorting

I saved a few of our favorite board and picture books along with some holiday classics and everything by Roald Dahl (of course) and piled up the rest for donation. Gave the boy an opportunity to go through and re-shelve anything that had meaning to him. He pulled a handful of seemingly random books out of a pile (I promised no judgement as who are we to decide what brings joy to another person?) and returned them to the now half empty shelves. It looks wonderful. I then popped my head into oldest’s room and asked him to do the same. We’re organizing the house; I’m coming for your books, I said. Eye roll and heavy sigh.

Today, it was my turn. I looked at the built-ins in our den for a long time. Books are all over the house, but most of mine live in the den, a room that makes me anxious every time I walk into it. It’s a hot mess, a dumping ground for everyone’s junk, the place where I hide our crap when company comes over. Currently it’s home to several completed Lego sets, as hubby’s contribution to minimalism is to sell all his castle Legos. They’ve been hidden in the basement and attic since before we had kids — his hope was that they’d be worth money some day. I had no idea we had so many Lego sets. It’s slightly insane.

Back to the bookshelves. I pulled everything down and went through the books one by one. Some clearly sparked joy — for the lessons they taught me or the feelings they brought to the surface. They immediately went back on the shelf. Others have been read and re-read, annotated and loved, and I couldn’t bear to part with them. I made a special shelf for books I haven’t read but want to, and made another giant pile for donation. Our library holds book sales throughout the year, so I’m hopeful my book friends will find a good home.

I feel a little worn out today — not as energized as I’d been with clothing and accessories — and I know the hardest is still to come. This is about how far I usually get in the process before giving up. But I am desperate to be able to walk into the den and find what I’m looking for instead of having a panic attack. To go into our basement storage and not get overwhelmed with waves of nostalgia.

We can live with less. If we concentrate on what we truly need and what sparks joy as Marie says, it makes it easier to let go. But it’s truly an art form, one that I’m determined to perfect.

Summer book report

Ah, the lazy days of summer, the perfect time to curl up in the sun on your favorite lounge chair and get lost in the pages of a good book. I’ll admit there weren’t nearly enough of those moments this past summer, but I managed to devour a handful of delicious reads. Here are a few of my faves:

Pax by Sarah Pennypacker
Youngest and I began this audio book on a nearly hour long trip to one of his soccer games. We were immediately hooked. Normally I’d continue listening alone, but he felt strongly that I wait for him to be in the car so that we could listen together. It killed me, but I love my boy and love that we had something to share. After we finished, he asked to borrow the CDs so that he could play them in his bedroom before he went to sleep. Hopefully there weren’t subliminal messages contained within because I’m relatively certain he listened to the book another four or five times. Pax tells the story of a boy and his abandoned fox, and it is beautiful and heartbreaking. I strongly recommend it for children (those able handle the painful themes of war, death, and loss) and adults alike.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Another excellent audio book, this one listened to during my work commute. It is a must for bibliophiles and those who enjoy rich character development. Somewhat of a spoiler alert (although the reason I stumbled upon this book in the first place) — there is an adoption story line that I felt the author handled well. I’m always on the lookout for books that take on foster care and adoption from a somewhat unique perspective, books that aren’t simply about a child searching for his/her birth parents but one that embraces the uniqueness of a family created not out of blood.

I’ve renewed my commitment to reading more with my boys at bedtime. Sometimes when life gets crazy we let that slip, but it is such a wonderful time to bond and explore literature together, especially with my twelve-year-old, who has entered the “Don’t mind me I’m just going to lock myself in my bedroom and watch YouTube videos all night” phase. We finished Postcards from Venice by the fabulous Dee Romito. It is a follow-up (but can be read alone) to her debut, The BFF Bucket List and equally sweet. Then we read one of my childhood favorites, and a must read for all those in the throes of adolescence, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. We laughed until our sides hurt at the part, “You must, you must…” (especially after I told him that yes, my sister taught me that chant when I was his age and I may have believed it could work. It didn’t. Also, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, well, then I guess you need to go read the book.)

Youngest and I read the third book in Todd McClimans’ American Epochs series, A Time to Heal. I recommend the series for elementary-middle schoolers who enjoy history and adventure. Then we read Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park and are now about halfway through White Fang by Jack London. He saw the preview for a movie version on Netflix and we decided to read the book first (because you should ALWAYS read the book first). I’ve never read it before and perhaps should have given pause when I found it in the YA section of the library instead of juvenile. It is a wonderfully crafted book, but the language is a bit high for him and the content rather intense. We stop after particularly rough scenes to discuss them, and I’ve been using it as a way to teach difficult vocabulary in context as well as reading comprehension. Oh, the teacher in me.

A few other recommendations from my summer reading pile:

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen. Had a very Lifetime TV movie feel and was the perfect escape book for a day at the lake. (Warning: it does deal with a disturbing concept that may be difficult for some readers)

Every Little Bad Idea by Caitie McKay. Debut verse novel by my friend and editor. A wonderful book aimed at struggling readers that would appeal to teens experiencing first love (or those of us who remember our first love!)

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Very well done book about a trans-girl trying to find her place.

I am still over two years behind on my TBR list, a list that is constantly growing because there are so many wonderful books out there! Fall is the only time of year when we have a reprieve from soccer, but scouts is in full swing, and hubby and I are both very active on the committee. Translation: time I could be reading and/or writing is spent organizing spreadsheets, planning activities, and sending emails. Alas, I love being involved in my sons’ lives and know that it will all end one day when they leave the nest.

(Of course I totally plan on being like the mom in I’ll Love You Forever and sneaking into their houses to read to them.)

Spring book report

What’s that they say about best laid plans? I set out to do monthly book reports, which became bimonthly (I totally just googled this term to double check, and it does in fact mean “twice a month or every other month” because that’s not confusing at all), which has now become seasonal. Because soccer.

Yup, that’s my excuse for everything these days. Soccer takes up EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. We ate dinner as a family Monday night and my children forgot where to sit. THEY FORGOT WHERE TO SIT.

I digress. This post is about books. I like to read them. I haven’t read very many in the past few months and therefore could not share my favorites as often with you, fine blog followers. But here are a few I’ve enjoyed since my last book post. Coincidentally perhaps, these books would make excellent summer reads for young and old alike!

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Our elementary school librarian recommended this book to me, and I listened to the audio version. Like any war story, it has its share of heartbreak, but I loved the innocence of the main character and how she grew to love and trust the people who cared about her. It is more about her journey to acceptance than the war, but the setting provides a powerful backdrop.

Science Fair by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Speaking of audio books, this one is hysterical. And so corny. But sometimes we need that in our life, right? A great road trip book – 8 and 12 year old boy approved.

Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen
I taught this book to 7th graders and believe every middle schooler should read it. It tells the story of a young boy who lies about his age to fight in the Civil War. It is a quick read and one that is best done out loud if possible – I enjoyed reading it to my classes, and recently read it to my oldest son. We both ❤ Gary Paulsen, and you should too. Hatchet was on oldest’s mom-required summer reading list last year. He loved it.

Flying Leap by Judy Budnitz
If you are looking for a book you can read in bursts – say at the pool/beach/soccer field – then this is a good pick. It is a collection of short stories that is slightly odd and is sure to give you a furrowed brow that will prevent people from interrupting you while you read at the pool/beach/soccer field. I recommend it to fans of Shirley Jackson and Roald Dahl (his short stories, not his children’s books) because of the dark, off-kilter themes.

What’s on the nightstands right now? you ask. Oldest and I are reading Postcards from Venice, the newest release from the lovely and talented Dee Romito, youngest and I are reading the final book in the American Epochs series, Time to Heal by Todd McClimans, and I just started Stay Sweet by Siobahn Vivian, recommended to me by an editor at the Pennwriters conference. Feels like the perfect pool/beach (sigh… who am I kidding – soccer field) read.