When I Grow Up

Reading as a Writer

Some may have noticed a large number of biographies on my 2020 reading list. There’s a reason for that.

[conspiratorial whisper]

Here’s a little behind the scenes information: Writers need to also be readers.

You might be saying, “Of course, that makes perfect sense!”

I think it’s safe to say that most writers are readers. Most of us have been called to write because we spent so much of our lives reading the words of others. We recognize how valuable words are. We love the way individual letters can be put together to make words that can then be strung together to form thoughts and ideas to be shared with other people, who may relate to what we have written and may even experience strong emotions. As writers, we are word people. And of course in a material sense, writers need readers. Without readers, our writings just sit there, unused.

But that’s not what I am talking about here. Writers need to be constant readers and reading is sometimes part of the job. Writers who want to be published need to know what other people are writing about. They need to know what readers are looking for. They need to know what stories are currently selling.

Writers also need to be marketers. Writers are the only ones who know the details of their stories, the only ones who know what message they want their readers to receive, the only ones who really have a vested interest in their work selling.

Back to the reading list.

As noted, last year I read a lot of biographies. I read more biographies than usual last year because I am writing a biography. And what many people might not realize is that in order to convince a publisher to make your book a reality, a writer first must write a book proposal. This proposal of course includes details about your book, but also requires you to list “comps” – other books that are similar to yours, that might inhabit the same shelf space at the bookstore and possibly be competition for your title. While I suppose I could simply go to the bookstore and make a list of the books on the biography shelves, what’s the fun in that, when I could instead read them all! (I jest, there are too many to read them all, and if you want to be taken seriously, you do in fact need to show that you have read your comps.)

Book publishers want to see current books, and on my first bookstore visit to find relevant comps, nothing really seemed similar enough. While my book tells the story of a notable individual, it also covers the specific topics of education and children’s literature. I was disappointed to not find the perfect book, but not wanting to go home empty-handed, I selected biographies on people that interested me and began reading.

As often happens, one good story led to another. I began seeing recommendations and ads for biographies that more closely fit what I was looking for. I soon learned that there were many more fascinating people in the world than I had realized. I also noted that I had begun reading as a writer.

Let me explain that.

I’ve never been the sort of writer that focuses on the story elements we all learned in high school. You might remember learned about setting, character, plot, theme, and conflict. You may remember analyzing stories and having to pick out the introduction, rising action, the climax, the denouement. My English teachers suggested that writers start with these, but I’ve always been a more intuitive writer (a result, I believe, of being an avid reader all my life). In fact, I am incapable of writing an outline before the story. Even in school, I had to write the story before I could outline it, often because I don’t always know exactly what I’m writing about until it’s already been (at least partially) written.

But while reading these books, I found myself noticing things that I felt worked (and maybe didn’t work) in the stories. Some of these things were subjective and matched my personal interests. I made mental (and a few scribbled) notes of things I want to include in my book as well as what information may not be of enough interest to readers to bother including.

Storytelling techniques jumped out at me. I noted as a reader that I want more than a timeline, even one filled in with lots of details. As a writer, I know it’s easy to get bogged down in the research, especially when everything seems interesting and relevant. The question therefore is “Does this information contribute to the story you are telling?”

This storytelling is ultimately the author’s job. While a biography must be a true story, it need not be the whole story. In fact, in most cases, the whole story is too long and honestly at times, uninteresting. I found this revelation reassuring; it removes the pressure to tell “the whole story” and makes it easier to determine when to stop researching. (Full disclosure: I struggle with this – the end to research makes me a little sad.)

Noticing that I was noticing these things made me pause. While I wasn’t enjoying the books any less (as often happens when you read to analyze rather than for pleasure), I was reading differently. I was learning: how to be a better writer and how to determine which stories make the book and which end up in the slush folder. (I have a tough time permanently deleting words/sentences/paragraphs that sound good, so they end up in their own folder and sometimes end up being pulled out for other, related stories.) It got me thinking about what threads will weave through my own book and what steps I need to take next.

While I’m keeping details under wraps for now, I’ll be sharing more here in the future. Until then, I hope you enjoy my reading recommendations – there are more coming.

~Kimberly

 

 

For those who are wondering, my novel hasn’t been abandoned -it’s being revised, with the help of my wonderful new critique group. I’ll keep you posted on that one as well.


The Surprising Relevance of Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight by Julia Sweig is more than the story of one of America’s most influential First Ladies; it also provides a behind-the-scenes view of the Johnson presidency and its role in both the Vietnam conflict and the Civil Rights movement. Covering Johnson’s life from birth to death, it largely focuses on her public life which began shortly after she married the man who would become America’s 36th president. Using Lady Bird’s personal diaries, public letters, interviews, oral histories, and contemporary accounts, the book provides important historical context, revealing events and forces that led to the turbulence of the ‘60s, and also addresses the changing political winds that shaped the two major political parties into the entities they are today.

Though she was born into wealth on a Texas plantation, Claudia Alta Taylor, dubbed Lady Bird as a child, hardly met the stereotype of a Southern Belle. Shortly after earning a journalism degree, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson. They married after a three-month courtship. From that day forward, she worked to further his career, racking up several “firsts” of her own.  More comfortable in the limelight than Jackie Kennedy, as Second Lady, Lady Bird frequently filled in for the then-First Lady at public events. When Johnson became president, she reinvented the role to suit her own personality and many of her changes remain today. She was the first to work the campaign trail on her own, the first First Lady to hold the Bible during the inauguration ceremony and the first to have her own Chief of Staff and Press Secretary.

Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight compares Lady Bird’s influence to that of Eleanor Roosevelt, but points out that their public personas were quite different. Lady Bird’s femininity was unquestioned; she kept much of her activism in the shadows, thereby enhancing her popularity. Despite calls for her to be officially named as Johnson’s running mate, (he never appointed a VP while he served the balance of John F. Kennedy’s term) the public saw her primarily as a wife and mother. Sweig shows how her femininity was balanced by shrewdness, both in business and her use of the press (surely learned from her days as a journalism student). Lady Bird’s careful word choices when it came to her own personal cause – the environment, known publicly as “beautification efforts” – masked some of her progressive efforts in civil rights and social causes. She may be remembered for planting millions of daffodils, but this book makes clear that she also did much more.

It’s impossible to not see correlations between the scenes of the ‘60s that unravel in this book and recent current events. It is said we need to learn from history so as not to repeat it. This book is a an engaging glimpse into the life of one of our most influential First Ladies as well as a palatable history lesson for those who were too young to remember those tumultuous years (or who were otherwise occupied and not paying attention). This seems to be especially relevant today if we are going to take what we learned from our past and use that knowledge moving forward.

 

Note: Though an advance digital copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY


These 28 Celebs Are Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect Stories by Leo Potion reinforces the idea that “it’s ok to not be ok.” This book looks at the lives of 28 famous people — actors, scientists, artists, athletes and world leaders – and talks about the struggles they have experienced despite, or in some cases, because of their fame. Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are sensitively addressed, and brief explanations of specific diagnoses are included.

Middle grade readers will recognize many of the celebrities included here and may see their own lives reflected in some of the challenges these individuals have worked to overcome. These stories offer reassurance that personal heroes also experience moments of self-doubt and depression. They are a reminder that things aren’t always as they seem: those who seem to have it all together may be floundering as well. Aside from pointing out that perfection is an illusion and that even the most popular people struggle and need help, the book also includes a list of good habits to support one’s own mental health as well as information on reaching professional organizations for advice or support.

The individuals highlighted in this book may have “imperfect stories” but readers will find them Perfectly Inspiring.

 

Note: Though an advance digital copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY


A Year of Books – 2020 in Review

Half my current TBR pile. (It’s two stacks deep.)

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books. Practically from the time I was born, my uncle ensured I had a ready supply and my mom read to me every night, even after I learned to read on my own. After I had been tucked in at night, I continued to read, until my eyes no longer stayed open. When I started getting an allowance, I spent most of it at B Dalton or Waldenbooks. After I started college, my reading habits began to change when reading to learn left little time to read for pleasure, but I still found time to lose myself in the wonderful world of words.

When I became a mom myself, I began the same routine my mom had established years before. However, after a day wrangling kids, my reading routine generally stopped after they were tucked in for the night. At some point, I realized that I had lost control of my reading list. I allowed each child to select their bedtime story (though I sometimes claimed veto power, such as the 27th time my daughter wanted to hear Wendell) but rarely read anything of my choosing. I longed for the day I would again choose what I read.

Then I began to spend much of my after-school hours in the car. I discovered that waiting for children to finish activities (especially those didn’t last long enough to make it worth driving home and returning) could become prime reading time, even though this meant I had to adjust to a new pattern – putting a book down unfinished to come back to at a later date and time.

Today I read both to learn and for pleasure. I’ll admit that I often choose kids’ books over those written for adults. To be honest, I find they sometimes have more substance and truth than their grown-up counterparts.

As a writer, I have many writer friends and acquaintances. Some have written books and I have been lucky enough to receive advance copies to review. In addition, I have an account on Netgalley, which also provides me the opportunity to read and review books before they are released. Some of these books I have reviewed on this blog. Other books I have heard about and obtained in the same way as most people – personal recommendations and ads, through my local library and bookstores.

In 2020, my reading was an eclectic mix. In addition to the books I read to review, reading books has also been part of the research for the books I am writing. Some of these were for background and may include information that will work its way into my own books, while others are necessary market research. And of course I’ve also read some books just for the fun of it.

I wish I had kept a comprehensive list to share, but here’s a partial list of what I read last year:

Books for Kids

An Apple for Dapple by Leah Peterson

Too Sticky! Sensory Issues With Autism by Jen Malia

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion, A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide by Annette Whipple

Now Hear This; Harper Soars With Her Magic Ears  by Valli and Harper Gideons

Skedaddle by Jacqueline Leigh

Belinda Baloney Changes Her Mind by Becca Carnahan

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II by Andrea Warren

Eclipse Chaser: Science in the Moon’s Shadow by Ilima Loomis

Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels (Biography Books for Kids, Feminist Books for Girls) by Linda Skeers

Dissenter on the Bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life and Work by Victoria Ortiz

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Made Her Mark by Debbie Levy

Nevertheless, We Persisted : 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage

Books for Adults

Growing Sustainable Together: Practical Resources for Raising Kind, Engaged, Resilient Children by Shannon Brescher Shea

Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination by Brian Jay Jones

Becoming Queen Victoria : The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise Of Britain’s Greatest Monarch  by Kate Williams

Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II by Jane Dismore

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls

Eleanor by David Michaelis

Three Sisters by Phillipa Gregory

The Last Tudor by Phillipa Gregory

The Extraordinary Life of AA Milne by Nadia Cohen

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich

Let Them Be Themselves by Lee Bennett Hopkins

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Right now, my TBR (to be read) pile is substantial. If I were to make a New Year’s Resolution, it would be to read my way through much of it; my list for this month alone includes four that were recently published or are soon to be released. I’ll keep you posted…

 

 


A Year Worth Remembering? Goodbye 2020!

As many of us often do, I’m ending the year reflecting. This year in particular has been a challenging one to look at in review. As has been the case much of this year, I haven’t always been able to quickly recall what I did yesterday, never mind months ago. Though I don’t do this every year, I decided to review what I have written in 2020, which appears to be not much.

I forgot that back in January, I chose my words for the year, and “Whoa Nellie!” (to quote my dear Grandpa Joe), they were powerful words! “Embracing change” was what I looked forward to for 2020. Little did I know how much in all our lives would change and how little I anticipated exactly what demands would be placed on me because of those changes. (Suffice it to say, there will be no choosing words or phrases for 2021.)

The year 2020 was one for the history books, in many ways. (There is no need to expand on this: Even decades in the future, a simple Google – or equivalent – search will provide details.) I’m sure everyone will agree that the year was one of upended plans and dashed expectations. On Friday, March 13 (otherwise known as the day the world shut down for many of us), I realized how much things would rapidly change, took stock of what resources I had at my disposal and made a conscious decision to shift to a domestic course of action, to focus on my family: on caretaking and calming nerves as best I could (while mostly hiding my own moments of panic). I didn’t know then that my temporary hiatus from my typical workday schedule would last throughout the year.

With freelance opportunities reduced by shrinking budgets (largely a result of reduced advertising due to reduced spending on just about everything – except of course for the elusive toilet paper), I decided this would be a good time to focus on bigger projects: books. More specifically, I spent much of the year working on my historical novel about the Titanic and also a new project, a comprehensive biography on a person dear to my heart whose words began haunting me, demanding that I write this book.

Though things often looked bleak, the year brought some pleasant surprises. I try to make it to a couple writers’ conferences each year and this year had two planned, in April and May. Needless to say, both were postponed and ultimately went virtual. While I was disappointed by not being able to meet people in person (particularly the one focused on children’s literature, the first of its kind I would attend), the costs were significantly reduced, making it possible for me to add another conference previously outside my budget. All were well done despite the obvious challenges, and I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

The year also brought not-so-pleasant surprises. My mom was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment early this summer. My parents live about 1000 miles away, but we all agreed that I needed to visit, so I took appropriate precautions and made two two-week trips to spend time with them. I also learned that my body hates gluten and needed to make significant dietary changes. It’s interesting to note that during a pandemic, gluten free breads, pastas and flour sell out as fast as gluten-full ones.

Perhaps my biggest surprise this year relates to my outlook. While this year saw only a dozen published bylines, I’m okay with that.  2020 forced me to slow down, to value things differently. Yes, I am disappointed that I didn’t write more words this year, that I didn’t publish more. I don’t think it’s being too hard on myself to say that I could have done better – but I did enough. I made it through the year – not unscathed, but it could have been worse.

This was a year I would never want to repeat, but it had its moments. It was a year of learning, on many levels. It was a year of growing, personally and professionally. It was a year of evaluating, where and who I am and where and who I want to be. While we all experienced the year differently, it impacted us all. Many people have said that the forced slowdown of the year was a good thing, that it provided perspective.

Ringing in 2021 will be different – smaller, quieter, more tentative. Here’s hoping the lessons learned in the past year will carry through and make the new one better. I know I said I wasn’t choosing words this year, but I am looking forward to a year full of hope, peace and joy.

Happy New Year to all!

~Kimberly


The new picture book Belinda Baloney Changes Her Mind by Becca Carnahan delightfully explores the dilemma so many children face when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The story starts with three-year-old Belinda who can’t decide what she wants to be.  She looks to the outside world of possibilities and explores each one. Just when it seems she made a decision, “Belinda Baloney changed her mind.” As she gets older, the career options increase. Overwhelmed, Belinda looks to her big brother for help finding the answer. While he doesn’t answer the way she expects, his advice puts her mind at ease.

Belinda’s range of career choices blasts away gender stereotypes – she explores a variety of jobs, from a scientist to a dog walker, an artist to a mechanic, an athlete to a duck trainer. Her brother’s sage advice points out that she doesn’t have to choose just one; she has a lifetime ahead of her — she can change her mind, even multiple times.

Sarah Horan’s simple, colorful illustrations bring Belinda’s many possibilities to life. While aimed at a young audience, even older readers will be comforted by the idea that we don’t have to have our lives mapped out, that changing your mind is a viable, sometimes even desirable option.

 

 

 

Note: Though an advance digital copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY


The Hardest Part of Growing Up Is Dealing With Loss

Uncle Don and I in 2014

My uncle, Donald George Hopkins, was born in Scranton on August 9, 1941 and died in Mexico on September 24, 2020. In between, he lived a full and interesting life.

Don in his makeshift science lab

He was a scientist, a Sea Scout, a creator, an entrepreneur and more. He attended college for a short time and served in the Army. As a boy, he created a science lab in their small apartment, where he kept mice.  As an adult he was always creating something, often out of found (aka free or throwaway) objects. In his thirties, he concocted a plan with his brother-in-law to make and sell switch plate covers door-to-door (though they made prototypes, this never quite got off the ground). Later in life he joined forced with his second wife to create wooden art (he carved the wood, she drew the designs).

Don in his Sea Scout uniform

Over the course of his life, he lived in New Jersey, California, Illinois, Arkansas, Florida, Mexico and Guatemala. Though he kept moving away, he seemed to always come home, with home loosely defined as where his family was.

He was fun and silly but could also be serious and brooding. He loved animals and was known to bring home new pets that he had found. These included cats, dogs and even a backyard full of birds in elaborately built enclosures. When I was young he had a butterfly specimen mounted in a corked jar that he would make “talk” to me, inadvertently instilling a fear of butterflies that lasted into my adulthood.

When he smiled, it took over his face; his eyes twinkled and when he laughed it was an eruption. He never took life too seriously. He loved a good joke, even if it was on him. One running joke with him and my parents was hiding a rubber goldfish in strange places, designed to startle whoever found it. The morning he was the one to find it, when he put sugar in his very early morning coffee, he let out a yell (while flinging sugar all over the kitchen), but was able to laugh about it later.

Thinking about it, aside from tragedies, I only saw his serious side once. It was at a backyard barbecue at my grandmother’s house when I was about 14. We were sitting off to the side and he just started talking. He told me how excited he was when I was born and how he visited every day after for months. He told me how much he loved spending time with me and how crushed he was when his brother was asked to be my godfather instead of him.

This came as a shock to me, because we had never been close, in fact I didn’t know him well at all. Even though he and his family lived with mine for several months when I was a child, I’m not sure we ever had any one-on-one time.  This conversation made me regret the time years before I had answered a question truthfully. My grandmother made the regrettable decision to ask me who my favorite uncle was in his presence. Not being old enough to understand diplomacy, I answered her, but didn’t name him.

Uncle Don came in and out of our lives over the years, sometimes for a few days, others for a few months or even years. When I was a child, I took the plane ride with my grandmother to visit him and his family during summer vacations. I was close with his first wife, my Aunt Sharon, and my cousin, Donnie, but like the Ken dolls of the ’70s, Uncle Don went off to do whatever he did during the day while the moms and kids stayed home.

Lee, Donna and Donald

Overall, it seems that all of his relationships were complicated. He expressed his love differently than most, but I always knew it was there. While I wish I had more opportunities to spend time with him and get to know him better, I am thankful for the time I did have. The last time I saw him was shortly after he and his wife moved back to the States in 2014 after spending years in Central America. Our visit was brief but pleasant. When I stopped by to visit on one of my trips to Florida in 2016, he was gone. The woman who had moved into his apartment told me he had moved back to Mexico earlier that year.  Though I didn’t expect it, I hoped that circumstances would change and I would get to see him again.

I am saddened by his death, but thankful for his life. He brought a little more sparkle and light into the world. He’s sorely missed.


Skedaddle! – A Bedtime Story

Skedaddle by Jacqueline Leigh is an entertaining bedtime tale full of unexpected nighttime happenings when (so it is thought anyway) everyone is supposed to be asleep.

Noises coming from the ceiling above her bed are keeping Nellie awake. She discovers there is a chipmunk in the attic, one who simply won’t pipe down. Though she tries everything she can think of to ignore the noise,  she still can’t sleep. She decides the critter must Skedaddle!

A grumpy Nellie tries making chipmunk a bed, but he thinks it’s a toy. She brings him snacks, but he invites his friends to share, leading to even more noise. When she exhausts all her ideas to make him skedaddle, and kindly asks him to “keep it down,” chipmunk and friends comply. She returns to bed, but finds she still can’t sleep. In a fun plot twist, she finds another solution.

This amusing picture book is sure to charm children and adults alike. It offers an explanation for random noises in the night and provides some entertaining thoughts on ways to deal with them. The reader gets two simple, yet subtle messages: if you want something, ask for it, directly and kindly; and sometimes getting your way is not what you really want.

The illustrations by Erika Wilson clearly show Nellie’s changing emotions and are sure to prompt some giggles at the critters’ obvious indifference to her attempts to get them to leave. Anyone who has been kept up by noises in the night (or a lack thereof) will relate to her struggle and understand her eventual solution to her dilemma.

 

Note: Though an advance digital copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY


Now Hear This: Every Classroom Needs This Book

Now Hear This; Harper Soars With Her Magic Ears  by Valli and Harper Gideons is a candid recounting of the young co-author’s challenges with hearing loss. In it, she talks about the assistive devices she has used and the difficulties surrounding them.  The book presents facts in a captivating, entertaining way that includes the struggles parents encounter trying to keep track of hearing devices. The narrator recounts her joy at hearing things clearly for the first time and (despite the fact that she had over the years, left them in some interesting places) her eventual acceptance for and even love of her “magic ears.”

This book will be especially helpful to children with hearing loss. It not only shows that they are not alone, but also talks about cochlear implants in a matter-of-fact, non-frightening way that is certain to be comforting both to children facing surgery and their parents. However, the book also has broader appeal. It is written in such a way that all children will enjoy learning about what makes their friends and classmates’ ears special and reminds readers that hearing is only one aspect of a person; we all want many of the same things out of life.

 

Note: No compensation was made for this review. The opinions are exclusively mine. KY


I Wish Ten-Year-Old Me Had This Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion

Book: The Laura Ingalls Wilder CompanionLike many young girls, I read and re-read the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though her world was, even then, far removed from the one in which I lived, the stories of grit and family values, even in the face of adversity, were inspiring and timeless. Like many others, my family gathered weekly to watch the television series based on the nine novels

Reading The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion, A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide by Annette Whipple, brought me back to simpler times, both that of my childhood and even further back, to a world 150 years ago. I heard about this book months ago and looked forward to its release; I was not disappointed.

This book is, as the title suggests, a companion book. It is meant to read alongside Wilder’s novels. It weaves in anecdotes and additional family history that Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of her books and also provides contextual notes for some of the terms and traditions that may seem strange to modern readers. Whipple challenges readers to read critically, reminding readers that these books are novels; though they are based on actual characters and events, they do not necessarily present everything factually. Each chapter ends with things to think about, to “dig deeper” and possible discussion points to get the whole family involved. The recent controversy surrounding the books is addressed head on. In the author’s opening “A Note for the Reader,” she says, “We need to think about these issues even when they make us uncomfortable.” Throughout her book Whipple points out culturally insensitive phrases and words that Wilder used in the novels, explaining why they should not be used today.

Personally, my favorite part of each chapter is the “Live Like Laura” section. Here, Whipple highlights her research. She shares activities, crafts and best of all, recipes to help readers experience a taste of pioneer life. With 75 activities that come straight from the novels, readers can enjoy hours of screen-free fun, either on their own or with their parents (some activities note parental supervision is required for safety). Whether readers of this book are new to the Little House books or parents sharing their childhood favorites, it’s almost certain every reader, will learn something new. (Did you know there is no wheat in buckwheat and that vinegar pie is sweet? And there are Laura Ingalls Wilder-related sites to visit in 7 states?)

As a history and photography lover, I can’t end without mentioning the illustrations. The drawings and photos (both vintage and more recent) enhance the text, providing a clearer image of the people and places Laura Ingalls Wilder brought to life almost 100 years ago. Older fans of Wilder’s books will recognize this new title as a book they wish they had when they were kids.

 

Note: Though an advance copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY