Friday, March 30, 2012


There’s been a lot going on this week in our nation’s highest court. I’ve spent some time reading the argument transcripts, and while most of it is a sure cure for insomnia, Justice Scalia certainly had my attention when he stated “…you can make people buy broccoli.”
The discussion continued and “broccoli” was mentioned a whopping 7 more times!
I’m pretty sure they’re cooking up a broccoli mandate.
Well, it won’t be the first time that our government has engaged in plant implantation. Clearly, they created Popeye as pro-spinach propaganda.
Have you ever heard an elected official deny that?
Neither have I.
And what about the school lunch program? It’s been overhauled, as well. Why, I remember with great fondness those heady days when tater tots qualified as vegetables, and we ate them (when we weren’t throwing them) 5 days a week.
I turned out fine.
Well… mostly.
Anyway, it should be obvious to all of us that there’s an administrative agenda committed to vegetable consumption.
But I ask you – If vegetables are so great, why is “vegetative state” such a bad thing to be?
And if God wanted us to eat vegetables, why did he make so many of them green? That has got to be the most unappetizing color on the planet. Nobody likes to eat green. Trust me, if they did, every single breakfast cereal box would be word-shouting, “Now in Great-Tasting GREEN!” or “Grab Some Whole Grain GREEN Goodness” or “It’s GREEN-a-licious!”
But, alas, Washington’s plantatious plan is working.
In 2005 even Cookie Monster crumbled. He is now an advocate for healthy eating. Instead of “C is for Cookie” he sings “Cookie is a Sometimes Food”. You just wait. “C is for Carrot” is right around the corner, folks.
Luckily, kids can smell a lie 17 miles away. Kids understand a maniacal love of cookies. But even a three year old knows that getting yourself in a frenzy over a bag of carrots is whack.
And come on – if a maniacal love for vegetables makes you hairy and blue, then pass me the Oreos!
However, the Supreme Court knows that vegetation legislation will eventually win us all over to the dark and leafy side.
First Cookie Monster.
Now me.
After being subjected to produce propaganda for 40-plus years, I’ll admit that I now experience a certain delight in serving spinach to children. And when asked to participate in a potluck, there have been times, I confess, that I’ve contributed… the vegetable plate. And here’s the scariest thing of all – this weekend, my totally fun and fabulous plans involve…(gasp!)
planting peas.

PROMPT: Vegetables are fun and fabulous topics for children’s books! Get some food for thought by reading Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli by Barbara Jean Hicks (illustrated by Sue Hendra), or The Celery Stalks at Midnight by James Howe. You can also kick back and enjoy the “O’ Lonely Peas” track on Sandra Boynton’s Rhinoceros Tap. Before you know it, you’ll be as cool as a cucumber, as spectacular as spinach, and even as Supreme-Court-worthy-brilliant as broccoli.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Life’s Little Surprises

When I was 21 years old, I moved from PA to Indiana to attend graduate school. I was launching myself into the big, wide, and flat (in the case of Hoosier state) world – 600 miles from my nearest friend.
But I felt ready for the challenge. After all, things had gone pretty well for me up to this point. I had been accepted to my top choice school (Take that, Dr. F.! – see Sting of Rejection), and they had graciously offered a teaching assistant position that would grant me free tuition and a paycheck. Woot!
I was a little nervous, but mostly excited, about my new job. The letter from Purdue stated that I would be assisting with Psychology 444. Wow, a 400-level class, I thought. How cool is that? Funny, they didn’t list the title…
Let me pause to interject a little backstory here. If you knew me as a kid, it would have taken you less than two seconds to sum up that Barb = introvert. I was quiet… and serious – we’re talking scowl-worthy serious. And my patronus… was a bookworm. Well, that’s a pretty good combo if you want to be a good student. However, just the fleeting thought of speaking up in class caused my palms to sweat and my heart to jackhammer. I avoided it at all costs. And so my class participation scores were always low, and the comment box contained the constant refrain of “Barbara does not speak up in class”.
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s hustle back to Psychology 444 and the day I went to the school office to retrieve my classroom key and schedule. That’s when the friendly administrative assistant smiled and chirped, “So you’re the new sex TA!”
The WHAT?!
“Psychology 444 – that’s Human Sexuality,” she cheerfully explained.
Why is it that lightning bolts never smite when you want them to?
I have never wanted to be smote so truly, madly, deeply, badly as I did at that moment.
But the sky remained exasperatingly blue.
And so…
For the next two years… three times a week… Barbara spoke up in class… leading discussions on every possible perversion, aversion, and diversion of human “reproduction”.
I have never been the same.
Well, with one exception…
my patronus.

PROMPT: Like the letter from Hogwarts, the tornado to Oz, or the foot in the glass slipper – some things happen out of the blue and a character is forever changed. Have you had a life-changing event that you could incorporate into a story? What big surprises could you throw at your characters, just to see how they react? Composers – toss in some accidentals just for fun. Visual artists – now’s your chance to shock with shadows.
Can’t you just tell that today is going to be GREAT in so many surprising ways?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Last weekend our local university’s men’s basketball team won the Division II National Championship. WaHOOOoooo! Let me tell you, it took a lot of heroes giving 100% to pull that one off.
What an exciting game to watch! I got to enjoy the thrill of victory without the agony of pulling a hamstring or breaking a sweat.
And that got me thinking… Why is it so dang enthralling for us to watch people give it their all?
Hmmm… maybe because we know how difficult that is to do in our own “grown up” lives.
Think about it. When you’re young, you throw your whole heart into things. Remember that first love? 100% of your heart, right? How about the first manuscript you sent out? High hopes of the whole heart, no doubt.
Well, the trouble with throwing hearts is the same trouble you have when you throw just about anything… Breakage.
And after picking up the pieces (a.k.a. “maturing”), a lot of folks decide that the best protection for rejection is holding back. “From here on out,” they say. “Nobody and nothin’ – no way, no how is gettin’ all of my heart. I’m keepin' great big chunks the size of Texas just for me!” – add a “cryin’ in my beer” line, and you’ve got an award-winning country song.
The trouble with holding back is that it’s like dancing in a straitjacket. It doesn’t work. And, trust me, the attempt is not pretty.
Heroes don’t hold back. They throw 100% of their big, fat, red hearts again and again and let the pieces fall where they may.
Take the endearing Harry Potter. Was he half-hearted? “Gee, I dunno, I think maybe I can fit in a fight with Voldemort next Tuesday. But only before 3:00 – I have a dentist appointment.”
How about Ron and Hermione? Did they give only 65% of their hearts to friendship? “Ummm, sure Harry, we’re your “friends”... but only in a Facebookie sort of way. You really can’t expect our involvement when, uh, death is on the line. Duh!”
Ah, but that’s fiction, right?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want my kid’s teacher to be half-hearted… or my financial advisor… or my surgeon.
And I’m pretty sure the whole heart business is just as critical when it comes to the business of art. I’m thinking Picasso gave more than 45%. Composer John Williams? Yep. Author Suzanne Collins – for sure.
So, go ahead and write all the country songs you want to about your busted up half a heart that won’t be thrown into nothin’ never again. That’s a great creative exercise.
Just try not to live that way.

PROMPT: Be a hero! Get out there and start flinging heart – 100%! You only get one dance with this particular body, mind, and cast of characters. Don’t do it in a straitjacket. Start that book. Send in that manuscript again and again… and again… (that’s 27 “agains” if you're Dr. Seuss). Pitch to that gallery. When you’re tired, don’t quit – take a nap. Who knows? You might just save your career, your relationship… yourself.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Believe it or not, I know a lot of facts. Sure, they’re useless facts, but they’re my facts and I’m sticking with ‘em. I’m pretty certain of them, too. Unlike my dad whose addendum to every fact-telling tale was, “Well… I’m pretty sure it’s true… I may have dreamt it… or made it up.” Hmmm…Maybe Mr. Daisey of Apple fabrication fame is looking for an assistant.
Anyway, fact-finding comes with the territory when you write for the children’s education market. And here’s a tip – if you want a great partner for the old game of Trivial Pursuit, pick a children’s nonfiction writer. I may sadly bore you to death-by-facts in a conversation, but I’ll help you bring home the pie. No doubt about it.
Truth be told, facts are fantastic launching points for fiction. The old adage “Truth is stranger than fiction” became an adage precisely because it is strangely true.
Let’s take the anglerfish. You might remember this one from Finding Nemo – it’s the sea creature with the pretty light that attracts prey right up to its wicked grin. Sure, its “angler” angle is a pretty strange truth, but trust me, this toothy fish gets even “truthier”.
First off, the anglerfish who invites Marlin for dinner is a female. It is only the female who looks that way. Obviously, her personality doesn’t score any points either. Well, as you can imagine, having those two strikes against her can make a prom date hard to find. And so, she engages in… well, let’s call it “extreme dating”.
All she has to do is employ her feminine wiles to entice the much smaller male to give her a wee little love bite. A regrettable choice for Mr. Anglerfish. His mouth fuses to her skin and then… over time… his eyes shrink and disappear. Uh-oh. His organs are next to go. Eventually, he is just a lump – a sperm-generating lump, but a lump nonetheless.
Well, you asked.
Actually, you didn’t… Sorry.
Just enjoy the day appreciating the fact that you are not a male anglerfish.

PROMPT: Do some fact-finding today! I especially recommend delving into the deep sea and VOILA – instant science fiction!  There’s no telling what strange other-worldly creatures you can dream up when poking around your own planet.

Monday, March 26, 2012

ABBA Dabba Doo

I’m the kind of person who marches to the beat of a different trampoline. So it may be no great surprise that I did not see The Hunger Games this weekend.
I have nothing against The Hunger Games, per se, but we were celebrating a family birthday and did not wish to spend even one moment in dystopia. And so, we did the most non-dystopian thing we could think of – we headed out to see the touring Broadway production of Mamma Mia!
Now if you would have told me some 30-plus years ago that I would one day spend nearly 3 hours voluntarily listening to ABBA songs… and enjoying them, I would have said that you were smoking banana peels (or whatever my hard rockin’, geeky 13-year-old brain could have come up with on the fly). Back then, I had both feet firmly planted in the KISS camp.
Oh, what tunes! What hair! What Spandex! And you can bet your face paint that I was the proud owner of every single KISS 8-track. That’s right – 8-track. I am that old. If you don’t know what an 8-track is, go ask your mother… or your grandmother. For those of you who do know, let’s just say that to this day I cannot listen to Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice” without my mind hearing the fade-out and Ka-THUNK of it changing from track 1 to track 2, then Lou Gramm’s fade-in of “You know that you are”.
Good times… Good times.
Anyway, back to Mamma Mia! Did you know that producer Judy Craymer actually had the idea of weaving ABBA hits into a story over 25 years ago? Well, she approached Benny and Bj√∂rn (the two B’s in ABBA) to convince them that it was a smashing good idea. Let’s just say, they were less than thrilled. But Judy had BUMBLE (see The Sting of Rejection, March 14). She found a writer to create the story – Catherine Johnson. Then a director – Phyllida Loyde. The rest is Super Trouper history!
Don’t you just love the creativity involved in making a musical sensation out of a band’s hit list? I sure do.
You know, when the play first opened in April of 1999, one British critic wrote, “Mamma Mia! could put Prozac out of business!”
I love that even more.

PROMPT: You can try the Mamma Mia! method right there in your own home! Take your favorite band or artist and create a story that fits their hits. From country to hip hop -- any wordy musical genre will do, so create away! I don’t know who you’ll pick, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be working with “Rock and Roll all Nite” (yep, we didn’t have spell-check back then either),  “Love Gun”, “Beth”…