Friday, November 17, 2017

Poetry Friday: Wintry Night

It's been a while since I've posted here, and even longer since I've participated in Poetry today is a doubly good day! Thanks to Raincity Librarian for hosting the roundup and to all you poetry lovers out there for participating.  

Officially, winter is still pretty far away. But the shorter days and more frequent cloud coverage are certainly making it feel like winter. The newfound darkness has also affected my spirits, as I have to admit I was in a bit of a fog last week. Luckily I started adjusting toward the end of the week, and inspiration slowly crept back in. Ahhh...what a comforting feeling.

On Sunday afternoon, I turned on our gas fireplace for a true wintry experience--with my computer in my lap of course. While I was fireside with our dog, reminiscing warmly about the fires and fireplaces of my childhood, the following poem came to be. It's less playful than the poems I usually write for the littlest of tots, and is perhaps for a slightly older audience, so I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. This seemed like a good place to put it.

Even though the poem relays a moment of stillness, I'm still posting it here on my blog, which emphasizes movement and dance. Moments of stillness can be integral to telling the story of a dance or relaying the emotion of a piece of choreography. This is also a reminder that amid the chaos of the upcoming holiday season, don't forget to enjoy your own little moments of stillness!

Found this after I wrote the poem. So perfect!
Art by Tom Woods for Puzzle Warehouse

Wintry Night

Crackle crackle
Orange light
Burning embers
Wintry night

Nuzzle nuzzle
Furry friends
Snuggle closer
Stirring ends

Drifting drifting
Wondrous dreams
Just as purrr-fect
As it seems...

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Imagination Abounds in The Green Umbrella

I'm honored and excited today to be the last stop on the blog tour for the new picture book The Green Umbrella, written by debut author Jackie Azúa Kramer and illustrated by the talented Maral Sassouni. As a special treat, after you read this post, head over to Maria's Movers to read dance educator Maria Hanley's ideas for incorporating movement into a reading of this imaginative and heartwarming book!

We've lived in northern California for about three and a half years, and it's rained more in the past two months than it has in all the other months we've lived here combined. That's a lot of much-needed rain for California...and why I especially appreciate the timing of The Green Umbrella's publication by NorthSouth Books. Given that this is the rainy (or snowy) season in many parts of the country and even some parts of the world, I'm sure I'm not the only one who can relate to the opening scene of the book...

One rainy day an Elephant was taking a walk with his green umbrella.

Hopefully the children who read this book (or who have it read to them) will also relate to how imaginative the characters in the book are. Besides the elephant, there's a hedgehog, a cat, a bear, and an old rabbit -- and each has a different idea of what the green umbrella actually is.

Along came a Hedgehog.
"Excuse me," said the Hedgehog. "I believe you have my boat."
"Your what?" asked the Elephant.

The hedgehog thinks the umbrella's a boat, the cat says it's a tent, the bear is sure it's his flying machine, and the old rabbit is convinced it's a cane. It's not clear if the animals actually believe the umbrella is the objects they mention, or whether they are just being imaginative. But honestly, it doesn't really matter, and therein lies the beauty of this book. Children, after all, play with their stuffed animals as if they are alive, and some even have imaginary friends. Who are we to tell them what is real and what is not, when their minds are so active and their inner worlds so rich.

Through the imagination of illustrator Maral Sassouni, several little mice also appear and re-appear throughout the book, carrying warm-colored umbrellas of their own to contrast nicely with the cool green of the elephant's umbrella. Young children are so good at picking up all the artistic details in picture books, so I'm sure they'll enjoy searching for, and maybe even counting, all the mice they see.

In addition to being imaginative in its writing and illustration, The Green Umbrella is likely to spark the imaginations of its readers. You could help this process along by asking a young reader "What else could we use a green umbrella for?" Or you could brainstorm other everyday objects such as, let's say, a cooking pot. You could ask the reader to think about what else a cooking pot could be. A baseball cap? A drum? A bed for a small animal? The possibilities are endless!

This book could also be a great springboard for creating movement. I can imagine preschoolers or a class of young dancers moving as if they are boats, tents, or flying machines. I'm sure Maria Hanley from Maria's Movers has some other great ideas for movement, which you can check out here.

And even though this post focuses on imagination, The Green Umbrella also includes strong themes of friendship and generosity -- all of which you can see in this fantastic book trailer. Watch the trailer, pick up a copy of the book, and let your imagination soar along with it!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Deer Dancer Offers Inspiration

Wednesday morning was difficult for many, including me and the other three writers staying at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods this week. Just after 9 am that day, to help clear our minds, we embarked on a one-hour hike through the trail just behind the center...

As we wound through the old, towering trees, climbing up and down the small inclines along the trail, we tried to steer our conversation away from politics. We also stopped to enjoy the scenery when it inspired us, especially taking notice of scattered rays of light streaming through the trees. It was exactly what we needed that morning, and exactly why I think we all came to the writing center -- to disconnect from our everyday lives, reconnect with our inner selves, and re-ignite our creativity and dare I say faith -- faith not only in the creative process but, as it turns out, in humanity as well.

The trees along the trail and the accompanying inspiration reminded me of the picture book Deer Dancer by Mary Lyn Ray and Lauren Stringer, which I brought with me to the writing center in hopes that I would find a good place and time to blog about it. There couldn't be a better place and time than here and now.

There's a place I go that's
green and grass, 
a place I thought that no one knew --

As you can see from the very poetic, opening lines of the book, the main character has a special place she likes to go for solitude -- a place not unlike the trail we hiked on Wednesday. And, as we found inspiration in the light shining through the trees on the trail, the little girl finds inspiration from a chance encounter with a deer...

I stayed still 
as he came nearer, nearer
until he was so close
I could almost have touched him.

He looked at me. I looked at him. 

As the book continues, we follow the girl to her ballet class and then back out to the special place where she first saw the deer. The deer returns, and the girl watches the way it lowers its antlers, grazes, and leaps and turns around her. Remembering how her dance teacher had told her to "hold your head as if you're wearing antlers," "listen with your cheekbones," and "look with the eyes in your shoulders," the girl responds to the deer's movements over and over. When the deer finally leaves, the girl realizes she had gotten lost in the inspiration the deer provided and found her own dance. The creative process had prevailed!

I hope that this week and in the coming weeks and months we can all find inspiration, and that we can re-ignite our faith -- faith not only in the creative process but, as it turns out, in humanity as well. 

Thanks to publisher Beach Lane Books for sending a review copy of Deer Dancer to me oh so long ago. Read one of my favorite other reviews of the book at What to Read to Your Kids.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Time to Get Back into the Rhythm!

I just arrived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for a weeklong writing retreat at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. The grounds are gorgeous...and so peaceful...and I am just settling into my room and thinking of some goals for the week. One of my goals, of course, is to get some blog posts out!

The hustle and bustle of life really does take a toll on you (or at least it does on me), so I am so looking forward to the solitude I'm going to have this week. I've already cleared my regular work calendar and am going to spend the ENTIRE week focused on children's writing. I am excited to get back into the rhythm of writing and creating! And speaking of rhythm....

I Got the Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison and illustrator Frank Morrison has been on my "to blog about" list for far too long. Finally I am here to tell you about it! And a much belated thank you to the publisher, Bloomsbury, for sending me a review copy.

The very simple text and exuberant illustrations in this book show readers that rhythm is everywhere -- if you just keep your eyes open. Musicians have rhythm in the way they play their instruments. Butterflies have rhythm in the way they flap their wings. Even street vendors have rhythm in the way they pass out food. And, as the main character in I Got the Rhythm finds out, once you find the rhythm, there are many ways to keep it going! 

I looked at the rhythm with my eyes. BLINK BLINK
I smelled the rhythm with my nose. SNIFF SNIFF 
I sang the rhythm with my mouth. OOH LA LA

The main character also uses her hands, fingers, hips, knees, and feet to keep the rhythm going as she takes a walk through the city with her mom. By the end of the book, her whole body is involved, and she is dancing up a storm!

If I find the rhythm again this week at my retreat, I hope I can keep it going, too. Let me know if you have any good ideas for "getting back into the rhythm" or keeping it going once you find it -- whether it's to do with writing, dancing, or another activity you love!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

An Interview with Author Judy Cook

Last time I blogged it was related to dancing dinosaurs. And guess what? My post today is about dancing dinosaurs, too! Canadian author and dancer Judy Cook is here with me to answer some questions about her debut picture book When Dinosaurs Go Dancing, recently published by FriesenPress and a great blend of rhythm, rhyme, dance, and science!

Thanks for joining us, Judy! I'd love to hear more about your background in dance. When did your passion for dance begin and where has it taken you professionally?

I started dancing when I was a child at Sonia’s Dancing Academy in Saskatoon. I seemed to have a special talent for tap dancing, and after receiving a trophy for “the most outstanding tap performer” at a dance festival, I was hooked. A little praise goes a long way!

I kept taking jazz, tap, and ballet classes and even helped my teacher Sonia Fabian in teaching little kids. When I finished high school, I decided to continue my studies at the dance college at Ryerson University in Toronto. I had found my path in life! 

I was so happy in Toronto because I had found a group of people who loved dance as much as I did. I was dancing from morning until night. I would even come to the campus on the weekends for extra ballet classes. After graduating, I auditioned for stage shows and began dancing professionally on TV and in shows around the Toronto area.

I was in a show at the Skyline Hotel for a year and then decided to go to Winnipeg when I was accepted for an apprentice position with Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers. I danced with them as an apprentice for a year and then started a theatre company “Canadian Content Theatre” with some theatrical friends of mine. We travelled and performed all around Canada with that company for over 15 years. 

That’s when we created our show “Listen to the Bones.” It was a musical theatre show all about dinosaurs and was initially in collaboration with a touring Dinosaur Alive exhibit that was at the Manitoba Children’s Museum for a summer.  

What an interesting path that led you to dancing, theatre...and eventually dinosaurs! How did you come up with the idea for When Dinosaurs Go Dancing?

The book title is from a song in our “Listen to the Bones” musical. There is a dance I still do with the kindergarten-grade 2 students.  I have been doing this dance for years in the schools, and the students have always loved it. I kept thinking that somebody should write a book based on this song, but when I realized that I was probably the only person who would ever do it.....I started jotting down ideas for the book.   

It’s always fun to learn more about debut authors and their paths to publication. What was yours like? Did it happen quickly or was it a long road?

It was a long road for me…..12 years. I didn’t know how a person went about publishing a book. I was talking to an old school chum from Saskatoon about my idea. His kids had loved our dinosaur song “Listen to the Bones” when they were growing up. He took out a cheque book and made out a cheque to me for $5,000! He laughingly said that if I make a million I can pay him back some day. So that’s how I got the money to pay an illustrator, and that’s how I met Sonia Nadeau, who is now a dear friend of mine! I also went to a publishing workshop at Humber College in Toronto, so I went into the project with wide-open eyes, realizing that it was very difficult to sell a lot books, and even to make back your money, especially if you are trying to do it yourself.  

 Because you chose to self-publish your book through FriesenPress, you needed to find an illustrator on your own, as you have alluded to. How did you find Sonia Nadeau?

Yes….after I got the money I looked around for an illustrator from Winnipeg, and when I saw Sonia’s work I immediately knew she was perfect for the book project. 

For most traditionally published picture books, the authors and illustrators don’t interact much during the publication process. What was your relationship with Sonia Nadeau like as the book was coming together?

Because I was used to collaborating with other artists in all the previous creative work I had done and because I was so close to the dinosaur material for so-o-o many years, I just knew I needed a more hands-on approach with the illustrator. Sonia was also close to the material because she had a job in a day care and just by chance had been using our music with the kids in her classes for six years! I went to her day care….we recorded the kids dancing to the music, and she used the video for some of the inspiration for her drawings. I also knew I wanted the dinosaurs to be taken from scientific renditions, and Sonia has a friend who draws dinosaurs for encyclopedias, so every dinosaur in the book was drawn that way! We share a particular sense of humour, and we had lots of meetings and were on the same page from the start. She is a delight to work with and I hope we can do it again soon!

I read in your bio at the back of When Dinosaurs Go Dancing that you conduct workshops in schools through several different arts programs. Can you tell us more about those workshops?

I have created a theatrical dance program for schools in which the students and I choreograph together and all the classes perform for each other at the end of the week. I work with some students who have extensive dance backgrounds mixed with some others who have none. It’s my challenge to help create and guide the students to show off everybody’s talents. That’s where my theatre training comes in handy. If somebody in the class has a special talent, we just choreograph it into our piece. My objective is for everyone to have a positive experience with the art form of dance! I was also the dance specialist for a two-year research project creating a dance program focusing on children with fetal alcohol syndrome in the Norway House Cree Nation, and was part of a panel to share the research at a world arts festival (VSA) held in Washington, DC. I have had very positive experiences creating dance programs for children with disabilities.

How do you incorporate the book into your workshops for children?

I have just started to do readings in schools, and I have taken parts from the musical and adapted them to do fun scenes with the kids. The kids become newsboys in a scene that’s set to music and based on when people first began to discover dinosaur fossils.

There is also a hand dance "Back in Time” set to a music soundscape. I can use the same music with the kids for creative transformations….We theatrically change from being the wind… becoming a fish… flying like a pteranodon. It’s all great for workshop material. The kids can work together and make different dinosaurs out of their bodies while learning to be cooperative and work together as a group.

My partner Rubin Kantorovich and I recently co-wrote a new song called the "Bruce Rap." It’s all about the mosasaur I mention in my book. When I was doing a school workshop, I gave a verse to each group of four-to-six kids to work on, and they learned the words and choreographed cool moves to go along with it. Then they performed it for another class! They LOVED that activity!

The fossil skeleton of the mosasaur is on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden, Manitoba. FriesenPress's printing press is located in Altona -- a town close to the fossil museum. They printed 2,000 copies of the book for a big giveaway at the Altona Sunflower Festival this year. It was so fun to be able to give books away and not have to worry about making my money back. That was a fun event AND they gave me 250 free paperback copies that I can sell!   

Sonia and I also had a book launch at the fossil museum. I did the dance with the kids, Sonia gave an illustration workshop along with the reading, and we premiered the “Bruce Rap" song.

What great ways to promote the book! Through all of these activities, have you found any parts of the book that resonate the most with children and their caregivers?

I think the younger children enjoy the rhyme in the first part of the book and their older brothers and sisters like the dinosaur and fossil facts in the second part. They all love Sonia’s beautiful illustrations, and the dancers connect to all the dance-related parts. 

What other book projects might you have in the works? Any more dancing dinosaurs on the horizon? 

I would love to do another book with Sonia. I’d like to do a teacher’s guide, too. Right now I’m working on trying to find ways to distribute the book to school and public libraries. Some of my friends who are teachers have told me they have used the book in their classes and are having a lot of fun with it. 

Sonia and I just found out some more positive news. The Mom’s Choice Awards has named When Dinosaurs go Dancing among the best in family-friendly media, products, and services. I’m hoping that will help us promote the book.

Congratulations. That's fantastic news! And thanks for sharing more about your journey with us today!

Thanks so much for this opportunity. It’s fun to share with people the background of how it all came together. I have learned so much about the book business by doing this project, and maybe my story will help inspire someone else out there to keep their dreams alive and perhaps create their own book!

To learn more about Judy and When Dinosaurs Go Dancing, you can check out the book's launch page through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. You can also follow Judy on Twitter here.
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