Thank you, Texas Librarians!

I enjoyed a whirlwind trip to Texas this week for the annual Texas Library Association Convention in San Antonio. I was ion the ground in the Lone Star State for all of 16 hours and made every one count.

View from my hotel window – Good morning, San Antonio!

My writing buddy on the hotel lobby balcony. This is a yellow crested night heron. I think he wanted to be in my book. He’ll have to settle for a blog post instead. When my feathered muse and I finished up work on Chapter 5, it was off to the convention Center!

Here’s the crowd for our author panel, “It Can’t Be Science! It’s Fiction!” It was pretty awesome to see so many librarians and teachers excited about putting science-related novels and chapter books  into kids’ hands.

And here are the members of our panel – BIG kudos to our organizers for taking care to include a mix of men and women. (Science doesn’t belong to one gender!)

First row, left to right: Moderator/Author Shirley Duke, Wendy Mass, Suzanne Selfors, Megan Frazer Blakemore. Second row, left to right: me, Nate Ball, Matthew Kirby

After the panel, Megan and I hurried off to sign books with the fabulous Bloomsbury team.

At my second signing with Scholastic, a team of Houston librarians came up to the table and let me know they were members of the committee that chose my mystery CAPTURE THE FLAG for their district’s Horned Toad Tales Award List. It was great to see the faces behind that honor and so, so nice to meet them all in person. It’s always such a gift to an author when a book ends up on a state or local award list. Usually, I don’t get to thank the people who put it there in person, so this was extra special.

Many, many thanks to the Bloomsbury & Scholastic teams and especially, to all of the Texas librarians who came by our panel and signings to say hello. Thanks for being awesome – and for putting books in kids’ hands every day.

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Rhyme Schemer by K.A. Holt

I read some great books on my airplanes to and from the Texas Library Association Convention in San Antonio this week. On the way to Texas, I finished UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, a heartbreakingly wonderful Hurricane Katrina story from Julie Lamana. I loved this book & reviewed it here.

On the return trip, I read this…

RhymeSchemer-175x250

The wonderful Tamra Tuller of Chronicle Books put RHYME SCHEMER by K.A. Holt into my hands when I stopped by the booth to say hello on Wednesday. “You’ll love it,” she promised. “It’s about a bully who gets bullied, and it’s a novel in verse and it’s funny and it just invites so many neat poetry activities.”  She was right – I did love it, and all of that is true.

7th grader Kevin is not exactly a model student when the book opens. He shoves other kids around, makes fun of them, and rips pages from library books to create “found poetry” that he leaves around school.  Typical troublemaker, except…he writes poetry. When Kevin’s beloved notebook is lost and found by a rival, the tables turn, and Kevin finds his whole way of dealing with people turned upside down.

This is a terrific middle school book. The white space of the verse and the defacing-books-to-make-poems element give it special appeal for the reluctant reader crowd, but it’s really a book that many different kinds of kids will love. Coming Fall ’14 from Chronicle Bookks.

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Owning Our Words: Gatekeepers and Gender in Children’s Books

When I was teaching seventh grade English, one of the most important things I ever taught my students was this:

Words are powerful. We own the words that come out of our mouths, and we own the impact those words have upon the world and the people around us. So use your words well.  Use them carefully. Use them for good.

Today, I want to talk about some words I’ve heard coming out of grown-up mouths lately. Words spoken by great people. Words that were meant as friendly, harmless fun, I’m certain. Words that are having an impact that their speakers probably didn’t intend.

I was honored to be part of a magnificent panel at the Texas Library Association Convention this week. “It Can’t Be Science! It’s Fiction!” featured six authors of science-based novels and chapter books for young readers – two men and four women. It was one of the most enjoyable panels I’ve ever been on because the conversations felt rich, smart, organic, and fun. I so appreciated that the organizers made it a point to include both men and women, something TLA and ALA have been working hard to do. But at the same time, something about the panel troubled me.

I sat between Megan Frazer Blakemore, who wrote THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL, and Nate Ball, who writes the ALIEN IN MY POCKET chapter book series. Both are talented writers, kind human beings, and brilliant thinkers who share a passion for science and getting kids excited about it. Both inspired me with their words and their genuine excitement for their work. And I think most of the people in our nearly all female audience would agree on that.

But Megan and Nate saw different reactions from the crowd.  Megan, from what I saw, received some lovely compliments on her books and her presentation. Nate did, too. He was also asked for photographs. Someone came up to him and said, “Oh! You are hot! I’d heard you were hot.”  Other comments were easy to pick up as people filed out of the room.

“He is so cute!”

“I wonder if he does school visits!”

“He’s just adorable.”

Now, I’d never fault anyone for thinking those things. Nate, a PBS personality, is by all accounts, a perfectly good-looking guy. But is that really want we want to focus on in the words we speak aloud?  On a panel about science in books for young readers?  I’d argue that doing so produces a couple of results that the good-hearted people who spoke them probably didn’t intend.

1)   It devalues Nate’s work. He’s an accomplished mechanical engineer who owns his own company, has devoted much of his life to doing cool science things, and now devotes even more of it to helping kids discover science. He is also someone’s son, someone’s husband, and someone’s dad. As teachers and librarians, we tell our students that the things that matter are character and kindness, curiosity and passion and hard work. These would be wonderful things to praise aloud, whether the writer/speaker is male or female.

2)   It sends a strong message to the people who put together panels for teachers and librarians: Teachers and librarians like panels with men. Cute young men are good. Bonus points if they are also funny and charming.  And while many cute, young, charming, funny men are also darn good writers, the end result of filling panels with these men is that publishers are leaving out women who might be just as talented, funny, and smart. Words matter. When we gush over writers because they are men, when we say, “He’s just adorable!” what publishers hear is “Send us your men. We will buy their books.” And publishing is a business. So that is what happens. It is happening more and more often.  

Today’s Publisher’s Weekly headline shouts, “Four Children’s Luminaries Headline BookCon Panel at BEA!” In a world where statistically, women write more of the books, our luminaries are men. Why? Maybe because that’s what we’ve been asking for with our words.  And words are powerful.

I’ve been that teacher in the audience before – the one who turns to a friend and says, “He’s adorable!” I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t think I was helping to perpetuate sexism in an industry where even though women write more books and hold more editorial positions, men hold a disproportionate number of spots on bestseller and award lists. Conversations like this one, mostly had with my colleagues, have changed the way I think about that kind of comment.

It’s not harmless, no matter how I intended it. It affects the male colleagues whose work I respect, the female colleagues who should be getting the same kind of attention but aren’t, and perhaps most importantly, the kids. When we send out an all-male panel, we are sending a strong message to our girl writers. This business of making funny, popular books? It does not belong to you.

We all speak some words that we wish we could take back. We all carry biases of one sort or another, as readers, as writers, as teachers, as librarians, as humans. And the very best thing about being a person with powerful words is this: we get to think about the impact of our words. We get to choose every day, which ones we speak aloud.

 

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Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

I finished Julie Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE on the plane to the Texas Library Association Convention this week, and  I have two things to say about this book up front.

1. I loved it.

2. But the ending killed me.

Here’s why…on both counts.

I’ve always had a fascination with natural disasters – hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes – so I’ve read a fair number of Hurricane Katrina books. This was the best of them all, and when I think about why, it comes down to two things – setting and characters.

I’m a place person. I love some of the places I’ve lived and visited with a loyalty and passion usually reserved for family. Cut me open, and you’ll find the woods behind the house where I grew up and the lake in my backyard now etched on my heart. So when a story breathes that kind of life into the place its characters inhabit, I’m pretty much smitten. UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE does just that for the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I understand how much Armani loves that old creaky porch swing that needs painting, how the smell of that run-down donut shop means home to her.

But this is a story about Hurricane Katrina. So we all know what happens to home. Those perfect details come crashing down in the sounds and smells that seep into the later pages and make the reality of this story truly heartbreaking.

The main character, Armani, is just flawed enough to be perfect, if that makes sense. She makes the kinds of mistakes that we all make when we’re ten – wanting things that feel selfish, taking family members for granted, tossing impatient words at a little brother or sister. But most of us, at that age, aren’t left in charge of younger siblings for days on end, while the world falls apart around us. The strength and spirit of this book are palpable and gorgeous and so, so true.

Very vague spoiler ahead that is related to the ending – Skip the next paragraph if you want it to be a total surprise.

The ending of this book – without giving away its secrets – is not happy. And oh, I wanted it to be, even though I know the real story of Katrina and understand how it couldn’t be. I wanted that happy ending for Armani, for all she’d been through. I am a happy ending person, and I don’t let go of that easily. I struggle with darkness. I can’t always watch the evening news and be okay. Unanswerable questions vex me, in real life and fiction alike.

Major spoiler ahead for a different book: If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books, skip the next paragraph.

Confession: I spent the last half of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince waiting for Dumbledore to come back, truly believing it could happen, and waiting for the page turn that revealed he wasn’t gone. Not really. When I finished the book and didn’t get that, I cried all over again. Then I thought about why I couldn’t have what I wanted. And cried some more.

UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is like that, too. If I were still teaching, this is one of those books I’d be putting in kids’ hands along with a pack of Kleenex. I know some of them would come back to me angry about that ending. But we’d talk about it, about the way an ending can be hopeful and sad, all at once, the way an author might choose honesty over neatly tied loose ends. So in a way, I loved the ending, too.

This is a book to read and talk about and share. (Available now from Chronicle Books.)

I support independent bookstores. If UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is on your to-read list, please consider asking for it at your local indie.

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The Author’s Purpose: A Poem for the Test Makers

The Author’s Purpose

(A Poem for the Test Makers)

Kate Messner, Copyright 2014

You said the answer was C.

But in truth,

That line of alliteration was never intended

To echo the soft sound of the wind

Or create any particular emotion at all

In the reader.

I thinking of neither reader

Nor test maker nor wind

when I wrote it.

I simply liked the way my teeth tickled my bottom lip

As I spoke the words aloud.

Alas…

That was not a choice.

And sadly, there was no answer E:

None of the above.

You said the answer was B.

But my character Athena was neither Greek nor goddess.

She was named for a skinny, scrappy girl

Who sat with tangled curls at a back table

In my seventh grade classroom.

She was always right (she was sure of it)

And hid her worries behind a tipped-up chin.

It is possible, of course,

That this young Athena was named for the goddess

of Multiple Choice B.

But that wasn’t the question, was it?

Besides, you’d have to ask her parents about that.

Parents, like writers, have reasons of their own

for such things.

And while those reasons may launch

A thousand spirited discussions

(best over chocolate cupcakes and tea)

They are not the stuff of multiple choice.

Not when you don’t know the answer

and didn’t even pick up the phone to ask.

Unless of course you’d like to talk about this poem.

Shall we give it a try together?

The author’s purpose is most likely:

a)    To invite conversation and thought.

b)   To tell corporate test makers where they can put Answer C.

c)    To tell kids that they should keep asking questions,

Keep reading and wondering, digging and debating, and dreaming.

d)   To argue that questions worth asking

and answers worth finding

       rarely fit in a bubble at all.

e)    All of the above.

Note from Kate: If you love this poem & want to share it on your own blog, website, or Facebook wall, please do not copy and paste the text. Instead, please include a short quote or just the title and then share the rest of the poem by providing a link to my original post here – that way, you can share with your own readers and honor the copyright, too. Here’s the URL:

http://www.katemessner.com/the-authors-purpose-a-poem-for-the-test-makers/

Many thanks for practicing good digital citizenship!

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Thank you, Birmingham Readers!

I spent a wonderful two and a half days with the librarians and readers of Birmingham, Michigan schools this week and want to start this blog post with a BIG thank you to the readers, school library media specialists, and families who made the trip such a great experience.  The Birmingham Schools I visited — Beverly, Greenfield, Harlan, Pembroke, and BCS — were some of the most welcoming, book-loving places I’ve ever been.

Visit coordinator Barbara Clark picked me up at the airport and made it easy for us to find one another. “I’ll be driving a black Ford Edge with your book propped in the windshield,” she said.

I love the way all of the Birmingham schools make literacy a priority. Books and words are celebrated here…from the larger-than-life student writing posters on the walls…

…to the author luncheon dessert, inspired by MARTY MCGUIRE DIGS WORMS!

These were courtesy of librarian Elizabeth Stayer. Here we are with some of my books after eating our gummy worm treats. :-)

Elizabeth has a delightful “Friend Fish” wall in her library. The kids read my picture book SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH and brainstormed ways to be a “friend fish” at school.

friendfish

These kids from Pembroke Elementary School made me a book…about me!

Their librarian, Julie Green, had emailed me to ask some questions for research. One of the questions was,”What kind of cake do you like best?” I answered truthfully – chocolate with chocolate frosting – and found that the kids used that information not only in their book but also in their kitchen. They presented me with a ginormous chocolate CAPTURE THE FLAG cake along with the book. It was the end of the school day, and everyone was busy getting ready to leave, so I didn’t get a photograph, but I did have a delicious slice of cake before I left school for the afternoon. I left the rest for the kids to enjoy the next day. Their librarian sent this photo – looks like it all worked out!

I had such a great time with all of these terrific readers and writers and am so looking forward to my return trip to Birmingham at the end of April, when I’ll be visiting more schools and also doing a revision workshop for teachers. Many thanks to the wondderful Birmingham Education Foundation for making it all possible!

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The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

Here we are, heading into the last days of March, and there’s another snowstorm predicted for the Northeast. I’d say it’s time for a little bit of summer, wouldn’t you?

I’ve been waiting MONTHS to tell you about this book. I read an early copy and wanted to wait for publication day to share thoughts because it’s one of those books you’ll want to swoop in and read right away.

If you’re familiar with our TeachersWrite Virtual Summer Writing Camp, then you already know the author, Gae Polisner, who runs Friday Feedback on her blog and has encouraged more fledgling writers than I can count. She’s funny, kind, generous with her time, and a pretty spectacular writer, too. THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO is one of those books that will make you laugh and cry and sigh, and pretty much everything in between. It’s about summer, friendship, the idea of reincarnation, families, shame, and forgiveness, and other things, too.

Here’s the official publisher blurb from GoodReads:

Summer has begun, the beach beckons and Francesca Schnell is going nowhere. Four years ago, Francesca s little brother, Simon, drowned, and Francesca s the one who should have been watching. Now Francesca is about to turn sixteen, but guilt keeps her stuck in the past. Meanwhile, her best friend, Lisette, is moving on most recently with the boy Francesca wants but can t have. At loose ends, Francesca trails her father, who may be having an affair, to the local country club. There she meets four-year-old Frankie Sky, a little boy who bears an almost eerie resemblance to Simon, and Francesca begins to wonder if it s possible Frankie could be his reincarnation. Knowing Frankie leads Francesca to places she thought she d never dare to go and it begins to seem possible to forgive herself, grow up, and even fall in love, whether or not she solves the riddle of Frankie Sky

And here’s what I wrote to Gae when I finished reading that early copy:

I have to confess – I spent all of yesterday binge-reading. It’s been such a busy couple of months with travel and deadlines, so with the kids on vacation, I’d been saving it from post-NCTE to read over their break. I just loved it so much – the characters and their beautiful flaws, the beach and the crabs and the tears and of course, Frankie. Well…both Frankies. It’s an incredible book, and I’m so excited for everyone else to find it, too.

It’s funny – people ask me all the time if I miss teaching, and usually, I’m okay…I love what I do now and get to do so many writing workshops with kids when I travel. But your book made me wish for a minute that I still had a 7th grade classroom so I could book-talk it and put it in kids’ hands. I do miss that moment of giving a kid a book that I know she will love.

If you are a teacher, or a reader, you know the kind of book I’m talking about. This is one of those books. It’ll be the best fit for your high school & older middle school readers who love YA novels by Sarah Dessen and Jo Knowles.

I support independent bookstores because they support our readers and communities. If THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO is on your must-read list, please consider asking for it at your local indie.

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St. Patrick’s Day in Western NY

My author travel this week was full of wonderfully familiar faces because I spent two days in Western New York, not far from where I grew up.  The students and staff of DeSales Catholic School in Lockport were all decked out for St. Patrick’s Day when I arrived Monday morning.

This visit was such a wonderful whirlwind that I never got the chance to take photos with the kids. I did get to hug Mr. Granchelli, one of their fourth grade teachers who worked with my parents and lived in my home town of Medina when I was growing up.  And then I spent LOTS of time signing books. Since many of my titles were available through the Scholastic Book Fairs & Clubs this fall, the PTA was able to purchase copies for students. I got to sign them in the gym before & after my presentation. I kept wondering if anyone would notice if I took a break to shoot baskets.

Thanks so much to Karen for organizing this visit and to all of the wonderful staff and students who made it so special.

Monday afternoon, I headed to Monkey See, Monkey Do Children’s Bookstore in Clarence for a book signing. If you live in Western NY and haven’t been here yet, it’s so worth the visit.

I was thrilled to see some friendly, familiar faces there, too. Here’s Twitter friend and Sweet Home Middle School teacher David Etkin, whose students have been reading CAPTURE THE FLAG.

I also got to spend some time with one of my very best friends from high school, Patrice Birner. We spent a lovely lunch catching up, laughing over old times, and making a list of our former teachers to whom we probably owe an apology. :-)

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Before I left, I signed the bookstore’s special author-visit podium! I chose a spot next to Natalie Kinsey-Warnock’s signature, since my daughter and have so enjoyed reading her books aloud together.

You know those familiar, friendly faces I mentioned? One of them belonged to my sister, who was kind enough to put me up at her house for this visit. She is the best in more ways than would ever fit in a blog post.

On Tuesday morning, I headed to Rushville, NY for a morning at Middlesex Valley Primary School, whose principal is my cousin Paul Lahue.

Paul and I were both the youngest in our families, so we were regularly persecuted by the older kids and formed a kind of bond. It was fun to see him in his grown-up element, running the show with a quiet confidence and greeting every child by name. He’s  just the kind of school principal I want my own kids to have.

When I turned around after setting up my computer in one of the classrooms, my Aunt Maureen had popped in for a surprise visit. If you’ve read my book EYE OF THE STORM, she’s the librarian in the dedication. She stayed for my “Story Puzzles” writing workshop with the 2nd graders.

Thanks so much to everyone who made my visit to Western New York so magical this week!

 

 

 

 

 

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Thank you, Winchester Thurston School!

I spent a wonderful day with the readers of Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh this week. It’s always fun to visit readers where they learn, but it’s extra special when you walk into the building and see that the bookish excitement has been building for weeks.The Winchester Thurston community sure knows how to make an author feel welcome!

Here are my terrific hostesses, librarians extraordinaire Kate Weber and Jennifer Kraar.  They’d been reading with their students for moths to prepare for the visit, and the art in the hallways reflected that. It was so much fun to see the kids’ interpretations of my books and characters!

There was even a Sea Monster cake at lunch time!

This school community really seemed to love SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY and SEA MONSTER AND THE BOSSY FISH. Jennifer told me that’s because they all felt like Ernest the Sea Monster shared the values of their school motto: “Think also of the comfort and rights of others.” The Pre-K and Kindergarten students were especially big Ernest fans. These kids know what it means to be a “Friend Fish.”

In addition to the large group assemblies, I had the chance to spend a little more time with the fifth graders, who are talented authors in their own right. We did a mystery writing workshop that I promised I’d share online in case anyone wanted to look back at the ideas to do more brainstorming.

After the writing workshop, a group of students presented me with letters and a wonderfully bright, bouncy bouquet of paper flowers they’d made. I carried it all through the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Airports and got lots of smiles from fellow travelers. I think the bouquet was a bright spot in their day, too. (A few people even asked me if I’d just gotten married!)

Thank you, Jennifer and Kate, and all of the wonderful, enthusiastic teachers and students of Winchester Thurston School. I absolutely loved my day reading, writing, and talking books with your school community!

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SCBWI Winter Conference: A Weekend with the Tribe

I still remember the first time I heard about SCBWI. “It stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators,” my friend told me, “and you need to join.”  I did. And when I went to my very first SCBWI event – the regional conference in New England – I understood why. The writers I met at that conference seven years ago are among my best friends now. They critique my manuscripts, share struggles, cheer successes, and keep me going. It is a magical thing to walk into a hotel conference center and realize, all at once, “These are my people!”

So when I was invited to give a keynote talk at this year’s SCBWI Winter Conference in New York, I jumped at the opportunity.

I made it into the city a day early and spent some time researching an upcoming book here…

Hint: I was upstairs in the Museum of Natural History’s invertebrate zoology department most of the day. Think bugs!

I also had a chance to see the children’s book exhibit at the New York Public Library, which was an amazing tribute to the history of our work.

There were so many books, original art, and manuscripts to ogle, but I think my favorite part of the exhibit might have been this small display of library cards – reminding us how libraries (and the books inside them) create great thinkers.

Here’s Carl Sagan’s card…

Thursday evening, it was off to the Grand Hyatt, where the giant head statues in the lobby were decked out for their children’s book celebration.

On Friday, I gave a talk and facilitated a roundtable discussion at the Plot Intensive, which was such a fantastic experience. The participants at my table were all such great people as well as writers, and they not only shared their own work but supported one another beautifully. I’m fully expecting to see their novels in bookstores & libraries before too long.

Here’s SCBWI’s Lin Oliver welcoming the tribe for the full conference Saturday morning.

Sunday morning was my talk on “The Spectacular Power of Failure,” and it was an absolute gift to speak to this incredible group of writers and illustrators.

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Photo courtesy of Nancy Castaldo

 I learned that sometimes, illustrators draw pictures of you while you are talking.

(Thanks to Dana James Sullivan for sharing this great keynote doodle!)

During the autographing session, some people asked me about the books & poems I’d talked about in the keynote. “What Happened to Your Book Today” is here, just in case you need a reminder of why we write and illustrate for kids. And here are links to some of the books  and website I mentioned:

Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Spark: How Creativity Works by Julie Burstein

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban

One Star Review Guess Who at 100 Scope Notes

Wake Up Missing

Over and Under the Snow

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

Marty McGuire

Capture the Flag

The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman

Monster Road by David Lubar

I Heart You, You Haunt Me by Lisa Schroeder

Laurel Snyder’s blog post about Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains (and the very best way to go out of print)

Regina Dugan’s TED Talk (She was the “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” speaker.)

My 2012 TED Talk (This is a TED blog summary – the video hasn’t been shared online yet.)

TED-Ed Lesson based on my TED talk on world building, “How to Build a Fictional World”

My son’s project-blog (This is not about the project that caught on fire….it’s about his weather balloon that got stuck in a tree in MA. Another “malfunction” with a happy ending.)

Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win

Here’s my blog post from the Friday plot intensive and a link where you can download those handouts.

And of course…our anthem. With lyrics, so you can sing along when you finish your work today. :-)

One last note…I was actually working on this blog post at the airport, waiting for my flight home. Just before it was time to board, a stranger stepped up to my seat and said, “I made this for you.”  It was a thank you card (she’d been at the conference) with this on the cover:

aretha

(Thank you so much, Meagan Moore! You made my whole night.)

I want to say a HUGE thank you to the staff and volunteers who made this conference happen and invited me to be a part of it this year. It was truly a magical weekend – one that reminded me how very lucky I am to be part of this incredible community of writers and artists.

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