Posted by: Betsy Devany | November 8, 2013

PiBoIdMo Week One with Norman the Gorilla

SONY DSCAt the end of week #1 of PiBoIdMo, I’ve successfully met this week’s goal: eight new ideas, three of which continue to feed the muse. My weekly volunteer session in my granddaughter’s second-class yesterday bumped my idea count from five to eight, thanks to one-on-one sessions in the hallway. The project I was helping the kids with was hysterical. Thank you, students, for making me laugh!

But when I checked in with Norman, he seemed a bit discouraged. So I asked how his writing challenge was coming.

“I loaned my car to Beverly and Beauregard Bunny. They have more ideas than I could come up with. I got off the StuWriStoMo hill. Everyone passed me.”

“What is StuWriStoMo?” I asked.

SONY DSC“Stuffs Write Stories Month. We have our own Stuffsbook page. I read Beverly’s post.” Norman groaned. “Beverly came up with 413 1/2 ideas.”

“You’re not competing with the bunnies,” I said.

“Beauregard wrote 93 picture book manuscripts this week. He stars in all of them. Pig and Elephant are way ahead, too. Pig is illustrating Elephant’s ideas as they come.”

“Have you written down any new ideas?”

“One,” said Norman. “It’s called I WANT MY BANANA BACK. Beauregard Bunny steals my banana. So I ask around to see if anyone has seen it. No one has. And they’re too busy to help me look because they’re eating banana bread. Made from MY BANANA!  And then I find Beauregard Bunny selling suspicious-smelling cookies at his bakery. By the end of the book, the bakery is shutdown.”

SONY DSC“What happens to Beauregard Bunny?”

“Why are you asking?” said Norman.

“Because this sounds like plagiarism.”

“No, it doesn’t. There are no hats in my story. Please do not ask me any more questions. I would not eat a bunny.”

“Okay, well I expect you’ll be hearing from Jon Klassen soon.”

“Great! I’ll tell my agent at Bossy Frog Literary that Klassen will write a blurb for the book jacket. Agent Bossy Frog #2 calls my manuscript ‘fresh’. He’s preparing to submit it to fifty-seven editors. By the end of next week we’ll have an auction.”

I put aside the much-needed discussion on How to Choose a Good Agent, and headed to my writing room to find a book on craft. I carried it outside to Norman, who was making a How to Spend My Advance for I WANT MY BANANA BACK list.

SONY DSCWhile Norman spent the afternoon reading, I still have concerns.

His #2 idea is called MAKE WAY FOR GORILLAS.

Have a great and inspiring week, everyone!

 

Posted by: Betsy Devany | November 1, 2013

PiBoIdMo and a Thank-You to All the 2013 Participants

piboidmo2013-participant-214x131Today is November 1st, and the start of PiBoIdMo 2013! If you haven’t yet signed up for Tara Lazar’s annual picture book challenge, I inspire you to jump in before the day ends.PiBoIdMo 2013 Registration is OPEN! If you are on the fence, slide on down to join the almost 1000 writers and illustrators already committed to this year’s PiBoIdMo challenge: one new idea for a picture book, every day in November. Plus you get daily inspiring posts from published authors and illustrators. And then there is our PiBoIdMo community as a whole.

As a participant myself, I am probably more excited for you, especially all the newcomers. Pat yourself on the back!

SONY DSCOutside, it is dark and rainy. The time is 5:30 a.m. From my writing room I hear the stirrings of my twenty-two-month-old grandson. I send “Do not wake up yet” vibes through the wall. His Halloween pirate sideburns and mustache are still visible on his sweet baby face. After a long bath last night, and gentle scrubbing, the Pirate won. Soon I will be taking out the Thomas trains, fire trucks, and ambulances, but not yet. I have enough time to jot down two picture book ideas which came to me during the night. I record them on my PiBoIdMo files cards. Sometimes, the light bulb comes as a title, other times a main character. If bits of dialogue precede all else, I record that on the back side. Then, throughout the month, I return to these cards to add more information/inspiration.

And if I get stuck, I get out the potatoes.

Before my pint-sized pirate hollers for my attention, I wanted to say “Thank you!” to Tara Lazar, to all the other guest bloggers, and to every PiBoIdMo 2013 participant. I wish I could give individual responses to each person who kindly commented on my pre-PiBoIdMo post.  http://taralazar.com/2013/10/28/pre-pibo-day-4-betsy-devany/  So . . .

dsc05163To everyone who read my story, thank you. To everyone who commented, thank you. (I will continue to check comments throughout the month, for those who read the post at a later date.) Thank you for your kind words and support of SMELLY BABY. For those seeking a How To Get Fired From Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner pass, contact Norman. I have a pressing middle grade revision to complete during the month as well, so he has volunteered to be my secretary. To anyone who can offer tips on learning to cook, thank you in advance. To the people who asked for a playdate with Norman, he would love that. He has been to some conferences, and he has even played piano with a hedgehog at a hotel. To those who do not have a tricycle, yes, skateboards will work, as will sleds, kid-sized cars, and anything else with wheels. Feel free to add tires to a refrigerator-sized box. Whatever suits your style!

All of your comments made me smile and laugh. I am so fortunate to be a part of this community. And to Erik, the kid who reviews books, a special thank-you to you. This Kid Reviews Books | A Place for Kids and Grown-Ups to … Keep up the great work! You rock.

Remember: Have fun. Let go. Feed your inner child.

Read picture books. Lots of them.

Play with your kids, your grandkids.

Wear funny glasses, tutus, hats.

In our house, Ballerina Bella the dog has been coaching one of the Baby Bossy Frogs. “Don’t think too much, little frog,” she says. Ballerina Bella the dog is very wise, and I tend to follow her advice, too. So listen to your stuffies.

Lastly, I challenge you to set aside the goal of getting published. At least during this month. As Nancy C. says, it can cause anxiety, and I believe it comes between you and reaching your full potential as a writer. Rather than focus on getting published, focus on your prose. Time is your greatest gift. This is my secret to landing an agent and my first book contract.

SONY DSCYou are my heroes for being brave and jumping in.

If you get stuck along the way, reach out and I will try to help.

Know I believe in all of you and your ability to see this challenge to the end.

Norman has volunteered to help me blog during November. He and Uni the unicorn have already started writing down their picture book ideas. He even has a pink car to ride down the PiBoIdMo hill with us.

Happy writing!

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Posted by: Betsy Devany | September 12, 2013

The Deer Watcher

Ever since my recent Unavoidable/Terrifying Deer Encounter, driving the grandkids in the car has taken on new meaning. Technically, I am using my husband’s Nissan truck since my accordion of a car is parked in an auto body repair lot. Strips of its frame lay in a pile on the gravel. We will not be reunited for weeks.

I was ten miles from home after a glorious writing weekend spent on Squam Lake when a relative of Bambi’s shot out of the woods and into the path of my Honda CRV. Its fawn had just safely crossed the busy highway, thanks to a number of cars and trucks swerving to avoid hitting it.

A split-second later, all you can do is cry. You can’t change what happened, though you wish you could.  And then the memory of your sister, at the age of five, flashes before you. We’d been at a movie theatre watching Bambi when she got out of her seat and walked down the aisle, pointing her finger at the large screen. “Your mother is dead,” she said, as if Bambi didn’t realize.

I love animals, which is why I wanted to rescue the fawn, express my sorrow for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and then find some nice person to adopt it. And when I explained this to the state trooper, he nicely asked me to remain seated, and then reiterated how lucky I was. The scene was ripe for a multi-car accident, and if my hood had not folded, the mother deer would have flown through my windshield.

I am alive.

I am grateful.

But I still think about the mother deer. I think about the fawn. So I’ve convinced myself that the baby is safe in some field, chasing after butterflies, and does not require years of therapy. My seven-year-old granddaughter told me that the buck found the fawn, and is now taking care of it. “Grandma, the baby is fine. You just have to stop hitting deer with your car.”

“One deer, Ava.” I hold up a finger. “I hit one deer, which I couldn’t avoid.”

And this is why our car routine has changed.

Today, I buckle my twenty-month-old grandson in his car seat.  Ava pulls her chest strap tight. “Okay, it’s really tight. I’ll be safe.”

Landon takes his train in and out of his cup holder. “Choo-choo-choo-choo.”

Five minutes later we are on the highway, and Landon is trying to get Ava’s attention. “Dah, dah, dah . . .”

“Ava, why aren’t you answering Landon?”

“Because I don’t understand what he’s saying, and I’m too busy to talk to him,” she says. “I have more important work.”

I glance toward the back. Ava is watching the scenery flash past her.

“What work?” I ask.

“I am The Deer Watcher.”

“Truuuck!” shouts Landon, pointing at a moving van. “Truuuck!”

Everything is a truck. Cars are trucks, buses are trucks, and bicycles are trucks. Except our cat. Our cat, according to Landon, is a “Doggie.”

“DEER!” Ava screams.

I lift my foot off the gas pedal, position above the brake. I scan the road; my heart is in my throat.

“Grandma, DEER!” she yells again.

“TRUCCKKK!” shouts Landon.

“WHERE?” I say.

“Way up there, on the hill.”

“Those deer are in no danger of being hit by me.”

“How do you know?” Ava asks. “There are babies up there.”

I put my foot on the gas. We get off the highway and drive to Panera Bread. (Before my eldest daughter calls me out, I will admit that, on occasion, I might suggest that the grandkids beg me to take them to Panera, while I am a Panera Smoothie Addict.)

I order macaroni and cheese for Landon, chicken noodle soup for Ava, and a mango smoothie for me.

Landon drives his train through the macaroni while Ava and I discuss how The Deer Watcher doesn’t want to be The Screamer Who Gives Grandma An Anxiety Attack.

Here is what we come up with:

AVA’S SAVE A DEER PLAN

  1. Ava is in charge of watching for deer.
  2. Ava points deer out to Grandma when they are standing by the edge of the highway, not up on a hill, so far away that Grandma needs glasses to see the deer.
  3. Avoid highways when we can take a scenic route instead.
  4. Don’t scream “DEER” in the car as a joke. Grandma says that is not funny.

But in a way it is.  Humor is what gets us through the tough times.

What a wonderful, wonderful life.

Posted by: Betsy Devany | September 6, 2013

Love and Letting Go

SONY DSCThis past week I’ve had lessons in letting go.

I said goodbye to our beloved sheltie.

I said goodbye to one of our cats.

I let my YA novel leave my hands to allow it to become what the world needs it to be.

I let go.

I let go out of love.

Stories whisper to us when to step away, that we have done our job to the best of our ability.

Pets trust us to do what is humane when the time comes, to keep them from entering the place where suffering defines their existence.

It doesn’t make loss any easier.

And when you’ve spent hours revising and revising your work while being a pet caregiver, the related behaviors remain. Long after the heart accepts the loss.

I still automatically rise at 5 to check on the dog. I dismantle the alarm, then unlock the door to let him out.

Except he’s not here.

It’s all gone: His bowls, chew toys, squeaking squirrel. His dog beds, food, medicines. Shampoo, leashes. Pill organizers. His bark, the pitter-patter of his feet. The sound of him plopping beside me. His sigh.

His beautiful, beautiful face.

But not his collar, and his green alien boy, he loved so much.

Our one cat that remains hides beneath the kitchen table, curled in a chair pushed flush to the table. What must be going through her head?

Then I remember. We would not know loss if we never loved. And to love and be loved is a gift.

And so I feed the cat, and then settle on our porch to wait for the sun.

SONY DSCI notice my grandson’s blue hippo in our yard, which he sits on when there is nothing better to do than sit on one’s hippo and wonder at the world.

The cement step is cold against my thighs. A hummingbird whizzes over my head.

A hint of pink peers through our trees.

Another day begins.

I hear her spring to the floor, her red tag clink against her collar, and I know she is ready.

I am, too.

She meows through the screen, and I come inside. Walk down the hallway to my writing room.

I open the door.

I sit.

I open the YA document out of habit. I close it, and pat the place next to me.

Terrapin jumps up, nudges my hand.

I write.

I write out of love.

I write about a dog.

Posted by: Betsy Devany | June 30, 2013

A Writer’s Plea to the Neighborhood Squirrels

DSC00057Dear Mr. Squirrel,

Dear Mr. Squirrel and your girlfriend,

Dear Mr. Squirrel, your girlfriend, and your overly-curious offspring,

Dear Mr. Squirrel’s Entire Immediate Family, Extended Family, and Furry Friends,

I am a writer. I like to write early every morning. I like quiet at this time. No TV blaring. No lawn mowers rumbling and roaring. No uppity, clanking, rocking washing machines. No fighting cats. No barking dog. No ringing phone. No cell phone alerts that I have a new text or a new email or a Facebook notification. No wild creature disturbances.

DSC03831Which brings me to you, Mr. Squirrel, and your ever-growing community, which is also responsible for the recent destruction of my husband’s shed. Yes, we noticed the plastic siding torn from the sides of the building, the same plastic being used in your massive nests in our trees. You and your furry friends are also the reason we must restock bird seed on a daily basis. I will need to sell a book solely to support your current lifestyle in our yard.

Now I understand that you are hungry, and that you and your buddies view our property as a promising source of ongoing food. I understand that it is your nature to embrace perseverance. I admire this quality. Writers need to embrace a path of perseverance. Except when that path is riddled with noise and squirrel-influenced interruptions.

SONY DSCYes, our aged dog barks more frequently due to his recent loss of hearing. But you egg him on with your clever squirrel acrobatics: dangling from the tops of our squirrel-proof bird feeders. Leaping through the air from my husband’s woodpile, only to now plunge to the ground since he’s set it further away from the feeder after seeing my photographs.

Do you give up? No, of course not! Why should you? You’re a squirrel, and now your entire community is copying you. I might as well supply you with colorful costumes, a trampoline, and a tightrope. I can invite the media or shoot a video for YouTube, and then continually check my stats. Not happening. Though our granddaughter is nothing less than thrilled by this prospect and has designed tickets she wants me to print out so she can sell them to our neighbors.

SONY DSCI don’t have time to host a circus of squirrels in my backyard.

I’d rather write.

So for the past few weeks, I’ve kept the door to my writing room shut, put up a BIRD FEEDING ZONE sign outside, and tried to convince myself that Old Dog was not barking incessantly.

Until today.

Today, I heard a banging on my front door. It sounded like a person knocking. So I stopped mid-paragraph in an important revision, and headed down the hall, into the living room. There was an edge of anticipation. I am expecting a number of books. Books I am anxious to read.

I opened the front door and looked straight ahead.

No delivery person.

I looked down.

SONY DSCNo package left on the ground.

No anxiously awaited books.

Only two squirrels, one of which I presume was you, Mr. Squirrel.

And when I refused to invite you inside, not just because the dog was going nuts upon seeing your face pressed against the glass, you sat down. You stared at me, you and your friend or brother or sister or spouse or offspring. And then, as if you blew on a little whistle to call in your troops, squirrels imploded onto our front deck, grabbing our white railing. I watched you spring to the edge of our picture window, and then swing into our window bird feeder with your not-so-little friend.

SONY DSCTwo squirrels cannot squeeze together in the feeder. It is not a circus clown car.

And I did not appreciate watching my expensive bird feeder split in half as you two Numskulls forced your way free and crashed the feeder to the ground.

Lastly, it seems as if you have an identity crisis. You have taken to lounging in our porch chair for lengthy squirrel siestas, after which you drink from the hummingbird feeder. Which makes Old Dog bark until he passes out.

SONY DSCYou are not a hummingbird, Mr. Squirrel.

Please relocate immediately.

Signed,

A children’s writer seeking peace and quietDSC03813SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Posted by: Betsy Devany | June 16, 2013

A Father’s Day Tale

I decided to repost this from two years ago since it is a beautiful example of the love between a father and his son. I met them both while working at the toy store, where I did my best to end Steven’s search for a whale. Happy Father’s Day!

        Closing time has come and gone at Olde Mistick Village, the sidewalks are filled with more ducks than people shopping. The neighboring stores are dark, their doors locked, and their employees on their way home. It is time for me to call it a night.

       The marionettes swing in the breeze; the pink flamingo seems to wink at me. I gather the puppets outside to carry them into the store. Behind me there is quacking. The three ducks who rule our front yard are on alert. The white leader honks at a lone male that slipped under the fence and entered their territory. The leader’s two sidekicks join in the chase, nipping at the uninvited younger mallard. The white duck pecks at the intruder’s neck; his wings flap with agitation.  I move towards the gang of birds, clapping my hands until they separate.

       “Do you break up fights every day?”An older man walks in my direction, followed by a younger man. With the same chiseled chins, the two are clearly father and son.

       “This is the first fight I’ve seen today.”

       “You still open? We won’t be long, I promise.”

       “Uh . . . sure, yes, come on in.” I smile.

       “We need to hurry, Steven. This woman wants to close.”

       Steven, who looks to be in his late thirties, dashes into the store. “Whales, where are your whales?” His attention shifts rapidly from shelf to shelf. “I need a whale.” He looks up. He looks down. Lions are pulled from their shelves. Tigers. Bears. Cats. Dogs. None of the stuffed animals are right. Hoping to locate the whale he remembered having as a child, Steven continues to push toys aside. He mutters, “Big. Brown. Brown with beans . . . Big. Brown. Brown with beans . . .”

       “He’ll never find it, not the way his was, with the fabric worn around the tips of the eyes and the end of the tail from his constantly caressing it.” His father adds. “And the head was flat from Steven leaning into it, night after night, when he was a child.”

       Steven, who has traveled over an hour to get here, is missing more than just a stuffed whale from his childhood.

       We do not sell brown whales in the toy store, nor do we sell giant whales. The largest we have is a 24-inch white beluga whale. I hand Steven the beluga.  He brings it close to his nose, leans his cheek against it, and slides his face back and forth brushing the fabric. “Do you have a bigger whale . . . brown whale . . . filled with beans?”

       “No, we don’t, I’m sorry.” While I search for anything close to what he describes, Steven paces . . . and paces . . . and then he notices the three-foot lobster displayed on a high shelf above his head. He stands on his tiptoes and reaches for the stuffed sea creature. “This will do,” he says.

       “No, Steven, we’ve done this before.  You’re not thinking clearly.” The father takes the lobster away and leaves the beluga whale in his son’s arms. He sighs—a long sigh. His hair is grey and thin. He removes his glasses and wipes them clean. He sighs again, and then says to his son, “We’ve made these trips over and over again, from New York to Massachusetts, and to anywhere else that might hold the promise of a brown whale. Steven . . .  Steven, look at me, son.”

       Steven’s hold on the beluga whale loosens. I catch it before it hits the ground. “We have catalogs. Perhaps I can find a large enough whale for you,” I say and hand him back the beluga.

       The ends of the father’s mouth turn up, forced out of kind appreciation.  “That’s nice of you, but we’ve been looking for a very long time. I never know what he wants.”

       I head to the back stock room, grab six catalogs, and carry them to the front desk. Steven follows me, his arms clutching the beluga.

       “How big of a whale do you want?”  I ask.

       “Very big.” Steven focuses on his shoes while clinging to the toy. We go back and forth.  I flip through pages. He peers at pictures. “No, not right,” he tells me over, and over, and over again.

       His father stands next to him. “Steven, look at me.  Look at me, please.”  Finally, Steven lifts his eyes. “We aren’t going to find a whale. Not like your whale.”

       “I want a whale,” says Steven. “I want a big, brown whale with beans.”

       “Steven, we need to leave. This kind lady wants to go home.”

       “My whale, we came to get my whale,” Steven reminds his father.

       The father turns away from the counter and gently tugs at his son’s arm. Steven digs his heels in. Thirty minutes have passed since they first walked into the store.

       “Tell me about your whale,” I say.

       “He doesn’t know what he wants. I’ve been looking and looking—they just don’t make toys like they used to.” His father tugs again.

       “Steven, what did you love most about your whale?”

       Steven turns, looks at me, and walks back to the oak counter. He runs his hands along the wood.  “I liked the way the beans inside felt.”

       “They don’t make animals with those beans anymore. Too many safety concerns,” I say.

       Steven swirls his fingers around the shape of a large knot in the oak.

       His father sighs. “Thank you for trying, but he’ll never understand.”

       I arrange the pens next to the register; straighten the shopping bags. I glance in Steven’s direction. “Besides the beans, what else did you love about your whale?”

       “Soft, it was soft . . . I could sleep on it.”

       We have a two-foot penguin, but it is not soft.  We have large stuffed dogs, but they are not whales. We have a three-foot lion, but the color is tan, like a pale honey.

      Then I remember Gus. “I have a bear, a large bear,” I tell him. “And it’s brown.”

       Steven studies the floor. “I want a whale. I need to bring a whale home tonight.”

       The three of us stand in silence. I check the time. The owners must be wondering why I haven’t called with the day’s sales.

       “Let me show you the bear,” I say.

       “It’s hopeless. We’ve kept you long enough,” the father says.

       “I’ll be right back.” From the stuffed animal room, I carry the three-foot floppy bear to the front desk. Gus has lived in the store for quite some time now. Before I close up at night, he gets an extra pat.

       “He’s very soft,” I tell Steven. 

       “It’s not a whale.”

       Now, I am the one studying my shoes. “I won’t be able to find you a large whale tonight.  Just hold the bear, see what you think.  He’s brown and soft. You can lean into him.”  I hand Steven the bear.  

       He pushes his nose against Gus.  He plops Gus against the counter and leans into him. “He is soft. I like him.”

       “Yes, I like this bear myself—very much.”

       The father pulls at the price tag. “The bear is $130. You didn’t bring enough money.”

       Silence returns.  I shift the catalogs together and form a single stack, place them on the floor.

       The father stares at the door.  Steven’s face is buried into Gus’s fur. 

       I want to buy him the bear, show him he can love Gus as much as the whale.  I want to watch him walk down the sidewalk with the bear in his arms, even though it’s always hard when I let go of a stuffed animal I’ve grown attached to, but Steven did not bring enough money.

      Then, holding the bear tightly in one arm, Steven reaches into his pants pocket.  He removes a black leather wallet, worn with holes visible at every corner. It is a wonder the wallet doesn’t explode all over our wooden floor. A penny pokes through one end, but does not fall out. His wallet is thick with papers, some yellowed, some coated in a worn plastic. There is almost five inches thick of paper memories.

       His father settles into a stance; feet spread apart, firmly planted on the wooden floor—a familiar routine, I imagine. His hands out of his pockets, he turns his palms upward, as if waiting at a communion rail.

       Steven pops the wallet open and forms the shape into what appears to be a triangular leather cup. “I want the bear,” he says. 

       “Let’s count,” says his father.

       Steven places two twenties on our wooden counter, then another crumpled twenty.

       “How much is that,” asks his father.

       “Sixty,” says Steven with confidence.

       I separate the bills. “Eighty, you have eighty dollars here.”

       Steven pulls out a five and a ten—ninety-five. When he stretches the leather further, the penny falls to the floor, where it remains. Next, come the one-dollar bills, all carefully folded into triangles, the points as worn as the wallet.

       “One. Two.  Three,” he counts.

       There is something magical about the wallet, which is not diminishing in size.  Instead of pulling rabbits from a magician’s hat, he conjures up one-dollar bills out of faded leather. How does the wallet hold all of the tightly folded shapes?  I expect him to run out of money, yet Steven continues to hand another and another dollar bill to his father, never looking up or breaking his rhythm. Not once.

       His father unfolds and flattens each bill, using a quarter to work out the creases.

       The stack of money on the counter grows higher.

       I wait and watch.  “Why do you fold the dollar bills into triangles?” 

       Holding one bill in his hand, Steven lifts it to the corner of his right eye. “When I’m sad . . . this makes me feel better.”  He taps the edge of the triangular shape against his skin. Three times. He passes the bill to his father.

       “May I ask what Steven has?”

       The father talks and talks and talks, like a dam overflowing. Like a man who hasn’t been noticed in years.

       I cannot tell you what the father was wearing that day, but I can tell you his words—his story. I can describe the medicine bottle he has carried in his pocket from the seventies, day after day, year after year. The label so worn that it barely reveals the name of the pharmacy. Except for the lingering chalky stink of medicine, the bottle remains empty. The father rolls the medicine bottle between his palms as he tells me that the colored dye in the medicine, administered when Steven was a baby, caused a cerebral allergic reaction. Steven has two markers of autism, and some mental retardation. Years later, they learned that the damage was irreparable—long after Steven’s mother left, taking his brother and sister with him. Steven was six years old at the time. The mother changed her last name, never contacting Steven and his father.

       The father talks and talks while Steven continues to pull one-dollar bills from his wallet. He earns $100 per month, emptying trash containers at a pharmaceutical company.

       “You really love that wallet,” I say.

       Steven nods, eyes still downcast, his larger lip protruding over his top lip—almost swollen looking.

       “When did Steven lose his whale?  Do you have a picture?”  I ask the two men, one talking and talking, the other pulling triangles of money from a worn leather wallet.

       His father quickly shakes his head.  “No, not with us; it upsets him.”

       “It makes me sad,” adds Steven.  He taps the corner of his right eye with another folded dollar bill.

       “How long ago did he lose this whale,” I ask.

       “Six, he was six years old,” his father says.

       I lose count of the money on the counter; imagine Steven as a six-year-old boy snuggled against his mother, the whale by his side until the two of them banished at the same time. Is his search for a whale or a mother who abandoned him?

       “You only have $128. Are you sure this is what you want?” the father asks.

       Steven hugs the bear to his chest. Gus’s feet dangle at his knees. “I want the bear. It’s a soft bear.”

       “You don’t have enough money,” his father tells him.

       Steven opens his wallet. He peers into it, pulls out the yellowed papers. 

       The magic is gone.

       “I . . . I can—give you 10% off.”

       “You don’t have to do that,” the father says.

       “Yes, I do.” I smile and ring up the sale, recount the money and hand him $4 change. I make a mental note to pay the difference after they leave. Steven immediately folds the dollar bills into triangles before tucking them into his wallet.

       “I hope the bear makes him happy.” The father strokes Gus’s arms. “I never see any emotion from him anymore, he’s on so much medicine; it numbs his emotions, his personality. At least he doesn’t scream and cry like he used to. But he never laughs or smiles, either.”

       “I’m hungry,” Steven says.

       “What do you feel like eating?” I ask.

       “Steak!” 

       I give the father directions to a nearby restaurant and recommend they walk through the village so they can stop at the pond to admire the newly hatched baby ducks. 

       “I have to put my bear in the car first, so he’s safe,” says Steven. 

       The two men step outside the store. I bend over to unlatch the door in preparation for closing, and as I do, Steven turns to me and smiles, revealing slightly yellowed teeth.

       “You have a beautiful smile,” I say.

       The ends of Steven’s mouth turn up even more. Now his father grins. “I haven’t seen him smile is such a long time. It is worth more than the cost of the bear, more than the time in the car and the price of gas.”

       “I hope your search is over. How long has he been hunting for the whale?” I ask.

       “Thirty years, just Steven and me, we’ve been looking for thirty years.”

       Steven’s smile is broad. He is thirty-six years old and no longer fixated on his shoes.

       “Thank you for listening,” the father says. “Thank you for allowing me to go on and on.”

       “That’s what I am here for. Have a nice night.”

       If  I could, I would have found them a large brown whale filled with beans. But all I found was a bear named Gus, and for once, it seemed to be enough.

Posted by: Betsy Devany | May 3, 2013

The Wishing Flower

SONY DSCGrowing up in the Devany family, I was beholden to my mother’s Look Beyond Yourself Birthday Tradition, which stemmed from her philosophy to always think about other people. On their one special day in the year, the birthday child had to buy (or make) gifts for their siblings. In my case, there were three. Grabbing anything off a shelf was not allowed, she wanted us to think about what each person would really enjoy. It was a lot of pressure, and some years we tried to outdo one another.

 

SONY DSCMy second birthday without my father was yesterday. Last year’s was tough. I had no desire to celebrate. I let the phone ring without answering. I spent hours alone by a reservoir, watching birds. My gifts sat on the table unopened. Not until I saw two great egrets, one landing high in a tree while the younger one fished, did I realize the problem. I’d been waiting for something. When the elder flew off, as if confident that the younger bird would be okay on its own, I knew.

 

I’d been waiting for my dad to call and wish me a happy birthday.

 

SONY DSCYesterday, I rose early to write. I wrote for four hours, my way of connecting with my father on the day I long for him the most. Then I thought about my mother’s birthday tradition. I looked beyond myself and discovered what makes a birthday joyous are simple, unexpected moments. When you find yourself cheering for others on your special day, and moments like these:

 

SONY DSCThe hummingbirds returned.

A momma bird laid her final egg in a nest atop our porch fan. My seven-year-old granddaughter made a sign, warning everyone to Not Turn on the Fan because babies are sleeping.

Ava and I wandered your yard, searching for hidden beauty. Both of us with cameras. She discovered tulips, which I don’t recall planting.

An overwhelming number of people wished me a happy birthday, which meant so much to me. Truly, I can’t thank you enough.

My eldest daughter scored a 97 in her nursing exam.

SONY DSCMy youngest daughter was invited to teach at the prestigious Gathering 2013 for Paul Mitchell as an educator.

We saved a bumblebee that was trapped in our window.

Ava’s excitement over spotting birds in our yard—cardinals, yellow finch, hawks.

Gorgeous sunrise at the start of the day.

To be captured by a child’s wonder. “Grandma! Look how blue that flower is!”

 

SONY DSCThe day ended with a wonderful Italian dinner out with my family. I returned home with my husband to find colored pencils strewn across our living room table, and a picture, Ava had made. Perhaps she knew what I’d wished for earlier that day when she picked up a dandelion. My greatest treasures are handmade by small hands with the purest of love.

 

“Grandma, do you know this is a wishing flower?” she had whispered, as if she held magic in her hands.

 

“It is?”

 

SONY DSC“Yes,” she said, holding it to my lips. “Make a birthday wish.”

 

Sometimes, wishes do come true.SONY DSC

Posted by: Betsy Devany | March 1, 2013

The Writing Barn’s Magic

wpid-IMG_20130211_131304.jpgSONY DSCMore months than I would have hoped for have passed since my last blog post. It’s not as if I haven’t been writing. I have. For hours on end. At this time in my life, the work I do on my novels bears more importance because ultimately, I want to leave something behind on this earth. Something beautiful. Whether it be through published works, photographs, or by inspiring the children I encounter on a daily basis, this is where my main focus remains. Still, I enjoy blogging, so I am jumping back in with hopes that I can resume a more regular routine. Thank you for bearing with me.

I recently returned from a three-day stay at The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. This inspiring place of sanctity is run by author Bethany Hegedus, who couldn’t be more kind, welcoming, or talented. The Writing Barn is just as welcoming with its endless shelves of books, calming figurines, and the artwork of E. B. Lewis, all of which greets you when you walk through the front door. Before you even unpack your bags, you know you won’t want to leave. You want to breathe everything in, read the array of fabulous novels, books on writing, all there for visitors to enjoy. You want to sit outside and watch hawks soar above the grounds, traipse past cactus plants in search of a bunny you spot on the drive in. And the baby deer romping through the thicket, you want to enjoy their presence.

You unpack your bag and get to work, because that is why you are here. To learn. To grow. To absorb the energy that exists in this beautiful place. To look deep into your current WIP and be truthful about what needs to change. Because in order to grow, one must change, even in the way we approach our writing.

SONY DSCI was fortunate to have a dear writer friend with me. Both Nanci Turner Steveson and I had important revisions to tackle. We read each other’s manuscripts ahead of time. We took vows to be honest, painfully honest about what didn’t work, while emphasizing the positive qualities. I struggle with preferring to know where I’ve fallen short in my writing, probably because I thrive on revision. It makes me feel alive and brings out the best in me. I ask my wonderful agent to hold nothing back in terms of questions or asking me to delve deeper. The more intense a revision, the more I grow as both a person and a writer.

SONY DSCMy stay at The Writing Barn did wonders for my soul. It could have been the colorful lanterns that swing in the trees, the sound of Nanci tapping on her laptop with her headphones on, or the moments of clarity that would happen after taking a photography break outside. There is a sense of peace here, and the best writing juju. While not quite tangible, you feel the wisdom left behind by previous writers, many of them published authors. In the porch beyond the kitchen, the wooden beams hold the signatures of published illustrators/writers. Every now and then I’d look above me, knowing that I, too, would sign a beam one day.

SONY DSCWe have to believe in our writing, even when we close ourselves around our work, protecting it. Do not be afraid to do this. Think of your work as precious, like a baby fawn not ready to be on its own. For the most part, all else is beyond your control. The only thing that matters is that you do the work. Day in and day out, to the best of my ability. My father always told me to protect the energy surrounding a story, to keep it safe, until it was strong enough to send out into the world.

So that’s what I’ve been doing since I returned from The Writing Barn. Revising, revising, revising. Writing, writing, writing. Aside from that, I am living life, always thankful for the people I hold closest to my heart, thankful for the wonderful books I read each night before falling asleep, and thankful that places like The Writing Barn exist.

My deepest gratitude to Bethany Hegedus, who believed in creating this barn of wonder and inspiration and much beauty. Thank you for sharing your joy of writing with others.

wpid-IMAG0169-1-1.jpgFor more on information on booking an individual writing retreat or attending one of their classes, go to: http://www.thewritingbarn.com.

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Posted by: Betsy Devany | August 30, 2012

Dear Dad . . .

It seems like forever since I’ve last posted on my blog. So much has happened over the past four months, and I apologize for not including you in my recent journeys. I have, in fact, been writing each and every day, for up to five hours at a time. In addition to working the long summer hours at the toy store, my brain was focused on ripping apart a beloved novel because I had a “bit of worry.” (I am forever grateful to the editor who used this phrase in their rejection letter, as their worry led to my worry.) I’ve spent May and June being brave, and doing something I’d never tried before. I bid a heartfelt adieu to a character in Savannah’s Mountain, and then found the courage to sit back and wait for Savannah to return to me. Whisper to me. And she did, and I listened, and I discovered that another character belonged within the pages of her story. As I tossed aside chunks of the manuscript, my father’s words echoed in my head. And this gave me strength and hope that I could face the challenge.

Set aside your personal feelings and do what serves the story best.

I hope, dear readers, to share more about this process and about other journeys, I’ve traveled since May. But for now, I have something important to do. I need to tell my father my good news: news he’s been expecting for almost twenty years.

 

 

Dear Dad,

It has been nearly a year since I last held your hand, stroked your head, and told you that it was okay to leave this earth. I know you wanted so much to hang on, and those words “I need to live long enough to see you published” stay within my heart. It is okay that you let go. You deserved to be in peace, without pain. And perhaps that is what needed to happen in order to allow each of us to grow. Since your death, I’ve worked even harder, and my writing has gone to places I’d never imagined. Maybe a bit of your immense talent was left behind on this earth, and now tiny pieces are growing within the hearts and souls of your family.

Lately, your presence is strong, and it brings me much comfort. Perhaps a bit of your spirit was in the dragonfly that insisted on sitting on our jade plant, twisting and turning his head, giving me a quizzical look. It stayed with me for nearly an hour, as if to watch and make sure I was writing on the porch and doing my work as I promised you I would. You may have been the butterfly that posed for over twenty minutes among our flowers or the red-tailed hawk soaring in the sky above me when I learned some good news.

These are moments when I look up at that great blue sky or wonder at the beauty of a sunset or lose my breath over a glorious full moon or take great joy at seeing your great-granddaughter in awe of a beluga whale. This is when I become the little girl sitting next to you in our backyard long ago, watching your fingers fly across a yellow legal pad as you tried to keep up with the setting sun. I remember swinging my growing legs, not knowing how the deep desire to write was finding its way from where you sat in a sagging lawn chair into my heart. This is when the creative seed was planted, only to grow and grow over the years, until I could no longer ignore the passion.

Now, it is still dark outside, and I have been awake since 4 a.m., because before I can go on to the stage of becoming a published author, I need to hear your voice and tell you what you’d been waiting for all these years. You saw something in me that I didn’t yet understand. At times, I still don’t. So I settle on my porch in a lawn chair and listen to one of the recordings of that wonderful, musical voice of yours. Hearing you speak gives me much comfort, and I thank you for letting me record you over the last year of your life.

Are you listening, Dad? I got the call, and I now have a brilliant and loving agent (Emily van Beek with Folio Literary), who speaks of my writing with a tone so familiar, I poured over all your emails, I can never delete. And there it was. My Emily’s words reflect yours. So perhaps you had a hand in this. Perhaps you sent her to me so I can be pushed, and will then ultimately give my best work to the world. Know that I am listening, and that I will continue to listen to you, Dad.

Know that I’ve kept my promise.

Lastly, I want you to assure that we are all good here on this earth: your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. And Mom, we are watching out for Mom.

Not a day goes by when I don’t miss you, when I don’t give thanks for having had you in my life. I am so, so lucky.

I love you oodles and boodles and Skittles galore.

Your daughter, Betsy

P.S.- Dad, I’m doing great. I hope you are too.

Posted by: Betsy Devany | April 23, 2012

New England SCBWI Conference 2012

This year’s NE-SCBWI Conference (my sixth) was different for me. As the On-the-Spot Critique Coordinator, I was one of numerous volunteers responsible for making a successful conference. In my position, I felt deeply obligated to the attendees, wanting to facilitate proper connections to editors/agents, and I’d promised these same professionals that I’d do my best to secure them additional critiques. In truth, I was scared. Since becoming the On-the-Spot Critique Coordinator less than a month ago, I have secretly fretted, while my daily early-morning writing time turned into early-morning e-mail communication, chart-making, and teaching myself how to make a spreadsheet. (I am also a committee co-chair for the upcoming New Jersey SCBWI Conference.) My manuscripts lay untouched; my muse went on strike.

Preparing for the conference reminded me of my earlier years in the business of writing for children, when I was unsure and questioned my abilities. Self-doubt hinders your growth as an artist. So I stopped thinking about What Might Not Happen (that the on-the-spot critiques would be a failure) and I began to believe that I could, indeed, pull this off. But to do this, I had to call on my Inspired Frame-of-Mind, which is strong, determined, and follows the muse with much delight, like a kitten chasing an unraveling ball of red yarn. I write what my characters tell me, and on some level, believe they are the ones shaping their stories, not me. I continue to struggle with writing for my blog, for that voice comes from a different place, where self-criticism has rented a tiny room and ignores my weekly eviction notice.

So in my Inspired Frame-of-Mind, I faced the task of being a successful conference coordinator: I worked diligently and focused on being positive, while doing everything possible to sell these critiques. The bar to succeed is set high due to the tireless efforts of our region’s longtime coordinators, who have given so much of their time over the years: Marilyn Salerno, Joyce Shor Johnson, Kathryn Hulick, Melissa Hed. Valarie Giogas. Laura Pauling. Melissa Stewart. Casey Girard. Betty Brown. Sally Riley. Jean Woodbury. Linda Brennan. Jennifer Carson. Joannie Duris. Anna Boll. Jennifer O’Keefe. Greg Fishbone. Francine Puckly. Margo Lemieux. And Shirley Pearson, who I hope can one day step out from behind the registration table to pursue her own dreams. I apologize in advance for not listing every name, though my gratitude is intended for all. Thank you! The NE-SCBWI Conference reflects your efforts, selfless dedication, and enthusiasm for our wonderful community. A community filled with hope and possibilities, which only grows stronger in the ever-changing climate of children’s book publishing.

After getting a good night’s sleep, I study my photos from the conference. And though I wish I’d taken more, the ones I share reflect a glimpse of conference magic. Joy. Love of writing and/or illustrating, love for our SCBWI community, and a universal craving for and adoration of books.

I will blog about some amazing workshops once I attend to my own writing. Nearly a month has gone by since my mornings focused on my work. Over the past few weeks, it felt as if a part of me was slipping away. Sadness seemed to circle above me like vultures eyeing a carcass in the middle of a busy street until I arrived in Springfield, where among other writers, I understood what was missing. I need to write.  Period.

The street is void, the vultures have flown away, and I now run free, filled with rejuvenation. I hope you are too. So much of this renewal of hope came from you, my colleagues. And I thank you. Perhaps, you can point to those moments that spoke to you, and I’d love to hear what those were. For me, the magical moments from this past weekend came as a surprise, and many times brought me to tears. 

1. How patient the attendees were while waiting in line for an on-the-spot critique. Please know how much I appreciated this, as well as your kindness.

 2. Speaking with first-time attendees. Thank you for being brave and attending your first conference. We need you. In truth, we all need each other.

3. Hearing Jane Yolen refer to us as her colleagues on Sunday. Still chokes me up.

4. Applauding the writers/illustrators who have 2012 books to celebrate. I love hearing a room full of people celebrate the successes of others. This is what we do best. This is what makes our community so special.

5. Having friends recognized for their work: Kip Rechea won the 2012 Ruth Landers Glass Scholarship. Marcela Staudenmaier won the 2012 Ann Barrows Scholarship. I am incredibly proud of these two hard-working, deserving women.

6. Harry Bliss’ keynote address, accompanied by his illustrations. Harry made me laugh and cry. What a privilege and honor to be in that room.

 7. Seeing how hard the conference staff and volunteers worked, noting their dedication not only to their job, but also to their constant desire to make attendees feel welcome.

8. Observing people from afar: laughing, smiling, sharing news, congratulating. Hoping and dreaming.

9. Hearing Sara Zarr’s keynote address, during which I was reminded why I love the Frog and Toad series, and more importantly, why I love Sara Zarr.

10. Celebrating the Poster Contest winners. So much talent!!

11. Being present when Brian Lies received his 2012 Crystal Kite Award. Congratulations!

12. Being a part of the first Novel Academy, brilliantly run by Sarah Aronson, Carolyn Coman, and Nancy Werlin.

12. Lastly, Kate Messner and her TED talk on world-building and imagination. I can’t help but get choked up when I think about this. (I thank Kathryn Hulick for asking Kate to share her speech.) Kate is very special, not only as a gifted writer, but as an avid contributor to our world’s future. She believes in children, that they can make a difference if we tap into their young minds and eager spirits.

“What if . . .” Kate asked.

What if . . .? I thought.

My initial response was: What if we didn’t have Kate Messner or her books in this world? Her spirit? Her dedication to children, and her belief that they can alter our future for the better? I cannot imagine such a loss. Driving home, other What If questions came to me, related to the conference: What if we didn’t have the talent and support of Jane Yolen? What if books didn’t exist? What if stories weren’t allowed to be told? What if we didn’t embrace failure? Would we lose our chance to grow? What if we didn’t try hard enough? What if we weren’t active listeners? What if we were unable to open our hearts so to receive constructive feedback? What if we didn’t have Harold Underdown’s wisdom, generous spirit, knowledge, and support? What if we gave up on ourselves too soon?

What if . . . SCBWI didn’t exist?

We don’t have to imagine the unthinkable because we are truly lucky. We have Kate Messner, Harold Underdown, Jane Yolen, Harry Bliss, Sara Zarr, SCBWI, and all the many, many talented and generous artists in our community. I wish I could name everyone, but know how much I appreciate you, including the editors/agents/publishers. And most importantly, our young readers. I am so grateful to be in the business of writing for children, and for being a proud member of SCBWI.

In ending this post, I hope that each of you will guard and cherish whatever inspired you over the weekend, no matter the source: A workshop experience. A book you had autographed. Conversation with a new or old friend. A phrase that tugged at your heart. An image. A helpful encounter with a professional. A photo. An unforgettable illustration. Someone’s story. A challenge, for which you rose to the occasion. A smile from a stranger. Perhaps, even a memorable slice of cake! Whatever danced in your head as you traveled back home, embrace it. Be thankful. Believe in the impossible. I do.

May you find great joy as you write and revise, draw and dream in the weeks and months ahead. Hold on to the magic of the conference. It only leaves us if we let it go.

Betsy

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