Hollins - We're Back!

After two years online, we are back in person to our gorgeous Hollins campus for the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating programs. We had a new inaugural event this year - placing the story book characters (created by Ashley Wolff) all around campus. Everyone got to choose a fave, then go find a fun spot to display them. It was a great way to get to know campus; and now, we have beloved children's book characters all over the grounds - SO FUN!

Back to the Beautiful Hollins Campus

How is it possible I forgot how beautiful it is at Hollins University? During the drive up I grew giddy as the Appalachians unfolded before me. Mountains and hills rolled in compact layers with light dappling across them, creating every shade of green and blue imaginable. Hollins itself is kept so pristine, it is simply a healing landscape.
I was happy to see some new art on campus this year.
The deer are still here and as unafraid of us humans as ever. I have seen them sleeping in the grass several times, they could care less about me!
And while I haven't seen any muskrats yet, there are a TON of groundhogs this year - they are all doing the Caddyshack dance:
I helped a luna moth caterpillar move up in the world (I think it was a luna moth caterpillar):
And I've seen a Green Heron, a Blue Heron, and a Kingfisher so far. Stan is coming up every now and then with his bike and has been riding all over Tinker Mountain—he even saw a bear! (It was also a little bit muddy!)
Truly, walks every morning with long-separated friends on this beautiful campus has been absolutely soul-fulfilling!

Curating the Margaret Wise Brown Prize Books

As my long-time readers know, I teach in the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating programs at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia every summer. Before the pandemic, I used to arrive a week early to host a workshop on "Picture Book Trends." A large portion of the workshop was going through the marvelous books publishers sent us as submissions for the Margaret Wise Brown Prize (she was an alum). (There is no better way to become a writer than to read, read, read.) One copy of each book submission goes to the judges, and one copy goes to Hollins. However, with the pandemic, we couldn't host the workshop; so the copies we received were piling up, uncurated.
     It's an incredible resource for our university; however, we can't possibly keep all of the books we receive. So, it's my job to go through the books and pull out the best of them all to be added to our permanent collection. With three-years-worth, I had over 600 books to read and evaluate. 600!!! So, I sat and read, and read, and read for a week! It was hands down the most difficult and most enjoyable job I've ever had! And boy, did I learn a lot! (I'm working on some articles to report my findings.)
     What made it so difficult is that, as the prize has garnered more attention and been awarded to some truly spectacular books over the years, the submissions have just gotten better and better. The books I turned away weren't necessarily bad, they were just perhaps for a singular reader, or a little outside the purview of the study, or there were more than one book on a topic, etc. Choosing was painful in many cases!
     I first divided each year's submissions into theme categories so that I can collect the data for trend-tracking. Then I pulled out the "must keep" books and placed stickie notes in them identifying their theme. I created "must keep" stacks and "maybe" stacks. The rest remained in theme piles to be distributed to local schools and libraries soon.
     I hope to have my findings collated soon and will let you know where you can read all about them in detail. Meanwhile, these were my absolute favorites (I added a few more later):

Children's Literature Association Conference (ChLA) - Atlanta

I recently attended my first ChLA conference - shocking, I know! This conference is for the academic side of studying children's books. Scholars gather from all over the country (and the world) to share papers and discuss the evolution of the scholarship. This year's theme was "City in the Forest" since it was held in Atlanta. The obvious topic being about climate change; although these guidelines are always widely interpreted. My talk was called "Employing The Nature of Tricksters to Discuss Climate Change in Children’s Literature." I used three fantastic picture books to make my case: We are the Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade, published by Roaring Brook Press (2020); The Mess That We Made, written by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Julia Blattman, published by Flashlight Press (2020); and Our House is on Fire, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster (2019).
     Happily, my paper was in the very last time slot; although, it was better attended than I expected. (Despite my long history with children's books, I'm fairly new to academic conferences like this.) Here I am just before my talk:
Happily, I received some interest from an academic publisher after the event and we're having some exciting conversations. More on that later!
     The papers and presentations were fascinating. It's exciting to see better representation and awareness of the need for it being so adamently pursued. Of course, my favorite part of conferences is catching up with old and new friends—several attendees had been visiting academic-in-residence at Hollins University, so I knew quite a few.
     Next year's event will be all the way across the country in Seattle, so I'm not sure I'll be able to make that one; but it was an interesting and wonderful experince doing this one!

Coloring Page Tuesday - 2022 Graduates!

     I don't know about you, but it was such a joy to be able to finally celebrate graduations in person this spring! Congratulations to all, and especially to the first group of students I had all the way through. Once my kid, always my kid (no matter how old)! I'm so proud! (Feel free to put the year or a message on the pedestal.)
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     Remember, I create my coloring pages to draw your attention to my books! For instance, my board book Merbaby's Lullaby!
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The Art of Letting Go


I gave a follow-up talk to my 2016 TED Talk, "Is Your Stuff Stopping You?" last weekend in Mentone, Alabama. My host, Anne McCleod gets credit for the title, which was perfect: "Is Your Stuff Stopping You? The Art of Letting Go."
     It gave me the opportunity to reflect on what Stan and I call "The Great Purge," when we sold almost everything we owned to make moving to Scotland possible. It's been seven years to reflect on whether or not I have any regrets; if I had, in fact, done the right thing. But it was also a chance to reflect on whether or not the same principles can be used to judge following the pandemic, which changed everything.
     The talk is much longer than what I'll write here. Like a traditional TED Talk, it was about 20 minutes with slides to accompany it, but I will give you a quick recap.
     The overall premise was realizing that as we age, we reach a point where we, for the most part, have what we need. We reach a point where evaluating our lives is more about what we want, and if the expectations of society have been meeting those wants: prestige, money, stuff. In my first talk, I mentioned how sad I thought it was for an "experience-based person to be stuck in a stuff-based lifestyle." I still believe that. But I've also come to realize what the boundaries of my minimalism are. The pandemic taught us that the idea of using the world as our extended living space might not always be possible. So, how much is enough? Are we really listening to ourselves? I've been asking myself this question a lot lately and frankly, I'm not sure I've got the answer yet. But I am working to figure out my parameters.
     The bottom line is, I have no regrets selling all we did and walking away from the life we did, with two minor caveats. I found that I missed my books. While it felt great to give them away, Seth Godin calls books "souvenirs of experiences" (science has proven that the brain experiences reading nearly the same way as having experienced something in reality). I missed the experiences those books stood for. But I also missed them on a practical level. As an academic now, I find myself returning to books again and again—many of the books I gave away, I've had to re-purchase or track down through other means. The irony being, the books were the one thing we really couldn't keep. So...
     The other item(s) was art supplies. My art is my voice, so I have to have my art supplies, lest I am silenced.
     Those are my two things. What would yours would be? Do you have two things in your life that no matter what, you have to keep?
     After my talk, I asked the attendees to pull their chairs into a circle so that we could discuss what was important to them now in this new reality we all live in. It was a great discussion, and was just the beginning!

      If you'd like to invite me to share my full talk with your event or organization, please reach out! I'm hoping "The Art of Letting Go" can grow some legs like my TED Talk did. (Over a million views, wowsa!) Certainily, I seem to be hitting a nerve that a lot of us are thinking about right now!

Hollins University - IN PERSON!!!

FINALLY!!! We will be back in person, on our beautiful Hollins campus for our graduate programs this summer!
This is going to be an interesting summer. Now that I have a PhD in Children's Lit (remember, I'm a writer too!), I'll be teaching a survey course in children's book genres and co-teaching a course with Dr. Chip Sullivan called "The Goddess Figure"! Wild, right? This came out of last summer's theme for the semester, "The Goddess," and a chapter from my dissertation, in which I investigated the possibility of Goddesses being a foil for female tricksters. It's been fascinating to prepare for, and I suspect we're going to have some fabulous discussions!
     Meanwhile, I had just started running a "Picture Book Trends Workshop" before the pandemic. HU is still trying to keep the population down on campus this summer, so I'm still not able to run it yet; however, part of that workshop's goals was to curate the submissions for the Margaret Wise Brown Prize. Since the workshop hasn't been running, three years-worth of books have been piling up. So, I'll be going up a week early to curate those.
     Can't wait to be back to our gorgeous Hollins campus and hang out with all my Hollins peeps! We're joined this year by my good friend, R. Gregory Christie, who is teaching my usual class, Picture Book Design. He's going to be fabulous! We also have E.B. Lewis, Dhonielle Clayton, and Christopher Denise teaching, and wonderful speakers coming in, as usual! Be watching for fun posts coming soon!

Check out our other offerings...
the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating, the Master of Arts in Children's Literature, or the Children's Literature MFA programs at Hollins University in the breathtaking Appalachian Mountains of Roanoke, Virginia.

When Things Feel Out of Your Control...

I've made another quote for you available on Redbubble items. This is my fave quote of late:

Mentone - Many Thanks

I wanted to share one more post to thank the many people who made my visit to Mentone possible. This trip meant more to me than you can imagine. It was wonderful to meet so many kind, generous, and brilliant people in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.
     I didn't remember owls being a thing when I went to camp at Skyline, but they were everywhere on this visit! So, these kind folks will be receiving my hand-painted thanks via post soon; but I also wanted to give them a shout-out here. Thank you to:
Hank and Susan Van Apeldoorn
Mike Houghland
David Darr
Jerome Stephens
Laura Windom
Lynn Vanderhoff
St. Joseph's-on-the-Mountain
The Little River Arts Council
and of course, my kind host, Anne McLeod!
Be looking for an owl to visit you soon!

Camp Skyline Ranch in Mentone Alabama!

I talked about being invited to speak at the Moon Lake Library in Mentone, Alabama in my previous posts; and the irony that my hosts didn't realize I'd gone to camp there for many of my formative years when they invited me. Well, the whole weekend felt a bit like traveling through a tesseract; time was folding on itself as so many familiar and fond memories came back to me. Best of all was going back to Camp Skyline Ranch!
     Stan and I walked around, and I swear I could still hear all the girls running around, laughing and shouting. How strange to suddenly feel so very in touch with my child self on such a tangible level! When I first went to camp there at age 10, I stayed in Beetlebum. Here were my friends back in 1977 (I'm behind the camera).
Me in my 20s when I went to visit while on a motorcycle trip with my dad.
And me now. Wow. It's been a lifetime of coming back.
The insides of the cabins are actually much nicer than in my day, and they've paneled over where we all signed our names with toothpaste (which is surprisingly durable and was still there when I visited in my 20s).
I spent many an evening by the wonderful campfire, singing camp songs.
And I even spent some time in the "Limp-in, Leap-out" infirmary, when my favorite horse, Ginger threw me and I got a mild concussion.
The dining hall, called "Squeeze In," used to have a literal gum tree in front. Here I am with it in my 20s.
They've since replaced the building with a brand-new dining hall and a new "gum tree."
In fact, the camp is thriving. I ran into one of the directors and they have waiting lists to get in these days. There were new buildings all around (built in the 1920s camp style with heavy logs and green screen-doors). And the landscaping is gorgeous, again, filled in with all those rhododendrons and mountain laurel I remember so well and pressed into my books.
I was happy to see that the rope swing was still there, albeit a bit better engineered these days. Here I am with it an my friends at age... 15? (I'm on the right.)
And in my 20s.
And this past weekend. I was so excited to still be able to do this! Of course, getting off the thing was a bit harder than I remember. I made a darned good pendulum!
There are three "houses" at Skyline, sort of like the houses in Harry Potter—the Mounties, the Rangers, and the Troopers. I was a Trooper. The irony is that many of our Trooper songs were based on old Scottish ballads; so when we went to Scotland, I was shocked to realize I recognized all the songs being played on the bagpipes! Here I am in a prize-winning year as Song-Leader.
These days, each "house" has an oversized adirondack chair sitting near where they meet.
We visited the old pool (now filled in), and I swear I could smell the chlorine and feel the alcohol they put in our ears to avoid infections (it was a true cement pond). (They have a shiny new pool now.) We visited the old hotel where the older girls stayed, and where I spent three summers.
We visited the "Snack Shack" where I used to buy Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle with peanut M&Ms. And the "Craft Corner" where I spent many a happy afternoon doing leatherworks, macramé, or photography.
But the spot that perhaps meant the most was the old gym.
This building did so much to form who I am today. I had my first slow dance (with a boy from Camp Laney) and late-night movie night inside.
And I gave my first on-stage performances during the talent shows. (I was terrible, but had a great time!)
I thrived at Camp Skyline. I embraced the autonomy I had there, found my voice, and became a natural leader. I attribute all of these traits to Skyline, and they have served me outstandingly throughout my life. What a magical place. I'm still singing the camp song in my head... right now... "Skyline, skyline, we will 'ere love you..."

Speaking at the Moon Lake Library - Mentone, Alabama

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was invited to Mentone, Alabama to give three talks to patrons of the Moon Lake Library: 1) For kids on Crow Not Crow; 2) For adults on creating and illustrating picture books; and 3) A follow-up talk to my TED Talk, "Is Your Stuff Stopping You? The Art of Letting Go." (I'm happy to come give any of these talks to your community as well - email me!) The Gadsden Times did a lovely write up. as did the local community paper, The Groundhog (page 21).
     The kids and I had a great time reading Crow Not Crow written by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, illustrated by Yours Truly, and learning how to draw a crow.
The "how to" session was also well attended. (Keep in mind, this is a community of 320 people total!) One budding author even showed up with her manuscript in hand, ready to go! I think they're going to start a writing group at the library as a result. Wonderful!
     Anne and Pat introduced me and ran the slides. It all went swimmingly well.
But the big test was the talk Anne asked me to give as a follow-up to my TED Talk, "Is Your Stuff Stopping You?" She even came up with the perfect name: "The Art of Letting Go." I'm hoping to do more with this follow-up talk, and spent some serious time on it. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the "Big Purge" when Stan and I sold almost everything we owned to move to Scotland, to see if I had any regrets (I don't); but to also review where I stand on things now, after the move and a pandemic—the world has changed, I'm getting older.
     The best part was at the end of my talk. I asked the audience to sit in a circle to discuss their own views on what "stuff" means to them now, how much they need, how much is enough at this stage of their lives. It was a great discussion and got so many folks thinking. I certainly enjoyed it!

Mentone, Alabama - what a weekend!

As I mentioned last week, I was invited to give three talks at the Moon Lake Community Library in Mentone, Alabama by Anne McLeod. Anne and I met in 2015 in Athens, Georgia when A Bird on Water Street was named a Georgia Book Award Finalist. She was doing her PhD research on union representation in children's books, so I gave her an ARC of my novel. You never know where these sort of things will lead...
     Scroll ahead to 2022, almost ten years later. Anne had been keeping track of my career and wanted to invite me to speak, but I moved to Scotland, then there was a pandemic... at any rate, it finally happened! The irony is, when she asked me to speak, she had no idea that I had a strong connection to Mentone, Alabama.
I went to Camp Skyline Ranch in the heart of Mentone from age ten to sixteen, 1977-1983! I LOVE Mentone, and have been back to visit the camp a few times over the years. So, the entire weekend became a homecoming of sorts - how wonderful!
     The generous people of Mentone pulled together to make my trip possible. Many thanks to Hank and Susan for loaning us the use of their adorable guest cottage at Chimney Corners.
They both worked in the movie biz in Atlanta for many years, so the walls were covered with framed photos of famous people, signed to them both—so many stories!

And at the end of the street, they had a lovely dock overlooking the Little River, which I have canoed on many times!
They even asked the Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel to bloom so that I'd feel right at home.
The locals came out to say 'hi.'
Downtown Mentone has changed a little since the days I used to visit. The old hotel burned down several years back, which was a serious blow to the city both economically and emotionally.
So, the town is in the midst of figuring out how it wants to grow moving forward. It has some great restaurants, like Elevation (where we ate twice it was so good - order the tempura-fried Vidalia Onion Greens - OMG!), and the landmark Wildflower Café.
The "Yellow Deli" (famously run by a cult when we used to visit) and later the "Log Cabin Deli" (who served THE BEST carrot cake!) is under renovations, so will have a new incarnation soon. Meanwhile, they even have a pop-up taco truck, where Stan got lunch one day.
Speaking of... Stan brought his bike and went all over the mountain-top.

Mentone is located at the southern tip of Lookout Montain, where it crosses over into Alabama. SO many good things have happened in my life on Lookout Mountain! For instance, the hang-glider flight park is about 40 minutes up the ridge (where I spent many years trying to be a bird). This is the view from the top (click the image to watch on Youtube):
Stick around and I'll share more about this lovely weekend in the following posts!