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.

author

me, being authorly

Yeah, it was cold, and I’m a little crazy

Friday morning at work, the wind whistling angrily against our office windows, the following conversation took place:
Coworker: What are your weekend plans?
Me: Oh, I’m going camping.
Coworker: …
Me: Yup.
Coworker: It’s supposed to be really cold this weekend. Are you crazy?
Me: (briefly contemplates) Yup.

One fateful day, when oldest was in first grade, I walked past the cub scout recruitment table and asked for more information. I had been a girl scout through high school and thought scouts would be good for our boys. Oldest and I went to the information night, and he was immediately hooked.

Little did I know how that decision would affect my life these past six+ years. Both our boys are active in scouting and oldest hopes to earn the highest rank of Eagle. Many of our close friends are fellow scout parents, and scouting has seeped into my life in more ways than I could have imagined.

Writing, for example. Leo, the main character in SECOND IN COMMAND, is working toward Eagle and strives to live his life by the scout law. In my current WIP, the main character paved the way for girls in BSA (the new name for Boy Scouts of America as girls are now welcomed at all levels). Side note, I am all for an integrated scouting program – we are one of the only countries who segregate by gender. Personally I think we should merge the good things about girl scouts and boy scouts and create one unit, let’s call it something simple like, Scouts of America (why are they leaving the “B” in there I wonder?), and allow anyone to join.

Scouting has also pushed me out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions. Sometimes to an unpleasant end, like the time I rowed into the swimming dock. And sometimes to an uncomfortable end, like this past weekend when we camped in single digit temperatures (minus 20 with the wind chill). But I’ve learned in my wise old age that trying something you didn’t think you could do introduces you to some amazing experiences. A good friend tried Aerial fitness a few years back and is completely hooked — we tease her that she joined the circus, but the stuff she does is incredible.

When oldest started going on camp outs with scouts, hubby would take him. They would have fun and come back filthy, the clothes I packed still neatly folded in their bags. I’m pretty sure the kids stayed up until 2am and ate an obscene amount of cheese puffs on those trips. Then youngest joined the pack, and I decided to go on camp outs too, partly because I wanted to have an extra set of hands/eyes on our kiddos, and partly because I didn’t want to be left out. I love camping and nature. I don’t mind outdoor bathrooms (although I will say after this weekend that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve experienced sub zero winds under the doors of a latrine) or getting dirty and going without makeup, running water, etc.

Problem: I didn’t exactly want to be the only mom there. The party crasher who makes her kids brush their teeth, go to bed before midnight, and change their underwear. Thankfully one of the other moms joined me on my first camp out, and we’ve gone together to almost all of them since. And now there are lots of moms who come out, and they bring disinfecting wipes for the latrine and healthy snacks, and I love that we watch out for each other. Some of them have become my closest friends.

camp moms

Camp moms are hardcore*

Just as scouting has opened up new ideas and opportunities for my boys, it has given me the chance to connect to nature, to other people, and to my own strengths. I joined the committee and developed my leadership skills. I’ve learned how to deal with challenging situations. I’ve been able to perform for an audience (my rendition of “Have you ever seen a penguin drinking tea” is killer) which fuels the attention seeking side of my introverted personality.

I guess my point is this: you never know when an opportunity is going to change the course of your life. Stay open to new things. I volunteered to co-lead an activity at my son’s school and met my very first writer friend. She led me into a world of other writers which eventually led to the opportunity to write SECOND IN COMMAND. Sometimes when something new comes our way our first instinct is to say no, our plate is full enough already, thank you. But the thing you are eager to say no to might just be the thing that changes your life for the better.

*It was 4 degrees out when we took this picture.

Hall-uh-ween

Fall is my favorite season, and Halloween my favorite holiday. But this year, I haven’t been feeling overly festive. Today is Halloween, and there isn’t a single decoration outside. Well, except for the pumpkins, which were carved with limited enthusiasm.

We’re all feeling a bit un-fallish this year, I guess. Youngest went off to school today — his last elementary school Halloween — with no costume. Partly because he said, “I don’t really care” and partly because it’s not actually done yet. I felt like The. Worst. Mom. Although he was all, “There are kids in my class that don’t dress up because of their religion.” Maybe it was a show of solidarity?

So why have I become the Grinch of Fall? Well, the weather went from screaming hot to iceberg cold without that happy medium I love so much — you know when there’s the tiniest bit of chill in the air, just enough to have to wear a jacket, but not enough to shiver. One of my exes coined a phrase in the 90’s that describes it perfectly: “I love it when you can see your breath and wear flannels.” (Ah… flannel shirts… can we bring them back please? I loved pairing a nice pair of second hand men’s jeans with an oversized t-shirt and plaid flannel button down.)

The rainy cold — it’s too miserable to go to a pumpkin patch/get lost in a corn maze/take our annual trip to Ellicottville where we climb between trees and ride the mountain coaster over and over until my son gets tired of me screaming in his ears — has been a serious bummer. My favorite thing to do in fall is walk through the woods and listen to the crunch of newly fallen leaves, to breathe deeply, to appreciate the way things slow down and die off in preparation for winter. Not only have we missed out on family fun, I haven’t had much quality leaf crunching time.

The other big difference this year is our lack of house spirit. We’ve earned a bit of a reputation in the neighborhood for being the scariest house around. What started as a string of motion sensored Mike Myers lights and a zombie costume stuffed with leaves morphed into THE TUNNEL OF TERROR, a covered entrance to our porch full of scary decorations and grown men in costume jump scaring small children. (We had our babysitter help pass out candy at the entrance for those too young/too scared to go in.)

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2015 Tunnel of Terror

It was EPIC.

It was also a ton of work and involved very labor intensive set-up and take-down, which often occurred in the wind and rain. Hubs actually took the day off last year to set up — shame on you, Halloween, for happening in the middle of the week! After a paltry showing of trick-or-treaters last year (I guess there is such a thing as “too scary”) and a muddy and miserable take-down, hubs decided to take this year off. Also, it’s Wednesday. Halloween obviously did not get my “stop happening on weekdays” memo.

I can’t lie, it’s been nice not having the front windows blacked out and a non-stop sea of leaves traveling into the house. But it’s also sad. Kids on the bus were asking youngest when we were putting up the tunnel. And my damn Facebook memories keep popping up with pictures and videos from past years. Hubs still plans to dress up and scare the neighborhood, but he said any decorations are up to me. It’s raining. Again. And I still have a Halloween costume to make.

Which brings me to my last bit of melancholy. I love dressing up in costume. Putting on a different persona for a night and letting go of all the day to day mundane. In past years, hubs and I have acted in murder mystery dinners, went on Halloween wine tours, and gone to themed dance parties. This year? Nothing. It’s my own fault, really. I could have pushed the issue. Got tickets to an event and dragged him along or gone by myself. I could have randomly shown up at work in costume just to see what would happen.

Halloween isn’t over yet, despite the fact that two days ago I couldn’t find a single piece of candy corn among the rows of Christmas candy. Hopefully the rain will stop and I’ll find the motivation to pull out some yard decorations. Perhaps I’ll put a quick costume together for tonight’s trick-or-treating. Blast some 90’s dark wave music to help get things in the mood.

And there’s still hope for fall. This is Buffalo, after all. She likes to keep things interesting.

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.)