Posts Tagged ‘Vermont College MFA’


DCIM100MEDIATeacher strike averted. So, so glad that people like my bro–who takes time to sing with his third graders and fills their brains with good books AND has built a donkey for an Ethiopia Reads Bring a Book Buy a Book project is on the job and not on the picket line.

One thing that kills me is that in my lifetime as a teacher, I saw a lot of schools go from places where kids sat frozen in desks doing worksheets to places where kids had classroom libraries and wrote books and did lots of hands-on projects to places where kids are sitting frozen in desks doing worksheets.

DCIM100MEDIAWorksheets and tests are the way we gather data.  But our utter faith in gathering data is getting in the way of good instruction.  Up with making donkeys and learning about kids who love books and school a half a world away!

100_0213The Ethiopia Reads horse powered literacy project reaches kids too remote (so far) to have access to school. Sometimes as many as two hundred kids gather to listen and learn.

I’m thinking about reading and writing and learning because, this has been a week where I put on my own teacher hat and respond to what my Vermont College of the Fine Arts MFA students are sending in their packets. It always fascinates me to think about how people learn to write dazzling fiction. How did I learn? What helped along the way? Some people would say it can’t be taught. I know from my own experience that certain skills and approaches and useful ways of thinking about the words on the page CAN be taught.DSC04782

I’m re-reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf–seen here at her desk. I got to talk with her briefly in her office at Tufts about a project she’s been doing in Ethiopia that’s pretty fascinating.

What are we all capable of learning and doing?

As a teacher said to me last year, schools have gotten pretty good at gathering data but we gather far more than we have time (or sometimes expertise) to analyze well and use to draw useful conclusions. In the meantime, it seems we forget the basics of what we already know–that young kids like to do what the beloved adults in their lives like to do; thus, there is power in modeling a passion for reading and writing.  That people will do the hard work of reading when they are gripped by a story or an idea, and we need librarians and teachers who know and love books and know and love students and can match the two up. That humans are innately curious and nimble-minded and will often grab the slightest thread in their eagerness to learn and grow.  Read the article and see what I mean!

ChrislibOf course, it won’t surprise you that I think books and learning WITH a great teacher is even better.



Speaking of “friends help”…

Lots and lots and lots of people over the years have approached me with a question something like this:

“I have a great idea for/have written/have written and re-written and re-written a children’s book. What now?”

I always recommend the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was at SCBWI conferences that I first got to talk with and hear from published authors, where I met my first editors. My first agent was also someone I approached because of the bulletin published by SCBWI.  When River Friendly River Wild won the SCBWI Golden Kite award, I got to go to the SCBWI national conference and show a roomful of writers in LA the quilt that my writer friends had made for me after the flood.


If people are super duper serious, I recommend the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program where I teach. Even if I did break my elbow at the residency this month, I’m a fan. I’ve learned such craft from being part of that community of children’s book writers–and that’s with 25 books already published when I started to teach there.

Vermont grads

Serious? The VCMFA community is, too.

Before I became part of the VCFA faculty, I also occasionally mentored writers. One was an amazing school librarian from the state of Maine. When Toni Buzzeo got in touch with me, she had already done the first important work of becoming a serious writer of children’s books–she was a serious reader of children’s books. I loved the work she did in her school to find new books and connect them with young readers…and I told her that she had the rhythm and voice of picture books that I didn’t often see in samples people asked me to read.

I began to share some of what I’d taught myself about writing picture books. We went from that kind of back-and-forth to places like ALA and to writing retreats together with some of my other author friends. Later, I asked her advice about the new libraries I was volunteering to help plant in Ethiopia through Ethiopia Reads ( We became deep friends.


This week, I sat in the big hall at the American Library Association all shivery with excitement to hear which of my favorite books of the year would be honored with awards. The Caldecott and Newbery awards, in particular, are the stuff of writers’ dreams…luminous and shiny with wonderfulness.


When Toni’s new picture book popped onto the screen, it was hard not to shout triumphant, leap up and do a cartwheel, broken elbow and all. Caldecott Honor, baby! Bring on the celebration!

I remember Toni on retreat writing this story.  My picture book workshop at VCFA had loved it and come back to the pictures and words over and over–and Toni was generous enough to share with those VCFA students some of her process as the author. Did those students and I feel cool and smart and smug to have recognized a winner? Uh-huh. We did.


Writing fiction is a lonely obsession but writers can hold pinkies in the tough times and share ideas and sadness and also sometimes feel the wild joy with you. Only a fellow artist knows just how high the mountain peak feels after the slog, slog, slog of the journey.

Story power rippling on

A new year always seems to be a time to pause, raise my head, and look around.  Get my bearings.  Figure out not only what kinds of visions and resolutions pull me forward into the next year of my life but also where I’ve been–and perhaps don’t wish to go again!

Ethiopia celebrates the turning of the year in September when the rains are over and yellow meskel flowers dot the fields, so Jan. 1 meant nothing to me growing up–in fact, nothing until I happened to have a baby on Dec. 31.   In those days, we were often in Kansas for Christmas.  Jonathan felt cheated not to be with his friends for his birthday.  A New Year’s Eve birthday tends to get swallowed by Christmas.

Two years ago, I flew to Chicago on New Year’s Eve so that I could do my first Lanie signing in the Chicago American Girl store on Jan. 1 and introduce my character to the world.

Even though I knew the American Girl Doll of the Year was a Big Deal, I was unprepared for what it would be like to see a character that had been born in my brain and my fingers all huge and sprung to life.  I was stunned to find that families had waited for hours in the Chicago cold for the doors to open.In the daze, I felt the flutter of monarch wings in the air, sending hopeful bits out into 2010.  A few days ago, I read this article about Lanie readers and knew that those monarch wings did, indeed, have some power.

That’s the thrilldom of writing.

It’s pretty agonizing, crafting a novel.  For me, anyway, it’s a series of missteps, stumbling along through the haze, laying down path and ripping it up again when I turn out to have gone somewhere unfortunate.  Right now, I’m mourning the fact that I won’t be teaching at the Vermont College MFA residency this January (because I have international speaking this spring and also want some space to get my own writing done for a few months) where at least I get to have the sensation of groping through the fog with others crazy enough to have a passion for this tough journey of writing fiction.

I will get to have an Ethiopia Reads board retreat in Denver, though.  Just as it’s precious to have fellow writers around for the journey, I’ve learned that a huge part of my satisfaction as a volunteer is fellow volunteers.  2011 was a year of getting to know Stephanie, an artist who travels to Ethiopia once a year to do art with kids in the Tesfa schools that will now also have libraries and literacy projects, thanks to families like the amazing Angelidis family in Seattle.  Stephanie and I were agreeing that getting to share the art forms we’re passionate about makes all the volunteer hours a joy.  (Well, okay, it makes MOST of the volunteer hours a joy.)

Readers love to share a story that has made their hearts go pitter pat.

Have you ever said to a friend, “You HAVE to read this book”?

Have you ever giggled with a friend as you shared a story?

Have you ever been part of a book club?

Have you ever given one of your favorite books as a present to someone else?

If you’re a reader, I’m sure you have.

That’s the pleasure of Ethiopia Reads (

In 2012, I know there will be new volunteers, new donors who open new libraries and help ship books and provide the funding for professional development so that authors and teachers in Ethiopia get to grab hold of new skills to share books.  I can’t wait to get back to my own stories and to also see story power floating out into the world, rippling on.

Weird thanksgivings

My brother was reading aloud from something today that said depression rates are much higher in countries where people have more.

The gift of focus  appears when there are physical hardships that have to be overcome–and when the simple act of preparing shelter or food for a family is all-absorbing.

We know we should stay in the moment.

But can we?  Do we?

I know the gifts of being part of a disaster.  At first there was such a narrowing of attention.  Living in the day.

Later, I got to experience the pouring out of other people’s generosity and sympathy and care.

My own capacity for compassion and empathy grew, too, through experiencing the flood and having to walk away from a house and a neighborhood where so many memories and sensations were woven through.

What about failure?  Horrid failure?  The act of writing knocks the stuffing out of most people I know, including me.  It’s a much harder art form than I knew when I began.  I fail over and over again.

But there are gifts in the failure and the hair-tearing-out frustration.  I pay much better attention to the physical world when I’m writing a book.

I pay attention to the sensations inside of me, too, and to the patterns that compell and propel me through my days.  I always have something useful to do with vulnerability and humiliation.  Shaping characters who come up against obstacles and don’t do well with them is a big part of what fiction (and creative nonfiction) is all about.

Other Vermont College MFA faculty and I find ourselves saying to our writer students that it’s SUPPOSED to be hard.  What a mountain we’ve all set out to climb!  No easy, smooth, happy people need apply for the artist’s life.

Sometimes interesting words pop into my head as I think about my volunteer life with Ethiopia Reads.

You need joy.

They need books.

Want to trade?

Children everywhere need safe places to read and think and dream.

They need adult models in their lives and in the pages of books.

They need encouragement to believe in telling their own stories and finding roots and windows through other people’s stories.

 The other volunteers and I do what we do…we donate our time and money because (as this coffee expert said at one of the DC fundraisers) it gives us joy.

Yes, it’s hard.

The money is always tight.

The choices make our brains hurt.

We often want to respond to far more children than we’re able and the need is never-ending.

But I’m thankful for the toughness because it comes hand-in-hand with joy.

American girl, Ethiopian girl

The children’s book world is a small one.  No sooner do you insult someone in your publishing life than she shows up as the new marketing director who has absolute control over your new book :>  Authors support authors in many times and ways, too–laughing together, empathizing over the agony, celebrating the shiny spots.  It’s hard to get a big ego when you’re a children’s book author.  I love the generosity in places like the Vermont College MFA in Children’s and YA literature residencies.

So it was that one of my author friends met author Paul Acampora at Kindling Words and discovered that his daughter had posed for the Lanie books I wrote.  She dialed me up on her cell.  Next thing I knew, we were saying that a joint book signing would be a hoot.  I immediately thought…and let’s make it a fundraiser for Ethiopia Reads.

Paul told me that his daughter turned out to be eerily close to the Lanie character.

Here she is putting out food for birds.

It turned out she’s an outside girl, just like Lanie, and thinks of the little things she might do to make a difference in the lives of…well…birds.

And other living things.

I also found out that–like me–she was a more than a tad bit overwhelmed when she discovered what a big deal the Doll of the Year for American Girl really was.  She and I both had experiences when we were in American Girl stores and we were too shy to tell people in the store our connection to the big display all around us.

So we were bonded even before we met.

It took a whole year to figure out a venue that would work to have Gabrielle and me speak and sign copies of the Lanie books.

She lives near Philadelphia.

I lived, when we started this plan, in Kansas and now live in Portland.

But another generous writer friend–who has an adopted daughter from Ethiopia–ended up talking to her church near Doylestown, PA, which was putting a spotlight on reaching out to orphans one Sunday in November.

We did it!

We both got up on that stage in front of a whole room full of girls and dolls and moms and grandmas (and a few dads).

We signed books and met girls and moms and grandmas and dads who made donations to Ethiopia Reads and said things to us like, “Thanks for a fun, fun event and for the great reminders that everyone can figure out some ways to make a difference in this world.”

I’m always heartened by how much FUN people can have raising money.

It was really, really, really fun and joyful, even though the line for signing, as Gabrielle said, only seemed to get longer every time we looked up.

People really do like to gather and talk about stories and reading and writing and saving monarch butterflies and birds and plants and other precious things in our own back yards and around the world.

One of the most thrilldom things in this whole Lanie adventure has been for me to see the power of girls.

There are girls who are determined to save orangutans.

There are girls (one of them came to the event on Saturday) who go to Ethiopia when they are only in high school and volunteer in a library there.

There are girls who read stories about kids in other places and feel their curiosity and empathy genes being tickled.

There are girls who raise pumpkins and sell them or bring a book and buy a book (or do other kinds of fundraisers) to donate the proceeds to Ethiopia Reads so that girls in Ethiopia will have a chance at school…will have books to read.

Wowee.  Girl power.


Happiness and Terror

This fall when we visited the Little Family, we became part of the Big Soccer Scene of young athletes all over America.  Little Sweetie #2 dribbles naturally and easily, not looking at his feet, but in the game he waits for the ball to squirt out to him and doesn’t hurt people’s feelings for going after it.  His big sister has no such hesitations.

(Photos by their dad who got captivated by photography during a volunteer stint in Ethiopia and is itching to get back there and who also was the intense athlete of my three kids, leading to interesting life-weaving-in-circles moments for me watching soccer.)

Sports has always made sparks in my family.  My grandma (first left front) played on a basketball team that won all but one of its games for six years, starting when she was in seventh grade–and they tied that one.  When she played basketball at the College of Idaho, her father said he’d hoped she was ready to act like a young lady.  “But,” she wrote, “he never forbid my playing.”

Grandpa was one of the big kids in school.  He was hired to drive the covered wagon that Grandma rode in as a school bus, hot rocks wrapped in newspapers and blankets keeping everyone warm in winter time.  One Friday, some older boys asked the principal, “Can we go to Roswell this afternoon to play ball?”

The principal said, “Yes, you can.”   On Monday, he expelled them–on the basis of the difference between can and may.  Grandpa missed out on the rest of 8th grade.  Now that’s a serious grammar lesson.

Some people say sports should be zapped out of the school day.  Alas, I’ve also visited schools where reading aloud has been zapped out of the school day.  We can create smart, technologically adept, hard-working students if we pour their heads full of important facts…far, far better students than our grandparents were, our parents were, and we were.


Well, here’s the thing…brain research shows that what sticks is what rides in with passion.



Intense curiosity and wondering and sweat and clammy hands and giggles.

Powerful emotions make knowledge stick.

Sports are occasions for intense emotion.





Stories stir emotions, too.  They drench us with feelings.  They make the facts and understandings stick.

May all children have a chance to play with intensity.

May the children who are waiting for libraries get them.

May all children read and hear dazzling stories.

And as I arrive home, after my annual writing retreat, I say may I…and the other writers I love…learn how to write them, too.



A wonderful way to live; a terrible way to make a living

Must be brief!


I’m on a writing retreat with these author friends (and others) and I should be thinking about my fiction, NOT about Ethiopia Reads, NOT about my blog, NOT about all the other things that tug at authors including how am I going to pay the rent THIS month?

I often try to remind myself–when I get too whiny–that artists have never had an easy time of it in this world.  There’s a reason for the term starving artist.  Many artists these days are starved for time as much as money.

Yes, the chance to tell our stories–through black marks on a screen or white page, through painting, through sculpture, through the flex of muscles and the tighening of sinews as the body leaps or crouches or delivers a punch line–is precious and important.  My cowboy ancestors knew that one way to keep cold and chill and lonliness at arm’s length was to tell a story or pull out a guitar.

The arts are a wonderful way to live.

They’re just a terrible way (in most cases, for most people) to make a living.

I’m thankful this Monday morning for community…my author friends who gather with me every year to write together, talk about writing, talk about the brave new worlds of publishing, talk about what it’s like to make space for writing in often tough, usually busy lives…

…and the Vermont College MFA community–all the students and fellow faculty members and administrators and artists who keep it going and keep it strong.

This life in community is the sprinkly part of the cupcake, the thank-God-I-have-a-sleeping-bag in the howling wind brushing up against the side of the mountain where one happens to be barely stapled to a ledge.

In a world where many of our friends are virtual and rats nibble and lurk, well, YAY for retreat.

YAY for people to hold pinkies with.

YAY for families by choice and by default and by tenderness.

Onward we go.