November 30, 2011

Learning a Thing or Two About Our Education System . . .

Our children taught me what was wrong with the education system.

Through grade five, they were sponges, curious and excited to learn about everything that came their way.  After school, we hit the playground or flopped our legs over the couch and read library books and comic books or . . . cooked or built or whatever struck our fancies.

As the years went by, our boys became less engaged in the traditional teaching model.  By this point, they knew what they loved to do -- theater, sports, cooking, music, etc. -- and were getting precious little of it during school hours.  Homework was done shoddily or ignored.  They just couldn't see the point.

And I couldn't promise them that if they did well in school and got into a good college, they'd get a great job and be set for life.  They could see that wasn't necessarily true anymore.  They sensed they needed something more -- a different approach to education to prepare for our changing world.

Everything in it was changing, and so fast.   Except our model for public education.

Then I discovered a video by Sir Ken Robinson, PhD -- an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. 

While watching, I wanted to shout, "Yes!  That's exactly how I feel.  Indeed, standardized testing for dollars is one of the worst things to happen to education!  Of course, collaboration produces amazing results."

If you have a minute (or eleven), watch Sir Ken Robinson share his ideas in this entertaining video:

And if you appreciate what Sir Ken Robinson has to say as much as I do, check out his Ted talk here (about 20 minutes) . . . 

My favorite of his points is that we need to help children discover what they love, what they're passionate about and let them grow from there.  It was true for me, as I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was ten.  Everything else fed into that.  Finding one's passion and a love for literacy are the two things  I try to impart to children during every school visit.

What do you think? 

November 22, 2011

8 Best Things About Miami Book Fair International

1.  That I finally got there after living in South Florida for 15 years and wanting to go.  (It's only 1-1/2 hours away.)

2.  Got to spend the entire day with Hubby because, by some miracle, neither of us were traveling for work, attending a meeting or driving our kids somewhere. 

3.  The weather.  Gorgeous Saturday, even though it poured buckets the previous day.

4.  Arrived just in time to see our good friends, Riley and Kenny, of Page Turner Adventures, perform "The Great Pizza Contest," based on Riley's book.  After they finished performing and emceeing the children's stage for the day, we joined them for a delicious Cuban dinner on Biscayne Bay

5.  Finally heard the guys who make being a book nerd cool -- The Rock Bottom Remainders.  Dave Barry rocked out, his brother Sam Barry played a mean harmonica, Ridley Pearson sang with soul and the whole band got a huge audience dancing to "Mustang Sally." 

6.  We even got to hear a Chinese orchestra play Jingle Bells.

7.  Dave Barry introduced the one author/comedian we saw -- Andy Borowitz.  Hubby loves his Borowitz Report and his very funny tweets, so we bought his new book and listened to his presentation.  Funniest dude around!  Laughed the entire time.

8.  But for me, the best part of the Miami Book Fair was meeting this guy . . .

Papa Bear

When our kids were little, they LOVED the Berenstain Bear books so much so that we all acted out the parts.  Hubby got to be Papa Bear.  I, of course, was Mama Bear.  Oldest son played Brother Bear.  And our younger son got stuck playing Sister Bear.  

November 17, 2011

I Went to Manatee Academy and All I Got Was This LOVELY T-Shirt

Did I ever tell you about Debbie Remington?

Here I am with Debbie at the St. Lucie County Family Reading Festival last year.

She's one of those people who will do anything (ahem, ANYTHING) to get kids reading.  As the media specialist at Manatee Academy and President of the St. Lucie County Reading Council, she dreamed up a wild idea. 

Last week, every single student at Manatee Academy read books.  All day!  Short books.  Easy book.  Any books.  All day long.  Reading.  Reading.  Reading.  At the end of that day, the students had read more than 70,000 books.

Since they broke the record set last year, Debbie Remington kept her promise.  She kissed an animal live on the school's TV station.  This year, she kissed a python.  "Not on the head," she said.  And before that?  A hedgehog!  "That one hurt," she admitted.

When Debbie Remington asked me to visit her school, I said, "YES!"  Anyone who would kiss a hedgehog to get kids reading was okay in my book.  Debbie was also responsible for HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL being St. Lucie County's One County/One Book read for this year.

Boy, did they make me feel welcome . . .

And even more welcome . . .

I had the pleasure of speaking to the entire 7th grade (well, those who read the e-mail and got there on time).  And then the entire 6th grade.  The 5th graders, the last group, were crazy enthusiastic.  Bunches of them came up to tell me what page or chapter they were on in my book.

Half of the 5th grade students at Manatee Academy

When I was done, I got to give away some books, which always makes me happy.  Here's one of the winners . . .

Ryan, who told me he loves to read.

And then I was presented with this awesome T-shirt, which I will wear when I keynote at the St. Lucie County Family Reading Festival April 21st.

Another Florida author, David Mark Lopez, spent the day enthralling 4th grade students with his fantastic story-telling ability.

David Mark Lopez running from a bear . . . in his story.

What's the best part about doing a school visit?  The kids, of course.  They're so much fun!

Crystal, my escort, rockin' a pair of red sunglasses! 

Thank you Debbie Remington and the fine folks at Manatee Academy for a fun, funny, memorable author visit!

November 9, 2011

Doing What You Were Meant to Do . . .

It was only 8:45 pm, but I was tired.  Our high schooler, exhausted, was sleeping already.

In pajamas, I was watching the documentary The One Percent, about the growing wealth gap in America.  I let our two dogs out in the fenced back yard for the last time of the evening. 

I couldn't wait to get to bed.

About five minutes later, I called the dogs in.  "Puppies!"  Expecting to hear the jangle of their tags and the thump of the doggy door flying open, I heard nothing.


They had dug below the chicken wire and under our fence through a space that looked so small it could barely accommodate a gerbil.

Actually, it was this guy.  He's our digger.  Our chewer.  Our sweet boy, Benji.  Teddy follows along.

When the dogs got out in the past, they never strayed far.  We'd usually find them meandering around the playground a block away. 

This time they were not at the playground.  I grabbed our college-aged son and drove there.  I drove up and down the streets of our neighborhood.  No doggies.  Our son went home to stay by the phone.  I kept driving.  Our wonderful neighbors came out to help me look.  (Hubby was out of town on business.)

No doggies. 

Forty-five minutes had passed.  It was dark.  I worried about a car hitting one or both of them.  They stayed together when they wandered. 

That's when my cell phone rang.  "Someone has them," my son said.  "She's in front of the middle school."

In front of the middle school?  That was over a mile and a half away.

I drove there to find Benji (aka Butthead) sitting in a woman's car.  She gave him to me on a leash.  "I work for an animal hospital," she said.  "When I see a dog walking by himself, I always look for the owner.  Your other dog wouldn't stay, though.  He went up that street."  She pointed up a dark street.

Teddy.  He's our skittish one. 

After thanking the woman and getting Benji in the car, I drove down that dark street.  And another, calling, "Cookies!" out the window.  That one word always got the dogs running to me to discover which small treat I had for them.  No luck tonight. 

But I did see another car criss-crossing the same area.  It was that woman!  She stopped beside my car.  "Give me your cell number.  If I find him, I know he won't come to me, but I'll call you."

How do you thank someone like that?

"I'd do this for anyone," she said. 

We drove in opposite directions.  My cell rang.  "He's near my car.  When you called 'Cookies,' he went charging down the street."

I drove back and saw Teddy on the sidewalk to the right of the woman's car.  I jumped out, flung open the back door and called, "Teddy!"  He ran fast toward me, stopped short, looked up at me, then hopped into the car.


I thanked the woman, then texted her again when we got home.  This is what she wrote back:  "I'm just glad to know they're home safe."

And she was . . . because that is what she does.  Cares deeply about animals. 

I have this theory:  When we do exactly what we were meant to do, what we are passionate about, what we care deeply about, we make a substantive difference.

This woman made a difference.  I believe our dogs would not have been home safely by 10 pm if she hadn't done what she cared deeply about. 

The leash around Benji's neck was from the animal hospital where she works.  I'm going to call later today to let her employers know about how her dedication extends beyond the boundaries of her work environment. 

Earlier that day, a local school librarian sent me an e-mail:  "One of our 7th grade intensive reading students started How To Survive . . . and came back to tell me and her reading teacher that over the weekend her mother had to tell her to put the book down! That has never happened to her before! Her teacher got tears in her eyes! Your book may make her a lifelong reader!!"

When we do what we care deeply about, what we were meant to do, we make meaningful differences.

Thank you, Crystal!  Because of you, our dogs are home safe.

November 8, 2011

'Cause You Can't Work All the Time . . .

Kayaking with my niece, Nicole, who was visiting from Philadelphia.

Docking on Munyon Island (MacArthur Beach State Park) for a picnic of peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. 

While hiking through Munyon Island, we learned there was a 5-story, 21-room, 8-bath hotel built on the end of the island in 1903.  It burnt to the ground in 1917. 

Nicole and I decided it would make a great setting for a horror story, where ghosts from the hotel still inhabit the tiny island.  And visitors, like us, are sometimes lured to the hotel . . . and never leave.

Hmm.  I guess when you're a writer, even when you're not working . . . your imagination is always on call.

November 6, 2011

Book Twins . . .

Here are two books with VERY similar covers, but one is for a best-selling adult book and the other is for an award-winning children's book:

Do you know of any other similar book covers?  What are your thoughts about this?

November 3, 2011

School Visit in PA, Surprise Snowfall and Something SCARY

You know your school visit is going to be fun when the principal introduces himself . . . and he's dressed as a scarecrow!

I had the pleasure of visiting with some of the students at Newtown Middle School in PA.

Big thanks to media specialist, Jana Bovino, for pulling this visit together on short notice.

And the talented Selin, who created this welcome poster:

Selin is on the right . . . Beth is on the left.  (I'll tell you about Beth in a sec.)

Beth is the reason I was visiting Newtown Middle School.  I've been friends with her mom, June, since high school.  Beth has been a BIG supporter of my books.  When she e-mailed to ask if I could visit her school, I replied, "I just booked a flight to the area. I'd love to visit your school!" 

And it turned out to be a delightful visit!

Here's Beth at home with her new guinea pig . . .

And Beth's sister, Melissa, with her new rabbit . . .

After the school visit, it was off to Penn State -- Happy Valley to visit another high school friend, Monica, and her lovely family.

Here's Monica whipping up something delicious for breakfast . . .

I woke Saturday to something I hadn't seen in THREE YEARS!

This Florida girl really enjoyed it.  I drew pictures in the snow and threw snowballs and caught flakes on my tongue, but mostly I enjoyed it from inside . . . where the fireplace (and dog, Cocoa) was.  

Then I found out something scary.  There was a BEAR on the deck during the night.  A BEAR!  Fortunately, I slept right through it.  So no photos of the bear or what it did to the bird feeder, while trying to get at the seeds inside. 

As if that wasn't scary enough, I flew home on Halloween with my niece, Nicole. 

THIS is what we saw at the counter at Southwest. 

Reason #5938 why I LUV Southwest!

November 1, 2011

An October to Dismember, er, Remember


I've LOVED Scholastic's Storyworks Magazine since our boys were in elementary school and I'd steal, um, borrow their copies.  Great stories, poetry, non-fiction, word games, etc.

When I discovered that the author of a delightful novel, Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, was also the editor of Storyworks Magazine, I had to write to the amazing Lauren Tarshis.

Next thing I knew, Lauren had enjoyed my first book and I found myself writing a short story for Storyworks Magazine.  It appeared in their October issue.  I love the layout and artwork.  And I'm so proud to have my work in this publication.  Thank you, Lauren! 

Later, I found out How to Survive Middle School was the 2nd bestseller in middle grade books for Scholastic Book Clubs.  It ranked higher than James Patterson's middle school book. Check it out!


Halloween gives me a chance to combine two favorite things -- food and spooky stuff.  Here are a few ghoulish goodies:

Breadstick Bones

Carrot Claws

Mummy Pizza

Decorations in the hood:

Skeleton, Florida Style

The Raven . . . and the Lizard
De-Lightful Skeleton

Killer Kitty

Now, for the scariest thing of all:

Teddy surveys the damage caused by . . .