Santa writes back! ~ Get a letter from the North Pole

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Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus!

The United States Postal Service can help you prove it too. Santa can reply to your child’s letter from his workshop, complete with a North Pole postmark.

North Pole Postmark

How to get a North Pole postmark

You can make Santa and his workshop real for your child with a personal reply to their letter that includes a North Pole postmark. Here’s how.

  1. Write a letter to your child and sign it From Santa.
  2. Put the letter in an envelope and address it to your child.
  3. Add the return address SANTA, NORTH POLE.
  4. Affix a First Class stamp to the envelope.
  5. Place the complete envelope in a larger envelope with the appropriate postage (to cover the extra weight), and address to:
    North Pole Postmark
    Postmaster
    4141 Postmark Dr.
    Anchorage, AK 99530-9998

If you want to know how writing letters to Santa became a thing, you can read Alex Palmer’s A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa in Smithsonian Magazine.

Miracle on 34th Street


The mystery of depth ~ Creating characters we care about

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Agents and editors want stories that have characters they can care about, characters with depth. For the longest time, I had no idea how to accomplish this. I knew depth meant complexity, but how you created that quality in characters was a mystery. Then one day, while watching an episode of NCIS, the pieces of the character-depth-puzzle magically fell into place. Who knew Abby and Gibbs would be the key that unlocked this literary mystery?

NCIS -- Abby and Gibbs

1. Mix it up with multiple character traits

In a 2-dimensional painting, everything appears flat. You get the same effect with characters that only have one basic trait—bully, geek, mean girl, wimp, etc. To avoid flat characters, give them multiple traits of varying strengths.

I like the analogy of creating perspective in a painting. What’s in the foreground is mountains at sunsetmore intense and has greater detail. As should be the predominant trait of a character. With increased distance in a painting, objects become lighter and have less detail. Secondary and tertiary character traits should have less focus as well.

When Building a Better Character, reveal the traits over time as the character interacts with others and reacts to various situations.

2. Shake & stir: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Just as characters need a blend of traits to be believable, they must also display a variety of emotions. No one is perfect, and we wouldn’t like them if they were. Show their good side, so we like them, but don’t hold back on the bad and the ugly.

3. Peal back the layers

It’s human nature. The longer we savor an experience, the richer our enjoyment. This is why it’s important for characters to unfold and grow along with the plot.

Think of pealing back the layers of an onion. Each layer should reveal something unique and intimately real about the character. When we first meet someone, we get a superficial impression of who they are. It takes time, and a variety of experiences, before we get to know who they really are. It should be the same with our characters.

At a San Francisco South Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Agents Day conference, former literary agent, Mary Kole explained how to explore a character’s inner life through interiority. Interiority is a combination of the character’s internal dialog and point of view. To learn more, check out her book on Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers.

4. Pressure cook for change

diamond sitting on coalCharacter depth requires change over the course of the story. The Character Arc is a journey that forces the character to confront their frailties to become wiser and stronger.

All great stories are about transformation. To survive, the hero has to change by facing their greatest fear and overcoming it. Blake Snyder—in the popular story structure guide, Save the Cat!—called this The Dark Night of the Soul.

Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) puts characters through hell—literally and figuratively. This pressure has the same effect as the pressure that transforms a lump of coal into a diamond. It smooths off their rough edges and makes them shine.

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. ― Joss Whedon


LED Sheep ~ Ewe light up my life!

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High-tech sheep herding

Maybe it’s the proliferation of world-wide disasters of late, both natural and man-made, but I’ve been thinking of the Welsh sheep herders and their LED sheep … a lot. Rather timely (but a total coincidence!), with the Blade Runner sequel hitting the theaters this week. The original Blade Runner was based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

LED sheep herding

What I love about this project is its joyful innocence and whimsy.

A lot of time and effort went into creating an image of the Mona Lisa (credited to Leonardo Baa Vinci!) with sheep wearing LED vests. For the sheer joy of it! If you haven’t seen the video (created in 2009), do it now! If you’ve seen it but need a little light in your life, watch it again. Pronto.

This video makes me wonder: What can we do today to bring a little joy and whimsy into the world around us? (LED sheep are not required, but always welcome). Pay-it-forward, except with fun.

Instigate fun today. It’s contagious!

 

Joyful whimsy and LED sheep herding


Hilarious history ~ Told by the funniest writer in fiction!

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Sid Fleischman was (and arguably still is) the funniest fiction writer…ever. I’m not alone in this opinion. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) created a Humor Sid Fleischman Humor AwardAward in his honor, and made him the first recipient. The Sid Fleischman Humor Award is an award for authors whose work exemplifies the excellence of writing in the genre of humor. 

As SCBWI President Stephen Mooser said, “Sid the Magician may not be as famous as Sid the Writer. It’s one thing to make someone laugh. But his ability to do that in so many stories with such poignancy is nothing short of magic. 

So it’s no surprise that the funniest writer in fiction worked his magic with hilarious history too.

The Trouble Begins at 8 ~
A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West

Who better to tell the rambunctious tale of a young river boat pilot who gallops off to take on the wild, wild West than Sid Fleischman? The tale is all true, and told with a wit as sharp as Mark Twain himself.

The title itself signals the fun that’s to come…taken from the poster Mark Twain used to advertise his public talks: The doors open at seven, The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.

Fleischman takes the reins from there with hopping hilarity: “Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.”

You might think (as I did) that Mark Twain began writing as a young man, while piloting river boats on the Mississippi river. Afterall, that was the stage on which his two most famous novels were set: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But no. Those books wouldn’t come until much later. Twain’s writing career began with his adventures in the wild, wild west. Virginia City, Nevada to be exact, writing for a newspaper in a place where tumbleweeds were the biggest thing to blow through town.

The First in Fake News

It’s true. Mark Twain made his name writing Fake News. When there was no news, “Sam gave his bubbling imagination a stir and ladled out a wondrous hoax. He reported the discovery of a petrified man.

Mark Twain at the helm of a river boatTwain created the tale to stir up trouble with the competing newspaper in town, and tickle the funny bones of the readers. In a time before television and social media this was great entertainment, and an instant success! So much so, the hoax was picked up by newspapers across the country.

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was the tall tale that brought Twain national acclaim. The short story awarded him notoriety as a writer, but travel and lecture series would consume his time for years. It wasn’t until Twain married and settled in Connecticut that he’d write two of the most celebrated novels in fiction.

Sir Charlie ~
Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World

Charlie Chaplin embraced the pain of his youth, played with it, then used it to become famous for being funny. He instinctively knew that what makes you laugh the most, also makes you cry the most. Sid Fleischman tells the Little Tramp’s poignant tale, matching Chaplin’s humor with heartwarming empathy.

See him? That little tramp twitching a postage stamp of a mustache, politely lifting his bowler hat, and leaning on a bamboo cane with the confidence of a gentleman? A slapstick comedian, he blazed forth as the brightest movie star in the Hollywood heavens.

Everyone knew Charlie—Charlie Chaplin.

When he was five years old he was pulled onstage for the first time, and he didn’t step off again for almost three-quarters of a century. Escaping the London slums of his tragic childhood, he took Hollywood like a conquistador with a Cockney accent. With his gift for pantomime in films that had not yet acquired vocal cords, he was soon rubbing elbows with royalty and dining on gold plates in his own Beverly Hills mansion. He was the most famous man on earth—and he was regarded as the funniest.

Still is. . . . He comes to life in these pages. It’s an astonishing rags-to-riches saga of an irrepressible kid whose childhood was dealt from the bottom of the deck. [Synopsis]

In case you’ve never seen Charlie Chaplin in action…


“Buffy” wisdom ~ Hope for troubled times

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Remarkable as it may seem, Joss Whedon‘s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is still (after 14 years) a gold standard for many writers.

This is because, in spite of the window dressings of vampires, monsters, magic, and witchcraft, the heart of the story was always rooted in the human condition.

The secret to the show’s meaningfulness and longevity stems from Whedon’s purpose. The reasons “why” Whedon writes touch our universal core. They are primal.

Hope amidst adversity

If you haven’t watched this series, you’re in for a treat when you do. In the mean time, to get you on the same page: Bad things happen…a lot. For good reasons too:

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. ― Joss Whedon

We’ve all had personal difficulties, some of us may have had to wade through some Buffy and Dawnpretty dark times. We can all relate to Buffy’s perils and hardships…on some level. Especially with the state of our world and the current affairs we witness on a daily basis.

Just as real as the adversities Buffy faced, was the undying light of the human spirit. It was hope guiding them to vanquish darkness and find their way to safety.

Buffy and Dawn

Yes. I know it’s fiction. But it resonates with with us because it’s primal. Whedon used the following musical score to convey this universal truth…no matter your faith. Though the words were written centuries ago, they bring hope to our modern times too.

Prayer of St. Francis ~ Sarah McLachlan


My Best Mistake

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We’ve all made mistakes. But if we’re lucky, we have at least one mistake that turned out right, a favorite mistake. My best mistake happened during a Bobby Sox Softball playoff game when I was 13.

baseball glove and ball

The mistake that won the game

My older sister was an ace at softball, one of the best first base players in the Bobby Sox Softball league in our small, Southern California farming town. She played on the team that made it to the All Stars the previous season, and my parents suggested (more like insisted) that I play softball too. On the same team.

That was the beginning of a season-long mistake. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t totally suck at softball.

I was pretty good hitter, and a fair infielder. I was not All Stars material, though. When you join a team of that caliber, you have to prove yourself. Which is why they put me in the outfield. Unfortunately, I had a depth perception problem at night games. On top of that, the fly balls kept disappearing against the banks of bright white lights and swarms of bugs as big as my shoe. I missed every fly ball hit my way in the outfield. Game, after game, after game.

In spite of the public humiliation, I made every practice and played every game. The team needed a certain number of players to stay in the league, and by showing up I kept them in the running. I ‘took one for the team’…every week. Amazingly enough, even with my outfield fails our team still ended up tied for first place in the league.

On the night of the playoff game, the coach kept me on the bench until the last possible moment. Each player had to play at least one inning in every game, so he waited until it was safe for me to go in. We were ahead by a two runs. We just had to hold our lead. How hard could that be? Apparently, very…with my luck.

The other team was pumped, and got a run before we knew what fly ball at night gamehappened. Not long after, the bases were loaded with two outs. That’s when they brought in their best hitter. I prayed for mercy, but she was on break. When this girl connected with the ball, the crack resonated across two counties. A blur came whizzing straight at me. A line drive to my face. I didn’t have time to blink. I put my mitt up to protect myself. I wish I could say I tried to catch the ball. But no. Putting the mitt in front of my face was pure self-defense. The ball slammed into my hand with a burning thud and I clamped the mitt shut.

I caught the ball that won the game and the league championship…by mistake!

That was the only ball I caught the entire season. I’m glad it was one that saved the game…even if it was by mistake.


Total solar eclipse & its influence on fiction

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The primal fear effect

A total solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the sun and earth, and blocks all or part of the sun for up to about three hours from a given location.

Today, a total solar eclipse is an astronomical rarity, an event to be recorded and studied. That was not always the case. It wasn’t all that long ago (in the grand scheme of things) that the sun and sky going dark caused mass hysteria. Which is not a totally irrational response. It triggers a primal fear, because we depend on the sun’s energy for life. Without it, our world would be uninhabitable.

It’s no surprise that a total solar eclipse continues to have a strong effect on us even now, as is evident in fiction: books, film, and television. Stories that resonate most deeply with the human psyche are primal, and survival is about as primal as it gets.

Fictional total eclipses

The earliest known fictional solar eclipse is in Homer‘s Odyssey, which scholars believe was composed near the end of the 8th century BC. There’s probably lesser known fictional references to solar eclipses between the 8th century BC and 1608, when Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear was first published, but let’s jump to King Lear’s famous quote:

O insupportable! O heavy hour! / Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon; and that the affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration…

Following Shakespeare, the better known fictional works that feature solar eclipses were published in the late 19th century:

You might think that the paranormal intrigue surrounding a total solar eclipse would wane as we entered the 20th century, but no. In fiction, film, and television, it increased. The following are just a few of the works by the more prominent authors:

The list of film and television shows that include solar eclipses in their story is more extensive than in books. For a complete list of title for both fiction, film, and television, go here.

1984 eclipse in Witness

It’s interesting that while filming Witness (1985) in Pennsylvania’s Amish region, a partial solar eclipse occurred on May 30, 1984 (at his location). Director Peter Weir filmed the actors in costume, responding to the eclipse. However, these scenes never made it into the publicly released version of the film.

August 21, 2017 ~ total solar eclipse

August 21, 2017 will be the first total solar eclipse that can be seen in the United States in 38 years, the last one being in 1979. For the 2017 solar eclipse, the longest period the moon completely blocks the sun—from any given location along the path—will be about two minutes and 40 seconds.

If you’re interested in following the solar eclipse as it happens, even if you won’t be in the direct viewing path, check out the Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). The app allows you to watch a live NASA stream of the eclipse as it travels across the continental United States. You can calculate your view with their interactive eclipse map, and get a virtual view in our eclipse simulator. Super cool!


Mary Poppins gets a spoonful of Google Translate!

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The Walt Disney classic film, Mary Poppins, has been translated into 20 languages. Now Google Translate makes for 21. Don’t get me wrong. Google Translate is an amazing tool! But the translation algorithms have somehow managed to develop a language all their own, that no one else quite understands.

Most everyone can recognize at least one of the Mary Poppins songs in the following medley. Many know the words by heart. But even if you’re not an MP aficionado, you’ll pick up on the oh-so unique (!) Google Translate interpretation of the lyrics.

Mary Poppins and Bert in Jolly Holiday

Compare the original lyrics to the songs (in the banner above the window) with the Google Translate version (in subtitles below), and have a jolly good time watching the brilliant video clip. In the words of Google Translate, “Oh, good night is blowing up!”

Sing it again Google Translate … or maybe not


Humor ~ the secret ingredient that keeps kids reading

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Kids laughing and readingIf something is fun, we want to repeat the experience as much as possible. Reading is no different. It’s no surprise that for young readers, the key to keeping them reading is humor.

Marvin Terban, master of children’s wordplay and author of over 35 humorous books for young readers, explained the science of reading fun to a packed house at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Terban was a school teacher for decades, learning first-hand how to capture children’s interest 3 Latino children readingand keep them engaged. He was adamant:

“It’s no laughing matter if there’s no laughing matter.”

When children were asked what books they liked to read, this is what they said:

  • My favorite books are the ones I pick myself.
  • I like books make me laugh.

Recipes for laughter

“That’s great,” you say, “but what’s the secret to making children laugh?” You’re in luck! Terban shared a few of the ingredients from his recipe for humor:

  1. Use funny names, like Ralph Puken or Bob Booggensnot.
  2. Use funny words. Apparently the funniest words for young readers are: fart, poop, and underpants. In that order.
  3. Kids (and adults) laugh the hardest at the unexpected.
  4. The funniest scenes contain an element of sorrow.

Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler are also masters of writing comedy for young readers. Kids of all ages love their Hank Zipzer: World’s Greatest Underachiever series and Ghost Buddy series. At a past SCBWI conference, this awesome writing team shared a few of their secrets for writing comedy:

  1. Write what makes you laugh. If you think something is funny, someone else will think so too. Young readers know when humor is not authentic.
  2. Write from your own “most embarrassing” moments.
  3. You have to love the character you’re putting in comedic jeopardy, or else it comes off as being mean. You want your audience to laugh with the character, not at him.
  4. Specific details are almost always funnier than generalizations. For example: Principal Zumba has a mole. Or… Principal Zumba has a mole shaped like the statue of liberty that looks like it’s doing the hula whenever he talks.

Hank Zipzer and Ghost Buddy covers


The Library Express ~ When bookmobiles had hooves

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We might think of the bus-like bookmobiles as modern inventions, but they were not the first mobile libraries…not by a long shot. The first bookmobiles were little more than carts powered by hooves. There has even been a Pony Express style book delivery program known as the Pack Horse Librarians.Pony express rider

Horse-drawn libraries

The first documented mobile libraries were carts filled with books drawn by horses. Preambulating library Warrington England 1859The perambulating libraries operated in rural England as early as 1857. Warrington, England introduced a horse-drawn van in 1858 that was operated by the Warrington Mechanics’ Institute, to increase the lending of its books. [PC: Wikipedia]

In 1890, Fairfax County, Virginia got on the mobile library wagon (literally) in the northwestern part of their county. But one of the most memorable mobile libraries was a product of the Great Depression.

The library express

Pack Horse LibrarianThe Great Depression threw the entire nation into poverty, and the already poor rural areas suffered the worst. Kentucky was one of the states hardest hit by the paralyzed economy.

We humans seem to show our best when things are at their worst. Such was the case with the first Pack Horse Library, formed by the Work Progress Administration (WPA) in Leslie county, Kentucky. This new project brought reading materials to those who lived in the remote rural areas of Eastern Kentucky, an area with little electricity and fewer roads.

Unlike most New Deal programs, the Pack Horse Plan was fueled by the support ofPack Horse Librarian local communities. The only way to get books to the people living in the remote mountain areas was on horseback, and the Kentucky women didn’t shy away from the challenge. The Pack Horse Librarians mounted mules and horses with panniers filled with books and headed out into the hills.

Each Librarian made deliveries at least twice a month, covering over 100 miles a week on horseback. The Librarians took their jobs as seriously as the mail carriers, riding miles through inclement weather, across backwoods wilderness terrain.

I could go on and on about the great work done by the Pack Horse Librarians, but you’ll enjoy watching the following mini (approx. 3 min.) documentary much more.

Pack Horse Librarians