My First Book Signing: A Winter's Tale

The popular Native American poet Mark Turcotte told an audience of students and faculty last semester that progress can only happen when we look to the sky. So many people, he claims, spend their time looking at the computer in their hands. How can we progress when we are always looking down? His words are fitting today as I look up and find snow blowing sideways across the hotel’s parking lot, holding cars securely in spaces.

Sirens cry, reminding me to stay put in Lake Geneva and avoid the urge to head home. I imagine ambulances rushing to an accident. After all, the news reporters did tell viewers to “only drive in case of emergency.” I will wait.

In downtown Lake Geneva this morning, I fought strong winds, stomping deep piles of snow to get a “real cup of coffee" at Starbucks to replace the disappointing effects of hotel coffee.

 I was one of four people walking in the blizzard. The other three were shoveling sidewalk entrances for a vacant breakfast shop.


But it didn’t look like this yesterday. In fact, yesterday was a Winterfest dream with snow masterpieces and ice tables.
Yesterday, my friend and co-editor, Michelle Duster, and I had our first book signing for Shifts at the Breadloaf Book Shop. Wendy Schmidt, an essayist and poet in the anthology, joined us to sign.

Later that night we found a frozen wonderland dressed in ice tables and sculptures...

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...and, of all people, another college professor! Michelle and I met the gracious Lance Lippert from Illinois State, celebrating his birthday with his wife. Lance co-edited an anthology focused on repairing athletes’ images--fitting for Superbowl Sunday with athletes in the midst of a scandal that borrows nomenclature from Watergate.

Later, we journeyed to the national snow sculpting contest. Take a look at these masterpieces! Usually winter’s magic is found in treetops and fields, but this display is no comparison: beauty formed at the hands of man.

I suppose the blizzard and anticipatory 12 inches of snow is fitting for Winterfest. And if I think about Turcotte’s words, I must look to the sky in order to progress in life. The only way to move forward today is to accept the sky's gifts and stay indoors, thinking and working on the computer beneath my hands.

"The Gay Athlete" and Fixing our Fears

I have not blogged in over a year, and much has changed. My blogs will continue to be random rants, barely revised comments that refuse to sit inside as thoughts kept to myself. This thought comes after the latest Sports Illustrated issue arrived at my house yesterday, with a smiling Jason Collins on the front. The cover announces, "The Gay Athlete," as if he is the first. Collins claims the Boston bombing was the catalyst for him to step forward. A moment of fear caused a great athlete to surrender his truths, which reminds me of a quote from H. Goddard writing about Henry James's Turn of the Screw. "Fear is like faith: it ultimately creates what at first is only imagined." The more we believe in the unseen, the more it becomes real. This is how tragic leaders have ruled (and are ruling in places like Iran), placing fear in the hearts of their citizens. Fear is still holding some back from accepting others, allowing for the illegality of uniting gay husbands. My students often write about how fear is holding us back from our first rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I only wish you all could spend the day with me in my college classrooms, listening to the conversations of tomorrow's leaders. If you were there you would know that my students have few fears. They aren't worried about misinterpretations of scripture, causing rights and wrongs in matters of the heart. They aren't slamming the sacred Book of Islam when some of the fearful say the religion preaches hate.

My students know better. They know because they research, listen to one another, and expand their minds. If only the rest of us could do the same. If only people took the time to understand each other, to care about where each individual came from. To hear stories. And that's where we lost out. Technology has taken parts of the communication we once had with each other, but it's not all for naught. We have certainly bonded our globe through our monitors and handheld devices. But we have lost ourselves.

Rebecca Costa has an unforgettable editorial which she posted on USA Today after the Newtown tragedy. She claims that "[t]hriving, happy, connected human beings don't use guns to harm others, no matter how plentiful." Her argument stresses the need to fix people before we fix the gun problem. She raises an important point about massacres and the weak-minded. The will to live "is the strongest instinct among living organisms," and we must restore the will to live in Americans. It starts with acceptance and understanding, smiles instead of shuns, allowing children to stay outdoors, running and shouting with friends. It starts in our classrooms and at our dinner tables. It starts when we look each other in the eye and speak from the heart. I believe in this country, as many of our great leaders have and do; I believe in the fundamental need to thrive and prosper as a nation. But most importantly, I believe we will fully succeed as a whole once we lose the reasons for oppressing one another and instead have faith in each other. In turn, we will be able to create what at first was only imagined.

A Project for Peace

Everything we need to know can be learned in a children's book (or from children's book authors). Last week, I blogged about the Dr. Seuss exhibit at the MSI, highlighting the lyrical quality of Seuss's plea for world peace. It seems so simple. You in your comfortable paradise and me in my house with tiny feet to warm and paws to wipe, joining together to create world peace. It seems so simple.

As Seuss says:

Please tell all men
That Peace is Good.
That’s all
That need be understood
In every world
In Your great sky.

(We understand.
Both You and I.)

So when Elizabeth Potter of Unity Productions e-mailed me to say, "Lowe's Home Improvement recently pulled its ads from the TLC show 'All-American Muslim' in response to an organization claiming the show 'falsely humanized Muslims in America,'" I got a little upset. To say the least. As Potter states, "This controversy has exposed more Islamophobia in America which falls directly in line with what the My Fellow American project is trying to prevent and overcome in America." 

We could say that all reality TV "falsely humanizes" people, can't we? Do all people from New Jersey have an obsession with hair gel and tanning? Do all overweight people yearn to leave their families in order to be on "The Biggest Loser"? Do all women strive to produce nearly a dozen children in order to have their own show? Do all wealthy couples divorce after just a few months? Clearly, we cannot form opinions about others based on "reality" shows. And why do we need a reality show to teach Americans that Muslims are normal everyday people? Muslims ARE normal people. It's time for us to realize this.

Mid December my children asked me if they could be Jewish.  I said sure, of course, they would just need to convert. My family is already omni-religious. My oldest is baptized Greek Orthodox, my youngest is baptized Methodist, and I'm baptized Lutheran, attending church in my heart and soul--not in a pew. I also read the Qur'an when I need to relax. It's the only book that I've found that is written in verse with words like the breaths we take. In fact, after hearing the plea of a children's editor at an SCBWI conference I created a story for a Muslim character in In Her Skin. Not only do we need more Muslim characters in children's books, but we need more awareness in general. Understanding breeds peace. And it starts with opening a book.

If you want to join the My Fellow American Project for peace, click here: .
Maybe we can all resolve to extend our arms out to Peace in the new year. It seems so simple, doesn't it?

Seuss and Seconds: A Twinkle in the City

Singer/songwriter David Gray writes about seconds and moments that rarely occur in his song "Fugitive"; he describes how it's rare that people get a twinkle in their eye, but it happens, if only for a second. It happened to me yesterday at the Museum of Science and Industry.

After grading 1200 essays in four months the boys and I took a celebratory head-clearing trip to the city.

 We hit the museum early to find Christmas past amongst fake trees that spanned the globe. 

When the boys were saying CHEESE! beneath the largest spruce a woman approached me with tickets to the Dr. Seuss exhibit. I was thrilled, not knowing such an exhibit was even there, pausing in realization that every time I go to the city something children's bookish lights up my path. Remember the time I went to the Art Institute and ran into David Diaz's artwork? (Yes, David, I fixed my two-tone hair. Did you get new shoes?)

The Seuss exhibit contained halls of heavenly sculptures and manuscripts, chronological quotations and facts. I discovered that Seuss published his first book in 1937. (I'll tell you later why that date is so important to me.) Suess was rejected 30-something times for this masterpiece.

A Seuss scientist chose my oldest son as an Oobleck demonstrator.

Don't blame me for the blurry picture; security asked me to put my camera away, but not before I snapped a photo! Mwaahhaha!

I was inspired by the wall containing eight steps to becoming a successful children's book writer, none of which involved facebook or twitter, all of which involved heart and hard work.

We finished our Seusstastic tour in a room filled with Whoville statues and bronze green eggs and ham. A curator stopped me to describe the unique paintings in the room--the La Jolla bird women sketches...  

and the Prayer for a Child poem and painting.

 Prayer for a Child
-Dr. Seuss

From here on earth,
From my small place
I ask of You
Way out in space:
Please tell all men
In every land
What You and I
Both understand . . .

Please tell all men
That Peace is Good.
That’s all
That need be understood
In every world
In Your great sky.

(We understand.
Both You and I.)

The poem still makes me cry. If. Only.

On our way out of Seussville we bumped into fellow children's book writer pal Sarah Barthel who also received the memo that it was Black Fleece Day.

Upstairs, we found more children's book writers. The Three Silly Chicks had multiplied!!

It's no coincidence that when we pulled away from the museum David Gray was singing "Fugitive" on the radio. It was a simple reminder that whatever happens here stays. It's moments like these that remind me, whether it's world peace or daily enjoyment, we all have to try harder.

SCBWI Summer Conference Photoblog

SCBWI Member of the Year 2010, Christopher Cheng, shares Australian gifts with Illinois writers!

Fire-roasting some of my favorite Illinois friends...

Huuuuuuh! Girls as boys in the bathroom!

Boys as girls in pajamas!

Sleepover friends!

Muscle Beach?

The real Muscle Beach!

Rollerblading Hendrix and California girl (no s)!

Venice Beach!

If I had a pair of scissors...

At least somebody missed his mama.


Meeting My Mondo Beyondo at the SCBWI Summer Conference

It's 1:30 in the morning and I should be sleeping, but my mind is fighting post-conference limbo, juggling between inspiration and motivation, willing me to do something profound with new creative fuel. This weekend I attended the best slumber party of all time--the SCBWI's 40th Anniversary Summer Conference.

I'm still riding a high from meeting Judy Blume--the woman who created my childhood friends.

[L to R: Trina Sotira, Lee Wind, Dame Judy Blume]

At the LGBT luncheon, we played a game of Truth or Dare, daring each other to write the truth that society still hasn't fully embraced.

Julie Strauss-Gabel chose Truth, sharing secrets of her publishing successes--voice, the writing, voice, writing, author stamina, voice, determination, quality writing, and willingness to revise.

Bruce Coville dared writers to cultivate the souls of children. Later that night, after he awakened my child-like soul with his speech, I was tempted to ding-dong ditch him from our hotel room directly across the hall from his. Thaaaank god I suppressed my inner-child. I can just picture myself being hauled out in my pajamas, spending the weekend with the LAPD.

At Saturday night's poolside pajama jammy jam, we stripped out of our buisnessy masks and jumped under the moon with wild things to our favorite songs.

Like any perfect slumber party, there were sugar-sprinkled cookies and the sweetest girlfriends.


Sunday, Jennifer Hunt presented tools to rejuvenate a writer's soul during tough times. She was completely Oprah-like with her giveaways and life-changing motivation. She suggests that authors create mission statements and identify their Mondo Beyondo--a potentially unobtainable goal, but nonetheless, something to strive for.

After dessert at the Golden Kite Luncheon, Judy Blume sat next to me; she came to listen to Richard Peck deliver brilliance about the greats in children's literature, including his ever-eloquent technology rants. And that's when I discovered my Mondo Beyondo, sitting quietly to my left and chanting flawlessly on stage. I can only dream of such longevity and success, but proof of life was exactly what I needed to continue.

Thank you Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser, Sara Rutenberg and Kim Turrisi. Thank you SCBWI family members new and old. 

Goodnight sweet muses, goodnight!

Past-picking Exercises and Garrett's Popcorn

The second time around is better in many instances. Love. Manuscripts. Conferences. You just seem to know how to avoid problems and what to do when they come up. So this year when I was asked to return to the DePaul Summer Writing Conference, I was both honored and extra-prepared.

I avoided one-lane highway closures due to Optimus Prime battles. Instead, I relaxed on a train packed with Cubs Fans--thankful for my Chicago transfanism (Sox-fan-identifying-as-a-Cubs-fan, interchangeable when necessary). And I arrived without sweaty nervousness.

At my teen novel characterization class, students were subject to my past-picking exercise--borrowing flaws from friends and family like outfits. This year's students had a hunger to write for teens--eager to share their work, ready to improve.

I was grateful that B.A. Binns...

Cover for "Pull" ~ B.A. Binns's debut Young Adult Novel

...returned to my class. She's also teaching a workshop on writing for teens. You can still catch her at 10:30 this morning! Go, go, go!!!

And James Klise...

...made my month when he said my workshop gave him new juice for one of his characters. Compliments like that make all the prep-work soooo worth it!

Teen writers--like teens--find excitement in the everyday. And there's nothing better than building off that excitement. Proving why conferences are oh-so important. [Psst. I'll be in LA at the SCBWI Summer Conference, too! A million thanks to the SCBWI LA family for granting my wish and honoring my door prize winnings. And a thousand thank-yous to my Love for the early birthday gift of airfare. Kiss, kiss, kiss!]

After my workshop, I snuck into Rebecca Johns-Trissler's talk on writing for consumer magazines, where I gained the strength to possibly tackle a genre I've never tried.

On the way home, those bastards at Garrett's Popcorn pulled my arm and made me buy a bag.

Go to fullsize image

After already trying their carmel corn, I took a different route and mixed--carmel and butter--the perfect combo of sweet and salty. Deeeelicious! The second time around you always know what is better.

Reaching Out to TG Teens

I am not transgender. I am not seventeen. I am not a fourteen-year-old boy. I am not any of my characters from piles of manuscripts, but I wrote a book to make a difference. I chose to tell the story of a friend who struggled with gender identity before there were support groups and celebrities with books about transitioning, online photos of transformations, or global chats with other TG teens.

So this past weekend when my FTM (female to male) friend asked what books he could recommend to a transitioning 12-year-old FTM, I offered the following:

True Selves by Mildred Brown, a scientific and psychological look at the various stages of gender transformation.

True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism--For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals


Luna by Julie Anne Peters, the story of a teenage brother who begins to transition as a girl.

My friend suggests The Testosterone Files by Max Wolf Valerio, but warns that the content is more adult than teen.

The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male

And of course mad props to Chaz Bono for sharing his story.

Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man

I also suggest websites like the, which helps inform TG teens of their rights (click on the LGBT rights link). Additionally, offers a plethora of TG lawsuits, news, and rights. And always, local support groups at community centers and colleges help create conversations and friendships. Lee Wind also offers the latest LGBT books online, this week's feature, a TG teen in a post-apocalyptic setting. Find Lee at "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?"

No one chooses to be born in the wrong skin--wrapped in layers of a gender they don't identify with. And I'm glad to see an expansion of resources for teens in transition. I only wish I could offer my book In Her Skin, the result of decades of watching my friend struggle in the wrong body. But as many of you know, that's the risk we take as writers in line for traditional publication, investing hearts and years, waiting for the call.

Cookies and Walking with Friends: Taking Advice From My Students

I'm baking chocolate chip cookies with someone I love and my hands smell like vanilla and sugar. Perfect for typing. It makes me grateful for the life I live. I spent the day building business plans and book plans with friends who mean the world to me. I enjoyed a moment walking arm-in-arm in the rain through Oak Park with a friend who I share the same eyes with--but a different outer shell. And it reminds me of my last moments with my college students when we all wrote advice on the white board. It all stemmed from Michael Dirda's essay "Commencement Advice" where he tells graduates to read everything, find a hero to emulate, and to "live all you can" because "it's a mistake not to."

I had a student last semester who has Lupus; she's a Make-a-Wish child who was granted a wish to go to New York and record a song at a top recording studio. So you can imagine what it was like to read her assignment on commencement advice. Here it is verbatim.

"Commencement Advice" by Gabriela Garcia

"In life thus far; this is what I know. I know I'm not perfect and you won't be either. We will make mistakes, paint over what we can't handle, and run from the truth. Life is what you make it. You have a choice to make it bad or good. So here's a little advice from the heart. When you're lost and you've run out of hope, you should already know that it's hard and it will get better. Be prepared for the worst and have your hopes high for the best. Don't get tangled in the middle of life. Catch up to it if you can. You may not ever understand completely but hang on to what you have because eventually that is what you will have left. We move on and forget so much it's a routine but don't ever forget about your faith. When you try to throw something or someone away, don't let the light go out because they will come back knocking on your door. In a blink of an eye, it can change your life and it never slows down fast enough. I don't know what it is about life but it can make you have flashbacks of your entire life and it can open your heart or even break you apart. In this life thus far; this is what I know. You will be the best you can possibly be."

Thank you, Gaby. A million times, thank you. And to all my students from Spring 2011, I will miss you. Best of luck to all of you!

David Diaz in the House of Degas!

In honor of the day before the last class of the semester (hoo-ray!), I took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. My palms are still a little sweaty from the thousand-mile walk and train ride, boat and plane ride through 90-degree heat (no shock or anything from the 40s we had last week), but I can still type. Wait til you hear what happened!

My Art Institute visit was supposed to involve book research and some minor relaxation, which it did. But something amazing occurred. After I gazed at Islamic art and snapped a picture of this gorgeous 18th/19th Century Persian book cover (Yes, that's a pen holder, and no, I apparently wasn't supposed to take a picture. Quiet, you!),

 I stared into the eyes of American Gothic's stern farmer.

 Later I attempted to read French poems in the Renaissance exhibit where one poet wrote an entire pocketbook for his girlfriend to profess his love. Where's my book of poetry, babe?

Then I stumbled downstairs for a some recaffienation. But I was in the wrong area. Surrounded by laughing students in matching shirts, I was lost in the children's art wing. Missing my own kids, who will be off the bus any minute now, I strolled aimlessly, listening to high-pitched conversations. Children were huddled around tables reading picture books by Yuyi Morales in Spanish. Two years ago, I saw Yuyi win a Golden Kite award at the SCBWI summer conference. And look at her now!

Que Kelly Clarkson singing "A Moment Like This"!

Can you believe it?! SCBWI's very own Yuyi Morales and David Diaz are in the same house as Seurat and Degas, O'Keeffe and Wood!

Look at David's work. I wonder if he'll come help me paint our home. 


Although I went in search of something more for my current manuscript, I left with more for myself. More inspiration to continue.

Congrats to David and Yuyi! Thank you for the inspiration!