Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Always Time to Pass on a Little Magic

So, I'm busy with my book, but not to busy to send you to a good source of magic:


After all, MAGIC is what THE FOURTH WISH is all about. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

To Write or to Blog, That is the Question

Well, I've been writing.

In a couple of weeks I should be back to interviews and reviews and maybe some essay-type musings, but this new book that popped into my head about four weeks ago has been quite insistent, so I've just gone with it. Surprisingly, it's coming out more easily than other books, although I know it's going to require rewrites. (They always do.) Meanwhile, I'm actually almost finished with this draft, which is a great feeling before going off next week-end to the SCBW&I conference in L.A.

I'm so excited about that conference. I've been to the one-day regional NorCal conferences, and always find them so helpful. But this is the first really big one I'll be attending. Four days of workshops and hob-nobbing. I'll be taking my laptop and camera, and hopefully I'll find time to blog there. If not, I'll certainly blog about it when I come home.

But for now, it's back to the book. Ciao

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Truth Versus Fiction

My husband showed me a small article in yesterday's Sacramento Bee about a dog who took matters into his own hands. Well,into his own paws. This was in Pennsylvania, by the way. Apparently a Labrador was trapped in his car in 90-degree heat for about an hour, due to a shopping trip by his owner: When she unloaded her packages, she forgot he was in the car! Obviously this dog had learned a lot by watching his person's behavior: He climbed into the front seat and honked the horn until she came outside and got him.

Now, my husband and I are dog lovers, and we ooh and ahh over how smart our loveable mutt is, but even we were impressed that this dog knew to honk the horn. Whether our dog would, I don't know -- partly because we wouldn't forget about him for an hour; and partly because neither of us honks the horn to bring people to the car. But this story was confirmation for both of us that dogs are a lot smarter than most owners realize. In this case, spookily smart.

My first fleeting thought was that it would make a good story, if you tweaked it here and there. Or would it? Could a good writer make a fictional tale out of it?

It reminded me of another true story I heard over the radio years ago about a home in southern California that was invaded by a flock of birds so multitudinous they could be called a swarm. I don't remember exactly what birds they were -- some rather small birds that migrate. Well, maybe they needed a resting spot, who knows? For some reason they came down the chimney and swooped all through the house, tweeting or peeping or chirping, and frightening this couple half to death. (No doubt, they had seen The Birds and were filled with premonition.) They finally called the fire department and all the doors and windows were opened, the chimney closed off, the doors and windows closed again, and peace restored -- except....

Except this couple had a parrot and his cage was in the living room. It was evening and the cover had been on his cage. They took the cover off, just to see how he was doing, and they found their dazed, frantic parrot muttering "Shut up, shut up, shut up," over and over again. I kid you not, this was a reported story on the evening news.

I have told this story to friends, and every time they laugh like crazy. Once I decided that if it's so funny, I should write it as a fictional story, and I tried to cobble one together. As it turned out, it didn't work as fiction. I suspect the same is true of the dog story above. Truth really can be stranger than fiction, and more often than not, the "this really happened" part of it impedes any nascent story. Why is that?

Well, to begin with, both of these are just incidents. Anecdotes. Something happened. And that's that. The story -- or not-story -- starts and ends with the incident. There is no beginning, middle, or end. Oh, there's the punch line in the parrot story. In the dog story, there's the "wow, what a smart fella," factor. But where would either of these stories begin? With the flock's leader saying, Hey, listen up, I see a good resting spot down there in that chimney.... With the horrified wife looking at the fireplace and screaming, OMG! With the dog panting away in the back seat and thinking, let's see, now, she always presses that funny looking circle near the front window.... With the preoccupied dog owner checking her "to-do list" -- butter, eggs, bread, dishwater detergent, dogfood... come to think of it, where is....

These are point of view questions as well. Just as you can't have a story without an arc, you can't have a story without characters -- characters who grow and change and learn something that a reader can identify with, some underlying theme. In the case of the bird story, about the best insights one can glean is that if you are a parrot, wear earplugs; if you are a husband or wife, keep the chimney vent closed; and if you are a migrating bird, avoid chimneys. In the case of the dog story, it's either if you are a pet owner, at least roll the window down next time; or, if you are a pet, keep track of your person's habits. These aren't exactly universal themes.

Which is why fiction touches us so much more profoundly than factual anecdotes. Writers work hard to unearth the underlying truths that fuel their fiction; the truths that ripple out of one heart to touch many. A fictional story is not happenstance. Very often the story that rings most true is one that never happened at all. Characters who don't really exist. Words no one really said. Actions that really didn't happen. But it feels real because it touches a reader. And it touches a reader because it touched the writer first. But the writer didn't stop there (being moved in your own heart can actually create slop the first few drafts). The writer honed and polished the work until anything without relevance was chiseled and sanded away, and all that was left was what mattered. What mattered. Writers write stories that matter to them. Likewise, readers read stories that matter to them. And if a story matters to the writer, likely it will matter to others.

I suppose the reason I couldn't write the parrot story was because, other than how funny the true event was, the parrot doesn't really matter to me. At best, he could be a side incident slipped into a scene of a bigger story. Likewise the dog tale. (Well, the dog does matter to me, not for story possibilities, but in terms of both responsible pet ownership and the learning abilities of pets.)

But readers, I give both these story kernels to you. Think of them as writing prompts. Do with them what you will. If you get a story you can run with, let me know. And when it comes out in print, I'll be your eager reader and fan!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Introducing... The Famous Nini!

Can a cat be so remarkable that he inspires composers, charms kings and emperors, and even the pope is impressed? THE FAMOUS NINI, The Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, is the true story of just such a cat.

Well…, mostly true, as the title admits. Written by Mary Nethery and illustrated by John Mandeers, the story of this famous cat captivated me!

What is true is that sometime in the 1890’s, a stray cat named Nini lived in a small caffè on the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Somehow Nini became so famous that he ended up having his very own guest book. Royalty, statesmen, artists, composers—all came to meet this renowned cat. Verdi, the king and queen of Italy, Pope Leo XIII, the emperor of Ethiopia, to name only a few, signed Nini’s guest book. Verdi, in fact, scrawled notes from his opera, La Traviata on a page.

The question is, why?

To answer that question, Nethery leads us through a delightful and serendipitous tale, where an accidental meow at just the right moment sets off a unique chain of events. Aided by the caffè owner’s clever advertising, each new event enlarges the cat’s reputation.

This is a book to be read and savored. Nethery’s gentle humor and quirky imagination make unlikely scenarios thoroughly plausible. John Manders’ lively and dashing illustrations capture both the tale and the era. Small children will enjoy hearing this about a cat so endearing his owner calls him, “my almond, my fig, my cream puff.” Readers will wish they could sign Nini’s guest book too!

In a March 4th interview on this blog with Kirby Larson, I mentioned that Larson and Nethery had co-written two award-winning books: Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival, and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle. In addition to these, as well as Nini, you can learn about more of her books at:

You can learn more about the illustrator, John Manders, at his blog: http://johnmanders.wordpress.com/ and also in an interview with him posted on June 30th at the book blog, http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/

Friday, July 2, 2010

An Art Club Guest, Rachel Dillon.

Through Endangered Eyes received the prestigious
Eric Hoffer Award - Honorable Mention

Some of you may remember an earlier post, when Rachel Dillon, the author and illustrator of the remarkable picture book, Through Endangered Eyes, wrote a guest post. A week ago, Rachel was a guest teacher for the Art Club. I've been waiting to write about it until I had parental permission to show kids and their art on this blog. (I already had parental permission for pictures I posted earlier.)

While Rachel's painting style can be called pointillistic, she said her real inspiration was Aboriginal Australian art. Concern for endangered species has been a continuing concern of hers, and the book shown here includes endangered animals from all over the world. Future books will include endangered species in specific biomes. Currently she is working on a book about endangered animals of the dessert.

Rachel showed students her notebooks with various phases of her illustrations -- sketches, thumbnails, drawings with color washes, and finally the pointillistic finishes that make these illustrations so arresting. She gave them templates made from some of the book's illustrations. Then she showed them how to use the ends of their paintbrushes as if they were tips of sticks, and to space the dots for the strongest effect. The students were completely immersed and did some splendid work.

Thanks, Rachel, for a wonderful lesson. This book is one of my favorites, and has me itching to go get a paintbrush and try my own hand at dot-painting. Meanwhile, for those of you who would like your own copy, you can go to: