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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File under: Encouragement

SmileI found it, though I hadn’t realized it was lost. It was tucked in the back of an infrequently used file drawer and browned with age at the edges. The label had long ago dried and peeled off. I was weeding and shifting files anyway and tossed the entire thing toward the recycling bin. Luckily, I missed and the contents spilled onto my office floor.

A few greeting cards and photos caught my eye. This was enough for me to paw through the other papers, some still inside the brittle folder: jokes that had circulated around the office I’d worked in (back before we began “spamming” friends on email with such things), MSS with encouraging comments from my crit group, champagne rejection letters, print outs of emailed messages with an author I’d met at a conference, and a copy of my first ever acceptance letter–for two items at once, to appear in different issues of a children’s magazine.

perseverenceI gathered the spilled contents, returning all to the worn folder and placed it in the “keep” pile. This was my “smile file,” as the faded ink indicated, and I’d long ago forgotten about it. I remembered creating it when I was just starting as a freelance writer. I got the idea after reading an article in a writing magazine by an oft-published writer who had created a “warm fuzzies folder.” She placed in it any items that would boost her spirit when repeated rejections got her down.

In my folder, I added whatever would bring a smile to my lips and create a metaphorical flotation device for the storms of publishing.

After I’d shifted the file drawers and thinned their contents, I returned to the smile file to look more closely at the items within. It was interesting to see how they changed over the course of a decade as technology became more a part of our lives. Handwritten notes left by a roommate or co-worker, motivational quotes, an encouraging card from my mother gave way to computer print-outs or flyers for a crit group or book signing to photos and name tags from writing conferences and presentations. Tucked in the bottom near the back was the file label that had fallen off. “Forward File” was neatly typed on it.

what-nextYes, this file had provided the smiles and encouragement to help me continue moving forward as I acquired publishing credits and built my freelance career. The contents kept me going.
I closed the folder and filed it at the front of the two-drawer cabinet next to my desk. I’ll add some recent items to it and make a mental note to flip through the contents occasionally. After all, we can all use a little encouragement now and again, a reminder to keep treading water toward warmer currents.

What do you do to keep your spirits up when life’s storms rain down?

Looking Back to Move Forward

I’m making my list and checking it twice. Yes, I know Christmas is over. No, I haven’t overindulged in eggnog. And, no, I haven’t bumped my head and now think I’m Saint Nick. But I am creating goals for the coming year.

Reflecting on where you’ve been in order to make plans for where you’d like to be is something I learned to do right out of college. I landed a job at a mid-sized corporation that was rapidly growing (and have management in their early thirties), and every year we had “Make It Happen” days to plan corporate, department, and personal goals.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those "Make It Happen" corporate events.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those “Make It Happen” corporate events.

I learned to begin by making four lists: accomplishments, failures/misses, big dreams, SAM goals (that last stands for specific, achievable, and measurable). Over the decades I have adapted this “process” to include a fifth list. It’s my first list.

1) Begin with gratitude. List everything you can think of–great and small. Challenge yourself to make this as long as possible. Aim for 25 items. For example, I list:

  • the silence of the early morning on a dew-covered golf course (I can see Tee 3 from my lanai)
  • an abundance of westerly sunshine in my living room every afternoon
  • books in every room
  • my health (no meds)
  • watching wildlife on my walks
  • listening to birdsong in the mornings
  • listening to frogs and crickets in the evenings

Once you have a few things on paper it becomes easier to think of things and add items.

Think of all the "victories" great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

Think of all the “victories” great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

2) Make an accomplishments list. Again, list any size achievement (and you can look at goals lists from other years to do this). And, I get silly–listing minor events just for the fun of it. For example, I have a variety for my list:

  • interviewed about The Right To Counsel for CitiesTour program on BookTV/CSPAN2 (a highlight of my year)
  • getting involved in Marco Island Writers group
  • conducting seven summer reading program library visits
  • reorganizing my office
  • finally recycling my dad’s cellphones
  • finding a new venue for writing workshops

These two lists alone can go far in setting a positive mind frame for the next steps. Making these lists are quick ways to reflect on the past year. They also help in jogging memory, especially small items from early in the year. (Of course, I have the benefit of reading these items in my journal and planner.)

3) Make a Dream Big list. Spend time thinking of and listing what you’d like to accomplish in the new year. Think of this as a preliminary goals list. This is for your eyes only, so dream big. Write each as if it has happened, (as if this IS your accomplishments list for 2015.) Don’t allow the inner critic to tell you your dream is impractical, unattainable, a pipe dream. (This IS the dream big list.) For these second and third lists, I challenge myself to come up with more than 15 items on each. In fact, I try to outdo the year before, so this year I’m aiming for 25.

4) Disappointments List. Now you’ll make a list of the goals you didn’t reach. While this may not be as fun as the previous lists, it should be enlightening. Just do yourself a favor and do not judge. (Gag that inner critic.) This list is easy for me since I have a journal ornament which has become a tradition. Each year when I take down the tree, I list my hopes for the new year. Sadly, a few of the SAME goals have been listed for the past four years. Don’t dwell on the negative–this list is to help you gain perspective. The point of all these lists combined is to help you reflect on the past year–the ups and the downs. The misses and disappointments can help you create both realistic goals and the desire to follow through.
Since I have done the above for several years, I have the benefit of looking at past lists to see that I have made progress–a LOT of progress n fact.

5) Create New Year’s Goals. Now that you’ve made all four lists, from the fanciful (dreams) and fun (accomplishments) to the misses and disappointments, you should now set five goals. But this is key: not only will you get a goal, you will also decide what steps are needed to achieve each goal. And you will then create an action plan for each step. It helps to think of this as creating short-term and long-term goals. The action steps help make each goal achievable. (If you can’t figure how you will take steps to meet a goal, it is probably not attainable–at this point.)

Dream

The difference between a dream and goal is the ACTION you take to make it so. (Advice shared with my college FYE students.)

It also alerts you to a goal that is dependent upon other people for you to achieve it. For example, getting an agent and receiving a huge publishing contract is dependent on a lot of factors out of your control. When you create the actions steps to meet this “goal” you’ll realize that you can do a lot of things that will move you toward achieving publication (polishing your manuscript, researching agents who rep your type of book), but they have no guaranteed results. NOTE here that these “unrealistic” goals can remain on the dreams list. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of getting a great agent and a huge contract (and according to The Secret, daydreaming about it creates the positive vibrations to help it manifest). But the point of setting clear and attainable goals is so you can take action to achieving them.

Once you’ve created action steps, your goals list will be longer than 5 items (another reason I aim for a smaller list of goals). They will also likely be specific, attainable, and measurable because you’ve used your four lists to reflect on the past year to ensure your make progress in the new year.

Have fun, happy writing, and best wishes for productive and prosperous 2015!

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!

Time to Celebrate!

Whoa! I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for 3 years! Actually, I’ve only posted sporadically as I juggled teaching in several programs, publishing 3 books (one each autumn) with one publisher  and exploring ebook publishing on my own. But, sporadic was better than the 5-year hiatus I took (right after Hurricane Charley) before plugging back into blogging. So, I won’t get down on myself for the small number of postings considering it’s been 3 years.

I just reread my initial entry. I had become overwhelmed with all the stuff I had to do in my writing life that had nothing to do with putting words on paper. When I began clicking away at the keyboard again, I had found a way to balance to everything writing with everything else and so got “Plugged In Again.”

Celebrating 25 years publishing for children & teens

Celebrating 25 years publishing for children & teens

Touch magazine September 1989 issue

Touch magazine September 1989 issue

I’m glad. And I’m glad I discovered this anniversary. It’s not the only one. Today, April 4, I celebrate 25 years since my first sale to a children’s magazine (actually 2 items accepted at once). I found the letter just after New Years when I was clearing out file cabinets. These first 2 publication credits appeared in the September 1989 issue of Touch magazine (which I believe is now out of print). I received a whopping $25 for both items!

That acceptance was followed by a handful more from that magazine plus a smattering of others, so I didn’t care about the compensation. I was on my way! In fact, I’d been published for about a year in non-children’s magazines (mostly parenting and trade magazines) plus wrote for the local newspaper and did computer software reviews for Compute! and PCM. But my goal had always been to write for children–well, mostly for children. It was exciting news and managed to cover a (modest) celebratory dinner for myself and my boyfriend at the time.

Setting up for the interview.

Setting up for the interview.

The Right to Counsel (Enslow Publishers, 2009)

The Right to Counsel (Enslow Publishers, 2009)

As I plan a gathering to share this good news with friends and writers, I have something else worth celebrating. During March, in the aftermath of participating in an AuthorFest, I was contacted by C-SPAN for an interview. My book, A Right to Counsel: From Gideon v. Wainright to Gideon’s Trumpet,  was sought out by the Cities Tour program while they were in Fort Myers, Florida. The segment is to air Easter weekend (April 18-20) and I was one of 3 authors interviewed. While the crew was in Fort Myers they also taped coverage of the Edison Estate, the historic Burroughs Home, and Babcock Ranch.

With friend and author Susan Westley at Marco Island Writers AuthorFest 2014

With friend and author Susan Westley at Marco Island Writers AuthorFest 2014

Also a result of participating in the AuthorFest, I am now scheduled to present 4 library programs during Summer Reading in Collier County. I’ll share those dates and more info as soon as I have it. So, in all, March was an exciting month and it seems April is picking up the celebration. Cheers!

Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.

Seasons of Life — and Writing

I’m celebrating a milestone birthday as I round another decade’s corner. Though my friends will joke about my age, I don’t feel all that old. No need for black balloons and crying that I’ve topped the middle-aged hill; I actually feel like celebrating! I’m excited by the possibilities. Each decade in our lives is like embarking on a new season. Some have more meaning and significance than others, but all are milestones.

When I reflect on my life I can mark those milestones by the seasons in my development as a writer, too. My early writing years felt as if I were in a holding pattern. I lived to “write someday.” Eventually (thankfully) I moved into a season of writing and reading excessively and taking as many classes and workshops as possible. Next I simply wrote and submitted like mad and, once I’d garnered a dozen writing credits, I began my “reading-study” season again. I read about craft and studied how the pros accomplished their craft. I dissected published stories and articles to learn how the pieces fit together.

Finally, I began teaching. I realized that when I explained what I had learned about craft, it validated for me all I knew and had acquired about this writing business. That gave me confidence. It also forced me to look at my writing from a different angle, especially when students asked questions and I had to figure out how to express the answer. I believe it was during this season in my writing that my talent/craft soared. Things clicked and flower buds of productivity burst into bloom. This was also the season that I most enjoyed my writing because the work of it no longer took so much effort but instead brought joy – it felt free and easy.

Eventually I entered a reflective season. I closed myself off from the demands of sharing what I had learned and focused instead on doing, on producing. I was incredibly productive during this season, but I also felt the loneliness I had often heard other writers expressing (but had not understood as I do now). That loneliness drove me to seek something in my career and I ended up looking within, reflecting on life and craft and career. My writing deepened like the shades of green during Michigan summers and Florida winters. During this time my fiction improved because personal reflection helped me develop more rounded characters as well as the twists and turns that create engaging plot lines.

The next season was one in which I became focused on balancing a variety of teaching and writing. Long ago a Newbery medalist coached me and told me that I could take two paths in my writing career—focus and rise like a rocket, or scatter and spread my interests and climb slowly like a mere jet. I chose the latter only because variety is essential in my life. I became a freelance writer because I love language but also because I have a need to learn and share what I’ve learned with others. (“Teaching one reader at a time” has long been my motto.) I wanted a career in which I could thrive on a variety of projects and I often work on three books at various stages, plus a half-dozen shorter works, all at the same time. So, in this season I learned to better balance all the these demands plus those from family, friends, and so on. Life-coaching helped tremendously in this regard.

I recently embarked on a new season. In this season I am exploring creativity. How does it work? Why do I thrive on varied projects? What is it that I actually do when I get into that lovely flow of writing? Perhaps this is why I don’t mind having those decades behind me. The next is filled with exploring and creating. That’s exciting!

What about you? Have you ever thought about the seasons of your life? Where are you at as a writer and where do see yourself heading? Wherever it is, I wish you happy writing!