Wednesday, May 30, 2012
My mom liked to buy me Little Golden Books whenever we went to the A&P. I spent most of my pocket money on comic books - Superman, Little Lulu and best of all the Classics Illustrated. After I'd read them all countless times, she'd help me organize comic book sales on our front porch - that way I could make money to buy new comics! She was my first agent, too, sending my stories to Jack and Jill and other children's magazines, in hopes of getting them published.
My parents always encouraged me - they were confident that one day I'd be published - and although they're gone now, it seems to me they left behind a special legacy.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Stephanie J. Blake
Writing about my parents for this month's theme will be tough. See, I have two moms--a biological mother and a stepmother. From age five until I left home at 18, I lived with my dad and stepmom. Growing up without my mother around was weird and confusing.
My stepmom was a special education teacher--a devoted teacher, but not a great mother figure--not very nurturing. Because of a nasty divorce, a custody battle, and because of my biological mother's absence in my life, our blended family was not without many issues. We moved a lot. I was a loner. I was a skinny dork. I was also a big reader. My stepmom always made sure I was surrounded by books. She encouraged me to read. Still, I resented her presence in my life.
My real mom who had me when she was 17 seemed to live her life like it was a book--a steamy romance novel. She seemed so glamorous, (she was very beautiful), but I didn't really know her very well. We only had visitation a few times a year. She lived all over the U.S., getting married and divorced, traveling, always having adventures with new men (we call it "drama," these days).
I became somewhat of a (ahem) difficult teenager. I was always breaking the rules, testing my parental units. I rebelled at every turn. I made horrible choices in boyfriends. I neglected my studies. I wrote poetry. I had a lot of angst. My dad was my high school principal for crying out loud! I ran away for four days when I was sixteen--in search of my mother who was living in Florida at the time.
I hated my parents--all of them! I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Fast forward...in my 20's, my mother and I finally lived in the same state, and I got to know her better. In my 30's, we became best friends. Now, she's in her 60's, and she's got both mental and health problems. She has tremendous guilt over leaving. It will affect her for the rest of her life.
I forgive her. Now that I'm a wise 40-something, I have realized I am really a motherless child. And it's OKAY. Not everyone grew up with the perfect mother.
So why am I telling you all of this?
My childhood has affected me as a writer.
In my book, THE MARBLE QUEEN, my main character has a very difficult mother. In early versions of the story, the mother was borderline abusive, but of course that wasn't going to work.
In my work in progress, my main character's mother is dead and she gets a new stepmother who is also her 5th grade teacher. (These experiences come from my real life as my stepmom was my 2nd grade teacher).
In a YA verse novel that I've written (and really hope gets out into the world), the main character's mother abandoned her to become a waitress in Vegas. The MC deals with the abandonment by attaching herself to the wrong guy and getting pregnant.
Seems I can't write about sunshine-y moms.
The other day, my stepmother and I were chatting about my difficulties growing up. We laughed about some of the things I put them through. She said she was proud of me. That meant the whole world.
You know what? She's been my "real" mother for some 37 years, and I never realized it.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
So I can't think about my parents right now.
Tomorrow I am flying to Milan for three weeks in Italy. For two weeks of the trip, I will be on my own--no tour. My trip has been long in the planning stages and was almost derailed several times--in February by tearing ligaments in my foot and ankle (still have to wear sensible shoes) and then in April by a traveling companion who flaked out on me. But I am going! And Eva, the heroine from my new book Eva of the Farm, is going with me as my imaginary travelling companion. I will be posting blogs about Eva's and my experiences in Italy on my personal blog: diacalhoun.blogspot.com.
So I can't think about parents right now.
On my way here I heard a Ted talk by a spoken word poet--her first name was Sarah, I didn't catch her last name. She said we take all that we are with us--as in a backpack--when we move forward into new adventures. So much of what I am taking with me on the Grand Adventure--especially my imagination and wonder--came to me from my parents.
Even when I am not thinking about my parents, they are always with me as I venture into the wondrous unknown.
I am always thinking about my parents.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
First, a bit of backstory:
I was nine years old when the worst, most tragic event of all time came crashing down upon my slender little third-grader shoulders.
I could no longer read the chalkboard.
It happened suddenly, actually—I came back from spring break to find that my desk had been moved by well-meaning floor-sweeping janitors from the front row to the back. And the daily handwriting assignment, which our teacher put up on the board for us to copy each morning, was a complete and total blur. I couldn’t see. Period.
My first glasses were fairly strong (for 20/200 vision). And—I hated them. Talking hate here. Hate. The fact that it was 1986 didn’t help, either. Remember glasses of the ‘80’s? The enormity! The hideousness! Uuuugh!
And it officially began: the battle with my mom for contacts.
I didn’t just want contacts. I lusted after them, especially as my eyes grew progressively worse. By the time I was headed for junior high, my prescription was creeping up toward a -5.00 (20/500 vision), and there was no way I could just take my glasses off at that point and navigate the majority of my days without them, haul them out of a backpack pocket to read the board once I got to class. Not if I didn’t want to start having long, heated conversations with hallway water fountains, anyway.
So, the summer before seventh grade, I came up with my infinitely brilliant plan: I would get the ugliest pair of 1980’s glasses I could find. I mean, ugly. Proof:
Sure, I did get my contacts—the summer before high school, actually. And I wore them until I gleefully pitched the lenses and all the unending vials of cleaning solution in the trash shortly after my thirtieth birthday. In the end, the things that are important to us as teens are never the things that are important to us as adults. This Mother’s Day, as my own mom and I laughed at this—and other—horribly failed grand schemes, I was also reminded that my young characters should always have plans of their own that are obviously doomed, that provide a bit of comic relief, and that show them stumbling and learning and laughing all along their life’s journey.
Monday, May 21, 2012
One of my earliest memories is of my dad reading to me. Before my bed time, my dad would call me in to my parents' room and we would sit on their bed and he would read me the next chapter of Treasure Island. It's kind of a magical memory for me, both because it happened when I was so young, and because I don't remember dad ever reading any other book out loud to me.
When I became a parent myself, I wanted to recreate that magical memory with my own daughter. I had read picture books to her for years, but starting our first chapter book together was a big deal. And what better book, I reasoned, than the very same Treasure Island that had so captivated me as a child? After considerable build-up ("It's a pirate adventure! With parrots and buried treasure! You're going to love it!") I pulled my daughter up next to me on my bed and started to read aloud to her as my father had.
And the book was terrible. I mean, it's a classic, and it's a great piece of our literary past, and it pretty much defined the way we still think of pirates more than two centuries later...but it was written in 1883, and it has all the problems of a book written in 1883. The dialogue is written in vernacular and is almost impossible to understand, it takes a long time for the story to really get going, and it's overwritten in that way of Victorian literature. In short, it's old. And while the "classics versus contemporary novels" debate is one best saved for another time, in this particular case, the story went over with an audible THUMP. It was a disaster.
After one particularly painful chapter, I turned to my daughter and asked, "So what do you think?" She answered, "I love it!" I was stunned. "Do you know what's happening?" I asked her. I'd barely been able to keep up myself. She looked sheepish and admitted that she didn't really know what was going on. "But I don't want you to stop reading," she told me.
And there it was. Finally I understood the magic behind my dad calling me up on the big bed to read aloud to me. It didn't matter what book I was reading to her. What mattered most was that I was reading with her, and sharing that special time. Come to think of it, it wasn't the story of Treasure Island I remembered most, it was my dad taking time to read a book with me. Any book.
"Tell you what," I told my daughter. "Let's stop reading this one and read something else together instead. Run to your bookshelf and find Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. You're going to love it..."
Happy Mother's Day and Father's Day to all the read-alouders out there!
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Parenting is one of those issues in life that suddenly takes on completely different angles when you start doing it yourself. It was a shock, when I had my baby, to find myself suddenly a "mom", expected to be ever-nurturing, ever-compassionate, ever-strong. When you have a child, you stop being just a person - in a lot of ways, socially, you also become a construct: The Mom (or: The Dad, which has its own intimidating set of cultural ideals).
When I studied American Women's History in college, I remember my professor, with a wry quirk to her mouth, writing the phrase: "It's all Mom's fault" on the chalkboard, as she discussed the rise of that psychological approach. There can be a real sense of betrayal for a child (even a grown-up child) whenever we see a mother who has done something that isn't objectively right (or in other words, the way moms are supposed to behave).
I think the years of MG fiction are the years when many kids first start really noticing the ways their moms are failing to live up to that cultural standard. I know that my friends and I were vocal in those years whenever we noticed our moms' failures.
Well. Now I'm a mom, and guess what? I fail to live up to that cultural standard every. single. DAY.
I love my son more than anyone or anything else in the world. I would sacrifice anything - or, to be brutally honest, anyone, including myself - for his welfare. And yet: I lose my temper, I say things I shouldn't, I fail in a thousand different ways to be the ideal mom I'm "supposed" to be.
I balance my own novel-writing with my freelance writing work, all while he's at preschool, for just two and a half hours a day. I fail at that, too, a lot. I feel like I can never do well enough at either job (and having a chronic illness just makes the situation harder). This week is just one example.
I was going to spend this whole week working on my WIP and nothing else. I have a break in my freelance schedule. I was going to get SO MUCH done this week, while my son was at school! Unfortunately, my son woke up sick with an ear infection Monday morning, and as of today, he still isn't well enough to go back to school yet. I've lost three of my five writing days so far. I was so worried about his health the first day, I didn't even care about that part.
Then he started feeling better - not well, but better, so that my worries eased and I knew he'd feel better with just a bit more time - and at that point, my WIP started wailing in my ear, reminding me that this was supposed to be its big week, my big chance to get a huge chunk written.
It's not enough to make me regret prioritizing my son - nothing could ever be enough for that - but it's more than enough to make me crazy with frustration as I watch my scarce writing days slip away through my fingers. And at the same time, I feel intense guilt about FEELING frustrated, when, as a mom, I should care about NOTHING but my son's illness. Because if I were a true mom, a great mom, I wouldn't even feel that frustration in this situation, would I? My entire mind would have no room for anything but the childcare I'm doing!
So the fact that I feel this frustration...well, inside, where I've internalized every social rule of motherhood, I feel like I'm doubly failing now - failing as a writer AND failing as a mom for the fact that I'm minding that first failure.
Guess what's getting me through this tough period? My own mom. She may be in a different country from me now, but not only is she wonderfully reassuring over Skype and on visits, but every time I look back on my memories of her from childhood, they give me strength.
I'm inspired every single time I think of how she started a whole new career fresh in her mid-thirties - starting from undergraduate work and progressing all the way through a doctorate, while balancing parenthood of three children AND a dayjob. She was the same age as me when she started that process - and yes, it took her longer than it would have if she'd been in her twenties and childless - but guess what? Not only did she get there in the end, she rose to incredible heights of achievement. She has done amazing things in her field, reached great heights and earned incredible professional respect.
Even if I'm moving slower on my own career than I want to be, partly due to the fact that I'm a parent...well, starting later, and having to move slower because of parenthood, didn't stop my mom in the long run, did it? And not only am I incredibly proud of her for her achievements, but I know - because she's poured her own confidence and pride into me my whole life, telling me over and over again that she believes in me - that I can do it, too, even if it takes me longer than I think it should, even if I'm not writing a thousand words of my own novels every single day.
In my own series of books, my heroine, Kat, starts out in Kat, Incorrigible by simply resenting her stepmother for all the things she's done wrong, all the ways in which she's failed Kat and her sisters. By the end of the novel, though, she's finally starting to see that her stepmother isn't just the 2-dimensional "wicked stepmother" Kat wanted her to be - Stepmama's genuinely trying to do what's right, even if her stepchildren profoundly disagree with her about what is right for them.
The relationship arc between Kat and her stepmother - and between Kat and her loving but deeply imperfect father - doesn't close until the end of Book 3, Stolen Magic. But there's one crucial moment in the second book, Renegade Magic, when Kat has a serious shift in perspective. She and her stepmother have far too many dissimilarities to ever easily understand each other - but they may be able at least to accept each other.
I'm fighting to accept my own imperfect motherhood.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
I was going to write about my parents this month. They are nice people and they surely influenced me as a reader and writer. But, to be honest, they are not quite as exciting as some other parents I've come across––in children's books! Here are five of my favorites.
1. Matilda by Roald Dahl. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are two of the nastiest, but most entertaining parents ever. Somehow they conceived the honest, intelligent, clever Matilda. And in the end (spoiler alert!) she gets the best single mom ever, Miss Honey! One of my fave books of all time too.
4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. Very British. And very funny! Adrian's parents, George and Pauline, though extremely simple, vain, and materialistic have somehow raised a 13 year old intellectual conservative. This series of books follows Adrian and his parents over the course of some thirty years of politics, world events, love and everyday life in modern day, middle class England.
These are the ones that jumped to mind for me. What are some of yours?
Sunday, May 13, 2012
|"What happened next, Dad?"|
Friday, May 11, 2012
The answer to question #3 ... yes.
The answer to question #2 ... we’ll tackle that answer another month.
The answer to question #1 ... I blame my mom.
I was raised on puzzles. Many Saturday afternoons, especially in winter when I was not brave enough to go outside and face the subzero windchills, I would crawl up next to my mom who loved to work crossword puzzles, worked them nearly daily. There I learned that olio – odds and ends fans – was different than oleo one spreads on toast, that alee was toward the sheltered side and that tar wasn’t only something to put on a roof or road, sailor.
Because she limited herself to crossword puzzles, that gave me reason to explore alternate-type puzzles that remained unsolved in some of her books. She had no clue that any of this would have such an effect on my life. Neither did I.
So when I visit schools, I also like to add that you never know exactly when the next idea may be planted, where a spark may come from, where your influences begin. They could spring from a dandelion seed blowing in the breeze. Or from the stranger who coughs in your ear. Or from a kid who missed the bus. Or they could come from your mom who sat there with a page of squares and a sharpened pencil.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Monday, May 7, 2012
Even before I took my first step, maybe even before my first laugh, my parents seasoned me in stories. Stories with whimsy in them, and endless possibilities, and young people who faced grave challenges and found moments of hope. And the minute my parents closed the covers on those books, they took me on walks and bike rides and camping trips where we wove the abandoned shoes and hungry ducks and over-roasted marshmallows into stories of our own. My parents knew the magical questions: "What if..." and "What happens next?"
I have a million things for which to thank my parents. But one of the biggest is that they taught me the importance of story. In all the moments of doubt in my writing career so far––and believe me, there have been many––I've never once doubted that telling stories about young people is important. Of course, young people need excellent books, no one argues this. More importantly, stories about young people are about a time of intense change, of learning and growing up and becoming who we're meant to be. For me, this process of facing challenges, of remaining open to change, of continuing to grow into who I'm becoming hasn't ended at 21 or 30. When I write stories about young people, I write about my own questions. I read an awful lot of books with young protagonists, too. I learn from these young characters, from their willingness to stay open, even when change is difficult, from their ability to step into the "what if..." questions.
So will I grow too old? Not as long as I stay open to change, as long as I'm willing to lay on a grassy hill, stare up at the clouds and see the pictures that drift across the blue canvas of sky, as long as I notice the strange footprint in the sand and ask: "What happened next?"
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Parents have so much power. To lift you up. Or bring you down. To open the world up to you. Or to close it off.
I am so grateful to my parents for instilling in me the joy of reading, for nurturing my passion for writing, and for giving me the gift of trying. More than anything, I am grateful to have had in abundance the one thing every child wants from their mom and dad. Love. Pure love.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Do you read literary books? The Oprah Book Club kind of books? My mom does. I read YA novels, chapter books, picture books, and nonfiction.
We may not have the same taste in books or the same reading styles or attention spans. But my mom is the reason I'm a reader. And by extension, she's probably at least part of the reason I'm a writer.
She led by example, incorporating books into our daily lives when we were kids. She read. So I read. She went to the library and took us with her, so going to the library became a natural thing for me to do as an adult. She read to us at night: Stuart Little, Eloise, Mary Poppins, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
Our May theme here at Smack Dab in the Middle is "Family." My mom is absolutely the first person who popped into my head when I thought of family + books. Did a member of your family encourage you to read (or not to read) when you were young? Who was it, and how did they influence you?
Joan Holub is the co-author
Goddess Girls series
with Suzanne Williams,
and the author of Zero the Hero.