Confessions of a Quitter

I have a secret. It is not one I share often, especially with young impressionable minds. Mine is a secret so shameful I can hardly speak the words, but I feel I must share it now, so that all that comes after will seem wondrous. As a young child, I was a...a... a QUITTER.

There. I've said it. Whew. That's right, I was a quitter. It started innocently enough. The year was 1976, and my elementary school was in a fervor of patriotic extra-curricular activities. I somehow found myself elected to the Bicentennial Club, an organization much like Student Council, but devoted to the reporting of aforementioned patriotic activities. I think I attended two, maybe three meetings. Even the requisite small notepad with spiral bound top, something that said, "I have important things to say, so sit down and shut up," could not hold my interest. My blowing off of that post was clearly forgotten a couple of years later when I was elected to the real Student Council. One meeting, tops. Church choir, quit. Clarinet, quit. Piano, well, I WANTED to quit, but by that point my parents were pretty sure they were raising a future deadbeat and so I was force-marched to lessons.

I blame the fact that every group, every organized activity interfered with recess. And if there was one favorite time of day for me, it was recess. I had no interest in athletic activities (had I ever actually begun such a thing I can assure you it would have ended with a major quit). Four square and dodge ball were the banes of my existence, but my friends and I whiled away hours and hours with on-going action-adventure sagas. With a nod to the Little House on the Prairie style of dramatic storytelling, it was one continuous blizzard/scarlet fever outbreak, blizzard/starvation or blizzard/mountain rescue for the better part of first through fourth grade. I had no time for plodding meetings. Besides, if one was late arriving at the recess rendezvous point, one got stuck in the role of the dog.

As a recent grown-up, I can no longer avoid group activities, but still find myself glancing at the clock as my rear-end goes numb and trying to remember why exactly I signed up for eight hundred million hours in a metal folding chair. I am still not a joiner, so it was with no small measure of trepidation that I committed myself to National Picture Book Writers Week or NaPiBoWriWee, begun three years ago by author Paula Yoo (www.paulayoo.com) as a way to help children's book writers of all levels achieve that most difficult of tasks: beginning. Participants are asked to write seven picture book manuscripts in seven days, and no, it is not that easy to write picture books. These are meant to be horrible, awful, embarrassingly crappy first drafts, not suitable for public consumption, but again, a beginning, words on a blank page, something to build on for the rest of the year. Like so many of my illustrator counterparts, I have many nebulous story ideas rolling around in my brain, several Word folders with quirky titles, a list of concepts for "someday." Could I actually keep my butt in a chair long enough to turn seven of them into stories or would I revert to my organized activity defense mechanism and quit?

Thanks to daily blog pep talks from Paula, and daily interviews with authors and illustrators and of course the lure of prizes at the end (names drawn from a hat, no actually reading of crappy drafts involved), I did it, and yes, I feel a real sense of accomplishment. I realized that even banging something out in the last hour or two of the day can count, can be something workable. Do I have seven stories with potential? No. Do I have two or three? Yes, absolutely. Am I wishing that I had stuck out Bicentennial Club? Nah.

The Pink Cupcake-A Mostly True Story

It is the kind of coffee shop you would expect to find in Portland or Seattle An old maintenance garage, adorned with mid-century modern fixtures and poured concrete floors, what urban hipsters everywhere imagine heaven's waiting room looks like, complete with heavily tattooed angels bearing espresso and vegan muffins. My friend and I meet here occasionally, mainly because if we squint  and talk loud, we can blur out the crush of harried moms and screaming toddlers and pretend we're breathing the rarefied culture-filled air of one of the aforementioned cities, instead of sipping lattes in semi-rural desert suburbia with plans to stop and check the Old Navy clearance rack on the way home. On this day, it was particularly busy. Maybe it was a school holiday. The place was packed and the line long. With plenty of time to choose a caffeine delivery method, we turned to the Plexiglas case of baked goods. The artfully arranged piles of treats looked ready for their Martha Stewart Living cover debut, but one stack of butter/sugar/flour outshone them all. Cupcakes, with thick swirls of pink frosting and a sparkling crust of coarse sugar glinted in the early morning sunshine. Oh, we wanted one, yes indeed, maybe two, maybe two and one for later. Next up to order, poised to plunk down whatever amount they were asking per cupcake, I froze mid-sentence as movement caught my eye. There, in the case, taking a leisurely stroll across one of the pink confections was the biggest house fly I had ever seen. Whether you are averse to the saliva a fly coughs up whenever it finds a food source, or just the fact that they land on everything--manure, road kill, public restroom toilet seats--most folks prefer to just say no to fly-pawed food. We were no exception. Closer inspection revealed that the case had no back, just a sneeze guard, and the restrooms were, in fact, right around the corner. The solemn vow was made right there on the spot to never eat anything from that case, EVER.

A few moments later, while we sat idly sipping our beverages in the Phoenix sunshine, we saw a young lady with a skip in her step and a pink cupcake shining in its plastic blister box. After a brief debate over the merits of telling her that the black specks were maybe not errant pepper, we decided ignorance was bliss and watched as she broke open her prize, crammed half in her mouth and drove away. We looked at each other, amused and slightly nauseated, and decided that somewhere in there was a truth, a life lesson if you will, only we couldn't settle on which. Sometimes life is a pink cupcake and sometimes it's fly poop? When life gives you a pink cupcake ask where it came from before biting? We never did agree on what to embroider on the pillow, but personally, I think it is always wise, when handed a giant sparkling over-the-top, pink cupcake, to have a good friend who will remind you to scrape the icing off. You still end up with cake.

Happy New...hey, NCIS is on!

So December has come and gone without a single blog post from yours truly. It is difficult to work up enthusiasm for sitting in a hard chair in front of a mocking, blank computer screen when there are four pounds of fudge and a wheel of brie calling your name in the fridge. Triple crème brie. You see what I’m saying.

Now that the New Year has managed to rudely intrude on my butter-cookie-induced stupor, my mind turns once again to an annual tradition--the great New Year’s self-improvement list. On it I will banish my bad habits, recommit to my art, and no longer choose a re-run of NCIS over practicing my craft. The fact that this list is usually written on a Post-It that disappears during the great New Year’s studio clean is beside the point. This time I am etching it in the stone that is the World Wide Web, because putting things online you don’t want coming back to bite you in the rear is always a good idea.
1. I will make more art, instead of just thinking about making more art.
2. I will stop buying all the books about and supplies for mosaics/murals/ quilts/bread baking and instead actually use them to make art. 3. The whole NCIS thing, you know, instead of the art. 4. I will stop trimming my bangs/cuticles/the shrubs instead of doing art.
5. I will eat more yogurt. Actually, I’ll start eating yogurt…while doing art.
6. I will lose five pounds by not checking the fridge instead of doing art.
7. I will stop playing the passive aggressive “who can hold out the longest not replacing the empty Kleenex box” game with my husband instead of doing art.
8. I will write stories about weird kids like the one I once was and really still am. And I will actually send them out to publishers. With some art.
9. I will figure out what all the shortcut keys on my computer keyboard actually do, write them down and use them while making art. 10. I will try, now and then, to cut myself the same slack I try to give others, and be able to quote chapter and verse of all my artistic accomplishments instead of just my failures.
May 2010 bring us all a little peace, joy, happiness, fresh boxes of Kleenex and lots more art.

U of A Children's Lit. Conference

No one could possibly want to go to Tucson. This is what the AZ Department of Transportation apparently thought when they made the decision to close all of the exits from I-10 save the first one. Miss it and you'll be having lunch in Nogales. By some stroke of unusual good fortune, I did not miss it, having spent the last hour of a two hour drive from Phoenix hunched over the wheel squinting intently at each and every sign on the highway, from "Slow Workers Ahead" to the long abandoned Nickerson Farms turnoff (Nickerson Farms being the west of the Mississippi version of Stuckey's, nut logs included.) I arrived at the University of Arizona's 17th Annual Conference on Literature and Literacy for Children and Adolescents, dusty and nearly blind, but ready for my presentation. The theme of this year's conference was Bridging Cultures-Crossing Borders and the featured guests were Pam Munoz Ryan and Rafael Lopez, both of whom have their own blogs I'm sure. MY breakout session topic was Drawing a Bridge: The Challenges and Rewards of Illustrating Another Culture, and I talked primarily about illustrating the books The Best Eid Ever and A Party in Ramadan for Boyds Mills Press. What began as a typical Power Point show became a lively discussion about differences and similarities between cultures, religions, even age groups (kids today with their hair and their music...). One of my goals in illustrating these two particular books was to make the story accessible to all kids, to show the similarities that bind us all together: love of family, sharing with others and attempting new and difficult challenges. The group consensus seemed to be that the book was successful in this respect, as well as being a much needed addition to libraries that are sadly lacking in books for kids who practice the Muslim faith. The day ended with a signing out in the Arizona sunshine complete with a Mariachi group from Davis Bilingual Magnet School. Normally, one might cringe when an eight year old steps up to the mike with a trumpet, but these kids were magnificent, talented and really, really cute, as the twenty photos I snapped can attest to.