What to do when everything lines up

Or doesn’t line up…

One of my favorite things is to find spiritual insights in everyday science. I see a lot of what goes on in the natural world as an allegory for things happening elsewhere that we may otherwise have a hard time grasping. That’s not to say that I sit down before snails for a Sunday lesson, far from it, I just think that the human brain can get a lot of mileage out of a little bit of symbolism. I also adore parables and admire anyone that comes up with them. So lately I’ve been thinking about a parable of my own…

Have you ever considered clay? It comes from the humblest of places, riverbanks, and in most cases, it is out of order. It sticks to your shoes, stains everything, can’t be used for growing plants, kind of smells, and is generally of no use anywhere but around water. Yet, when we heat up clay something amazing happens: it hardens.

Duh AJ, we know that!

I know you do, but do you know why it hardens? Clay molecules are chaotic, they are all over the place. The reason you can push clay into different forms and mold them into any shape is that that matrix of chaos has strength enough to hold together, but is not strong enough to resist force. So you can push and pull and smash and mush and roll it and it will still be clay, just in a different form. Once the water leaves though, clay is no longer malleable, shapeable, and is instead stuck in whatever place it was last left.

Water makes clay just viscous enough to be molded, but it has no ability to transform clay in and of itself. Water is just a vehicle for the process. So what does the actual transforming? Well, you know the answer already!

Get to the point, AJ!

It’s fire, of course. Fire stresses out the molecules of clay. The heat makes all of those little chaotic molecules, the shards, that are running around all over the place suddenly change and line up. They straighten and all point in the same direction and suddenly a shape that could be pushed and formed is rigid and fights back. This chaos, once placed in order, becomes the strength that is able to withstand great force.

Humble clay has gone from being unwanted, dirty, useless, muck to a pot that holds water or a dish that holds food. It is suddenly important, useful, and beautiful to whoever owns it. Once you apply glazes and all the other fun pottery stuff, the finished piece of pottery looks nothing like what it came from. It has transformed, in the truest sense of the word, and for anyone who has ever worked with the process, is practically magic.

All of that is because of fire.

Fire is stress. Fire is pain. Fire is destruction. It is no coincidence that the phrases “trial by fire” and “forged in fire” have become common vernacular. We know instinctually that the things that cause us the most pain can also make us better people. I feel that we often forget though that the process changes the person just like how the clay is changed. You simply cannot expect to go through flames and be left without burns.

What’s your point, AJ?

I’m leaving that up to you. Do you see yourself as clay that has been through a fire, lined up your molecules, and are now stronger because of it? Or do you see yourself as clay robbed of water, drained of energy, and fragile to the touch? Do you find yourself stronger than you were before, yet unrecognizable to the people who used to know you as clay? Do you feel frustrated that they no longer treat you the same way? Are you scared of what is to come, or are you waiting for what you may be?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

As for myself, well, you know how crazy my career is. I just finished a major commission, am enjoying the feedback on “The Book That Shouldn’t Exist”, and facing my own fire by trying to get spots in bookstores (spoiler alert, they don’t want me, lol.) I’ve also put Nuts 3 on temporary hold in order to remake a book that I delisted a long time ago. It was my second book and it lingers in my head, demanding to be remade. I’ll share more on that soon.

For now, though, have a wonderful weekend and remember that no matter what trial you face, if you face it well, you will only become stronger.

Much love,

AJ

What’s There to Fear?

As it turns out, more than I thought…

It’s been a couple of weeks and I’m sorry for not emailing sooner. The simple explanation is that a lot of things have been going on both in my private world and in the greater scheme of things. Besides working on the new book, which has been difficult, I’ve also worked through a major life issue that I never knew I had been fighting.

I was afraid.

Fear is a difficult thing. It can sneak up on you and rob you of action. It can stop you from standing up for yourself, stop you from making money, and keep you in a relationship that’s bad for you. Fear is powerful because it’s an unanswered possibility. It’s not the dark that we fear, but what possibly could be hiding in the dark.

To a person with high anxiety, fear can seep into every aspect of life. Maybe you stay silent when people are rude to you because you don’t want to cause a scene. Maybe co-workers and bosses pile work on you because you are afraid of losing your job. Maybe you don’t take that dream vacation because you are afraid of what could happen during the trip. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, fear itself will come up with an excuse as to why you shouldn’t do it.

For me, the majority of my fear stems from my work. I’m afraid of what I want to make. I’m afraid of what will happen if I do make it and I’m also afraid of what will happen when I don’t make it. I have a Master’s in Screenwriting, but the fear of putting my work out there stopped me from entering the film industry. The fear of rejection led me to self-publish (a blessing) but that same fear also keeps me out of bookstores.

Fear was supposed to protect us. It was supposed to stop us from going into the bear’s cave and remind us not to eat all of the food before winter. It’s there to help us, but unfortunately for many of us, it has become our master. If this is happening to you, then this is a call to take back control.

Two months ago, shortly after the Parkland shootings, I sent an email asking permission from you if I could write a book that dealt with this terrible subject. Overwhelmingly, you responded with encouragement. For that reason, this new book exists. So in a way, this is your book as well.

We don’t all have email lists of readers to share our problems with, so that’s not a technique I recommend, but if you are suffering from fear, anxiety, or worry, I first recommend you take up meditation (or prayer, which is meditation with God in mind.)

Second, I want you to recognize that fear is subservient to you. It is a warning light on your car that you are allowing to drive. Consider what it has to say, thank it for the warning, and press on with the decision you have made. You are in control of your life.

Fear not what is out of your hands. 

So what about this book I was afraid of? Why would I fear to share it with the world? Well, we live in times where mobs of internet users can destroy people they disagree with overnight, so that is a concern, but not sharing my art is an even greater concern. What happens with this book is entirely up to you. If it helps, I hope it grows. If it’s not needed then so be it, there are more books on the way.

At the very least, I’m no longer afraid of making it.

“The Book That Shouldn’t Exist” is now available for pre-order and will release on April 20th. Click here to reserve your copy.

Make ’em Laugh

A little over a year and a half ago, I appeared on stage at a book fair to read to a group of children. After sharing “The Monster That Ate My Socks”, which they loved, I was told that I still had time to do another reading, so I pulled out “I Don’t Want to Go to School”. The kids always enjoy that book, not only because it’s a universally kid-friendly topic, but because they get to participate in reading it. I always ask them to help me read the title line and, each time they do so, they get louder and louder until everyone is screaming by the end of the reading.

It’s super fun, but it also makes me think about one of the worst aspects of reading to children: the feeling of it being one-sided. When I read sock monster it’s to the child. They are to be quiet and, hopefully, entertained. “School” is a bit more interactive as they have been assigned a part, but I could just as easily ask them to be quiet and do the whole things myself. What about a book, though, where the kids are required to interact?

That idea led to “The Giggle Game” which is, just as the name implies, a game. The goal is to make all of the animal sounds in the book without laughing. The more children that participate, the harder it is not to laugh, so the book is wonderful in groups. From my experience in reading it, the adults are always the ones who laugh first, meaning that we always “lose” the game, but the kids don’t realize that seeing them have fun is a win to us!

Beyond a game, the book is also an opportunity to release energy. I call it a “wind-me-down” book, as in you read it to get all that stored up energy out before settling down for something like bedtime. The animal sounds go from loudest, a lion, to quietest, a mouse, and, depending on how you use the final pages, the “let it all out” spread, you could also use the book as a warm-up.

With such a simple concept, I knew the book needed something special for the artwork. So instead of digital drawing or pencil sketches, I went with paper craft. All of the illustrations in the book were made using construction paper, a Xacto knife, and a glue stick. It was time-consuming, thus the year to make it, and I even had to redo half of the images, but the end result has a fantastic texture and I couldn’t be more proud of how it looks.

I absolutely adore this book and put my heart and soul into it and you can tell when you see it for yourself. So without further ado, I’m pleased to announce that “The Giggle Game” is now available in Kindle eBook and Hardcover print. The book was designed for print since it’s great for groups, so get that version if you can. I even priced it lower than my other hardcovers just to get it into kid’s hands. The Kindle version is a carbon copy of the book but is best for small families.

One more thing, from now until the end of the month, I’m donating $2 for every review posted on Amazon for the book to OAR (Organization for Autism Research.) While the book is meant for everyone, many of you know that Autism is near to my heart and I thought this would be a great way to celebrate the new release, encourage people to leave a review, and help out a good cause.

So what do you think? Ready to make your children laugh?

Click here to get your copy.

Till next time,
All the best,
AJ

Little things really do count

It’s been a while. Sorry for the delay in writing but between the holidays, dealing with the flu, and trying to Christmas shop for adults, the emailer kept getting pushed back. It wasn’t until one of my readers reached out to me asking about why they hadn’t received an email in a while that I even realized anyone missed me.

That got me thinking, how much does what we do actually matter in life? Yesterday while walking out of the gym a woman came up to me and asked for spare change. Panhandling is nothing new in L.A., but what was strange was that the woman was wearing nice gym clothes and some religious jewelry. She also seemed desperate, almost on the verge of crying, and I couldn’t help but give her some of the money I had.

Now here’s the question: did I actually help her? Did giving her money help her situation, whatever that may be? Rather than go into the philosophy of charity, I have a simple answer for you… it doesn’t matter.

We shouldn’t do good things, kind things, simply because we will see a direct and measurable result. We do them because we feel that they are the right thing to do at the time, and doing the right thing pleases us. There is no way to tell how an action will affect people or the world as a whole, just like how my reader friend couldn’t have known how much of an impact a simple email could have on me.

Do not let the dream of what could happen if you do a kindness stop you from actually doing that kindness. We have no way of knowing how that spare change you threw in the charity bin helped people, but we know for certain that it helped you to do so and we can rest assured that no matter what that small act will indeed make a difference.

So don’t stop yourself from doing good. Don’t question the gift you are going to give this holiday or the meal you’re going to make. Send that thank you card, smile at a stranger. Do whatever your heart feels compelled to do. You never know how important that little action could end up being to the person on the other end.

Speaking of little steps, I have a new book out. 🙂 I’ve been hem-hawing about how to launch this book but with Christmas fast approaching I thought I should just share it with you. The book is called “Big Science: Galileo’s Gamble” and it’s a book about science and persistence and it’s designed to help your child develop their critical thinking skills.

I’ll talk your ear off about the book later, but for now, click here to check it out.

Big Science: Galileo’s Gamble

You’ll Be Ok

We’re human

I’ve been very angry the past few days. I don’t really understand why either because I had an absolutely wonderful book fair last Sunday and left feeling overjoyed. Then Monday happened and myself and everyone around me suddenly became angry. I think it has a lot to do with the shooting, or maybe the shooting has a lot to do with what’s going on with all of us. I’m not sure.

The simple truth is that we are all human and we are all susceptible to moments of anger. At those times we may feel no better than rabid dogs. Here’s the thing though, we have an enormous capacity for a range of emotions. The same mind, body, and soul that can conceive shooting six hundred people is also the same creature that can donate gallons of blood and spend sleepless hours tending to the wounded. As Mr. Rogers famously said, “look for the helpers.”

We are more than our emotions just as we are better than our shortcomings. We have permission to fail, to falter, but only if we earnestly strive to do better the next time. I’ve always felt that I had to project perfection, to be better towards everyone and never stumble, but that’s perfection and to us that is impossible. So I have had to learn to let go of that ideal me and realize that I too am capable of having a bad side. But so what? It’s not what we are capable of that matters, it’s where we choose to be most of the majority of the time that really counts.

So let out that emotion, it’s ok, your loved ones will understand. Remember though that you are one of the good ones, part of the solution, and that will be your contribution to this world when you pass. People won’t remember if you occasionally scream at nothing, but they will remember the times you were there for them.

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.

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.