It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A writer must create pictures in the minds of readers, so exacting word choice is vital. For a long time, I have kept these words taped to my desk space. I do not know who wrote them, but they’re great:
The written word is clean as bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as stone.
Two words are not
As good as one.
Some early mornings, I walk a garden path to find my word-pictures. My cameras go with me, and the surprises found out there often give me the words and the illustrations.
I look high into the wax myrtle and meet the gaze of an eye on me. She wants me to move along, but I return when she flies to the courtyard for a sip from the fountain.
The pine straw shifts slightly in the flowerbed, and a familiar shape is lapping rainwater in a brick crevice. He has a rival in one of the many garden turf wars. I am usually the loser in the assault on leaves and blossoms, whether we meet face-to-face, or I catch a mere glimpse of the offender.
The copper and brown of the wood thrush melds with the woodland floor or leafy undergrowth where he forages. He zooms out to scritch, scratch with with one foot and then the other, like a comical chicken, and turns over leaf after leaf to find insects. Then he races back under the shrubbery to hide. Perched on a limb, he looks a lot like the bark.
Here’s a fledgling wood thrush, but he’ll watch Mom and Dad and learn quickly.
Wolf snails are cannibalistic and devour other snails, and even each other. They move much faster than other snails, and it’s not hard to imagine that they could terrify their prey with those “horned” heads.
A hummingbird snugs down over her two white pearl-sized eggs in the hanging cradle she has woven around a plant stem.
This walking stick and her offspring have found a perfect hiding place in a woven basket beside my back door. Their camouflage can get them into trouble if I don’t see them before I drop yard shoes into the basket. They are there often, so I look out for them now.
Back inside, I’m ready to write, but my garden friends have a little more to say before they leave me. I can’t resist a few more shots of them from my side of the windows.
It’s wild kingdom where I live, and I’ll return with more photo stories about my adventures. I agree with Thoreau that I can never learn everything in just my own square mile!
Since it’s summer vacation for students, this is a great time to enter THE READING ROAD SUMMER WRITING CONTEST. Go to the JUST FOR FUN page and click “Contests” to read all about it. The winner will be awarded a prize and be published here on The Reading Road where all your family and friends can see your entry.
While you are waiting to learn if you are the winner, you might want to try something I once did. During one summer vacation from elementary school, I made a neighborhood newspaper (which was a lot more work, but seemed like more fun than being in school). Since I was the roving reporter, columnist, editor, publisher, and then the delivery girl, it didn’t leave much time for getting into my usual mischief. The summer went really fast, and I loved writing about anything I thought would make a good story. Some of the neighbors weren’t too sure, but they seemed to be pleased to be featured, for the most part. They actually enjoyed my science column about birds, butterflies, and types of neighborhood pets. My cooking column was almost a disaster because I asked some of my mother’s friends for recipes. Some of them were ghastly, and I couldn’t be “choosy” without hurting feelings. I decided to share only my Mom’s and Grandmothers’ recipes because they were the best cooks. If you decide to try a newspaper or newsletter, you may want to include some friends and work together. A parent or neighbor would probably be happy to act as editor or type your stories and columns.
I’d love to hear about any reading or writing projects you do this summer, and I can’t wait to get your contest entries!
On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of a gift from rather than for my father. When I think about it, though, his gift to my brother, David, and me turned out to be something we continue to give in his memory. It’s a gift he would have loved most of all – the continuation of what he instilled through the daily exercise of his story-telling, his wit and humor, his great humanity toward everyone, and his uncommon bravery. We absorbed all this as a completely natural part of our days.
This was never more evident than on the June day that David was born. Mother was welcoming him on the maternity floor of the hospital while I recuperated from a tonsillectomy in a room on the ground floor. Daddy divided his time, and my grandmothers made sure I had a flower in my hair each day from the huge bouquet Daddy brought. At that time, hospitals were not air-conditioned, and rules limited the number of overnight family members. Daddy stood outside my window, open just enough for me to hear him, and told me Uncle Remus stories in the authentic voice of each character until I fell asleep. I made sure this took a long time. When it probably seemed like an endless “just one more” from me, he launched into my favorite horse stories about the adventures of a girl named Diane and her pony. Happy dreams for me! Before we left the hospital, Daddy told me he had a big surprise for me. That was the day he took me upstairs, threw open a door with a grand gesture, and we saw my smiling mother holding my new brother. Daddy knew how to create an unforgettable moment.
There were special times with Daddy for David and me. We built homemade kites from newspaper comics, and learned to love the ocean. Whether shopping for groceries with him, making homemade ice cream, or doing anything, we had fun. He always shared food with family and neighbors, and always knew exactly how to make them laugh and feel loved. This, and a keen business sense, are traits that David, now a father, mirrors from Dad.
It’s remarkable that, though he didn’t live to see us grown, he was able to give us what every father strives to give his children. He gave us the gift of appreciation for each day, the confidence to believe in ourselves, and the strength that comes from strong family love. These are the building blocks of any life. We are so lucky!
Recently, I watched Stephen King on YouTube during an interview about his writing. Writers’ ears always perk up at the sharing of thoughts and methods, ways to balance life with writing, what makes other writers “tick,” – things of that sort. I envy Mr. King’s ability to turn his nightmares into megabucks. He has obviously found the how-to’s, and although he didn’t say it, something important came to me while watching his body language and listening to him talk.
King seems to have overcome a kind of self-consciousness which undermines the best writing. We can lose ourselves in an inspiration, we can be transported by an experience or a sight; but the moment that we become aware of it and begin to judge it, doubt the reaction, edit it, we lose the magic. At ease with himself and very forthcoming, King offered his own very simple writing prescription without seeming to be aware of it. He began to relate how he prepares himself for his writing day by describing his home environment. To paraphrase, he said something close to this, “I have a little cabin on my property, away from the house. It is reached by a path through some trees. I take something, maybe some coffee, and slowly walk toward it, relaxing. Then I sit down and take my time.” That’s where thoughts come to him. That uncomplicated place is the oracle that he associates with his flow of creativity.
Those of us who are afflicted understand. Some must have a particular type of music (Stephen King does and it’s surprisingly modern and loud). Others must have utter silence, or at least music which is soft, without distracting. I enjoy the sound of birds or ocean to embrace that primal state which allows me to express free thought. It’s just as necessary to write from this perspective in children’s stories as it is for adults. It might be described as feeling a bit like time travel originating in the right brain.
I’m writing when I’m doing anything else – listening to conversations, digging in the dirt, cooking for family and friends. EVERYTHING goes into the gumbo of story. Every memory, everything I do, seasons everything else. Since I often get “flashes” of beginnings, middles, and endings, or something I feel compelled to express, I’m rarely without pen, paper, and camera – tools which can then be translated to computer when I get to my “oracle” place. Many people and places are inspiring, and they become part of a particular tapestry once I get back home. My study/office has a necessary messiness, with favorite aphorisms taped to my workspace, stacks of research, folders of ongoing work, papers to file, photos to sort, people to call, and endless to-do lists. It changes every day, but here it is today – I tried to tidy up just a little. Not many are invited to share this space, but you reading here, are welcome.
When the words came to me, I was peering into a bluebird nest at four sky-blue marble-sized ovals nestled in pine straw. Pure potential. The female had flown away in search of an insect morsel, and the male regarded me from an oak branch. I instantly counted one-two-three-four holding those tiny beating hearts.
I think them when young birds fledge, or a seed breaks soil and sprouts, when newly hatched turtles make their first precarious scramble toward the sea, and especially when I see the joy of discovery on a child’s face. Pure potential.
Imagine the influence and possibilities our words create in the hungry brains of our children. We can expose them to books and music in all the choices available to us in this 21st century. They will sample the array and take the best from it, re-invent it, and create it anew.
We can offer choices, take time to read with them, discuss and draw what they think about stories, act out the stories, and encourage them to write their own stories. It’s summer and time to see all the pure potential in our lives!
April is special for many reasons – a bird nest in every one of the nestboxes painted by our daughter, four in bushes, roses filling the trellises and blowing petals everywhere, Easter eggs still in the fridge, extra reading and exploring time during Spring Break, and it’s National Poetry Month!
Poetry, like music and art, speaks to the soul. We identify, smile, feel comforted by various forms of word patterns. Whether realistic, abstract, colorful, inspiring, funny, solemn, reverent or irreverent, there are poems for every time in life. For me, it isn’t always necessary for a poem to provide an answer or a definite conclusion. Sometimes I’d rather interpret the words my own way. The main joy in discovering a poem is that it evokes emotion.
I have far too many favorites to list. Some follow strict literary form, some are free verse; I love haiku and tanka, and limericks. My journal is full of all kinds of poetry, and our fridge sports poems which change from time to time.
Here are a couple that I have written for children’s magazines and for the children in my life. I get grins and lots of funny comments which makes writing worthwhile. Sometimes the words come first, and other times I capture a photo which gives me the words. I’m rarely without my camera, paper, and pen. Here they are:
I love her very much.
She rolls with tummy uppy
when she first feels my touch.
I scratch her chin to belly
and hold her in my lap.
Her legs go soft as jelly
and she stays to take a nap.
I see my best friend’s sleeping head
resting on my knee.
What does she see with her eyes
when she looks at me?
Watching an ant cross a big waterspot.
Then out of the leaves popped a sleepy-eyed head
Like the color of clay or a strange rusty-red.
I wanted to ask how the heck it did that, but
Before I could speak it leaped onto my hat.
I waved my hands wildly all over the top
But the thing disappeared in the leaves with a PLOP!
Here’s one by Wendell Berry for the adults in our children’s lives:
The Peace of Wild Things
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Happy reading and writing during Poetry Month, and every month of the year.
Sometimes inspiration hides out in the wide, wide open of life. Ideas can move to the front of the thought line at any time, whether I’m kicking acorns or folding egg whites into batter. The more I engage in any aspect of life, the more it seems that my mind is another person rich with new insights to share. Thought patterns and words can be as elusive as firefly light, but when the right ones strike, I’m thrown into a frantic search for paper and pen. My notepaper reflects whatever activity that engaged me when the inspiration visited. Sometimes the pages are smeared with garden dirt, splotched with water drops from hastily washed hands, or tinted with just a guilty little chocolate smudge, but who cares as long as the “just right” words get captured?
I’m always mining the hiding places of inspiration. Once, unable to sleep because a thorny descriptive passage wouldn’t read like music, I walked out onto the front porch just as soft light signaled dawn. There, with a clear view of the eastern sky, I could hear the needed words.
“What if?” is a magical question which has helped develop my own writing voice, my writing “fingerprint” which is really just a reflection of how I view the world. Questions I sometimes get are “How did you think of that? What made you come up with that idea?” Answers and solutions which seem logical to me come in ways which are simple and natural. Several people have asked for the paint color of our blue-gray-green front porch floor. It’s custom paint mixed to match a pile of leaves, in stages of development, which I dumped on the paint store counter. Ray, the owner, knows me by now. He threw up his hands and pointed me to the back where he let me mix my own color. It was easier for both of us this way. I’m just saying that answers are everywhere in life and in writing. You just have to think, “What if…?”
Another unexpected way to give special flavor to my expression has come through the study of other languages. To be truly fluent, to capture the nuances that natives of a country use, we have to “think” in the other language rather than translate verbatim. This requires study, but yields thrilling results when you start to dream in French or Spanish, for instance, or effortlessly punctuate your native language with words and expressions from another.
To be a writer is to be a dreamer – and a brave one at that. Write the world as you see it, as it thrills you, as it breaks your heart. Write what you want your children to know; season your words with the sweet and savory of your life; help them know that there is a tall tree waiting within every acorn.
Welcome to the launch of The Reading Road website! Actually, my real reading road was launched long ago. There may have been detours and sinkholes, but there have been bridges to rare adventures, too. The Reading Road and the writing life are like fraternal twins; so it often happens that I cross a bridge from one to the other.
One thing always leads to another. Days spent observing and photographing bees led to a seed of an idea for a children’s book. Dale Carnegie’s words, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” came to me. Life in the form of a lemon tree literally gave me lemons; so I decided to tweak the famous quote’s meaning and write about the connection between pollination and that delicious tart/sweet summer drink. Then there was the leap to a USDA lab; but I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe you would like to follow the progression, winding and circuitous as it has been, to the first digital book I have compiled from endless curiosity and countless hours learning new science and technology. This is the sharing of an experience – of a light-bulb moment which affects us all in a fundamental way. We all love to eat, and eat to live; and this is how my book began.
It happened again this past spring when I left the laundry, the phone, the correspondence on my desk, and other urgencies to heed the siren call of our courtyard. Out there in the lushness, the wings of my imagination unfurl. Some satellite beams connections, and I start to write in my head. Why there? It’s because the air constantly telegraphs sounds and scents. New sights, new colors appear like the turns of a kaleidoscope, and I rush to capture them somehow. The whip of a tail, the snap of a jaw, and a satisfied chameleon has rid my roses of another thrip. I practically trip over a regiment of ants working in sync, like ancient Egyptian slaves hoisting stones to their destination. Only, their burden is actually an expired chameleon, not so lucky as the one a moment ago. All this life circling and circling, mindless of me, focused, driven, accepting of their lot! And then I hear the buzzing, and I’m drawn to it.
It’s early morning when the white and pale lavender of mint and basil blooms are still dripping dew. Bumblebees, like fuzzy, fat dirigibles, bump into one another, zooming in and among the herb pots with a drone that can be heard above the bubbling fountain. Our blooming lemon tree sports an undulating wreath of bees. They often collide, quickly maneuver backward before re-directing flight, then alight to take long sips of nectar, dipping into each bloom head along each stalk. All this crawling and positioning, right-side up, upside-down, frantically buzzing and drinking as though this might be their last meal, gets me running for my camera. As I’m there on the ground, recording this rhythm, the title and first lines of my book, Lemon Trees and Bumblebees, write themselves. These little buzzers are just being greedy in slurping up nectar to feed themselves and their colony, but they’re really doing us a huge favor. This seems magical, the more I think about it. I remember the excitement of our grandson, Brock, who at three couldn’t wait to tell us, “I have discovered the best food in the world! It’s honey! Have you ever tasted it?” I really need to explain this miracle of pollination for children.
Our lemon tree had given us many dozens of lemons; and what child doesn’t like cold lemonade on a hot summer day? I had my title, as well as the beginning and ending of the story. Back in my study, I pulled books from my shelves; among them, Henry Thoreau’s Faith in a Seed, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Mark Winston’s Nature Wars, Stephen Buchmann’s and Gary Nabhan’s The Forgotten Pollinators, and others. The internet also provided much rich research. Most children really have no idea how they get the foods they love (other than at WalMart, as one little boy said), or how much science is involved in things we take for granted daily. This book HAD to be accurate, with a complex concept introduced to early elementary children in easily understood language, and in a way which might spark lifelong interest in science and nature. Above all, it had to be fun! If it would appeal to the natural curiosity of children and make them ask questions, it would meet my goal.
To verify my practical observations and research behind my writing, it was time to phone a county extension agent to be sure my horticulture references were on track. Then I asked if he had any suggestion for an entomologist who might discuss the lives of bees with me. That’s when he gave me the name of Dr. Blair Sampson, a research scientist with the USDA. Within five minutes of the first phone call, I knew the project was off and running.
Blair listened to my ideas for the book and then “knocked my socks off” when he said, “It just so happens that I’m also an illustrator.” And what an illustrator! But would a scientist/artist who had published and illustrated scientific literature be able to make the leap to entertaining children’s book images? We met over lunch at my house, and he brought me one of his paintings of baby otters, part of his renderings for family and friends. His animals are drawn with great detail in playful activities, with just the happy expressions needed for my book. I soon learned that he had grown up in Nova Scotia and had considered university study in art before deciding upon a scientific career.
Blair has taught me more about many species of bees, their anatomy, their habits, and their origins, than I could have learned in many weeks of reading. His research focuses on long-term bee studies in the wild as well as in controlled laboratories. He has shown me his on-going lab work, patiently and enthusiastically answering my dozens of questions about the intricacies of pollination, and the interaction and interdependency of bees and plants. He is one of those academics who radiates wit and contagious passion for his stewardship and study of a process which is vital to our survival long-term.
Many conversations followed our first meeting, with each of us trading sketches and ideas about how best to interpret my manuscript. For instance, I wanted the first pages to picture the “magic” of something taken for granted by most; so we had some fun with a magic act as well as a pirate bee on his ship, hunting for the “buried treasure” within the lemon trees. Also, I wanted the lemons to “grow” on a branch from page to page to show color and size changes. Blair interpreted my vision as quickly as I expressed it. One page shows an Orange Dog caterpillar (larva of a giant swallowtail butterfly) looking very pleased and proud of himself. Little details in the illustrations ideally tell as much of the story as the words themselves. Images and text in any children’s book should be as symbiotic as the relationship of bees and lemon trees in this story.
My resulting children’s book presents an early introduction to the process of pollination, with Blair’s colorful illustrations which are anatomically correct, except for their irresistible smiles and big bright eyes. From lemon blossoms to lemonade, the ending is one which everyone from kindergarteners to senior citizens will recognize. To encourage talks, there are pages with more about trees and bees, an audio/video clip, a glossary of new words from the story, and recipes for lemonade and edible “bees.” Lemon Trees and Bumblebees is available on the Apple iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble NookColor, and Kobo readers.
Here are a couple of illustrations from the book, developed from the first thumbnail sketches. The black and whites show the initial sketches, and the colored drawings are some of the finished pages waiting for me to place the text.
Other books, both fiction and non-fiction are in the works. Here with all of you, day by day, I will share their development, as well as inspiration, writing and marketing methods, and resources which have helped me. I welcome writers of all ages to read my struggles and successes in order to navigate your own book ideas and progress. Comment and let the rest of us know; we’re all roving reporters discovering features along the reading (and writing) road.
What are the odds that the connection with Blair would have taken place just as I was polishing my manuscript? I have to think that it was just meant to be. There have been other lucky forks in the reading road which I have taken to chase bears or rescue migrating birds, but these are tales for another day. For now, I am excited to talk about bees who make honey while they are flying, along with other amazing feats – and maybe share a glass of lemonade with some of my readers!