Thursday, June 28, 2012

How to be Really Daring

By Juliet C. Bond

Recently, I came across an online article about those Daring Boys/How to Survive Anything etc., books for kids.  As a mother of three, I’d already noticed the difference between the chosen topics and presented advice in these gender-stratified manuals.  But the article did a great job of breaking down the antiquated messages (especially present in the How to Survive series) and, moreover, it made me worry.

Not that worrying is some new pastime for me.   I worry about everything from the state of my son’s fingernails to the state of the world.  But with the tide turning towards curbing women’s rights in general, with the onslaught of negative imagery and sexualization of younger and younger girls, my level of anxiety has been steadily climbing the charts.

What the heck IS this turning back the clock trend in reading content for girls?  With the fantastic exception of The Hunger Games (thank you, Suzanne Collins) and a few other worthy gems here and there (many of which haven't been marketed with the same zeal as Twilight) a heavy amount of what we have to choose from is predictably gender limited or subtly sending twisted messages about relationships.

So back to those how-to manuals out there for kids.  In the Dangerous Book for Boys, one finds detailed advice on:

·               Spies
·               Navajo Code
·               Astronomy
·               The Declaration of Independence

And while there are some good, gender-neutral activities in the companion Daring Book for Girls, there are also a host of rather mundane undertakings.

·               Spanish (and French) Terms of Endearment
·               Pressing Flowers
·               Putting Your Hair up With a Pencil
·               How to Tie a Sari

Right, as my daughter said, “uh, verrrrry daring…”

Each book also includes a chapter about the other gender.  In the Dangerous Book for Boys, the chapter entitled "girls," begins by pointing out, “that girls are quite different from you,” and that they can’t fathom your games, “involving wizards, or your understanding of Morse code.” 

Huh, the fabulous girls I know who just finished their summer Wizard Camp (under the awesome tutelage of Clare Tallon Ruen) might beg to differ.

And let me just point out that while the daring girl's book contains some basic information about navigating relationships and being kind, the dangerous boy's book includes very little on that topic.  Don’t we want our boys to be just as capable in this area?

Dangerous Book for Boys, goes on to list some strict (and ridiculous) guidelines on what girls will like, including:

·               They all love flowers (My daughter is allergic – so, no.)

·               They love mysterious Valentine’s Day cards with no name on them (What? Girls don’t want to KNOW who likes them?  Girls enjoy wondering who may be looking at them askance while they finish their science test – eyes crawling across their neck?  Yeah?  Well girls also love restraining orders...)

·               They prefer boys who have a “ruddy glow” from playing a sport rather than the “corpse-like pallor of the computer programmer.” (I hate sports.  My daughter hates sports.  And every time my husband bypasses a football game on the television to watch an episode of “Sherlock Holmes” with me, or opts for a trip to the library over something more athletic, I thank my lucky stars that he is a pasty non-lover of sports and then I swoon just a little.)

So the Dangerous/Daring books (and let’s just admit that “daring” is safer than “dangerous” so girls can handle it ya know? See, that’s why they didn’t call them both dangerous.  Girls couldn’t do dangerous, just daring * face plant *) are a wee bit sexist. 

But it seems that the new How to Survive Anything books are even more stereotyped than Dangerous vs. Daring series.  For boys, there are a host of natural disasters and wild animal/zombie attacks to navigate, while girls are told that they should be wary of:
            * Taking bad school photos
            * Knowing just how to keep a secret (healthy advice for anyone who appreciates the
               damage lying can cause to all genders and relationships)
            * Surviving crushes
            * Babysitting
            * Fights with your BFF
            * Pimples

Also, it contained a section on how to teach your cat to sit.

Woah, what?

The bad news is that the Daring and Dangerous books have been a huge hit.  They have a four star rating on Amazon and have sold like hotcakes.  In fact, their popularity spurred a sequel and a video game.

But there is good news.

After the more transparently sexist How to Survive series was released, people wrote in to Scholastic to passionately complain about the damaging messages these books send to boys and girls.

Consumers are powerful.

Some of my favorite comments include:

Carol: Am ordering copies. Too good a chance to pass up such great examples of outdated ideas that are still in circulation. Beginning teachers are hard to convince that gender bias still exists. These will be great examples.

And Rue, who included a list of improved topics including:

·               How to Survive a Kidnapping

·               How to Survive Getting Lost

How to Survive a Power Outage

How to Survive Drowning

How to Survive on $10

·               How to Survive the Death of a Pet

How to Survive Shyness

THAT book, I would buy for my daughter.

Scholastic has made a public apology asserting that, “no further copies would (sic) be made available.” 

Except, they are still available.

So if you really want some advice on how to be daring, I have some for you.  Sit down with your son and/or daughter (or your own wonderful self) and add your voice to a host of others who want to see better content for kids.  Just use this link to shoot off a short email encouraging Scholastic to get rid of the How to Survive series.

And if you're looking for books with better messages about gender, check out the Amelia Bloomer Project where, every year, a committee of writers and readers nominate books based on excellence in writing and better stories about girls.

Now that's daring.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Your Metaphor Quotient

by Kim Van Sickler

At seventy years old and with 135 dances, five Hollywood movies, and four Broadway shows under her tutu, Twyla Tharp still gets up at 5:30 am every day for a two-hour workout before breakfast. She's an acclaimed choreographer who is admired for her creative juxtapositions of movement. Combine jazz, ballet and boxing together to create a dance? Wonderful! Let's do it! Twyla Tharp's practical guide: The Creative Habit. Learn it and use it for life, is chock full of ideas and suggestions on how we can unleash our inner artist (whatever form that artistry takes), train it, and become the best that we can be. Here is one of the many exercises she challenges us with.

Your Metaphor Quotient
How we derive meaning from one thing and apply it something else is an essential part of human intelligence. Without symbols, and without the ability to understand them, there would be no writing, no numbers, no drama, no art. Everything we create is a representation of something else. So, everything we create is enriched by metaphor.

Here are seven exercises to make you focus on the metaphor all around you and might even change the way you think.

1. How many images and objects can you see in three minutes of cloud gazing. (Metaphor as visual translation.)

2. During a mindless chore, become the rhythm of the process. What's the rhythm of scrub, wash and rinse? Hum the rhythm. Give it a name. What other mindless chores have a matching rhythm? (Metaphor as object or task.)

3. Distill a mechanical sound and mimic it. How about the click-click of a blinking turn signal? Lock the tempo and beat within you, then mimic it when you speak. Hear it when other people speak. See how the world moves to that beat. (Metaphor as aural and visual stimulus.)

4. Focus on a superstition like knocking on wood to bring yourself luck or breaking a mirror. What image springs to mind? Follow your thoughts wherever they lead. (Metaphor as faith.)

5. Study a word's linguistic roots. For example, the word tragedy derives from the Greek "trages", which means goat. In ancient times, goats were used as sacrifices to the gods. The story goes that some goats ate the grape leaves in a vineyard of the gods, offending the deities. Eventually the Greeks stopped sacrificing valuable goats to appease the gods and created rituals and plays to perform for them instead. Heroes replaced goats and were killed symbolically. These plays were known as tragedies, after the goats. (Metaphor as theater.)

6. Find two works of art you can connect. What is the connection? Was it intended? You can take what others have done, but by putting the works together in new and interesting ways, you create something new. Picasso created paper collages, and thirty years later Matisse created his late-period paper cutouts. (Metaphor as curating.)

7. Try to see another person in your image. Reverse it and try to see yourself in that person's image. Imagine your life if you had that person's wealth or looks or taste or biases. Imagine if that person had yours. (Metaphor as empathy.)

Here's something else. How well do you know the Muses? The daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who ruled the classical arts?
Calliope: Epic poetry
Clio: History
Erato: Love poetry and lyric poetry
Euterpe: Music
Melpomene: Tragedy
Polyhymnia: Sacred song
Terpsichore: Dance and choral song
Thalia: Comedy
Urania: Astronomy

Can you see some metaphor as theater here by studying these linguistic roots?

Thursday, June 21, 2012


by Graziella Pacini Buonanno

Antonio Checchi was not a general, but a valiant soldier who single-handedly saved more than one hundred lives. He's also my maternal grandfather. Here is the story I heard from his lips, when he came to visit us in Italy in 1952:

My grandfather was born in Massarosa, a town in the province of Lucca, Italy, in 1885. He married my grandmother, Angela Bertacchi in 1908. They emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, after the birth of their first son, Ulieno, in 1909. In Argentina they had two more children, Rosa (my mother) and Mario. He was employed as a teamster in Buenos Aires until he lost his job in 1915, and was unable to find work.

War had already broken out in Europe and the Italian government was paying for any Italian citizen willing to go back to Italy and join the army. Antonio was desperate, so with free passage for him and his entire family, he returned to Italy and enlisted in the Italian Army. He was assigned to the 5th Regiment of Engineers,"Pontieri", or bridge builders.
Antonio Checchi's family. The little girl is Grace's mother.

He was sent to the the north of Italy, where the Royal Italian Army was fighting against the Austro-Hungarian Empire forces. Antonio and the 5th Regiment "Pontieri" built a bridge over the Piave River, but because of the fast approaching Austrian Army, they were forced to retreat and were ordered to destroy the bridge. They followed orders and destroyed the bridge, but soon they found that approximately one hundred Italian soldiers were stranded on the opposite side.
Antonio Checchi

Antonio, with no regard for his own life, found a submerged rowboat, used his jacket and shirt to plug the holes in the bottom of the boat, and used it to make numerous trips back and forth across the Piave River. During these trips the enemy arrived and opened fire on him, and wounded several soldiers in the boat, and even hit the oars he was rowing with. He saved about one hundred infantry men and several high-ranking officers.

For his unselfish actions, he was awarded the Silver Star and the Meritorious Cross, which were the Italian government's second highest awards for bravery. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Moving or Disturbing the Muse

by Regina Gort

Our family just relocated 400 miles north of where we used to live.  I left 10 years of friends and two fantastic writing groups.

I left the place where I carved out myself as a writer. It was the first place that I allowed myself to call myself a writer.

 I made great connections and now I am starting over. I intend to continue to interact with my groups via e-mail. But it's not the same as having a physical group.

Not to mention I finally had my office almost perfect.
It would be very easy to fall into the procrastination mode. The cycle starts by skipping writing in my daily journal, not making time to read that one poem I promised to. Then using excuses like: all of our stuff is in boxes and I don't have my desk, paintings, notepads, etc.

This list can go on and on.

In the past, I have even gone so far as to turn a deaf ear to my muse.

But I know better.

I know how slippery the slope gets and I know how my quality of life is affected by not following through and doing the one thing that makes me feel whole: writing.

So I am sticking it out and finishing up the blogpost I owe my fellow Swaggers.

Thanks for keeping me honest. And here's to moving and a fresh start.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Belly of The Beast

by Jon Egan

I just got back from attending the Book Expo America convention in New York and WOW! What an eye opening experience.

It was completely overwhelming walking through the doors of the Javits Center and into the bowels of the business. Overwhelming and scary, when you see all these authors, publishers, agents, publicists, sellers, buyers, and wow, like I said it’s overwhelming.

How will I ever get to be on the inside looking out when there are so many insiders? Why would anyone ever be interested in reading what I have to write when there are so many proven authors out there already? It was almost like a punch in the gut walking through the halls, and yet at the same time it was pure adrenalin. Intense excitement and extreme hope. Because while I wondered how or who would ever want to publish my stuff, I kept reminding myself that every one of the authors here must have gone through the same wonderment at some stage.

It was great to be able to meander through the publishers’ booths picking up ARC’s at random and having  the publishers almost beg you to take it, and read it, and blog about it, or spread the word about what a great novel it was. Talk about a surreal turn around. So I did just that: I idly stood at some booths and perused their offerings as I would in a bookstore. When I placed some back on the pile, I was asked, “Is there something wrong with it?” “What’s not appealing about it?” Others were immediately stuffed into my backpack and then squirrelled away into the box that Fed-Ex was packing for me on the upper level.

There were over six hundred author signings this year from John Green, Jerry Spinelli, and Spencer Quinn (Patty’s favorite author who she got to meet and chat at length with) to obscure Russian and Middle Eastern authors. Here's what really intrigued me: with all these wonderful authors mingling with the general public, touting their latest greatest tome, the longest lines were for the dude from HGTV’s Holmes on Homes. Yep, the big guy Mike Holmes was there signing. Talk about a war for the ages. It seemed like the biggest WWF tag team match in decades as the Librarians body slammed the Educators while the Agents snuck in the back door to be first in line for his autograph. His line literally snaked around about fifteen booths, which was great because I was able to get in a line of about ten people for a handshake and signed copy of Will Schwalbe’s ARC The End of Your Life Book Club.
Mike Holmes
Will Schwalbe
Patty Egan with author Spencer Quinn
 I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that celebrity for the most part trumps non-celebrity but, actually I am, it kinda stinks but oh well, such is life.

I probably won’t attend another B.E.A. until I’m sitting on the other side of the table, pen in hand, smiling and thanking the eager attendee who’s holding a copy of my latest novel for reading my stuff. (One can dream right?) But if you get the chance to attend, no matter if you are a reader or a writer, you should. It’s definitely an eye opener and a glimpse into the belly of the beast.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Grace & Melissa's Reunion

by Melissa Kline

Grace and I met on a breezy afternoon in Denver a couple of weeks ago. I was SO excited to have the opportunity to reunite with a fellow member of the swagger family. What a treat...literally!
Grace invited me to meet her at Deli Italia - a delightful cafe, deli and specialty market in Lakewood, Colorado, which is owned by Grace's brother, Riccardo. 

Upon entering the market, smells of fresh cheese, meats and bread tantalize the senses. The store is beautifully decorated with photographs of Grace and Riccardo's hometown, Luca, and there are murals of gourmet delicacies everywhere! The space is warm, inviting and very unique. There is love in every detail! I especially enjoyed the family portraits proudly displayed in the entryway.
 Grace and I chatted in the spacious seating area whilst traditional Italian music wafted around us. We were served fresh cappuccinos and home-made mozzarella that was quite easily the best cheese I have ever tasted. The mozzarella was a pillowy blob of gooey softness that had an airy, yet melty texture. The taste was even more incredible - salty, rich, nutty. Yum! I felt as if I had been whisked away to another time. It was heavenly.
After lunch, Grace gave me a tour of the store where I spotted her newly released book, "Dancing on Grapes," a children's picture book about Grace's experience growing up in Italy. It was so neat to see her beautiful book on display amongst the fun treats and treasures.
Thank you Grace and Riccardo for indulging me in a slice of true Italian heritage. I am honored!

If you are in the Denver area, don't miss Deli Italia. Treat yourself to some of that amazing cheese! :)  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Redwoods : A Writer's Dream Come True

by Regina Gort

My husband and I recently celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary by taking a trip to the Redwoods.

It was the first time away from our three girls for an extended amount of time. It was the honeymoon we couldn't afford at the time we got married and would haven't truly appreciated then anyway. To even plan the trip was a feat.

But we got there.

We flew into Portland, Oregon and then drove out to the coast and followed the ocean down Highway 1 to the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. We stayed at a cabin right on the Smith River.
And every morning we read poetry, wrote and then headed out the door for a 6-mile hike. But nothing could prepare me for seeing the Redwoods. I had seen documentaries and photos. And I knew that they would be big.

But nothing prepared me for the magic.
Being in a forest of giants was beyond words. So much so that I couldn't write about them. I wrote about the ocean, the birds, rocks and even banana slugs.

Never before had I been silenced by such beauty.

That's how I knew I had found a muse. The trees sparked this desire, this longing to hear their words. So instead of trying to capture them, I simply enjoyed them.

The best part is that I brought them home with me. And I will spend my lifetime in the branches of the Redwoods, no matter where I am.

Monday, June 4, 2012


by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

If you’re a writer, do you belong to a critique group? Should you belong to one?

One person I know recommends writers not join critique groups, though she does like critiques at workshops. She fears that writers might get bad advice from others in a group or that writers might lose confidence in their work if they get a negative critique.

I understand her concerns, but I value my critique groups. In today’s market, a manuscript submission must be as close to perfect as possible by the time it reaches an editor’s desk. I know I get too close to my own work to see it clearly. When I describe a scene I know too well, a reader might not be able to picture it. I need to be told it isn’t coming across clearly enough, so I can rewrite it. If my plot isn’t working or my characters aren’t believable, I need to know that, too.

Belonging to a critique group also requires accountability. If a group is waiting each month to hear/read what you’ve written, it helps keep you in the chair and pounding out the words.

You can avoid the pitfalls of a critique group. First, make sure to join a group that’s right for you. The first one I joined many years ago was not the right group, and I stayed with them for only two meetings. I was the only writer for children in the group, and their critiques tended to feel like a pat on the head. I wanted constructive criticism.

The key word there is constructive. There’s no point in offering a critique that isn’t helpful. I also believe a critique should begin with something positive. Telling a writer what’s working is at least as important as telling her what is not.

And when you’re on the receiving end, it’s important to learn whose advice to listen to and whose to ignore. If you write picture books, a novelist’s advice might not be best. If you’ve been writing for decades, perhaps the advice of a newcomer should be taken with a grain of salt. Sort through the comments you get and use only those which you find helpful.

My two critique groups work in different ways. (Both consist of writers for children; both have published and unpublished members.) The first (which I’ve belonged to for more than 20 years) has members read their work aloud before going around the table for critiques. The second (which I’ve been with for nearly 10 years) has members e-mail their work in advance. We receive the e-mailed ms, print a copy, write a critique, and take it to the meeting for group discussion. Occasionally, a member will bring printed copies of a short piece to a meeting to read and discuss.

Both types of critiquing have pros and cons.

Reading aloud has definite time limitations, and novelists in the group can only read a chapter or two a month, which means it can take years to cover a whole novel. That makes it impossible to judge the work on its flow, and keeping the plot straight over time gets tough. To get around that, we often trade complete novels with other members to read and critique one-on-one.

Reading aloud helps to catch those awkward sentences that trip up the tongue, and overused words become obvious, but a trained voice can make a car manual sound like Gone With The Wind, and some important flaws might be missed.

Reading a written copy lets us see the work as an editor sees it, but reading it in advance loses immediacy by the time it’s discussed at the meeting. And printing all those copies really laps up the paper and ink.

At Rich Wallace’s workshops, he often has us read each other’s work aloud. That gives us the advantage of hearing our own work, instead of reading it ourselves. It can be ear-opening.

Over time, I’ve learned how to get the most from my groups. I have the advantage of knowing whose advice is most helpful, and have made many friends who share the love of words.

My groups also share information on workshops. In 1999, a few group members encouraged me to apply for Chautauqua, and I learned about the Highlights Foundation, which introduced me to the Founders Workshops, where I met the Swaggers. A true plus!