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 …

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.

“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.

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.

Barcelona and the Jews

Since third grade I have always wanted to go to Barcelona. In third grade I created a massive report on the city. It was on black construction paper. I cut out pictures of Catalan costumes; wrote about the weather, geography, and food; used the Encyclopedia Britannica as my source (since the Internet wasn’t invented in the ’50s!). Little did I know that my desire to go then would be boosted now by my interest in art and architecture. If you want architecture, Barcelona is full of it, especially the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

For a week in late October 2019, my sister and I went on a tour of Barcelona with Road Scholar. I could have stayed longer. There was so much I didn’t get to see.

The first day, a Sunday, we took a tour bus up to Montjuic. Montjuic, with its view of the harbor, was the beginning of Barcelona. Joan Miro’s museum and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya are there as well as structures built for both the 1929 World’s Fair and the 1992 Olympics. A Mies van der Rohe pavilion is also on the site. Going back further in time, there is a 17th century fort. Our time on the mountain top was limited, so we didn’t get to see any of this. Further and further back in time there once was a Jewish cemetery. According to a document I read, the cemetery dated back to the 9th century.

As you all know, Spain wasn’t a very healthy place for Jews in the 14th century. They were invited at point of death to convert to Christianity (hence the conversos) or to leave the country. Some left with Columbus on his expeditions to the new world. Many came to South America and emigrated north as the inquisition came after them. I wonder how many people of Spanish ancestry living in South America and the US have Jewish roots and don’t even know it.

Below the mountain is the Gothic quarter – the original walled (no longer) city of winding, criss-crossing streets where I could never manage my normally excellent sense of direction when we were on our own. Even maps of the place were useless as streets in this maze came to a dead end, turned sharply, changed names, and always seemed to empty out on Plaza Real where we began. But when we were with our tour guide we were okay. We stood in front of a “palace” where Isabella and Ferdinand stayed. We stood in front of one church after another and marveled at the decorative work on the stone. And then we stood in front of a building called the Lieutenant Palace built in the 16th century. And we noticed blocks of stone that had Hebrew writing on them. They were tombstones. At first we thought, how cool, Hebrew writing in an unfamiliar place. Later I had second thoughts.

Sometime in the 15th century the area containing the Jewish graves on Montjuic was granted to a Benedictine order and the graveyard and its history are now lost to antiquity. The graves were looted and the gravestones stolen and sold for building supplies, hence the headstones on the building we stood before. Even the Jewish dead were not allowed to rest in peace. Only in recent times has an organization attempted to have the cemetery designated a Cultural Site of National Interest so that archaeological explorations can take place.

I was glad I got to fulfill a long held desire. I might even go back to Barcelona to explore areas we didn’t have time for. But the explanation of the headstones and of course Barcelona’s history vis-à-vis Jews have tempered my good feelings about this cosmopolitan city. I know it was a long time ago. But it wasn’t a one-time event in the annals of Jewish history, was it? The Holocaust is still raw in many family’s memories. And today in New York, Jews are being attacked in greater numbers than ever. It is a sad commentary on the human condition that for no good reason, wherever we go in whatever age we are in, Jews continue to be persecuted.

I wish you peace and love.

Death and Birthdays

Today is my birthday. I’ve had many birthdays. Some were shared with my sister, 13 months older. Some were alone. Many were with my family and friends. On my 29th I threw myself an “I’ll-never-be-twenty-something-again” party. Fun. But seven years ago everything about how I feel about having a birthday changed. Seven years ago on December 17, my father, Sheldon Wolpin, died.

I actually have mixed feelings about it. Part of me wants to believe that it was a coincidence. But another part of me doesn’t believe in coincidences. That part of me is flattered that my father chose to die on my birthday. I feel honored. We will forever be entwined in a strange life/death relationship.

So my day is bitter sweet. Instead of enjoying attention from family and friends, I spend the day (like most days) remembering the funny, considerate, handsome, well-loved man, that was my father.

The candles I light today will be in remembrance of him. My birthday can take a back seat. I miss him every day.

Spain and Crossword Puzzles

My sister and I recently returned to Connecticut from a trip to Barcelona. I’ll tell you about our trip in a post to come. Today I want to tell you about leaving.

“Get to the airport two hours before boarding,” American Airlines’ website said.

“Get to the airport three hours before boarding,” our Spanish guide said.

Since our flight was at 9:30 am, being at the airport three hours prior meant getting there by 6:30 am, and working backwards, we’d have to be up at 5:30 am and ready to jump in a cab by 6:00 am. We’re not morning people. We compromised and decided to be at the airport 2 1/2 hours before boarding.

Don’t be fooled, the Barcelona-El Prat Josep Tarradellas Airport is NOT JFK! From the moment we entered the tiny-by-comparison airport we were on a line. Every traveler on any airline was on the same line. The hotel we stayed at had packed us a boxed breakfast. We ate standing on line. We inched forward. There were only maybe 10 agents opened at that hour. We tried to check in using the computer kiosks but that was only trouble as my sister still hadn’t gotten a seat assignment.

Finally, we reached an agent. I gave the young man my passport.

“Marilyn,” he said, “like Monroe.”

“Yes,” I beamed, tossing my blond hair seductively.

“Where do you live?” he asked. I think he was truly interested in an international traveler’s life story.

“Connecticut,” I answered.

“What do you do in your free time?” he wondered.

Knowing that there was a horde of people behind me, I tried to make my responses short.

I said, “I do crossword puzzles.”

Without a change of expression and in his lovely Spanish accent, he asked, “And where do you find these crossword puzzles?”

I said, “The newspapers.”

“And what are crossword puzzles?” he wanted to know.

Now I’m in trouble, I thought. I have to explain this quickly and succinctly. Using my hands to demonstrate the grid, I said, “You fill in words going across and down by answering clues.” Oh, so succinct.

He smiled and said, “Oh, have a nice trip” and handed me back my passport and boarding pass.

As I rejoined my sister, I told her what transpired and wondered, “Do they even have crossword puzzles in Spain? I’d like to see that.”

We got on another line for security and raced to our gate just in time to sit down for a second and get up and on another line to board.

Adeu, Barcelona.