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.
To quote civil rights activist John Lewis, "“I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.” In this particular excerpt, 11-year-old Maxzyne is certainly having a moment of "good trouble" as she tries to gain the attention of Chicago lawmakers. Her ultimate goal is to help carriage horses by proposing a change in law to keep them safely off busy city streets. I love the idea of kids being a force for positive change in their world. A compassionate heart, vivid imagination and loud voice pointing folks in the right direction is all they need. Adults, are you listening?
Is there something you do, a skill, talent or attribute, that might be both a positive and negative in your life? My 10-year-old character realizes this about her artistic nature and must come to terms with the way she uses it. Her talent makes her unique among her classmates, but sometimes her pride and ego become the driving force behind her creativity. My own "best/worst" trait might be an addiction to current events. I love to read two newspapers a day - one local and one world - relishing the daily ritual with my cappuccino each morning. Yes, I'm informed about what's happening in the world, but I often find myself having to rush through other parts of my day. However, the best part of all that newsprint absorption are the new ideas for other scenes, stories, helpful facts and potential adventures for Maxzyne.
As an author, I do have certain things I like to use that help inspire and streamline my writing process. Before I even begin to write, I spend a lot of time imagining the world in which the adventure occurs. Right now, I'm writing the third book in the Maxzyne series, and it mostly takes place underwater. I was thrilled to find a large color newspaper photo depicting a girl about my 11-year-old character's age swimming through a school of fish. A stream of water bubbles surround her breathing apparatus as she looks straight at the camera, while hundreds of finger-length silvery fish swirl around her. It's the perfect photo for imagining this strange underwater world and a human's awkward and precarious place in it. This small reminder helps me create an authentic experience for the reader, finding the words to help them visualize and become immersed in this watery world.
My eleven-year-old character, Maxzyne, exudes self confidence in this particular excerpt. Although I am the author who created her, sometimes she amazes me with her belief in herself and her ability to come up with just the right thing to say when needed. I love that about her! She makes it fun for me to write her adventures. On occasion, I find myself laughing out loud as she finds herself in all kinds of vexing situations, real or imagined. When I sit down to write, I ask myself, "What's Maxzyne doing today and how is she going to get herself out of this particular predicament?" Sometimes it's hard to keep up!
When was the last time you felt you needed a disguise? I have to ponder this for a moment...I suppose for me it is the year I spent battling breast cancer and lost all of my hair. It was definitely a challenge to figure out the best way to disguise my poor bald head! Beyond aesthetics, it's a lot colder without hair to warm your scalp. I did have a wig available, but decided it didn't work for me. It was just too fake. Not my own hair, not my style either. So I chose simple cotton bandanas to wear around the house and found some very cool hats to keep me feeling normal as I walked Michigan Avenue during my locks-free year. By the way, my cancer was discovered during a routine mammogram - make sure you keep your appointment!
What was the last thing you did that took just a few minutes and made a big difference? Was it something that changed your day, your life or someone else's experience or perspective? I know that a five-minute gratitude practice certainly helps lift me into a brighter and happier frame of mind. It also helps that I live in the sunshine state and dazzling blue sky and sunshine give me two things to immediately be grateful for each morning. I recently read about the power of a five-minute favor for a stranger. Take just a few minutes to give feedback, introduce strangers with a common interest, or perhaps recommend/share posts of new writers. Like Maxzyne says to these impatient city officials, "What's a few minutes when it means so much...?" For horses and humans.
This morning I read about a proposal in our local paper to change the Florida state bird to something more representative of our southern location and culture. Surprisingly, for many years, the mockingbird has been the Sunshine State's designated feathered creature. However, the mockingbird is also found in several other states, so why not change it? In 2008, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a vote among 780K schoolchildren to choose the fowl that best represented the state. Apparently, the osprey beat four other candidates for state bird. Like my character in this book excerpt wanting to change a law for carriage horses, I love the idea of kids having a chance to decide. Let kids vote!
This weekend my youngest niece celebrates her eighteenth birthday. I'm so excited for her confident and joyous crossing over the threshold from teen to young adult. Rebecca is especially dear to Maxzyne and I. She shared her artistic abilities with the world several years ago, creating the cover and illustrations of this particular book. It was so much fun to see the adventure through her eyes as she selected each passage to illustrate. Like Maxzyne, Rebecca has lots of joy, enthusiasm, intelligence and creative passion, so I can't wait to see what she does with it all. The world awaits her contribution and celebrates this next step of her journey. Happy Birthday to Rebecca and all the young people celebrating this month. I know you will be the gift.
You know the saying, "Life is what happens when you are planning other things?" It brings to mind the many twists and turns of this tale, from an 11-year-old's perspective. Starting with a thwarted visit to the principal's office that becomes a ride in a runaway horse carriage, that turns into a tumultuous visit to a nearby horse theatre, where she meets an immigrant show rider to help with the horse. The two characters continue on, seeking help from an actual mounted police officer, in this particular excerpt. And that's only the first half of the book! I love all the plot u-turns, speed bumps and racing maneuvers in this action-packed adventure, because it was just as fun to write as it is to read.
Sometimes I wonder how much of artistry is simply savoring the world around us. Maybe it's a rising harvest moon that captivates us enough to want to save the experience of seeing it. Or what if it's just our ego trying to see if we can actually create one for ourselves on a canvas? Perhaps in the act of creating something, or re-creating it, we experience it more deeply and fully. Whether it's a painting, story, song, or sculpture we labor over each tiny detail as we try to make it as perfect as possible. Of course, these projects become a part of us, but we may eventually send them out into the world to share with others. What will you savor today?
"Got this far, now might as well..." People often ask, "How do you write a whole book? It seems like it would be so difficult." The question always makes me smile. My answer is, "One idea, word, paragraph, page and chapter at a time." Like every other daunting project, I must break it down into smaller bits that make it more manageable. So I'm happy to report that the bits have been adding up! This summer I've been busy writing the third book in the series and I'm amazed that Maxzyne's latest adventure is at the halfway point. And although I wrote every word, paragraph, page and chapter, I'm chuckling as I ask myself, "Wow, how did that happen?"
Last week I experienced my first homeschool convention in Orlando. (FPEA) It was fun to present the books and introduce Maxzyne to new young readers attending with their teacher parents in the lovely venue at Rosen Shingle Creek Resort. There was so much energy and enthusiasm in the booths and aisles where decisions were being made about curriculum and kid-centric entertainment. I had a wonderful moment on the final day. Much to my surprise, a mother whose daughter had purchased the book series the day before, returned to thank me. "She's been reading your book all day and just loves it! She keeps telling me all about it. Thank you for writing such a great book!"
As someone who has always loved to read, I write my children's books with the unwavering hope that they will be drawn into the world I have created for them. In this excerpt, I try to introduce them to a young girl's perspective of wandering into an old Chicago horse theatre and its adjacent stalls. The character's curiosity about the historic city building grows as she sees, hears, and smells all things related to horses and their care. The mystery of Rico and Rosa's place in this strange new world greatly intrigues her. Despite being momentarily distracted by the beautiful horses, she is eager to know more about her unusual acquaintances and what they do in this place where time stops and new world wonder begins.
I call Maxzyne "America's Most Impulsive Heroine" because she's quick to act and not always thinking of the potential negative consequences. In this book series, it's easy for me to identify with being impetuous and oblivious to a possible bad outcome. As the eldest child with her head often in the clouds, I was the one most likely to be in my mother's cross-hairs. My misadventures always ended with, "You are supposed to be setting an example for your younger sisters...be the responsible one...what were you thinking?" Those childhood mistakes long ago were just me learning as I grew. And I can laugh now. Thankfully, my sisters turned out just fine despite, or perhaps because of, my exuberant and impulsive example.
A favorite thing about my rambunctious 11-year-old character, Maxzyne, is the way she has to keep learning to get along with others. Often, her predicament reflects this concept. Like most of us, her attitude seems to be that it's her world (real or imaginary) and everyone else should see or do things her way. She has a confident personality and a natural impulse to help someone or resolve a difficult situation. But sharing the reins? That never comes easy for her. It's such an important part of growing up, though. Trusting that someone else might know a better way and you can learn something new from them. Whatever life's adventure, compromise keeps you upright in the saddle and going in the right direction.
"Where is the magic when you really need it?" Maxzyne asks herself as she is taken away by the Chicago police to account for her actions at the parade. As I wrote this part of the story, I was right there with her, feeling both her dread and hope for escape. For me, that's the fun part of being a writer - identifying with the character and all the thoughts and emotions happening in each moment. It's my character's life. I'm creating it and I'm living it with her. That makes it real. Real magic.
It seems that pacing applies to both horses and book pages. I had a lot of fun writing this second book. As Maxzyne's adventure is set up in the first few pages, her tale of woe unwinds as she tries to figure a way out of her school dilemma and impending punishment. Suddenly, like the crack of a gun at the start of a horse race, the story takes off. At this point, there is no turning back for her. Even as I wrote the tale, I was galloping along right beside her, enjoying myself, despite her own trials and tribulations. I deliberately created every setback and used them as opportunities to ramp up the action and raise the stakes in her quest to save the horse. I want my young readers to gallop, too. My goal is to have them turning pages and thinking, "Just one more page, paragraph, chapter...Wow! I wonder what happens next?!"
Just as Maxzyne forgets herself and all of her troubles while sketching for Rosa, I also have a similar experience while in the energy of a creative zone. It's a little magical, that space, where I step out in faith and move toward the story. Sometimes, I'm not sure who is creating the work, because it seems given to me in flashes of insight and inspiration. I have to trust the source to be there for me as I skim this imaginary river of my story world and pluck jewels from beneath the ever-changing surface. The characters and story come to life in ways that I may not have ever imagined - but somehow I did! Hours later, I finally rise from the keyboard. As I review what was written, I realize that while time stopped, the words flowed from that sacred source and I am grateful.
Lately we've been inundated with flyers, signs and robocalls from city officials hoping to be elected for office within our city government. For our sweet thriving village by the sea, it's really been a contentious battle this year, particularly in the mayor's race. A newcomer has the temerity to challenge a long-time city commissioner/current mayor and it's been quite a slug-fest between the two women. I don't like the discord and shade-throwing, but I do admire the citizens who step forward to throw their hat in the ring. It takes a mix of optimism, bravery, problem-solving, compassion, humility and a lot of energy to change hearts, minds and laws. Thank you to each and every one of these volunteers who make a real difference. And may the best lady win.
I love reading stories in the newspapers about kids seeing a need in their communities and doing something to help. Their hearts are big and they are able to see things from a fresh perspective. They aren't afraid to try something that hasn't been done before. Obstacles are merely challenges and opportunities for them to problem-solve and participate. Despite their youth, they already seem to know that they can do and be more for their community and planet. I am inspired by them to also try harder, whether it's volunteering or recycling. I know that it will be their efforts that move our human race forward. They have already learned to reach out, giving a hand or a push that helps all of us toward a better future. Cheers and thanks to all the young activists out there!
Just like the subtle time transition that is happening in this particular scene, I have been slowly moving in the direction of writing the next book in the Maxzyne series. I have my own process, a checklist of sorts. It takes time to research, write notes, choose the characters, the setting and chip away at the various layers that give motion and meaning to a brand new adventure. It's a bit like a "story kitchen" perhaps, as I dream up a new recipe. I carefully gather all the story ingredients, let them simmer, get a taste, reflect, and keep refining. Along the way, I decide what changes to make, patiently letting the bones of the story emerge. I don't want to say that the hardest part is done, but I'm ready to start the next phase, line by line, page by page and see what magic happens next in the kitchen.
I just dropped off a birthday gift for my Dad at the post office. After retiring to SC with my mother 20 years ago, he is now her caregiver, overseeing everything as her memory unravels and she requires more help doing the simplest of things. She also sleeps for long stretches of time so the quiet waiting can be lonely. He recently confided that he finds himself thinking a lot about the "good old days" now. Hmmm. Did he realize those were truly the good days when he was living them? I picture him arriving home after a long workday and grueling commute, accosted by dramatic shrieks between fighting sisters, while the comforting smell of meatloaf wafts through the kitchen. Of course, my mother snaps her fingers at us. "Girls, your father's home. Why isn't the table set?"Just an ordinary day. It made me think about my own life - am I aware that right now, this day, yes, this moment, is already a "good old day"? I need to pay more attention. Savor these days of mine before they're old and cast in the golden light of the past. So what did I give him? A journal and pen. I'd like to know his memories of those "good old days" and give him a reason to keep remembering.
A wonderful event in Chicago brightens the calendar every year in late November. Everyone looks forward to the Festival of Lights parade on Michigan Avenue because it is a spectacle of sparkle. That one special evening kicks off the holiday retail rush in a brilliant extravaganza of lights, excited shoppers, tourists, starstruck children and whimsical floats. It can be cold and windy on the Majestic Mile, but it's worth the extra pair of socks you might need for warmth for the duration of the parade. Squealing kids bounce high on adult shoulders. Red-cheeked tots reach out from strollers with sticky candy cane hands, begging for balloons or hot popcorn. There is always an abundance of Santa hats, striped scarves, jingle bells and glowing reindeer headbands as the crowd breathlessly awaits the magical moment. At last, the mayor flips the switch. In an instant, the wide avenue is transformed into a true winter wonderland of glittering lights. The wide sidewalks are bathed in a mist of colorful twinkling rays, each magnified by the reflections from the shop windows. The holiday has officially begun. What a crazy joyous start to the season. And no wonder I had to use it as the backdrop of this book!
I know someone who has an amazing profession - she is an Animal Communicator. My friend, Laura, has a deep affinity and compassion for Mother Nature's creatures that truly comes from the heart. She is able to understand, reconcile and unite animals with their human owners, which is no small feat. Laura and I had a conversation about this recently and we both marveled at the way children see nothing unusual about being able to converse with other species on our planet. I thought about this as I polished and set up the tiny silver creche manger scene yesterday for Christmas. I placed some of the animals around the baby Jesus and wondered if they might have been talking to the newborn Son. I like to think they were! Laura and I will be talking a bit about her work and my book next week on IG Live (Wed., 12/9,1:30 EST) Join us! @maxzyne2014 and @obestbelovedac.
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.
I like to say that writers are probably known for paying attention. Perhaps we notice the details that others might miss, especially walking along a busy city street. Which is a bit of a dichotomy, given that I certainly do my share of daydreaming as I take in the sights, sounds, smells and overall vibe of the avenue around me. Honking horns, the shrill whistle of a crossing guard, employees on cell phones, gleeful tourists crowding the sidewalk or a homeless man jangling his coins in a cup - they all have my attention. This cityscape symphony swirls, ebbs and flows in my brain, frothy bubbles that gather and rise, eventually becoming a powerful wave pushing forward, forcing me to let them make their way across the page I am writing.
I was always intrigued by the sidewalk artists I would see in downtown Chicago. Many of them were homeless, somehow surviving on the streets with art paper, vivid magic markers, gel pens and a sense of optimism. These sidewalk entrepreneurs would sit in front of the sparkling store windows and create vibrant depictions of the world around them. The EL train as it screamed overhead on steel tracks, or the skyscrapers looming high, reminding everyone of Chicago's nickname, "City of Big Shoulders" were just a few of their themes. I purchased a few of their paintings and have them displayed in my office.There are photos of some of the artists working on their art on my website also. (maxzyne.com) It always feels good to support other artists.
Like Maxzyne in this excerpt, have you given something from your own heart lately? When I lived in downtown Chicago, there were always people in need. So many, in fact, I found it quite daunting. Truly, there were so many homeless panhandlers, just on my own square city block, that it was hard to choose who to help. The winter months were the most soul-draining to see. It was the perfect storm of frigid weather, icy sidewalks, whipping wind and plastic carryout cups with coins shaken as I passed by. I decided that small gift cards from fast food restaurants could be helpful. Being able to purchase a bite to eat and a coffee, gave someone a chance to be out of the elements and warm themselves. Certainly, it wasn't much. But during those dark days of winter, perhaps it was enough to make someone feel real and human again - safe, warm and enjoying a cheeseburger.
In this book excerpt, my character, Jameson, is another adult that I enjoy seeing through a 10-year-old's eyes. An overzealous security guard hoping for a raise, he is determined to show the boss he's on the case. Maxzyne's case, actually, as she tries to help the mannequin family escape their grim fate. However, despite Jameson's steely resolve to catch the mysterious person who appears to be ransacking the department store, it is the imaginative 10-year-old who manages to get the best of the adults every time their paths cross. As I've written before, I love making fun of adults. I suppose that's why I write for kids - I much prefer their perspective.
The scarecrows, witches and jack-o-lanterns are on full display again this fall season. Fortunately, they are mostly whimsical decorations and not scary. Okay, except for some of the huge dark spiders installed on wispy webs artfully arranged across front doors, shrubs and lawns in some neighborhoods. Ewwww! I really dislike spiders. Is there anything creepier than walking through the woods and into a spiderweb? You know the feeling. I react with hysteria - screeching and flailing at my clothes. I shudder to imagine an arachnid crawling over me, perhaps looking for an exposed area to bite. Unlike my 10-year-old character, I don't think any spider painting will cure this irrational fear of mine. What scares you?
Sherwin-Williams just announced the color for the month of September is NOVEL LILAC. Although "novel" doesn't have anything to do with books in the paint company's color name choice, it made me smile. I immediately thought of my 10-year-old character, Maxzyne, and her artistic aspirations and temperament. Her vibrant imagination can hardly keep up with such an abundance of energy, enthusiasm and curiosity. Those three ingredients are always spinning like a cloud of incandescent bubbles inside her head. Sherwin-Williams suggests we "find joy in a bright and bold hue that's all about maxing out your style." I think Maxzyne would agree. Even if, in your excitement to create something amazing, it finds your colors sometimes turning brown.
During the decade I spent living in downtown Chicago, the issue of homelessness was always with me. Poverty, mental illness, drug abuse, and desperation often played out on my own busy city block. Small acts of dignity, like the man washing himself and his clothes in the small fountain in front of our skyscraper condo entrance. Or the beautiful schizophrenic woman who calls herself, "Jan the Prophet", always talking to herself, and selling her colorful paintings on the sidewalk. The young couple, heroin addicts, who take turns panhandling in front of the EL stop each day. Each life so different from mine, but somehow able to survive on the streets. Serving the food pantry at my church and distributing warm hats, scarves and gloves during the freezing winter months were never enough. Yet, somehow, as the seasons changed, they were still there. What were their stories, I wondered? Eventually, I made one up.
Have you heard about the new museum in Washington, DC dedicated to words? It's called Planet Word. How cool that the first exhibit upon entering is a Speaking Willow Tree where hundreds of languages from around the world can be heard. As this book excerpt shows, my character, Maxzyne, likes to have fun with words, even making them up at times. She would really enjoy the exhibit, "Where Do Words Come From?" The 22-foot-tall wall explains the many ways the English language was shaped over the years and eventually became what we speak today. Visitors can even paint with words, transforming a room with color, sound and motion. Words matter. Writers love words. I'm going to love this museum.
In my research for the first book in the Maxzyne series, I came across an interesting tidbit about the story's location. Most of the adventure occurs in the historic Marshall Fields building in Chicago. So I was thrilled to learn that the beautiful building contained an old dumbwaiter. This mini-elevator was apparently once used to send blocks of chocolate up to the top floor where the famed Frango chocolate candy was once made on the premises by ladies wearing white ruffled caps. The Midwest version of the mint chocolate recipe used for the famed candy is said to have used "chocolate made from both African and South American cocoa beans as well as triple-distilled oil of Oregon peppermint and 40% local butter." The candy kitchen was busy mixing up batches of the delicious sweet treat from 1929 until March 1999. No wonder I wrote a dumbwaiter escape scene and gave a love of chocolate to my 10-year-old heroine!
I love writing books for and about kids. In this excerpt, the antagonist chides his assistant manager for "Letting two kids make fools of us!" Despite being an adult myself, I love poking fun at my generation and their foibles. How confusing it must be for children when they see silly behavior by grownups. Kids are smart and they can see through some of the double standards and perplexing actions of their elders. Figuring out the best way to actually be in the world is a serious lesson observed and learned every day in childhood. I just hope they can keep their own sense of humor as they eventually grow into the older, sometimes bumbling, versions of themselves!
It was thrilling to watch billionaire Richard Branson's successful flight into space in the Virgin Galactic VMS Eve aircraft, named after his mother. Amazingly, he and his crew flew 50 miles above the earth and returned to New Mexico in nearly the time it takes to have lunch with a good friend. They made it look so easy, but it was a team effort. Behind the scenes many people were checking and double-checking the critical details. In the post-flight interview, I was fascinated to learn what Branson had taken with him into space. He unzipped his spacesuit pocket and pulled out a handful of family photos. It's such a human thing to choose a meaningful item to take with us on a momentous journey. What would yours be?
In this passage, my 10-year-old character, Maxzyne, finally realizes she's homesick. Amazingly, after all her adventures in the historic neighborhood department store and several hours without adult supervision, she's ready for normal again. Home. During the pandemic we all became a lot more acquainted with home, didn't we? New projects, new recipes and perhaps a few new routines, or at least an expansion of old ones. Now that vaccinations have made it possible to return to our own version of a normal summer, I'm feeling grateful for the opportunities that await outside of home. Meeting new people, enjoying new restaurants and exploring new places. Yesterday, I climbed the Jupiter Lighthouse for the first time. True, there's no place like home. Especially after you've been exploring a little.
My 10-year-old character, Maxzyne, tends to get lost in the details. The smallest thing can transport her to another time and place, much to the chagrin of her mother. In Maxzyne's case, it's a symptom of her loneliness and yearning to be independent. As a young artist, she notices the things that grown-ups might dismiss. She can infuse that one tiny detail with the magic of her imagination and ignite an extra dimension into her life. Just like that, she's off and running - learning something new about the world around her and enjoying an adventure with someone else her age, but without any adult supervision. When reality and imagination collide, there's a whole new world to be found - in the details.
In order to imagine my 10-year-old character's full potential, I pretend to gaze into my writer's crystal ball. Swirling inside, I see a young girl's likes, dislikes, foibles, curiosity and the ways she relates to others in her world. It gets even more fun when I sprinkle in a few ambitious daydreams about her future self. After all, when you are ten, the sky's the limit, right? "She's my favorite artist. When I grow up, I want to be just like her." I find myself laughing at the impulsive and distracted nature that has her changing her mind each time another possibility enchants her. And those distractions that she falls for time and again? Surely, that's the real Maxzyne. The messy bits that are simply arrows pointing out her artistic temperament that will lead her on the path toward a creative career someday.
I made a new friend this week. He's the four-legged kind, but sans fur. And I'm actually not sure about his pronoun, but I'll go with He/Him. The Northern Curly Tail lizards have appeared for the season and you may recall I wrote about one I became attached to last year. I was surprisingly sad when Triple-H disappeared 6 months ago after we had become such good friends. This new guy showed up recently and I have named him Shorty due to his missing tail. He's a robust chap with a healthy appetite for the dried crickets I've thrown him, but something bigger must have had an even larger appetite - for him! It's amazing how much a new brown-striped outdoor pal inspires my imagination and curiosity, not to mention makes me smile. Do you think he calls me Cricket Goddess?
My sisters and I certainly enjoyed finding candy-filled Easter baskets early Sunday morning before church each spring. My mother was very creative, using lettuce leaves and carrot trails to mark where each basket was hidden for her four very excited daughters. Once all were found, things got serious. We became auctioneers. Yep, just like the spoils found in Halloween treat bags or Christmas stockings, we scooped, piled and organized each candy type into piles, retaining our personal favorites. Negotiations were quickly underway as we tried to trade away anything low on our own sweet-tooth list. In my case, yellow marshmallow peeps were the first to be optioned. Next up, the always present and plentiful jellybeans. Funny thing, though. Everyone saved their big, foil-wrapped chocolate Easter bunnies. Those were special and to be savored. One delicate, melting milk chocolate, ear nibble at a time.
My husband and I laughed recently when we realized that we had not crossed the county border for an entire year during the pandemic. This was quite a stay-at-home achievement, for him in particular, since he attends multiple academic conferences around the world each year to present his research. I've been fortunate to be able to tag along usually. We've made friends with colleagues in similar fields from so many places and have missed seeing them and catching up in some exotic locale. This past year, virtual meetings became the norm, so I'm feeling very grateful for all the places I had the chance to visit on this spinning globe. But just like Maxzyne, I'm ready to use my passport again!
The first page is the hardest. Where to begin the perfect introduction to your character and tantalize a potential new reader into turning the page to join her in a brand new adventure? There is so much to convey and yet so little time. Amazingly, this first paragraph was actually my second page before the editor tackled it. Yes, she ruthlessly deleted the entire first page of a lengthy set-up and detail that was entirely unnecessary. Thank goodness she did. I was dismayed until I read it again myself and quickly realized it was so much stronger, tighter and led straight into the story. I now have insight into my character's big imagination and a hint of her loneliness that is conveyed in the first paragraph. Even better, she is just beginning her grand adventure. My advice? Take a deep breath and trust your editor. She is your book's best friend.
I write this submission waiting for a ham and swiss cheese quiche to warm up in the oven. This week my parents are visiting and they always start the day with a hearty breakfast. Each visit is a little more bittersweet than the last, as my mother slowly succumbs to Alzheimer's and my father patiently, sometimes awkwardly, tries to help her manage. Lots of things scare my mother now, who is like a child in her mind. A shower, a formerly favorite food, and sometimes even a change of clothes. She won't let my Dad out of her sight and seems to find the outside world daunting. We coax her to walk to the beach with us for a few minutes or accompany him to his favorite outdoor orchid market to choose a few tropical beauties to take home. They've been married 61 years now and are a testament to the "'til death do us part." in their vows. It's breathtaking and heartbreaking to watch them fade into the sunset of their lives and relationship. But it's me who is most scared of goodbye.
What was the last book you read that really moved you? Several months ago I devoured a children's book that stayed with me long after the final page was turned. This rarely happens, but I have to place it in the top 5 of books I've ever read. Yes, ever. PAX, by Sarah Pennypacker is a #1 NYT bestseller and also made the National Book Award Longlist several years ago. I forgot all that once I entered the world the author created. The love between a boy and his rescued fox was palpable and visceral. Sarah conveys the perspective of the fox in such an authentic way that I will never look at animals in the same way again. From the beginning, the horror of their forced separation and agonizing attempt to reconnect despite a war, kept my heart in a vise and a lump in my throat til the final resolution. Sarah Pennypacker, thank you for creating such a beautiful story in every way; and thank you for recently writing the sequel. It's been a few months now. I think my heart's ready to be moved again.
I'm the first to admit that I can be easily distracted from my writing routine. Several years ago, relocating from Chicago to a sleepy beach town in Florida left me rudderless and depressed. I missed my city routine, friends, and the vital energy of living amidst so much creativity. My manuscript for the second book in the series lay untouched in a drawer, awaiting revisions suggested by my editor. Rather than tackling it, I focused on making our new house a home, getting used to driving a car again and helping my husband transition in his new job. Thankfully, a good friend from my theater classes in Chicago came to visit. I was impressed by her dedication, finding time to make revisions on her current theater project during quiet breaks between activities in the day. Before leaving for the airport, she pulled me aside and spoke to my heart. "You've made a beautiful home and life here by the sea. But you are capable of so much more. Get back to your writing. It's who you really are. No matter where you are."
I'm still not sure where I got the idea for Peppin, a French-speaking, polka-dot poodle featured in the very first Maxzyne book. I do love dogs. Seeing the assortment of neighborhood dogs passing by during our daily walk near the beach is a favorite thing about our exercise routine. My husband and I are definitely dog lovers, but travel too much to care for a pet ourselves. The joy I feel as I give a quick pat between the ears of a sapphire-eyed husky named Atlas ripples through my heart and hands in waves. The enthusiastic greeting of a pair of waddling twin dachshunds stays with me long after they have passed by on the sidewalk. That love on a leash is so generously given and received. Writing is just a way to relive the magic in those moments.
The old year drifts away, unwinding like smoke wisps rising into a starry, hope-filled sky. It won't be missed. The last vestiges of 2020 are still with us, hanging over these dwindling calendar days. Despite a holiday week spent papering over the turmoil of the last nine months with shiny gift packages, mostly delivered by UPS or Amazon, one can't quite forget all we've been through. Like those dirty, dropped masks I see lying on the sidewalks and parking lots now - the new litter. A filmy cloud of uncertainty hovers, forming a question mark. Will the new vaccines truly work and bring life back to a more familiar reality for us all? Or have we already adapted to our future despite what day the calendar says it is? If only those uncorked champagne bubbles could tell us. My toast? More cheer in this brave new year.
It's that time of year again. The Christmas decorations are up, the annual TV specials make their rotation, and the familiar carols are playing so often it's become the soundtrack of my life. Gifts have been wrapped, parcels mailed and I'm mulling over what to write in the Christmas newsletter (about the year we just stayed home!) for the cards I send each year. So why do I keep fantasizing about doing the unthinkable? Yep, something totally out of character at this point of my waist-watching, pound- pinching life. That would be spending a whole day baking Christmas cookies. Poring over an ancient recipe book of family favorites, the index cards yellowed and mottled over the years with my grandmother's elegant handwriting obscured by the occasional splash of buttery batter from cookie batches past. Memories tantalize until I almost taste them; spritz, peanut blossoms, Russian teacakes, chocolate fudge, oh the delight! But wait. Maybe, just maybe, a sister will send some . . .
This holiday my parents visited for five days and it was wonderful. They are getting on in years and I really wanted to spoil them with some good meals and beach time, weather permitting. I have a tendency to put my all into seeing my guests happy and sometimes forget to just relax and enjoy myself and precious time bonding. But could they truly enjoy being with me if I was less obsessed about their food, entertainment and comfort? So I made an effort to focus more on just being me during their visit. Every morning when I awoke, I encouraged relationship-building in my mind, rather than the day's itinerary. Much to my amazement, it worked. I stressed less about the meals and activities and was surprised by unexpected moments of shared family memories, laughter and thoughts about the future. I think the food was still delicious, too. Perhaps even the recipes relaxed.
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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