We all have a variety of skills and talents. Perhaps we have worked hard to develop these abilities over time or perhaps we were lucky enough to be born with a gift or two. For example when I’m asked to write an article for the weekly library column, I feel equipped to do so. I’m comfortable writing children’s books or poetry. Crafting words is a skill I’ve developed over time. Likewise, I enjoy entertaining. I become a whirling dervish beforehand, but hosting a family gathering or holiday party is definitely my cup of tea.
However, the question I often return to is this: What am I doing with the wee talents that I have? Am I using them to the best of my ability? Do you ever ask yourself the same thing? And how wonderful it is when people share their talents, whether it is here in the library or at a local hospital, school, or homeless shelter. My coworker, Marg, is an example of someone who is always giving of her time and talent. She ventures to the housing facilities in town, teaching crafts like wreath-making and decoupage. My father was the same way, spending more time helping others than finishing his own projects.
If you are like me, you may have a “Bucket List of Talents” – skills you would like to master or perfect before you depart from God’s green earth. When my father passed away this April, my wish list grew longer. I thought about all his talents that were foreign to me. For years before Dad become a Dean at Central Connecticut State University, he had been an Industrial Arts teacher. While he inspired his students with his designs and craft, no one in my immediate family had learned to use the tools on his work bench. He had saws and drills and levels galore, and yet I hadn’t a clue how to handle them. How sad was that?!
For a brief amount of time I considered researching the topic of woodworking at the library. After all, we had book titles from Quick and Easy Woodworking Projects by the Handyman Club of America (2000) to Woodworking Simplified: Foolproof Carpentry Projects for Beginnersby David and Jeanie Stiles. Maybe I could learn to craft something. It wasn’t impossible, was it? In middle school I made a candle stick holder on a lathe. Perhaps I could watch a Youtube video or, better yet, take a Woodworking 101 class. The only problem was my heart wasn’t in it. While I marveled at my father’s talents, I didn’t feel an ounce of excitement toward wood unless it was going into the fireplace. I loved my father, but his passion wasn’t going to be my own. Instead my mother and I found a wonderful neighbor who adopted my father’s collection; he knew exactly what to do with each and every tool.
Nevertheless I hoped to follow in Dad’s footsteps in some fashion. It couldn’t be sailing – too expensive. Or model planes – too many parts. Since it was spring, I began to think about gardening. Again, I checked out a few books: Stuff Every Gardener Should Know by Scott Meyer; Improving Your Soil by Keith Reid and Practical Gardening by Jackie Matthews, Richard Bird and Andrew Mikolajski. I also peeked at his Harris Seed catalog. Lo and behold, I found a box of his seeds in his basement that was waiting to be planted (tears)! At least gardening was a talent I had begun under his tutelage. In my backyard, I’d managed to grow a small plot of tomatoes and peppers over the years, enough for salad and soup now and then. Dad’s garden plot had rich soil waiting for someone to start seeding. Turns out, I wasn’t that person.
Surprisingly, my 15-year old daughter, Sarah, was the one who took on this project. She researched which seeds to plant and how to plant them. Working in “Papa’s Garden,” as we called it, was healing for her. It also became a community project. The neighbors brought over seeper hoses and black weed barrier cloth to make the work lighter. In no time the seedlings took root and the garden began to thrive. Sarah even succeeded in growing bundles of eggplant, which had never grown for me. Along one edge she kept my Dad’s rhubarb, while colorful zinnias lined the other end. In between there were peas and beans and zucchini and peppers. Perhaps this talent had skipped a generation, but it was growing nonetheless. I decided to stick with the herbs on my deck and in my kitchen instead. After all I had the Indoor Edible Garden by Zia Allaway to help.
What I’ve come to realize is that there are some talents that may never come my way, as hard as I might try. Woodworking is one of them. And why struggle with a garden when I can sit back and enjoy the fruits of my daughter’s labors? That said, I did discover one of my father’s passions that I can do with gusto. I watched all of the World Series with a sense of pride and an understanding of why it is America’s “greatest pastime.” It seems my talent search ended right where it began, with words, these words: Go Sox! Damage Done!
You must have a favorite author. Someone you turn to when the rest of the world seems in chaos. Someone who is as comfortable to be with as your warm fuzzy slippers and a chair beside the fireplace. Perhaps it is Jamie Ford or Susan Meissner (two of my favorites) whose lyrical stories carry you back in time and make you fall in love with their characters. Or maybe you are addicted to Mary Higgins Clark or Louise Penny, and you cannot wait to settle down with their latest creations in your hands.
While there is something magical and wonderful about those treasured authors, there is also something to be said for those books that you never ever thought you would read, and suddenly you do. Perhaps you’ve been astonished when your world expands after being stretched by a story or concept that greeted you when you dared to open a book that wasn’t part of your regular repertoire.
Every month I lead between four or five book clubs. I know! I should have my head examined. Still, I enjoy each and every one of them. When I started these groups, I surveyed my readers to see what type of books they loved to read. Many of them preferred mysteries. Hands down! Ironically, it is a rare month now when I select a mystery for a book club read. When it comes to this genre, I find there isn’t a lot to talk about in a group. Trust me, I’ve tried. Once you know “who done it,” the conversation tends to be a bit sparse. So I decided to choose a wide range of books and topics instead. And yes, I like to stretch my readers. Actually, I like to stretch myself, too. Sometimes this means I pick a total flop. This doesn’t bother me, though. We’ve had the most engaging conversations even when the book choice is a bust.
An example of this happened recently. The Spy Wore Red by Aline, Countess of the Romanones was a big hit with my book clubs. Everyone loved the suspense in this true life story of a World War II spy. With this success behind me, I decided a similar read entitled A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre was appropriate. Boy, was I wrong. This was the story of a friendship between two spies, Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott, and the years that Philby deceived both MI6 and the CIA. While we had a lot to discuss, the style of writing was rather dry for most of my readers. Nevertheless, we learned a lot about the circle of Cambridge University friends that the British intelligence recruited. Certainly, our minds were stretched.
Over the years my book clubbers have read a variety of genres that they might not have tried on their own. While we covered classics like Rebeccaby Daphne Du Maurier and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Margaret Smith, we have also tried a western or two like True Grit by Charles Portis and post-apocalyptic science fiction like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. On occasion we jumped into young readers like Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer or The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Why? Why not! Challenge accepted.
If you’re willing to stretch your definition of “good reads,” you might be drawn into another reader’s obsessions as well. I have a coworker who loves books about cats, any and all cats. Who am I kidding? I’m surrounded by coworkers who read cat books. To be honest, felines don’t always tickle my fancy as characters but, lo and behold, I found myself swept into a picture book called Carambaby Marie-Louise Gay when I saw it on my coworker’s desk. Now I’m addicted. I’m hoping Caramba, the cat who can’t fly, has many more stories to discover.
Likewise my husband has certain topics that fascinate him and I’m not sure if there’s any rhyme or reason for them. For a while Appalachian history captured his interest. For several nights in a row I fell asleep as he read out loud Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill. Soon I became intrigued by Appalachia as well. When Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was hot off the press, I raced to get a copy. Later, when my husband’s curiosity shifted to the topic of North Korea, I followed suit. A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim and North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney are two books I would never have touched without my husband’s influence. It seems that other people’s obsessions are catchy.
Truth be told, I enjoy being stretched. I bet you do too! In the words of Charles Scribner, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” The only problem is finding enough time to fit it all in. I’d highly recommend trying something completely new. You might even win a prize if you take the opportunity to fill out our Summer Reader’s Bingo in the process. Consider some of the categories: “A Book With a Beach Setting,” “A Book Set in Winter,” or “A Book With a Food Theme.” Go ahead… give it a chance. What have you got to lose?
Funny thing! My Dad told me this a lot growing up: “Go ahead! It never hurts to ask!” As a shy child, I wasn’t so sure. Secretly I hoped things would work out on their own so I wouldn’t need to say a word. Requesting information, like “how much does that movie cost” or “where do you shelve the toilet paper,” took a monumental dose of bravery on my part. I am the model child for Susan Cain’s book Quiet.
Whether we like it or not, life provides opportunities to stretch ourselves, even on a daily basis. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t stick my head into books all the time as a librarian. I am called to be social and help our patrons. Likewise a big part of my day is spent answering patrons’ questions, which means asking a few of my own. And, as I’ve discovered, asking the right question at the right time can sometimes bring surprising results.
Case in point, several years ago I asked a question that changed my life. For years I’d submitted my poetry to June Cotner’s anthologies. When several of my poems first appeared in Baby Blessings, I was over the moon. After that first acceptance, June and I began corresponding regularly and she soon became my mentor in so many ways.
Then in the summer of 2012 I discovered I’d be heading from Boston to Seattle for a writer’s retreat. At last June and I were to meet in person!
Before my trip June happened to mention that she was overwhelmed with work because her assistant had recently moved away. Without hesitation, I asked the simplest of questions: “June, is there any little thing I can do to help you from the East Coast?” I thought I might assist her by reading a few of the many submissions she receives regularly.
I was completely shocked by her answer. “Well Nancy, how would you like to coauthor a book together?”
I don’t think anything could have knocked my socks off more. I could barely reply with a “Wow!” and a “Really?” and yet my travels to Seattle began a new phase in our relationship. We were becoming coauthors! Of course, that initial question was followed by many more. What project should we work on first? How should I gather entries to our anthology? Who would we submit our proposal to?
As it turns out, Toasts: The Perfect Words to Celebrate Every Occasion was our first book together. June graciously walked me through every step of the way. While I’d written poetry and children’s books before, this was a whole new experience for me. I had so much to learn. What am I talking about? I am still learning.
This New Year’s Day we signed a contract with Andrews McMeel for our second co-authored book entitled Family Celebrations, and thanks to the fabulous work of our agent, Anne Marie O’Farrell (Marcil-O’Farrell Literary LLC), we are excited to say our first children’s anthology, For Every Little Thing, has been accepted by Eerdman’s Publishing. On top of that, we have co-authored a children’s manuscript called Be Creative that my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette (Erin Murphy Literary Agency) is shopping around.
Yes, I have to say, I find that I am pinching myself on a regular basis these days. Could this all be real? It is hard to believe this long and winding road to publication is part of this shy girl’s journey. To think it all began with a question, or maybe two or three. What do you think about that?
What a busy spring with school visits galore! And yet there’s nothing like a spontaneous hug from a student, the creation of classroom poems, and the signing of a book to a new reader. After all, isn’t that what writing for kids is all about?
Here’s a few photos of my most recent visits to local schools (Wrentham & Norfolk), a Boston school (Joseph P. Tynan), the Coolidge Elementary School (Shrewsbury) and the Tuscarawas County Public Library (OH). Did I mention I had a blast!?
I love all of the poems that the students created, each and every one, but there are always a few that are unforgettable, like the boy who wrote about his bed being his favorite place in the world (yes, I agree wholeheartedly).
Happy Summer, my school friends! See you again in the Fall (should I have said that four-lettered word?)
When I sat down to write out my resolutions for the year, something occurred to me. The very place where I work, the public library, holds the key to many of my future goals and desires. How can that be, you might ask? Check it out here!
I am always amazed to hear stories of authors and illustrators who never connect during the picture book process. How can this be? I know publishers can be a bit leery of any author-illustrator relationship pre-publication. After all the author might attempt to influence the illustrator, or squash her creativity. But I LOVE to find my illustrator on social media right away. If the chance arises to meet her in person, all the better. And the ultimate meet up? You got it! A book signing together.
Chronicle Books was the perfect matchmaker when they paired illustrator, Alina Chau, with my story Double Happiness. Besides being uber-talented, she’s delightful and humble and fun. While I’ve known this for some time, this summer was the first time I was able to see her in action at our signings in California.
First, we visited Luan Stauss’ Laurel Bookstore in Oakland. Alina’s dog, Coco, joined us. When you’re reading Double Happiness, see if you can find Coco in the book.
Photo by Selina Liu
We had a few celebrities join us at our signings, too. Here’s Mike Jung and his famous donuts:
The next weekend we were privileged to be part of an inaugural event thanks to the Book Shop West Portal and West Portal branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Alina and I read Double Happiness in two voices (Gracie’s and Jake’s) at the library. Alina showed the audience how to draw a few of the characters.
We had a celebrity there, too–the lovely Deborah Underwood.
Our last stop was a totally new venue for me. Trickter is a gallery/bookstore in Berkeley, run by Anita Coulter.
See what happens when you hang with your illustrator! A whole new world opens before you.
Now if I can only entice Alina to visit the east coast for a few double signings here. That will be extra happy occasion, for sure.
(As an aside, I had the best fig pizza ever from Summer Kitchen in Berkeley, but I didn’t get to try Mike’s donuts)
Confession time, my fellow authors. You, too, must have experienced what I call “THE Book” Syndrome. Yes? Please tell me so! It happens when someone else’s story is published at the same time as your book, but THE Book is far more flashy, in a golden orbish kind of way. It gets all the attention and you’re curious why, so you check it out. In your heightened state of jealousy, you give it a whirl. And after you read it cover to cover, you’re still puzzled. Say what? Yet THE Book follows you everywhere. You pick up a magazine at the gym or at your hairdresser’s, and there it is. You go to your library, and it’s on prominent display. Kids are reading THE Book in the middle of the park (Okay, slight exaggeration). But the final straw is when you do a signing yourself. It’s your big day. Readers are excited about your book. And when you’re finished, the event planner hands you just one book as a “Thank you!” for your participation. And guess which book it is? Yup, It’s THE Book! And you take it home and reread it and think, “Okay, maybe it’s worthy of a bit of that glory and glitter. Maybe just a little.”
Ahh, the lazy days of summer are fading. Sigh. Still, that means Double Happiness is definitely on the scene. With its book birthday on August 8th, I decided to wait until folks returned from the beach for some book signings. If you care to mark your calendars, here are some upcoming events:
September 11th, 7 pm, at The Writer’s Loft, for a Book Bash. Lots of wonderful authors, including the New York Times Bestseller, Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Click Here for Details:
September 26th, 11 am, at The Blue Bunny, Double Happiness has a launch party, including a reading, a craft and, yes, snacks and dragons. Don’t they always go hand in hand. Click Here for Details:
October 24th, 11 am, at Wellesley Books. Join me and some fabulous picture book authors (Josh Funk, Anna Staniszewski, Jane Sutcliffe and Ammi-Joan Paquette) for readings and crafts. Click Here for Details:
November 5th, 10:30, at An Unlikely Story. Come listen to the story of Double Happiness and then make your own happiness box.