What I am Learning in Idaho

Don’t rely on your cell phone to determine the actual time in Boise because you will wake up to:

1. Read the time as 7:25 a.m. on your phone.

2. Panic because the girls need to be awake by 7 a.m. for school.

3. PANIC because you have failed your sister on your first day of being in charge of the twins.

4. Turn on the lights in the girls’ bedroom, then yell, “We’re late, we’re late! Get up, get dressed. HURRY!”  

5. Be unprepared for the madness that will ensue, which will include crashing into one another as all three people simultaneously rush for the bathroom, after which  there will be tripping, scrambling for shoes and socks, and then the dog will get involved by barking incessantly.  

6. Suddenly remember—in your state of being half asleep and somewhat disoriented—that you haven’t figured how to temporarily change your cell phone’s clock (the only clock in your room, and to your knowledge, the only clock in that level of the house) to reflect the local time of 5:30 a.m.

7. Inform your nieces that maybe the time is earlier than you thought, and isn’t it a good thing they aren’t going to miss their ride and be late to school!

8. Laugh.

9. Realize you are the only person laughing at 5:30 a.m. Barking does not count.

10. Ask your niece to—just in case—check the time.  “Are you kidding, Aunt Betsy!” says the one niece after finding her watch hidden under a pile of school papers on her desk.

11. Second niece says, “Now what do we do? We’re dressed for school.”

12. Aunt says, sleepily, “Everybody, go back to bed, including the dog.”


Don’t Forget About the Automatic Sprinklers

1. If you happen to wake up early in a panic over the girls being late for school (and it is actually only 5:30 in the morning in Boise), at least grab the morning paper—the paper your sister asked you to save so she and her husband can read when they return in a week.

2. If instead you fall back asleep (after waking at 5:30 a.m.) and don’t pick up the morning paper before the sprinklers turn on, and the newspaper kid hasn’t put the paper in a plastic bag, so that it gets thoroughly soaked, consider # 3.

3. Bribery

4. When you open the front door because the girls’ ride is coming and the day’s newspaper lies across the front walk like a soggy, chewed-up plastic dog toy alongside yesterday’s newspaper (in a plastic bag), remind the girls how fun it is to run through a sprinkler. And wouldn’t that be refreshing to do? Like right now?

5. When neither girl responds, ask barking dog.

6. When dog looks up at you as if to say “Who do you think you are and where is my breakfast? And look, there is a quail I can chase!” consider # 3 again.

7. Remind the girls that you have no idea how to turn off the automatic sprinkler and you are still in your pajamas, and do they want their friend and friend’s mother to see their aunt outside wearing wet pjs that say Need Coffee Now while holding a cup of coffee, dripping wet?

8. When both girls raise their hand, agree to whatever they say, even if it means taking them to Panda Express for dinner that evening. Or worse, the mall.

9. After one niece turns off the sprinkler to allow second niece to pick up The Soggy Mess, thank them.

10. Thank them again while waving goodbye. Promise to pick them up on time.

11. When one niece says, “Oh goodie, that means you’ll pick us up at 1:15 instead of 3:15!” tell them you are headed to Verizon as soon as it opens so that the cell phone clock can be changed.

12. Shut the door. Pour another cup of coffee. Take a deep breath.

13. Realize dog is not in the house.

14. Panic.

15. Find dog outside, now wet from the backyard sprinkler system.

16. Feed dog. Ask dog for forgiveness.

17. Settle into porch chair. Put feet up. Soak in the view of Boise’s foothills. Ask Buddha for guidance, and when wet dog tries to jump in your lap, promise the dog leftovers from Panda Express.

18. Read. Look forward to another beautiful sunset (photos coming!). Write and write and write.

19. Be thankful for the opportunity to write!


How I Landed in Oz, Otherwise Known as Chautauqua: Day One

Eleven hours after leaving my father’s bedside in Chapel Hill, I am on another plane back to Washington, D. C. (my second Washington layover in twenty-four hours). With twenty minutes to make my connection to Buffalo, New York, I run the length of fifteen gates and make the flight. Nearly an hour later, we approach the Buffalo airport, passing Niagara Falls. The tremendous force of the water’s surge reminds me of my father and his determination to live, fueled by a desire that non-writers may not comprehend. My father must write, and because of this deep passion, he has lived past all the doctors’ expectations. Focused and determined, he is thankful for simple gifts: A blue sky filled with clouds. The sight of a bird on a branch outside his small window. A phone call from a family member. A smile from a caregiver. A young child’s laughter. A warm hand to hold. An extra day to live and to write; to love and to cherish. And lastly to know that his most recent illness did not keep his daughter from attending the 2011 Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop. (At the beginning of the week, all of my plans had become precarious, including my trip to Chautauqua.)

I am here because of him, because of this man whom I love and cherish. He is my hero and my mentor, my father and friend. His needs became my only focus, when I was summoned to NC this past Monday. Prepared for the worst, I got on a plane, carrying his favorite music: Wildflowers by Judy Collins. Yet when I reached his hospital room, he was eating chocolate pudding and asking for his laptop. In what one would call a true miracle, though a temporary one, he astounded the medical staff, his family too. Knowing how short his time is, leaving him was nearly impossible, but he wanted nothing less for me. In his own loving way to force me out of his room to head for the airport, he did what he does best: he made me laugh. My father popped a red Skittle in his mouth, waved two fingers at me, and then returned to working on his current manuscript. “Don’t worry about me. Focus on your writing. I’m okay, I’m ready to ease on down the road.”

Along with his love and support, his words and his humor, he allowed me a few of his beloved trinkets: a small Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, and Mickey Mouse. They sit on the dresser of my hotel room, and the expressions on their faces keep me smiling and laughing and hoping.


At the airport, I meet up with my dear friend, Nanci Turner Stevenson, and eventually we realize (she does, at least) that we are in the wrong part of the airport. And that people have been looking for us. Reunited with one of many groups of attendees and mentors to arrive, we board a van and head for the grounds of Chautauqua.

Upon our arrival at the Hall of Christ, we are greeted with smiles and hugs, handed bottles of cold water and a bag of books. Orientation is quick, and then our group of attendees disperses in search of their housing. “Just follow the red brick road,” someone says. And we do, though it doesn’t take long for me to lose my group and trail away from the red brick road, which I imagine is the yellow brick road. The surroundings steal my attention; there is too much to soak in. I am a five-year-old child again, holding a crisp one-dollar bill, in the middle of a candy shop filled to the ceiling with gumdrops and hard coffee candies and penny sticks and lollipops and saltwater taffy and sweet tarts and anything else a child’s heart might desire.

I am no longer in Kansas or Chapel Hill or UNC Hospital or a care facility. There are no hospital beds, grey carts loaded with medicines, elderly people trying to escape, or women cradling doll babies in their arms, rocking in a chair—alone in a small room.


Chautauqua is, as Kathryn Erskine describes after our first dinner together as a group, Brigadoon. Sunlight dances on leaves. Chipmunks streak across the brick road. Birds sing. The bell tower chimes. Music from long ago drifts through open windows. Piano music from down a hill pulls me past yellow houses with blue shutters, white houses with wraparound porches, and colorful summer homes that remind me of the Gingerbread Cottages in Oaks Bluff on Martha’s Vineyard. Blooming flowers burst with color: blue hydrangeas, orange poppies, yellow and burgundy daylilies, echinacea, purple clematis, cosmos, lace capped hydrangeas, phlox, and impatiens. Porches welcome you with rocking chairs, swings, and hammocks. Figurines dance on the lawns with open arms. And everywhere you go there are bicycles in shades of blue, orange, red, yellow, green, black, and silver. Wicker baskets on handlebars overflow with fresh flowers, books, or fruit. Some parked bicycles link together, like the elderly couples who walk the grounds, holding hands. Couples sit on benches reading newspapers, side by side. Children play outside, laughing. Chasing. Running with sticks. Jump roping. Rolling across the grass. There are no disengaged children or teens glued to their electronic devices. Time has rolled back to the years when children could be children.

I pull a camera from my SCBWI bag. Click. Click. Click.

I pull the camera away from my eye. Am I really here? Is this place real?

Dinner is well proportioned and delicious. There are mentors at every table and the process of meeting others who understand the part of you that is most essential (the writer or illustrator part) begins. We talk. We laugh. And after dinner, we listen to Kathryn Erskine tell us her story, and in doing so, she gives us strength and courage to continue down the yellow brick road.

As the sun begins to set, I wander past attendees relaxing in rockers on the porch, down steps . . . past a fountain adorned with flowers . . . across the lawn, until I reach the water, where brightly painted canoes and kayaks rest on the sand, upside down. Boats nod, like babies being lulled to sleep. The sky melts into a mauve pink accented by blue, that deepens as the night grows darker. This is where I discover the first gift of my journey here: the Purple Martins. I fall in love, watching the parents croon to their babies, feed them, protect them. With patience, I catch glimpses of their courageous young, peeking through the round entrances to their nests. First the point of a tiny beak appears followed by two curious eyes, then another beak and another set of eyes. I climb on a wooden picnic table and stand on my tiptoes.  I count. Thirteen babies peer at the sky, waiting for their parents. Watching. Wondering. Seeking the courage to fly on their own, alone.

Like the Purple Martin babies, I watch.  I listen. I wonder.  I soak in the beauty of the night, the songs of the birds, the motion of the water, and the laughter of the children, being children. Throughout the week, I will soak in the knowledge of the faculty and welcome their inspiration in this community, which celebrates the arts. And then, I will fly with courage and conviction and great joy, as the purple martin babies will do.

The world I have been spinning in (a tornado of stress and fear) has landed with a boom in this nurturing creative environment: a place where anything is possible, as long as you hold tight to your dreams. I may not fly with the Purple Martins over the rainbow this week, but this I know: My life will never be the same again.

Good News To Share

With upcoming plans to visit my ailing father, who lives in Chapel Hill, I’ve been worried—and feeling a bit guilty—about leaving the toy store in the middle of the busy summer season. To compensate for being gone, and to starve my guilt, I’ve put in extra hours, which is why I agree to open the store on Friday–a last minute request. I arrive without eating breakfast, and do not pack a lunch or snacks. If all goes well, two employees will arrive around noon.

At 12:30, I am free to go, I write myself out on my timecard and then head outside, accompanied by my rumbling stomach. Suddenly a thud . . . thud . . . thud captures my attention. The Fed Ex guy is unloading large boxes from his truck onto a not-so-small metal dolly.

I hit the button to unlock my car.

Thud . . . thud . . . thud!

Grumble, grumble, grumble goes my stomach.

I dare to look back. The dolly is piled so high, I can no longer see the Fed Ex guy, though I hear him grunt. I hit the remote to lock my car, and then walk back across the parking lot to follow a hunch. Across the numerous boxes are manufacturer names in bold print: Bruder, Creative Education, Harper Collins, Crocodile Creek and Madame Alexander. I know what this means.

“Are these boxes for the Toy Soldier?” I ask.

“All of what’s on this dolly, plus there’s still more big ones in the truck.”

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Nagging guilt settles in. Nag. Nag. Nag.

I stare longingly back at my car, but my feet don’t move. The owner is alone with a relatively new employee, who I have been training. Groups of people walk into the store. Customers walk out carrying red bags. A young boy plays with his newly purchased popgun. Pop! Pop! Pop!

 If I’ve waited this long to eat, what’s a few more hours? A man walks by, ripping a piece of powdered fried dough and I start to follow him, really it is the dough I am after. Then, visions of turkey and cheese with avocado wrapped neatly in a tortilla come to mind, as does lemonade, freshly made, and—

Thump-thumpity-thump. Here comes the darn dolly. I dash ahead of it, run into the store, cross through the 12:30 departure time on my time card, and then tie my apron back around my neck.

“What are you doing, I thought you—”

“Don’t ask,” I tell the owner.

“Did you forget something?”

“No, I tried to leave, but . . . you need a little more help right now.” I sidestep so a young mother can wheel in a baby stroller.

“We’ll be fine,” says the owner. “You’ve been working too much.”

I gesture to the open door as the dolly arrives. “Do you want me to still leave?” I grab the scissors so I can start opening cartons.

“Welcome back, Betsy!” she says.

Until nearly seven that evening, we unpack over twenty boxes, price close to five hundred items, and manage to rearrange the store in preparation for Saturday. (Thank goodness, the Blue Squid is two doors down from us. I don’t know what I’d do without their scrumptious bakery. If you are ever in the area, trust me, you have to indulge in their award-winning cupcakes! And their famous four-cheese macaroni with lobster.)


Somewhere during the afternoon, my husband calls to tell me about a phone call, which I am not home to receive because I am still at work.

“I can’t talk, we’re really busy here,” I tell him, taking Playmobil boxes from a child’s arms for purchase.

“Just listen while you ring,” he says, sounding excited.

I run the register with the phone cradled against my shoulder, which is how I learn that I am the runner-up for the 2011 Barbara Karlin SCBWI Grant. My picture book manuscript, Norman and Rose, won the hearts of the prestigious judges.

I am incredibly lucky, humbled, and in a bit of shock. Since May of this year, my writing has been recognized three times. My other wins were for my middle-grade novel, Savannah’s Mountain. I float up the ramp to tell my boss, and then I resume pricing dress-up capes. Pink capes with sequins. Purple capes. Red velvet capes. Capes for knights. Capes for kings. Capes for queens. Superhero capes. Batman capes, which reverse to become Spiderman capes and are really cool.

Once the capes are priced, there are princess wands and headbands and jewelry and sparkly crowns and dinosaur tooth boxes and pirate tooth chests and lunch bags with matching backpacks, sandwich containers, thermos, and drink bottles. Fancy Nancy dolls arrive, along with Pinkalicious sets and books, books, and more books.

When I finally get home—seven hours past my scheduled departure—all I want is to sit at the table on our soon-to-be finished wraparound porch, put up my feet and relax.

There is a slight glitz in my plans.

My table is not empty.

A certain someone is sitting in one of my chairs . . .

And that certain someone is using my computer—without my permission.

No, it is not Goldilocks, nor the three bears, though three creatures are clearly discussing something important. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Baby Bossy Frogs, read http://betsydevany.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/a-bath-for-bear/ )

“What are you and the Baby Bossy Frogs doing?” I ask Norman.

“He’s a star, he’s a star, he’s a star!” sings the less bossy Baby Bossy Frog. “And we are checking his Amazon ratings!”

“Norman has no Amazon ratings, it’s not an actual book and–“

“I am in charge!” says the bossiest of the Baby Bossy Frogs. “You are supposed to do Norman’s hair, while I type submission letters.”

“I want to type,”says the less bossy Baby Bossy Frog, “and it’s my turn to wear the glasses.”

I try to get the frogs’ attention, but they pay me no mind.

I try to capture Norman’s attention, and all he wants to know is: (1) Where did his porch swing disappear to (2) How soon do we leave for our book tour, and by the way, he needs his own suitcase.

“Norman, there is no book tour. At least, not yet.”

“But he won, he won, he won!” says the less bossy Baby Bossy Frog.

I congratulate Norman (he is the inspiration for Norman and Rose), and then I lead him back to reality. “We haven’t sold the book yet. And we still need an agent.”

Norman corrects me. He, at least, already has an agent—as of this afternoon. I have yet to read the contract, which the bossiest of the Baby Bossy Frogs offered to Norman, but I have concerns. I know how Baby Bossy Frogs can be.

Once Norman understands the actual status of the winning manuscript, I leave the Baby Bossy Frogs to console him while I call my father.

He is weary and in pain, but welcomes my news with all the enthusiasm he can muster.

I may have missed the important phone call to learn of my win, personally, but I do not miss the opportunity to share the news with my father. When he begins to sound tired,  I ask to speak to my younger sister, who is visiting him first, but she is not there.

“Where did she go?” I ask.

“She’s running an errand,” my father says, and then he pauses, as he likes to do before he reels me in. “She’s getting my Skittles and candied Baked Beans, I ran out in the hospital. The doctor forgot to write my refill, so he had to call my prescription for Skittles in to the pharmacy.”

Oh Dad, how I love you. You are a hard act to follow.

For everyone who has wished me well and sent congratulations for my most recent award, I thank you, as I thank the SCBWI for this recognition. I am deeply honored.


A Dream to Dance

The summer has presented me with challenges–one after another–and some, which I had hoped to avoid.  Having an ill parent with few options for an acceptable living environment is something I would wish on no one. It is my worst nightmare, and to avoid feeling physically sick over the situation, I try to find small moments each day to see beauty in the world, and to appreciate the wonder of others.


My five-year-old granddaughter is a blessing, particularly now when my family faces some of the hardest decisions of our lives. Ava makes me stop, forget about the barrage of depressing phone calls, and take a moment to live life in an idealist way.


In our large front yard, I am free—even for just thirty minutes—to laugh, chase Ava through the grass with our dog Merlin, and wonder at the miracles of the tiniest of creatures. We remain like statues when the hummingbirds zoom above us. We watch the bees on my Echinacea, revel in the sight of a butterfly, and kneel on the cool ground to peer into a daylily to marvel at fascinating insects, which appear to be from outer space. They are smaller than ants in actuality.

A frog leaps before us and Ava is off, chasing the tiny amphibian, catching it . . . losing it . . . and then catching again. Her hands tightly clasped, she tells me, “Grandma, the frog is berry thirsty. And he needs a home to live in.”

Just like my father, I think. Why is it that we cannot find suitable housing for the elderly where they can be respected and loved and treated with dignity? I brush the thought aside and head indoors for a small bowl. Ava follows, and my eyes stay fixed on what is contained within her grasp. “Don’t let that frog loose in the house,” I say. The cats would have a field day.

I fill a small, short container with water, and we go back outside. With great care, Ava places the frog in the bowl. It swims happily, and then leaps for freedom.

“Uh-oh,” she says, leaning over to trap the frog once again. “I think he wants some food.” With great precision, she keeps the creature safe, while using two fingers to add clumps of grass and a smattering of dirt. The frog back in the bowl, it swims the best it can among its new challenges, and then escapes.

“Uh-oh, says Ava, clamoring to catch it. The frog is faster than she is, and soon is nowhere in visible sight. “Oh, no, I didn’t find it a friend!”

“We’ll find something else.” And we do. On the porch, we discover an injured moth. Carefully, Ava scoots it onto the palm of her hand. “Oh, Grandma, he is so sweet. Can you fix him, please?”

Can I heal my father? No, and I know I can’t fix the moth’s wings, but I don’t say this to her. Instead, I follow her around the yard.

“We have to find the moth a place to rest, that’s nice. So he can get better and fly away,” Ava says. “He wants to go back to his family.” No matter how large or small a creature is, Ava is always concerned that they have a family to be with, or at least, friends.

Until our new porch is completed, all of my garden statues are under our red maple tree, and this is where she heads. After she walks around the tree, twice, Ava settles on a cherub lying on its back.

“Perfect,” she says, “This is just perfect.” She hopes the moth will survive, despite its apparent odds, and in the morning, when she checks to see if the moth is still there, she announces happily that it has flown away. The family of moths is reunited. (I find it later—lifeless and snuggled in the crease of the cherub’s wings—in a place she did look and I do not tell her.) I want her to believe the moth lived, as I wish to cling to the belief that the situation for my father will improve. I am not prepared to let go of hope. Some days, all we have is hope.

Satisfied that the moth is settled in for the night, Ava resumes her frog search, and with unbelievable luck, she finds it, or its sibling, or a relative of some sort, I guess. Her new mission is to find the frog a friend. The sun begins to set, which does not deter Ava in her quest. She carries the frog in her clasped hands, while I follow and dig where directed. I check under leaves, around flowerpots, between rocks, and anywhere else, she believes the frogs are hiding from her. In the meantime, twilight falls upon us.

“Ava, you have to find somewhere to put the frog, and not in the house.”

“I know, I know, Grandma.”

Clearly, this quest will soon require flashlights.

Suddenly, Ava remembers one garden statue not under the maple tree. “Come on, everybody!” she says. Merlin and I follow her to the backyard.

“Look, everybody, this is just perfect.” Leaning over, Ava places the frog in the middle of a statue of two frogs. “Perfect! Now, he has a family!”

Thankfully, the frog seems content; he stays exactly where Ava places him, until she runs off to chase a fleeting dragonfly.

“Is he still with his family?” she calls back to me.

“Yes.” Well, for the moment he is, before leaping through the white fencing to explore a world free of curious little girls, intent on being matchmakers or reuniting long-lost family members.

We chase fireflies until I hear the phone ring. While receiving an update on my father, Ava finds other lives to run. Once the conversation with my sister ends, I learn that Ava has played matchmaker with our cat Terrapin. Terrapin is to marry Ava’s Steiff black leopard and have two babies, instantaneously. The wedding ceremony is performed without complications. To my surprise, Terrapin does not flee the makeshift alter, and she even poses for formal photos without a single complaint. Well, maybe a glare or two. Once Ava knows that the babies are being tolerated by the new bride and groom, we settle down to read books . . . and books. I am thankful for the distraction.

Now, two days later,  I sit by the window, awaiting the return of the Baltimore orioles. I review the pictures I took with Ava, and the photos I was fortunate to have the opportunity to shoot the day before, on my way to work: a Great Egret and a Blue Heron. Both phones (cell and landline) are charged and by my side. I have already taken six calls this morning regarding my father, the first at 4 am, at a time when I was doing one of the following: ripping off covers . . . whipping them back, staring at the clock . . . trying to not look at the clock, fluffing my pillow . . . punching my pillow,  opening the window . . . closing the window, petting a cat . . . shoving a cat off of my chest.

I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. I cannot write. And with the beginning of each new day comes the knowledge that my father will be calling, at any point, to ask about my writing.

Through his pain, my father continues to check the progress of my submissions; to remind me he is running out of time. I am losing this race to find success before his last breath, but I will not give up, even knowing I cannot fix what I want to fix, need to fix.

 I will remember the promise I made to my father and to myself. Whether it is through my photography, my interactions with my granddaughter, or another creative outlet, I will find the way back to my words.

In the past, my return to inspiration has started as a low hum, which quivers like a hummingbird’s wings, until I reach out to snatch it. Other times, lightning hits, catching me off-guard. Whichever way the relentless desire to create returns, I am ready. My heart is open, and until that moment, my inspiration comes from the hawk that soars in the sky above our house each night. Drifting on the wind, it flies free and without worries. I watch and I dream . . .

I dream of dancing. I dream of dancing across the page with words and images. I dream of dancing to places only I can find, kept safely, for now, within me.

This is who I am.

This is what I know.

I am my father’s daughter.


A Whale for Steven (A story for Father’s Day)

On this father’s day 2011, I share a story from the toy store. A story that affected me greatly, long after it happened. It involves the love of a father for a son, and every time I think of that day, I am reminded that gifts do not always come wrapped in pretty paper with spiral ribbon. They sometimes come in the shape of stories. This gift of a story is one that I will treasure as long as I live.


by Betsy Devany

Closing time has come and gone at Olde Mistick Village, the sidewalks are filled with more ducks than people shopping. Neighboring stores are dark, their doors locked, and their employees on their way home. It is time for me to call it a night.

Our marionettes swing in the breeze; the pink flamingo seems to wink at me. I gather the puppets outside to carry them into the store. Behind me there is quacking. The three ducks who rule our front yard are on alert. The white leader honks at a lone male that slipped under the fence and entered their territory. The leader’s two sidekicks join in the chase, nipping at the uninvited younger mallard. The white duck pecks at the intruder’s neck; his wings flap with agitation.  I move towards the gang of birds, clapping my hands until they separate.

“Do you break up fights every day?”An older man walks in my direction, followed by a younger man. With the same chiseled chins, the two are clearly father and son.

“This is the first fight I’ve seen today.”

“You still open? We won’t be long, I promise.”

“Uh . . . sure, yes, come on in.” I smile.

“We need to hurry, Steven. This woman wants to close.”

Steven, who looks to be in his late thirties, dashes into the store. “Whales, where are your whales?” His attention shifts rapidly from shelf to shelf. “I need a whale.” He looks up. He looks down. Lions are pulled from their shelves. Tigers. Bears. Cats. Dogs. None of the stuffed animals are right. Hoping to locate the whale he remembered having as a child, Steven continues to push toys aside. He mutters, “Big. Brown. Brown with beans . . . Big. Brown. Brown with beans . . .”

“He’ll never find it, not the way his was, with the fabric worn around the tips of the eyes and the end of the tail from his constantly caressing it.” His father adds. “And the head was flat from Steven leaning into it, night after night, when he was a child.”

Steven, who has traveled over an hour to get here, is missing more than just a stuffed whale from his childhood.

We do not sell brown whales in the toy store, nor do we sell giant whales. The largest we have is a 24-inch white beluga whale. I hand Steven the beluga.  He brings it close to his nose, leans his cheek against it, and slides his face back and forth brushing the fabric. “Do you have a bigger whale . . . brown whale . . . filled with beans?”

“No, we don’t, I’m sorry.” While I search for anything close to what he describes, Steven paces . . . and paces . . . and then he notices the three-foot lobster displayed on a high shelf above his head. He stands on his tiptoes and reaches for the stuffed sea creature. “This will do,” he says.

“No, Steven, we’ve done this before.  You’re not thinking clearly.” The father takes the lobster away and leaves the beluga whale in his son’s arms. He sighs—a long sigh. His hair is grey and thin. He removes his glasses and wipes them clean. He sighs again, and then says to his son, “We’ve made these trips over and over again, from New York to Massachusetts, and to anywhere else that might hold the promise of a brown whale. Steven . . .  Steven, look at me, son.”

Steven’s hold on the beluga whale loosens. I catch it before it hits the ground. “We have catalogs. Perhaps I can find a large enough whale for you,” I say and hand him back the beluga.

The ends of the father’s mouth turn up, forced out of kind appreciation.  “That’s nice of you, but we’ve been looking for a very long time. I never know what he wants.”

I head to the back stock room, grab six catalogs, and carry them to the front desk. Steven follows me, his arms clutching the beluga.

“How big of a whale do you want?”  I ask.

“Very big.” Steven focuses on his shoes while clinging to the toy. We go back and forth.  I flip through pages. He peers at pictures. “No, not right,” he tells me again and again.

His father stands next to him. “Steven, look at me.  Look at me, please.”  Finally, Steven lifts his eyes. “We aren’t going to find a whale. Not like your whale.”

“I want a whale,” says Steven. “I want a big, brown whale with beans.”

“Steven, we need to leave. This kind lady wants to go home.”

“My whale, we came to get my whale,” Steven reminds his father.

The father turns away from the counter and gently tugs at his son’s arm. Steven digs his heels in. Thirty minutes have passed since they first walked into the store.

“Tell me about your whale,” I say.

“He doesn’t know what he wants. I’ve been looking and looking—they just don’t make toys like they used to.” His father tugs again.

“Steven, what did you love most about your whale?”

Steven turns, looks at me, and walks back to the oak counter. He runs his hands along the wood.  “I liked the way the beans inside felt.”

“They don’t make animals with those beans anymore. Too many safety concerns,” I say.

Steven swirls his fingers around the shape of a large knot in the oak.

His father sighs. “Thank you for trying, but he’ll never understand.”

I arrange the pens next to the register; straighten the shopping bags. I glance in Steven’s direction. “Besides the beans, what else did you love about your whale?”

“Soft, it was soft . . . I could sleep on it.”

We have a two-foot penguin, but it is not soft.  We have large stuffed dogs, but they are not whales. We have a three-foot lion, but the color is tan, like a pale honey.

Then I remember Gus. “I have a bear, a large bear,” I tell him. “And it’s brown.”

Steven studies the floor. “I want a whale. I need to bring a whale home tonight.”

The three of us stand in silence. I check the time. The owners must be wondering why I haven’t called with the day’s sales.

“Let me show you the bear,” I say.

“It’s hopeless. We’ve kept you long enough,” the father says.

“I’ll be right back.” From the stuffed animal room, I carry the three-foot floppy bear to the front desk. Gus has lived in the store for quite some time now. Before I close up at night, he gets an extra pat.

“He’s very soft,” I tell Steven.

“It’s not a whale.”

Now I am the one studying my shoes. “I won’t be able to find you a large whale tonight.  Just hold the bear, see what you think.  He’s brown and soft. You can lean into him.”  I hand the bear to Steven, who pushes his nose against Gus.  He plops Gus against the counter and leans into him. “He is soft. I like him.”

Yes, I like this bear myself—very much.”

The father pulls at the price tag. “The bear is $130. You didn’t bring enough money.”

Silence returns.  I shift the catalogs together and form a single stack, place them on the floor while the father stares at the door. Steven’s face is buried into Gus’s fur.

I want to buy the bear for Steven, show him he can love Gus as much as the whale.  I want to watch him walk down the sidewalk with the bear in his arms, even though it’s always hard when I let go of a stuffed animal I’ve grown attached to, but Steven did not bring enough money.

Then, holding the bear tightly in one arm, Steven reaches into his pants pocket.  He removes a black leather wallet, worn with holes visible at every corner. It is a wonder the wallet doesn’t explode all over our wooden floor. A penny pokes through one end, but does not fall out. His wallet is thick with papers, some yellowed, some coated in a worn plastic. There is almost five inches thick of paper memories.

His father settles into a stance; feet spread apart, firmly planted on the wooden floor—a familiar routine, I imagine. His hands out of his pockets, he turns his palms upward, as if waiting at a communion rail.

Steven pops the wallet open and forms the shape into what appears to be a triangular leather cup. “I want the bear,” he says.

“Let’s count,” says his father.

Steven places two twenties on our wooden counter, then another crumpled twenty.

“How much is that,” asks his father.

“Sixty,” says Steven with confidence.

I separate the bills. “Eighty, you have eighty dollars here.”

Steven pulls out a five and a ten—ninety-five. When he stretches the leather further, the penny falls to the floor, where it remains. Next, come the one-dollar bills, all carefully folded into triangles, the points as worn as the wallet.

“One. Two.  Three,” he counts.

There is something magical about the wallet, which is not diminishing in size.  Instead of pulling rabbits from a magician’s hat, he conjures up one-dollar bills out of faded leather. How does the wallet hold all of the tightly folded shapes?  I expect him to run out of money, yet Steven continues to hand another and another dollar bill to his father, never looking up or breaking his rhythm. Not once.

His father unfolds and flattens each bill, using a quarter to work out the creases.

The stack of money on the counter grows higher.

I wait and watch.  “Why do you fold the dollar bills into triangles?”

Holding one bill in his hand, Steven lifts it to the corner of his right eye. “When I’m sad . . . this makes me feel better.”  He taps the edge of the triangular shape against his skin. Three times. He passes the bill to his father.

“May I ask what Steven has?”

The father talks and talks and talks, like a dam overflowing. Like a man who hasn’t been noticed in years.

I cannot tell you what the father was wearing that day, but I can tell you his words—his story. I can describe the medicine bottle he has carried in his pocket from the seventies, day after day, year after year. The label so worn that it barely reveals the name of the pharmacy. Except for the lingering chalky stink of medicine, the bottle remains empty. The father rolls the medicine bottle between his palms as he tells me that the colored dye in the medicine, administered when Steven was a baby, caused a cerebral allergic reaction. Steven has two markers of autism, and some mental retardation. Years later, they learned that the damage was irreparable—long after Steven’s mother left, taking his brother and sister with him. Steven was six years old at the time. The mother changed her last name, never contacting Steven and his father.

The father talks and talks while Steven continues to pull one-dollar bills from his wallet. He earns $100 per month, emptying trash containers at a pharmaceutical company.

“You really love that wallet,” I say.

Steven nods, eyes still downcast, his larger lip protruding over his top lip—almost swollen looking.

“When did Steven lose his whale?  Do you have a picture?”  I ask the two men, one talking and talking, the other pulling triangles of money from a worn leather wallet.

His father quickly shakes his head.  “No, not with us; it upsets him.”

“It makes me sad,” adds Steven.  He taps the corner of his right eye with another folded dollar bill.

“Six, he was six years old,” says his father.

I lose count of the money on the counter; imagine Steven as a six-year-old boy snuggled against his mother, the whale by his side until the two of them banished at the same time. Is his search for a whale or a mother who abandoned him?

“You only have $128. Are you sure this is what you want?” the father asks.

Steven hugs the bear to his chest. Gus’s feet dangle at his knees. “I want the bear. It’s a soft bear.”

“You don’t have enough money,” his father tells him.

Steven opens his wallet. He peers into it, pulls out the yellowed papers. The magic is gone.

“I . . . I can give you 10% off.”

“You don’t have to do that,” the father says.

“Yes, I do.” I smile and ring the sale through, recount the money and hand him $4 change. I make a mental note to pay the difference after they leave. Steven immediately folds the dollar bills into triangles before tucking them into his wallet.

“I hope the bear makes him happy.” The father strokes Gus’s arms. “I never see any emotion from him anymore, he’s on so much medicine; it numbs his emotions, his personality. At least he doesn’t scream and cry like he used to. But he never laughs or smiles, either.”

“I’m hungry,” Steven says.

“What do you feel like eating?” I ask.


I give the father directions to a nearby restaurant and recommend they walk through the village so they can stop at the pond to admire the newly hatched baby ducks.

“I have to put my bear in the car first, so he’s safe,” says Steven.

The two men step outside the store. I bend over to unlatch the door in preparation for closing, and as I do, Steven turns to me and smiles, revealing slightly yellowed teeth.

“You have a beautiful smile,” I say.

The ends of Steven’s mouth turn up even more. Now his father grins. “I haven’t seen him smile is such a long time. It is worth more than the cost of the bear, more than the time in the car and the price of gas.”

“I hope your search is over. How long has he been hunting for the whale?” I ask.

“Thirty years, just Steven and me, we’ve been looking for thirty years.”

Steven’s smile is broad. He is thirty-six years old and no longer fixated on his shoes.

“Thank you for listening,” the father says. “Thank you for allowing me to go on and on.”

“Thank you for sharing your story. Have a nice night.”

If  I could, I would have found them a large, brown whale filled with beans. But all I found was a bear named Gus, and for once, it seemed to be enough.

What is An Antagonist?

After attending the recent New Jersey SCBWI Annual Conference, I had to make an unexpected trip to Miami. When my family calls for help, I get on a plane. I’ve earned a lot of miles this year.

On a better day towards the end of our trip, my sister and I ventured into the Florida Everglades, though we didn’t last long. She quickly became tired, and then a storm came through. Before we headed back to the hotel, I managed to take this picture of the sky. You can see the dividing point where the rain ends. I find it quite fascinating and beautiful.

In the moment when I took that picture, I thought about weather, how powerful it is, and how much damage it can do with little or no warning. This brought to mind the topic of antagonists because in some novels, weather provides the conflict in the story.

On the drive back from our short trip to the Everglades, I considered the meaning of antagonist, mostly because the topic came up at the recent New Jersey SCBWI Conference. What is an antagonist, and do all stories require the presence of one? The answer is yes. All stories need conflict. Something needs to get in the way of your protagonist to thwart their continued efforts to achieve a goal or fill a need or want.  

The question that arose in the workshop was whether an antagonist had to be a person. The answer to this question is no.

A quote from Wikipedia:

An antagonist (from Greek ἀνταγωνιστής – antagonistes, “opponent, competitor, rival”)[1] is a character, group of characters, or an institution, that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, ‘A person, or a group of people who oppose the main character, or the main characters.’[2] In the classic style of story where in the action consists of a hero fighting a villain, the two can be regarded as protagonist and antagonist, respectively.[3] The antagonist may also represent a major threat or obstacle to the main character by their very existence, without necessarily deliberately targeting him or her.

On that day in Miami, we dealt with more than one antagonist: the weather and my sister’s illness. Both thwarted our plans to enjoy the beauty of the Everglades. If the alligator had jumped any higher out of the water, I would have listed that too.

An antagonist can be devastating weather, an incurable disease, or the racist attitude of an entire community, among many other possibilities. The protagonist can also get in their own way caused by their behavior. This situation can make the most interesting of stories, though it is more difficult to pull off in an effective manner.  Consider that your main character is a sociopathic liar. They may yearn to connect with others and to follow a path of honesty, but their personality doesn’t allow them to change. Who or whatever keeps your protagonist from getting what they seek is the antagonist. Without this element, you have no conflict, and thus, no story. Or at the very least, an incredibly boring story, which elicits no desire, on the part of the reader, to turn the page.

Elusive antagonists are far more interesting and provide a steeper challenge for your protagonist.  It is easier to combat a person than an attitude or an uncontrollable part of yourself that you’ve yet to reckon with. Think about the alternatives when you create your antagonist. What places the biggest blockades in the path of your main character? Don’t make it easy on them. Keep the storm coming, and make it elevate in intensity. Slather the pages with conflict.

In the end, this will improve your story. So no matter who or what your antagonist is, lay it on thick. And have fun creating those antagonists. I know I do.

Good News and A Promise to My Father

The past few weeks have been crazy for me. I spent another week in NC, tending to my parents; I returned home to find over forty manuscripts waiting in my pile of mail to be sorted and distributed to the proper agent or editor; and I had a slew of NJ SCBWI raffle donation emails to respond to.

I also held a secret—a secret I had learned two days prior in the presence of my father.


After an afternoon of doctor appointments, my father sat in his wheelchair in the living room. As tired as he was, we needed to discuss his wishes. The topic: when parents age, what becomes most important is quality of life, not quantity.

“I want to write and spend time talking to and being with my family,” he said. “That’s all. No more hospitals.”

“Okay, dad. No more hospitals,” I said, knowing what that meant. Yet, I understood his deep desire to write, and his need to feel up to doing so.

He, in turn, understood my mixed feelings about his decision. Instead of taking a much-needed nap, he wanted to help me. (At that moment, I knew why I am the way I am.) I am proud to say I am my father’s daughter.

Even in pain he reaches out to us. He supports my writing and relishes in my small successes. Every day, his attitude inspires me. Recognizing my struggle with his decision, he began to tell me his wonderful stories. He talked. I listened and laughed, while arranging books in the living room. (I had just purchased two tall wooden bookcases for the apartment.)

I want my father to get better, but he needs to be able to write. Just as I need to write. Like I need to breathe, eat, and sleep. This is when we are at our happiest.

I am certain the seed for this desire came early in my life, planted by my father—a lifetime writer, and my mother—a lifetime reader who studied children’s literature at Bank Street.

Looking over at him, I thought about this, when my cell phone rang. I had won the 2011 New Voices in Children’s Literature Tassy Walden Award—middle grade category. My entry: Savannah’s Mountain.

My dad stopped telling his stories. He sat in his wheelchair and listened to me. He listened to me be astounded and humbled.  He listened to me cry.

Being in his presence when I received the news is a moment I will cherish forever.

After I shared the secret phone call with him, he asked how my writing was going.


I can’t write right now. I have to take care of you and mom. There is too much going on.”

“Then do something else creative to fuel your writing. To help you relax.”

“Okay, dad, I’ll go outside and take more pictures—only if you promise to rest.”

He stared at me in the way that lets me know he is thinking, so I waited until the words came. “The ability to write is a gift, never to be taken lightly.”

“I know, Dad, and I don’t.”

“You must love the gift. You must care for the gift. But most importantly, you must feed the gift.”

“Feed the gift? Is this another ploy to get more Skittles?”

“No, I have some left, but if you’re going out later . . .” He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a package of his favorite candy. After eating one piece, he continued. “You feed the gift by writing as much as you can. Wherever you can, even when life throws hardballs at you, one after another.”

“Like now?” I asked.

“Exactly like now. Life will always throw challenges at you, and there will be times when the world seems ruthless and unforgivable, but you can’t let that stop you from doing something you love. You have to make yourself a promise.”


Savannah’s Mountain involves promises, and the need to keep and honor a promise. So it seems fitting that before my dad headed for a nap, he asked something of me. “Promise me you will keep writing, even when I’m gone.”

I can’t imagine a world without him, without being able to pick up a phone to call him, or see and talk to him on Skype. A world without his humor and Skittle seeking schemes is a world I don’t want to imagine, not now, not yet. But my father asked me to make him a promise, so I did.

“I promise, Dad. As long as I’m breathing, I’ll continue to write.” I pushed him to his bedroom, gave him a kiss, and headed outside with my camera on my shoulder. After I took some of the photos I am sharing in this post, I found a quiet place overlooking bird feeders, blooming iris, and a family of deer.

I did as I promised. I wrote for my dad. I wrote for me. I wrote for the sheer joy of writing.




Skittles, Jello, and a Lack of Fries

My return from North Carolina coincides with the beginning of spring in New England. After missing my first flight, I wind up taking a later one. Much later. My arrival home is well after midnight, when I am too weary for words. In the dark, I drag my suitcase across the driveway, up five steps, and then retire to bed, in hopes of escaping my nagging thoughts. Remembering what I was unable to accomplish while visiting my parents makes sleep difficult, but I arise early, and in the daylight, I happily discover that some of NC has made its way back to Connecticut. Bulbs have begun to break through the earth in search of the warm sun. Hope, for me, has returned.

I let the sight of the blue iris and purple crocuses soak in, and then I begin to tackle the fall leaves that have provided a blanket of warmth and protection for my flowerbeds. I rake, pull weeds, and then head inside to make a few phone calls to the medical staff at UNC. Back in the sunshine, I smell the flowers, and throw balls for Merlin, our sheltie, to catch, my cell phone nearby.  

Yet, I am desperate to do more. I want to fix our broken health care system and keep Medicare and Medicaid from dwindling down to nothing. I want to cure any and all diseases that inflict suffering. But I can’t, and it makes me feel helpless at times. Helpless to those I love and know, including customers I’ve met at the toy store where I work, strangers I’ve spoken to in passing, and people I’ve read about.

I sit on our front stoop, throw another ball across the yard for Merlin, and wonder if anything I do matters enough, especially in the face of everything else the elderly have to contend with.  I want to scream, but instead I focus on the small acts of kindness.

Small acts of kindness do matter. They matter very much. They can be as simple as a hug or listening to a person tell a story, much needing to be told, or greeting a stranger, who appears to be suffering, to ask how they are doing. Let them know that someone cares.

Life has its ups and downs; joys and tragedies; failures and triumphs. Don’t let that stop you from doing the small things, as my father reminded me just last week. Even when the situation resembles a solid brick wall and seems so insurmountable that you’d rather hide under the covers all day, think about chipping at the wall. Little by little. These are the ways you can empower your characters when they are facing their own brick wall. Do not bring in a bulldozer to knock down the wall for your character. Give them small actions to do, and then, as a writer, stand aside and let them be. The character must figure it out on their own.

Though I wanted to bring in a bulldozer to help my father, instead, I focused on cheering him on, so he could do what he needed most: return home to write. Writing is what keeps his heart beating, his soul singing, his mind marching forward. He, in turn, wanted to help me, knowing I had set aside my writing to be with him and my mother. Through humor, my father—a lifetime writer—gave me a gift. He reminded me that a novel—especially one written for children—must have elements of hope, places where the reader can catch their breath and scenes that enforce humor.

While my father did not exactly use those words, that is what he was trying to show me through his actions, using a real-life situation. Essentially, he planted the seeds to burn in my belly, so I would yearn to write again. Write about hope and hopelessness, all layered with humor.

I realized this later on the plane ride home, when I found myself spontaneously smiling, and then bursting into laughter over Skittles. The ache in my belly returned and while people dozed on either side on me, I picked up a pen and let it lead me home, words spilling across the paper, faster than the speed of the plane.

Thank you, Dad, for this:

I arrive at the after-care facility to check my father out for the evening. Tired of the bland meals he had been eating for the past two weeks, he wants real food. I find him waiting in the front living area, looking tired and weak, but still able to entertain the other patients in the near vicinity. After greeting the three women seated near my father, I help him out of his chair.

“You need to check him out,” says a woman with a gruff voice, pointing her cane at me and my father, who is now grasping the walker, afraid to let go.

“I do?” I ask.

“Yes, otherwise they’ll think he’s run off.”

Clearly, he is not capable of running off.

“Oh, Lord, they’ll come looking for me. They’ll send the police and—”

“Dad, I got it. I’ll run upstairs and take care of this.” I seat him back down and leave him to tell more jokes, all of which I’ve heard a number of times.

Upstairs, the nurses’ station is unoccupied. I walk up and down the halls. Bells are going off in two rooms. People are moaning. I want to leave now. Then I spot two elderly women, both in wheelchairs, voicing their opinions.

“That woman is so dang bossy. Likes to think she runs the place.”


“’Cause of her, I’ve been waiting and waiting for my medicine, and they were supposed to bring me some more Jello. Red Jello. I hate that green stuff.”

“The man in #304 is hoarding Jello in his room. I seen it.”

“He is? Maybe I should wheel down there and pay him a visit. Man weighs a ton. Don’t need more Jello. I’m the one who needs it. I am gonna starve to death staying in this place.”

I tap the shoulder of the main talker. She spins around to face me. I smile. “Excuse me, but do you know where I might find a nurse on this floor?”

“Why you need a nurse? You can walk.”

“Well, I need to sign my dad out for the evening, so I can take him out to dinner.”

The Talker’s eyes light up. “You got a car?”


She nudges her friend’s elbow. “You got room in your car for two more?”

“. . . Not really,” I say and picture my car loaded with two walkers, my luggage, one wheelchair, and my parents. The only room left is on the roof.

“Where you taking him?”

“I don’t know yet. I need to sign him out first.”

“Who’s your dad?”

Unsure of what room my father is in, I pray it isn’t #304, even though their description of the man didn’t fit my father. I tell them his name and wait.

“Oh, yeah . . . Mr. Devany, I know him. He’s a hard worker. Wants to get out of here real bad. Shows off in the exercise room.”

“That’s a nice surprise,” I say.

“Uh-huh, they say if I can walk like him and get out of this wheelchair, then I can leave too.”

I turn back to search for the nurse. Nothing.

“I bet you’re strong enough to get out of the wheelchair. Just keep trying. Keep believing you can do it,” I tell her.

“Thank you, young lady, for believing in me. I will keep trying.”

“You’re welcome,” I say, nodding. “Do you know when the nurse might return?”

The Talker again bumps elbows with her friend. They laugh at some inside joke.

“You’ll be waiting all night for her, I reckon,” offers the Talker.

Ten minutes have passed since I left my father downstairs. I head back to the nurses’ station, desperate to find the log-out sheet. The two women wheel behind me, while one shouts, “Just sign any ole paper and leave it there.”

“Are you allowed to do that?” I ask, tentatively.

“Hell, no, but we’ll vouch for you.”

I find a pile of papers citing the activities for the week. I turn to the backside and scribble a note, noting the time of the departure and expected return.

Then I run downstairs to break my dad out of the place, walker and all.

“Hurry, Dad, we have to go. Now!”

“I can’t go. I need a dollar. Two dollars.”

“What for? We’re running late. Mom is waiting in the car.”

He clutches the walker and pushes it toward the front desk. “See that red box there? The store has been out of them for a week; my supply is nearly gone. I eat one an hour. I’ll never make it through the night.”

I have been in NC for less than two hours and I am already facing an unforeseen challenge. I follow him to the desk and ask the young clerk for assistance.

“Skittles. Mr. Devany loves Skittles.” She points above her head to a red box filled with the candies. “We just got them in today, along with the Reese’s Pieces.

“Oh, Lord, they got Reese’s in too? Now I need three dollars.”

“Dad, we have to go.”

“I can’t leave until I get my candies. They’ll be gone by the time I come back.”

Out the door, down the ramp we go. Step by step, inch by inch. All the while, I hear about the Skittles and the Reese’s Pieces, and then, how the care facility lacks French Fries and cheese biscuits. We finally make it to the car.

“I don’t think I can get in the car, I’m too weak . . .  just thinking about running out of Skittles.” He leans against the car and feigns panting.

“Fine,” I’ll get your Skittles, but you have to get in the car first.”

Ten minutes later, he is seated and buckled in; I fold the walker and place it next to my mother’s. After I find a five-dollar bill in my purse, I head for the ramp.

“Don’t forget: One Skittles. Two of those Reese’s things.”

Candies safely secured in the car, we head for real food. I forget that it is a Saturday night. The restaurants are all crowded. The search for cheese biscuits is unsuccessful. Red Lobster has a one-hour wait. I park the car; check the waiting time at other restaurants: Longhorn Steakhouse, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesdays. All one-hour waits, if not longer.

Back in the car, I lean my head against the steering wheel and groan.

“It’s kind of late. I need to eat soon so I can take my medicines. Did the nurse give them to you?” my dad says.

“I didn’t talk to the nurse, Dad. No one was there.”

“Oh, Lord, you didn’t sign me out?”

“No, Dad, I left a note with two women in wheelchairs.”

“Oh, no, that had to be Miss Eula and Bessie. They will be in my room, right now, stealing my Skittles.”

I assure my father that his new package of Skittles is safe in my car, though I can’t attest to the honesty of Miss Eula and Bessie. A loss of three pieces of Skittles is small change in the scope of things.

Finally, I find a deli. One I am familiar with, and which has easy access. I open the car doors. Take out the two walkers. Unfold them. Set one up in front of each parent.

“You gave me the wrong walker,” says my mom. “Mine has the tennis balls for feet.”

I swap the walkers, and then, like a cheerleader, I root for my dad to rise up and out of the car seat. He does, followed by my mother. Creeping along, we make our way into McAllister’s Deli. Ten minutes pass. We find a table. My parents sit. I grab three menus from the front counter and bring them back to our table. For the moment, life is good . . . until my dad reads over the menu.

“Where are the French Fries? I don’t see French Fries listed,” he says.

I consider the arithmetic, and then share the math with my father. “Dad, I am one person helping two people, both on walkers, and we are all starving. All the other restaurants have long waiting times and it is currently 9 p.m. Do you know what that equals?”

“No French Fries?” he says.

“Bingo,” I say and hand him a bag of chips.

P.S.- Dad, I love you, oodles and boodles and spaghetti galore. I can feel you writing across the miles. Know that I am too.  XO

P.P.S – Miss Eula, keep believing. You can do it! One step at a time.

 The link for this week’s Free Fall Friday is http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/free-fall-friday-13/

Inspire Children To Write

Yesterday, my four-year-old granddaughter asked me why I am always writing.

“Grandma, why do you always do that?”

“Because I love to write. And I am writing stories.”

“Oh,” says Ava.  She picks up my notebook and studies it. “I want to write stories too.”

I turn on my computer. “Okay, Grandma will type it out while you tell me your story.”

Ava appears to be thinking. She walks around the room. Picks up toys: her stuffed dragon, her plastic unicorn, her bear in a princess outfit.  “I need to talk the story into the microphone,” she tells me.

I hand her my compact recorder and turn it on.  Standing tall, and using hand gestures, she begins to share her story (after lining up a slew of her stuffed animals on my couch to be her audience).

And thus, Princess Freed, begins:

Keep in mind, her new word for the week is apparently.


Once upon a time there was a beautiful unicorn.  And a princess. And the princess’s  name was A Flower. She lived in a faraway castle.

It was berry, berry faraway, Grandma.

And the dragon flew, blowing fire at the princess. Then this enormous bird came and he tried to get the dragon but the dragon was berry fast. He was too fast. He went soaring through the air, flopping with enormous wings up above the body. Then a bird came with a bubble blower in his beak, holding the bubble blower, and he tried to shoot the dragon who tried to blow fire but the bird winned.

The dragon was dead and he couldn’t move anymore and the princess was freed . . .

So apparently . . .  the princess really wanted to buy a new dress. But apparently she could not drive and get to the mall. So the princess flew on a Pegasus. Then the Pegasus went to the zoo and left the princess at the mall. A Flower could not get home.

Then apparently a huge hawk came flying through the air to drive the princess back to the palace . . .

But a dragon ate them for lunch.

And the princess was dead.

But then the hawk spit her out of his tummy. She did not taste berry good.

The end.

Oh . . . and they all lived happily ever after.

By Ava.

After dictating to me, she decided to draw her own illustrations. Next, I hope to discuss story structure with her, the importance of details, consistency, and having the protagonist solve their own problem.

Look for a revised story in a future blog.




Take Joy in the Journey


Having returned from Idaho, I reflect on my time in Boise, where I helped to make gingerbread houses, attended The Nutcracker ballet at Ballet Idaho, perfected my Girl Scout salute, watched the movie Up for the third time (cried for the third time), was inspired by nineteen girls to find the true meaning of Christmas, visited the cancer clinic, listened to other people struggling in their lives (hugged them tight), read to my nieces, tended to my sister, learned that my husband was laid off from his job , decorated my sister’s house for the holidays, folded laundry,read to my nieces, loaded the dishwasher, unloaded the dishwasher, danced with my nieces, reorganized the refrigerator, read The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt (laughed and cried), reorganised the laundry room, attended the holiday show put on by first, second and third graders (smiled until my cheeks hurt), read Hush by Jaqueline Woodson, reorganised the craft drawers, watched the film Young at Heart (everyone needs to see this), shopped for party favors for the girls’ birthday party, organized the decoration of the party bags, spontaneously found ways to entertain the girls at the party during a lag in activites (my group was sent to another room as we were having too much fun), and had my first experience climbing a mountain to find a Christmas tree. 

Our journey in the mountains of Idaho began in the late afternoon on a Sunday with my sister, her husband, their two young daughters, myself, and Tessa, their very energetic and independent schnauzer. It began with a view of the mountainside, and the knowledge that we had to climb quickly–if we were to avoid the impending loss of sunlight. The girls ran ahead to test the depth of the snow, which was up to their knees. Tessa buried her face in a snow bank, and then shot out of sight. I began to make my way through the snow with my sister by my side. Breathing the fresh air, I realized there were no street sounds: cars honking, music blaring, people shouting. It was remarkably silent, except for the sounds we made. 

In that wonderful silence, I thought about my writing; the peaceful hours in the morning when I begin a journey with a new voice, which grabbed my heart, urging me to follow.  To listen. To write their story. These voices don’t allow me to give up. There is a reason they slip into my mind, and my job is not to question why, but to simply get their story right, even when the path to writing the manuscript seems insurmountable.  

Reminding myself that I have faced writing challenges with success keeps me moving forward in search for the perfect tree. Even when the temperatures dropped and my fingertips stung through my gloves. And even as I paused to wonder whether the two tiny trees we noticed–in the first ten minutes–might be a compromise for one large tree, so we could go home. 

 But then I remembered my nieces. I remembered how the journey through a first-draft can be long and arduous, and how, no matter what, I continue to write.  

I needed to continue to move forward.  

My sister was tired. She made the decision to head back down the mountain and wait for us in the car. I promised her I would keep track of the girls and that we would soon return with a tree, not realizing that well over an hour would pass before we would see her again.  

Twenty minutes went by. The girls began to bicker. They were cold. And tired. They were worried about their mom at the bottom of the mountainside in the car. They didn’t like that Tessa continued to disappear from our sight. 

“We have a tree to find.” I tried to keep my lips from shaking, and wiggled my toes inside my boots to keep them from going numb. “It’s just around the bend. Ahead of us. I can feel it.” 

“You said that already,” said Lili. 

“Yeah,” said Sofi, “at least three times already, and we haven’t found the right one yet!” 

“We will,” I promised. We had to. 

The sunlight was fading. The temperature had dropped. The girls’ cheeks and noses were red. Their father was out of sight, though we continued to call back and forth. 

I slipped my gloves off and held my warm hands to their cheeks, which were as cold as icicles. “We can do this, girls. For your mom.” 

We continued up the  mountainside to find their father. And the reason for this journey: the view ahead of us. A gift we did not expect.   


 Our tree was not far from that view. A tree we carried down the mountainside in the dim light. The girls led us in singing carols, and even when we slipped (more than once), we kept our spirits high. For we had found a tree, and whether or not it was indeed the most perfect of trees, the joy was in the journey. 


I was once again reminded of my writing and the journeys I take with my characters. It is important that I make myself stop and take a step back, especially when I have been in the depths of a manuscript for weeks. Only then do I see the view; the true story I was meant to discover.  

Take joy in the journey.  

Happy Holidays! 


Darkness falls as we tie the tree to the car