Critique Speak

critique group 4

Another year, another critique group? I’m pleased to say that I’ve joined a third, forming a wonderful triad. How is this one different? In this case, writers gather twice a month, which doubles the motivation to produce. Situated in a smaller room, our number is capped at six. That means we all share something for feedback most times. Attendees don’t read their works aloud but do send pieces in advance through email. Instead of evenings, this half-dozen meets in the cool of the library while the Texas sun is still high in the sky.

Although several other members also belong to multiple groups, each combination develops its own personality. One gathering is specifically aimed at writers and illustrators of children’s literature, and the other two attract those who write for various levels. We critique novel chapters, stories, poetry, songs, memoir, and other types of non-fiction. Want to know more about queries, summaries, or elevator pitches? These are also presented and analyzed. Most importantly, not only do we assess possible improvements, but point out the positives of what’s working in each piece.

Beyond the share/feedback cycle, all three configurations circulate information about upcoming events of interest, in addition to facts about submissions for agents and publishers. We celebrate, praise, and console, since this calling involves both highs and lows. I find the camaraderie among people with different backgrounds who all share a love of writing to be so exhilarating, interesting AND comforting. When I first started my journey, I had no idea how important this activity would become. If you’re a writer or illustrator and haven’t yet found just the right spot, I hope that you’ll continue your quest!

Feel free to share in comments what you like best about your critique group or what you would look for in your search!       ~Becky

book fest
FRISCO BOOK FEST: Fergal O’Donnell and Gary Thornberry (current and former presidents of Write Club); Becky Michael (founding member of Write 4 Kids)

Midnight Blues

raccoon

The junior high that I attended in 7th grade sat right across from my neighborhood elementary school and just a few short blocks from my house. It was close enough that I still walked home for lunches instead of eating in the cafeteria. I remember a day that spring when my mother had some sort of appointment around noon. She suggested that I invite my friend, Jean, to come home with me for a sandwich at lunchtime. Not sure if we ever got to the food, but we DID get into some makeup stashed away in the hallway cupboard.

The two of us had previously experimented a bit with foundation and a light touch of mascara swirled from those familiar red tubes (usually “sable brown” and only “velvet black” if we were feeling daring). This was the 1960’s when everything British seemed to be popular in the United States following the advent of the Beatles. Jean and I spent hours poring over magazines, admiring the exotic styles and appeal of not only the Fab Four, but those famous made-up faces like Patti Boyd, Jean Shrimpton, Jane Asher and Twiggy.

makeup vintage

During the minutes when Jean and I should have been building bologna sandwiches, we discovered a miniature red container of solid mascara, holding its own tiny brush. Water required and color, “midnight blue.” Dealing with that new format would have been difficult under any circumstance. Rushing to reach just the right consistency, applying the goop, and getting back to school in less than an hour was a horrible mistake. The key words here are “blue” and “clumpy.” There was no turning back, however, with not enough time to whip out the oily eye makeup remover for repairs. Besides, we were unconvinced that we looked all THAT bad.

The kids in Mr. Hickman’s science class that afternoon may have given us some sideways glances, but maybe they were just jealous? By the time I got home from school I looked like a bruised raccoon. My mother was appalled when I walked in the door.

The occasion seemed a turning point. I entered that difficult stage where many of us have been unwitting visitors. Still craving the safety of childhood, we were pulled into adolescence and gravitated toward the perceived thrill of adulthood. Mom was well-aware of my quirks and struggles with introversion and usually quite empathetic. We had some interesting years. Lots of tears, tons of worry, many mistakes, but happy times, too.

Strategies for dealing with sleep problems during my teens evolved from counting the numerous dolls on top of my dresser to leaving popular music turned on throughout the night for company. When my clock radio read midnight and problems grew too large for slumber, I sometimes crept down the stairs and stood in the hallway. If she heard me, Mom soon got out of bed and motioned me into the dining room. She clicked up the thermostat, and I settled next to her on the warming, cast iron radiator. Then we would talk.

~Becky

Baby Becky
Ella holding baby Becky; Terri and Philip
Three of Us
Terri, Mark & Becky (before the makeup bug bit!)

Unexpected Poetry

elevators

Doors closed, and I pressed the button for my floor, setting down heavy shopping bags that bit into my hand. Out of habit, my eyes turned to the plastic sleeve on the wall with announcements for upcoming tenant activities or events in the local Square.

Nothing colorful, this time, but just a plain typed page with no images. Black on white in an everyday font, it appeared to be a poem. I began to read and was captivated by the words. As I drank in emotions conveyed through the poetry, I rode the elevator for several extra floors. Before exiting, I committed the title and writer’s name to memory.

Further inquiry revealed that the author, Jane Kenyon, had lived an existence of beauty, love, and longing. A life ended much too early, her story captured my imagination. Born and educated in my home state of Michigan, Ms. Kenyon met and married the poet, Donald Hall, later moving to New Hampshire. She worked as both a translator and poet, often writing about nature and the struggle of dealing with depression. She was serving as New Hampshire’s poet laureate when leukemia took her at the young age of 47.

jane kenyon

I have since enjoyed reading many other offerings by Jane Kenyon, but that first poem, “Otherwise,” resonates with me more than any. The words serve as a stark reminder to appreciate the special gifts of each day. Take notice, it says, “one day…it will be otherwise,” and you will no longer have this.

Since that time, no other poetry has appeared in the elevators of my building. Maybe it was never there at all?

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

 

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

—Jane Kenyon  1947-1995

new-hampshire-pond for Jane Kenyon post
New Hampshire Pond

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #4: Northern Connection

Teenie Weenie small book

When I was a kid in Michigan, my father’s job required travel, and he was rarely home early in the evening for our nightly rituals. On the rare occasion that he was, however, Dad usually told us marvelous bedtime stories. We were especially enthralled by his tales about the Teenie Weenies. Not sure about my  older sister or younger brother, but I suspected that they actually lived under the large willow tree in our back yard.

I had no idea at the time that my father’s ideas came from comic strips and picture books about these characters, in addition to product advertising, like the examples below, that also contained short stories about these little people. His grandchildren remember listening to these entertaining adventures of the Teenie Weenies, as well.

Teenie Weenie poster

        teenie weenie poster 2

Years later, I found myself exploring the “nostalgia” section of a used bookstore near downtown Dallas, and there it was…a picture book that I never knew existed! The Teenie Weenies Under the Rosebush, written and illustrated by William Donahey, was not in great shape, but I didn’t care. Besides, it was marked $2, and I probably would have paid $20 for that memory.

That purchase prodded me toward more research about the author and his works. As luck would have it, not too long after the bookstore expedition, a weekend collectibles sale at a Texas mall turned up my charming Monarch toffee and peanut butter magazine ads shown above that each sport a story about the Teenie Weenies. It wasn’t until the advent of ebay, after I had moved back to Michigan, that I realized just how many vintage products besides books are out there wearing the likenesses of those intriguing little people…and often at a very large price tag!

The synchronicity doesn’t end there. I knew that William Donahey and his wife, Mary, who was also an author, were from the Midwest. In my internet research, I had read about a North Woods vacation cabin, of sorts, that the Reid-Murdoch/Monarch company gave the couple as a gift. It was fashioned after the company’s pickle barrels, for which Mr. Donahey had done some ads. The structure was made up of two sections, with the larger part rising two stories and connected to a shorter section that served as a kitchen.pickle barrel house old

Evidently the Donahey’s fame and popularity drew too many visitors to the vacation home, which became quite a headache for the pair. After about a decade, they gave the building away to a merchant in a nearby town and built a more private log cabin. What I didn’t know was that the location where the Pickle Barrel House ended up wasn’t far from where I had moved in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A pleasant spring drive about fifteen years back ended up in the picturesque village of Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior. Lovely bay with bobbing sailboats, silvery vintage diner near the Square for a fun lunch, and…what was that strange structure as we rounded the corner? A unique wooden building shaped like a barrel! There I am, below, holding my sweet dog, Boo Boo, in front of the somewhat peeling Pickle Barrel House. Since that day, the Grand Marais Historical Society has restored the house and made it into a museum. I regret that I didn’t make it back to see the results, especially since life finds me, once again, living in Texas.            ~Becky

pickle barrel house (2)

 

Heikki Lunta and Story Publication!

fantasy Heikki Lunta (2)

For many years, I lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I wasn’t a native “Yooper,” however, and never heard of “Heikki Lunta” while living in the Lower Peninsula. In the past, people had come to the U.P. from many different countries to work in the copper mines. There’s still an especially recognizable Finnish influence in many areas.

Finland
Finland

When I first heard of Heikki Lunta, I assumed that it was a mythological Finnish goddess or god. I was on the right track, but not quite right. Ukko is a god of weather, and Vellamo is a goddess of storms. There was no supreme being specifically for snow, which seems surprising, given that’s such a snowy part of the world.

Fast forward to 1970. As the story goes, U.P. promoters for an upcoming snowmobile race were concerned because not much snow had yet fallen that winter. A record was aired on a local radio station in which the singers pleaded with “Heikki Lunta,” a snow god of sorts, to send more of the white stuff. The whole idea took off, or “snowballed,” you might say.

Heikki Lunta sign (2)

These days, businesses like this one on the right often put up signs asking that deity for more snow. By spring, there are sometimes signs asking him to stop! At least one town in the Upper Peninsula has named its yearly winter festival after Heikki Lunta.

What does all of this have to do with my story being published, you might ask. Now living in Texas, I’m struck with the fact that many of the children here (and sometimes the adults) wish dearly that it would snow!

A few winters back, we did get a pretty healthy dusting, here in the North Dallas suburbs. My two youngest granddaughters were thrilled, and my daughter let them stay home from school to play in the snow. That’s the day my idea for a meeting of reality and myth, in “Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta” was conceived. I’m thrilled to report that my fictional story for kids and families, alike, now appears in U.P. Reader #3.UP Reader #3

Texas snowman
Texas Snowman

cowgirl boots b&w

Talking with Kids about Water

water-no attrib req.

World Water Day returns this week, along with the first day of spring. Renewal, rebirth, hope. Today’s children know all about safe tap water, bottled drinking water wherever they turn, a shower or bath whenever they want, trips to the beach, lawn sprinklers, and swimming pools. How familiar are they, however, with places in the world where clean drinking water is not a given? What do they know about activists who fight to keep our waters safe? Check out the following amazing books that can help to get the conversation started!

Long Walk to Water

From BookPage in 2010:

“Few children can imagine walking eight hours a day or digging by hand deep into the mud, just to find water for their family. But the backbreaking work under the hot African sun is just a typical day for 11-year-old Nya, growing up in Sudan circa 2008. She rarely complains; it would do no good.

Salva, also 11, is from a prominent, upper-class Sudanese family. As the Second Sudanese Civil War erupts in the mid-1980s, Salva is forced to run as bombs hit his village. Fleeing quickly and leaving his family behind, he joins up with bands of strangers—all headed out of their war-torn homeland to Ethiopia.

Difficult as it may be, both Nya and Salva come to accept their own long walks to water—each peppered with challenges and each tied to family and survival. Nya’s sister becomes very ill; Salva loses several loved ones. But Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park’s brilliant dual narrative provides a soulful insight into both journeys.

Both Salva and Nya are urged on by their individual reserves of hope—for a better tomorrow, a better future—but neither really knows what lies beyond. The book’s denouement, however, intertwines their stories in a soul-satisfying and optimistic way.

A Long Walk to Water is based on Salva Dut’s true story of perseverance amid adversity. But beyond that, it’s a touching narrative about strife and survival on a scale most American readers will never see.”

Watch an interview with Salva and the author, Linda Sue Park.

 

young water protectors

Recommended by AICL (American Indians in Children’s Literature) in 2018:

“The ‘about’ page tells us that the author, Aslan Tudor, was eight and nine years old during the period depicted in the book, and a citizen of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. Information provided is his first-hand account of time spent at the camps when he was there in 2016.

Told from the point of view of a child, Young Water Protectors is a rare kind of story of a unique period of activism with Native people from so many nations standing together to fight a company exploiting people and hurting earth’s resources.

There’s a lot to think about, packed into this slim book. Tudor touches on the school at the camp, and what he learned there but he also notes that activity at some of the construction sites wasn’t safe. It was safer for kids to stay in camp. For readers who want more information about that, adults can fill in the gaps according to what they know about the reader.”  (Photographs by Kelly Tudor)

What can we each do to spread the word and help ensure safe water for all? Write, read, listen, draw, share, march, donate, protest, and be good examples!

This week is also the return of my own birthday, and I wrote this blog post toward fulfilling a  personal goal for the year. Water is truly life.               ~Becky