Spring Cleaning

Photo by Katie Cullinan

Here on the East Coast, Spring brings with it colorful flowers, warmer breezes, and the return of birds and frogs. For me, I look forward to Spring for all of those reasons. But what I really think about during the long winter months is Spring Cleaning (no, I’m not crazy).

I dream of opening all of my windows, cleaning off the accumulated dirt and grime, and letting the sun shine in. There is something about brushing down the cobwebs and wiping off my baseboards that I find relaxing and almost meditative. It gives me time to pause and reflect. I can clear my mind.

When my mind is clear and unencumbered with daily tasks is when the best ideas float in. Those stories that have been churning in the back of my mind, and the characters figuring out what they want to say, finally strain to get out.

Last month, during a week of particular clarity (and in the middle of purging my children’s unused toys) I wrote two picture books. They were just ready to be written.

So how to you clear your mind of your mental cobwebs and start new work (or restart stalled work)?

I’m off to find something else that needs cleaning. Or to plant some lettuce in my vegetable garden. Anything for some quiet time. I have 29 ideas left from last November’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) to work on, after all.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

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Unearthly and Ashfall: A Comparison of YA Themes

I read a lot of young adult fiction, from contemporary coming of age stories to urban fantasy. Very fun stuff. Some of it makes me cry (most notably John Green’s recent work, The Fault in Our Stars) and some has me in stitches (what can I say, The Fault in Our Stars). A good number of current YA novels tackle a dystopian/post-apocalyptic future or fantastical present. I’m going to compare the two I’m reading now.

Unearthly, by Cynthia Hand, tells the story of an angelblood. Clara Gardner is a quarter angel (on her mother’s side). One element to this story I found refreshing was that Clara knows her family secret from the beginning. Every angelblood has a purpose, a task they must complete, and Clara is just waiting to discover what her purpose is. Ashfall, by Mike Mullin, is a post-apocalyptic tale of what might happen if the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted. Alex Halprin is home alone when his house is struck by chunks of volcanic rock erupted from the Yellowstone Caldera almost two states away. His family isn’t with him — they’re east, and hopefully safe — and the book follows him as he tries to find them. Both books are the first in a series.

I’m enjoying both stories, and I’d gladly recommend them to any one who likes YA, but this isn’t really a book review.

What interests me is, how do I respond as a reader to these two very different possible futures?

Unearthly awakens the part of me that wants to believe in something other. Meaning the part of me that loves fairies, waterhorses, LOTR, and such. Could I be an angelblood? I know it sounds hokey or ridiculous or insane. Rationally, I know  my parents weren’t angels (no offense, Mom). But doesn’t each one of us fantasize about being special in some way? I certainly did as a teen, and I still do now. So, Unearthly takes me to a place where that could be possible, in a hopeful sort of way.

Quite the opposite with Ashfall. I live in Jackson, WY. According to an interpretive park ranger I asked on a recent Yellowstone visit, if the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, I would be dead before I was even aware of it. The future of Ashfall seems more plausible, real, even though it’s unlikely that the volcano will erupt while humans are still on Earth. And this kind of story affects me in some kind of visceral way. What would I do in the event of a natural disaster? Or war? Would I be one of the survivors? Honestly, with how griped I am reading this story, I hope I never have to answer that question.

In thinking about this comparison, I realize that I read both types of books for separate reasons. I like to slip away into other worlds or possibilities, and at the same time my (more) rational mind likes to flirt with tangents of our current reality. Lucky for me, a plethora of books offering me both experiences is out there.

What kind of stories do you like to read? Do you want to be an angelblood? Would you survive the supervolcano?

Make Me Laugh

Mo Willems is hilarious. Didn’t you know?

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My son and I began our introduction to Mo Willems with Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Both books were charming and funny. In Knuffle Bunny, Willems employs a creative use of photography along with the drawn characters. In short, we love these books. I enjoyed buying these books to add to our permanent collection.

Now that Aidan is in Kindergarten and has begun reading on his own, we’ve started reading Mo Willems’ easy readers together. Our favorites are the Elephant and Piggie series. With basic drawings of the characters (no watercolors or elaborate Jan Brett-style illustrations), you are able to focus on the story. Is the story simple? Yes. Is it witty and hilarious? Absolutely!

These books make both of us laugh out loud. When we read Can I Play Too? my son giggles when Gerald and Piggie try to play catch with a snake, and repeatedly bonk him on the head. I laugh when Piggie raises an eyebrow to figure out who is “reading them” in We Are in a Book!

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

In short, we are convinced he is a genius. He manages to create expressive, witty characters with just a few well placed lines. His stories are simple, to-the-point, joyful, funny, and make you want to read them again and again.

Additionally, I researched Mo’s background and discovered he formerly wrote for Sesame Street (which earned him multiple Emmys). I’m sold. Anyone who works with the likes of Bert, Ernie, Knuffle Bunny, and the Pigeon is cool in my book. Now if I can just find a way to capture even an ounce of his humor in my stories.

What authors make you laugh? What is it about their books that tickles your funny bone?

Without Pen and Paper

I recently read that the writing process takes place all the time, not just in front of a computer or with pen in hand. And of course, I wondered if this was true for me. I covet my time with a notebook or at the keyboard, because that is when the ideas get recorded and fleshed out. And I’d gripe about all the time I wanted to spend that way but couldn’t because life — parenting, cooking, etc. — kept getting in the way. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am often writing without any physical tools.

On a recent trip to Southern Utah, a completely new idea came to me while I was hiking. Looking back, I can’t even recall what ignited the spark of this story. Regardless, the idea spun around in my head while we are hiking desert trails and making s’mores and driving across the open, stark country. Today is Paul Theroux’s birthday; he is a well-known travel writer. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that writers should leave home in order to write. I think he was implying that travel allowed writers an escape from the pressures of writing (representation, finances, publication, etc.) but I also think that travel can help spark new ideas, even when a writer isn’t looking for one. And there I was, hiking through slot canyons with my toddler, ruminating on this new idea, feeling the characters come to life, testing out the voice, and realizing all the nuance this story would require.

Rumination is a good word for it. Because I am chewing and rechewing an idea to test its viability (in my eyes, of course). Each time I revisit it, some new twist or realization comes with it, and it becomes increasingly digestible as a story. Okay, enough with the ruminant metaphor.

The point is that knowing that the writing process is ongoing, can occur without a computer, has freed me from the trap of not having enough time. Of course, I’ll never have enough time to write. I always seem to want more, especially as more  and more ideas form in my head. But I can work on them anytime — in the car, on a bike ride, at the grocery store. This flexibility becomes crucial at some point, because then when I come back to the keyboard or pen, the ideas flow freely and I spend considerably less time staring at the pushpin holes scarring the wall. And truthfully, few of my stories have come to me while I was sitting at the computer. Most have come while I was doing something else, forcing me to silently repeat the plot or opening lines so that I wouldn’t forget them before getting to a computer.

Do you write in your head or do you pull from your subconscious while typing away? How does time away from your life — through travel — affect your writing?