Thursday, June 23, 2016

You Gotta Belize It



Stephen, a favorite monkey of the school kids near the Howler Monkey reserve

We recently returned from a trip to Belize, a tiny Central American country on the Caribbean coast, and the only Central American country with English as it's official language (the country is formerly known as British Honduras). 

We've traveled to some pretty amazing places, but Belize ranks in the top three for me now. We stayed first on the mainland in the jungle regions near the border of Guatemala. Mayan sites sat all around us. A stones throw from where we stayed, archaeologists were excavating a recent find. 

We could have immersed ourselves in Mayan sites without driving anywhere, but we'd already pre-booked a trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves a couple hours away. Had I known what I was getting myself and my children into (my youngest cleared the height cut-off by a few inches), I likely wouldn't have gone. 


Mayan pottery in ATM cave courtesy of Jkolecki
I guess it's good I didn't know then, because we had a blast and somehow managed to survive the heart-stopping coldness of the water, the slippery climbs and rickety ladder that took us to the main level where the "Crystal Maiden" (now thought to be a juvenile male) lies in repose. A potential sacrificial victim, the skeleton has been fittingly memorialized in calcite. 

I recently wrote about The Well of Sacrifice, a middle grade novel about the Maya. We finished it and enjoyed it, and found it useful in preparing for our trip.

I caught myself telling the kids, "Okay, remember, Evening Star Macaw (the main character) didn't look down when she had to climb the Well of Sacrfice, so keep your eyes up and focus on putting your hands and feet in safe areas." 

I guess I was feeling pretty bad about the "mommy fail" moment of having dragged my children into a treacherous cave, so I tried to redeem myself by turning it into teaching moment. 

Seriously, however, the book really helped put things into perspective for my children. They knew about the ritual pottery we found in the cave, the human sacrifices, and the Mayan's perspectives on their gods. All of which helped our trip come alive for them. 



Having survived the whole caving episode, we all felt exhilarated and ready for our other adventures, which included horse-back riding in the jungle, snorkeling with nurse sharks, sea turtles and more fish than I knew existed, and an incredible trip to Caracal, a Mayan site with temple after temple and stele with relief still visible. 



We had an "epic" time. The kids got treated to hands-on science, marine biology, social studies, history, ancient cultures and excellent Caribbean food. 


Look close to see the leave cutter ants hauling their load
Nurse sharks
I failed to bring home any souvenirs other than scratches, bug bites and sand in my shoes, but I sorta wished I'd sprung for one of the tacky t-shirts sporting the "You Gotta Belize It" slogan. I have a hard time Belizing some of the things we did myself, all well out of my comfort zone, but I don't regret (so far) a one of them. I might have found a new slogan. 


Full moon on Belize coast
Have a great week.



You Gotta Belize It

Full moon on Belize coast
We recently returned from a trip to Belize, a tiny Central American country on the Caribbean coast, and the only Latin American country with English as it's official language (the country is formerly known as British Honduras). 

We've traveled to some pretty amazing places, but Belize ranks in the top three for me now. We stayed first on the mainland in the jungle regions near the border of Guatemala. Mayan sites sat all around us. A stones throw from where we stayed, archaeologists were excavating a recent find. 

We could have immersed ourselves in Mayan sites without driving anywhere, but we'd already pre-booked a trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) caves a couple hours away. Had I known what I was getting myself and my children into (my youngest cleared the height cut-off by a few inches), I likely wouldn't have gone. 

Mayan pottery in ATM cave courtesy of Jkolecki
I guess it's good I didn't know then, because we had a blast and somehow managed to survive the heart-stopping coldness of the water, the slippery climbs and rickety ladder that took us to the main level where the "Crystal Maiden" (now thought to be a juvenile male) lies in repose. A potential sacrificial victim, the skeleton has been fittingly memorialized in calcite. 

I recently wrote about The Well of Sacrifice, a middle grade novel about the Maya. We finished it and enjoyed it, and found it useful in preparing for our trip.

I caught myself telling the kids, "Okay, remember, Evening Star Macaw (the main character) didn't look down when she had to climb the Well of Sacrfice, so keep your eyes up and focus on putting your hands and feet in safe areas." 

I guess I was feeling pretty bad about the "mommy fail" moment of having dragged my children into a treacherous cave, so I tried to redeem myself by turning it into teaching moment. 

Seriously, however, the book really helped put things into perspective for my children. They knew about the ritual pottery we found in the cave, the human sacrifices, and the Mayan's perspectives on their gods. All of which helped the trip come alive for them. 



Having survived the whole caving episode, we all felt exhilarated and ready for our other adventures, which included horse-back riding in the jungle, snorkeling with nurse sharks, sea turtles and more fish than I knew existed, and an incredible trip to Caracal, a Mayan site with temple after temple and stele with relief still visible. 



We had an "epic" time. The kids got treated to hands-on science, marine biology, social studies, history, ancient cultures and excellent Caribbean food. 

Look close to see the leave cutter ants hauling their load
Nurse sharks
I failed to bring home any souvenirs other than scratches, bug bites and sand in my shoes, but I sorta wished I'd sprung for one of the tacky t-shirts sporting the "You Gotta Belize It" slogan. I have a hard time Belizing some of the things we did myself, all well out of my comfort zone, but I don't regret (so far) a one of them. 

Stephen, a favorite monkey of the school kids near the Howler Monkey reserve

I might have found a new slogan. Have a great week.





Thursday, June 9, 2016

Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups, and A School Visit

Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups (Balzer and Bray, 2015)

Some miraculous moments remind me that connections matter, no matter how fleeting they might seem. Over the last Christmas holiday, my family and I were back in the States. I was scanning the book section in Target and gasped. A familiar cover beamed back at me. 

I hadn't seen Tadgh Bentley's penguin story since we'd exchanged critiques almost four years ago. Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups, was the second story I saw of his, and I loved it. 




I remember when he heard from an agent who was interested in it and sent us back a menagerie of penguins to choose from. Apparently, his soon-to-be-agent didn't like the original style and asked Tadgh to redraw the original. We casted our votes on the penguin we liked best and then lost touch for a while. 





Fast forward three years or so when I'm walking in Target and see a little penguin who looked familiar. I felt oddly proud, as if I'd written it, to see the book on the shelf. I knew a bit of the struggle behind its creation and couldn't have been happier to see it triumph. I snatched it up and took it to the checkout, excited to show my family.

I sent him a congratulatory email and heard back from him. Then the wheels started turning. I'm friends with the principal of the local British school. 


Tadgh, being from London before transplanting to the U.S., seemed a natural fit for a school visit. I introduced them via email and left them alone to talk to each other. The result: The school invited Tadgh out to do a visit. 

I was lucky enough to attend two of his presentations, and his visits were as engaging as his book. He's a teacher, and it showed in the way he expertly reigned the kids in when needed. 


He also tailored his presentation to each grade we visited. For the fourth grade, he did a brief presentation on shapes and what they mean in a drawing. 


Then he had each child drew his/her own monster. My son chose the triangular shape, the shape of action, danger and adventure. 

For the first grade, Tadgh (pronounced 'Teeg' if you were wondering like I was) did a read-aloud, which works really well with the interactive nature of his book. 


video
The kids were really into it and convinced him to draw Little Penguin eating a hot dog, which he did, on the spot, on the whiteboard, in a room with fifty first graders tuning in. Impressive to say the least.

Oh what a treat to be there and to meet Tadgh in person. I could never have known that a couple of critique exchanges would lead to a school visit that I would also be able to enjoy. Make those connections and keep them open. Little things lead to big things. 

And, by the way, if you want a great resource for school visit information, join Michelle Cusolito's Facebook page: Creating Engaging School Visits

Have a great weekend. 




Friday, June 3, 2016

Peanut Butter and Brains: A Video Experiment



Barnes&Noble

I've had the pleasure of working with author Joe McGee on some of my stories. He's helped me fix the problem spots and learn how to craft a more solid picture book. He teaches writing classes at two college/universities, so he knows his stuff, as evident is his super fun picture book, Peanut Butter and Brains. 

My kids and I decided to bite off an ambitious project and make a trailer of his book. We enlisted the help of some friends to flesh out the zombie herd a bit more. My son wrote and played the song. My youngest daughter did the narration, and my oldest girl did the makeup and helped me with the storyboard. First the video, then what I learned from making it:




Lessons: 
  • Video isn't hard to make, but it takes time to do it right: Thanks to Katie Davis' Video Idiot Bootcamp class, I learned to de-mystify the art of video making. 
  • Storyboard first: Yes! Write out a detailed storyboard of what will be said and what footage you'll need. It saved us so much time.
  • Our video is not an effective trailer: We put too much detail into this video to make it effective as a trailer. We left out a lot of the middle, so the hopefully it will do it's job in interesting the viewer in the book, but next time, I'm capping it at 50 seconds or less and leaving out more details, especially the ending. 
  • Working with kids is hard: Yet another reason to keep the videos short!
  • Making videos helped me be a better writer: The storyboarding process forced me to write out an arc, just like I would in a picture book. The editing process also helped me see what needed to be cut and why. 

I did get permission from Joe to release this video to the public, so I hope you all enjoy it and learn something from it as well. 

And thanks to Joe for being an awesome writer, mentor and friend. 

Have a great week!