Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bailey Island in Fog

An island hides in fog as the tide ebbs and flows.

Murk, mud, shells, seaweed and pebbles emerge from shoals.

Tidal pools harbor hermit crabs, tickling toes.

An offshore storm swallows the shore.  Thunder moans.

Blog Watch on ocean/island photography:
Magazine watch: I sold a couple of my landscape photographs to a new magazine, Mainely Spirits. If you’re in Maine in August, pick up a free copy at stores (including supermarkets) that sell liquor.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Romantic Québec City

We didn’t have enough time to fly to Europe for our 20th anniversary
but the drive to Québec City from coastal Maine was only 5 hours.

It was a gorgeous road lined in lupines. We passed a moose by a lake and very little traffic. Once we crossed the border to Canada, all signs were in French. The evergreen mountains transformed to rural France in both landscape and architecture.

A wide bridge spans the Saint Lawrence River to Québec City. Boardwalks above (first photo) and dockside (above) were designed for romantic promenades, sunset included.



This isn’t France?



There were plenty of cafés to rest tired feet. We sat outside on Parisian style wicker chairs, even in the rain.

The boardwalk overlooking the river had verandas for shelter too. Despite being so far north, the city was designed for outdoor seating. At one “exterior” restaurant we were offered blankets as the staff fired up the heaters. The food was definitely French although not always as refined.

Our hotel breakfast at Auberge Saint-Antoine was divine, especially the French Toast with caramelized apples and nuts that tasted like tarte tatin. Lattes were served traditionally in a bowl (photo by Henry Laurence.)  We felt very pampered and relaxed.

I spoke as much French as English. I recall years ago not being able to understand Canadian French, but now everyone except for the older residents speaks traditional French. We truly felt like we were in a forgotten city of France.

The setting was wonderful, but even better was the company. Henry asked me if I’d ever been any happier. I could think of special moments like our wedding, the birth of our children and of some blissful moments alone in Africa, but I’ve never been in a happier place in life. And I don’t just mean Québec. This is the picture of happiness.

Winner: the prize ARC of The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister by Charlotte Agell goes to Stacy Nyikos @ Out There.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cake Calamities and Clematis

When I hadn’t posted my blog all day, my dad emailed and my husband came home early from work. They feared the worst. I was baking my famous sponge cake. Honestly, it was not my fault this time. In a World Cup Soccer moment, my twenty-year-old cake mixer took a dive when the ref wasn’t watching.

I dropped my book (okay, maybe I shouldn’t have been reading) and raced the dog to the batter that had splattered on the floor. “If you want to bake a cake, you have to break some eggs.” In my case, two batches. My apologies to the neighbors, who may have passed by the screen door. I don’t usually swear like a fish wife.

The birthday girl poked her head in to ask, "Is it safe?"  No glass shards this time. I am now the mother of two teenagers. The older one is canoeing for 7 weeks in the wilderness so the more recently minted teen is an only child this month. As much as I’m missing my son, I’m really enjoying the one-on-one time with my daughter.

I’m sure many parents would disagree, but teenagers are more fun than younger children. It’s the age of both reflection and impulsive choices, of maturing into a unique person. I love the intense discussions and even the questioning. You don’t get unconditional love; you have to earn it.

Although it was her birthday, my 13-year-old daughter gave me a wonderful gift. She first said people over 35 can’t be cool, but then she made a few exceptions. According to her I’m a “cool mom.” The reason is “I don’t try.”

Our cool day in Brunswick, Maine:

Romance in Tuscany with a Shakespeare theme. What’s not to love?

As for the images, they are of our clematis that usually peaks on my daughter’s birthday, but this year was 2 weeks early. Every year the roots grow deeper, the vine climbs higher and the blooms are more exuberant. Just like my beautiful daughter.

What else is blooming in my garden: late lupines, hydrangea, lilies, pansies, lobelia and yummy Early Bird and Cherry Tomatoes. For more Garden Blogger Bloom Day posts go to May Dreams Garden. I’ll come visit tomorrow while my daughter is at her first paid babysitting job. Don’t blink. They grow up fast.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister by Charlotte Agell: review, interview and ARC give away

My fabulous writing critique partner, Charlotte Agell, has just published her 12th children’s book. The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister follows a mischievous nine-year-old tomboy as she struggles to understand the shifting relationships in her life.

Although the protagonist is called India, she was adopted from China. Her artist mother named her for India Ink. India loves her parents, but she resents her birth mother for giving her up. India feels doubly rejected when she has to share her father with his new partner, Richard. Then India’s best friend, a boy called Colby, starts flirting with her arch nemesis, Amanda.

How’s a girl to cope with all this stress? India doesn’t mope. She seeks out adventures: searching for UFOs, spying on gossiping girls, playing detective and camping in the woods of Maine. India has a big heart and a nose for fun/trouble. Charlotte’s whimsical line drawings highlight the many humorous moments in this easy to read novel.

Although the material is very now, Charlotte's child-centered style with freedom to explore reminds me of the classic books from my childhood from Harriet the Spy to Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club. Families with step-parents, breast cancer survivors (India’s mother is one), same-sex partners and/or adopted children will especially appreciate the inclusiveness of this contemporary story. Charlotte covers “The Big Issues” in an age appropriate manner without being judgmental. For example India has typical problems accepting her new stepfather, but his being gay is a not an issue (except to the nosy neighbor.) I’m buying a copy for my half Japanese niece, who is starting fourth grade next year.

My daughter and I were intimately involved in India and its sequel (in the works.) Charlotte and I have been critiquing each other’s manuscripts for the past three years and have since become close friends. She encouraged me to try writing for teens as well as for adults, leading by her fine example. Since my daughter was the same age as the targeted audience, Charlotte asked for her input too. Any criticism my daughter and I had Charlotte has already responded to or ignored (like not calling a Chinese American girl India - a minor quibble) as suited her unique vision. We have enjoyed watching India grow over the past two years.

My 12-year-old daughter's review:

I first read The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister as a rough draft when I was ten and absolutely loved it, and I just reread it again recently as a published book, and I still love it! When I was ten, I enjoyed the story because it was new, cool and funny. Rereading it now, I notice more specific things like how it’s written very believably as a fourth grade girl narrator.

Each character is perfectly described and sculpted so I can picture how they are in my mind and how they act. One of the most fun parts about this book is India’s voice. She narrates out of her own eye and has a young, funny essence to how she does it. I really like her crazy dog, Tofu, because I can completely relate to having one hyper, lovable, woofing yellow bundle of craziness in our house! India was a super fun read, and I would definitely recommend it to kids around the age of eight to ten. I think they would really enjoy reading this book, I know I did!

Interview of Charlotte Agell
by Sarah Laurence and her daughter
(author photo by Sarah Laurence)

1. You’ve written 9 picture books and then 2 young adult novels (ages 12-18) as your own children grew up, what made you decide to try middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) now?

It was really more as if middle grade fiction decided to try me! I find that’s often the case with my books. I chew on an idea, and the idea itself decides its form. My hunch is also that spending so much time with 5th graders at the middle school where I teach contributed! The other thing is that I loved so many chapter books, growing up: Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi stories, the Moomintroll books…they were also illustrated, the latter by the author herself. I think the illustrations are similarly key to The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister (and if anybody doesn’t know Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, well, they should run to the nearest library and find them!).

2. You are happily married with two biological children, what led you to write about a girl adopted from China, who is being raised by a single mother and by a father and his gay partner in the fictional town of Wolfgang, Maine?

A fifth grader at the school where I work showed me her memoir. It contained very powerful writing about how she felt about her Chinese birth mother. This started me thinking…. India’s story is very, very different from this girl’s story, but that was definitely one of the seeds. As for India’s mother, she is a strong woman artist with a great deal on her plate, reminding me in some ways of my own mother, and how it was for her, after my father left. India's father is very much in her life, and part of this story is about how she gets to know his partner, Richard. For India, the issue is a step-parenting one. I was writing this book as Maine's Gay Marriage Law (approved by the legislature) went out to referendum. It didn't pass, unfortunately. I wish it had, as Andrew and Richard would definitely like to be married. Maybe they will be, in a later book.

3. Did you have anyone in your life a bit like India or did she just come up in your head?

India has elements of quite a few real life characters. She has my daughter’s love of reading and science, for example, and her willingness to be completely herself, even as a “tween.” She has a bit of me in her, too, as almost all my characters do. (I, too, made a snake mistake and saw a U.F.O.!) But in the end, India is mostly invention; she walked into my life and notebooks with attributes that came from who knows where! It’s funny about characters – they may be fictional but they feel very real to me.

4. Did you like as a kid (or still like) going on adventures like India?

Who doesn’t like adventures? Well, actually, as India demonstrates, they can be scary. I lived in Sweden, Canada, and Hong Kong as a kid, and often found myself wondering what on earth was going on. The sometimes strange situations I found myself in, due to culture bump or just growing up, made me wonder. Writing is, to me, mostly about wondering about things, just on paper. I’m still digesting that long ago U.F.O., and I’m guessing that this is why it makes my appearance here.

5. After 9 years teaching creative writing in a Gifted and Talented middle school program, what do you think is the most helpful writing advice? 

When an idea strikes you, write it down as immediately as possible (otherwise it is guaranteed to morph into its boring cousin). A corollary: always carry a notebook, or have one nearby. Write every day, even if it is only for a little while (some days, three minutes counts!) Writing is truly a matter of revision. Get those ideas down, sleep on them, take another look. Although ideas may strike like lightning, or waft in on the breeze, so much about writing involves perseverance. So, stick with writing, if you wish to write (and why not?) Finally, do not cook and write at the same time, for you will burn the onions. I keep this advice on my bulletin board, as a reminder of an unfortunate incident.

6. Which is more challenging: writing or illustrating? How does being responsible for both affect the editing process, as a manuscript becomes a published book? 

I draw a lot, but feel more like a writer who illustrates, rather than a true illustrator. This is because I have a great deal of stamina and patience for revising my writing, but I don’t much like to rework pictures. I will, of course, but not in that careful way of someone trying to get it just right. My illustrating style is on the loose side, and related to how I draw portraits (quickly, in one go). Both writing and illustration are at root about observation…just different ways to express what I notice.

7. What can you share about the sequel?

After this book, India goes to camp. There, she encounters her worst enemy and the action escalates. India’s second book of adventures is one big adventure, rather than chapter length vignettes (although it’s still a chapter book). I had a great deal of fun writing the second book, too. Its working title is "India McAllister Goes to Camp," but that might change. Writing and illustrating a series feels good to me, since India seems to have a lot more to tell me!

In our opinion, the sequel is even better than the first. We're looking forward to more adventures. Thank you, Charlotte!

Want More Info? Visit India’s blog at India's Ink is written from the character’s perspective and features Charlotte’s drawings. Note that the wrong URL was printed on the book cover (another accidental adventure?) You can read another one of our mother-daughter (and son) reviews of Charlotte Agell’s books here. Visit her website to learn more.

Brunswick Book Signing: Charlotte will be reading from India and signing at  Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Maine on Saturday July 24 at 4pm. Sadly we'll miss it since that's the drop off day for my daughter's camp.

Reviewer’s Disclaimer: the publisher Henry Holt sent me both an Advanced Reader Copy and a finished copy of this book. I will be giving away the ARC below. All drawings by Charlotte Agell are reproduced with permission.

Free ARC Give Away: if you live in the U.S.A. and would like an Advanced Reader Copy of The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister, please mention so in your comment and give your email so I can reach you. On July 21, 2010 I will select one of you at random to receive the ARC. Published copies are already in American bookstores and available online anywhere through Amazon.

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@Barrie Summy

My novels: one of you blog readers recently stopped by the wonderful Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick and asked to buy my novels. None are in print yet. My agent has submitted both S.A.D. and "as u like it" to publishers. I hope to announce good news on my blog some day. Gary Lawless has already promised me book signings at his Gulf of Maine Books. In the meantime, I'm working on a new novel, A MATCH FOR EVE, inspired by my sabbatical in Oxford, England. Thank you so much for your support! Knowing I have readers waiting is the best encouragement.