Thursday, December 22, 2016

Bears, Rainbows, and other Natural Wonders by Paul Greci

Male Grizzly Bear. Photo by Paul Greci

I took a lot of photos in 2016. Below are a few from this past year. 

I use the natural world as an inspiration for my writing.

 You know the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, right?

As a writer, I think that a picture can produce or inspire a thousand words.

Sometimes I keep a photo up on part of my desktop when I’m writing, or I’ll click back and forth between a photo and my manuscript. For my characters, sometimes I use photos to help me create moods, tap into emotions, and inspire actions.
Grizzly Sow and yearling. Photo by Paul Greci

Double Rainbow at the Alaska/Yukon Border. Photo by Paul Greci

Black Bear. Photo by Paul Greci

Moose cow and calf. Photo by Paul Greci

Southeast Alaska Coastline. Photo by Paul Greci

Porcupine. Photo by Paul Greci

This is the last Project Mayhem Post of the year. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday.

Paul Greci is the author of Surviving Bear Island, a 2015 Junior Library Guild Selection and a 2016 Scholastic Reading Club Selection.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Ghost of a Memory Becomes a Seed

When I was in elementary school in Argentina, we didn't read from novels, except for the time the teacher read us Dailan Kifki (about a pet elephant), by María Elena Walsh when I was in sixth or seventh grade. (More on María Elena on another post. She deserves one to herself). We had "reading primers" vetted by the Ministry of Education.

Our language "manual" contained excerpts of books, little snippets to teach us whatever we
Dailan Kifki, the Elefant
needed to learn in grammar, or syntax, or sometimes even history.

When I was in 5th grade, my parents couldn't afford to buy me the Language Arts textbook, but they borrowed it from a neighbor. Hermione-style, the first night I got ahold of a new book, I read it back to back. I don't remember much about what I read, except for an excerpt about a boy who waits for the train every afternoon, and then hurls rocks at the engine. One day the locomotive gets so fed up with the abuse, that "she" throws back her whistle at the boy. The boy can't speak anymore. The piece ended with him realizing that he can't talk. His fear and desperation when his mother thinks he's being silly by not using words and instead whistling like an engine.

That's all there was.

I loved that piece so much that I cut the rectangle with the beginning of this story and kept it for years, like a puzzle piece I tried to match to other excerpts I found. I'm sure it got lost when my family moved from Argentina to Utah. I like to think that my journals and newspaper clippings huddled together in a box, waiting for me in a corner of my godmother's house.

Cutting this story got my parents and me in a lot of trouble because when the neighbors got their book back for their kid who was younger than me, of course they saw it was missing sections (although I don't remember cutting out anything else. I honestly thought no one would ever notice the one missing piece--which makes me think, why didn't I just rip the whole page? I don't know. I was ten). The stealing of a section of a book got me in the bad side of the girls of my apartment building and led to years-long ostracism (more on that in another blog post).
Ladies and gentlemen, Laura Devetach! 

At the time, I didn't care that the neighbor girl was mad at me for cutting up the book. All I cared about was knowing the ending of the story. I wanted to know so badly, it physically hurt. And I never forgot it.

You think Rick Riordan's cliffhangers are cruel? You think waiting three years for Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix was an eternity? How about waiting 28 years to know how a story ends? A story whose title and author you don't even know.

I knew the story took place in the Argentine sierras. I've never been there, but the way the author described the place was so vivid, I could smell the ripe peaches in the trees. I didn't even remember the words she used. I remember feeling. The feeling of summer bliss. The feeling of a kid getting into mischief when he thinks no one's watching. The feeling of doing something terrible that you can't take back. You know that feeling in the center of your chest when you've made a mistake and you don't know how to fix it or how to confess? That one. That's what I felt. I wanted to know what fixing a mistake feels like too.

La Torre de Cubos
(The Block Tower)
Fast forward to me, writing my creative thesis for my MFA in writing. I wanted to write a short story to honor this piece from my childhood, but I wanted to credit the author. I searched online, and I found plenty stories about trains, but not the one I was looking for. Finally, I asked on Facebook, and I tagged three friends. One from elementary school, one from my church, and another one I met online. Within minutes, my friend from elementary school replied: "Could it be La Torre de Cubos (The Block Tower), by Laura Devetach? The military junta banned her works for a long time because they were subversive."

I immediately looked up Laura Devetach, and friends, let me tell you:
First of all, yes! The story is Mauricio y su Silbido (Mauricio's Whistling). After 28 years of anticipation, I savored the whole story as if it were the most decadent treat. But not only is this particular story delicious. The whole little collection of short stories is a delight. I "understand" why the military banned her. Her work is for children, but like all the best children's literature, it isn't childish. Laura Devetach writes for children with respect. She addresses social injustice, individual responsibility for one's actions (as in Mauricio's story), white privilege, gender equality, and a lot of other concepts I didn't learn about until I was an adult. Although she's been recognized around the world for her contribution to children's literature, as a child, I never even knew the name of this author from my own province, Santa Fe.

After the first burst of euphoria for having found what I'd been searching for years, a feeling of mourning and then anger filled me. I missed so much during my childhood! The books that showed characters like me, who spoke my language, literally, who drank máte (the Argentine herbal tea) with their families, the kids who couldn't afford enough notebooks to write all their stories, the kids who were alone all day while their moms were at work were robbed from me.

I was born at the cusp of the military government, and by the time I started elementary school my country was under the governance of Ricardo Alfonsín, our democratically elected president. However, it took a long time for democracy to trickle down into education. I asked my friend, the genius one who knew exactly what story I was looking for, "Why do you think we never learned about Laura? Why didn't she ever come visit our school? Why?" Her reply was, "Maybe because our teachers were so scared by the dark years of the dictatorship that they didn't know we needed Laura's words, or that even they were allowed to teach us about her and our other bright writers" (like Alma Maritano, more on her on another post too).

Now that I know her name, (Thank you, Laura Devetach!) I pledge to honor her legacy. I want to write stories that will resonate with readers even when they don't remember my name anymore or the details of a story, but who remember what they feel and are inspired to write their own stories.

The story I wrote doesn't have to do at all with a boy and a train. But it has to do with the power of taking control of our actions, and how to go on after we make a terrible mistake. This new story of mine was born almost three decades ago after reading an excerpt. That's the power of writing, my friends. That's why we do it. So even when darkness looms ahead, or when we're rushed by deadlines or other obligations, remember why we write, and write. Out there, there's a child waiting for your words. Even if it's only a paragraph.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hey Writer, What Are Your Strengths?

As the year comes to an end, we thought we'd run an "oldie but goodie" here at Project Mayhem. This post first ran in 2013, but it is always a good reminder to follow one's strengths and manage one's weaknesses!

The other day at my critique group, one of my writer friends brought in an article published in The Rumpus by poet David Biespiel. It's a long article, but worth the time. After all, it's titled "Follow Your Strengths, Manage Your Weaknesses and Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys." FULL TEXT HERE.

Broadly summarizing, David Biespel argues that in workshops and critique groups we tend to focus on trying to improve each other's weaknesses, in the process paying hardly any attention to each other's strengths (I mean, they're strengths, so they're working, right?), and end up by reinforcing our writer's negative self-talk. As an example, he tells the story of his son's report card. His son came home with 3 As, 1 B, 1 D,and an F. As Biespel puts it "Which grades do you suppose we discussed for an hour? Of course! We talked about how to bring his weak grades up to the strong grades, the A’s. We talked about his need for improvement. We talked about: you can do better if you work harder. We talked about how to make his weakest results equal to his strongest results. We did not talk about the A’s except to say, don’t let them slip." (As the father of a high school junior, I totally empathize, Mr. Biespel.)

Biespel goes on to give many examples, including the example of himself, of people who fixated on trying to improve their weaknesses to the ultimate detriment of their strengths. What we really all should be doing is working on making our strengths even stronger which will, Biespel argues, help us to manage our weaknesses. Here's Biespel again:

You’ve got strengths and you’ve got weaknesses. What I want to say to you is, follow the strengths and manage the weaknesses. Better yet, get assistance with your weaknesses, but for your strengths…make that the study of your life.
For example, you’re not good at dialogue. Be like the shoemaker who is great at making shoes but not great at marketing or collecting bills. He hires a salesman, a marketing person. You should “hire” a dialogue guy. Better yet, befriend one! Show him your piece and say, “don’t worry about the plot or the imagery. I’m good at that already.” Just read for dialogue. Help me manage that. Help me fix that. So I can invest more of my time developing my talent for plot and description (which I love doing and enjoy more!)—and less time focused on a weakness that, in the end, risks making me feel bad about my writing, and perhaps not writing at all.

One of the exercises Biespel asks each writer to do is list his or her strengths. "I want to ask you to consider your talents as a writer, honestly, without self-deprecation or self-hatred. But with clear assessment. In a moment I want you to scribble down two of your strengths as a writer and two of your weaknesses."

My critique group is planning to do this exercise next time we meet. It will be interesting seeing if people's self-assessments agree with the assessment of the group. If you are struggling with self-confidence in your writing--and my contention is that each of us struggles with self-doubt at some stage or another--I recommend reading David Biespel's article and doing the exercise above. Manage your weaknesses, but above all follow your strengths!

David Biespel is a poet and the founder of the Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Morning Pages One Year In by Caroline Starr Rose

Last December a friend whose life circumstances had kept her from writing for quite some time mentioned she'd started Morning Pages. She was almost 100 days in, and for the first time in years had found she was looking forward to returning to the page.

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, Morning Pages is a discipline developed by Julia Cameron, author of the classic how-to on creative recovery, The Artist's Way. I've had a copy of the book for almost ten years, but have never read past the first few chapters. Listening to my friend talk about moving toward her work with new joy and expectation, I thought about trying The Artist's Way again. Maybe I could use regular journaling as a discipline in my own writing life.

The book is meant to be read as a self-led course, one chapter a week. Participants commit to two things: the Artist Date, a weekly experience meant to fill the creative well (what Cameron describes as "assigned play"), and the Morning Pages, a three-page handwritten daily exercise meant to reconnect the artist with creativity.

It's been almost a year since that conversation and my decision to give Morning Pages a try. While I haven't always been consistent with my weekly reading (and even less so with the Artist Date), I have loved my own version of Morning Pages.* The practice has become a key part of my morning.

There are no rules about the writing. Because of this I've been free to use the exercise in any way I like. Sometimes I simply type out everything I'm thinking. The Morning Pages then become a place for me to process and set aside the thoughts I might not have known were bothering me. I also write about the things I want to accomplish or need to remember, an impromptu daily list of sorts. Other times I use the writing to prime the pump for my work later in the day. I've used it to brainstorm the last few lines in a picture book and as a place to figure out a revision plan of attack. This blog post, which has become the most popular ever in six plus years of blogging on my personal blog, started in one of those ten-minute sessions. Some mornings I write as I might in a traditional journal. And when I'm truly stuck, I keep my virtual pencil moving by typing one of Julia's affirmationsI am competent and confident in my creative work (yes, this is a little corny, but it's a good thing to "hear" myself say!).

Do any of you write Morning Pages? I'd love if you'd share your thoughts in the comments below.

* Ten minutes of typing on weekdays

Thursday, December 8, 2016

#Diversity and Social Action in Children's Literature, with Chris Eboch

The Power of Diversity

Recent months have seen an increase in bullying and racism in schools. Children, of course, reflect what they see in the world around them. We can mourn what’s happening, but a better way to improve the world and feel empowered is to fight. Fighting can happen in a variety of ways: through civic action, discussing issues with our own children, lobbying for anti-bullying policies and programs at local schools, and so forth.

And as writers, we have a special tool: our books.

That does not mean every book has to be an in-your-face challenge or political statement. We know themes should be subtle, not preachy, we should not try to share everything we believe about the world in one story, and that young characters should be in charge of their own solutions – no adults who come in and fix things, explaining the proper way to behave.

Some books, especially nonfiction, can present issues directly. For example, I’m working on an educational title about racism and economics, and another about immigration. Meanwhile, novels can touch on subjects in lighter ways, if only by showing the wonderfully diverse world.

Sam Bond, author of the Cousins in Action series, says, “It took becoming a mother to two non-white children for my indignation on the lack of books with diverse characters to surface. I quickly realized that every book we bought or borrowed rarely contained children that resembled mine and those characters hardly ever shared similar backgrounds - unless that book was about adoption or China. It was also interesting to realize that Chinese characters often found themselves in the position of side-kick, rarely the main protagonist.

“Did it bother my children that their favorite characters didn’t look like them? I don’t think so. Did they notice? Not that they said. But it bothered me enough to start writing my own books so children adopted from China (like mine) would have characters that not only looked like them, but had backgrounds that resembled theirs as well.​”

Magic and Mystery

Fantasy and science fiction can show diversity in unusual ways, because they don’t necessarily have to be realistic. James Mihaley, author of You Can’t Have My Planet But Take My Brother, Please, says “Activism is central to my novel. Tula, one of my main characters, is a twelve-year old environmental lawyer. She is also an alien and travels around the universe protecting the natural beauty on different planets. While writing the book, I heard repeatedly that this was a boys book, due to the humor and sci-fi components. I rebelled against that restriction and did my best to invent interesting girl characters. Tula is one of my proudest creations.”

Greg Fishbone, author of the Galaxy Games series, says, “For me, having a team of kids that represents Earth, all of Earth, means showcasing all kinds of children, allowing as many readers as possible to see themselves in the Galaxy Games. It also means crossing borders and bridging differences to show all of these players of differing backgrounds and traditions working together toward a common goal.” 

Deanna Roy, author of the Magic Mayhem series, says, “In my Magic Mayhem series, I wanted to make sure that kids who have medical conditions saw themselves in a book. Jinnie Wishmaker has dyslexia and faces a huge challenge when trying to read a map to find her way to her stolen wish. Marcus Mender has been vaguely on the autism spectrum as long as he can remember, but has no real diagnosis to say, “This is what I’m up against.” His dietary restrictions make him feel completely alone in a world of pizza and chocolate milk and cheeseburgers. And Elektra Chaos may act tough, but inside she’s terrified of having seizures in front of the school. They make her feel different and weak, and she really wants to be powerful and strong.

“The world is hard to navigate, and I believe books are the best way to help anyone see what other people like them are doing to find their way.”

History’s Lessons for Today

One of my passions is for historical fiction, especially story set in ancient lands. In The Well of Sacrifice, I tried to bring the world of the Maya to life, while also touching on issues of environmental protection.

The Eyes of Pharaoh, shows kids today the differences – and similarities – of young people 5000 years ago. I hope readers will learn about a remarkable culture, and also recognize that the same humanity exists in all of us.

In my work in progress, The Guardians of Truth, is also set in ancient Egypt. In this young adult adventure with paranormal elements, fabulous brown and black fight against injustice. (Read a sample here.)

My novel The Genie’s Gift combines fantasy and history. Anise suffers from extreme shyness and the misfortune of being a girl in a male world, the Ottoman Empire. (Well, a fantasy version of it, inspired by The Arabian Nights.) While young readers may not face her specific challenges – ghouls, monsters, and a solo journey across a vast desert – they may see themselves in her social anxiety and desire to make her own choices about her future.

More Mayhem

These are just a few examples. The authors here at Project Mayhem support diversity and activism with a wide range of characters. Caroline Starr Rose‘s historical novels feature a girl with a learning disability on the Kansas prairies (May B.), and the friendship between an English girl and one from the Roanoke tribe in 1587 (Blue Birds).

Eden Unger Bowditch’s The Young Inventors Guild Trilogy features children from different parts of the world, finding commonality through science.

Joanna Roddy’s middle grade fantasy, Jules and the Djinn Master, draws on Near East mythologies about djinn and legends of King Solomon.

Yamile Saied Méndez On These Magic Shores features a girl whose undocumented mother goes missing.

What example do you want your work to show to the world?

Monday, December 5, 2016


Once upon a time there was an aspiring children’s author named Bonnie who couldn’t land an agent.  She had tried everything, query letters, SCBWI workshops, voodoo ceremonies in the Amazon rainforest, to no avail.  One bleak December day, Bonnie brought her six-year old daughter to see Santa Claus at the mall in a suburb of Milwaukee. 

After listening to the little girl recite her Christmas list, Saint Nick smiled at Bonnie and said, “And what would you like for Christmas?”
         “I’d like an agent, Santa,” Bonnie muttered sarcastically.
         On Christmas Day, Bonnie and the rest of her family woke up early and rushed downstairs to unwrap presents.

  To their amazement, a giant crate was sitting in front of the fireplace.  The crate had a big red bow on top.
         Bonnie turned jubilantly to her husband, “Honey, you got me an elliptical trainer!”
         “No, I didn’t,” he said.
         “Then what’s inside the crate?” Bonnie asked.
         “I thought you got me a rowing machine,” her husband replied.

         Being ever so resourceful, Bonnie’s daughter grabbed a crowbar and ripped open the crate, revealing a woman in a stylish pantsuit talking on an iPhone.
         “Are you one of Santa’s elves?” asked the child.
         “No, I’m an agent.” The woman stuffed her phone in her Gucci purse.  “I’m supposed to be in Miami right now at my brother’s house eating fruitcake.”
         “I’m afraid you’re stuck here,” Bonnie said.  “All the airports are shut down due to a blizzard.”
         The agent shook her head in dismay.
         “What’s Santa like?” the child said.
         The agent fixed her hair in the mirror.  “I don’t have a very high opinion of Santa right now, little girl.”
         Bonnie pulled her husband behind the tree and whispered, “What are we going to do with her?”
         “You always wanted an agent,” her husband whispered back.
         “I know.  But this is bizarre.”
         “Show her your novel.”
         “Give it to her.”
         Bonnie raced upstairs and glided back down with a manuscript in her hands.
         The agent sat down on the couch and read the book while relatives arrived for a grand Christmas feast.  The agent finished the book as dinner was about to be served.
         “Your novel is amazing,” said the agent.
         Bonnie dropped the turkey on the shag carpet.  She quickly brushed the bird off, set it down in the center of a banquet table and screamed, “Are you serious?”
         “I love it,” said the agent.
         Halfway through dinner, the agent whispered in Bonnie’s ear,  “Who’s that guy sitting at the end of the table?  He’s cute.”

         “That’s my brother in law,” Bonnie murmured.
         “Is he single?” asked the agent.
         Bonnie nodded.
         It was a great day for everyone!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When the Dog Bites by Jim Hill

"When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorites things
And then I don't feel so bad."

It's been a tough month for all things positivity, so as we kick off a new month (rabbit rabbit), maybe it's time to make a list of some of my favorite things, with a (mostly) middle-grade twist.

Some Books:

Milicent Min Girl Genius
One Crazy Summer
8th Grade Super Zero
Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze
The Chronicles of Prydain
Raymie Nightingale
Wolf Hollow
The Summer of the Gypsy Moths

Some Things for Listening:

The Yarn
The Writers Panel John Green Interview
Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert interview with Neil Gaiman

Some Things for Which to Look Forward:

The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! by Stephen Bramucci
14 Hollow Road by Jenn Bishop
Vampires on the Run: A Quinnie Boyd Mystery by C.M. Surrisi
Aftercare Instructions by Bonnie Pipkin (YA, not MG)

The Anticipation of Potter:

I'm about to begin reading Harry Potter to my eight-and-eleven-twelfths-year-old. My wife and I haven't allowed him to watch the movies (such hardship!), and our practice is to read only a chapter or two of whatever book is on tap. With Harry and all things Hogwarts, I fully expect he's going to race ahead between bedtimes and devour the series. We may need multiple copies to keep everyone on the *ahem* same page.

A Reminder from Robin (and Lin):

Even when the world is bleakish, words will set you free. I'll write my way out. You will too.