What About Story? A Conversation With Jean Lee

A few weeks ago, Jean Lee and I started a conversation about storytelling and its purpose in our lives. While it began as a debate, the viewpoints that we shared had more similarities than differences. Note that “AJ” signifies my replies and “JL” marks when Jean is speaking. My sincerest thanks to Jean for coming up with this idea.


  1. What purpose do you think stories have?

JL- For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of the reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

2.  With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment truly involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make all the adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

3.  Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

My favorite children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

4. Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading, and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

5. What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- LOL! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

6. Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

7. What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue; but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

8. Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

JL-Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

9. How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture, however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the forceable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

10. Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

Making Money as a Mom on Your Own Terms – Amanda Goff

For this Mommy Monday, I invited Amanda Goff to talk about being a direct to consumer salesman and nutritional enthusiast. The two of us met on Instagram and connected over my need for probiotics. 😉 I asked her to share her experience as well as some tips for other mothers looking to start their own side business. Take it away Amanda…


 

1) Why did you start a small business?

I honestly didn’t intend to initially! I just wanted a to make a little extra money to afford these amazing supplements I had found! Once I saw how many people needed what I had and how easy it was, I started to see the potential that this could change everything for us as a family!

2) What do you want to accomplish?

I want to retire my husband from his job that takes him away from our family sometimes 70-80 hours per week! I want to help educate people about how to get healthy and help other moms have financial freedom as well.

3) When would you consider yourself a success?

When I have helped my husband to be able to retire and we feel the freedom to be able to do the things we have dreamed of doing together and for and with our children!

4) Do you find this takes away time from your family?

I have found if I  replace the unproductive time I was spending online and on social media, and turn it into productive time instead, I’m really not  taking much more time from my family! Having a schedule is also very important to make sure I am balancing my time according to my priorities.

5) Friends of realtors know not to talk about homes, does doing this effect your “adult” life?

Ha! That’s a great question A.J.! I make sure that the people in my life that are important to me  know that I care about them and our relationships apart from, aside from and in spite of my business. That being said, I have been able to help several of my friends and family get healthy and that has been such a blessing! If I have something I know can help those I care about I definitely don’t keep it to myself!

6) Why did you choose to work with the company you did?

I chose Plexus first because their products changed my life! Secondly, I saw that this company was different. Their compensation plan and the short amount of time it was taking homeschooling moms of 5 children, just like me, to get to the top of the company (Less than 2 years is the average!) was just unheard of!!

7) What’s the biggest win you’ve seen so far from all of this?

The biggest win for me so far has been the relationships I have made through this business. People have been brought across my path that probably never would’ve otherwise. I absolutely love the people I work with and the new friends I have made along the way!

8) What are you offering to the world and why are you passionate about it?

My company offers all natural supplements that get to the root issues of 80-90% of the health issues we all suffer with. I am passionate about it because I love seeing the difference it makes in people’s lives when they get healthy, feel good, and are able to get relief from issues they thought they would just have to live with forever! I’m also passionate about encouraging other women to pursue their dreams! I had quit dreaming and hadn’t even realized it, but now  I am dreaming again!

9) Do you have any tips for other parents wanting to do this?

Find a company that is still considered ground level and offers a product that is something that people truly need, then go for it! Work hard, be consistent and don’t neglect your personal growth!

10) Are there any specific challenges you’ve had to overcome that could help other parents in the same situation?

Time management is challenging for many parents, especially  parents who are small business owners. I have struggled with this as well. My advice would be to think about and write down your priorities and then write out your schedule and assign your time according to those priorities.


Check out Amanda’s store here: www.shopmyplexus.com/amandagoff

The Trojan Horse of Shock Value- Poop

Why a children’s book author would write a book called Poop.


No one ever said writing is without risk. Writing is a funny thing, people ask all the time for you to bear your soul and to be as honest as possible. Actually, only writing that is honest, perceptive, and takes a risk has any shot of being noticed by readers. Yet, even when we bare our core there is still a chance that people won’t like it, or worse, they simply won’t care.

When I started working on Poop two years ago, I was in a bad place both financially and spiritually. I did what most writers do when they can’t figure life out; we write. I purchased a little red Moleskin journal, the writer’s confidant, and plotted out a story about a boy who was also going through a hard time and his imaginary friend that would help him go through it. The plot sat at the front of the book, though I didn’t have all of it, and I would reference back and forth as the year went on and the story continued.

Normally I don’t hand write work, it takes too long, but there is a certain magic that happens when you slow down. Text gets more dense, meaning becomes more layered, and the texture of the words feel organic. The red notebook came out anytime that life got particularly stressful. One of the key moments in the book was even worked on as a real estate agent was negotiating the contract for the house I was living in in the room next to me- a contract that would eventually lead to me needing to find a new home. Emotions charge writing, even if that emotion doesn’t come through on the page.

I wanted Poop to be honest. I wanted it to have emotion, to feel like something that actually happened. Characters were allowed to act on their own, say what they wanted to, and only move the plot forward when they felt like it. Many times I had to restructure the plot simply to afford a character who had made a different decision and, unlike most of my work, I had no idea what the ending would be until the book was almost done.

Poop came from a vast reserve of life experience- much of the plot actually happened to me. During the writing I underwent two cat scans and an endoscopy to root out the cause of my own stomach issues. I had arguments with loved ones just like Liam did and I came to some of the same conclusions on maturity and life that Liam eventually holds. In short, I was translating and understanding my own real world experience into this book. It felt like crystallization, like the memories were being converted into something more solid. Yet it wasn’t a journal.

When I finally finished, I started to understand what I had created. This book, the one with a smiling pile of poo on the cover, was actually about maturity. It was a Trojan horse ready to spring on unsuspecting readers. Liam’s journey through the book is one of self-realization in regards to his place in the world. He starts off feeling like he is the butt of existence, at the mercy of everyone, and it slowly dawns on him that not only is the world not against him- the world really could care less about him.

While that may seem like a harsh lesson, in reality it’s a great relief to the boy. That moment when we realize that life isn’t about us is crucial to maturity. It’s a threshold that some adults never cross (Liam’s father is just such an adult.) This change is entirely facilitated by Liam’s imaginary friend, Poop, who is in actuality Liam’s sense of fatherhood guiding him through the process.

Liam makes mistakes, he acts out for attention, and he heroically strives to solve his problems. He is everything that I wish I was and, eventually, what I became in my own life. For me, Poop represents turning your weaknesses into your strengths through a process of confronting life. Writing the book, in the same way that Liam writes his essay for the climax, was an alchemical process turning a miserable situation into inner peace.

My greatest hope for this book is for it to translate that same process for children going through their own difficulties. Yes, most of the people that respond to it have suffered from celiac or some other stomach condition, however, maturity is something that we all grapple with at one time or another- if not continually.

So why would a writer risk his reputation to publish something with a shocking title? Answer: when a writer feels that it’s the best avenue for conveying truth.

Poop is out and available for your Kindle and in Print. Follow this link to claim your copy.

My Autism, Colette Evangelista- Fellow Fridays

My autism is a part of who I am, like the sound of my laugh and the color of my hair….”

At this point and time I am a dinosaur.  Ten years ago when I noticed that my son seemed a bit “off”, Google predominately said that the three signs of autism were “non-verbal, doesn’t make eye contact, not affectionate”.  Or something to that effect.  My son was a hugger.  He had 12 whole words (for a solid year).  It can’t be autism.  When I questioned our pediatrician at a chronic ear infection visit, he got frustrated that my son kept flipping the lights on and off and opening the cabinet doors over and over.  He was however extremely impressed that a 15 month old could write the most perfect alphabet on the crinkled paper covering the examination table using crayons.  His expert opinion was that I was a “first-time mom” hypochondriac.

When the diagnosis actually came, it knocked my feet out from underneath me.  It would take years before I would even begin to find my equilibrium again.  Why?  Because I hit the hamster wheel.  Fix it.  Fix it. Fix it.  Try this.  Try that.  Do this.  Do that.  Diet.  ABA.  Therapy.  Shots.  Horses…….  WHERE IS MY MAGIC WAND?!?!?  Everyone else seemed to have one.

One night I lay in bed choking on my fear and failure.  I got up, went downstairs, banged out “My Autism” in about twenty minutes, and then promptly forgot all about it.  For 3 years.

I gave up.  Not totally.  I would never do that.  Too much at stake.  But I let go of the intensity of it.  I did my best.  I started to realize that I sucked at implementing ABA in our day, but I was good at pushing my son outside his comfort zone.  I tried to give him as much solid nutrition as possible but didn’t cry over another night where I allowed  Dominos to be for dinner.  

And one typical day in the middle of the week, my son was standing in our kitchen.  I looked at him and had a breathtaking moment of clarity.  He was perfect.  As he was.  I no longer saw “autism” flashing on his forehead.  Autism was one part of who he was, but certainly not all of it.  Autism was now neutral.  How did that happen?  When did that happen?  For years it was something to fight.  To fix.  What total crap.  What a total waste of energy.  My son deserved to have every part of him loved.  And that included the autism.  How could I have conveyed that there was a part of him that was not right?  That his beautiful self could have aspects to it that were scary and broken?  

Let’s be clear.  I had to stop right there.  I had already spent years punishing myself with the guilt of all the things I had done wrong.  Or worse, there were the “right” things I didn’t do enough of.  Now my energy would be directed at acceptance.  “Dear Lord…please help me to love with kindness and without judgment or agenda.”  It was time to celebrate all the good and do our best with what we had to work with.

And then I remembered “My Autism”.  I went back and looked at it.  I wrote THAT?  This positive story from a child’s perspective about having autism?  But  that wasn’t MY truth at the time.  How could I have done that?  

It’s been said that…as autism advocates….it is our job to be the voice of those who need help communicating their message.  “My Autism”  is my son’s truth.  This is our kid’s truth.

My autism is a part of who I am, just like the sound of my laugh and the color of my hair….”

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Colette’s Website: http://www.everyonehasautism.com/

Colette’s “My Autism” Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/MyAutismbook/

Writing for Autistic Children

Back in February of this year (2016) I had the pleasure of visiting a class via Skype. I didn’t know this going in, but the class was mostly composed of children on the Autism spectrum. They had a profound love of my books and that drove me to understand more about their needs and how to better serve their families.

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I went on Instagram and started interacting with the parents of ASD children. This led to a lot of fantastic conversations and a heaping helping of empathy on my part. I realized that I had an unusually large number of autistic friends (and former partners) and that the connection between myself and ASD was that I tended to be both over-sensitive and over emotive. My illustrations and writing also have the same tendency.

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So the question became, what kind of books could I make specifically for this audience?  One mother in particular, Mrs. Contreras (who also wrote the dedication for the new book), had a striking story to tell. Her three children are all on the spectrum, albeit at varying ends of the chart, and her household peace exists in a precarious balance. I asked her directly “What could a book do to improve your life?”

“Honestly,” she replied, “I just want to tell my son that it’s okay to hug me.”

I can’t imagine much that’s more painful than your own child refusing physical contact with you.

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From there we discussed pattern breaking (as I brutally phrase it) where a parent is able to convince or coax an ASD child off of an ingrained habit. Usually the pattern is disruptive in some way to either the child’s life or the parent’s well being. Notable examples include needing the parents nearby to sleep, keeping the house pin-drop quiet, or having one specific toy at bath time.

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I couldn’t address all of these issues, but I wanted to create a frame for discussion and specifically talk about Mrs. Contreras chief concern: intimacy. This subject became the central point of the book. The rest of the story, and I’m using that term loosely here, is focused on statement pairs. The first statement normalizes the pattern behavior while the second statement suggests something new that is outside of the pattern. I didn’t want to chide children for doing something that comes natural to them, neither did I want to fall into the trope of “you are a special snowflake that needs separate treatment because you’re not normal.” (I hate any attempt at division, even well-intended division.) The final pattern can be replicated endlessly and my hope is that parents will create their own pairs for their children.

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Once we had the story and the sketches down, I started showing the book to other parents on Instagram. The feedback was fabulous and contributed a lot to the look and feel of the book (even my own father got in the act by demanding better backgrounds.) I also met a therapist that specialized in working with ASD children, Saundra S. Harris M.Ed., CCC-SLP, who was kind enough to create a letter to the parents for the book- to which I am supremely grateful. Other parents noted that the simple language and direct illustrations were well suited to the audience. They were glad that I didn’t go into metaphor land.

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All in all, let his was the most collaborative project I have ever done. It’s my sincerest hope that this work is truly helpful to families out there coping with ASD issues. Doing work like this restricts the audience, as “It’s Ok to Hug” is by no means a bedtime story, but that’ skins of the point. Books are like shoes, there’s no one size fits all, and I much prefer to make books that people need rather than guess what people will want.

“It’s Ok to Hug” is available now on the Amazon Kindle store and on Apple’s iBook platform.

Playing Teacher, Ky Adams- Fellow Fridays

According to my parents, I have been playing “teacher” since I was very young. When I couldn’t corral parents, siblings, cousins or the dog into being my “students”, I would line up stuffed animals and dolls and “teach” them.

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No surprise then that my entire career has been teaching in one way or another. I started my professional life as a Kindergarten teacher and I will never forget the 2nd day of my first year of teaching when the mother of one of my students came to speak to me when she brought her son to class. She told me how much her son loved Kindergarten the day before and that he told her I read them four books. He told her what each one was about. And then she said… “If I had known he liked books so much, I would have read to him.”

I was stunned! But I learned that not everyone views books and reading in the same way. There are many homes where no books are present. Not everyone comes to it from the point of view of an educator. I am so thankful that there are many groups who have done much in the past few years to encourage reading to young children. Many hospitals now even give books to new parents when they leave the hospital with their new baby.

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Even the smallest children learn so much from being read to. They learn about the rhythms and cadences of language. They learn vocabulary. They learn the mechanics of reading: we go from the left to the right and top to bottom. And of course it’s always wonderful to be snuggled on a lap and read to!

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I’m a firm believer that every child should have books that they own and learn to take care of and read over and over. My Zana books are broken up into easy chapters and have lots of pictures to keep young readers engaged. I love early chapter books for young readers, they make them feel “big” and accomplished as readers and they encourage children to stay with a book over several readings. You have to remember the story line and where you left off. Beginning chapter books teach many critical skills like logic (I wonder how that character will get out of this?) Sequencing (understanding how the elements of a story or an event happened in sequence). They can give children valuable insight into decision making. (Well, that didn’t work; I bet she tries something else.)

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I have always been passionate about encouraging young people to read all books but my particular love is science, space and the future. My series of “Zana’s Space Adventures” is a way to get children thinking about the future and space and what our roles will be in it. I created a funny world where a young girl can take off in her own rocket to have space adventures with her sidekick robot Ira and still be home in time for dinner.

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This creates a problem at home for me because my husband is a NASA engineer. He is a wonderful proof reader and he will check manuscripts for grammatical errors and then he’ll say something like; “Now you know this could never really happen… right?” LOL, bless his heart! I tell him that’s why they call it “fiction” honey! And who is to say what is possible in the future? People who drove a horse and buggy never dreamed of the possibilities of flight.

World in hands

Children are our future scientists, diplomats, policy makers and inventors. Let’s give them tools that foster creativity, imagination, and problem solving. Our world is complex and only becoming more so, we are going to need some creative thinkers!


Ky’s Books are available at Amazon.com

Follow Ky on Twitter: @GKyAdams

And Facebook: KyAdamsAuthor

How a Forgotten Journal Helped Me Move Beyond a Painful Past – Cat Michaels

Whenever I visit schools visits, some dear child inevitably raises a shy hand to ask how to become a writer. I urge her to write. Keep a journal of your thoughts and what you see around you, I say. Keeping a record sharpens your writing skills and helps you find story ideas.

Children are surprised to learn that I started journaling decades ago as a teen-ager. I let them know my journals provide precious insights into my teen years as I look back on them as an adult. Kids don’t understand this yet. Such wisdom comes with age, I guess.

I stumbled across my first journal recently when cleaning out the attic. Startled to re-read the tiny handwritten scrawls of an insecure adolescent after all this time, I addressed my entries to older darlin’ — the future ME! How did I know capturing my thoughts would offer insights to unravel future challenges and help me move through life! And I can’t tell you why I wrote in slang, but I transcribed my journal, warts and all, faithfully as written.

It’s not easy for me to read Teen Cat’s journal as she pours her heart out. It brings back painful high-school years as if they were yesterday, when my middle-class upbringing and my father’s occupation as a teacher put me on the wrong side of the popular clique tracks in an affluent Connecticut suburb. The timing of this journal, started days before my youngest sibling’s birth, also offers context for my confusion and seeking solace in journaling.

I think there could be a YA coming-of-age story here — if I can find the rest of my journal stashed somewhere in the attic and steel myself to page through so many tender memories.

Please read on and meet Teen Cat. Then encourage the kids in your life to start their own journal. And if YOU haven’t started yet, what are you waiting for?

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===========TEEN CAT’S JOURNAL======================

Page 1 – Introduction

November 1

 

Let me tell you about myself. I’m 15 ½ years old, 5’-1” tall, 113 lbs., brown hair and eyes, a big mouth, but that’s not all. I’m starting this account of all these events for two main reasons.

  1. I can’t tell everybody my problems and
  2. I’ve got to have some way to let out my emotions.

When you finish reading this, older darlin’, if you do finish this and there is an end to these unrelated tales, you can finish the but that’s not all business yourself.

Oh, I suppose that in a few years from now when I read this, I’ll think what a dope I was to feel like this. Remember, older darlin’, in all your wisdom, don’t knock us younger kids. We have feelings, too.

Where did it all begin? I suppose I started the change from a quiet, shy, fat, intelligent girl into a noisier, still shy, and not so fat and not half as intelligent young lady. No, I dislike that word intensely– young lady. I’m young, but a lady sounds so old! What am I really? I’m not that young, but certainly, in the eyes of parents, I’m a mere babe in arms.

Parents…Now there’s a word. If there’s any one thing or any people, who have complete lack of understanding, they’re it. “Do this!” and “Do that!” “What did you say? I’m your mother, not she!”

Know what I say? To h…. with parents!

I gather you think I’m mad. Well, you’re right! Parents think this new generation is so wild and rotten. They go around citing statistics on juvenile crimes, teenage car accidents, and illegitimate pregnancies. Got news for ya, all you parents: it’s all your fault! Who can kids turn to if they have problems? Parents? Don’t be crazy.


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November 3

Had a usual Sunday. Went to church and Sunday school. I was really quiet today. Muriel kept askin’ me what was wrong. I really think this thing [journal] is helpin’ me. What a mess if they [parents] find it.

Oh yes, I saw Scott [at church] today. I think he thinks I like him. Maybe I used to and I could, but not now.

Why do I make such an ass out of myself? I’ve got a big mouth, but it gets me places. Is it good for helpin’ ya be popular? Maybe I should try bein’ quieter.

I wonder what everybody’s opinion is of me? Do they call me giddy or boy crazy? I don’t want that. They must say, ‘Oh, God, here she comes again!” Maybe I should try to act older, not too terribly old. Or I just would smile and shut up and don’t say or do crazy things?

 

Nov. 10 19xx Sunday 10:50 p.m.

I’m in a snot mood.   First of all, I went off my diet. Yesterday, I went shopping and bought a black sweater that doesn’t fit. The only good thing that happened was “The Diary of Anne Frank” was on Saturday Night at the Movies. It was absolutely terrific. I couldn’t stop cryin’ at the end when the Gestapo came to get ‘em.

 

November 11

Lynn came over yesterday and we went for a walk and we got lost. Then she gave me a perm last night   I guess it came out OK, but my hair smells of that Alberto VO-5 junk I put on it to make it less frizzy.

I have no desire to go to school tomorrow. There’s nothin’ for me to look forward to. Maybe if I fixed up my hair really pretty and wore something really sharp, I’d feel a heck of a lot better. My black sweater and knee socks with a gray kilt should be okay.

I just decided to have a mad, passionate, silent unrequited crush on Vinny E. Now wait, maybe I could just go to school for once and not like any fella, couldn’t I, older darlin’? Sure, why not?!?! Go to school with a free mind. Maybe I’ll just happen to like somebody and he’ll like me back. That’d be really sharp!!! What ya say to that, older, darlin’? Think I could?

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Yes, indeed, insecure, desperately searching for identity and belonging, Teen Cat. Yes, indeed. You can do that and tons of even more awesome things. Sending hugs, kisses, and oodles of affirmation that you’ll turn out just fine.

Xxx,

Your Older Darlin’

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About Cat

Cat Michaels writes The Sweet T Tales, chapter books for beginning readers that tell of every day life with a twist of magic and mystery. A former special educator, communications manager for a high-tech company in another lifetime, and enthusiastic digital-dabbler, Cat lives with her family and writes in North Carolina. She is working on her third book in the Sweet T Tales for publication in winter 2016.

Find Cat’s books on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Cat-Michaels/e/B00GEAJQTQ

 Social Media Sites

Website: www.catmichaelswriter.com

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/catmichaelsbook @catmichaelsbook

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/catmichaelswriter

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/catmichaels

Instagram: https://instagram.com/catmichaels.writer/

Join Cat’s tribe of readers. Be in the know with in her monthly e-newsletter. http://www.catmichaelswriter.com/contact-cat.html

EXTREME cautionary tales! – Jean Lee

This is part 3 of commentary from Jean Lee. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.


I don’t pretend to know the vast wealth of children’s literature available to today’s kids. My idea of a classic is NOT another’s; I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories at the age of 8, and my father even read them to me at bedtime. (Link to Jean’s article.) But I also read more age-appropriate fare, such as the Ramona Quimby series and the Chronicles of Narnia.

But in a recent discussion with AJ Cosmo over “how dark is too dark?”, two particular authors arose: Roald Dahl, and Philip Pullman. AJ felt that “Dahl wrote for adults and kids happened to like it.” I can’t help but wonder that in his switching back and forth between stories for kids and grown-ups, he found himself a grey area and plunked down there every now and again to write.

Goodness, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that Dahl did write for adults: Some Time Never, Kiss Kiss, My Uncle Oswald…yowza. And even the cover series seems to blend the lines a little. If you visit the official Roald Dahl website, you’ll see that the latest cover illustrations aren’t limited to the kid’s books. Going Solo is Dahl’s account of his early adulthood, which includes war conflicts and a plane crash.

Appropriate material for one on the cusp of puberty, I suppose, but not for one my daughter’s age. And if one’s a beleaguered parent on three hours of sleep snatching up pretty-looking covers like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, what’s to stop her from grabbing Going Solo?

Then there’s the stories themselves. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is well-known by all, with two film adaptations, to boot. Children get to read/watch other children be squished through tubes, shrunk, turned into fruit, attacked by squirrels (in Tim Burton’s version, anyway) and sent towards an incinerator, all in a magical factory full of sweets. This is barely one level up from a gingerbread house and a witch determined to throw kids into an oven. The Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” was told as a cautionary tale, and I wonder if Dahl didn’t have that same mindset as he wrote: parents, tell your kids to beware of too many sweets. Of wanting too much. Of staring at the tv too long. Of being too competitive. Of stealing. Dahl WANTED kids to be scared.

Don’t agree? Have you read/seen The Witches? If ever a story scared me s***less, it’s that one. People threw a huge hulabaloo over Suzanne Collins’ description of a child getting speared in Hunger Games. The witches of Dahl’s story are kidnapping children, never to return them into the proper world. One child is magically inserted into a painting inside her family’s house. Her family gets to watch her live the rest of her life in the painting. She dies, in. The. Painting. How is that NOT horrifying?

Philip Pullman gives his villains an equally horrific task in The Golden Compass. In the primary world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, protagonist Lyra and other human beings are born with what are called daemons—an animal-like creature. It has its own thoughts and speech, but it can’t help but reflect the inner nature of its companion human, too, especially children, for it morphs into creatures that befit the child’s maturity and/or mood. It is the human’s soul, and companion. Upon first reading this, I thought it a very creative, cool move on Pullman’s part.

Then come the Magisterium, the powerful theocratic force throughout Lyra’s world. On the surface they are simply bureaucratic and awful. But when Lyra’s hunt for her kidnapped friend takes her up to the snowy north, she discovers a secret facility run by the Magisterium, where they perform intercisions. What are intercisions? We learn when Lyra meets one of the practice’s victims in a forest:

He spoke, and Iorek Byrnison said: “He says that isn’t the not the only child of that kind. He’s seen others in the forest. Sometimes they die quickly, sometimes they don’t die. This one is tough he thinks. But it would be better for him if he died.”

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon (her daemon), with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

Later Lyra is kidnapped by the Magisterium and joins other children being held for intercisions. Nurses there call it “just a little cut” to help them grow up and ensure their daemons don’t change. Only the daemons turn ghost-like, and the children, worse. Beware the church, children, I could see Pullman say. It will take your soul, and leave you lifeless.

Did I mention Lyra is only 11 years old in The Golden Compass? Stories with kid protagonists are usually marketed to the age group slightly younger; that means kids not much older than my daughter are meant to read about children literally being severed from their souls. How is that not terrifying?

Yes, different children can handle different levels of darkness, just as some kids need nightlights and some kids don’t. A friend of mine would see Golden Compass as “full of talking points” to have with her daughter. Perhaps your child is capable of discussing soul severance and witches snatching you from your doorstep. Considering the state of today’s world, these talks are certainly worth having. But please, do consider when you start that talk. Know your child. Nurture her bravery, wit, and spirit. Only then, when she can walk over the separation from reality to story and back can you, as parent and child, face the darkness together.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

A Different Sort of Alphabet – Sarah Steele, Fellow Fridays

I met Sarah through on online writer’s group. Shortly after my blog imploded, Sarah was kind enough to help me re-start Fellow Fridays. So please give her a warm welcome. 😀


Our children are learning daily in school that there is one right answer. One way to write their numbers, one date for each event, one character that was the hero. And there is certainly a place for the one right response! But when it comes to art and the imagination and entrepreneurship, children need to be encouraged to think outside of what is expected, to look at the world with eyes, fresh and unassuming. We (the ones with the old, assuming eyes) need them to do this! And this is why my husband and I collaborated on our first two children’s books—to give us all an opportunity to look at ordinary items in unusual ways.

Our first book, The Shoephabet, features colored pencil illustrations of shoes formed into letters (shoelaces are quite helpful in this endeavor). Each shoe has a rhyme that highlights its personality. Children are constantly trying to place their own shoes into letter formation while they read this book, and in fact, we encourage this. Shoes will always only be accessories worn on the bottoms of feet unless we gain the ability to look at them in different ways.

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Our second book, The Monsterbet, is much sillier and downright Seussical. From the creative monsters and hilarious rhymes to the bright colors and monster font, this whole book shouts for kids to engage their imaginations and to let this book only be the diving board into the world of the unusual, the inventive, and yes, even the slimy. And the repetitive phrase “The ABCs do not scare me!” is sure to keep your kids actively participating while you read together. (While our books are officially targeted to ages 3-7, we have found that no one is too young…or too old to be entertained by shoes and monsters.)

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As a one-right-answer girl myself, I found The Monsterbet much more difficult to write. (We wrote these books backwards to many—illustrations first and then words.) The shoes in The Shoephabet were easy to identify and had clear roles—the steel-toed boots worked hard, the wrestling shoe wrestled, the ballet slipper danced. Even the more ambiguous ones still obviously walked or played. But when I came to the creatures in The Monsterbet, I found my box expanding or better yet, disappearing altogether. What does a monster do? The answer was always…anything! So I took my cues from some of their unique characteristics and started making lists upon lists of adjectives, nouns, and verbs that pertained to each individual monster. (The snot and slime also pushed me out of my usual comfort zone and deep into the middle school boy section of my brain. Who knew that even existed?!)

Because of these books, my own children now look at trees and clouds and blades of grass to see what letters they can find all around them. So if your child has a great imagination or one that could use some prodding (or if your own imagination could stand to be stirred), you will surely find inspiration enough in these two alphabet books, The Shoephabet and The Monsterbet.

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Check out my website for free coloring pages of the illustrations in both of these books!

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Sarah’s books are available on both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com

Visit Sarah at here website: http://bysarahsteele.com/

Or connect with her via Linked in!

How dark is too dark in kid’s lit? – Jean Lee

This is part 2 in a series from Jean Lee. You can check out part 1 here.


As my daughter’s sixth birthday drew to a close, my husband Bo revealed one final present: a tattered paperback titled Bunnicula. “This was one of my favorite stories when I was a kid,” he said as Blondie jumped into bed. She studied the cover showing a shaggy dog, wide-eyed cat, and red-eyed rabbit with pointed teeth. “Oooo, it’s a vampire bunny!” she squealed.

My copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Wild Robert was quickly forgotten. Any request to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with me was met with a, “Those books are weird.” But vampire bunnies? Totally acceptable.

Still, I sighed, it’s a good Daddy-Daughter time. Let’em be.

Bunnicula devoured, Bo dug out Howliday Inn. The cover itself is quite a change: Chester the cat’s hair stands on end as Harold the shaggy dog cowers behind him. A house reminiscent of Psycho looms behind them while lightning flashes across the sky. It’s literally darker, and spookier.

The content even more so. Just two nights into reading, Bo steps out during Blondie’s prayers with a worried look on his face. “Maybe I should’ve skimmed through this first.”

I look up from grading. “Why, what’s wrong?”

“Chester’s accusing some dogs of murder, and another pet’s talking about husband’s murdering wives.”

Uh oh. “Is Blondie okay?”

“She just sat quiet, like normal, but…eesh.” He went back to finish prayers with her. I listened to Blondie carefully the next day: no play-talk about murder, or questions about murder. She understood death as much as a little kid can (her grandfather died when she was three), but “murder” had been just a word in a story she knew to be made-up. And the story itself focused more on disappearing pets than on murder…until the end, where Chester explained he felt certain the human culprit behind the disappearances planned on exterminating pet parents after selling off their valuable puppies.

Yikes! We’re reading this to a first-grader!

Now our Blondie, and many other children, can handle this level of darkness just fine. They see a stark separation between “story” and “reality,” so if something unpleasant happens in the story, they know it won’t directly affect them. It’s when that separation thins that we get into trouble with such kids. For example, my kids finally saw Wall-E for the first time a month ago. After the fourth viewing Blondie started inserting her own commentary. “Look at that planet! It’s EARTH! It’s covered in garbage! Our earth could never be like that.” When I told her that actually, if we don’t take care of our earth, it could very well look like that, she grew solemn. “But Wall-E isn’t real. It’s just a story.” Yes, but it’s a story that reminds us we need to be careful so the real earth doesn’t look like that. She thinks again. “Wall-E is real, but it happened a long time ago.” Sigh, no, I didn’t say that, but I was doing something she wasn’t used to: I was thinning the separation between story and reality. Wall-E is a delightful science fiction adventure, yes, but it’s a cautionary tale, too, one that not all kids are prepared to handle.

Other authors push the limits into darkness, too, if you care to hear me out next week.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.