How it’s done: author James Howe presenting to Middle Schoolers

I had the privilege of watching author James Howe present to Nauset Regional Middle School today– the whole school. (I have an inside advantage: my wife Bonnie is a guidance counselor there!) He spoke at two different schools today, and will give an evening presentation, too.

THE MISFITS by James Howe
THE MISFITS by James Howe

I was taking in Jim’s presentation on three levels:

  1. Enjoying the ethnographic research of being in a middle school– the drastic differences between 6th, 7th, and 8th graders… the ways of dressing, the height differentials, the hair.
  2. As a writer, it was delightful to hear Jim Howe talking about his writing process, the way he develops character, and his motivations to write.
  3. As someone who does school presentations and writing workshops, watching the ease and charm with which Jim presented was inspiring.

Some observations:

**Jim read a few pages from THE MISFITS first, to set the scene for his conversation. Many of the students had read the book and were familiar with the others in the series.

**Jim showed slides– but not too many. His commentary was relaxed, conversational. He showed some pictures of his own childhood, pet pictures (a big hit), photos of his process (spreading out his manuscript pages on a large table, the three-ring binder approach, and more). He shared a picture of himself and his daughter when she was at middle school age, and said that her struggles in middle school inspired THE MISFITS. He demonstrated a real empathy for how difficult middle school is– something that must be so powerful for his young audience to hear!

Jim Howe and his daughter. "A seed for a book is very often a question."
Jim Howe and his daughter. “A seed for a book is very often a question.”

**Jim talked openly and easily about being gay, about being married to a woman earlier in his life, and why it took him so long to come out. It was disarming, simple, direct, and related to his books. His books are responsible for the creation of No Name Calling Day across the country, and he spoke about being very proud of that. I kept thinking about the kids in the audience who were out, or coming out– how powerful to have this author and role model up there, being himself in such a natural and comfortable way!

Howe GLSEN

**Jim spoke about “interviewing” one of the characters in his books in order to get to know to the character more deeply. He showed pages of his interview notes and how they ended up as backstory in the novel TOTALLY JOE. He finished with a Q&A.

Totally Joe

Finally some kid notes:

**The middle schoolers weren’t playing it too cool. “There he is!” a boy stage-whispered as he entered the auditorium. Another boy literally jumped up and down with excitement as he had his books signed by Jim.

**Blue hair. Purple hair. Green hair.

**Wedge high-top sneakers are apparently a thing.

**Best middle-schooler’s shirt, in my estimation: hand-lettered with a Sharpie, “May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor.”

Meeting Jim Howe was delightful!
Meeting Jim Howe was delightful!

All in all, a perfect experience of a great author visit!

 

 

 

 

 

Raising a Reader: my class for parents/early educators!

Raising a Reader! I’m offering this community education class in May 2016 at the Cape Cod Campus of Bridgewater State University.

Stack of bks

Raising a Reader is a non-credit course aimed at parents and caregivers who want to infuse a love of reading and books into their children’s lives. Preschool teachers and home daycare providers may also enjoy this course.

Topics covered in Raising a Reader include: reaching a wide range of learning styles; early literacy skills; book selection; overview of genres and types of children’s books; anatomy of a picture book; putting together a diverse and rich home library; boosting literacy skills during read-aloud; and engaging reluctant readers of all ages.

PBs

Participants will also come away with literacy resources, book lists, and on-line resources. Raising a Reader is open to the community (participants do not need to be registered college students or college graduates).

Poetry

The class will meet on four Wednesday evenings: May 4,11,18 and 25, 2016 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Bridgewater State University/Cape Cod Campus in Yarmouth, MA. Cost: $149.00

Mother Goose

It’s going to be fun!  Register here. GOOD NEWS: Bridgewater-Cape Cod has just announced a “bring a friend” special. Register for the class ($149) and you can bring a friend. You can split the cost!

 

MARY LIB PHOTO

Author and educator Mary E. Cronin teaches Early Childhood Education, Children’s Literature, and Creative Writing at a wide array of institutions including Cape Cod Community College, Bridgewater State University, Barnstable County Correctional Facility, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, and more. Mary is a passionate advocate for children’s literacy and the joy of reading. Read more about her at www.maryecronin.com, or on Twitter at @maryecronin.

 

 

 

 

 

Running in Flip Flops

Poetry on the radio– it’s a perfect match. A poem can lift the spirits and light the way as we go about our day. My poem “Running in Flips Flops” was recently featured on our local NPR station’s Poetry Sunday series. WCAI-FM (Cape and Islands NPR) includes a local poet each week in the middle of the Weekend Edition program on Sunday mornings. I was delighted to be the only children’s poet chosen thus far!

“Running in Flip Flops” is a tribute to Cape Cod kids, to the ease and grace with which they live and play in the beautiful place.

running sand dune

Enjoy!

A Prison Writing Class using Children’s Books

Get people talking about the books they remember as children, and all sorts of things happen. The voice softens. There is laughter. The eyes look beyond, beyond the room to another place, another time.

That’s what happened in the first session of my creative writing class last month at Barnstable County Correctional Facility on Cape Cod. For five years now, I have been teaching a ten-week creative writing class in the women’s unit once a year; this time around, I decided to use children’s books as the writing prompts.

 wild things

I knew that more than half the women in the prison were mothers, and I figured that using children’s books would serve a dual purpose: provide a spark of inspiration for writing, and familiarize the women with children’s books that they may want to read to their children when they are released and reunited with family.

“When you hear the words children’s books, what do you think of?” That was the prompt on the first day of class, to allow me to get to know the women and hear a bit about their experiences.

Cat in Hat

They wrote and wrote, about Dr. Seuss, Goodnight Moon, Rainbow Fish, Where the Wild Things Are, nursery rhymes. Jess wrote three pages about a book she remembered from her eye doctor’s office, about a girl who needed a coat, and the sheep that were sheared to get the yarn that would be dyed red, and all the steps of the making the coat. Her face lit up as she read this reminiscence from her composition book. The word “pain” was tattooed along her knuckles. She couldn’t remember the title, but the feeling the book gave to her was still there after so many years, shining through in her smile.

Market Street

I read Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street to them to kick off our second class. They marveled at the “real people” who populated the illustrations (especially the guy with tattoos), and wrote about a time that they became aware of haves and have-nots, of want or lack, or having something that someone else longed for. The women roared with laughter as Laura read aloud about her mother snipping alligators off of polo shirts and sewing them on less-expensive shirts so her kids felt they were wearing the “right” brand. The book was passed around; they hungrily inspected the vivid illustrations by Christian Robinson. They discussed a line from de la Peña’s story that stood out as a favorite, especially poignant when read inside the walls of a prison: “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt…you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

market street interior

For our third week, I dug around my local library and found A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefert, published in the 80s. It was all there as Jess had described: the girl, the sheep, the red yarn. When I brought it in for session 3, Jess’s eyes lit up. As we passed the book around, she wrote down the title and author; she’s getting out soon and will not be in class when I return. They wrote about treasured articles of clothing: the extra-cool jeans everyone wanted in their teen years, the favorite boots, the halter top that Mom disapproved of. Everyone wrote, laughing softly, nodding, their pencils scratching in their composition notebooks.

New Coat for Anna

Some of the women read their words aloud each week, others shake their heads no, saying they will never read. Sometimes one participant will offer to read aloud the words of another. There are moments heavy with sadness, but more often, laughter.

In between the exchanges about books and writing there is talk about their children, getting out of prison, longing for coffee, wondering about the weather. As I bring a children’s book past the gates and checkpoints and metal doors, I feel like I’m carrying in a bright and vivid world, folded up as tightly as an origami box. We get to unfold it together, letting the colors and word play unfurl, warming the small airless room with cinderblock walls.

composition book

Seven weeks to go… more words, more color, more writing to come.

(Names have been changed to protect confidentiality)

A nod for TOMFOOLERY!

May the road rise to meet you, and the wind be always at your back.

~Irish Proverb

Tomfoolery. It’s a word I love, and the title of the middle-grade novel that I’m revising and preparing to send back to my agent, Linda Camacho.

Tomfoolery just received a runner-up honor in the Cape Cod Writers Center annual writing contest– a delightful confirmation that I am on the right track, something all writers need at one time or another. I feel the wind at my back, even as I acknowledge that in the writing and publishing world, the road can be rocky for writers and it does not always rise to meet us!

My main character is eleven-year-old Tom Foley, who lives on Cape Cod and dreams of being a famous window dresser like Simon Doonan. When he defies his grandmother’s wishes and sneaks off to a semester of Saturday art classes in Provincetown, his artistic skills blossom, but he realizes he needs the support of his friends and family to be truly happy.

Tom, a bit of a late bloomer (a topic I blogged about recently), frequently gets teased for being gay– but he’s not quite sure of his identity yet. He fits into that “questioning” category, like many middle-schoolers who question just about anything.

Carnival beads figure into a few Provincetown scenes in TOMFOOLERY, so sometimes I wear mine for inspiration!
Carnival beads figure into a few Provincetown scenes in TOMFOOLERY, so sometimes I wear mine for inspiration!

Thank you, Cape Cod Writers Center, for the vote of confidence!

Connecting Through Kids’ Books: A Prison Writing Project

Like a plane coming in for a landing, I am settling back in to work and writing after the excitement of the holidays and a January trip to Ireland. Thanks to local arts funding, I will be teaching a new version of my creative writing class in the women’s unit of the Barnstable County Correctional Facility here on Cape Cod, and I’m very excited!

Here’s the description:

Mary E. Cronin will lead a ten-week writing workshop, “Connecting Through Kids’ Books,” in the women’s unit of Barnstable County Correctional Facility, where 80% of the female inmates are mothers. In each 90-minute session, Mary will bring a children’s book, which will be read aloud and used as a creative writing prompt. As participants appreciate and write about children’s books, they will improve their own literacy, become newly aware of the power of reading aloud, and add to their parenting skills in anticipation of their release and reunion with their children.

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It’s been well-documented that when parents are incarcerated, it places enormous stress on their children, impacting child development and the parent-child relationship. Connecting Through Kids’ Books: A Prison Writing Project aims to address those needs on several levels.

First, it will boost the literacy skills of the adult participants by sparking appreciation of high-quality children’s books, building vocabulary, and strengthening writing skills through creative writing.

Second, the program will bolster parenting skills by giving  participants a window into the joy and stimulation that children’s books can provide, especially if they themselves were not read to as children. Connecting through Kids’ Books also will give the women an awareness of titles they can read to their children once they are released from prison, and appreciation for the access that the public library can provide.

One of the books we'll be reading and writing about
One of the books we’ll be reading and writing about

I’m thrilled that two Local Cultural Councils from Cape Cod have supported this project, and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. It starts next week!

 

What a children’s writer learned from a fierce diva’s cabaret act

Billy Porter was just in Provincetown for a three-night nightclub engagement. You know, the Billy Porter who won a Tony for the role of Lola in Broadway’s hit “Kinky Boots.” He sang with supreme confidence in a skirt, a killer hat and some kick-ass ankle boots.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 10.19.57 AM

He paid homage to “Kinky Boots” (now on national tour with someone else in the lead role) without irony or sarcasm, honoring it as the show that changed his life, that brought him to a new level of artistic growth. He described reassuming the role of Lola when the national tour hit his hometown of Pittsburgh: “the prodigal son came home… in a dress.”  In his Pittsburgh childhood, he said, he’d been “bullied… discarded… told by the ministers at the front of the church that I was worth nothing because of my homosexuality.” Years later, he conquered the Pittsburgh stage as Lola, in a play that, as he said, “changed hearts and minds…. it was the ministry of Lola.” A triumph.

kinky boots billy w tony

A professional career coach recently told me that the most successful people are the ones who know WHY they are going what they are doing. The WHY behind the work drives success, clarity, and vision.

As Billy swept through the audience, eliciting participation and making merry, he neared a smiling mom and her androgynous teen. As he walked past, he placed his hand for a moment on that teen’s shoulder. That moment, that gesture, said so much. Ministry, indeed.

Billy also paid homage to Cyndi Lauper, lyricist of “Kinky Boots.” “She wrote the hell out of that song” he said of one number… and told us about her completely rewriting Charlie’s “want” song four days before Broadway opening… because it needed it! Then he sang the song so we could admire her artistry.

Seeing this show rearranged all my brain cells. There was music, fierce fashion, food for writing thought, activism and beauty. Billy Porter is a genius– it was a delight to see him in a small venue.  He clearly knows the WHY of what he is doing, and it shines out of him with a laser’s intensity. His example made me, someone who writes for kids, a better writer in that one evening, crystallizing my own WHY that keeps me writing, persisting, creating.

Here’s my favorite song from “Kinky Boots,” which Billy sang solo in Provincetown quite beautifully. Enjoy!

Rainbow Boxes- books for LGBTQ+ youth

Have you heard about Rainbow Boxes? It’s a way to get sorely needed books into the hands of LGBTQ+ youth.

rainbow boxes

Flashback to a scene in a middle school library about six years ago: the school counselor, who happens to be my wife, was showing me the section in the library where the books on sexuality could be found. Included in the collection were a few books referencing gay and lesbian youth. Except you could never find them, she said, because kids would covertly take the books, read them furtively in the far corners of the library, and stick them back into a random shelf when they were done.

So much has changed since then!

First, my wife wrote a grant and her school library now has a full collection of GLBTQ+ books. Plus, there is a middle school GSA (now called GSE, for Gender, Sexuality and Equality). There is more openness, inclusion, conversation– at the school level and in our country as a whole!

But that’s just one school, with some progressive leadership, on Cape Cod. There are so many schools that don’t have those resources. YA authors Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy are aiming to fill that need with their genius idea called Rainbow Boxes, which are boxes filled with books about GLBTQ+ characters. These books, funded by an Indiegogo campaign, will be sent to every state in the union (to one school and one shelter)– if the project reaches full funding! This project goes hand-in-hand with the We Need Diverse Books mission.

I’ve made my contribution. Will you kick in a few dollars, for kids who need to see themselves represented realistically and positively in a book? And check out their book list (on the Indiegogo page) for some fantastic summer reading.

rainbow boxes2

Follow Rainbow Boxes on Twitter at @RainbowBoxesYA.

Follow We Need Diverse Books on Twitter at @diversebooks.

 

Poetry Love in the South Bronx

I recently received a bundle of letters from the kids at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. I delivered a poetry presentation there in the spring, using Jacqueline Woodson‘s BROWN GIRL DREAMING and Kwame Alexander‘s THE CROSSOVER as mentor texts.

SLS picture

St. Luke’s is located in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. “Mott Haven has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, but it is still full of good people who struggle mightily to overcome difficult economic challenges.” (St. Luke’s newsletter)

SLS pic gr.7

My mother, Kitty Cronin, attended St. Luke’s as a child, the daughter of immigrants who were trying to make their way in a new country. Many of the children I met at St. Luke’s are navigating that same path, decades later.

Kitty Cronin

Kitty Cronin, back in the 1940’s

The seventh and eighth graders I spoke to were vibrant, earnest, and they fell in love with the two texts, which I gave to their teacher as a gift.

writer hands b

Their interest in poetry and love of literature are apparent in their notes, which I will treasure.

SLS pic Kitty

I sent them a note in return– telling them I got to meet Kwame Alexander at a writing conference (New England SCBWI).

Kwame Alexander + M

I told Kwame about the kids who loved his book in the South Bronx, and he sent his greetings, which I passed on!

F 4 books

Can’t wait to go back to St. Luke’s next year!

#poetrylove

Writing as Service

A friend of mine recently used the term “writing as service.” Bells starting chiming in my brain.

Writing can be seen as many things: a creative outlet, a hobby or job, a business and source of income, a way of connecting to others. But the concept of writing as a way of doing service in the world* was both familiar and new to me, all at the same time.

The concept of writing as service is a balm to my soul when the “business” of writing starts chafing too deeply, when I find myself thinking too much about agents and editors and publishers and manuscript wish lists. Those noises begin to drown out the creative hum of actually writing. And those noises start to create negative associations, blocking the connection between “writing” and “pleasure.”

Teaching creative writing to an under-served population is a form of service. When I go to the Barnstable County Correctional Facility and teach writing to incarcerated women, I feel inspired, blessed, and lucky to be a writer. When I taught a recent poetry workshop at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx, I was enriched by the experience: by the kids who blossomed as they wrote, by the ones who sought me out to make a momentary, personal connection, by the adults who wanted to talk to me about writing. Again, I came away energized, refreshed, inspired.

writer b vest - Version 2

Writing something that serves as a mirror or window for another person also feels like writing as service. I’ve had that experience, too, with my essays, with work I have shared in writing workshops or elsewhere. That chime of connection rings deep in my soul. I’m sure you’ve had that, too.

bells

As I navigate the crooked and sometimes bumpy path of being a writer, I will keep this concept of writing as service close to me. I will use it to keep me grounded, to drown out the “static” of the writing life, to focus on the important quests: putting words on the page, and using my writing to somehow enrich the world. That, I’m convinced, will sustain me for the long road ahead.

(Thanks to Elisabeth Booze for our conversation about this term!)