The connection between today’s children and the nature world gets further eroded each year. The Lost Words is a big, beautiful book of poems and artwork created to celebrate the wonder and reinforce the importance of everyday nature in all our lives.
Here’s a summary from the publisher: “In 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary — widely used in schools around the world — was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that around forty common words concerning nature had been dropped. Apparently they were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary. The list of these “lost words” included acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voicemail.”
In response, nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris created a “spell book” meant to be read aloud. They sought “to summon these words again into the voices, stories, and dreams of children and adults alike.”
The brief video below shows off the gorgeous artwork of The Lost Words (though it doesn’t truly do it justice!). This a book with heft that is sure to become a family heirloom. I highly recommend buying this special book for all the children in your life.*
* If you decide to purchase from Bookshop.org, a portion of the sale will support indie bookstores and authors, including me.
Giving out books to trick-or-treaters has been a fun way to share my love of reading with children. I stumbled upon the idea years ago when Googling creative ways to donate books. California mom and author Rebecca Morgan founded “Books for Treats” in 2001 to “feeds kids’ minds, not their cavities.”
I don’t object to giving out Halloween candy. (Truth be told, it’s possible I’ve eaten as much of it as I’ve handed out over the years.) But I do champion literacy and the mental health benefits of reading books.
Only about 1 in 3 fourth-graders in the United States are proficient in reading, according to a report by Save the Children. If children can’t read at grade level by fourth grade, they’re unlikely to ever catch up. A key part of the problem is that many children don’t have access to books in their homes or family members who read to them.
To combat those facts, we give books at Halloween. My husband was skeptical at first. In his defense, I tend to go overboard when it comes to books. So, I conceded it might be possible that children would not be thrilled with getting books, and we stocked up on plenty of candy as a back-up.
As it turns out, books-for-treats was a huge success.
The kiddos love it, and they remember. Many run up the driveway saying, “This is the book house!” Often, they take their time going through the baskets to find just the right book, while parents laugh and say, “Just pick one!” Every now and then, a child simply can’t decide and will slip two books into their pumpkin bucket or pillowcase. I smile and look the other way.
Teenage trick-or-treaters are some of the biggest fans; they’re both grateful and suspicious. “I can just take this?” Every year, we buy more books than the year before. We always run out before the night ends.
Giving books for treats at Halloween is a fun way to improve child literacy. And the kiddos love it. #booksfortreats #authorsforliterarcy #readingcommunity
There are many ways to stock up on books without breaking the bank. Here are few ideas:
Thin out your own book collection of board books, early readers and young adult books that your children have outgrown and no longer want. One year, we gave out Manga graciously donated by my daughter who was moving overseas. The kids went bananas.
Used-book stores often have large selections of kids’ books in clearance for $1 each. One year, we bought comic books (50 cents apiece) at Bookmans, an indie bookstore in Arizona. When the bookseller learned we were going to give them away to trick-or-treaters, they gave us a 10 percent discount to boot. Library sales are another great source for inexpensive books.
In a related note on my obsession with books, check out this photo gallery highlighting a fun DIY project. I hate throwing away books, but sometimes they get outdated or worn out. Other times, the books are of such low quality, I am not comfortable donating them. My solution is to repurpose them in fun ways, like making books look old and spooky for Halloween décor. Scroll down for simple instructions.
Tear the covers off paperback books. Paint covers of hardbound books – I used red; when it was dry, I dabbed on burnt umber with a scrunched paper-towel to make it look aged.
Pour left-over coffee into a 9”x13” glass pan. Dip books one at time into the coffee. You can either submerge the entire book, or just the edges; it depends on how old and wrinkled you want them to become.
Fan out the pages and shape the books however you’d like.
Set them outside in the sun to dry, or arrange in front of a fan. Flip the books periodically to make sure all sides get air. It can take a few days to dry thoroughly, depending on how deeply you submerged them.
I also created fake book titles in spooky fonts, make-believe potions and creepy graphics to cut and paste into the books. I dipped the printouts into the coffee and set them on a cookie rack to dry (move quickly when dipping the paper, so it doesn’t get too soggy and fall apart).
Have fun decorating them with Halloween doodads, if you want. I used plastic spiders and ping-pong balls painted like eyeballs. Brush on Modge Podge or Elmer’s glue to help secure pages and décor.
I’ve launched an email newsletterand monthly giveawayto shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).
This crafty do-it-yourself project has been months in the making. I’d been aching to improve the dreadful view outside my home office window for a couple years. Inspiration for a garden library DIY project finally struck early in 2020.
I began stopping my car and hopping out to rescue stray bricks and busted pavers from curbs, gutters, sidewalks and embankments. These orphans would become my garden books. A busted, stained shipping-pallet and a weather-worn lattice would be reincarnated as trellis bookshelves. Splashes of old paint would be mixed from buckets left in the garage by the previous homeowner. A little money was invested in a fresh box of wood screws, a few drought-resistant plants and vines, and a couple other decorative touches.
I just had to wait out the summer heat to begin assembling the pieces. So, I waited. And I waited.
The mercury in Phoenix exceeded 100 degrees for nearly five months in 2020. Fifty-three of those days, the temperate was more than 110 (pulverizing the 33-day record set in 2011). This was just one more aberration among the many that made 2020 a painfully-weird year.
At the end of October, I stopped waiting for the crispness of fall weather. The mid-90s would have to be cool enough. I needed to get outside – hammering, sanding, drilling, painting, planting and sweating my COVID-lockdown, presidential-election stress away. It was just what I needed.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero #brickbooks #DIY #booknerd #writingcommunity
I hope you enjoy the before, during and after photos. This remains a work in progress, though I already love my new view! My husband is happy I had fun with the project. My son thinks I’m weird. What do you think?
Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).
I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.
So, I opened the box and opened the first book….
Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.
Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)
I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.
Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
In the early 1990s, I was editor of Arizona Business Magazine. One of my favorite and most memorable assignments from that time was a profile of Senator Barry Goldwater. When I called his assistant to request an interview, she politely informed me the Senator was retired and no longer spoke with the media. I hung up disappointed, but undeterred. We couldn’t publish an issue dedicated to Arizona politics without including the person who epitomized Arizona politics.
So I penned a brief, sincere letter to Goldwater thanking him for his service to our nation. I told him how much I valued his insights and perspective on business, politics and the changes our great state and nation have seen. I confessed I was only 24 years old and had a lot to learn. It was my hope that I, and my readers, could learn from him. I asked for an interview. Then I wrote a note to his assistant, thanking her for taking the time to speak to me and asking her forgiveness for my second, direct appeal to the Senator. Both letters went into an envelope addressed to the assistant, posted with a $0.29 stamp I had to lick.
After a long, nail-biting week, his assistant called to congratulate me.
“You got your interview, Ms. McCann,” she chuckled.
Another week later, she escorted my photographer and me into the 85-year-old Senator’s living room. He settled himself in the darkest, drabbest corner of the room and refused to relocate to a more photo-friendly spot. It was a hilarious move. You see, Goldwater was an expert photographer. He knew darn well this particular corner was the worst possible location for a photo. So I did what any good editor would do. I got on with the interview before the grumpy old guy decided to give me a hard time. (Photographer Dan Coogan rose to the challenge and did an amazing job, though I don’t know if he ever forgave me for hanging him out to dry.)
The interview began with a few rookie questions and a fair amount of stammering. It was the hardest interview I had conducted in my short career, and it still ranks among the top 10. Goldwater was rough around the edges and used to dealing hardcore Washington journalists. I was intimidated as hell. Fortunately, he recognized my enthusiastic inexperience pretty quickly. He must have seen I wouldn’t be asking any “gotcha” questions. We both relaxed, and he opened up – about a life in politics, his thoughts on family, how it felt to have outlived most of his friends. He even smiled a few times. I still wish I could have stayed and chatted with him longer.
I’m not sure what prompted me to dig through my old clips recently and read the Goldwater profile I wrote 25 years ago (yikes). Seeing his thoughts on health care reform, education, abortion and economic development, it’s striking how little our national dialogue has changed. I’ll refrain from sharing my own political views and opinions and will simply share my article, for your amusement or edification, as I did back then.
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.
We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.
As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).
As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.
Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.
Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.
I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.
What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? These are questions that have taunted mankind since the beginning of time. The Power of Meaning provides a straightforward and inspiring answer, based on extensive research and analysis. Simply put, the meaning of life is to find meaning in life. And it’s actually easier to find than we are often led to believe.
“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted,” writes the author. “… and meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.”
There is so much to this book, it’s hard to boil it down in a review. (I found myself rereading and marking lines on page after page, and I handwrote six pages of notes upon completing it.) By summarizing dozens of psychological studies, presenting scores of anecdotes and stories about real people, and sharing many of her own thoughts and insights on the differences between happiness and meaning, Smith ultimately brings the reader to the simplest of revelations.
Belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence: these are the four pillars of meaning, and they are accessible to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds or economic status. As someone who has made a living as a professional writer and author, I was particularly struck by the storytelling section. Though it was not surprising to me that story plays a critical role in finding fulfillment in life, it was fascinating to learn the many reasons why (both for the storytellers themselves, as well as for listeners or imbibers of those stories). The author turned to several novels to help illustrate her points – from Middlemarch and The Little Prince to Life of Pi and The Death of Ivan Ilych – as well as numerous memoirs.
I especially liked this point:
“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we are telling them. One of the greatest contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”
And, how we perceive our lives and stories is directly related to whether we ultimately find fulfillment in them.
The sections on belonging, purpose and transcendence are equally fascinating. They are packed with examples of how seeking and finding fulfillment leads to better physical and mental health, helps us overcome traumatic events, and guides us to lasting contentment rather than fleeting happiness.
I highly recommend this book to all who want to expand how they view the world and the people with whom they share it.
* If you decide to purchase Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.
Shortly after I was married, my husband's grandmother gave me her original Crock-Pot, which she'd had since the 1970s. I think of her every time I make a meal in it. I only hope my novels will have the same longevity as this beloved Crock-Pot, passed down for generations.
Slow-cookers have always amazed me. A hodge-podge of meat, vegetables and whatnot gets tossed in the Crock-Pot in the morning. The ingredients simmer together all day. Their flavors blend. Their aromas comingle and fill the house with the tang of possibility. Come dinner time, the medley has been transformed into a savory meal that brings the whole family to the table with anticipation. I love cooking this way.
My novel writing is also slow-cooked. A hodge-podge of ideas, research, themes and characters get thrown into the pot in the beginning. Then they simmer together, for a very long time, before they are transformed into the rich, savory story I want them to become. Slow-cooking a novel isn't nearly as easy as slow-cooking chili, stew or gumbo. Yet, if the mix of ingredients is right, the result can be just as fulfilling.
Not all my writing lends itself to this slow-cooking technique. In fact, most everything else I write comes together far more quickly. As a full-time freelance writer, I've written everything from annual reports, white papers and magazine articles to creative nonfiction, personal essays and short stories. Each is challenging in its own right. Each takes time and thought and effort. None seem to require the slow simmer that my novels do to reach their full potential.
Different types of writing require different processes. Even the type of novel you are writing can have an impact on how you approach the work.
In his book of essays Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, author Bruce Holland Rogers addresses the differences between writing commercial novels and literary novels (and he has written both, so he holds no biases for one or the other). In a nutshell, the more a book is action-adventure or plot-driven, the better it lends itself to what he calls the pressure-cooker approach to writing — that is the nose to the grindstone, get the draft down on paper, write fast approach. The more literary or character-driven the book, the slower it must be cooked up. He describes his own "slow-cooking technique" for writing a literary first draft as somewhat nebulous.
"Not everything I'm doing at this stage looks even remotely like work. I'm walking and thinking about my novel, listening to music while I daydream about the novel," he writes. "The trick lies in knowing when to shift gears and produce scenes, when to stop and noodle some more."
I believe the trick also lies in gaining an appreciation for and acceptance of the process that works best for you, no matter what you write.
Some days I truly lament my agonizingly-slow process of novel writing. Part of me enjoys, even thrives on, the pressure-cooker process I utilize to write most of my freelance writing assignments. If only I could write my novels that quickly and efficiently.
Other days, I relish the slow-cooker pace of my novel writing. I'm grateful for the time it takes for the ideas to gel and for the unexpected revelations to come. It's generally worth the wait.
Certain things in life cannot be rushed. If I were to offer up my Crock-Pot meal for lunch instead of dinner, the meat might be tough, the vegetables crunchy, the broth bland. And if I were to offer up my novel-in-progress too quickly, the characters might be flat, the plot predictable, the imagery dull. Far better to let it all simmer, to ensure a rich gumbo of well-blended words and ideas that will bring the reader to the page with anticipation.
This post originally appeared on the Arizona State University Piper Writers Studio blog in 2014.
It was so much fun recording this interview for the Writer’s Market podcast. We chatted about maintaining a successful freelance writing career while pursuing the goal of becoming a published novelist. I also shared some personal stories about my writing journey, as well as general freelance writing and business tips.
The podcast is about 60 minutes, perfect for your daily commute or workout on the treadmill. Click below to listen.
Big thanks to Writer’s Digest Editors Robert Lee Brewer and Brian Klems for inviting me to share my story and insights.