When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.

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Juggling Words

“I don’t know how you do it!” said one of the women at the writers group when I shared a list of current projects. She said it with mixed disgust and captivation. She has not been the only writing colleague to react with stress to my multi-project, busy schedule. It’s summer and I have both fiction and nonfiction projects in various stages, plus I do editing for other writers, and I’ve taken on two big projects working with clients to help them bring their books into the world. A recent “dilemma” is having a waiting list for people who want to work with me.

think-you-canI never know what to say in response. Sorry–that my life as a professional writer doesn’t appear lazily creative? I do work to keep my life balanced (a variety of projects for a variety of age levels and genres plus down-time and socializing and fun things to refill my creative well).

Often my response is to simply scratch my head and say nothing (implying I am as perplexed with their comment as they are with my workload). This is the bottom line: I make my living doing this so I don’t know how to NOT work on multiple projects. Besides, I once worked as a technical writer and later as a publicist for a hospital. Anyone who has worked in a company should get HOW I juggle demands on my time. Add to this scenario that fact that I was supervisory level at several jobs, which meant I was responsible for my work as well as the work of others (and sometimes those “others” needed help meeting their deadlines/workloads), so I can’t wrap my head around how I could NOT juggle one than one project at time.

Do I find it easy? Not always. Do I find it overwhelming? Only rarely (hey, I’m human after all). Do I find it confusing or draining  or something I dread? Never. I thrive in having many irons in the fire or balls in the air–as my mother used to describe my attraction to busy-ness.

Sysephus-stoneLike anyone else, though, I have good days and bad. I face days when I wonder WHY I chose this career, but it is a momentary frustration. I have had moments when I feel a bit like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill, watching it roll down, and beginning all over again. I’ve also had moments when I think I’m getting too worn out and tired, that I should go get an office job and let someone be in charge and relax in being told what to do. But those low times are few and very far apart. At the end of the day–and occasionally only the end of the week–I am amazed at how good I feel about what I spend my days doing: writing, editing, learning, sharing. I often feel a strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Sometimes the perseverance needed to meet a deadline is the same as that needed to cross the finish line in a marathon. But after the aches subside, it was well worth the effort. Most days, my writing projects do not feel like work. In fact, I feel energized by all that I get done and in seeing the transformation of words into publication.

Daily I feel very blessed to be able to juggle words for a living. You’ll find the same satisfaction and fulfillment if you follow your dream and keep it balanced with the other demands on your time and attention. Best wishes and happy creating!

Of Earth and Trees

Pine and cypress on golf courseThis morning is unusually quiet. Even golfers avoid the dull overcast from last night’s steady rain. Trunks of trees glisten with moisture and drip tears from their leaves as I take my morning walk. Ah, here at the clubhouse something is going on, perhaps to celebrate Earth Day. (On Saturday the place was overrun with children in various activities.)

As I walk and wonder, I recall a similar celebration when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m playing hopscotch with my friends on a sunny early spring day in Michigan. In the middle of my turn I remember, I was supposed to be up at school today! The teacher has talked about the celebration for Earth Day or Arbor Day or something. I think of green and plants and trees and saving the earth from pollution. We’ll do activities, make crafts, play games, and have prizes. I signed up and each day this week our teacher has reminded us.

I rush through my turn, stepping on my stone then jumping off the chalked-in game board. I run home but cannot find my mom. “Dad took her grocery shopping,” my older sister tells me.

Now I’m in a panic. My teacher reminded us, reminded me, endlessly about this. Will I get into trouble?

pine and cypress against blue skyMy eldest brother overhears and offers to take me. He is in his last year of high school  (or maybe just home from his first year of college) and I feel so grown up sitting in the passenger seat of his car. He can drive, though our other brother can’t. Not yet, not for several years.

The school is not far at all, but to walk there I’d need to cut through an abandoned nursery plus an orchard and riding my bike would take me along too many busy roads (some without sidewalks).

We arrive and no one is around. Oh, no, I think, I’ve missed it!

But the school is not surrounded by fences or gates as they are today so we head to the playground in the back. I lead my brother around the building, guiding him through the enclosed Kindergarten playground, and now I can hear all the people and kids on the main playground behind the school.

My brother checks in with one of the grown ups and I run off to find my friends. They’re planting something and I get to help. But I’m disappointed when I reach them. They’re watering sticks in the ground.

“Where were you?” my friend demands. “You weren’t here to check in. We already ate lunch.”

I don’t know what to say. I shrug, because I already ate lunch. At home.

The man smiles. “It’s okay that you’re late. You’re here now.” He’s not a teacher at our school, I don’t think. He shows me how to gently separate the sticks from the pile, make a hole and place a stick in so it will grow. “I know it looks weird,” he says, “but each stick really will turn into a tree. Just wait.”

My brother is next to me now. “Lisa, I’ll be at work when this ends. Dave will come up to take you home. Okay?” I look up at him, nodding.

Then, it turns out, the man knows my brother. They laugh and talk. By the time I realize my brother is gone, our little group has planted a crooked row of sticks at the edge of the playground where it backs up to a row of houses.

Each group rotates through planting stick trees or flowers. (Now that is what I expected. Just like when I help my mom with the plants at home.) We have relay races with prizes, tiny ice cream cups like when someone at school has a birthday. And I learn about trees and plants.

The man says to me, “Your name’s Lisa, isn’t it?” I nod. “That boy is calling you.”

I turn to see my other brother at the far corner of the playground, back by a giant oak tree my friends and I like to play tag around. He’s waving to me. “Come on! Gotta go!”

My friend turns to me. “But it’s not done yet. We get a badge and award at the end.”

I shrug, then turn and run to my brother. We walk the way I am not allowed to go and he swears me to secrecy. I trust him. He leads through a gap in a fence, across a wide plank like a balance beam over gravel pits. Then we cut through the abandoned nursery and the old orchard to enter our backyard.

At school on Monday a hand-printed certificate sits on my desk. So does a thin plaster “badge” shaped like a clover. It reminds me of the cut-out cookies my mom makes, but with a hole at the top with red yarn strung through it. Except, instead of colored sugar, this is painted green with my name lettered in black. This is my reward for planting sticks? I wonder.

k5454-17 Potato PlantThe sticks do grow into trees. When I’m on the playground, I feel proud, especially by the time I’m in grade 4 and the pine trees cause me to marvel that they were ever shorter than a Popsicle stick.

TwoEgretsI like to believe that during this event I participated in the first Earth Day, but I have long since lost the “award” and it could have been Arbor Day (which is celebrated this year on Friday, April 24). Whatever the event, I do know it had a lasting impression on me. I love the outdoors, plants, trees, birds, wildlife. I grew up to write books for children about these topics. I’ve written about the environment, nature, recycling, and sustainability. I’d like to believe the roots of these interests were planted on that spring day long ago when I was still in elementary school.8771543_orig

Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

Write Through the Holidays

The holidays have arrived. Allow me to wish you a most merry holiday dash! For many people, CharlieBrownTreemyself included, the holidays herald the added stress of a longer to-do list, too little time, and frustration at fitting in writing time. When I was still working full-time and freelancing (instead of writing full-time), it was even more stressful because I’d offer myself an early gift of making more time to write. Disaster. Over the years, and especially since transitioning to full-time writing, I’ve learned to balance writing and all the holiday prep using four guidelines:

broken-orn First, back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

Second, make a list of writing-related activities and target achieving those instead of adding word count to your work-in-progress. What is one thing you can do daily (or four times a week, or whatever your goal) to make progress with your writing? Items for this list might include, reading, exploring publishers, finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter), drafting a project summary or cover letter, making outline notes, or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle. These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website about will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

Third, keep a notebook with you. When I was starting out, I wrote magazine articles so I kept a notebook with me at all times, making notes and jotting ideas based on my experiences with family and friends. An article about what women do while men watch football? Tips for faster clean up to get out of the kitchen and back to the gathering? Ideas for occupying little ones during “boring grown-up talk”? I recorded them all, without judging the quality or feasibility. (Those decisions were made later.)journal Likewise, I noted mannerisms and details that could be used to make fiction characters come alive.

Four, journal more frequently. This is still my trick for making writing progress during the holidays. I faithfully wrote daily in my journal (though I frequently skip days at others times of the year). This gave me the chance to clear ideas from my head and record plot and scene summaries for current writing projects. It also served as a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if I only wrote a few paragraphs. After the holidays it’s easy to look at these summaries and plan, then get back to a regular writing routine. Like working out, it was easier to get back into full swing because I kept the muscles warmed up with daily short writing.

If you do not normally journal, now is a great time to take it up. At the very least, jot thoughts and ideas in a notebook for use later. It may provide an added “gift” of creating a regular writing routine to build from after the holidays.

HappyHoliday

Fresh Step Forward

I always enjoy this time of year. Granted, it comes earlier here in Florida, but back-to-school time is ripe with fresh starts. As a kid I loved buying new clothes and school supplies. As a writing instructor I stocked up on pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, and paper for my own use as well as to offer to my students who needed them. As a freelance writer I find uses for quirky and unusual office supplies.

InsectPaperClipsMore important than these things is the mindset for a fresh start. This year I prepared by refilling my creative well during a week during which I “retreated” from social media and distractions. My intent was to give myself time to create new routines, but I now realize it allowed me to take a fresh step forward.

Like a true retreat, my aim was to quiet my mind so I could make decisions on which direction to take my coaching/teaching business as well as my writing career. To quiet my mind and refill my creative well, I spent time:

Devour books!

Devour books!

Reading. Not only did I devour books from one of my favorite services, Book Bub, but I discovered Overdrive, the service my local library system uses for ebook borrowing. I read so much there were a few days I only ate, slept, and read. When the stories began to merge together, I knew I needed to slow down–and work on some of my other goals for the week.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

Reorganizing & Planning. This was another key goal for my “retreat” and an important step toward creating new routines. (Not to mention releasing the clutter so I could make decisions to move forward, which I blogged about earlier.) I also returned to diligently using my planner. This year I bought it from May You  Bloom and love the quotes and petals on the “life wheel.”

Fun with watercolors.

Fun with watercolors.

Tapping into my inner child. I love the May You Bloom site and weekly Blooms I receive by email. One of the best parts about this site is the “permission to be playful” and do something for ourselves every day. So, I embraced that idea and pulled out paints, colored pencils, and markers. I colored as if I were still a kid. Then I painted quick and simple quirky angels to place around my office. They inspire me.

Meditating and relaxing. You can’t “retreat” without tapping into the quiet. One of my favorite guided meditation coaches is Max Highstein. I love the Healing Waterfalls and others, which I used during my downtime. It helped me find calm center from which to make these important decisions and to work toward goals.

Two weeks later I’ve maintained a balance of work and relaxation that is both creative and energizing. Though I’ve cut back on all my teaching (dropped the college level altogether), I still keep my hand in through local workshops. So, technically, I’m not facing a new school year. Still, it’s gratifying to to put a fresh foot forward toward new goals. And my “retreat” helped make it happen. What are you doing to create a #freshforward this autumn?

Settling in to Create

I like that Maya Angelo sometimes worked from the floor.

I like that Maya Angelo sometimes worked from the floor.

I find this interesting:  While I was working on reclaiming my writing sanctuary and simply de-cluttering my condo, I saw quite a few desk and office photos posted on Twitter and other social media. I recall thinking how messy some of the spaces were. For others, I could relate. They had that “organized piles” look I thoroughly understand. (I mean honestly, I didn’t take photos of the stacks of books and files under my desk or in other parts of my condo to share with my last post.) I get it. Creative people have their own methods that work for them (or they don’t last long in this business. Be messy if you need to be, but please make your deadlines).

It got me thinking, though, about famous creative people. I wonder what Michelangelo’s work space looked like. Did Leonardo Da Vinci fire the housekeeper for organizing his notes and sketches into neater piles? Beethoven did. According to Lee Silber, in Time Management for the Creative Person, because Beethoven didn’t trust them (and was a slob) he “spent enormous amounts of time hiring and firing housekeepers.” But what about famous authors? What were their spaces like?

I do recall a beautiful book published in the late 1990s of writers’ offices, The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz and John Updike. I was relieved and reassured by the variety of clutter and mess I saw within the pages (along with neat and ordered, too, of course). Obviously, I’m not the first to wonder. There are recent blogs and articles sharing the workspaces of highly creative people  or the desks of famous authors or–and I find these most fascinating–the
inspiring work places of the famously creative.

I like to see variety and degrees of neat and orderly balanced with stacks and piles along with a few who are the extreme of “disordered mess.”

Twain used a desk AND other areas in his home.

Twain used a desk AND other areas in his home.

Twain's billiards table spread with papers

Twain’s billiards table spread with papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I was most surprised when I sought out photos of some of my favorites: Mark Twain, Rudyard Ripling, Isaac Asimov, and Ernest Hemingway. Numerous images exist of Hemingway’s office but it depended on where and when he was writing.

At Hemingway's home in Havana, Cuba. His office just as he left it.

At Hemingway’s home in Havana, Cuba. His office just as he left it.

I like my objects but Asimov has sooo many.

I like my objects but Asimov has sooo many.