With the help of Rico, an immigrant boy who rides horses in the nearby historic theatre, Maxzyne tries to save a runaway horse and carriage before Chicago's Festival of Lights Parade.
I had my own "happy/sad" moment yesterday during my six-month dental check-up. While cleaning my teeth, my dental tech mentioned that her daughter had found my You-Tube author reading videos and was really enjoying reading along with me. I was so pleased! During an appointment a year ago, she had confided her worry about a daughter not liking to read. I encouraged her to read with her, knowing it can ignite a child's imagination and spur a lifelong love of books. That discussion also inspired me to record some book chapters in the Maxzyne adventure series so that kids can read along with me. Now her daughter is in third grade and starting to enjoy books on her own! It was a happy moment. Minutes later an X-ray showed that a former root canal had abscessed and required a do-over. Go figure. But at least the videos are available to kids on You-Tube Channel Maxzyne Merriweather. Keep focusing on those happy moments, eh?
Between the virus and the election does it seem as if the whole country is just waiting to exhale? Perhaps it's the masks we must still pull over our faces as we shop or visit a salon that has us breathing shallower these days. Or it may be the "what's next for the U.S.?" hovering over every future plan we'd like to make, adding to our general anxiety about the future. My youngest sister has a big birthday coming up in a few weeks and we four siblings wanted to plan a trip to celebrate her milestone together. We finally decided it would have to wait 'til the new year, hoping 2021 would have us feeling comfortable about traveling and exploring new places again. One thing for sure, though. I voted this week and as I fed my ballot into the slot to be counted, I felt a little bit lighter. A little less uncertain. American democracy is still something to celebrate.
While in Chicago, I loved finding vestiges of the past during my travels around town. The incongruous juxtaposition of the old hidden in plain view of the new, found me romancing the past and connecting the present, often igniting my imagination. When I discovered an actual horse theatre in Old Town, I was instantly smitten. I bought a ticket to the show and was transported to another time and place as the skilled horses and daredevil riders enchanted the mostly young audience seated around the indoor dirt ring. My nose puzzled over the aroma of hot buttered popcorn drifting from the concession stand, mingled with the ancient scents of dirt, straw, leather, manure and horse sweat. The cavernous stone amphitheatre was cold inside and the austere wooden benches uncomfortable. But who cared? All that mattered was this magical performance. An old story conveyed by this beautiful partnership between man and beast. I'll never forget the beauty inside that old stone building that I stumbled upon one gray Chicago day. It's a particularly treasured memory since the horse theatre was razed several years ago and a new skyscraper was born.
There is a favorite store in my little village that I fell in love with as soon as I moved here. In business since 1934, Hand's Office and Art Supply is an old fashioned store, the slight scent of paints and paper lingering in the aisles, a bit like imaginary fairy dust coaxing patrons to create. The knowledgeable staff dispenses advice and oversees the bustling shop from a long glass counter displaying some truly ancient tools of the written word. These beautiful pens, glittering metal cylinders, many worthy of engraving, beg to be held. Once in hand, the cool smooth surface has fingers assuming the writing position, eager to gauge the instrument's heft and balance. Yes, there is a piece of stationery nearby for practicing a signature flourish or two. Some of these writing tools are fountain pens, breathtaking in their elegance, harking back to days of quill, nib and inkwell. These are surely the instruments to use for signing life's most important documents or at least conveying the meaning of life within the pages of a leather-covered, blue-lined journal. The price tag is daunting, but might such a pen inspire magic?
I struggled a bit when I was writing this book. I kept tinkering with the story premise - Maxzyne thinking she can communicate with a carriage horse. I definitely didn't want to feature an obvious "talking horse" like the ancient (black and white!) TV show, featuring Wilbur and his horse, Mr. Ed. Sure, my sisters and I enjoyed watching it as kids, especially when the horse said some truly comical things. But I wanted Maxzyne and Caesar's communication to be more subtle and intuitive. Less brain, more heart. When my Developmental Editor reminded me of the magical realism featured in the first Maxzyne book which was inspired by her potent imagination, it sparked the image of a magic hat. In this case, an old-fashioned carriage driver's top hat found in a stressed runaway horse's carriage. As my friend Laura Marjorie Miller, an animal communications expert writes, "It's an adage of magic that magic begins when you decide to do the magic. So your curiosity, willingness to hear and openness to possibility has already swung wide a big, heavy door." Let the magic begin.
Yesterday I was thrilled to receive a text from my sister asking, "Chat?" A minute later we settled in, she drinking a cup of tea at her kitchen table in TN, me sitting outside on an Adirondack chair to enhance phone reception since this was such an important call. You see, communication had been a long time coming. There had been a disturbance in the sisterly force between us with an unusual disagreement. We had drifted away from our usual monthly catch-up calls. Nobody wanted to make the first move, be the one to reach out. Call it what you will, plain old pride plastered over my own stubborn heart, for too long I had failed to cough up this emotional hairball that had lodged between our deep care for each other. But we overcame it, settling in for a long chat that was just so good for the soul, that rift in the universe healed at last. Forgiveness wrapped in friendship is such a beautiful force for good in the world. I'm feeling almost giddy with gratitude at this gift I have back in my life again. Text or call a sister today. May the force be with you.
Did you ever feel like you were born to do something? I sometimes feel a twinge of envy when I meet or read about someone who always knew what they wanted to do with their life from an early age. So inspired, they are able to hone in and focus on their aspiration, usually brilliantly making it happen. Many of them are child prodigies. Alas, my focus was limited to the children's section of the library. I read through those shelves like nobody's business, accompanying every character on their adventures, amazed and entertained by real and imagined lives, personalities and perspectives so different than my own. Who could decide what to be as a grown-up when there were so many distractions, er, choices found in the pages of a book? Could it be I followed the clues and finally figured it out?
Have you ever tried to get a law changed? The closest I came to City Hall was in Chicago. Our condo building overlooked bustling Michigan Avenue and the "bucket boys" would drum overturned white plastic containers with zeal down below every day. They were very talented, always entertaining the tourists and generating tips galore. Unfortunately, the surrounding skyscraper windows shook with the vibrations that echoed off the hard surfaces of the sidewalks and buildings around us, the beat soaring up, up, up and into our tightly sealed windows. After an hour, it would set your teeth on edge. It was a choice topic at every homeowners association meeting. There were so many complaints from the downtown residents and offices that the city council finally set a date to discuss the issue. As I settled into my wooden chair in the big room, it soon became apparent that I wouldn't actually need to speak. All attendees had the same complaint, so they just needed our name and address. The council voted unanimously and onlookers clapped and cheered. From now on, the bucket boys just needed to tap a little more gently on those drums to keep the decibels from rattling the nerves of the local citizens. I suspect even the pigeons were relieved.
Trouble is exactly what my character does best. It seems, despite her best intentions, there is always a way to make things worse before they get better. Of course, this makes for a good story, but in real life it's less than desirable. I've certainly had my share of headstrong days and hard knocks. In the early days of my career with national defense, hired as the front line for security of a highly classified project, I was always at odds with the VP. He thought most everything I did, always in accordance with government regulations, simply bogged down the process and delayed delivery dates of the company's finished products. He was right - it did. But I was hired to ensure that US secrets were kept, so we fought many times for the best way to make the process work. It never really got easier, but I was more than ready to turn to creative pursuits after such a contentious professional career. Now I realize those battles I fought were a gift and a sign to turn toward something better suited for me - writing for kids.
You may recall my poolside Northern Curly-Tailed Lizard friend. During the pandemic, he and I bonded via the half-drowned beetles I flicked his way. Until the beetle breakfast source dried up. Uh oh. Expectations were still high, however. Each morning as I walked outside, the newly named "Triple H" aka "His Hungry Highness" raced toward me, this towering giant, who had somehow become an easy mark for his favorite food source. I apologized for not having anything, but he persisted each day, faithfully waiting until I disappeared back into the house. The guilt was unbearable. Suddenly, I was hunting dead bugs and worms during evening walks with my husband. Still, there were slim pickings, so it was inevitable. I broke down and headed to the pet store, returning home with a big jar of dessicated crickets. Breakfast of Champions. I wonder if he has a name for me?
I love writing for young people. They have wide open hearts that can change the world in so many unique and positive ways. This week in my local paper, I read about a young ballerina named Alexandra de Roos. When she was just eight years old, she began donating her competition prize money to help others pay for their dance tuition. It was one small generous act for others. Fast forward to this spring. Alexandra is now seventeen and has made her caring and sharing vision official. Her new dance-gear nonprofit Peace Love and Leotards, donates new or gently-used dancewear to help make dance more accessible to all. What an inspiring gift to the world - the beauty of ballet and the tools for others to achieve it. Visit peaceloveleotards.com to donate and share it forward.
There is spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove upstairs in my kitchen right now. The fragrant mix of tomato and basil is wafting downstairs to my office, taunting me. It's mid-afternoon, that wasteland of time where snacking is possible, but dinner is visible on the horizon. My stomach grumbles and I'm tempted to eat dinner early tonight. Reading this excerpt, I resist my hunger pangs and hope my pasta meal digests better than Maxzyne's fish sticks. I love that writing is all about the details. How fun it is to imagine something as insignificant as what she ate for lunch at school, something that makes her feel slightly nauseous hours later during her adventure. There is no forgetting those fifth grade fish sticks. That's how you knew it was Friday.
I watch the news now and wonder how much more humanity can take. Last week, focus on the coronavirus evaporated once the heart wrenching video of George Floyd's death was seen and mourned around the world. Surely, the planet shook and bobbled on its axis, creating jagged waves of fear and despair. Now is the time to put away the pen, the keyboard, and all incendiary language that heedlessly seeks to provoke and divide us. No more words. Words became finger-pointing, soul-draining, power-seeking weapons that made us forget who we really are: spiritual beings in physical bodies. I believe in the power of spirit. Do you? Can we trust ourselves to communicate with our hearts now in the eternal language of love and kindness?
After focusing for the past several months on marketing the second book, I finally turned back to what I've been itching to do: researching and planning for the next tale in the Maxzyne adventure series. This is the part of writing a book I love the most. Finding and fleshing out the story - who, what, where, when, how and why. It's a bit like a chef creating a recipe with a variety of ingredients. At first, I struggled with too many story ideas, paralyzed and unable to decide. Perusing file folders of clippings and news articles from my morning newspaper reading. I sort, narrow and winnow. Is this a potential catalyst that might capture my protagonist's attention? Finally, I decide. Whew! It's an uncertain time for me as an author. Despite having written two adventures for her already, I can't help shiver a little and wonder if I'm up to the task. I must trust the process, although it seems a daredevil move to believe that the magic will return to the pages again. But the thrill of story creation lures me on.
During the time of quarantine, I felt most fortunate to live in sunny FL. Especially since there is a small dipping pool and fountain located just outside our front door. While the world paused, I was able to step out each morning hearing the rustle of palm fronds above mingle with cascading warm blue water for an hour-long water aerobic/yoga workout. It felt wonderful to stretch tight muscles and tilt my face toward a dazzling blue sky. As the days went by, I noticed I had a small brown-striped companion. A bold, curious Northern Curly Tailed lizard began to sun himself on the pool ledge, occasionally skittering away to hunt bugs among the flower pots. Some mornings, I found half-drowned beetles floating in the water. Before I knew it, I was flicking bugs his way, charmed by his obvious delight as he snapped them up. I have now named him Triple-H: His Hungry Highness. When the beetle source dried up, he became indignant, darting to the ledge, standing upright, reminding me he was hungry. I still check the pool and skimmer every day, apologizing when there are no juicy morsels to send his way. For two months the whole world shrank, but mine grew a little bigger just by befriending one small creature in nature.
I love that my eleven-year-old protagonist, Maxzyne, has flaws that get her into trouble. Sometimes she is overconfident, impulsive and a little bit too bossy. I'm quite sure my sisters said some of the same things about me at one time or another. As the eldest, I certainly had my own bossiness and bravado that would occasionally land me in trouble with the parents. And when I wasn't bossing siblings around, exploring the Virginia countryside's abandoned plantations or making a roller rink in the basement, I sure loved to read. Reading was my out-of-the-box experience. It gave me so many other lives, places to visit and rules to break without punishment. Every story lover knows that reading is another life lived. Sure, there's no place like home. As long as you can reach for a book, turn that first page and fall into magic.
Sometimes we don't realize there are actual heroes among us. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things - often every day. This pandemic has illuminated for us their commitment and compassion for mankind. It shouldn't have taken a rogue virus to remind us that the brave and focused medical folks are truly heroes as they suit up in their flimsy garb and take on the unknowable and unimaginable on behalf of their struggling or even dying patients. And there are others who are also beacons of light to grateful citizens caught in this storm. My husband's cousin, Suzanne, lives in Shelbyville, TN. Last year she had to step away from her restaurant and catering business to battle pancreatic cancer for a year, bravely fighting for her life and enduring radiation, chemo and surgery. Today, despite the risk to herself as she recovers, she is steadfast in her commitment to others. She couldn't bear to close the business because too many patrons rely on those meals for sustenance each day. Instead, she shows up every day to help prep and package the food for those who need it most. God bless the Quiet Heroes around the world.
It seems like we're all feeling cranky, impatient and tired of having to isolate because of the virus. It's placed such a constraint on our daily lives and yet we still try to maintain some normalcy. Each evening around dusk, my husband and I try to walk for an hour together. Now that the beach has been cordoned off, we stick to the neighborhood side streets and the promenade overlooking the dunes. Several nights ago, I was struck by the luminous Pink Moon rising above the sea in all its majesty. So close to earth, it pulled every pedestrian's gaze skyward as it shimmered in the lavender canvas. Strangers stood the required 6 feet away from each other, pausing to marvel at the giant quartz moon bathed in the last rays of sunset. My heart swelled in wonder as I realized that no matter what our circumstance, nature still brings us together. We will always need the natural world and always need each other.
Sequestered for days and weeks with your significant other can be challenging. Even the best circumstances can find any couple feeling there isn't enough room in the world for all this togetherness. Fortunately, my husband has a great sense of humor. His funnies have saved us from our serious selves many times over the years. An unexpected and flip remark will land in the middle of a disagreement and suddenly find us both laughing hysterically. It changes the energy in the room and makes you see the absurdity of your difference of opinion. I wouldn't trade his boyish grin, twinkling eyes and comic sensibility for the world. And this world can always use more giggles. With or without dimples.
The world has turned upside down. The coronavirus has everyone on edge and many changing their daily routines to work, socialize and learn online from home. Once the virus has been vanquished, how many things will have truly changed forever as we all adjust to this new online world? Several days ago, I read a chapter from Maxzyne & the Old Horse Theatre to a third grade class now studying at home in Chicago. The students were charming, engaged and enthusiastic participants in this brand new learning environment. They answered questions and asked several of their own, enthusiastically waving their hands on the computer screens.I was thrilled to learn two students have dreams of becoming authors themselves, both writing stories now. What tales will they tell about this strange, crazy time when the world stopped...and then went virtual?InstagramMaxzyne2014
Somehow I've managed to launch my second book in the middle of a virus pandemic. My glass half-full thought is that lots of kids are home now and they might want to read something new. I also feel that this social-distancing down time might force me to finally take a deep dive into the next book. I've got so many ideas, but I need to sit down, sift through them, and see what truly excites me enough to head in that particular direction. Because if there's one thing about writing a book, you better like your story since you'll be spending a lot of time with it! I'm also thrilled to have been invited to do an online author reading one afternoon next week. Check my Instagram #maxzyne2014 for the details as my Plan B is slowly and positively implemented. Sometimes those clouds really do have silver linings.
People often ask me where I get my story ideas. When I lived in Chicago, just walking down Michigan Avenue was enough to inspire me. Because it's a huge tourist destination, the carriage horses with wide-eyed passengers in tow, could be seen striding gracefully along the streets in all seasons. I marveled at their calm demeanor despite the honking cars, trucks and buses impatiently changing lanes around them. "How do they do that?" I wondered every time I saw the old-fashioned transport. "Is it really a good idea for a horse to be out on a busy city street?" Questions like these became the germ of a book idea that turned into the next adventure in the Maxzyne series. America's most impulsive heroine is back in the latest book, Maxzyne & the Old Horse Theatre. It's available March 17!
When a homeless woman gives Maxzyne a painting of a French poodle just like the one in a storefront display, it turns out to be more than just a coincidence for the impulsive 10-year-old. Maxzyne finds herself at the center of a rescue mission when a wayward freight elevator, a family of enchanted vintage mannequins in distress, and a secret tunnel propel her straight into the mysterious depths of a Chicago department store. Can she convince the ghastly Gigi not to use the mannequins' heads in her art exhibit before store closing? It's a race against the clock for Maxzyne and her new mannequin sidekick Elise.Despite her overactive imagination and tendency to get distracted, she learns some important lessons about loyalty, bravery, generosity, and accepting responsibility for her actions. A wonderfully spirited and fun adventure story, Maxzyne Meets the Mannequins is a delightful read for children of all ages.
Isn't it interesting what authors choose for their characters? In Maxzyne's case, if granted a birthday wish, she would request a sister to keep her loneliness at bay. Also, she intuits that a sibling would be a useful distraction to her mother's anxious parenting style. If nothing else, a sister would be someone to join in on her many escapades and adventures. Maxzyne would simply provide entertainment for two through her vivid imagination. Just as she does in this chapter with her new mannequin friend Elise. Looking back on my own childhood, as the eldest of four sisters, I wouldn't have wasted a wish on a sibling. Certainly they would tell you that I preferred not to be bothered by them. What a grumpy big sister I'm sure I was! No, I didn't have to use any birthday wish magic to invoke something special. I was lucky enough to already have what I didn't know I needed most - my three sisters.
Yesterday I had an amazing virtual author reading with a class of 5th grade girls in Kuwait City. I say amazing for several reasons, the first of which is that the technology actually worked and I was able to see and hear them, read a bit of the first book and also answer questions. The second was that I was able to adequately function at a very early hour due to the time difference in the Middle East. Finally, their enthusiasm was contagious as they each asked insightful questions about being a writer, finding story ideas and questioning motivations behind some of the characters. After waving goodbye and exiting the session, I couldn't help feeling in awe of the teacher who organized the entire event for their school's Book Week session. It reminded me of all the teachers in this country and around the world who are continuing to engage their students in meaningful and productive ways despite the obstacles of the virus. God bless them all.
Living on the same block as the historic Marshall Fields department store building in Chicago was a delightful daily distraction for me. Even if I was in a rush, those oversized windows with their artistic displays of merchandise always caught my eye and imagination. I had to slow down to absorb and admire the creative use of color, fabric, paint, flowers, mannequins and ingenious merchandise placement. Who were these amazing artists behind the scenes creating new themes and ways of expressing them through their sparkling sidewalk story windows to the world? Visual display merchandisers are the purveyors of dreams and possibilities. One glance and you can be transported to another time, place or version of you. Now THAT'S magic.
Last week I tiptoed into a new decade. I say "tiptoed" because the event was somewhat downplayed due to the virus. However, six of us bravely gathered at a nice local restaurant, sat six feet from other tables, drank champagne, wore silly party hats and enjoyed some very delicious food together. It was wonderful. Perhaps sweeter than usual because we each reclaimed our normal social lives for several hours despite donning masks to use the restroom. I was certainly thankful for their presence as I celebrated my journey thus far on this spinning planet. The richness of life is in the relationships. As my 10-year-old character Maxzyne might wonder, do I notice any difference since reaching this milestone? Not so much. Taller? Nope. Smarter? Not really. A little more grown-up? Not exactly. In my case, just maybe a bit more grateful. For everything and everybody in my life. Thanks for being a part of it. But don't ask me to share that last chocolate cupcake waiting on the kitchen counter...
I love using some of my own foibles in my characters. Just like Maxzyne, lack of focus is a big one for me. For example, when we moved to Florida recently, I had not driven a car for 15 years. I loved living in the heart of Chicago. Life was just a sidewalk, cab, EL or bus ride away. In the midst of the city hustle and bustle, I was free to wander everywhere, especially in my mind, whatever my destination. Distractions beckoned. I admired shop windows, dodged distracted tourists, avoided panhandlers, surveyed skyscraper windows and marveled as glittering lobbies disgorged lunchtime crowds like salmon swimming upstream, flowing into busy restaurants. All this, mingled with a cacophony of sirens, street musicians and screeching metal of the EL rushing overhead. There was so much to notice and absorb that it was almost sensory overload. Fortunately, I took that lack of focus and let it swirl, simmer and ferment in my brain, until this first book eventually oozed out, one chapter at a time. Now that I'm driving in Florida though, I sure do miss that lack of focus. I quickly re-discovered that driving requires I pay attention!
This week I've been eating a lot of chocolate. Knowing my weakness for the velvety flavor in all its glorious forms, I try not to keep it in the cupboards. Why? For some reason, particularly after dark, it seems to come alive, taunting me. I hear its siren song, creating visions of ice cream, cake, cookies or candies that have me salivating for a quick fix. This leads to a sugar and cocoa caffeine-fueled rush, sure to cause a maddening case of insomnia. I know this and yet... my husband's birthday several days ago was an occasion, er, excuse, to order a double-chocolate layer cake from the Italian bakery and, of course, a carton of chocolate ice cream to serve with it - all faves of my equally chocoholic spouse. Yes, we've whittled away most of the temptation, one slice and scoop at a time. Just one more night of indulgence and then maybe I can get some sleep.
I enjoyed writing this scene of Elise experiencing life as a real girl for the first time. The escalators in the historic Marshall Fields building are truly impressive to see as they carry shoppers up toward the glass atrium for seven levels. Elevators are also available, but I always preferred the leisurely pace of the escalator, riding up and away from the big center fountain below, taking in the swirling, bustling crowds entering and exiting in every direction. It was fun to imagine how many ladies, in particular, over the decades, probably rode the same moving staircase, meeting for lunch in the dark wood-paneled Walnut Room restaurant after exiting at the top level, all while chattering their way to a white linen-covered table. The styles they wore over the years have changed, but the friendships forged over a fluffy-crusted chicken pot pie and Frango mint ice cream sundae for dessert are forever.
I found Chicago to be a wonderfully creative and stimulating city while living there for over a decade. Within weeks of moving there, I began taking classes in dramatic writing offered by various local theaters in town. Musical theater, in particular, appealed to me. I slowly found myself learning how to tell a story through song and drafting the dramatic arc of a story. It was amazing to realize the amount of work involved just leading into a song and how much information and emotion is conveyed through each lyric. Working with talented composers made the experience even more magical. Together we created something more than we initially imagined. Hundreds of revised scribbles and creative quibbles later, it was deemed ready. Nothing quite compares to sitting in a dark theater, listening to the music begin as you share a part of your heart and soul with the public for the very first time.
My mother was a great birthday party planner and host. Although I can't remember my youngest celebrations, I have photographs from several parties to prove her enthusiasm and skills - bright decorations on every surface, including walls and ceiling, tasseled hats and horns for the kids and beautifully frosted cakes with flickering wax candles. She stands beaming in the middle of whooping neighborhood kid chaos in her sheath dress and heels. Elegant and beautiful, despite sweating the details for "my day", I wish I could channel that moment of past birthday princess enthusiasm now as an adult. Harness all that excitement as I fidget in my ruffles, bows and impatience to open the stack of presents beside me. In the years since, birthdays have come and gone with regularity, perhaps some with a bit less enthusiasm, when it falls on a workday and there's no party planner in sight. The "Birthday Wishes" chapter of this book is the longest, but my favorite. I was thinking of my Mom as I wrote it. Thanks to her, Maxzyne knows just how to throw a party for her new mannequin friend. Yes, there must be a party.
Even as a child, I loved words. Early on, poetry appealed to me. Perhaps I was inspired by the sing-song cadence of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" read over and over again to little sisters on rainy afternoons when we were stuck inside at home. I chuckle to remember submitting a school report in prose once. Anything to put a new spin on a boring history paper, right? I suppose those rhymes foretold my future author path, if only I'd paid more attention. I didn't take the time to pick up a lantern, use a map or compass to travel that winding, word-strewn road to new worlds. Now I know the tools appear when you recognize your passion and start believing in your own creative potential. Thankfully, I found my words again. They were always right there waiting for me.
While I wouldn't trade living in my imagination for anything, there are some days that can be challenging. You write the books, edit the books, then market the books, always looking forward, creating a profession from your passion. I tell myself, "If you write it, they will read it," to help me through the tough days where progress seems to be at a glacial pace. It is a mantra I repeat on those days, weeks and months when it takes forever to capture any interest in my carefully crafted tales. Until out of the blue this week, I received notice that I had won a 2020 Independent Press Award in the Children's Fiction category for Maxzyne Meets the Mannequins. I had forgotten even submitting it for consideration months ago. It was an amazing day, as I realized that each of those small faithful steps I made in myself, my words and stories were noticed and now validated. Yes! If you write it, they will read it.
Years ago on my first trip to France, I was quickly enthralled by the pastries served at the sidewalk cafes. Truly, I was in awe of the sophisticated Parisians sitting at the tiny tables, smoking, nibbling and drinking steamed espresso or flutes of sparkling wine, chatting away in the dappled sunshine with seemingly no thought of the clock. They certainly knew how to enjoy their meal and time together. Meanwhile, I visited the typical tourist attractions, but I was always eager to return to the sidewalks to people watch and admire the French goods artfully displayed in boutique windows. On my last day, I longed to buy one item that would remind me of this special "First" trip and signify the spirit of this great city. I searched for hours, dazzled by so many goods, only to have my hopes dashed upon seeing the price. Until I walked into a hat shop. Yes, it was the perfect purchase, although I still spent a cringe-worthy amount. On the plane the next morning, I smiled back at the other passengers grinning and nodding at me, as I carefully stowed the pretty floral hatbox in the overhead bin. I still smile every time I open the closet and see that beautiful memory-filled Parisian hat.
What is normal anyway? I know that when my life is in upheaval, I try to get through it by thinking that soon I can return to my favored routine. I crave getting back to what I enjoy doing every day - reading two newspapers in the morning, developing a new story idea, or a sunset walk along the beach with my husband. I hate to admit that even vacations can make me fret as I fill suitcases and ponder itineraries in foreign places. Why am I leaving my perfectly delicious life where I have and do all my favorite things? However, be it a vacation or life circumstances calling my attention and focus, the experience usually results in a changed mindset. When I do return to the sofa with my newspapers and steaming mug of cappuccino drizzled with a chocolate smiley face by my husband, something has changed. My new normal now includes an extra dollop of gratitude. And maybe even the gift of a new plot point or story idea that might never have happened without disrupting my normal routine.
It's always a bittersweet moment when I hand over my book manuscript to an editor for that first critical look. I'm thrilled and proud of my creation. But my elation at meeting a writing goal is tempered with trepidation. I know my imagination, running wild and free through the submitted pages, is about to be reined in. Holes will be poked in my story, gaffes uncovered in my dialogue, not to mention, plot and pacing found to need trimming. And, oh, how that trim hurts! Sometimes my favorite parts are excised. Gone! Paragraphs and pages of free-wheeling adventure, background or overblown description slowing story momentum is ruthlessly cut. Still, I swallow hard, mourn for the lost bits, and then dive back in. "She's right," I think. "My future readers are going to love this book now!"
Sometimes the start of a new writing project can be daunting. My desk, chair and computer screen beckon, but I resist. Feeling guilty for not getting to work as I should, I tiptoe around them, averting my eyes, instead finding a closet to clean, an errand to run or a friend to meet. I call this malady, "butt in the chair-itis" because my sudden allergic reaction to writing is actually fear. Fear of not being prepared. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of failing my own dream of writing something kids will love to read. And it's always worse when I start something brand new. That blank screen or first page taunts me, literally becoming a character in the room, pointing and shrieking, "Sit down and write already!" The funny thing is, when I actually do, everything is fine. Nike almost had it right. Just sit.
I'm often asked what my favorite thing is about being a children's author. Hands down, it's hearing from and meeting the young readers. A 3rd grade class in Palm Beach is reading the first book now and I'm looking forward to visiting them. They made me the most beautiful cards that unexpectedly arrived in the mail one day. Pinks, purples, and blues, drawn with hearts and flowers. Sentiments of "I love you!" "We love Maxzyne!" "Please come read with us!" "You are a great writer!" brought tears to my eyes. It can be lonely sitting at your desk with only the computer screen waiting for me to write the next sentence, paragraph, chapter or book. But when I meet those sweet students who are enjoying Maxzyne's adventures in reading class this semester, it will all be worth it. Their smiles will be contagious!
What happens when a routine mammogram turns into an unexpected trip to the cancer wing of the hospital? Eight years ago I was stunned by a diagnosis of breast cancer. "But how can this be," friends and family exclaimed. "You work out, eat well, and you're still quite young!" Turns out, this particular lightning bolt striking from a clear blue sky found me anyway. Worse, it was discovered in my lymph nodes and that meant 4 months of chemo before radiation. Suddenly, my husband and I found ourselves in a strange world of medical terms, side effects, and mortality. But as I began to retreat from the world, relinquishing my hair, appetite and energy, he valiantly kept us moving forward. He accompanied me to every appointment, took notes, asked questions, tracked medications, shopped, cooked and taught classes at the university. It was a tough year that taught us both so much. When your world shrinks and fear shakes you to your very core, you hold on tight to each other. Because no matter what happens, love is stronger.
Two decades ago, I had an amazing opportunity to visit China. Looking back, I'm grateful I experienced it before its global boom. For instance, at the time, there was only one Starbucks coffee shop! Although it was located in the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel where many international travelers resided, I still wondered why anyone would drink coffee in this land of fine exotic tea. I recall one lovely historic teahouse on the water in Shanghai. It was accessible only by crossing a long crooked bridge purported to keep evil spirits at bay. I chose a flower tea from a photo on the Chinese-only menu. It arrived at our small wooden table with dried pink blossoms floating in the steaming water of a glass teapot. The nibbles that were served with the small teacups were their own adventure. We peeled strange fruits, sampled sweetmeats encased in shiny green leaves, and even tried a few speckled quail eggs. My advice? For a memorable afternoon, skip the Starbucks latte, and just wing it with a foreign menu and all the tea in China.
Like Maxzyne, a strange environment and threat of danger can bring out my worst case scenario tendencies. This happened to me one morning while riding the subway in St. Petersburg, Russia. My husband and I were squeezed into a subway car where we stood swaying and holding on to the overhead straps, our faces bobbing into the armpits of strangers. Suddenly, the lights went dark. As we continued to hurtle through the underground tunnel I immediately smelled smoke. "Fire!" I gasped to my husband who snaked his free arm around my shoulders. A woman standing near the back of the car pushed a button to alert the conductor. Her frantic call for help in Russian was met with a brusque, staccato order. I couldn't believe that the train continued to move forward. Imagining the worst, I was sure we would die. My thoughts raced as the smoke swirled, an acrid burning smell rising fast and constricting my lungs and throat. To this day, I have idea why or how the other passengers, crushed together in our potential metal coffin, remained stoic. Was it something the conductor said? Minutes later, the train pulled into the cavernous and gilded station, doors opening, smoke and passengers pouring from the cars. Not looking back, my husband and I ran for our lives.
I loved Chicago winter days. Now that I live in the Sunshine State, I am often asked if I miss the bad weather associated with the Windy City. People are often surprised when I tell them that I actually liked those months of freezing weather, gray days, sleet and gale force winds compressed and howling between towering skyscrapers. Why? Because it was just like the "snow" days of my youth. Translation: a free day at home! But Instead of TV reruns, Monopoly or a cookie bake-off with my sisters, I instead had a guilt-free day to write. If the weather was fierce outside, all non-urgent appointments or social commitments could be postponed, a fragrant soup or stew whipped up to simmer on the stove and the gas fireplace flames turned up to dispel the grim weather outside. Tucked into my glass window condo overlooking a frosty Lake Michigan, it was like being in my own private snow globe world - except the snow was outside! And I could settle into my writing chair and focus on another world where I controlled the weather, characters and adventure. My story world. Maxzyne's world.
Turning the calendar page to a brand new year can be just what is needed to push a daydream into reality. That imaginary achievement, bucket list item, or grasp of the previously impossible is held up and examined once again. Could it ever be? Suddenly, there are another 352 days to make it happen. Will this be the year? I am just about to sign off on the final proofs for the next book in the Maxzyne series. In a few weeks, "Maxzyne & The Old Horse Theatre" will be available to young readers everywhere. When I published the first book, I was elated. I held that dream in my heart for so long and now I was actually holding it in my hand! The first book proved I was a writer. Somehow, though, this next book makes me an author. Happy New Year!
Not long after we married, my husband and I began a holiday tradition of heading to Sydney, Australia to celebrate down under. Although he no longer worked at a university (UNSW) there, it seemed the perfect time to escape the chill Chicago weather and head down under for some warm sunshine and longer days. Not to mention, what a great city to visit any time of year! So when an academic conference presented an opportunity to travel there the week before Christmas, we both jumped on it. And now it's become a wonderful tradition on those years we don't see family. Yes, it's a frenzy to get those Christmas cards and gift packages to the post office. We squeeze the calendar and still manage to attend a few holiday events with friends. Did I mention packing a suitcase for both city and beach time? But once I get on the airplane, I feel energized, light and free. Holiday to-do list? Done. And if it isn't, it's too late to worry about it as I secure my seatbelt and choose a movie. Now I relax. Nearly 24 hours later, when the plane lands down under, I revel in the Aussie-style festivities - peace, love, joy and sparkle, but none of the fuss.
How often have you been told your own dream had no purpose or place to exist? Maybe you were given subtle reminders of the impossible odds you faced in actually obtaining your heart's desire. Or, perhaps worse, the soul-draining proclamation that you have no right to reach so high for that sparkling brass ring you set your hopes on. How dare you even imagine doing so! It's hard to go against those authoritative voices that insist they know best. But you know what? It's harder to let go and give up. You didn't get this far in imagining, planning and carefully executing your goal just to let it die because of some shallow negativity. Instead, you pull those arrows of fear thrown your way and deflect them right back out into the universe. Because you know they're made stronger by the affirmations you whisper to yourself and that precious dream. You give it permission, power and energy to rise higher, becoming unstoppable. And those naysayers? They just don't yet realize the world needs your dream.
As the year winds down we can be haunted by all the things we didn't accomplish. This year, I helped myself a bit with a daily resolution. As long as I did one thing to move the ball forward on my career as an author, be it writing the next book in the series, editing, marketing, social media, etc., I could feel better knowing that I was truly being productive and moving toward my goals. In that vein, I have really enjoyed writing these Bublish bubbles every week. I get to rejoin my character at various points in her adventure (that I wrote!), reflect on the writing process and take care of a little marketing and social media too. Who knows, maybe someone saw one of my posted bubbles and a new young reader is reading a Maxzyne book right now. I sure hope so. That's a ghost I can live with.
What could be more fun for ten-year-olds than having free rein in a candy and soda shop after hours? The temptation to try everything and create a few original recipes of her own has Maxzyne making a mess of the store displays. As she entertains her new mannequin friend, Elise, with sugary concoctions and an impromptu birthday celebration, the two girls form a strong connection. Will it be enough to escape an irate store manager?
The holiday season is a time of relationships. Families come together from near and far, celebrating their joy and gratitude for each other. I wonder what might happen if we each remembered to say "thank you" to our significant others, family members and friends at other unexpected times of the year? I say, let's surprise them.
Despite her best intentions, Maxzyne's shifting focus creates bedlam in her promised mannequin rescue operation. It can be just as easy for an author to let a writing goal drift off course. You fill your novel ship with plots, characters, intended daily word counts, and your absolute best writing intentions before setting sail. Sunny blue skies beckon on dancing waves as the spinnaker runs faster than your imagination. Until there is a shift in progress, subtle or abrupt. Is it a change in wind direction? A broken rudder? Or just pirates hijacking your writer's will and story treasure as the book vessel runs aground and shudders to a stop? But like any seafarer worth his salt, you know the key to getting underway again is to listen hard for the call of the muse. She will guide you back to your story as you again sail into the wind, one word, one page, one chapter at a time.
Nobody likes getting stuck in an elevator, whether it's for five minutes or five hours. Particularly if you are all alone, hanging in limbo while imagining every horrible thing that could happen in the dark. Maxzyne's appetite for adventure is quickly quashed as soon as the lights burn out and she is alone in the dark freight elevator. Suddenly, she regrets sneaking out of her condo. Who can save her if they don't even know she is gone? By the end of this adventure, adults and their stifling rules just might seem more reasonable to an impetuous ten-year-old.
What happens when a daydreamer's best intentions are constantly competing with a vivid imagination? Ten-year-old Maxzyne's tendency to get sidetracked from the task at hand is the cause of her current dilemma. Can Chicago's most impulsive heroine keep her promise, stay on point and actually save her new mannequin friends from destruction?
There is no place like home when you are ten years old. That is, unless your helicopter parents are worried sick about your unexplained disappearance from the premises. Upon your return, there is a good chance they will hug you, scold you and threaten to lock you up and throw away the key so that you never scare them like that again. But everyone knows that the lock-up threat is just love talking down the fear of losing you. Yes, you wandered off, had a scare during your taste of freedom, got into some trouble, figured out how to fix it and finally managed to find your way back home. That's growing up. Adults accepting it? That's love.
I love walking past the Macy's windows on State Street in Chicago every week. Part illusion, perhaps even a bit of modern day sorcery, it is as if the merchandisers blow magic pixie dust through the plate glass windows, giving pedestrians a reason to stop and gaze at the goods so imaginatively displayed. Whether it's the latest fashions reflecting a change of season, or holiday goods to tempt you into an entertaining mood, you might suddenly find yourself mentally preparing a party guest list, despite your busy schedule. Just what is that sparkle and pizzazz that entices us into those bronze swinging doors of commerce in pursuit of magic pixie dust? And can I create some of it for my own book sales to kids, parents, librarians and teachers with just a computer screen, website and a few more clicks...?
This month I'm heading into the final proofreading phase for the sequel to the very first Maxzyne book. As my production team and I look forward to a January 2020 publication, I'm marveling a bit as I wrap up several of these last important details. Somehow, despite the long process of writing, re-writing and now bringing the illustrations, interior design and cover into the book's creation cycle, I have managed to birth another book. How is this possible? By lassoing my daydreams, pinning them down and on the page, one word at a time. Ideas became words and words became chapters as another Maxzyne adventure for middle-grade readers, Maxzyne and the Old Horse Theatre is soon available to kids everywhere. Yes, real girls can.
Like many 10-year-olds, Maxzyne believes she is ready to be in the world without adult supervision. In her mind, growing up in a big city like Chicago means she has nearly everything within five city blocks and it's all very familiar territory. The energy, creativity and excitement beckon, so why wouldn't she be able to venture out alone? The world awaits! But those sidewalks are also the home and livelihood of many indigent people, including Esmeralda, a schizophrenic artist who has lost everything. It amazes Maxzyne that some people live their whole lives in the very shadows of her own 57-story condo and she has always been taught to avoid them. Yet this homeless woman's wisdom helps Maxzyne see her own place in the world for what it truly is - someone's daughter who still has big dreams to nurture until she is ready to fly alone. After all, home is where your heart is and the people who love you. So don't be in such a hurry to leave it!
A great mentor is a wonderful gift to any aspiring artist, author or creative person. All of us hope to learn, excel and then launch our storybook dream on dragonfly wings out into the world one day. My own mentor was wonderful. I met Cheri Coons, a playwright and teacher at the Chicago Dramatists Theater, when she was developing an exciting new class, Story Into Song, for musical theater writers. She was warm, knowledgeable, generous and dedicated to her craft. Somehow, she made every student feel that they had written something worthy of the stage and yet was able to give a discerning critique. Her gentle, yet concise public reviews inspired revision that each week took the working draft to the next level. Thank you, Cheri. You were the wind beneath my writing's dragonfly wings
The most amazing feat of the human imagination is its ability to corral and multiply the power of "what if". What if that poodle in the store window can actually speak French? What if there is a forgotten system of tunnels right underneath Maxzyne's condo building in downtown Chicago? What if there is a secret entrance from the tunnels that lead into the historic building right next door where she lives? One of the best tools in an author's arsenal is curiosity. It only takes a moment to look at something ordinary and ask, "What if," but it becomes magical when whole new worlds are created.
My husband and I spent the past week where we live in south Florida preparing for hurricane Dorian's arrival. We watched and waited, trying not to second-guess our decision to stay as the violent storm stalled over the Bahamas. We agonized for the nearby Islands as they were punished by the fierce winds and rising water. We felt guilty to be spared its destruction and yet marveled as the storm bands crossed the sea and brought our coast occasional deluges of rain, wind gusts and pounding waves that roiled and scalded the beach. The turtle nests, along with their markers and signage were tragically destroyed. And yet there was sheer jubilation as the breakers rose high enough to attract local surfers into hazardous water despite vigilant police patrols. Sometimes I think my character, Maxzyne, has hurricane tendencies. She is a force of nature inside and out, often to the chagrin of adults who venture into her path unprepared. You can never be too sure which way she will go, or what she will do next, but when it happens it will be a memorable and energetic moment for everyone.
I never feel alone when I write. When I sit down at my desk and settle into a new writing session I usually start by editing what I wrote the previous day. It helps me return to the imaginary world and immediately ask, "So what is Maxzyne doing today?" Trying to get into the head of a 10-year-old overactive daydreamer who longs to experience the world on her own terms, is a bit like capturing fireflies in a jar at twilight in July. As the author, I skulk, eavesdrop and follow her energetic lead, teasing out her desires and motivations. Most times I know where she's going, but I truly enjoy it when she surprises me and entices me into a chase in the dark.
I live in FL now and the change of season is a lot more subtle; less rain, heat, and humidity starting in October. Locals begin to notice a lot more tourists arriving from colder climates and restaurant reservations are suddenly required. While living in Chicago, the seasonal transitions were much more pronounced. The cold winter days lengthened, but spring seemed reluctant to arrive. No wonder Macy's department store chose the week before Easter to entice us into its historic doors on State Street for their annual flower show. The windows came alive with the gorgeous blooms of a storybook theme or exotic locale. Once inside, the smell of blossoms, fresh greenery mingled with the moist smell of living plants and flowers, assaulted the senses. Hungry for more, people wound their way under the sparkling mosaic Tiffany dome and up the escalators. What delights had the creative staff designed this time to celebrate spring despite the lingering chill outside?
I wasn't an only child, but I was the eldest of four daughters. Growing up, my mother and I had a challenging relationship. By the time I was 10, I was often in trouble for wanting to be anywhere but at home looking after my younger sisters. Or, worse, helping with the daily household chores. (Although I did like getting my weekly allowance.) It was also maddening that my friends were allowed to do so many things that I wasn't, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Much like my character, Maxzyne, I longed to take a stand for my own independence. Writing this book invoked memories of my younger self and the willful spirit that longed to soar outside the realm of parental authority.
Writers often hear that the best way to write a great story, song or play is to "write what you know". Well, no wonder I write children's books! I am and have always been a daydreamer. I can be distracted by just about anything, anytime, anywhere. The busy streets of Chicago create ample opportunities for me to find something extraordinary in an otherwise ordinary stroll down the sidewalk. It's no surprise that Maxzyne, my 10-year-old protagonist, also exhibits the same character trait, much to her parents exasperation. An imagination is a terrible thing to suppress. And that's why I let mine roam as I collect story elements and see what happens when make-believe and reality collide.
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