Steering Out to Mid-sea

page from original manuscript of George Eliot's Middlemarch
A page from George Eliot’s original manuscript for Middlemarch.

Anyone who knows me also knows that George Eliot’s Middlemarch is my touchtone, my Good Book. Some people turn to religious texts in times of trouble or even great joy. I turn to Middlemarch. This is not for inspiration as writer or even in an attempt to emulate her craft or techniques—it is a singular work, not to be imitated.

A friend and colleague who knows me far too well gave me an amazing gift for Christmas this year: a silver bracelet with this epigram from Middlemarch inscribed on it: I would not creep along the coast but steer out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars.

I wear this bracelet everyday. It’s small, simple, completely unobtrusive, and goes with whatever I happen to wearing (and since most of my wardrobe is also simple and completely unobtrusive, it works out nicely). Yet it allows me to carry a piece of this book with me everywhere I go, and there’s something deeply comforting about that.

I would not creep along the coast but steer out to mid-sea by guidance of the stars

This year, as I’ve thrown myself headlong into a world in which I’m a part-time editor, a full-time MFA student, and an all-the-time mother, somehow having these words about me all the time has meant more than just comfort.

I’ve never wanted to creep along the coast, to take the road that’s been appointed to me and stay safely on it. I guess that’s why I’m putting myself and my husband into debt right now on a degree—and a dream—that might not ever come to the fruition I hope it will. But to not try, to not keep pushing myself, is unthinkable.

Though unlike Tennyson’s Ulysses (or Homer’s, for that matter) in almost every way, I want to “drink Life to the lees.” I want to “follow knowledge like a sinking star.” For some, this would mean a life of exploration and adventure. For me personally, at home with a family I adore, the adventure is the writing.

So, I’m trying to steer out to mid-sea, and if the stars can guide me in any way, let the heavens bring it on.

Where I Write

If you enjoy blog posts in which a writer lovingly photographs and details their office and/or writing space, well…you’re likely in for a disappointment here.

As documented previously, I have no garret, office, or even proper desk at which to write in my little yellow house. It’s the lone (though tragic) flaw of the place. I sought to remedy the situation by buying a tiny, rather gorgeous desk to fit into a corner of our dining room from Craigslist. When we brought it home, though, it was clear that while it did fit into the corner of the dining room, it didn’t really fit me.

writing space

 

It is, however, the perfect size for someone quite small to use to complete homework and write letters to pen pals. There are little cubbies that hide markers, crayons, and fancy pens with which to tackle tedious homework assignments. The green felt has even been baptized with Elmer’s Glue.

SAM_0184

So, the desk is a win for my kiddo, even if not for me.

The place where I actually write not only doesn’t belong to me, but isn’t even in the same small town that I call home. It’s a coffee shop in Salem, Massachusetts called Jaho Coffee and Tea.

Jaho Coffee and Tea, Salem, Massachusetts

Everyone at Jaho is very kind, their music is good but never too loud, and they allow me to sit there for far too long while I write. Also on the plus side: there’s also no laundry at Jaho to wash, dry, or fold, no dishes to do, no house to clean—nothing but a fine cup of tea.

Jaho Coffee and Tea, Salem, Massachusetts

I love this little coffee shop, both for what it offers me inside, and what it offers just outside its doors.

Because just steps from Jaho, is a portal back in time. The House of Seven Gables is just down the street. A schooner is docked next door. There’s a lighthouse to walk down the wharf to when you need to stretch your legs.

Derby Wharf, Salem, Massachusetts

And Salem’s Custom House is right smack dab in the middle of it all.

Custom House, Salem, Massachusetts

Turn back from the lighthouse, and the view can almost trick you into believing that you’ve stepped back in time, and that Nathaniel Hawthorne is going to come striding out his job at the Custom House (and into my waiting arms?) at any moment.

Schooner Friendship, Custom House, Salem, MA

In other words, the place has what Anne of Green Gables would call scope for the imagination.

So, I while I long for a cozy, artfully appointed writing space, I’ll make due with Jaho for now.

 

All Hail Crowd-Sourcing, Or Why It’s Awesome Not to Have to Rely on the Pope

John Singer Sargent, Isabela Stewart Gardner Museum
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardener, complete with halo.

It’s not everyday that I think longingly of times gone by—either my own times or ones much longer gone by. I’m generally pretty happy living in the here and now. But two recent events—the surprise retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and a trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—have left me thinking of days gone by when the uber-rich (be they of the religious or mercantile variety) used to fund the arts.

It was hard not to look at the John Singer Sargent paintings at the Gardner Museum and not ponder both the friendship he shared with Isabella herself, but also her support of his work.

Sure, there are still uber-rich people who buy art. But no one’s asking the likes of Sargent to paint a saint-like portrait of them (dripping in jewels, no less) and certainly no one’s commissioning a Sistine Chapel anymore. And there’s something sad about that.

However, this little moment of nostalgia for a patronage I never experienced has changed into a moment of optimism about the here and now. As I ponder the idea of being a part of a Kickstarter-funded project, I’m quite pleased, thank you very much, to be living in a time and place where the arts can be funded by people for whom Vatican-level riches have proved elusive. In other words, funded by people like me. And for people like me.

File:Hands of God and Adam.jpg
You don’t have to touch a deity anymore (or even a pope) to get your creative work off the ground.

It’s a democratization of arts patronage that gives the artist (no matter what creative art he or she practices) more freedom to create and more freedom to find the right outlet for his or her art.

So, let’s give a round of enthusiastic applause to Kickstarter, Pubslush, and other organizations of their ilk for providing artists with a means to create—while thankfully taking papal support out of the equation.

A Valentine’s Celebration of the Good Boys of YA Lit

There are girls (and women) who have a serious soft spots for the bad boys of life and of literature—many of my dearest friends among them. For some reason, I have never, ever been one of them. Sure, Heathcliff is fun to read about, but would you really want to hang out with him? Even when I was much younger, I tended to lean toward funny, smart, charming guys.

Thankfully in the world of YA literature, there are still plenty of these “good” boys to have crushes on to offset the depressed, darkly brooding romantic heroes that still plague the pages of books everywhere. And, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, here are a few of my favorites.

Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables

Gilbert Blythe, from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series

Anne thought she wanted brooding, but it turned out she wanted Gilbert. Sure, he started off his relationship with her by pulling her braids and calling her “carrots.” But soon thereafter, his roguish good looks and playful spirit won all of our hearts. Though it looked like he’d never gain Anne’s affections, his love stayed true, and he persisted in dreaming of his life with her. Generations of girls have swooned.

Po from Kristin Cashore's Graceling

Po, from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Bitterblue

Po may have looked like something of a bad boy—piercings, tattoos—but was good to his very core. His romance with (arguably a bad girl) Katsa is one of the most believable love stories in YA literature. Their internal conversations once she realizes what his grace truly is are almost thrilling in their understatement. And those silver and gold eyes…sigh.

 

Will Pary in His Dark Materials trilogy

Will Parry, from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

Brave, noble, loyal and utterly trustworthy, Will fights to protect his mother, and ultimately gives up his true love in order to save the rest of the universe(s). He’s definitely cut from a more serious cloth than the previous two romantic heroes, but he’s the type you’d always want in your corner.

 

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games

Peeta Mellark, from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy

The whole Gale thing never really held any water for me. It was Peeta all the way, from the moment he threw the bread to a young and starving Katniss in the first book. My heart broke for him when the Capitol managed to make him lose himself—the one thing he most feared—and then cheered when he ultimately came back to himself and Katniss. He’s a golden dandelion of hope.

Augustus Waters, The Fault in Our Stars

 

Augustus Waters, from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

The thinking girl’s romantic hero, his thoughts were stars he could not fathom into constellations. I literally laughed and wept when reading this book, and felt—along with Hazel—thankful to have known Augustus. To write more would be to get emotional about the book all over again. And I’m just not going there on Valentine’s Day.

 

Michael Moscovitz, The Princess Diaries

Michael Moscovitz, from Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series

He writes songs, he’s a computer nerd, and he’s the older brother of Mia’s best friend. But who, really, didn’t could resist a boy who writes songs about you being a tall drink of water? Mia couldn’t.

 

 

And, the ultimate proof that I love and cherish good boys? I married one. Smart, funny, charming, incredibly caring—he’s the love of my life. So, Happy Valentine’s Day to him and to you…and to whoever your romantic hero is!

They’re Just Not That Into You: Or Dealing with Rejection

Liz Tuccillo, He's Just Not That Into You
Editors, as well as romantic interests, sometimes just aren’t that into you!

Creating children’s books and finding healthy relationships have more in common than it would seem on the surface.

As an editor, the joy of finding that perfect story is inextricably joined with the agony of having to reject many, many more each year. Having to explain to someone that their picture book story, their proposal, their novel, just isn’t for you is by far the worst aspect of the job. It’s like breaking up with someone whom you’ve never even met. I can picture the person on the other end receiving my letter or email…and I know how it feels because I’ve gotten my share of them as well.

Indeed, I recently received one. It was actually an incredibly kind and supportive rejection as these things go. It even came with some detailed feedback and an invitation to submit more of my work. Honestly, you couldn’t ask for more than that—unless, of course, you were to ask for a book contract.

Receiving this rejection would have devastated me a few years ago. And let’s be honest, it still doesn’t feel great when someone just isn’t that into your work, especially since I know from years in publishing that no matter how much blood, sweat, and tears one puts into a story, it doesn’t mean said story will ever see the light of day.

It’s a dreary little realization, to be sure. But hand in hand with it is the fact that getting rejected is just one of many facets in the long process of writing. As much as it stings, it can be an incredibly useful one, too. I’m armed with new thoughts on how to revise this particular story, which will help shape it moving forward.

And who knows? Maybe these particular revisions will lead to this story finding a home at another publishing house someday.

And I’ll find that dream editor who’s totally into me…or at least my writing!

 

Children’s Books Worthy of a Blizzard Read

A blizzard is coming—as least it is in our neck of the woods. The meteorologists are predicting more snow in the next two days than I’ve seen at one time in my whole life. Groceries have been purchased, schools have been cancelled, and hatches have been battened down.

And what could be better on an extraordinarily snowy day than curling up under a toasty blanket and reading a good book with the little person in your life?

Nothing really.

So here are a few of my snowy day favorites, in all shapes and sizes (and age ranges)!

The Snowy DayEzra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day:  Sure, this one is a no-brainer, but only because it is so enduringly wonderful. As a former city kid, seeing Peter venture out into the cityscape transformed by snow is nearly irresistible. And when he finally finds the kid across to hall in the end to share the snow with, it’s a thing of beauty. Lovely to look at, fun to read.

A Perfect Day

 

Carin Berger, A Perfect Day:  Gorgeous snowy artwork overlays handwritten notes as seeming an entire town’s worth of kids come out to frolic in the snow. At the end of the perfect day, there are warm hugs and even warmer steaming mugs of hot chocolate—and the promise of another perfect day in the snow tomorrow. A new favorite!

Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow

 

Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow:  Just because Geoppolis has had a blizzard’s worth of snow dumped on it doesn’t mean that life stops, and that people don’t still need to get places. Only Katy—tractor turned strong plow—can dig everyone out and get whole town running again. Girl power on the tractor level, and Virginia Lee Burton’s artwork to boot—it’s a winner.

Jennifer Plecas, Emma's Magic Winter

Jean Little and Jennifer Plecas, Emma’s Magic Winter:  Another new favorite, this sweet and gently funny tale of shy Emma finding her voice—with a little help from a new neighbor and their matching “magic” snow boots—has won over hearts in my house. Perfect for young independent readers, with a message about overcoming one’s fears that comes with a spoonful of sugar, and lot of fun in the snow.

 

Ernest ShackletonJennifer Armstrong, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World:  Looking to share your obsession with Ernest Shackleton with the young person in your life? Wait, you’re not obsessed with Ernest Shackleton? This book will make you a convert. Details abound about this ill-fated trip of Antarctic exploration in which the ship got smashed on ice, the entire crew had to set up shop on the ever-moving ice—and not a single life was lost. Illustrated with some of Frank Hurley’s original photography from the ordeal, this also features some pretty awesome storytelling.

Jo March, Little Women

 

Louise May Alcott, Little Women:  Hey, the blog is named after Jo March. You had to see this one coming. The whole book is pure gold, but the wintery scene in which Jo first becomes friends with the ailing Laurie practically glows. Perfect with a warm beverage and someone who likes to snuggle up as you read aloud to them.

For everyone facing the storm today, bundle up, stay safe, and have fun!

Baking a Pie with a Little Bit of Picture Book Love

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
Hannah Whitty’s lovely morsel of a pie, made with love.

A Little Bit of Love—a picture book story I wrote about a mother and daughter mouse duo who gather ingredients around the farm in order to make a pie with a little bit of love in it—was published by Tiger Tales way back in 2011. Turns out, though, that it doesn’t matter how long ago it was published to my daughter, because it’s grown in her affections as she (and the book) have gotten older.

Yesterday—for the very first time—my daughter and I launched a full-scale reenactment with some key differences:

The mama and small mouse go to the beehives, mill, huckleberry bushes, and dairy for their ingredients. We went to the grocery store.

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
The mice went around the farm…we went to the supermarket.

Huckleberries don’t grow on every bush, especially in Massachusetts in February. So, we opted for strawberries. And, alas, there are no mills hereabouts to give us freshly ground flour (though we wish that there were), so whole wheat pastry flour it was.

Unlike the perfectly neat loveliness in Hannah Whitty’s illustrations, we made an unholy mess in our kitchen.

But we did still shake cream to make butter.

And we still rolled the dough as thin as a crumb. We even sealed the pie with a kiss.

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
Rolling out the dough as thin as a crumb…and making a mess doing it.

 

We were covered in whole wheat pastry flour, smeared with cream and butter, and there were strawberries EVERYWHERE. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything—story came to life for us on that snowy Sunday morning. And if ever a pie tasted like it had been made with love, well, this pie was it.

So if you have a snowy Sunday morning on your hands, and are looking for something sweet to nibble, here’s what we did:

Strawberry Pie (made with A Little Bit of Love)

strawberry pie
We dotted our pie with daisies to accentuate the love.

For the crust (makes two 9-inch crusts):

  •  2 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 14 tablespoons of very cold butter (some of which we made ourselves)
  • Several drip, drip, drops of honey

Pop everything into the food processor and whirl it around until a dough form. Chill briefly, and then roll out on a well-floured surface. Press one crust into the bottom of the pie pan.

(Adapted from a Whole Foods recipe you can find here.)

For the strawberry filling:

  • 5 cups of strawberries
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 3 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • a pinch of salt
  • milk to brush on top of the crust

Preheat the over to 400 F. Wash and hull the strawberries. In a large bowl, add the sugar, salt and corn starch and mix it well, and then get your pie crust and fill ‘er up. Use a small-sized cookie cutter to create the design of your choice for the top crust. We opted for tiny daisies, because that’s just the way we roll. Brush the top crust pieces lightly with milk, and seal it with a kiss (if you dare). Bake at 400 F for 25 minutes, and then at 350 F for another 30 minutes. Let the pie cool completely before you try to cut it. Feast on every last nibble.

(Adapted from the Neelys’s recipe here.)