Sunday, August 30, 2015

TSS: August 30, 2015

While the weather forecasters are predicting a summer heat wave this week, I won't complain. Today I realized it is the end of August and we have yet to experience triple-digit temperatures. What a blessing!

True to my word, I focused on the Harry Potter series this week and finished The Sorcerer's Stone - a week early!

I will write brief reviews at the end of each reading period, but I realize this world does not need one more positive recommendation of this modern-day classic.

Suffice it to say, I marvel at JK Rowling's sense of humor (I adore Fred and George Weasley) and her ability to weave significant themes into a children's fantasy novel.

I plan to take a day or two to digest this first book and write some notes before I begin The Chamber of Secrets.

If you would like to join me in this fall read-along, please feel free to register here.

It's been a thoughtful week in this regard.

I love to write.

I believe it was Flannery O'Connor who first stated, I write in order to discover what I think. And that is exactly how I feel about putting pen to paper. It helps me work through personal issues, relate to the world around me, and find acceptance for myself and others.

But I struggle with what to write. Journaling is a life-time pursuit, but it doesn't necessarily help improve the craft of writing.

I like the academic aspect of the Middle Grade novel (I have SO much to learn about character development, scene construction, pacing, dialogue, etc)....but I'm not convinced that is my calling.

I have considered using the research for First Impressionism and write some non-fiction books for the same middle grade audience, but I'm not sure I have the qualifications to write about fine art.

I still enjoy traveling and putting those experiences into short essays paired with photographs, but the audience is mostly family and friends.

And of course there is the idea of writing my family history and memoir, but not sure there is an audience other than myself.

Obviously I still have lots to ponder on this subject.

The first day of class was wonderful!

I have seven enthusiastic writers registered for the course. I know we are in for a great time because when told they would write a 12-chapter novel second semester the collective response was only twelve chapters?! That led to a lively discussion about writing a trilogy!

I managed to return to a familiar routine this week.

I will try to add Wordless Wednesday posts again soon... continuing the chronicles of my trip to Italy.

I can't believe we will be celebrating Labor Day next weekend... which of course means Christmas will be here before you know it!


Friday, August 28, 2015

French Friday: The Tower Redeemed

From the age of eight, I have dreamed of living in Paris.

I started learning French in second grade, the same year a family friend returned from his junior year abroad in France. I adored looking at his post cards and photographs and vowed that one day I would see these glorious sights, especially the Eiffel Tower, for myself.

In 1977 my dream came true.

Our high school offered an exchange program with a high school in Arcachon, France. We would travel to their home town for three weeks (with a brief side trip to Paris) and the next month they would visit us in Connecticut.

On a cold February afternoon the charter bus pulled up beside the Trocadero platform. We quickly disembarked. It was drizzling rain, but we didn't care. This was the Eiffel Tower!

My friend handed me her camera - a Kodak instamatic - and asked if I would take her picture. She would then reciprocate. Of course I agreed.

Jen ran ahead to pose as I made sure the camera was ready to go. Behind me I thought I heard someone ask, You like? You like? but I ignored the voice. Who would be talking to me?

Jen was ready. I lifted the camera to my face.

You like? You like? This time the voice was louder - and closer.

I snapped the picture and then heard again. You like? You like?

A bit agitated, I turned around to see who was talking so loudly. And there, dressed in only an overcoat, open wide ... was an old man wearing a black beret, a sleazy smile,  and asking me once again if I liked.

I didn't know what to do. I was a naive seventeen-year-old girl. I ran straight to the bus and sat down. Fortunately no one asked why I was the first one to return. I was too embarrassed to share the experience with anyone.

I never got my picture in front of the tower. And quite frankly, I never cared if I saw the Tower again.

Fast forward to July, 2006 --- nearly thirty years later!

I had scheduled my first group tour to Europe and qualified for a leader training session in Paris. We were there only two days, but I was determined to see as much of the city as I could - including the Tower.

I must admit I was a bit nervous walking from the Metro station to Trocadero Square. Although the weather was warm and no one wore an overcoat, I still maintained a keen awareness of all those around me.

A fellow teacher asked if I would take her picture. She would then reciprocate. Talk about deja vu!

I lifted the camera to my face, half expecting to hear You like? You like? behind me. But the only voices I heard were fellow tourists, as excited to see The Eiffel Tower as I was.

I finally had my picture taken with the Iron Lady - and we made amends.

Now look at her fondly instead of disdain. She has become a close intimate friend whom I must visit anytime I'm in town. No matter where I am in the city, I look for her silhouette, and she always brings a smile to my face.

I enjoy her company in the daytime, sitting on a park bench sharing my lunch with her -- and I enjoy her in the evening as she illuminates the City of Lights. At the top of each hour her lights twinkle, and for those few brief  moments, she is magical.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Impression: The Sixty-Eight Rooms

The Sixty-eight Rooms
by: Marianne Malone
published by: Random House
copyright: 2010

Premise (from GoodReads):
Almost everybody who has grown up in Chicago knows about the Thorne Rooms. Housed in the Children's Galleries of the Chicago Art Institute, they are a collection of 68 exquisitely crafted miniature rooms made in the 1930s by Mrs. James Ward Thorne. Each of the 68 rooms is designed in the style of a different historic period, and every detail is perfect, from the knobs on the doors to the candles in the candlesticks. Some might even say, the rooms are magic.

Imagine - what if you discovered a key that allowed you to shrink so that so that you were small enough to sneak inside and explore the rooms' secrets? What if you discovered that others had done so before you? And that someone had left something important behind?

My Reaction:
I did not grow up in the Midwest, so I had no previous knowledge of the Thorne Rooms. After reading this book, however, I plan to take a trip to Chicago for the expressed purpose of visiting this amazing display.

When I first read the premise, I squealed with delight. I imagined a series of 68 books (similar to The Magic Tree House), each room providing an opportunity for time travel and a different historical adventure for young students. As a reader, I wanted to learn more about the time periods and envision the miniatures come to life. As a writer, I wanted to learn how to weave history with fiction to create an engaging middle grade series. Unfortunately, I was disappointed on both accounts.

I don't blame the author - I blame myself. I allowed my imagination to run away before I started reading. I set myself up for a story that was not the intent of the author. 

I wanted the story to focus on one room. I wanted an in-depth history lesson and fully developed characters of the past. Instead, the students visit several rooms of different countries and time periods. While this maintains a fast pace, essential for a middle grade audience, there seems to be a disconnect as to why they enter various rooms. I felt rushed, as though it was a race to see as many rooms as possible, rather than a thoughtful purpose for the visit.

In the end, I found the story adequate, although I do not have a desire to read the remaining three books in the series. However... the fact that this is a series indicates there is an audience for The Sixty-Eight Rooms... I am just not that audience.

This post is a part of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. If you are interested in reading other MG books, please visit Shannon Messenger's blog for a complete list of this week's reviews.  I am always on the lookout for other MG historical fiction novels. If you have a favorite you think I would enjoy, please feel free to leave the title in the comment section.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

TSS: August 23, 2015

Tomorrow is the first day of school!
I have ALWAYS loved this time of year: a fresh start - a clean slate - a time to learn and reconnect with old friends. Can you tell I'm excited?!

Last night I made a decision.
I am (finally) going to read the Harry Potter series.

There. I said it. I made my intentions public (here and on FaceBook), hoping the threat of embarrassment will hold me accountable.

And to up the ante even further, I've created a Harry Potter read-along. If you are interested in joining me on this adventure... please consider signing-up here. I would love to create an online book club, where we can discuss the story, the themes, the author's writing style, etc. The more the merrier!

I've re-evaluated my writing goals - again. But that's ok. I'm growing - I'm improving - and that's the point.

At the onset of summer, I wrote a blog post entitled, Fake It til You Make It where I discussed "going back to school" to take a creative writing class developed by yours truly. I liked the academic approach to storytelling, and the daily routine of going to the library suited my learning style.

Now at the end of the semester, I am evaluating the class and tweaking it for the fall.

Rather than using texts about writing, I plan to use novels as my textbooks.

Christine of the Better Novel Project inspired me to deconstruct the middle grade novels that most resemble my own work-in-progress. By analyzing character development, scene construction, backstory, theme, and especially conflict... I will learn to infuse my own writing with these key components.

My textbooks include:

I am armed with colored pens, index cards, and a mission. I'm excited!

Yes... I am returning to the classroom!

This time last week only one student registered for the Storytelling Workshop - and I resigned myself to putting the class on hold until next year.

Today, at least eight students are interested.

We will meet for the first time tomorrow afternoon, and I'm not sure who is more excited... the students or the instructor!

I will post an update next week.

For those returning to school - I wish you the best.
And for those who are still celebrating summer - enjoy!

Harry Potter Read-along

I must confess... I have never read the Harry Potter series. I started multiple times, but somehow life always side-tracked me in the middle of book three.

But the time has come to practice what I preach. I believe writers are readers. I believe writers should be well-acquainted with their genre. I believe the classics are invaluable texts. And I know Harry Potter is a modern-day classic.

So, to help keep myself accountable, I made a public declaration - here on the blog as well as on FaceBook. And I thought it might be fun to invite others to join in the fun.

I plan to read all seven books by New Year's, 2016. Here is a preliminary reading schedule:

  • HP and the Sorcerer's Stone - Sept 4
  • HP and the Chamber's Secret - Sept 18
  • HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Oct 2
  • HP and the Goblet of Fire - Oct 23
  • HP and the Order of Phoenix - Nov 13
  • HP and the Half-Blood Prince - Dec 4
  • HP and the Deathly Hollows - Jan 2

If you would like to read-along as well, please consider completing the Mr. Linky form below, with a link to your blog post expressing your interest. (If you don't have a blog, no worries! You can still register for the event and be a part of the group).

If there is adequate enrollment, I would love to create a virtual book - a space where we can chat about the plot, the characters, the themes, the writing style... well, you get the idea.

I'm excited... I hope you are as well!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

TSS: August 16, 2015

I didn't mean to take a blogging break.

Last Friday I took my computer to the store for a minor repair. I was told it would be ready the following Monday. While I didn't plan to unplug for the weekend, I must admit it was a nice change of pace.

The three day break, however, turned into five. And the novelty of going off the grid had worn off. Needless to say, it has taken me a while to return to a blogging routine.

I started several MG novels, but didn't finish any of them. I can't decide if my mood affected my reading, or if the story just wasn't for me. I may give them another chance in a few weeks.

In the meantime, I picked up this delightful tongue-in-cheek book and devoured it in under an hour.

How to Avoid Making Art is a collaboration between Julia Cameron (author of the marvelous book, The Artist's Way) and her sister, Elizabeth Cameron.  Each page offers a different excuse artists typically use to ignore or postpone)their craft. The simple illustrations perfectly capture the humorous truth of the text.

While the book is light-hearted and certainly made me smile, it was quite sobering to read all the excuses, one after the other.

By the end, I realized how ridiculous our excuses can be - and how often we sabotage our efforts in the name of doing better, more productive work.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who desires more time for creativity in their life. In other words, EVERYONE.

Oh my ... what a roller coaster week!

UP:  I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and hope to register for the fall regional conference tomorrow.
DOWN: My critique group expanded to a point where I no longer feel comfortable. I highly respect the core leaders, but fear too many voices will dilute their wisdom.

UP:  I discovered one student registered for my Storytelling Workshop, which will begin next Monday.
DOWN:  I still only have one student registered. In order for the course to hold, a minimum of four need to enroll. The class will most likely be postponed until the 2016/2017 school year.

UP:  I experimented with the iBooks Author app - and fell in love! The idea of creating multi-media books feeds not only my passion for writing, but also my passion for teaching. I have SO many ideas for using this medium to introduce children to reading classics, viewing art, and traveling the world.
UP:  I got caught up in the #PitchWars fever on Twitter. Such a wonderful opportunity for writers!

In essence, over 100 agents/published authors have volunteered their time to read queries and first chapters. In the end, each author will select one person to mentor for the next two months.

I spent the better part of the past two days revising, revising, and revising some more.

CRASH:  I realized my manuscript is total crap.

True... it is a first draft and as Anne LaMott says, all first drafts are sh*tty, but it is still a painful  realization.

I'm not ready to give up on First Impressionism. I still like the idea of time travel to 19th century Paris. I still like focusing on the artists and introducing readers to their masterpieces. I still like my characters and want to know how their story ends (in my mind this is a series of educational stories...) But perhaps the audience is not quite right - or the genre needs tweaking - or it lends itself better to an enhanced  ebook.

It is now back to the drawing board...

I decided to use my unplugged status to learn more about Twitter.

While I've had a Twitter account for years, I must confess I never "got" it.
I like organization. I like compartments. I like structure. Twitter didn't seem to have any of that.

But then I took Catherine Ensley's advice and read Twitter for Writers by Rayne Hall. This Kindle ebook is packed with useful information presented in easy-to-understand language.

Don't be fooled by the title. While Twitter is touted as being the best social media site for writers, but the tips in this book will help anyone learn their way around the Twitter-verse.

The biggest aha-moment for me was learning how to use LISTS. What a game changer!! I can now view tweets by theme - which is exactly what I need. I can also discover other like-minded twitter-ers by reading the lists of other users.

While I currently tend to follow mostly writers, I would like to connect with avid readers as well. If you have a Twitter account, please leave her user name in the comments below and I will gladly add you to my contacts. Feel free to follow me as well: @mycozybooknook

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: An Unfortunate Gondola Ride

As you can tell from my recent photos of Venice, the weather was not cooperative. While it never poured down rain, it was always drizzling, and the skies were a constant gray. This, of course, meant choppy waters.

We decided to take a gondola ride a day earlier than planned. No problem.... unless you are prone to motion-sickness and leave your sea bands in the hotel room.

The ride through the small inner canals was smooth and enjoyable. The view of Venice from the water is just as spectacular as walking on land. While our gondolier did not sing, he did whistle a fancy a tune, which made the journey even more perfect. I was feeling great.

But then we had to dock the boat at the pier off San Marcos square. The large open water was definitely more unstable, and the wakes of the large motor boats transformed our gondola into a rocking chair. This made it difficult for the gondolier to position the boat, which meant a longer time in the rough waters.

By the time we disembarked, I was feeling a bit queasy. We decided to return to the hotel for an hour before going to dinner. I thought the fresh air and slow walk would do me good.

I was wrong.

I became violently ill for the next four hours - and I spent the following day in bed recuperating.

Despite this rather unpleasant end to my Venetian holiday, I can still say it is my favorite city in the world, and I can hardly wait to return someday soon. Thee sea-bands, however, will be on my person at all times.

*View other Wordless Wednesday photos here and Wordless (on Tuesday) photos here.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Impression: The Family Under the Bridge

Book Impression is an opportunity to share my reading experience. 

For a more detailed explanation, please visit this post.

The Family Under the Bridge
by Natalie Savage Carlson
published by HarperCollins
copyright 1958
Newberry Honor 1959

This story is as old as I am - literally. Yet somehow I never heard of it growing up. I'm finding that to be a popular theme with these middle grade fiction posts: I missed most books of this genre at the time when when I was the intended audience. Perhaps that is why I am enjoying this reading focus at this point in my life.

Even though the book is over a half-century old, I do believe the story is still relevant today.
Some rather difficult subjects are discussed, such as homelessness, and prejudice towards those who are different (whether less fortunate, of another culture, or adhere to another moral code). It is for this reason that I recommend the book, but with the caveat an adult read the story as well. I believe this would help open the lines of communication for children to ask questions and voice concerns.

A Brief Overview:
The main character, Armand, is a hobo living under one of the famous Parisian bridges that cross the Seine. He is actually quite fond of his hobo status, taking pride in his perceived laziness and unemployment. He is an affable character, although not a fan of "starlings" (children). As we learn throughout the story, however, it is not that he dislikes children but rather he is afraid they might steal his heart.

And of course, they do.

When Armand returns to his home under the bridge, he discovers three children hiding there. He pretends to be gruff with them, but knows he cannot turn them away. The children ignore this grumpy exterior and notice only his kind generosity. They immediately begin to refer to him as Grandpa.

The story takes place in December and there are subtle references comparing Armand to Father Christmas. The only item on the children's wish list is a home, and Armand promises to deliver.

My thoughts:
I am a devout lover of Paris - which is what initially attracted me to this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the references to various arrondissements, particularly the Les Halles food market.

When traveling in Europe, particularly Paris, tourists are told to be wary of the gypsies. And I understand this warning. However, it was interesting to see this culture from a different perspective. While private and secretive, their hearts are wide open. They were more than willing to accept these homeless children into their community.

Initially I took exception to Armand's pride in laziness. He almost boasted of his choice to live off the street and not answering to authority. It wasn't that he couldn't work - or had no opportunity; in fact,  he rejected job offers throughout the story. This is not necessarily a character trait I would want to instill in my middle grade child.

But in the end, Armand sacrifices his hobo ways in order to secure a job that provides a decent wage and large enough home for himself, the children, and their mother. And he learns a valuable lesson: sharing with others enriches life; putting their needs before personal desires isn't a burden, it is an honor.

This post is a part of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. If you are interested in reading other MG books, please visit Shannon Messenger's blog for a complete list of this week's reviews. 
I am always on the lookout for other MG historical fiction novels. If you have a favorite you think I would enjoy, please feel free to leave the title in the comment section.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

TSS: August 2, 2015

I'm not sure how we made it to August already! I must admit Mom was right... The older you get, the faster time flies.

I read a rather eclectic selection of books this week.

First, I completed Lisette's List. The final verdict? Pick up the book and read it for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

I briefly skimmed two books on writing that I needed to return to the library. Both were written by Ralph Fletcher and geared toward elementary writing teachers. One in particular, however, pertained to my personal interest in starting a Writer's Notebook. (more details below).

I also read one more children's book for Paris in July - even though I read it August 1st. Tamara recommended An Armadillo in Paris, and I couldn't resist the title. Oh my... what an adorable book!

Using his grandfather's travel journal, Arlo goes in search of the Iron Lady. Each page of the book corresponds to a page from the journal and takes Arlo throughout the city to visit such popular landmarks as the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, and Luxembourg Gardens.

It is a delightful picture book that I may have to add to my personal collection.

 I took a little detour from my typical writing this week.

As I mentioned above, I decided to do some research on maintaining a Writer's Notebook. For some, this might seem as simple as picking up a notebook and start writing. For others like myself, that kind of broad freedom is paralyzing. So I set out to learn what other writers include in their notebooks to help me develop my own style.

While this book, Lessons for the Writer's Notebook, is geared towards a much younger audience, Ralph Fletcher includes some great suggestions for in-class activities that resonate with this adult student as well.

For teachers, or those who homeschool, I highly recommend this resource. The large summary cards help guide you through the daily lessons, and the back of each card offers examples of the technique to share with the class. My favorite was a copy of Ralph Fletcher's own notes where he jotted ideas about the moon that eventually ended up as a part of his classic picture book, Hello Harvest Moon.

I hope to begin my own writer's notebook this week. I will let you know how it goes.

I'm still maintaining the blogging schedule.

I am giving thought to adding a weekly entry that focuses on my writing journey... but so far I'm still in the phase of brainstorming post ideas.

  • Monday Middle Grade Mania - where I reviewed Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
  • Wordless Wednesday - where we visit Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square in Venice)
  • French Friday - where I review Lisette's List by Susan Vreeland

Other Activities:
I've recommitted to the 10,000 steps routine.

I did so well with this exercise regimen last summer, but then winter happened and weather was a convenient excuse not to take the morning walk. And without the morning walk, the writer's life is not conducive to movement.

Here's the thing with 10,000 steps a day:
It is not difficult. It is not taxing. 
But it demands a conscientious focus.

I must plan my walks. And I must make those walks a priority. If I live life on automatic-pilot, I barely achieve half the required number of steps.
If I am going to walk 10,000 steps a day - every single day with no excuses - then I must plan two 25-minute walks on the treadmill. The treadmill takes away the weather excuse, and I can use the time to catch up on podcasts or YouTube tutorials. 

I have also learned that connecting with like-minded friends is the key. 

We each use our fitbit to track our steps, and every evening we meet online to update our status. So far we are five for five ... and we all confess our success is due to this friendly competition.  

If you are interested in a walking routine and desire a bit of fun accountability, I would love to connect. The more the merrier!

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