Nonfiction fun ~ When the truth is more fantastic than fiction!

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Do you have a young reader who isn’t into fiction, yet wants books that are fun? Or perhaps there’s a summer reading requirement looming, and it’d be easier to hog tie the Hulk than to get your kids to read over vacation?

Well…put away the lasso and forget about the Hulk. Your kids will be begging for more, and you’ll want to read these books too. Yes. They’re that good! Thank me later.

kids reading

I discovered Steve Sheinkin’s work at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) summer conference a few years ago. Sheinkin is a master of finding the fun in history, and narrating the facts in an engaging voice and at a thrilling pace. If there were history books like these when I was in middle school or high school, it’s all I would’ve read.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

This may sound like a crime thriller, because it is. But trust me, it’s not fiction. Someone actually stole President Lincoln’s body, and this fast-paced recounting of the events will have you on the edge of your seat, turning the pages until you’re done.

On October 20, 1875 Secret Service raid the Illinois workshop of master counterfeiter Benjamin Boyd and arrest him. Soon after Boyd is hauled off to prison, members of his counterfeiting ring gather and devise a plan to get Boyd back: steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from its tomb, stash it in a secret location, and demand as ransom, the release of Boyd—and $200,000.00 in cash. 

The action of this true crime thriller alternates among the conspirators, the Secret Service agents on their trail, and the undercover double agent moving back and forth between the two groups. Along the way, we get a glimpse into the inner workings of counterfeiting, grave robbing, detective work, and the early days of the Secret Service. The story races toward a wild climax as robbers and lawmen converge at Lincoln’s tomb on election night, 1876. [Jacket flap]

Bomb, by Steve Sheinkin

This story is close to my heart, because I graduated from a university that played an important—top-secret—part in the race to develop America’s atomic bomb. I didn’t find this out until long after I graduated, and I can’t say I’m proud of the fact. However, this book helped me to reconcile some of my feelings about the United States’ development and use of this deadly weapon. If not us, someone else would have done the same and with potentially more horrific results.

BombNo matter your viewpoint, this telling of the events leading to the creation of the first atomic bomb will keep you spellbound until the last page is turned.

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a uranium atom split in two.

That simple discovery, dealing with the tiniest of particles, launched a cut-throat race that would span three continents. The players were the greatest scientists, the most expert spies, hardened military commandos, and some of the most ruthless dictators who ever lived. The prize: military dominance over the entire world. 

This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world’s most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb. [Jacket flap]


Making Magic Out of Life’s Predicaments

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Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra

I love it when people take an irritating predicament and turn it into a moment of pure magic.

Most of us have been stranded in an airport at least once. For the members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra the experience was no different…except in how they handled the inconvenience. No moaning, pouting, or complaining. They turned an unpleasant situation into a joyful encounter for all. I hope their solution to an unfortunate event makes you smile too.

What happens when an orchestra is stranded at an airport?


Mark Twain and the Kitten that Played Pool

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Twain’s softer side

Mark TwainThe name Mark Twain is synonymous with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—rough and tumble boys full of adventure, daring pranksters who were afraid of nothing.

In many ways, the characters an author creates are their reflection. But like Hemingway, Mark Twain had a softer side he hid from the world.

Like so many creative people, Mark Twain was sensitive and more than a little reclusive. People who knew him said he was most comfortable around animals, with a particular love of cats. According the Mark Twain’s daughter, Suzy…

The difference between papa and mama is that mama loves morals and papa loves cats.

Twain loved cats so much he had up to 19 living in his house at one time, according to one source. And that was just at his Connecticut home.

Mark Twain biographer, Albert Biglow Paine, revealed that Mark Twain even traveled with cats. Once on his travels, he missed his cats so much he rented a few local kittens for the summer. “He didn’t wish to own them, for then he would have to leave them behind uncared for,” Paine explained, “so he preferred to rent them and pay sufficiently to ensure their subsequent care.”

The kitten that played pool

It’s odd to think that an author as accomplished as Mark Twain suffered from nervousness about his writing. But he did. His cats helped calm him, as did playing billiards. Amazingly enough, there was one special kitten who did double duty by playing pool with Twain. For real. I am not making this up.

Kitten on pool table

When Twain took a break from his writing to blow off nervous energy, he’d pick up the kitten and tuck him into one of the pockets of the billiard table and the game began. The kitten swiped at the balls as they darted by, amusing Twain to no end. Rejuvenated by the kitten’s antics, Twain could then return to his writing.

Twain’s love of animals lives on

Generations of cats have called Nook Farm home—the famous author’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. Dozens of cats still live on the grounds of The Mark Twain House & Museum today, much as they did during the famous author’s lifetime.

When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction. ~ Mark Twain

Many of the staff members at The Mark Twain House are proud owners of Nook Farm cats, continuing Twain’s legacy.

Mark Twain’s love of cats lives on in his writing, as well. Cats stalk, slink, pad, and play their way through many of his best-known books, including The Innocents Aboard, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Puddn’head Wilson. If that’s not reason enough to read Twain, I don’t know what is. But I’m a hopeless animal lover too. What can i say?


Get that Half-Baked Story Out of the Oven!

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Writing Recipe for Success

Toddler chefIt happens to every writer. At least once. We start a project, excited and inspired by the sparkly new idea. We run with it, fleshing out characters, working magic with dialog, setting, and plot. Then something happens. Our inspiration dissipates, like air from a hot air balloon. We’re slugging forward through molasses, when once we soared.

It’s easy to get discouraged, or possibly even give up on that great idea at this point. I’m here to tell you…

DO NOT GIVE UP!

Writing a novel is a lot like baking a cake. You carefully organize and mix the ingredients, select and prepare the pan, then put it in the oven to bake at the right temperature for the perfect amount of time. Unlike the cake, a creative oven requires our input for the heat, and the time it takes to fully bake is not always in our favor. Deadliness be damned. Unfortunately, half-baked is only half there.

The good news is that you got the story into the oven. Here’s a few strategies on how you can get it out…fully baked.

Turning Up the Heat

We get stuck in our writing for lots of reasons. The best way to get unstuck is to shake things up, take a new approach, do something totally different. The unexpected has a way of jump starting creativity. Here’s few suggestions:

  • Go someplace you’ve always wanted to, but haven’t. A change of scenery, especially a place that elicits intrigue, works wonders.
  • Watch A LOT of movies and TV shows. Joss Whedon would watch four or five movies in a row (in one day) to study story. You never know what will provide the boost you need for your story.
  • Read A LOT of different things, both magazines and books. Read outside your comfort zone. Change is good. Embrace it.
  • Talk to people who have cool jobs, or who’ve had very different life experiences than your own. This is one of the things Amie Kauffman, co-author of Illuminae and Gemina, does to get new ideas.
  • Go to a public place and people watch. Imagine where they’re going and what they’ll do when they get there. Have fun creating stories without the pressure of an outcome.
  • Start a totally different project in a completely different genre, just for you. Published authors confess to doing this when they’ve been paralyzed under a deadline. TheFemail chef illustration story they started “for themselves” got them excited about writing again and they made their deadline. Those stories later became wildly popular books too. A win-win.
  • Brainstorm with other writers. Especially if you’re under deadline. Screenwriters work this way a lot.
  • Write stuff. Then write more stuff.
  • Fire your internal editor and keep going until you reach The End.

You’re doing great!

 

Hooking Reluctant Readers with Poetry & Picture Books

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Words have power. Words open doors and change the world. Your world. Which is why reading is so important. Frederick Douglass said it best:

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.

Boy's imagination while reading

Those who acquire the love of reading revel in the freedom it brings every time we open a book.

Girl reading a bookWhat about those who have yet to discover the wonder of reading, how can we get them hooked?

I’m sure dissertations have been written on this topic,Boy reading a book backed with data from scientific studies.

I’m no expert. But the following suggestions have worked well for hooking reluctant readers.

Hook ‘Em with Poetry … Yes, Poetry

I didn’t realize poetry was a significant gateway for reluctant readers until I heard Kwame Alexander speak at Kepler’s Books. He was there to promote The Playbook: 52 Crossover coverRules To Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life.

During the course of the evening, Kwame related his winning experiences at getting “at risk” youth excited about reading … using poetry. He explained that poetry hooks reluctant readers, because it’s short and easy to read. Once youngsters feel the satisfaction of finishing a book, they are quicker to pick up the next one.

Kwame Alexander’s Newberry Award winning book, The Crossover, is written entirely in verse and has hooked hundreds (if not thousands) of kids on reading. Kwame followed that success with Booked, a novel in verse about a star soccer player who is also a reluctant reader. Another winner for converting real-life reluctant readers.

Ellen Hopkins‘ immensely popular Crank Series is written entirely in verse, as well. Crank, the first book of the series, is required reading in many high schools. However, this series is for a more mature audience due to its focus on drug addiction.

The Power of Picture Books … Read Aloud

Reading to children when they are young is the best way to hook them on reading. Picture books provide a wonderful interactive forum for storytelling. For children that are too young to read, they can be engaged in the story, which inspires the desire to be able to read on their own one day.

As Emilie Buchwald said:

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.

However, reading in blanket forts works its own special magic.

The magic factor for reading is “fun”. Make story time a fun activity and children will fall in love with reading…for life. If you don’t know “what” to read for a particular age group, ask your local librarian. Librarians have a wealth of knowledge they are happy to share.

Kwame Alexander supersized the fun with audience participation and musical accompaniment (by Randy Preston) as he read from his picture book Surf’s Up at Kepler’s Books. Appropriately enough, Surf’s Up is a delightful story about two frogs, an adventure, and falling in love with reading.



“THE PLAYBOOK” of Positivity

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52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in this Game Called Life

Playbook coverYou gotta know the rules to play the game. Ball is life. Take it to the hoop. Soar. What can we imagine for our lives? What if we were the star players, moving and grooving through the game of life? What if we had our own basketball rules to help us get what we want, what we aspire to, what will enrich our lives? 

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander was inspired by his Newberry Medal-winning and New York Times best-selling novel The Crossover. The Playbook is filled with uplifting stories … from favorite sports figures … and 52 rules to follow both on and off the court. Kwame Alexander shares his own … stories of overcoming obstacles and winning games. All illustrated with stunning photographs by Thai Neave.

Say Yes! to life

I heard Kwame talk at Kepler’s Books, and can say straight up that The Playbook is a direct reflection Kwame. He’s a fountain of positivity. And it’s contagious. Kwame Alexander walks the talk. Throughout the evening, he shared lessons from his life on being open to possibility.

The most important rule I’ve learned is that when you are presented with an opportunity that may seem different or challenging or unknown, sometimes you’ve got to summon the courage to trust yourself and SAY YES!

That’s exactly what Kwame did when he was asked to teach students how to professionally publish a (print) book of their poetry … in one day!

Kwame Alexander reading from The CrossoverHe initially designed a two-week workshop. During that time the kids would learn how to design, edit, and layout a book. Then, negotiate with printers, define a marketing plan, and arrange for distribution. As life would have it, the school’s schedule shrunk to a one day window. One day! A seemingly impossible task, especially considering the ages of the children he’d be working with.

Yet, Kwame said Yes!

The workshop started at 7:30 in the morning, and by 4:30 that afternoon the kids had their book of poetry on the way to the printer. Kwame’s wife suggested that he take the program to other schools, and he did. He traveled around the country teaching children how to professionally publish a book of their poetry.

Don’t let other people’s NOs define you

Just as important as saying YES to possibility is not listening to other people’s NOs!. Again, Kwame is proof of the wisdom behind these words. The Crossover is a shining example.

The Crossover is the story about 12 year-old twins who are Kwane Alexander reading from The Playbookawesome on the basketball court, and how they come to realize that breaking the rules comes with serious stakes. Kwame’s game is poetry, and The Crossover is entirely in verse.

Poetry…for middle grade readers, targeted for boys no less.

The Crossover was rejected by the first publisher Kwame submitted it to. So he went back and revised the manuscript, only to get rejections from subsequent submissions to other publishers. He kept at it, revising and submitting. After five years, he’d accumulated 20 rejections.

Most people would’ve given up after the first two or three rejections. Not Kwame, because he knew the power poetry had in changing lives. In the poems he wrote to his mother and daughter, and the “alternative school” students in which poetry inspired a lifetime love of reading. Kwame believed in his work. He didn’t listen to other people’s NOs. Thank goodness.

One publisher finally said YES! The rest is history for the Newberry Award winning, New York Times best-selling novel, The Crossover.


LOVE ~ Fiction’s Greatest Common Denominator

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I love you heart❤️ It’s Valentine’s Day ❤️ 

Love is in the air, whether you adore the holiday or not.

Many bemoan the grandiose expectations the holiday puts on…well…everyone.

Don’t blame Hallmark.

Instead, look to fiction for insights into why this holiday has become a national obsession.

Love … Has Everything to Do With It

As Blake Snyder, Mr. Save the Cat!, used to say, “The motivating force of a story has color heart lightto be primal.” And nothing is more primal than love. I’d go so far as to say that love is fiction’s greatest common denominator, that the roots of every story are based in love.

Whether it’s seeking love, giving love, protecting love, grieving for love, or the ugliness that springs from lack of love or unrequited love.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular stories of all time, because it resonates with humanity’s innermost core. Love.

Love’s Joyful Eccentricities

The romantic comedy (rom-com) is the popular love story of today. Shakespeare was the first to make that particular story type popular, though. Shakespeare wrote a total of 16 romantic comedies, earning him the title as the original Rom-Com King. Rossini, and other composers, carried the romantic comedy into the opera houses with great success. Later, Hollywood was quick to spin the romantic comedy into a film genre.

In children’s literature, the net of love stretches to include other species. For example, TheOneAndOnlyIvan_coverin The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, a young girl’s compassionate love for Ivan, the shopping mall gorilla, is the catalyst for his freedom.

Likewise, Ivan’s love for the elephants who are also trapped in the roadside shopping mall attraction sparks his imagination and fuels his actions that provide the means for the young girl to help them.

Spanning centuries, artistic mediums, and species…the love story has touched the hearts of audiences everywhere. To such a great extent, it has permeated the fabric of our consciousness. Such is the power of love. Because it’s primal.

Love’s Darker Faces

The primal motivating force of a character always comes back to love. “Even the villain?” you ask. Yes. Severus Snape, in J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, is a perfect example of denied love giving the character a villainous face.

City of Heavenly Fire coverShakespeare’s dramatic plays reflect the darker facets of love, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. Jane Austen, thought by many to be the Queen of Romance in fiction, touches the sadder sides of love in her works, such as Persuasion.

Cassandra Clare‘s Mortal Instruments series is woven through with characters’ experiences and expressions of the grimmer facets of love, that sometimes grow so dark as to perpetuate murder. However, the main theme revolving throughout the series is self-acceptance.

The characters come to see and understand that the choices they make and the consequences that follow are a reflection of their level of self-love. This realization leads some through their darkness, to where they can embrace the healing power of love.


Be Your Own Muse

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The Myth of the Muse

Muse ~ a person, or personified force, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

A muse

For centuries, there have been accounts of writers and artists who looked to muses to spark imagination and fuel creativity. I hate to throw shade on anyone’s creative process, but creativity and imagination are not something you can get from something or someone else. The truth is…

There’s No Magic Feather … or Genie

That’s the bad news. Nothing, and no one, can magically imbue you with creativity. Grow up. It’s just not going to happen.

Creative mindIn Stephen King‘s book, On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft, he says just that: “There’s no magic feather” that will make you a good writer (or artist). It takes a certain amount of innate talent combined with a serious amount of hard work.

The good news is, you don’t need anything outside of yourself to be amazingly creative. You have a vast storehouse of creativity inside you. You just have to know how to access the limitless supply of ideas and raw imagination.

It’s like having your very own Idea Store…inside your head. You just might have temporarily misplaced the key that unlocks the door. Studies of consciousness and the science of creativity (yes, it’s a thing) show there is a Fort-Knox treasure of creativity inside us…just waiting to be tapped.

Activating Your Inner Muse

It’s great knowing you have a wealth of creativity at your beck and call, but you have to know the number. Here’s a few ways to find yours.

I’ve used the following methods, and (from my personal experience) they activate my inner muse. These approaches to unleashing creativity are also listed in the Forbes magazine article Science Continues to Show Us How to Be More Creative.

  • Performing routine tasks, such as housework or walking, allow the mind to wander so creative ideas flow in.
  • Being painfully bored also opens the floodgates of creative thinking. For example, having to wait for long stretches of time, like long airplane flights without a book to read or waiting in line at the DMV.
  • Having a regular meditation practice has shown to improve creativity. Meditation helps slow down the mind, which in turn opens the creative centers of the brain.

At a recent YA (young adult) novel conference, a young writer asked the panel of published authors how they get their creative ideas. Here’s how a few of the authors responded:

Inspiration is Contagious

Why is inspired creativity important for writers? Because a writer’s emotions are woven throughout the tapestry of their stories. As Robert Frost said so succinctly:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

When a story is infused with imagination, the reader is swept up in the fictional world and carried away. I think we’ve all had that magnificent feeling when reading a good book, becoming the characters and our real world drops away. That quality of writing can create a lifetime love of reading. And to me, that is an author’s true measure of success.

Boy's imagination while reading


The Music of Words

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shutterstock_379805902_flipThere is music in words. Listen to a conversation in a language you don’t understand and focus on the lyrical quality. When you aren’t distracted by what is being said, you hear the rhythm of the words and the melody in the tones.

Written words are musical as well. A story, in essence, is a symphony of syllables. Writers weave words into melodies, sentences that flow into passages, then swell into movements.

Writers hear the words as they are put onto the page, as if they being spoken. Their structural tempo evokes mood and conveys emotion. A character’s purpose and journey is intertwined with the melody. The author’s voice is the harmonic fabric that blends intertwining melodies into a vibrant whole.

Many writers find inspiration, and connect with the inner muse, through music. The proof is in the playlists they post on social media, different music for each story.

Find Your Writing Rythm

A writer’s rhythm is their voice. I already have a blog post on The Illusive “Voice” ~ What Editors Want and Writers Seek, so I won’t go into that again. Instead I’ll cut to the chase, to the three simple steps anyone can use to find their unique voice:

  1. Read. Read. Read.
  2. Write. Write. Write.
  3. Repeat.

Read everything in your genre, then read widely in other genres. When you find an author whose style resonates with you, read everything they’ve written. Then read those books again. In the sheer act of reading and rereading their words, you absorb the rhythm of the prose, which miraculously transforms into your own unique voice.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write. ~Stephen King

A writer’s voice isn’t a static. The quality of voice evolves as a writer hones and polishes their craft. It takes both reading and writing to discover your writing rhythm, your voice.

Making Music with Words

A story is a symphony of syllables, with possibilities as rich and varied as the imagination. The following excerpts are from books by remarkable authors, each with a unique voice.

Shiver
by Maggie Stiefvater
: As the hours crept by, the afternoon sunlight bleached all the books on the shelves to pale, gilded versions of themselves and warmed the paper and ink inside the covers so that the smell of unread words hung in the air. That was what I loved, when I was human.

The Game of Love and Death
by Martha Brockenbrough: 
“If life didn’t end,” he [Love] said, “there would be no need for me. To choose love indreamstime_xs_182186 the face of death is the ultimate act of courage. I am the joy, but you [Death] are the meaning. Together, we make humanity more than it otherwise might have been.”

The Beauty of Darkness
by Mary E. Pearson: 
The world flickered, pulling us into protective darkness, and I was in his arms again, our palms damp, searching, no lies, no kingdoms, nothing between us but our skin, his voice warm, fluid, like a golden sun, unfolding every tight thing within me, I will love you forever, no matter what happens.

Crenshaw
by Katherine Applegate
: I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat. Thing number one: He as a surfboarding cat. Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL. Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.

Truman Capote understood the music of words. For him, it was the joy of writing.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.~Truman Capote

What story do you need to write, what symphony do you have to play?
Music of words


The Magic of “Giving”

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The holiday season sparkles with promise. A mystical quality tempts us to peerDisneyland fireworks, Rivers of America beyond the veil into a place brimming with never-ending happiness…like living at Disneyland.

As children we embraced that joy with our whole heart. But as we grew older and more jaded, we lost the connection with the magic, some turning into die-hard cynics because it never reappeared.

The good news is, the magic is still there any time you want it.

The bad news is, you’ve had the key all along and didn’t know it.

The Key to Happiness is Helping Others

Yeah, I know. It sounds like watered down fortune-cookie wisdom. Still, it happens to be true. I’m talking from personal experience too, not reciting something from a Fast-Pass-to-Enlightenment guide. Giving is the focus of many faiths at this time of year, and for good reason.

As a teenager, I was suffered the same angst and self-doubt as everyone else. I was a nerdy overachiever with a side of art-geek, who thought happiness lay in chasing a goal. Funny how when I finally got “there”, happiness had already left the building. Sadly, this delusion lasted for years.

opendoor2Finally, I had the good sense to volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, after moving to San Francisco. I thought it would be a good way to meet people with the same interests, which it was. But more important, the experience opened me up to the secret of happiness. There’s a wonderful energy that comes from giving selflessly. Our Sunday Night Crew signed in at 5:00 pm, and in an El Nino winter, we often didn’t leave until sunrise. And we had a GREAT time on our shift too! I’d get home in time to shower and head to work. Magically, the energy carried me through the day…with a smile on my face.

A QuickStart Guide to Giving

If you’re one of the many who don’t have time to volunteer for a non-profit organization on a regular basis, you can do something to “give” everyday. And you’ll be surprised by the happiness you receive in return.

  • Give gently used clothes to local shelters or non-profit organizations.
  • Give towels and bedding to local animal shelters and rescue organizations.
  • For more options for giving to local animal shelters, see my It’s Hard to Be a (Grumpy) Cat at Christmas post.
  • Smile and say something nice to the checkout person at the grocery store. Your kind words will make their day.
  • At the end of a conversation with a Customer Service representative, when they ask you if there’s anything else they can do for you? Say, “Yes. Have a Happy Holiday!” Or, “Have wonderful day!” depending on the season.
  • Perform random acts of kindness, helping strangers in unexpected ways.
  • Leave a copy of a favorite book on a table or bench with a “This is yours to enjoy!” note inside to whoever finds it. There’s a Teen Book Drop event called Rock the Drop I’ve participated in for several years now. Why not spread the reading love all year long?!
  • Use a special talent, such as calligraphy, design, or organizational skills to help a non-profit organization promote an event.

The truth is, the more you give the happier you are…and the more you realize you have to give…in ways you never thought possible. It costs so little and the reward is priceless.

Here’s to magically Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year too!

Fireworks hearts