Monday, November 30, 2009

Mangia! (Or Mang, as my grandmother would say)

In my addled state at the time of my last post, I completely lost track of our topic du week -- my favorite subject.  Food!

Since having children and losing my limited ability to concenterate for anything greater than a two-minute interval, my sole non-Nickelodeon TV viewing consists of the news and The Food Network.

A great disappointment to my mother and especially my beloved late grandmother, I am not a cook.  I did somewhat redeem myself by marrying Emeril. :)  As a child, I did not enjoy eating -- much consternation ensuing.  Of course this situation has been more than remedied now.  I may not cook, but oh, how I love to eat.

As I type this, I am listening to my husband and two-year-old son in the next room, watching an HBO concert tribute to the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. The pride of a musician sharing his passion with his appreciative son is beyond words. Of course I thoroughly comprehend why my grandmother could not get over my lack of aptitude for (or interest in) her life's work. But honestly -- as a cook, she was an impossible act to follow.

Like Carmela, my family had the whole pasta-turkey-22 course Thanksgiving meal as an established tradition.  Like Mary Ann, my grandmother grew up in a home with boarders (and 10 siblings).  And scrapple (yum -- I know, I know) and stewed tomatoes (yuck) were staples of my youth. 

My mother's family hails from Ischia and Amalfi.  My mom and aunt finally visted their ancestral homeland a few years ago, and the initial plan was to tour northern Italy.  My mom nixed this idea immediately.  "We can't go there!  They eat white sauce!"  In our family, tomato is King. 

My parents dated in high school.  My dad eventually went to college, joined the army to avoid being drafted and, eight months into his service, called my mom from California (in the middle of the night) to propose.  He said that army food sucked, and he really wanted to get married so he could move out of the barracks and have someone cook him good meals.  She turned him down. :)  He called back.  They have been married for 41 years, so he must have done something right. 

My father (a "Mitigan" = American) had a favorite meal -- stew.  He looked forward to it all day on one of their first days as a married couple.  He came home and was surprised to smell something spaghetti-like.  My mom assured that no, it was stew.  He was expecting beef in broth.  What he got was hot dogs, peas, and potatoes in a tomato sauce.  My mom had never eaten or cooked a meal that was not tomato-based.   Today, she makes a mean beef stew.  However, she remains horrified that my four-year-old prefers her pasta without sauce, thanks very much.

My dad being a Korean linguist and my mom being a cook, I also grew up eating some of the very best Korean food.  I recently read a book by Paula Yoo, and as soon as the protagonist mentioned mandu, she had me hooked.  Back in the day, my parents used to watch every episode of The Sopranos (bear in mind that I have two Aunt Carmellas, an Uncle Junior, and that my mom's godmother is married to a Tony Soprano who worked in waste management).  My mom would then call me in LA to report, in mouthwatering detail, the foods consumed in each episode.  If any family member eats at a restaurant, I know to expect a ten-minute recap of the meal, soup to nuts.  Family recipes are cherished posessions, framed and hung, replicated, discussed and dissected.  Especially in a family of non-readers and non-writers, the effort to record a recipe (much of which consisted of "a pinch of" this and "add until it looks right") was clearly and act of pure love.

Reading JoAnn's post about A Wrinkle in Time, I was transported as soon as I saw the words "cocoa" and "liverwurst."  I remember those details intimately, along with the turkey dinner served at the denouement.  The word "tongue" in Mary Ann's post immediately invokes Beverly Cleary and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, as well as a Cleary description of french fries that I can recite to this day.  I was recently reading my daughter a picture book based on Little House in the Big Woods, and of course the maple sugar candies that I so vividly recalled were a centerpiece.  Buttons that resembled blackberries and even canned peaches were described in detail that stays with me to this day.  No wonder I always want to eat when I read! 

The English language is sadly lacking in words to describe tastes, smells, and textures.  Writing well about food is more difficult than it might seem.  Watch the Food Network, and you will hear the words "beautiful" and "delicious" more often than you can stand.

Many of my friends who enjoy cooking describe the activity as a satisfying creative outlet.  For me, writing about food serves the function of "creating art" more effectively than actually cooking.  After all, eating is a fleeting act; words are forever.

Check out this link for information on developing writing lessons and even entire composition courses centered on the subject of writing about food:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's Grazie-to-Marti Day!

We Five Teaching Authors hereby decree: this Fourth Thursday in November is Grazie-to-Marti Day!

Grazie, Carmela-dash-Marti Martino, our TeachingAuthors Administrator Extraordinaire!

Our holiday cornucopia runneth over with thanks, for all you do, all year long.

Please accept our Six-word Memoirs as but a small token of our appreciation.

Masterful motherly magnanimous Google Software Manipulator.
Answers questions, coordinates schedules, organizes everything.
Runs our little blog beautifully, generously.
Totally Together Teacher: tireless, thoughtful, thorough.
Incredibly intelligent, involved, insightful imaginative Idea-maker.

You are a true Wizard, working behind the scenes to create our Magic – adjusting, aligning, announcing, connecting, labeling, tweaking, scheduling, bundling.

Lucky us to call you Friend and fellow Teaching Author.

Con affetto,

April, Esther, Jeanne Marie, JoAnn and Mary Ann

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Food in Fiction: Quirks and Customs

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. For most of us, that means celebrating with a big turkey dinner. However, in my Italian-immigrant family, every holiday calls for a multi-course dinner that typically consists of antipasto, soup, bread, pasta, meatballs, salad, cooked vegetables, roasted meat, potatoes, fresh fruit, and dessert. For Thanksgiving, we simply accommodate the turkey tradition by featuring the bird as our roasted meat.

I am so used to our family’s customs that I neglected to prepare my husband (then boyfriend) before he attended his first Thanksgiving dinner with my family. When my mother served homemade fettuccine and meatballs (following the requisite antipasto and soup), he assumed there would be no turkey. Being an easy-going guy, he didn’t say anything and simply ate his fill of pasta and meatballs.

(I couldn't find clip art of fettuccine with tomato sauce and meatballs, but you get the idea.)

Well, imagine his surprise when we whisked the pasta plates away and my mother brought out the bird, vegetables, and potatoes. Afterward, he told me he'd been too full to have more than a bite of turkey, and as a result, it hadn’t felt much like Thanksgiving to him. (Now he knows to pace himself, which I’m sure he’ll do tomorrow when we celebrate at my aunt’s.) Ironically, for me it wouldn’t have felt like Thanksgiving without pasta.

In this series of posts, we’ve been talking about the role of food in fiction. As JoAnn discussed, food can “ground fantasy in reality.” I agree. I also believe food plays an especially important role in historical and multicultural fiction. Everyone has to eat. Seeing what a character does and doesn’t eat can give readers insight into that character’s world, whether it’s a world of Scrapple and food rationing, as Mary Ann described in her post, or one where Christmas Eve dinner revolves around seafood, as in my novel Rosa, Sola. Because food-related customs and rituals can serve to bind people together or to set them apart, food can affect a character’s relationships, too. I still recall feeling like an outsider at lunch in elementary school. While other kids were eating peanut butter and jelly on squishy white bread, I had to deal with mortadella on crumbly, homemade Italian bread. No one ever swapped sandwiches with me!

Of course, food can be a characterization tool in all types of fiction. Like real people, characters may have quirky food preferences, preferences that can even affect a story’s plot. We see this in picture books like I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child and I'd Really Like To Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio, illustrated by Dorothee de Monfreid. But food preferences can also play a role in middle-grade and young-adult stories. After all, where would the plot of Twilight and other vampire books be if vampires craved macaroni and cheese instead of human blood?

For everyone celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, I wish you a happy and safe holiday. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, I encourage you to take note of any unique food customs and rituals. And even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope the following Writing Workout will help you think about incorporating food quirks and customs into your fiction.

Writing Workout: Food Quirks and Customs 
Do you have any food quirks? Perhaps, like me, you only eat cold cereal without milk. (I just can't stomach soggy cereal!) Or maybe it's a friend or family member who has a food quirk. For example, one of my brothers-in-law will eat peanut butter on bread, or jelly on bread, but never peanut butter and jelly together on one sandwich. Try writing a scene where one of your fictional characters has a food-related quirk. How is that quirk a reflection of the character's overall personality?

Are there any food-related customs in your family, or special family recipes?
In the her last Writing Workout, Esther suggested you record a family recipe along with a memoir about the recipe's creator. Now write a scene where family members try to recreate a custom or recipe without the originator present. What happens? 

Happy writing!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Food and Fiction

      I hate to cook. Period. I have mageirocophobia,the cook's equivalent of stage fright. Just knowing that someone else is going to consume and judge what I am cooking turns me into a quivering pile of Knox gelatin. Then why do I own shelf after shelf of cookbooks?
    To me, cookbooks are literature. My favorites are the organizational fundraisers, each contributor adding a little history. ("My mama always made this milk punch for Christmas brunch" or "Uncle George used to stir up this stew on hunting trips.") Family tales aside, each recipe really is a potential story.  The ingredients form a cast of characters waiting for the right circumstances...a specific way of combining, a certain degree of become something delicious and memorable. Thank goodness my husband does cook.
     For someone who doesn't cook, food and recipes are an integral part of most of my books.  I have my mother to thank.
     I fear cooking. Mom hated it. I remember finishing lunch at the kitchen table, while Mom went into meltdown mode over supper, five hours away.  With her head inside the ice-encrusted maw of our non-self-defrosting refrigerator freezer,  Mom shuffled through frozen bricks of meat and vegetables, muttering "What can I make for supper?" Finally, she would extract a couple of frost-covered, foil-wrapped bricks and with an exhausted sigh, toss them on the countertop to defrost. Mom had sentenced herself to making yet another meal.
    Eventually I learned the source of Mom's distaste. During the Depression, my mother's mother (known as Maga to her grandchildren) ran a boarding house as a way of keeping food on the table for her family of eight.  (If this sounds like a certain fictional character from the American Girl series...well, sorry. It's the truth!) My teen-aged mom served as Maga's sou chef, in cooking vast quantities of food, not only for her own family, but for a dozen or so boarders. That meant a hot breakfast, a hot supper, and a packed lunch for everybody. No wonder Mom hated cooking.
    This also explained why all of Mom's recipes read"Yield 24".
    "Frances, are you cooking for the Fifth Army?" Dad would ask, peering into an enormous vat or skillet or roaster pan. "You can reduce the recipes."
     "Too much trouble," Mom would shrug.
     I understood.  Cooking was bad enough without adding a math exercise to the mix. Even though Mom was only cooking for three people, the food didn't go to waste. If we had hash on Monday (a good meat-stretching Depression era meal), we also had it Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. When I moved out on my own, Mom didn't offer me a file of heirloom recipes, and I didn't ask. I never wanted to eat Fried Salmon Patties or Scrapple again.

     In fact, I didn't even think of those old boarding house recipes until I was writing Jimmy's Stars. It suddenly dawned on my that Maga was running a boarding house through the World War II rationing. Sure, her boarders ration stamps helped out, but sometimes it didn't matter if you had the money and the stamps. The food just wasn't available.   It was being sent to "the fighting boys overseas."
     Aha!  This explained Maga's "meat" loaf where the main ingredient was a soy "meat extender." And Wacky Cake, made without eggs, flour of sugar.  Even my all-least-favorite-dish-ever, stewed tomatoes.
     I dug deeper into a world where sugar, butter and meat were scarce. Recipes emphasized "natural sweeteners" (like prune juice), "sweetbreads" (which are neither sweet nor bread) and "the lesser organ meats." I wondered what the average American kid thought of finding a "tongue" sandwich in his lunchbag.  I decided that in matters of school lunches, the kids' tastes haven't changed that much over time. The difference would come in that the kid of 1943 had come to realize that patriotism and sacrifice took precedence over personal preference.
    Food became integral to Jimmy's Stars because finding and preparing food was such a large part of WWII homefront life. "Use it up, wear it out or make do" inspired "Rookie Cookies" (butterless, rock-like lumps that could withstand the trip from homefront to battlefront) and "Tomato Aspic."  I had so much fun researching additional recipes, never thinking that bloggers and teachers would ask for them, and actually make them! Check out the results at Mawbooks.

     My latest picture book, Surprise Soup, came from my husband and I swapping childhood food memories, both involving our fathers. Considered too young to "sit still" in church, Craig and his father stayed home Sunday mornings, making pancakes for the return of the rest of the family.
    My dad was (and still is!) an excellent chef. He pitched in with mealmaking when he could, but as an FBI agent, he didn't have a lot of time to indulge his inner Emeril.
My favorite memories are of weekends when we would make Dad's vegetable beef soup, a process that could consume an entire Saturday.
    I sliced and diced these two memories, chopped them together, added and subtracted ingredients and fiddled with the heat. After several years of simmering on the back burner of my mind...voila! Surprise Soup!
    True, I can't really make soup or aspic or even the allegedly goof-proof Wacky Cake without scorching or botching something. But in my mental kitchen, there is always a pot of soup bubbling on the stove, a batch of cookies in the oven, and a loaf of home-made bread, rising under a clean dish towel. And sometimes, when I am lucky, my husband who is a good cook, brings my food fantasies to fruition.

Writing Workout

   Try this with your young writers.
   Write down your favorite food, whatever it might be.
    Now describe this food, without telling how it looks.
   Here are some questions to consider:  How does it taste?
Is it sweet, salty, sour, a combination? Can you taste individual ingredients?
How does it feel in your mouth? Crisp, crunchy, smooth, slippery, hot, cold?
    What does it smell like? Does one ingredient dominate the aroma?
    Do you have any specific memories of this food? Where did you eat it first? Does it remind you of any place or time or person?
    The last time I used this exercise, my entire group of middle schoolers, except one, all described the same dish...macaroni and cheese! Yet, no two descriptions were alike, because everyone had their own personal vision....from mac-in-a-box to Grandma's-from-scratch!

Reading Recommendations

    Usually I don't recommend books per se. I just tell you what I am reading. But what I am reading now fits in so well with our current topic, I just had to tell you a little about it. It is The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food--Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal by Mark Kurlansky. The WPA Writer's Project was compiling an encyclopedia of American food when World War II essentially ended the work. Kurlansky has compiled some of the never-published essays into this fascinating book. Some of the contributors' names are familiar...Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty...and some are not. All transport us back to a time when local food meant just that. Happy reading and Bon Appetit!

Mary Ann

Friday, November 20, 2009

Food and its Functions in Fantasy

I once heard a tip about using food to ground fantasy in reality. I searched my notes from Vermont College and found this from a January 1999 workshop led by Marion Dane Bauer and Norma Fox Mazer: "Ground in reality before you can take off into fantasy—Madeleine L'Engle: start with food."

I don’t know who passed on the tip—Marion? Norma? Another student? I wish I had taken better notes, but the concept has stayed with me all these years anyway. I assume it originated with Madeleine L'Engle, so I browsed through A Wrinkle in Time to see how she handled food.

The book begins with Meg in her dark attic bedroom during a wild storm, remembering the fight she’d had at school defending her little brother, Charles Wallace, and worrying about rumors of a thief in the neighborhood. She decides to go downstairs to make cocoa. In the kitchen, she finds Charles Wallace waiting for her, drinking milk and eating bread and jam.

"I knew you’d be down," he says. "I put some milk on the stove for you. It ought to be hot by now."

When she checks the milk, she finds enough for two people. Somehow, Charles Wallace knew their mother would appear, too. Mrs. Murry, Charles Wallace, and Meg make sandwiches in the cozy kitchen while talking about being different from others and feeling left out. When the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit appears at their door, Mrs. Murry invites her in, acting as if the late night visit is nothing peculiar.

"Would you like a sandwich, Mrs. Whatsit? I’ve had liverwurst and cream cheese; Charles has had bread and jam; and Meg, lettuce and tomato."

In this opening chapter, food comforts people who can’t sleep for worrying and welcomes a strange guest.

Mmmm . . . apple pie!

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien also begins with a visit from unexpected strangers. What does Bilbo Baggins do with thirteen uninvited guests? He feeds them, of course.

"Quite a merry gathering!" Gandalf exclaims. "'I hope there is something left for the latecomers to eat and drink! What’s that? Tea? No thank you! A little red wine, I think, for me.'

'And for me,' said Thorin.

'And raspberry jam and apple tart,' said Bifur.

'And mince-pies and cheese,' said Bofur.

'And pork-pie and salad,' said Bombur.

'And more cakes—and ale—and coffee,' called the other dwarves through the door.

'Put on a few eggs, there’s a good fellow!' Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. 'And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!'"

In this scene, food fortifies the travelers as they plan their long journey with the reluctant Bilbo Baggins.

My husband Gene's New Year's Day cinnamon rolls

In The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, food keeps the fierce, ravenous, underground-dwelling Folk, who are "mostly mouth . . . wet mouth and teeth," at bay. Corinna, the Folk Keeper, draws off their anger and lists what they eat in her Folk Record.

"February 19—Fastern’s E’en
The Folk have been quiet. Today they ate:
Two small lambs
One tub of butter
One vat of kidney stew."

"March 15—Tirls of March
I have been pinched, nothing worse. The Folk have eaten:
Five dozen salted kippers
Two crates of dried beef."

"April 17—Levy Day
The Folk have eaten:
Two roast ribs
Five rounds of cheese
A barrel of smoked haddock."

Gene's homemade pizza

In all three books, food helps make a fantastic situation believable because it gives readers something familiar to latch onto. I could go on and on, but I’m getting hungry! Look for references to food as you read, think about the functions they serve, and explore the possibilities in the exercise that follows.

Writing Workout

Food can be used to celebrate a victory, to mourn a loss, or to show love or appreciation. Like music or clothing, what and how people eat can also help show time and place, not only in fantasy but also in contemporary or historical fiction or nonfiction. Descriptions of meals and their settings can help set the pace and tone of a story. Characters can eat slowly, savoring each bite, or shovel food in without thinking. Not only the choice of food but also the way a character eats can show his or her personality and emotions. Does a character gulp, slurp, pick at her food, wipe his mouth on his sleeve, eat while driving?

Write a paragraph that shows the time and place and a character’s state of mind by describing how and what he or she eats.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stir in Three Stories and Chase That Flu Away!

The minute I learned “Food into Fiction” was our TeachingAuthor topic, I could see, smell, taste and touch E.B. White’s words:
On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it.”

I think of that quote whenever I share my picture book Chicken Soup By Heart (Simon & Schuster). Rosanne Litzinger’s warm, loving illustrations set most of the story’s action in Rudie Dinkins’ kitchen as he cooks up chicken soup for his flu-ridden after-school babysitter, Mrs. Gittel. Though Rudie has but twenty-four hours to make her good as new, Mrs. Gittel was The Chicken Soup Queen and Rudie happens to know her chicken soup secret: she stirs in three very nice stories about her soon-to-be soup-eaters.

The first story Rudie stirs in is all about the time Mrs. Gittel did something nice for him, when she helped him pass his sick-at-home school day practicing counting like accountants, counting everything from cowboys on his quilt to Mrs. Gittel’s liver spots, sharing Hershey kisses each time they reached ten.
His second story is all about the time he did something nice for Mrs. Gittel, when he helped her hold her playing cards on her Gin Rummy day because her fingers hurt like crazy, sharing suckers from the candy dish with each “Gin! I win!”
The third story is all about the time they did something nice for each other, when they spent a day at the Boardwalk because both were missing family, sharing friends and a Photo Booth and peppermints.
How could Rudie’s heart-y soup-making not become a story the next time Mrs. Gittel needs to cook him chicken soup?

I cooked up this story much the same way I cook up chicken soup. First I simmered the story idea (a newspaper article about the very best ingredients when cooking chicken soup). Next I added characters, a setting, time and a problem and sprinkled Yiddish words to maximize the flavor.
But I also made sure to add a measure of me, stirring in stories of my son and his two grandmothers.
For instance, when he and his Philly Grandmom sat for hours at her living room window, counting Volkswagens.
Or when he and his Florida Nana passed rainy days beneath a pool-side umbrella, playing Rummy. (Guess who always won?)
Or how one called him her zeesah boy, her sweet boy, the other her boychik.
When I strained the story the way I would my chicken broth, removing globs of fat and extraneous pieces, I smiled wide at what remained: a heart-felt story about the reciprocity of love.

With flu season upon us, no matter the kind, what could be better than a book about friendship and a bowl of chicken soup?
Everyone knows chicken soup is a known and proven germ-fighter!
If you’re looking for a good recipe, I share Mrs. Gittel’s on my picture book’s last page.

Of course, Mrs. Gittel’s cooking secret isn’t limited to soup.
Thinking of your eaters, remembering nice times, is a nice thing to do when fixing any dish.
In fact, maybe next Thursday, while you’re stuffing your turkey, mashing the potatoes, or whipping up cream, why not add a very nice story about each of your guests?

Happy Story-cookin'!
Esther Hershenhorn

Writing Workout

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to gather and notate a treasured family recipe.
Aunt Nancy’s Sweet Potato Souffle
Uncle Maury's Cranberry Relish
Cousin Jane’s String Bean Casserole
Grandmom’s Pumpkin Pie.
When interviewing the selected relative or dinner guest, record:
(1) the name of his or her food item/dish
(2) the necessary ingredients (with measurements)
(3) the ordered preparation steps (Let’s hear it for those verbs!)
(4) the suggested presentation (including an illustration or photograph)
Here’s a link to IRA’s and NCTE’s ReadWriteThink website offering How-to Write a Recipe Instructions and sample recipes.
Once you record the recipe on a recipe card, flip the card, then write a very nice story about the recipe’s namesake. Perhaps something you did for the creator, or something he or she did for you, or something you did for each other.
Think about the Question Words that shape a story: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Nature, Vacuums, Kitties, and Sundry Things

My week started to go awry on a Wednesday, when my son was scheduled for his 2.5-year check-up.  Our "pediatrician" is one of those mega-offices employing two dozen practitioners in half a dozen different offices.  I picked up my son from school and sat in the waiting room for 10 minutes before learning that I was in the wrong place (wrong city, even).  No worries, I was told -- they could squeeze me in.  I might have to wait "a little while."  Were I using my brain, I would have canceled on the spot.  But of course there's that Mommy Guilt.  And so I drove and waited -- 1.5 hours -- to have my son seen for 5 minutes and to learn (as I already knew) that he is perfectly healthy, even if his projected adult height is 5'2".  I missed the start of naptime at school, so Mommy didn't get much work done that afternoon. 

Thursday afternoon, my daughter had a sedation dentistry appointment for two cavities so tiny they didn't even require novacaine or drilling.  Six hours and many tears later, we were finally home.  Success!  But again, Mommy didn't get much work done.

Friday, both kids had no school.  I had a conference call mid-day and somehow acquired a neighbor child for a play date.  Five minutes into the call, my kids got into a tug-of-war over a bag of Goldfish, with much shrieking entailed.  (Of course everyone knows when Mommy is on the phone with work, it's the best time to cause much mayhem.)  The highlight came (at a moment when the phone was not muted, naturally) when my daughter exited the bathroom, shouting, "Mommy, is my butt red?"

Saturday, my daughter woke up with sniffles, rubbed all the skin off her toe at a play date, and cried when we tried to leave her with a sitter, which we ultimately did not have the heart to do.

By Tuesday, she was home sick.  Wednesday -- more of the same.  Thursday she was better but not better enough to go to school.  I dragged her with me to the community college where I teach.  "It will be boring!" she wailed.  It was a 45-minute trip, and she asked to stop twice en route to use the bathroom.  Once we arrived, she asked for cereal.  She asked for a drink.  Finally, she tugged on my sleeve and said, "Mommy, is it okay if I sleep on the floor?"  And then she lay, flat on the tile floor in the middle of my classroom.  "Maybe we'll end early," I said to the class.   On the way home, I got a call from the air duct cleaners who had previously been scheduled to try to eradicate the odor of cat urine from all our vents (courtesy of one territorial kitty).  He (the man, not the kitty) was early; he did not speak English; and he was lost.  He called four times.  We beat him to the house and quickly departed for a hastily-arranged appointment to check my daughter for a UTI.  This time we made it to the right office, but my daughter refused to pee in the cup, so all was for naught.  We were sent home with a new cup, just in time to see the air vent cleaner (yes, I left a stranger in our house alone) depart.  Our house still smells like cat pee.  My daughter, meanwhile, was so determined not to pee in the cup that she "held it" for over 12 hours.  I decided this capability ruled out a urinary tract infection, master diagnostician that I am.

They say nature abhors a vacuum.  Our vacuum cleaner is, of course, broken.  

After many days of watching me "work," Kate made me proud by declaring that she wants to be a writer when she grows up.  Or a cowgirl, she later amended.  Yee-hah! 

Someday all these crazy years will make me a better writer and not just insane, right?  Someone please reassure me if you've made it this far!  Does anyone have any tips for Butt in Chair that don't involve shaving any more hours of sleep or neglecting my children any more than I already do?  All you Mommy Warriors who have been there -- please share!  TIA and with much gratitude!   JM

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Giveaway Winner!

We are happy to announce the winner of the latest Teaching Authors Book Giveaway. Pam will receive an autographed copy of Carolyn Marsden's newest book, Sahwira: An African Friendship. Thanks to all who participated in the contest, and thanks again to Carolyn for joining us as a Guest Teaching Author, for sharing your inspiring story, and for donating your book!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Adding Flavor . . .Food Into Fiction

Happy Poetry Friday! 

A new poem and a Writing Workout are below. 

But first a brief commercial interruption. 

This is a gentle reminder about those goals you set for the New Year in conjunction with the contest to win my book, NEW YEAR AT THE PIER.   Remember that post?  Remember your goals? 

We’re expecting you to report back to us during the first two weeks in January.  If you didn't win the book last time, you'll have another chance in January when you report on your progress. How did you do? Who or what helped you? Who or what hindered you?

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

I asked my nephew Josh, who’s a high school science teacher, how I could introduce this week’s topic of food and fiction.

“Well, you could have them write a poem in ketchup,” he said.  That’s Josh for you. (Wouldn’t you love to be in one of his science classes?)

Message written in ketchup

 And actually, that was a very good place to begin, because I’m quite comfortable writing in food.

The night before anyone in our family has a birthday, I sneak down to the kitchen and write “Happy Birthday” in raisins.  It’s tradition.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to wake up to a raisin birthday card, really?

You guessed it...raisins!

I told Josh this.  He said, “Then you could write a poem about what happens to it when the birds come.”


I thought about my best friend, author Bruce Balan who’s sailing around the world on a catamaran.  (To be specific, he just left the Minerva Reef - a ring of coral less than 3 miles across, 250 miles southwest of Tonga – heading 800 miles to New Zealand.)

And I wrote this poem:

by April Halprin Wayland

You’re at sea.
I’m on land.

It’s your birthday.

So I’m writing Happy Birthday
on the patio

in sunflower seeds
from my garden.

When the birds come
they will eat my words.

One of them
will fly out to sea,

will circle your boat,
will sit on your deck.

Can you guess
how that bird

will spell out
I miss you?

© April Halprin Wayland

Uh...okay…clearly I got into a bind with this poem!  I mean, I started out starry-eyed and poetic…and then I thought…Uh-oh…there’s only one way for the bird to bring those seeds to the boy on that boat…

It’s not exactly where I meant to go.  And I don’t mean to offend anyone.

But it is kind of funny.

So…here’s today's        

 Writing Workout

Think about a message you might write in food.
What food?
What message?
To whom? 

What happens when the message is received—if it is?
Now, write a poem or a story.
With joy, of course.

Check out author Michelle Markel's terrific blog, The Cat and the she lists Ten Things Picture Book Writers Can Learn From Shrek!  She's a terrific author (most recently of TYRANNOSAURUS MATH) and a fabulous teacher.

photos by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Carolyn Marsden!

The Teaching Authors are thrilled to present an interview with our dear friend and Guest Teaching Author Carolyn Marsden.

Carolyn grew up in Mexico City and Southern California. Although she wrote for adults for many years, she began to write for children after the birth of her daughters. She attended Vermont College and earned an MFA in Writing for Children. Her first book, The Gold-Threaded Dress, published by Candlewick, was a Booklist Top Ten Youth Novel of 2002. Her second novel, Silk Umbrellas, was a Texas Bluebonnet nominee and Booklist Top Ten Art Novel of 2003. Since then, Carolyn has published several more award-winning middle grade chapter books with Candlewick and Viking, almost all with multicultural themes. The Buddha’s Diamonds was a Southern California Booksellers Association finalist and a Booklist Top Ten Religion Novel of 2008. Her latest book, Sahwira: An African Friendship, is set in what is now Zimbabwe. Carolyn lives in La Jolla with her Thai husband and two half-Thai daughters.

To celebrate Carolyn’s appearance on our blog, we're giving away an autographed copy of her newest book, Sahwira: An African Friendship. To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.

Welcome, Carolyn! How did you become a Teaching Author?

In 1981, when I was living in Tucson, Arizona, mostly writing poetry for adults, I got a job as a Poet-in-Residence. For either a week or a month at a time, I visited urban and rural schools (K-12), including those on the Navajo and Pima reservations. Whenever I entered a classroom, I had about one minute to convince the kids that writing poetry could be fun. Following the lead of Kenneth Koch (Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?), I never used poetry written for children as my examples. I enjoyed seeing the children’s writing rise to new levels when I used poems by writers like Shakespeare or William Carlos Williams, or poems from other cultures. The students absorbed the rich language, rhythms, and subject matter. To my eternal delight, the kid at the back of the class, the one the teacher told me wouldn’t write anything, the one with the learning disability, invariably wrote the best poem.

What’s a common problem your students have, and how do you address it?

The most common problem is being too abstract or general in the writing. I address this by pressing for details. For example, if the student is writing about a flower, I ask what kind of flower? If it’s a daisy, I ask what color? If it’s a white daisy, I keep inquiring until the student arrives at the kind of particulars necessary for good writing. For example, this might be a white daisy picked for a dead pet hamster’s funeral under a damp May sky.

Can you describe your writing process, including collaborating with other authors?

I used to get story ideas based on experiences in the lives of my two daughters. However, as they’ve grown older, my ideas mostly come from people who’ve lived interesting lives in other cultures.

Normally, I work on at least three projects at a time. This somewhat scattered approach isn’t my preference—I just have too many ideas!

I usually start work by taking notes in a little book. Then I transfer whatever I know of the story into the computer, even if some parts are sketchy. My computer is in a 1959 Airstream trailer. I three-hole punch the pages and put them in a binder. I carry this binder everywhere, seizing every small opportunity to edit by hand. Every day I type and print out a new version. And so on, many, many times!

Because I write about cultures other than my own, I’ve always used gatekeepers to vet my work and to bounce ideas off of. Beginning with The Jade Dragon, I’ve written four books in actual collaboration, using and transforming people’s childhood stories. Although the material is gleaned from real life, all of my collaborative stories are extensively fictionalized.

In writing The Jade Dragon, Virginia Loh took care of the rough writing (the most terrifying part for me!) and I did the more relaxing work of revision. Virginia wrote at night, which worked nicely since I’m a day person. Mornings I’d wake to find new material already in my in-box. We spent endless hours brainstorming in cafes.

I wrote The Buddha’s Diamonds with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Typically, Phap Niem swung in a hammock, chatting about his childhood, while I scribbled furiously. He left for Vietnam as I was still shaping the first draft, and didn’t return until after the book was published.

Whereas I grew up in Mexico with missionary parents, my first cousin, Philip Matzigkeit, lived on a mission in Rhodesia, now the troubled country of Zimbabwe. Philip always told fascinating tales of his childhood. Yet I was reluctant to write the story because of the complicated political and historical backdrop. Finally, with several books under my belt, I felt ready. While Philip didn’t do any of the actual writing, he did write many great informative emails. Because I couldn’t travel to Africa, I had to get a sense of the setting through Philip. He and I also spent time in cafes, drinking coffee, hashing out the plot. After a couple of intense years of work together, we produced Sahwira: An African Friendship.

Philip’s friend, Daniella Cinque, had lived in an institute for girls in Naples in the early 1950s. The institute was a place where mothers who had been raped by soldiers dropped off their unwanted children. One afternoon, Daniella recounted memories to me while I typed notes in my computer. After that, I did the writing mostly on my own. Because I didn’t want to let go of some of the rich, beautiful material, plotting the story was quite a long process. Take Me with You will be released by Candlewick in spring 2010.

One of my future projects will be with a Czech doctor who escaped the Czech Republic along with his family at age fourteen. Because Milan lives across the country in Pennsylvania, (and isn’t the best communicator!), working together will present new challenges.

How can teachers use your books in the classroom?

My books can be used as teaching tools for the many countries I’ve written about--Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, Rhodesia, Mexico (and soon, I hope Iraq and Czechoslovakia!). They also bring to life various historical periods, ranging from 600 AD (Starfields, upcoming from Candlewick in 2011), to 1950s Naples (Take Me With You), 1963 Rhodesia (Sahwira), to 1983 Fairfax, Virginia (The Jade Dragon). I’ve also written through the eyes of characters for whom religion is central. I’ve explored Thai and Vietnamese Buddhism, Protestantism (the Methodist Church), Catholicism, Mayan Shamanism, (and soon, I hope, Islam!). Several of my books address the issues of immigrants to the US.

When did you first know you were a writer?

When I was thirteen, I discovered that I could temporarily escape the angst of early puberty and live out my fantasies through writing. I first wrote a take-off on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then turned to romantic stories featuring myself with the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney. Through writing, I discovered my life’s path.

Nowadays, my writing is no longer motivated by escape or fantasy, but is more about exploring the worlds, minds, and hearts of my characters.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise with our readers?

One of my favorite writing exercises is very simple. I make a random list of 15 words using a variety of nouns, verbs, adjectives. An example of a list might be: sheep, crisscross, damp, fling, clever, tide, shadow, amber, avoid, glassy, stone, etc. I ask my students to write quickly, using all the words at least once. Of course they can use other words as well, as well as variations on these words (e.g. avoided instead of avoid) I tell them not to try to make sense—to just let the sentences flow. This exercise invariably produces wonderful poems!

Thank you, Carolyn! The Teaching Authors appreciate your visit and your insights! 

Readers, before entering our contest, please read our Giveaway Guidelines here.

Now, for the contest requirements:
For a chance to win an autographed copy of Carolyn Marsden's Sahwira: An African Friendship, post a comment to today's blog post telling us why you would like a copy of the book. To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. Saturday, November 14, 2009 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be announced by 11 p.m., Sunday, November 15, 2009.

We look forward to reading your comments. Good luck!

Monday, November 9, 2009

How to Encourage Young Writers, Part Deux

     This is a terrific topic, Derin.  I have had experience on both sides of this issue. I was a young writer looking...and not finding...guidance, and I am now a writer interested in encouraging young writers. I feel strongly about this, since I was a young writer, out there on her own.
    I am always amused when students and teachers ask me "Who encouraged you to write?" The answer? Absolutely nobody! My parents thought it was nice that I wrote little stories, but were terrified that I would grow up to be a "starving writer". My parents "encouraged" me to become a librarian, so "at least you can eat and pay the rent."
    My teachers did not encourage me, because "creative writing" was not part of the "curriculum." In my school, if you wanted to be creative, you could take art or join the marching band. Period. I had to find other ways to keep writing. So I did.
    Whenever possible, I turned school assignments (even essay test questions) into fact-based creative writing events. I volunteered to be the school reporter for the local newspaper, a job I held all the way through high school. I entered every creative writing contest I could find. (I won some, too.)
     As a young writer I would have been thrilled to take a creative writing class, or join a young writers group. Alas, these opportunities are still hard to find. I have been blessed to work with the Young Writers programs at the Margaret Mitchell House, here in Atlanta. I just finished my fall class last weekend, with five of the most amazing writers, ages 9-13. They were all ready to take on a new session, starting next Saturday, but there won't be another session until sometime next spring. Since the writers in this particular group all live in the same part of town, I suggested that they get together on their own to write and share until then.
     For those of you young writers who don't live in a town with an arts center or other learning center that offers writing classes, there is the self-help route. When I began to write, there were no books just for young writers. I read the magazine The Writer (which is still published), and later Writer's Digest.  They offered easy-to-read, practical advice on all sorts of topics related to writing and publishing.
     Today there is Marion Dane Bauer's book What's Your Story (recommended in the previous post), as well as the books of Ralph Fletcher. Ralph Fletcher is another writer who teaches. His books A Writer's Notebook, How Writers Work, Poetry Matters and Live Writing are useful for both beginning writers and their teachers.
    Another handy little volume is A Teen's Guide to Getting Published by Jessica and Danielle Dunn. The Dunns were fifteen-year-old sisters when they wrote the first edition in 1996. It was recently re-issued in an updated version. Not only do they include all the advice I give (keep a journal, read, read, read, write, write, write, etc) but they include sources where young writers can actually publish their work (sometimes for money!!) They also include a list of websites, writing camps, other writing books, courses, and on and on. This book was re-issued in 2006, so there is a possibility that some of the information may be dated. I still recommend the book as being one of the most complete, all-in-one-book, young writer's guide book.
     And speaking of books....I have had a wild two weeks, that have not left me a lot of reading time. The one book I did read was YA fiction, Food, Girls and Other Things I Can't Have by Allen Zadoff.

Mary Ann

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ask the TeachingAuthors Question: How to Encourage Young Writers

Today I'd like to respond to an Ask the TeachingAuthors question submitted quite some time ago. A reader named Derin wrote to us about his desire to encourage his 14-year-old niece, a budding fantasy writer. Derin asked:
"I remember reading somewhere on you blog about a book that is written especially for young writers but I cannot find it again."
Well, Derin, part of the reason we've taken so long to respond is that you've stumped us--we can't find it either. Mary Ann Rodman did mention Marion Dane Bauer's What's Your Story? A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction in her September 21st post, but that was after you wrote us. (Perhaps you're psychic, Derin?) In any case, What's Your Story? is a great book, not only for young writers, but for writers of all ages. In fact, when I was at Vermont College, it was required reading for all students in the MFA in Writing program. Two other books aimed at young writers that adults may also find helpful are: Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly, by Gail Carson Levine, and Ralph Fletcher's How Writers Work: Finding a Writing Process That Works for You.

Interestingly, just last week Judy, the mother of a seventh-grader, emailed me with a similar question. She was disappointed that an after-school creative writing class her daughter was interested in had been canceled due to low enrollment. Because young people today have such busy schedules, it's difficult to attract enough students for such classes, at least during the school year. Summer writing programs, like those I teach at the Hinsdale Center for the Arts, tend to be more popular. But that doesn't help this young writer right now. I suggested to Judy that she encourage her daughter to read this blog post, because today I'll be sharing some online resources especially for young writers.

A particularly timely resource right now is the NaNoWriMo Young Writer's Program. In case you haven't heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which occurs every November. Adult writers from around the world attempt to complete a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program allows participants who are under 18 to set their own word-count goals. The challenge began on November 1st, but it's not too late to sign up!

Also, a brand new writing contest has recently been announced especially in honor of NaNoWriMo. The Young Adult Discovery Contest is open to writers ages 13 and older. You need submit only your title and the first 250 words of your novel to enter.

Many published authors also provide links and tips for young writers on their websites and blogs. My fellow TeachingAuthor, April Halprin Wayland, includes these on her "Where Can a Young Writer Get Published?" and "Tips" pages. And just yesterday, I updated the "For Writers" page of my own website, which now includes two dozen links to sites especially for young writers. Many of those sites offer children and teens the opportunity to submit their work for publication either on the Internet or in print form.

Finally, I hope young writers (and their teachers) will find our TeachingAuthors blog a valuable online resource, too. In addition to the many links to writing-related websites you will find in our sidebar, we regularly feature writing tips, author interviews, book reviews, and writing exercises (called Writing Workouts). And if there's a writing-related topic you'd like us to address, you can submit your own Ask the TeachingAuthors question via the link in our sidebar.

Meanwhile, I hope you'll visit us again on Monday, when Mary Ann Rodman will post a follow-up response to Derin's question.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thumbs Up for Writing It Right!

All of my writing personas – the Author, Teacher and Writing Coach in me - offer an enthusiastic Thumbs Up! for Sandy Asher’s Writing It Right! (Writer’s Institute Publications, 2009).
The book’s subtitle says it all: “How Successful Children’s Authors Revise and Sell Their Stories.”

Asher could have simply told us how, as do many writers, teachers and editors.
Instead, this teacher, editor, playwright, and author wisely chose to show us how, via the generously-shared manuscript drafts of published books and stories, so we could literally and figuratively see for ourselves how the requisite process of revision works.

“Come join writers at work,” Asher writes in her book’s Introduction, “professional, published authors in the process of making choices, taking wrong turns, pursuing false starts, backtracking, regrouping, rethinking, re-envisioning, and revising. Again and again. And again.”
And, she reminds us, “Please leave behind all notions that writing fiction is quick and easy, and that writing for young readers is the cushiest job of all.”

Asher thoughtfully organizes her book by formats and audience:
(1) picture books;
(2) short stories;
(3) books for young readers – i.e. easy-to-reads and early chapter books; and
(4) books for older readers – i.e. middle grade and young adult fiction.

Respective representative titles include Kate McMullan's I Stink!, Judy Cox's Highlights story "Becca, the Nutcracker Mouse," Johanna Hurwitz’s A Llama in the Family and Brenda Ferber’s Julia’s Kitchen.
Asher grounds each title with a relevant overview, livens the presentation with author comments and concludes each section with a relevant editor and/or agent interview.
Her Nine Essential Story Questions that guide each manuscript’s crafting beg to be borrowed, applied and re-used.
Elements of Narrative. Language use. Reader considerations. Final line-edits.
Re-visioning a manuscript is all-encompassing.

“Revision,” Asher writes. “Love it or hate it, if you want to write for publication, it’s going to be a fact of your life.”
Reading and studying all twenty-one manuscripts not only guarantees an instant “I-get-it-now!” response; it’s certain to return us to our own work, buoyed and smarter.

Esther Hershenhorn
I learned of Writing it Right! while Sandy Asher was gathering writers' manuscripts for her text; the Teaching Author in me requested a review copy, then counted down the days 'til its publication.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Serendipity Part Deux

I remember an odd assortment of precise details about my childhood (my grandparents' jar of carrot- and pea-shaped candies; the Mickey Mouse electric toothbrush I got for my third birthday; chasing seagulls in Monterey and being crushed when they flew away -- every time).  I do not, however, remember learning to read. I've always had a notion that this milestone happened suddenly. Watching my daughter today, I know that it could not have been so.  She can read words, phrases, and even short books with a bit of prompting. She is not yet what I would call a Reader. I remember very well when I first became a Reader, and that was the day my kindergarten teacher gave me a copy of RAMONA THE PEST from the classroom library.  (And yes, I'm sure the book selection was no accident.)  This was the first "big-girl" book that I remember reading myself and, oh happy accident, it remains one of my very favorites to this day.

As I'm sure I have mentioned in prior posts, Beverly Cleary was to my childhood what Miley Cyrus might be to girls today.  So in large part thanks to Mrs. Matsushige (kindergarten teacher) and Mrs. Cleary...

As I believe I have also mentioned, my stint at Vermont College coincided with (or perhaps instigated) a cascade of changes in my life.  Within two years, I finally felt entitled to call myself a professional writer; I was engaged, married, owned a home, and was expecting a child.  What suffered as a result of all this busy-ness, of course, was the very thing I went to Vermont College to live and  breathe -- writing for children.

With my kids finally sleeping through the night (though not so much lately, but that's another story), I returned this past summer to Montpelier for an alumni reunion and a dose of inspiration. Between work and kids, I was unable to take full advantage of the planned events.  Perhaps the most useful thing that happened was completely serendipitous and cool.

Be it known that I live in Nowhere, Maryland -- Lake Linganore, to be precise. The nearest post office is in New Market, and the nearest everything else is in Frederick, a beautiful gem of a city where tractors often travel at 15 mph on one-lane roads with lines of cars behind them.  And no one honks!  (Our children have learned some foul language in these situations, but of course we are transplants.)

At any rate, I was perusing the very thoughtfully aseembled alumni brochure at VC and noted that one Shawn K. Stout also lives in Frederick, MD (!).  I introduced myself to her and discovered that she, too, was greatly missing the community that VC offered and hoping to find a critique group locally.  We met for dinner once we returned home and I learned that she is from my husband's hometown of (even-more-obscure) Hagerstown, MD. She lives two blocks from our favorite brew pub.  And, most exciting, she just published her first book, Fiona Finkelstein: Big-Time Ballerina!! Very much in the spirit of a modern Beverly Cleary, it is fun, funny, and the perfect read-aloud (or maybe even read-to-herself) for my daughter in about a year.  It even features a soap opera actress.  Love Live Fiona!  (In fact, Fiona will be back for an encore performance very soon.)

My daughter and I went to a book-signing at the wonderful Dancing Bear toy store in Frederick, where we spent too much money (as always) and supported our favorite local author.  The store also features works of fellow VC alum (and former faculty member) Deborah Wiles, who once lived in -- you guessed it, Frederick!   

Shawn K. Stout at the Dancing Bear

My scene-stealing ballerina (Discovery Station, Hagerstown)