Category Archives: books

The Only Thing to Discourage is Discouragement Itself

Image(via NYPL)

Is it because of writing so many of these things for the people who pay me money to write that I seem to only be able to think in lists lately?

Or is that just life in the internet age? Or life as a mother of young children who is constantly being interrupted and hasn’t had a cohesive thought in a half a decade?

Where was I?

Oh right lists. I have been thinking and talking a lot about discouragement lately.   I feel like I am often having this conversation with other writers I know:

Writer Who Is Not Me: What kind of book should one write? What is the best kind of Writer to be?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. Those are Important and Big Thoughts to Think. But I don’t have time for thoughts like that anymore. I think I remember having thoughts like that. Now I’m just happy when I have a minute to write.

WWINM: But what’s the point of it all? You work and work and work on a piece of writing and for what? Why do we try so hard? To what end? Writing something no one will publish, or that someone will publish but no one will read, or that will be read but get lousy reviews, or be really well-received and then called overrated, or that will do well now but never enter the literary canon? Or else to get a job teaching writing that still barely supports us or offers only crud health insurance so that one day we sit joylessly among our dusty books while the teeth fall out of our heads one by one?

Me: Ummmm I dunno. I just, like, get crabby when I don’t write?

But of course I get discouraged, everyone does. Here are three ways I try to dig out:

1) Do the thing. Talking about writing and thinking about writing are both somewhat crazy-making. What I actually like doing is writing. I had a rather abstract conversation about What Writing Is the other day, and felt a little muddled, and then sat down to write, and changed the phrase “walked down” to “descended” and felt a clean jolt of joy, and then became miraculously unmuddled. These are rare moments but such good ones.

2) Don’t do the thing. Then again, sometimes trying to write makes me just as crazy as not writing, because in my life right now finding time to write means missing out on family time on the weekend when my husband can watch the kids, or paying a nice lady many dollars I don’t have to watch the children, or not sleeping enough which then makes me not a nice mommy, and all of these things are stressful, and sometimes I have to remind myself that, in the grand scheme of things, there is no real rush, and if creative work happens slowly for a few years when the kids are small, it’s really okay. It’s just a few years, in the end. So if I don’t write 150 pages and finish my novel draft this weekend, and if I want to read a book tonight instead of doing novel research, it’s okay not to beat myself up about it.

3) Make it easy to enjoy other peoples’ successes. This is a tricky one I know, and not a nice one to talk about because who wants to admit that they greet other people’s triumphs with a petty, self-pitying inward grumble? I mean, I can imagine some people feel that way. Other, much smaller-souled people than moi, of course!

Something that has been really nice for me the past 6 months or so is hosting my reading series, Lit at Lark.   Reaching out to writers, getting to enjoy great writing in that pure-reader way that first made me want to write, connecting with other people who do this crazy thing I do too – it’s been somewhat nourishing. And it helps me to remember that when something good happens for another writer, it’s really just something good for everyone who likes books and wants them to keep existing.

4) Then of course there’s also just, like, this:

Image (via Kateoplis)

Electric Cats in the Garden: A Printable Picture Book

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

My grandmother was always making these charming, crazy little picture books for me and my brother, and of course I filed this away as A Thing I Will Definitely Do For My Own Children Someday. Well, right there with make every food from scratch and never say, “Wow, you are being really annoying right now” to their faces, this has mostly gotten shelved. I know, I know — I’m a writer! I should write for my children! Remember how A.A. Milne wrote all those Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems for his own little son Christopher Robin? Let me tell you something. The real Christopher Robin? Went to boarding school from age 6. And that is how a writer/parent finds the time to document that unmissable magic of childhood. By missing it.

Still, somehow I wrote this story (I hope it’s just a chapter of a longer book, but you know, laundry), using ideas from the children. Harper really pretends to speak Polish quite frequently (also, Arabic and Spanish — Brooklyn public schools!), the kids really do play electric cats, Harper has invented all sorts of facts about said electric cats, she really did once threaten to take Ollie to play in the garden after Adam and I went to bed, Ollie told me that nocturnal creatures run Trader Joe’s at night. My talented mother, Peggy Shearn AKA Nani Peg, was gracious enough to do illustrations, and my talented husband, Adam TetzloffAKA Daddy, laid it all out and made a little book that we gave to the children on Christmas. Predictably, it was quickly buried beneath the wrapping paper of more exciting toys and dolls, but after a day or so it was rediscovered and has been pored over intently since.

So I’ll share it here, and I think you should be able to print it out, although you’ll need to have my husband explain how to make it into an actual booklet because my brain can’t handle the geometry or whatever that is. Here, it’s a PDF: Electric Cats in the Garden

I hope you like it, and that maybe even if your kids are not the actual Harper and Ollie they might like it too! Leave me an encouraging comment so I am shored up to finish the next story. Just kidding, I’m not that needy. Just kidding, of course I am.

Happy New Year!

Interview with What Will Hatch? Illustrator and All-Around Awesome Lady Susie Ghahremani

So, Susie Ghahremani.  Ridiculously talented and prolific artist (as she has been since the AP art class we took together in high school!), proprietress of boygirlparty.com, an adorability emporium offering art, books, jewelry, clothing, prints, and to-do lists that will change your life with their inviting cuteness, among many other things, somehow also a member of the San Diego indie rock band The Bulletins. Ever since I first met her circa 1993 (fact check, Susie?), she’s been the person who knows about all the cool stuff before anyone else. She had a zine before I was totally sure what a zine was, and was chatting online with band members of That Dog like 2 minutes after chatrooms were invented. So it  comes as no surprise to me that everything she makes is beautiful and super cool, and that her first picture book, What Will Hatch? is a total delight.

Written by nature writer Jennifer Ward, this gorgeous book introduces 2-5 year olds to the wonderful world of the oviparous animal. I recently used the book in a little storytelling workshop at Harper’s playschool — after reading the kids the book I gave them each little stacks of cards with illustrations of frog life cycle steps and had them put them in order, color, and title them (Harper’s was “Using Science”). All of which is to say, parents and teachers and people who love art, buy this book!

Thanks to What Will Hatch? we now use the word "oviparous" daily.

Thanks to What Will Hatch? we now use the word “oviparous” daily.

Harper loved What Will Hatch? so much that she wanted to learn more, so she asked some questions that I passed along to Susie, who graciously answered!

Why are there holes in the pages? Why do the holes become other things? How did you make those holes that shape?

The holes in the pages are called “die cuts” and they’re there to represent the shape of the egg for each type of animal throughout the book! The holes represent the egg on one page, but when you turn the page, the egg has already hatched, so I made the hole become something else in the next picture!

(I made the holes by obsessively drawing vector curves in InDesign that were output by the printer who fit a metal die to that exact shape…but are you really asking about that, Harper?)

What are those little lines across the pictures?

That is called woodgrain! It is the texture of wood, which is what I painted on for this book.

[Pre-emptive answer to the potential follow-up question: I painted on wood because I liked the idea of using natural materials to represent nature in this book!]

Why is each animal pictured in their habitat? How did you know what the habitats look like?

Each animal is pictured in their habitat because lots of people don’t know what their habitats look like and I thought it would be cool to show them! I didn’t know what the habitats looked like until I researched it!

How did you get the ideas for this book? How did you not change your mind and do something else? What does “else” mean?

The idea for the book came from the author, Jennifer Ward, who wrote it! From there, I just drew what came to my imagination after researching each of the animals. Many times, I did change my mind 🙂 Else has a few meaning. In the context of “something else”, it would mean something like “something other”, except “something other” sounds weird. Hey, you should ask your mom the writer about this one!

And here’s a question from me, Amy, the grownup: What are you working on next?

I’m on the board for ICON the Illustration Conference which launches July ’14 in Portland, and am beginning to teach. I’m always working on new illustrations and art shows! I have an art show on May 11th in Los Angeles at Leanna Lin’s Wonderland showing my collaboration with my friend Irene on a series of cross-stitch portraits of extinct animals. I’ll be at the opening signing copies of What Will Hatch as well! Then, a Little Golden Books-inspired art show June 28th in Florida curated by my friend Heidi Kenney of My Paper Crane.

[Harper clapped and squealed at the idea of a Little Golden Book art show and I am only slightly worried she will try to run away to see it.]

And here is Harper’s review of the book:

“Kids will like this book. But wait, we still get to keep it right?”

Me:” Yes, but do you think they should get their own copy?”

Harper:” Yes, because I want to keep this one.”

Pretty AND smart.

Pretty AND smart.

Be sure to check out Susie’s site boygirlparty.com! Just be prepared to find yourself inventing reasons to buy tons of lovely notepaper and necklaces and also feeling a strange twitch to draw…

Related: Read Harper’s interview with illustrator Jennifer Bell here!
Read my neighbor Lena’s interview with YA novelist Carley Moore here!
Read my interview with YA novelist M. Beth Bloom here!

What’s Missing, What’s Here: On The Eve of My Book’s Birth Day

I seem to be living in a spiral-shaped sea shell these days. Harper turned four on Monday. Ollie will be two in a few weeks. And this Tuesday, April 2nd, a few days after the kids’ birthday party with all its balloons and frosting, my book officially comes out. The Mermaid of Brooklyn is about a mother with two kids, two years apart, like mine, but I started writing it when Harper was just a few months old, one day after a visit to the swingset, with her asleep in the carrier on my chest. I was thinking about my great-grandmother and rusalkis and the weird culture of Brooklyn parenting more than my actual parenting experiences, although of course it all gets mixed in together. And on Tuesday, my book launch will be at Powerhouse on 8th, the new bookstore in the building I lived in when I wrote the book. 2 kids, 4 years, and a move later: the book.

Of course I’m so excited and thankful. But also: confused.

Thanks to Jenna Blum for my very own milk carton!

Thanks to Jenna Blum for my very own milk carton!

Due to ongoing contract disputes between my publishers and Barnes & Noble, it’s very unlikely anyone will be able to find my book at a B&N store. In many parts of the country, that’s the only place to go and stroll about and discover a new book. I know my suburban Chicago B&N outlet was where I went on weeknights as a teenager to drink cinnamon-plum tea and read philosophy texts and women’s magazines (yes, at the same time) with my best friend and browse around in the quiet store at 8 pm and happen upon some book on a table I never would have heard of otherwise — and I feel like B&N should remember this, and care. I guess what I’m saying is, I really love B&N. I love my indies, and always support them, but when I was growing up in the suburbs, B&N was a sanctuary of sorts for me. And I have been so happy with Simon & Schuster and everyone at my division, Touchstone, and all their support of my book, and I get that both sides have their reasons. I know. It’s not personal.

What replaced my neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

What replaced my neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

But then, also, an unexpectedly nice thing has happened, because of all this B&N business: S&S authors, all (coincidence?) female novelists, have banded together to try to get our books on the radar.  M.J. Rose, Jenna Blum, Randy Susan Meyers — these are authors I have only known from afar, who are doing what I aspire to — writing smart books about women’s lives that readers obsessively love — and yet suddenly we’re all tweeting each other all the time. I feel this solidarity with other writers whose books are coming out into this mess, like we are all book-sisters (and not just competing for the seven spots for reviews left in the country). And there’s something really, really nice about that. I would post all their book covers here but I still have a lot of laundry to fold. So go here, and check out these wonderful books!

I once read an interview with an author whose debut novel had been largely ignored. When asked how he felt about the book’s reception he said something like, “You know, my wife and I just had our first baby, and that is a very good distraction, and puts everything else into perspective.” I loved this. I’ve found balancing writerhood and mothership to be challenging. It’s hard to find the time and focus and energy to write, even if, maybe especially if, you’re writing ABOUT motherhood. But I’ve also the combination to be a nourishing one.

Take today: I could have spent the day obsessing about my book and what will or won’t happen with it, but I was too busy having an adventure on the subway and a raucous playdate and making Charlie & Lola decorations for the birthday party. Ollie played in an afternoon sunbeam, swiping his hand at the glowing dust motes, laughing hysterically. Harper told me she was having a hard time deciding whether to be a doctor or a teacher. At bedtime, the kids cuddled up and Harper read Ollie his favorite books, and he propped his fat little cheek in his fat little hand to listen intently, and I almost cried, and that was all that really mattered about today. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky and I know it. I would of course like to be a lucky, lucky, lucky author with books in B&N but whatever, I’ll take what I can get.

And so:

If you live in New York City, please join me at one of my readings! Wine and bunny crackers, obviously, will be served.

If you don’t, please go into your local Barnes & Noble and with a very puzzled look on your face, ask where oh where is that great Mermaid of Brooklyn book you’ve been hearing so much about could be.

And finally, if you can identify the provenance of the bookstore pictured above, feel a moment of in-on-the-joke pride. Go on, really enjoy it. Then, tell me in the comments (but don’t Google it, you dirty cheater)and if you’re the first one to do so (and you are not my husband) I’ll send you a book!

The Black Apple, always awesome.

The Black Apple, always awesome.

10 Reading Recommendations from Tiny Humans

The kids, as they are every day.

The kids, as they are every day.

I’ve been so remiss with my kid-book posts here that we have a huge backlog of beloved books. Thus, this truncated version, in case anyone happens to have an almost-two-year-old boy and an almost-four-year-old girl who need to be distracted from the hypnotic, unending horrors that are the Dinosaur Train books (how do they always find those at the library anyway?).

Alton’s Top Five Books for Little Boys With Even Littler Attention Spans:

1) Snuggle Puppy. He loses his mind over this book, he really does. There is nothing cuter than an almost-2-year-old’s “Oooooh…I yuv oo!”

2) Bus Stop. Any book with a vehicle is good with this kid. But this one actually doesn’t make me want to scream. The illustrations are beautiful, with lots of things to find on each page. I mean, “yots.”

3) Brown Bear, What Do You See. Still.

4) Let’s Go For a Drive! Does he really get this book? I have no idea, but it does crack him up. “WAIT!” Maybe he just knows that Brooklyn kids are contractually obligated to love Mo Willems.

5) Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. Highlights: the goat and… the goat. Just the goat, actually.

Mr. Gumpy

Mr. Gumpy and the goat. And some other things, whatever, who cares GOAT!

Harper’s Top 5 Books for Precocious Preschoolers Who Adore Sitting Still:

1) Look… Look Again! We’ve only had this from the library for about 2 days, but Harper has declared it her favorite ever. It’s full of illustrated riddles that make her snort with laughter. Except the one where the pizza eats the chef. That one is scary!

2) Mary and the Mouse, The Mouse and Mary. I’m so glad to tell you that Harper has inherited my childhood love of stories about miniature creatures. This beautiful book is perfect for before you’re old enough for The Borrowers.

3) Jumpy Jack and Googly. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Harper laugh so hard at a book. (And no, she doesn’t find it all ironic that this book is about a monster who’s afraid of everything.)

4) The Snow Globe Family. Ditto. Tiny family sledding in a snow globe! What the what!

5) It’s a Secret.  If you love cats, and dressing up, and little girls having adventures (check, check, check), this is your book.

I didn't even notice, somehow, that this book is also the work of John Burningham! YOU KNOW THE MR GUMPY GUY! How cute is it that the kids have each latched on to their own his-and-hers John Burningham books? I CAN'T STAND IT IT'S TOO CUTE

I didn’t even notice, somehow, that this book is also the work of John Burningham! YOU KNOW THE MR GUMPY GUY! How cute is it that the kids have each latched on to their own his-and-hers John Burningham books? I CAN’T STAND IT IT’S TOO CUTE

The Next Big Thing Book Blog Meme!

Write like a motherfucker.

Write like a motherfucker.

I have dropped so many balls lately, that with every step I take I’m essentially wading through one of those ball pits that children like to contract smallpox in at overachieving birthday parties. But here was a fun thing I was supposed to do that got lost in the wild week of kids, more work than usual, a freelance article, book business, playschool drama, and even a co-op building meeting: THE NEXT BIG THING MEME, yay! Thanks to the lovely Kate Hopper for tagging me!

What is the title of your book?

The Mermaid of Brooklyn

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A stressed-out Park Slope mother recovers her sense of purpose in life with the help of a mermaid.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. (I almost wrote Women’s Fiction, but then I was like, nah, fuck that.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The inspiration was threefold: 1) a bit of family lore about how a pair of shoes saved my great-grandmother’s life, which I heard at a time when 2) I was reading about the powerful, seductive, mysterious rusalkas (aka mermaids)of Slavic folklore. The connection between these aspects marinated for a bit and then 3) I found myself becoming a stay-at-home mother to a baby, in the ever-fascinating parenting culture of Park Slope, Brooklyn. And voila: The Mermaid of Brooklyn was born.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About two years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A mother at the playground had read some books pitched toward young urban mothers that she found annoying, and she said, “I just want someone to write a book for moms like me.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have a literary agent who did the businessy magic of selling the book to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK).

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

It’s possible that comparisons with Amy Sohn, the grand mistress of Park Slope parent fiction, are forthcoming, but I’ve actually never read her books so I’m not sure how alike we really are. Our names sure are similar though! But I’d say readers who liked Peter Hedges’ Brooklyn-y The Heights, Lorrie Moore’s funny-sad mediation on motherhood The Gate at the Top of the Stairs, Maria Semple’s funny-sad mediation on motherhood Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  and/or stories with a hint of the surreal in them, like The Time-Traveler’s Wife, or Alice Hoffman’s novels, will, I’d hope, like my book too.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh man. I hate to boss around my readers, who should cast their own MofB movie however they like. But since you asked, my main character, Jenny, I see as a 2010 Zooey Deschanel. (She’s gotten a little too glamorous lately, but you get what I mean.) And my husband will definitely give me shit for this, but I always thought of Cute Dad as being played by Paul Schneider, on whom I have an undignified crush.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Reading it will make you instantly happier, richer, ambidextrous, and able to do 20 sit-ups.

Just in case it doesn’t, an acquaintance of mine read the book and wrote me, unbidden: “Basically: your book made me forget my own troubles while simultaneously soothing them; it made me feel better about life.” Isn’t that so nice?

AND The next thing I was supposed to do was to tag five authors who have exciting projects coming out now or soon or eventually. But I just wrote them today. (Doing!) (That was a ball dropping.) (And then bouncing again.) (Like how I carried that image through? Professional writer here!) So I will repost if they are able to participate. But just know that you should be very excited about new works forthcoming from Siobhan Adcock, Julia Fierro, Leigh Newman, Shana Youngdahl, and Sara Barron!

3 Chapter Books for 3 Year-Olds

I wrote here a while back about how Harper and I fell hopelessly in love with the Winnie-the-Pooh gang.  What I haven’t mentioned is that this sent us on a wormhole-ish hunt for toddler-friendly chapter books. It is really so fun to read chapter books together – the curling up, the flicker in her eyes as she pictures a scene, or asks me to repeat a detail so she can really really picture it — and it is also, I’ve found, really hard to find just the right books that she can follow, aren’t too dark or complicated, and have enough pictures but not too many. And that don’t involve dying parents. Or dying anyone. We’re just not there yet (thankfully!). I mean, Harper thought the Heffalump was terrifying.

Here are our findings so far:

1. Jenny and the Cat Club, by Esther Averill

"Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing."

“Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing.”

This is, next to the Winnie-the-Pooh books, our biggest hit so far. Harper has been playing Jenny Linsky, drawing Jenny Linsky, telling stories about Jenny Linsky, ever since she recovered from the shock of receiving this (deceivingly!) boring-looking chapter book as a Hanukkah present. Esther Averill’s stories about Jenny Linsky, a shy yet brave little black cat who lives with her master, Captain Tinker, in Greenwich Village, are just nonstop charming. There is nothing scarier than a mean dog who steals Jenny’s signature red scarf – this episode made Harper hyperventilate with anxiety, both at the meanness of the dog, and the great crime of a theft of an accessory. Throughout these sweet stories, Jenny deals with issues like her shyness, smallness, and learning to be generous, all big issues in a preschooler’s life.

For here is the rub – I find that other chapter books, probably naturally, address questions Harper hasn’t even started to consider yet, like getting teased by mean kids. I am so thankful, particularly in the face of horrifying recent events, that this is so – that Harper still lives in a sweet little bubble where her biggest issues are her brother, Hair Puller Extraordinaire, and that sometimes her annoying mama wants her to brush her teeth, and that the meanest person she knows is her imaginary friend Murray. So in that vein, I find that older books, somehow, are the only ones that can manage to be innocent enough for this highly sensitive kiddo. Isn’t that a little weird and sad?

Anyway, good thing this book has been reprinted by the excellent New York Review Children’s Collection, and is just such a lovely object, full of charming drawings, that I find myself looking through it again and again (and unable to choose illustrations to share because they are all the best one). Best of all, this is part of series, so we can read even more about our dear little J. Linsky, as Harper likes to call her.

2. The Magic Treehouse: Dinosaurs Before Dark

I heard about Mary Pope Osbourne’s insanely popular series on, who knows, probably Pinterest. Apparently all kids everywhere love it, though I, elderly ignoramous!, had never heard of it. Harper and I had a very lovely afternoon at a local coffeeshop having hot chocolate and tearing through chapter after chapter of this first book in the series, Dinosaurs Before Dark. She liked studying the pictures, and most of all she liked the idea (as did I!) of this magic treehouse full of magic books (!!!!!!!), and the brother and sister who have adventures together. She was carrying around a notebook and backpack for a few days, just like Jack and Annie in the book. I thought we were really on to something. But somehow the next books in the series have not held her interest. I think they’re a bit too complicated – there’s all this business with magicians and Merlin and legends. But that first one, wow, what a page-turner it was! And we love happy-sibling-propaganda. So this was a good one too.

3. A Bear Called Paddington

I’m cheating a bit here, because we’ve only read one chapter of this book, which Harper’s grandmother gave her for Christmas – Harper’s daddy’s childhood copy! This has been fun for me to discover too, though, since somehow I missed the whole Paddington phenomenon as a kid. Were you aware Paddington is a real bear? From Peru? (Excuse me, darkest Peru?)Who comes to live with a family in London? There aren’t quite enough pictures for Harper’s tastes, and there is that problem familiar to us from our painstaking attempts at Stuart Little of the humor being largely pitched to witty adults, but one chapter in, so far so good. I even heard some stories being muttered about darkest Peru in one of Harper’s marathon story-telling-sessions. Chapter two happens tonight. Wish us luck!

Any other good chapter books for the very wee we’re missing? I have been remiss, by the way, in not thanking lovely commenter Genevieve who this summer led us to many awesome wordless picture books, including our favorite, You Can’t Bring a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum. Genevieve, are you out there? Do you know about chapter books too??