All Are Welcome Here

by Marilyn Wolpin for #FallWritingFrenzy2021

As summer exhaled into fall, a new family moved in:

Two cats and a dog, mom and dad and three kids.

They brought challah and kugel,

Brisket, babka, and wine.

China adorned a table of white linen.

Flames flickered in silver candlesticks.

Recite the prayer. Welcome the New Year.

But where could they daven and sway?

Up on the hill, a lonely church sat,

cushioned in crisp fallen leaves.

She prayed for her pews to be packed.

But only on Sundays were her prayers answered

when townsfolk came to sing the Lord’s praises.

On Monday, Tuesday, or any other day,

the little church sat empty.

Could we? Should we? Would it be allowed?

They looked to the skies for a sign.

As the sun slowly set, a rainbow arched over them.

The family made ready to go.

In Sabbath-best clothes, in polished shoes and smart hats,

they crunched up the leafy hill.

The lonely church watched. The lonely church waited.

She puffed dust off the unused pews.

Someone was coming to pray.

As the family drew near, she opened her doors.

She rejoiced! Hallelujah! she cried.

All are welcome here.

For The First Time in 426 Days

It’s 1:00 PM on Mother’s Day 2021 and this mother doesn’t know what to do.

My husband, son, sister, and I celebrated with my mother in New Jersey

For the first time in 426 days

Yesterday.

212 miles in one day.

That’s more driving than I’ve done in 426 days but it was worth it.

My husband, son, and I celebrated by eating out

For the first time in 426 days

Last Sunday.

(We mistakenly thought last Sunday was Mother’s Day

and kept the reservation anyway once we discovered our error.)

When my son was younger, even younger still, I used Mother’s Day

To escape motherhood. Sit quietly in the dark at the movies.

Go to the ice rink and concentrate on not falling on cold, hard ice.

Be alone. Do what I wanted.

But for the last 426 days I’ve been doing whatever I wanted.

So it’s 1:00 PM Mother’s Day 2021.

I could turn on the ballgame. Oh, how I missed baseball.

I have edits in mind for a picture book in progress.

Maybe tomorrow.

I need to update my website.

And now that I’ve written this blog

I have to go to my website!

After that for the first time in 426 days

I’m not exactly sure what to do next.

Maybe I’ll just take a nap.

The Grumpy Valentine

by Marilyn Wolpin (For Susannah Hill’s Valentiny Contest February 2021)

Hearts. Roses.
Glitter. Glue.
Bah! Phooey!
Not me. Ewww!

Teacher says,
“Make a valentine for everyone.”
I won’t do it. No, I won’t.
I don’t like anyone.
And no one likes me.

I cross my arms.
I scowl. I pout.
“Cut out hearts. Color them in.”
Nope. I won’t.
No one gets a heart from me.
You’ll see.

Wait! What’s this?
An envelope?
“Will you be my valentine?”
Signed Emily?

Someone likes me?
Emily? I like her.
She sings out loud.
She swings a wicked baseball bat.
I play baseball. I sing. Sorta.

Where’s my crayon?
Where’s my heart?
“Will you …
be my …
valentine?”

Glitter, glue.
Now I’m through.
I sit and stare at the scribbly-scrabble.
Will she like it?
A little bit?

I stare. I sit.
I think. I blink.
Can I give it?
Do I dare?

Finally …
I inch up
to her chair.
There.

“I’ve Spent a Lot of Time on This Story Already”

There are many reasons to stop working on a story. You may have run out of ideas. You may have recognized that the message and the medium don’t match. Another story has come barreling into your consciousness and you feel you must work on that. Another way of saying what you meant to say has come to you and you are compelled to follow that thought. And I have also heard, “I’ve spent a lot of time on this already,” throwing poor “time” under the bus. I didn’t realize there was a time limit.

A published author was once asked, “How long does it take you to write a picture book?” Her answer was, “It depends. Some take a month, some take three months, some take three years. In other words, they take as long as they take.” And time you’ve already spent creating cannot be one of the reasons why you abandon a book.

I understand that time is a special commodity. For parents who work out of the home or in, sometimes the only time you have to work on a book is after the work is all done and the kids are in bed. And time becomes a balancing act. Should I work on something that’s just not coming or should I put my time against something that’s working out just beautifully? This is a decision every writer has to make. If a manuscript is giving you trouble, don’t claim time’s up and abandon it. Time shouldn’t be the excuse. Simply put it away and let it age. Your back burner brain will be working on it. You can always come back to it later. And maybe when age has had its way with it you may realize what a dumb idea it was or what a great idea it was and you’ll put more time against it.

Or you may simply realize that for whatever reason this story just isn’t going to work the way you hoped. I was trying to write a story about a rainbow. But my treatment goes against the whole world’s concept of rainbows as being miraculous, joyous, hopeful things. And as much as I think my story is funny and clever, I don’t think anyone would buy it. Too irreverent. I may have put a lot of time against this story and its many revisions, but I would never say I won’t work on it anymore because of the time spent. It was well spent. It was time spent learning the craft of writing picture books in general rather than that story in particular.

Time is not the excuse. Theme, structure, plot, character development, tone. These are the reasons a story works or doesn’t work and if these elements aren’t working then they are the proper “excuses” for abandoning a story.

Successes in Crazy 2020

Children’s author Julie Hedlund, challenged her followers to post successes in crazy 2020 on our blogs this year instead of resolutions. Since I never saddle myself with resolutions because they are generally impossible to achieve, I decided to participate in Julie’s Anti-Resolution Revolution! Successes in 2020, what with COVID and all the changes it wrought, should be especially celebrated, no matter how big or how small. So here is my list of picture book writing successes for 2020:

  • Attended many events including, SCBWI’s Summer Spectacular, Rutger’s University’s Council on Children’s Literature, one of Julie Hedlund’s courses, Children’s Book Academy’s PBPalooza.
  • Wrote a non-fiction manuscript and had it read and critiqued by an agent. She generally did not like it. Rewrote same non-fiction picture book another 25 times and read it to an editor, who loved it, revised it, sent it to two other editors and an agent. The agent responded positively, but an editor was even more positive and after two more revisions it is on her desk once more.
  • Participated in two Twitter pitch parties.
  • Wrote four or five new books, some good, some bad.
  • Attended a webinar on writing in rhyme
  • Read many, many picture books in many genres: especially non fiction, rhyme, fiction, humor, Jewish themed.
  • Met and even had a telephone conversation with one of my favorite non-fiction kids’ books authors.
  • Wrote a children’s poem and entered it into a contest.
  • Wrote a dozen COVID-related haikus and just entered one into a contest.
  • Met a new critique partner.
  • Joined several children’s-writers Facebook groups.
  • Participate in a weekly critique partner group.
  • Made it through 2020 without getting sick.

I know this is supposed to be an anti-resolution post, but I do have one goal for 2021: to find and sign on with THE agent.

I can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and wish us all a much, much better 2021.

Ollie’s Christmas Visits

by Marilyn Wolpin (for Susannah Hill’s Christmas contest December 2020)

Christmas day at break of dawn
Ollie barks, “Please let me out.”
Down the steps, across the lawn
He’s starting on his route.

Ollie has a job today:
Help bring on a smile,
In his very special way:
His friendship for a while.

Almost there – around the bend,
She’s waiting at the door.
Gray-haired Mrs. Townsend,
He’ll make her smile – and more!

With outstretched arms
She hugs her friend –
A dog with charms
That never end.

Ollie’s visit here is done.
He knows it’s time to go.
He hates to wag and hug then run,
But one more friend is lonely, so –

Off he goes,
Around the block.
Ollie knows
He’s on the clock.

Mr. Tom waits home alone,
Sometimes his days are sad.
It’s tough when you are on your own —
But Ollie makes him glad.

Tom shares a delicious treat
and throws a bouncing ball.
He says, “Ollie, you’re so sweet
to make this special call.”

But Ollie has more work to do,
Another lonesome friend to greet.
A green backyard to cut through
And just across the street.

Mr. Green lives all alone.
No children or a mate.
He never chatters on the phone.
Ollie bustles through the gate.

Mr. Green wheels to the door,
And ushers his guest in.
Ollie helps him with a chore,
And watches his friend grin.

Christmas day is fading fast.
His neighbors now are cheered up.
Helping’s fun. He’s had a blast!
But Ollie’s now a hungry pup.

Ollie’s finished spreading joy.
But he needs mom’s help now.
Hugs, rubs, and “Who’s a good boy?”
And a bowl of puppy chow.

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by a real-life 14-year old blind and deaf golden retriever named Oliver who spends his days visiting his neighbors. The people in the poem are pure fiction.

3 Reasons to Join a Twitter Pitch Party

There’s a Twitter Pitch Party coming up. You don’t think you’ll enter. Here’s why: (1) It’s hard to write a concise and compelling description of your work in less than 280 characters. (2) You don’t want to put your work out there for everyone to see. (3) What if no one likes you?

These are all appropriate justifications for not attending a pitch party, but here are three reasons why you should:

(1) Yes, it is hard work to boil your story down to its nub and pique the curiosity of an agent or editor. But this is why you are a writer. Drink a tall glass of creative juice, bring up your word bank if you made one for your story, put to use all the tools of the craft – alliteration, word play, similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia – and get to work. You could follow the formula: When this event happens to main character s/he must overcome some obstacle and the result is theme. But not all stories conform to this. So be creative. It may take an hour, it may take three, or it may take two days and one sleepless night, but in the end, you’ll know that you’ve nailed it and you can do the happy dance in your heart. Plus, not only do you now have a Twitter pitch that sings, you also have the perfect lyrics for your traditional query. You may beef it up a little with story name, word count and age, but isn’t it just right for your query now? And in the process, you may unearth a truth about your work that makes you go back and tweak it here and pop it up there.

(2) There are no new ideas. There are only new ways to craft them. No one can write what you want to write exactly like you. So don’t worry about someone taking your idea. Because if you want to be a published picture book writer, you need to take all the chances, enter all the parties, and grab all the opportunities you are given. Be brave and take that leap of faith.

(3) And now that you’ve written the best, craftiest, most beguiling pitch ever, you never know, you may actually get a like.

In the end, in my book (as it should be in yours), you’re a hero just for completing the first two steps.

Dreams in the Year of COVID-19

I dreamed I was in a throng of people. We were at a conference on a college campus. No one was wearing a mask. It was pre-COVID time. We moved in tight bunches to our destinations.

Oh, there’s my brother—tall and bearded—exiting a building, surrounded by people hanging onto his every word. Was he a presenter? He could have been, but more likely he was there as a reporter, because that’s what he does. And, look over there is a mutual friend from college. (Yes, my brother and I went to the same college.) Could he have been the presenter? I doubt it. He’s a successful financial adviser. Presenting is not his thing. Funny is his thing.

I am moving as one with the group, pushing forward towards an entrance. We enter a small lecture hall at the top tier of seats. Most of the seats below us are already taken. I move down the row and sit. We are elbow to elbow, thigh grazing thigh. I wonder what kind of conference this is. Wondering brings me to consciousness.

I am sad when I realize how much I miss this collective human experience—a movie, a Broadway show, a ballgame, a concert, a restaurant. The sadness sticks with me all day even as I try to drown it by keeping busy…read a new nonifiction children’s picture book. Analyze it. Read Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly reviews of it. Do a crossword or two. Do a four-star Sudoku. Make cole slaw from scratch. Watch a true crime TV show. Play games on my iPad.

It’s to no avail. The sadness coats me like dense fog that you can’t see your way out of. Everything I do is muted by it. Sleep is held back by it. And I am even sadder because I know that even after the threat is gone—and it will be gone—life will have changed immeasurably and these shared human experiences may be a terribly altered thing.

Little Women: A Review

Caution: Spoiler alerts

As a writer of 500 words or less children’s picture books, I understand how hard it is to construct a satisfying story with all the right elements. So I totally appreciate how difficult it is to write a screenplay for a 2+-hour movie and direct it as well. As I review Greta Gerwig’s Little Women I keep this in mind. I am also not going to compare it to its source material (a book) or to its many other film versions. Each genre is its own art form and should be critiqued based on its own merits.

The movie is told out of order. It starts seven years in the future and goes back and forth in time. Perhaps the director felt the audience would be smart enough based on clues both visual and spoken to recognize which scene was happening when, but I truly had some trouble. And I think the major reason I had this trouble was because of the four actresses playing the four March sisters. I couldn’t figure out how old they were and who was older than the other. I imagined Jo (played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan) was the oldest since she left home to make her way as a writer in New York. But in reality she is second oldest. Meg (played by the ever sincere and histrionic Emma Watson) is oldest since she got to go to a debutant’s ball – made all the more difficult to tell because of the way the movie drifted in and out of time. I thought Beth (played so delicately by Eliza Scanlen) was the baby since she was babied by the other sisters and was the smallest. But in reality Amy (Florence Pugh) was the baby. And here was my biggest problem, because to me Amy was at least 26 years old throughout the entire film. Her calm, low voice belongs to a mature woman. There is a scene were Beth is at the breakfast table feeding a stuffed dolly sitting in a high chair beside her. What age child does that? Five? Six? This version of Beth looked eleven. Way too old to be feeding a dolly. But more fuel for my belief that she was the youngest.

Supporting characters include Meryl Streep who plays a cold and matter of fact rich old aunt who advises Jo to marry well because a woman can’t make it on her own. But Auntie March was doing just that. There was never any piece of dialogue that explained how Auntie March became so wealthy (deceased wealthy husband, anyone?). And the lovely Timothee Chalamet is Laurie, the grandson of the rich man next door, who I had a whole lot of trouble imagining as a love interest. He was rather an androgynous playmate for the sisters. I could see how any of the sisters could love him, but only platonically. Laura Dern plays the ever patient and lovely Marmee. She’s the mother everyone would love to have.

The movie uses a device to point out the realities of rich versus poor by placing a very wealthy family on one side of the March’s family home in Massachusetts and a very poor family on the other side, with the March’s firmly in the middle, not too rich, not too poor but able to get by. The poor family consisted of a mother and five children. Presumably the father was off fighting in the Civil War. But take a good look at this mother. She looked twelve herself. And what social statement is being made by the fact that the March’s made friends with the wealthy family but were only distantly helpful to the poor one?

Greta Gerwig as writer and director takes a couple of opportunities to make very pointed political comments on the plight of women. Amy gets the spotlight as she explains to Laurie quite forcefully that marriage isn’t about love, but is rather a financial relationship where a woman is owned and everything she owns becomes her husband’s property. And Jo gets an overwrought scene where she cries to her mother about how tired she is that women aren’t taken seriously and that they are thought of only as love interests. How can she be “so tired” of this when she is only in her twenties? Each assertion is true for the time, but the way the director chose to show it felt like jarring interruptions to me.

In its disjointed way we learn that Beth is ill. We then learn she became ill much earlier when she contracted scarlet fever and then we bounce back to the present where she is dying. Jo returns to Concord to tend to her sister, sleeping in a chair by her bedside. One scene begins on a closeup of Jo’s sleeping face. Her eyes open and we see what she sees – Beth’s bed is empty. She races downstairs to find Beth sitting and eating with Marmee at the kitchen table. Then Laurie bursts in with a Christmas surprise, Mr. March is home from the war! Kisses and hugs all around. Back to a closeup of Jo’s sleeping face. Her eyes flutter open and again we see what she sees – Beth’s empty bed. This time her race downstairs is different, slow, suspenseful. And at the kitchen table Jo finds Marmee, weeping. And they cry together over this loss. Yes, it is very sad when a child dies. But if I were sleeping next to my dying sister and some bodies came in and spirited a body away wouldn’t I have heard it? Wouldn’t there have been whispers – “No, stand there.” “I’ll carry this end.” “Shh, don’t wake Jo.” “Watch out for the doorframe!” Could you have slept through that? And then there’s the issue of Mr. March’s homecoming. Was the first sequence a dream or was it reality? I felt it was a dream since the director used the device of repeating the face closeup. So if it was a dream then Mr. March’s real homecoming was never celebrated or even noticed. After that scene he was just there.

And after all of Jo’s protestations that she’ll never marry and her life isn’t about love, she goes racing after her professor (who inexplicably has appeared on the March’s doorstep) like a love sick puppy dog. I guess even Greta had to succumb to a happy Hollywood ending. The happiness and good fortune comes complete with Jo being left Auntie March’s house and she and her sisters and brothers in law starting a school in it that is all wonderful and happy and makes good use of all the family’s talents. Seriously. It was just unrealistic to me.

As a writer I adored the almost final scenes in the movie. Jo writes her novel by candlelight in her attic studio – in long hand – and lays the pages out on the floor to edit and reorganize. Then she stands (and I must admit I was standing right beside her) as she watches her printed novel being bound and the cover being lovingly constructed. And I cried with her as the novel was placed into her arms. I had a similar experience many years ago when a magazine I had spent many months and late hours managing arrived in boxes from the printer, and the publisher (my boss) placed the first copy out of the box into my hands. I may not have written every word in that magazine, but I certainly touched and edited every page. I’m sure I wept a little. And I know this is exactly how I will feel when one of my children’s stories is published.

I really wanted to love this movie mainly because it was written and directed by a woman, a rare commodity in Hollywood, and written over 150 years ago by another woman – also a rare event. As a woman writer I wanted to give it all the sisterly love I could. But sadly I could not.

After I’ve said all this I will recommend it, but perhaps you will go with different expectations than I did and enjoy it simply as a lovely movie about the life and loves of four sisters.