Life as I know It

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San Luis Obispo, California, and South Bristol, Maine, United States
Author ~ Illustrator ~ Lecturer

Sunday, January 31, 2010

So You Want to be a Writer?

Come on in!

For years I wrote alone. I was shy about my writing and shared it only with my husband Jeff, who is one of my most valued critics. He never went easy on me because he didn't want to hurt my feelings. In fact, he was tough, and there were many times I argued with him about the intent of my words and the fact that he "just didn't understand."

Lori Peelen brought me two fresh eggs from her hens...

...and a beautiful bouquet of daphne, which scented the entire dining room

Then someone invited me to an established writer's group in my hometown of Cambria, and all my preconceived notions and shyness were hung out on a line of intense observation and straight-to-the-heart critique. I wasn't a member of the Cambria Writer's Workshop; I was a guest and allowed to read only once a month. Until I proved myself as a writer and added good, constructive critiques for others, I couldn't become a member.

Lois, Cindy, and Cynthia peruse new books, including When You Can Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, winner of the prestigious Newbery Award

After a few months of mostly silently observing the process, I began to understand how, by deconstructing bits of someone's writing, you can help the author reconstruct it into a whole, fluid, gripping, and moving piece.

Our group allows 10 minutes of reading of a manuscript and about 10 minutes of critique from the group. Unspoken critiques are written and passed to the author. As critiques are happening, the writer is not allowed to defend or respond (the way I always had with Jeff). If you're intent on defending, or if you have to explain your writing, you're not paying attention to the constructive criticisms of other writers. Mute. You have to glue your lips closed, listen, and make salient notes.

I felt my writing slowly morph into something more understandable and simple. Simple is good. Straightforward. Not depthless, but simple to read, digest, and absorb.

I was asked to become a member of the Cambria group about 17 years ago. Those men and women have heard my most personal thoughts, laughed with me, celebrated successes (and humiliations), and learned from my critiques as much as I have learned from theirs.
I treasure everyone in the group, although I often disagree with them. We all work for the good of the writer who always strives to be the best.

About 10 years ago, my dear friend and adopted mother-author Elizabeth Spurr (Long Long Letter, Surfer Dog, Pumpkin Hill, Halloween Sky Ride, and more) invited me to attend a Kiddie Writers meeting at her home. I was excited!

I can't remember all the details of the day because it was over a decade ago, but the afternoon readings, critiques, viewing of artist's portfolios, and oh, let's not forget tea, coffee, and dessert, streamed past. The meeting was declared over and I felt euphoric.

Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (in blue) passes around some of her favorites; Roni, Helen, and Lori contribute their comments and evaluations

Here was a dedicated group of authors and illustrators who had shared their expertise in the most giving way possible, and I had grown and progressed in a matter of four hours.

Since that day in my beloved Elizabeth's living room, the group of Kiddie Writers has grown to include some of my favorite women in the world. They've gone through all my ups and downs. They've listened to my entire first novel for middle graders, and through a year of writing and rewriting. Now they're ushering me through my newest children's novel and picking out small inconsistencies or changes of viewpoint. They're sharpening my perspective and keeping me going-no matter the obstacles.

Last Thursday was my day to host the workshop. Some of my favorite people couldn't attend. Elizabeth was at the San Diego Writer's Conference, Sherry Shahan (Frozen Stiff, Fiesta!, Spicy Hot Colors, and more) was teaching writing classes, Juddi Morris (Route 66: Main St. of America, The Harvey Girls, Tending the Fire and more), and Stephanie Roth Sisson (Two Christmas Mice, Block Party Today!, Dear Whiskers, Meow Means Mischief, and more) was at a parent teacher conference-FAMILY FIRST!

Lois Sellers, Cynthia Bates (she recently won a SCBWI honor), Cindy Rankin (her dump cake recipe is in Toad Cottages), Lori Peelen, Roni Decoster (winner of the Corey Rubbo Scholarship), illustrator Helen K. Davie (Animals in Winter, He Wakes Me, Dolphin Talk, Ducks Don't Get Wet, and more), and Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (First Dog Fala, Prairie Christmas, My Name is York, and more) all attended the meeting-celebration on Thursday.

All you writers and those of you who want to pursue your dream of writing can see the exalted group of women who keep me going. I appreciate them and after they left our meeting on Thursday, I told Jeff, "Those incredible women make me feel like the luckiest person in the world."

I urge you to form or join a writing group in your area. If you want to be writers of children's books, you devote yourself to your dream, and you MUST join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Their newsletter, conferences, and regional meetings are one of the best connections you will ever have to the art and craft of writing.

Oh, and it pays to have a spousal critic too. Just remember to, as Jeff always says, "BE KIND."

A toast to Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars by some of my biggest supporters

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dancing In the Rain (ADDENDUM BELOW)

Thought for the day

"The man who does not know nature, who does not walk under the leaves as his own roof, is partial and wounded."

Winter Hours
Mary Oliver

From my perch in the studio, I look out onto the tiny potager where rain is steadily falling. Borders of alpine strawberries, scraggly a month ago, are now fulsome with new leaves and their first white flowers. No early morning nightgown stroll in the garden for me today, just a hasty run to the hummingbird feeder, back to the kitchen to scrub and fill it, and back to hang it in place. Two Anna's hummers awaited, and they weren't about to share with each other. Their clashing needle-bills look deadly, but I've never seen one hurt another.

Took this photo through my bedroom window (sorry about the screen)

I had to stop midstream and run back out to the goldfinch feeder where a few dozen American and Lesser goldfinches were setting up a hue and cry which translated to "more nyjer seeds!" and there was no mention of "PLEASE" in their conversation. I filled the tube feeder to the top, dodged the worst of the off-the-roof waterfalls, and hung it back on its hook under the arbor. I love whistling to these little visitors, who faithfully call back to me as they leave their perches on the leafless Brown turkey fig and flock to the swaying feeder.

I am so happy to have this rain soaking everything. I imagine the tiny seeds swelling below me, slowly opening, then poking their first tentative leaves into the light. In anticipation of the recent storms, I broadcast a pound of California wildflower seeds along the pathway leading to our doorway. What could be a better welcome mat for friends? The first to emerge were the dime-sized silver-blue doilies of native poppies. Next came the pinked leaves of baby-blue-eyes, clarkia, and a host of younglings, small as pins and impossible to identify for another week or so. I will watch their progress daily, but for now, I am just grateful for the blessing of rains.

The pathway to my front door. Wildflower seeds are sprouting along the way. My herb and potting shed is on the left

Terrace where I do my potting

My potting bench and supplies-to the right are my wash-tubs, which we discovered in Illinois on our trip east to Maine. I fill the right side with potting soil.

P.S. My Grandmother used to sing this little song to me on rainy days when we went outdoors to search the sidewalks for worms.

When fishes set umbrellas up
and when the raindrops come,
Lizards will want parasols
To shade them from the sun.

Okay, I'm Sharon's biggest fan and proud husband. Sharon wouldn't post this, but I will.

We just received notice that Sharon's newest book Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars received an Media Award for 2010. is part of Disney Online’s network of family-focused web sites devoted to the entire family lifecycle. iParenting Media Awards is committed to helping businesses by promoting winning titles to consumers, retailers, the media and to the editors of Disney Online properties including Disney,,,, and

Guess who's buying whom dinner tonight?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Won't You Share the Magic of Faeries With a Child?

They sang and they danced
out under the stars
And played little tunes
On their faerie guitars.

It started in Grandmother's garden. We left tiny foods on small, flat rocks for the garden faeries. We made hollyhock dolls to dance with the little people, tiny twig faerie houses with flower petal, pod, acorn, and nutshell furniture and carriages. At night, we stood under the star-flecked skies and listened for the chirping chorus of faerie voices.

Faerie furnishings from Toad Cottages

Winter walkabouts are a great time to begin gathering an assortment of natural treasures for your future faerie projects. Just last week, I collected a bundle of perfect sycamore twigs and tiny branches of mahogany colored birch. Smooth, colorful pebbles from along the creek will help outline miniature gardens and walkways, and two skeletonized leaves will make a perfect canopy for a magical little pod-bed.

Skeletonized leaves and smooth pebbles

Won't you share the magic of faeries with a child?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thought for Today

I start every morning by reading poetry and sifting out my favorite thoughts. Here is the thought for today.

"...there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else.... The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family...."

Winter Hours by Mary Oliver

Please visit this L. A. Times at Home blog article by Debra Prinzing and leave a comment

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Make Me a Promise??

I worked out in the garden this morning and felt so contented. All around me (and believe me, I don't live in the country this time of year) birds chittered, whistled, and called.

A sweet hermit thrush (one of my favorite birds) landed on the birdbath that once belonged to my Nonie Clarke (my mom's mother). The thrush held a brilliant red cotoneaster berry in his bill, and he gobbled it down and took a sip of water. A robin walked across our postage-stamp lawn, head cocked toward the ground and chuckling like a madman. Nearby, where the toyon hangs over my terrace, about 30 cedar waxwings keened and whistled as they gorged themselves on berries.

Paradise, that's how I felt. I am in Paradise. Then I stopped to consider what was happening around me. Most often, before looking up, I KNEW which birds were stopping for a visit. Through years of quiet observation, I've learned dozens of bird calls, but that is a drop-in-the-bucket compared to hard core birders.

To help Grannys and other child lovers learn about bird calls, I did a spread in my new book Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars and entitled it "BIRD WORDS." You'll get the drift when you look closely at the illustrations. I've also included many other hints to help you make the birds welcome in your garden and in your life.

So will you make me a promise? No matter where you live, no matter the season or the time of the day or night, stop, listen, and enjoy every second with the birds.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gardening in My Nightgown...Again

My winter is my summer.

In Maine, where we live part of every year, my "garden" is perched on a bluff a few feet from the sea. I garden everyday, but only on my porch and in a series of windowboxes. The rest of my "garden" is Mother Nature's creation–blueberries, bayberries, lady slipper orchids, and a parade of wonderful wildflowers.

Here in California, I am outdoors in my nightgown every warm morning as the sun peeks over the Santa Lucia mountains.

I thought this was the last handful of tomatoes, but found another dozen hiding among the nasturtium leaves

Although it is January, I can still harvest edible flowers, tomatoes, citrus, the last of the figs and pineapple guavas (the mockingbirds are fighting me on that home front), strawberries, lettuces, Kafir lime leaves, and my beloved herbs.

Big terra cotta pots hold nearly a dozen varieties of citrus

My old drying rack holds an ever changing array of edibles

After the blooms dry, I transfer them into clear glass containers. These lovely flowers are used to top cakes, puddings, and salads. Rose petals are mixed with lavender and black tea for my special floral-tea blend.

I'm sharing some of our sunshine with YOU, wherever you are!

P.S. On February the 6th PLEASE join my pal Susan Branch and many of her friends (including me) at "Branches," the farm stand on Lopez Drive in Arroyo Grande. Antiques, great food (fantastic cupcakes by our own Miss Amy O'Kane), a flea market, crafts, books and products by Sue Branch (she will have times set aside for personal signing). Sue is a GREAT hostess, and according to blogger Pamkittymorning, "the farmstand gathering will be a blast!" I'll be signing all my books too, including my new one, Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Windowsill Winter-A Preview of Toad Cottages and Shooting Stars

Ok, so your kids are griping and complaining of boredom. The heat is cranked, but it still feels like the Arctic in your house. The garden has disappeared under a thick coverlet of snow, and you're aching for the color green.

Well, I can't make spring happen any earlier than Mother Nature's clock, but a simple indoor garden is one way to make the kids happy and to bring vivid, fresh green back into your life.

Gather together containers of all kinds. I use various sizes of cans, cartons, jars, jugs, vases, and forcing jars.

Leek, Kohlrabi, carrots, sweet potato, and beet in forcing jars

Take your youngsters on a tour of your grocery store or farmers' market. Search for firm root vegetables such as beets, radishes, carrots, turnips, kohlrabi, and sweet potatoes. Throw in a ginger hand, some garlic, and a leek. Trim off tops of root vegetables and clean gently. Leave the garlic head intact.

Poke drainage holes in the bottom of cans and other containers, which you will fill with soil. Fill your glass containers with fresh water.

Nestle vegetables into containers of soil, and water thoroughly (you may want to set your containers on a tray or saucer of gravel). Set leeks in a tall vase of water. Perch radishes, kohlrabi, turnips, sweet potatoes, and carrots in a tall glass or forcing jar.

If water becomes cloudy, simply set the container under a gentle stream of water and refill.

Make sure your cans and cartons of vegetables are watered only when they've dried (give them the finger test– poke it into the soil to a depth of an inch, if dry, time to water).

Pumpkin, bean soup tepee, and tomato in recycled containers

We saved seeds from our favorite pumpkin and planted them in an old herb pot. My granddaughter Sara "rescued" dried beans from our soup pot and planted them in a container. Within a week, the beans sprouted, and Sara said she felt like a "bean mother."

Your windowsill gardens will flourish and give you (and your children) endless days of discovery and first hand experience with the powerful and magical life force inside things once only considered dinner or leftovers.

Moses plants a ginger hand

Friday, January 1, 2010

Help!! Lost my Blog Roll (Part 2)

Here are my dear helpers looking out at you. Patience, the perfect bear, who has been with me for 30 years. Her best friend is Acorn, the small squirrel. Next to Patience is Francesca, who was given to me by a lovely lady in Lucca, who is also named Francesca. On the side is Raggle Taggle, who is missing an ear, but loved completely. Raggle was given to me by Beth Mather of Indiana.

These faithful helpers sit atop my drafting table and watch me (and help me) work. Today they watched as I inadvertently DELETED my blog roll. Help please and send me your blog name to include again.

Happy New Year. Let's hope this is the WORST thing I do this year!

p.s. After the semi-disaster we went to a friend's ranch for a real California New Year's celebration. Here are some photos:

My trusty cake carrier and I depart

We drive through the backcountry to the ranch

Before the lemon cake disappeared
(recipe to follow soon)

Roasting chestnuts

End of a long day for our host