Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Rudy’s New Human Review + Q&A with Education and Children’s Book Author Roxanna Elden

I first “met” Roxanna Elden when she emailed me asking if I could review her newest children’s book called “Rudy’s New Human.” Usually to these kinds of requests, I offer a generic response along the lines of “Thanks for considering me, but I don’t write reviews on my blog.”

I have in the past, maybe once or twice and only for friends. But mostly I don’t write reviews because I don’t like reading reviews and writing them often feels so disingenuous and sale-sy. But then with “Rudy’s New Human,” I made an exception because I liked the very cute doggie in the promo Roxanna sent me and also because after watching said promo, I worried my children would be disappointed in me if I said “no” to a cute (and funny) book about a dog’s tough time after a new baby. “But it’s a doggie, mommy! You said “no” to a doggie?” So I said “yes” and read the book to my girls and they read it to me and decided I actually like this book.

“Rudy’s New Human,” is told from the perspective a dog, but the story is, I think, universal. True to the normal drama that ensues with a new baby, it’s hard in the beginning for Rudy to adjust because everything’s changed. He feels displaced, left out, neglected. But by the end, the “new human” warms to Rudy, the parents find more time in their busy schedules and brains to remember their dog, and there’s a happy ending. This story of disappointment then acceptance and then love is often told in children’s books intended for growing families but it bears repeating, often, in differing variations (here, with a pet) because it’s true. But like most things in parenting, it only becomes true when it happens to you.

My kids and I enjoyed the story told in “Rudy’s New Human.” We also liked the book’s text and illustrations that were simple enough to be enjoyed by young and older children. As a parent, I liked that the family featured in the book appears multi-ethnic because I know this matters. So it’s a good book.

If you’re a parent with an older child and a baby on the way, consider “Rudy’s New Human.” It’s now for sale, here, on Amazon.

Along with giving me the book to read for this review, Roxanna was so very kind to answer some writer questions I had for her on the children’s book process, her foray from educational writing to children’s fiction, and more. My questions and her answers are below:

roxanna elden feature
1. You have an interesting background in education and as a writer. You’ve written a widely acclaimed book, “See Me After Class,” for educators, you offer writing workshops, and have, with “Rudy’s New Human,” entered the children’s book market. If you could say there’s a theme to your work, what would it be?
This is such a great question – it’s something no interviewer has asked, but something I think about a lot. Here’s my best answer: If there is a theme to my work it’s probably something like, “Don’t believe the hype. But believe this might be worth it, anyway.” I believe people are better off taking on life’s challenges with realistic expectations and allowing themselves to be pleasantly surprised. For teachers, there is this tremendous public narrative about beating the odds to make a difference. The day-to-day reality for new teachers can contrast with this in a way that makes the job even more overwhelming. On a similar note, I think adults sometimes oversell the fun of becoming a big sister or brother. Change can be hard for kids, and getting upstaged as the baby of the family is a big change. According to family legend, I was absolutely awful for the first ten years of my younger sister’s life. Now, though, she’s my best friend.

2. What inspired your writing of “Rudy’s New Human?”
The inspiration came from watching my dog, Rudy, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. Like a lot of dogs, Rudy was the “baby” of our family before we had kids. Ever since, he’s had to deal with all kinds of indignities – pulled ears, missed walks, and lots of interruptions to his couch naps. And, of course, he has had to learn to share the spotlight. A little after my first child was born, I was suffering pangs of “pet parent guilt,” and called my friend, Ginger.

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She already had two kids at the time, and noted the similarities between Rudy’s situation and what older siblings go through when a baby comes along. She also just happens to be one of the Chicago-land area’s top illustrators. By the end of that conversation we had a book in the works – and by the time the book came out, I had a second child and got to see firsthand that Ginger was right!

3. What was your process like on the road to publishing the book? What advice would you give new writers who are interested in writing children’s books?
As Ginger and I worked on the book, we kicked ideas back and forth in both text and visual form until we came up with a final product. My description or text might spark an idea for Ginger, or she might send a picture that gave me an idea for a line in the book. Then we worked with our editors at Sky Pony Press, Jenny Pierson and Julie Matysik, who had experience with children’s books and taught us that young children read books differently than adults do. Adults form a mental picture of the action as they read the words. Kids mostly look at the pictures while someone reads the words aloud to them, so the picture has to tell part of the story. Ginger and I learned this the hard way. There was a page in the book where we had put an exclamation point over Rudy’s head to show he was surprised. In the first round of comments, the editors pointed out that punctuation marks don’t mean anything to kids who can’t read yet.

4. What is the best writer’s advice/tip you’ve ever received?
Treat writing as a job. Do the task you’ve set for the day whether or not you feel inspired. Focus on the next step you have to take rather than the long, uncertain road ahead. This is combined advice from Stephen King’s book, On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, both of which I highly recommend for all writers.

5. What’s next on your writer horizons?
Rudy has a sequel in the works – he can’t talk about it yet, but he promises that it’s going to be a real “treat.”
Thanks, Roxanna, for your wonderful answers and job well done on your book! Readers, I hope you will check out “Rudy’s New Human.” It’s currently available on Amazon, here. Also, for more updates on Roxanna and to receive free online versions of her workshops, among other things, join her email list by signing up here.

Happy Friday!

Talking About Race in Ballet Class

Looking through the viewing window the first day of my daughters’ ballet class, I’m trying to remember everything I’ve ever told them about race. That time in bed when I explained where skin color comes from to my oldest, then 3, comes to mind first. “Can you say “Melanin?” I asked. “May-lay-ninnnn,” she said, elongating the last “n.” And there was that other time at the playground when a 5-year old tried (and failed) to create a tan-skinned-only friend club. “We are all the same on the inside,” I told her that night. There were, surely, other conversations. But for some reason, I can’t remember them.

There are 10 girls in the class. They’re dressed in oversized tutus with sequined trim, baggy pink tights, and pink ballet slippers. Watching my daughters, I take in these small details. But my thoughts are stuck on something else: Eight of the 10 girls, including the teacher, are white. My daughters (ages 3 and 5) are black.

I keep telling myself that this tiny thing shouldn’t be the thing that bothers me. But, as I analyze my daughters’ facial expressions, count the minutes, and stand among the other (white) moms in the viewing room, it’s the only thing that does.

I’m reminded of my own show-and-tell day back in kindergarten. I’m playing on an alphabet rug with the Holiday Barbie doll. In a poll of hands, she was voted “most beautiful” by every girl in class, so I was happy to be able to comb her hair. But I still felt something about the fact that her hair and skin (like every other dolls brought in that day by classmates) looked nothing like my own. I didn’t have a name for what I felt at 5. But decades later, watching my daughters, with the same heavy feeling in my chest, I wondered if it was sadness.

I wondered, recalling that memory from kindergarten and never saying anything to my parents about it, if sometimes when it comes to how young children experience race (or racism), looks and words (or a lack thereof) can be deceiving. I said I’d talk to them on the car ride home.

You can read the rest of this essay here, on Washington Post’s On Parenting.


p.s. When I’m not here, you can more often find me on Twitter and, sometimes, on Facebook and Google+.

How To Get Unstuck When Writing

It’s really a terrible feeling. Having a hypothetically great end goal for your writing in mind but having no idea how to get there. There’s a name for this. It’s called writer’s block. But I call it agony because until I can get to my “there,” I can’t really rest, or at least not very comfortably.

Writer’s block happens to all writers, but it’s not every writer that knows that there are ways around it. There are tricks of the trade, or things you can do when the words aren’t coming and you’ve got deadline, lofty goals, or just a desire to be done. Here are five of the things I do when I feel stuck when writing to get unstuck.

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Call a friend.

“Does it have to be a writer friend?” you ask. Not at all. Sometimes, as writers, getting “stuck” has to do with our inability to take ourselves out of our brains and think, and, thus, speak clearly, Normal language. No jargon. So when stuck, call a friend, a supportive and thinking friend or family member and talk about what you’re writing. Then allow the conversation about your topic to just happen. You’ll be amazed how easy and effective this small activity is to get going again with your writing.

Stop writing.

If you can, of course. I mean, assuming there are no academic or professional deadlines deathly looming over your head, take a break. Yes, of course, in order to get better at writing you should write everyday. But no one said what you have to write every single day. So if your novel is feeling stuck, stop. Do yoga. Go for a walk. Read good writing. Take a vacation. Make that phone call (see number 1). And then, and even if you don’t feel like it, come back. Sit down and start writing, again. Something good will happen. I promise.

Write nonsense.

I was a really good thinker in grad school but my writing wasn’t that great. I never knew why until I took a professional job as a technical writer and learned that overthinking long, arduous sentences that sound good, rather than make sense, doesn’t really fly…well, anywhere. My writing process would always take a lot of time because I would wed myself to ideas and the way a sentence sounded that I refused to change. I’ve learned since then that my old habits only invited writer’s block. You can’t be a perfect writer. But you can do your best. And if you haven’t gotten to your best, in the draft phase, keep writing crap. Write and don’t judge. Don’t edit (yet). Just write everything that’s in your head and ignore the voice that keeps telling you “this makes no sense!” “Of course,” you must tell that voice, “it doesn’t make sense! It’s not supposed to!” You are your only reader at this point, so, really, “who cares?” Who knows, maybe in saying everything, you’ll find that one thing that you were trying to find six pages ago. Maybe.

Change your goals.

Writing is a process of discovery, right? You don’t usually know where you’ll end up until you start going, right? Right! I believe in authenticity. And I believe when we can be the most authentic versions of ourselves, we can produce our best writings, fiction and non-fiction. So…your goals. If you don’t really know why you’re writing, it’s really hard to keep writing. Making lots of money is an often a goal inherent in many professional writer’s aspirations. But, from experience, that’s not really a goal. Money can’t get you unstuck. But your passion and an authentic desire to say something that you feel is worthwhile can. So when stuck, decide, again, why you’re writing and if necessary change (or fine tune) your goals and, possibly, your topic. It’s really okay.

Get help.

Writing is a solitary activity, but it’s okay to wave your white flag and ask for help with your sentences, with what your writing is triggering in you psychologically, with editing. It’s okay. You are still a writer. A darn good writer.

How do you go from stuck to unstuck when writing? Share your best tricks in the comments below.

Steak and Potatoes | Writing Does That For Me

in your heart

Every time that I write here these days, I feel like I am saying the same things. “I’m sorry.” “Will write more soon.” “It’s just that life is so hard, so demanding at times.”

But this is not always true.

“I’m back…for now…maybe.”

But this isn’t always true either.

This is what I hear in my head when I write here. But maybe I don’t say these things at all. It’s just that every time I come to write here, I feel these things. Every day, I feel these things about this blog and about writing here.

For five years, blogging has been like my other digital plant, the one I over-watered in the beginning, under-watered in the middle, and outright neglected and loved and neglected again in the end, or not the end but right now. Every day, this plant (since my blog is always metaphorical in my head) needs more watering. It needs to bear some fruit. The soil feels dry and the leaves are browning. But before they brown, I write something unplanned, usually like this. Or when I don’t write, I usually do something visual. I change a header. I change a font. I change something to make it easier to not feel guilty about what I am or am not doing with this plant that could grow but won’t grow because I don’t water or love on it nearly enough. But I still do water it some, love it some, still after all these years.

I once had a friend at my first professional job who took lunch breaks with me every day. We were just out of college and ambitious and overly confident in who we thought we were back then. So these lunches were always so serious, long (usually over two hours), and memorable. One lunch break, we were walking down 7th street in DC and talking about how people in our generation should learn to stick to things. “Yeah, exactly, if like they just committed to a job instead of looking for a new one every five seconds, they’d grow.” And “Yeah, exactly! Can you imagine what would happen if we changed…if people in our generation just paused and learned to enjoy and grow where they are right now?”

We both left that job five months later. Onward and upward.

The older I get, the more children I have, the more I try to make it a point, however, to do what I once said people like me should do more of.

I sit still. I focus on growing in one thing before moving on to my next thing. Motherhood is my thing that I’m sitting in right now. It’s a chair that demands so much that I’ve learned so much in sitting there, or here. I’ve learned to sit in all things, especially in my writings.

I used to be in such a rush to publish, publish, publish. Faster, faster, faster. Now, I take my time. I start an essay or article and unless I have a really good reason to leave, I stay there. I keep writing until I’m done.  Getting “done” is always hard for me because 9.8 times out of 10 , I have no idea what I think until I really start writing. Or usually I think I do know what I think. And then I’ll start writing and realize how much of what I think I think is usually not what I really think at all.

I think we all have these things in our head about why we do the things we do, why we think what we think.  We all tell ourselves different variations of our truths not because we mean to but because it’s far more easier to do so.

It’s far more easy to reflexively say when asked “I know who I am! I know what I believe!” It’s far more difficult not to do these things.

It’s far more difficult to come to terms with the idea that usually we don’t know why we do the things we do. Usually we don’t know what we believe until we really confront what we believe, learn to be critical of it, and then come to terms with what really remains after that. This kind of work is hard. This work comes with age. This work takes time.

But it’s worthwhile.

It’s worthwhile to be critical of yourself, to practice being a spectator of your thoughts and ideas and decide that rather than being “right” in your head, you just want to be close to “the truth,” or what really resonates in your heart.

Writing isn’t spiritual, or it isn’t intentionally that way for me. But sometimes I get there, or to my truths, through writing.

When writing, to get there, this is what I do: I write until I read what I’ve written and can breathe new air. That’s when I know I’m done.

And when I’m done, it’s like I’ve finished a meal of steak and potatoes. I don’t eat steak and potatoes. I mean, I have eaten a steak. And I have eaten potatoes. But never together in one meal have I eaten steak and potatoes. But when Americans talk about steak and potatoes they talk about getting full, feeling satisfied, wanting nothing more. I think. Right? Yes, for the sake of this post let’s assume that steak and potatoes does that for Americans. Well, when I write I get to the place when I’m really, really, really finished. But I don’t feel bloated in the way I imagine red meat and starch would do, so maybe that metaphor isn’t apt . When I really write what’s within, I feel most human, most myself.

Once I’m there, then I can use brain energy on new things.

I was stuck in an essay last week (or really for the past months). But I’m close to getting “there” with it.  I can smell the new air. And this is why I am writing this today.

So, until next time.


Love, Jessica ♥


What It Means To Be A Sister

My three daughters are in their closet desperately searching for my middle daughter’s favorite dress—the oversized pink satin one with glitter and sheer sleeves.

“We’re going to pretend ball,” squeals my oldest as she runs past me. Though none of them really understand time, they tell me it’s starting in an hour.“Oh, oh, oh. We have to find your perfect dress!”

They don’t have any luck in the closet, but they do in the dryer. Still in the laundry room, all three girls huddle in a circle to help get their sister dressed. “We must hurry!” says my oldest, helping her sister’s arms into the unforgiving sleeves. “The ball, the ball is starting soon!”

Once she’s in her dress, they stay in their huddle. Now in silence, they admire each other with slow nods and winks.

I welcome this kind of play because it doesn’t always happen. Just two hours ago, they were fighting over breakfast. Competing for the pink spoon with hearts on the handle, the princess cup that had only the illusion of more milk, the chair that wobbles, my attention.

With my daughters who are 5, 3, and 1, there’s a pecking order. Fights over territory usually happen between the daughters who are closest in age. I read once in a magazine that the reason for this is simple. Like in the wild, they’re competing for the same resources they think they need to survive.

“I don’t like my sister!” This is what my oldest screamed at me after breakfast. “She won’t let me read my book in the corner, and…she’s so yucky!” she said, staring in her 3-year old sister’s direction. Then, for what felt like an eternity, they bounced back and forth with “No, you’re yucky!” “No, you are!” “No, you!”

You can read the rest of the essay here on The Washington Post.


sister quote