Sunday, October 30, 2016

Your Story Matters

After trying several scenarios of in-home care as an option for our mother, my sister and I met with the family liaison at a dementia-care facility. Her name was Jenny, and she was empathetic and informed and had an almost magical way of calming us down. These were frightening, choppy waters for us, and Jenny helped us feel like we weren't going to drown after all.

Five years later, the book launch for The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones happened yesterday at an Alzheimer's Walk because of Jenny. In the time since my mom had passed away, I'd run into Jenny around town. With her colorful styling and sunny personality, she's easy to spot in a crowd But beneath that fun and fashionable exterior, there's a serious woman with a masters in gerontology--someone I really liked.

So when the manuscript for Lincoln Jones was ready, I asked her to read it and give feedback. I wanted her professional notes, but I also wanted to know if she agreed that--although the book is aimed at 4th-6th graders--this was a book caregivers would also really enjoy. In my mind it definitely was, but I wanted the opinion of an objective third party from inside the caregiver community. 

I was a little nervous for her to read it because there's always the overlap between real life and the fiction it inspires. I hoped the story would be received in the spirit intended, but...people react to things from their own perspective. I've learned there's no guarantee that your humor will be shared, or that your outlook will be theirs. 

After she read it, Jenny and I met for lunch. She very enthusiastically reinforced my thinking on Lincoln Jones being a book caregivers would love, and we began brainstorming ways we could connect the book with that community. Jenny is how I wound up meeting the development director of our region's Alzheimer's Association, and how it came to be that my first stand-alone novel in almost six years launched at an Alzheimer's Walk.

What I took away from that lunch with Jenny, though, was something more important than a reinforcement of my vision. I took away a reinforcement of something Lincoln Jones learns near the end of the book:

Everyone has stories.

Since my mom had passed away, my chance conversations with Jenny had revolved around our common ground, which had to do with my mom and my family and now my book. I never like that imbalance, so with some time to spend over lunch, I was determined to get to know Jenny better.  And, holy smokes, why did it take me so long to take a deep breath and listen?

At the Walk yesterday, the town's mayor spoke about how Alzheimer's has affected her family. You could tell--behind her welcome and support for the Walk, there were stories

And later at my booksale table, everyone who bought a book gave me a little window into their connection to dementia or caregiving and it struck me again--everyone has stories--stories that are as moving and vital to them as mine are to me.

In the pages of the book, Lincoln's teacher urges him to open up. "Your story matters," she tells him, and once again I find myself in the Twilight Zone of learning things from my own character. 

Lincoln doesn't open up easily. In part because he's afraid to, but also because he hasn't found the right people yet to trust. 

This is actually not uncommon. For adults, and for kids. We're wary of being hurt. Maybe hurt again.

So if you already have a close group of trusted friends that you confide in, reassess the balance of those relationships. Remember also to listen.

And if you don't, I hope that reading Lincoln's story helps you find the courage to let people in and to share what's in your heart.

Because it's true--your story matters. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Having Book Babies

You know that woman. The one who keeps having babies. For the first child there are crowds of friends showering her with attention and gifts and advice about the future. For the second child, about half the friends show up. By the third we're into hand-me-downs, and after half a dozen children, well, who can keep track but the mother?

I do know the difference between children and books. I have birthed both. But there is a similarity here--long, difficult labors of love and all. So having today be the book birthday of The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones matters mightily to me. I love that boy. I love his story. I labored long and hard in the creation of his vessel. And as he ventures out into the world I have hope in my heart that he will do great things--that he'll spread kindness and contemplation and make the lives of people who spend time with him better.

Which is exactly what I wish for my flesh-and-blood sons.

On this book birthday, I reflect with gratitude on the people who continue to give me encouragement and praise. The ones who have somehow kept up with my book babies across my career. The people who know that Lincoln Jones is my first stand alone book in five years, and are excited to meet my new boy.

Whether I know them personally or not, these are extraordinary friends, and I just want to say thank you for showering me with your time, your loyalty, and your voice. I know that my career has been built on the voices that speak, softly but persistently, about the merits of my work.

Today is a celebration of you.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Awesome educator Mason Roulston and his movie makers
I'm probably going to regret sharing this, but for many years now I've sent complete strangers books in the mail. 

It usually happens after I've gone down an Internet rabbit hole and have found myself reading about a book group or family or librarian or track team or scout troop or school or blogger know, random reader who has done something special or touching or even all around amazing with one of my books. 

I dissolve into oohs, or tears or laughter, and after I make Mark read or watch or listen, I fire up my Sammy Keyes skills and start sniffing out a mailing address. 

Sometimes that's easy. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes I get completely blocked and (yes) give up. 

But if I do land an address, I write a note, sign a book, and put a package in the mail. It's like reverse Hope in the Mail, and I may like it more than actual Hope in the Mail because there's no expectation of getting anything back. I'm motivated by the mental picture I conjure of the recipient opening the box and doing a little squee. That imagined squee makes me happy for days.

Anyway, that was a long preamble to a happy little story about a school project based on my book Swear to Howdy. For those of you who haven't read it, Swear to Howdy is about two boys--Rusty and Joey--and their wild antics. It's really, really funny, but also serious. It explores the power and boundaries of friendship and what it means to be a true friend.

The happy little story begins with a link sent to my website email address. It was from a teacher in Ohio. His students had made a movie that he wanted to share with me. 

Student movie. Unknown teacher. And I couldn't open the file.

New cover, still starring Tank the bullfrog!
Yes, there was the temptation to disregard the e-mail and just move on. Like everyone, my inbox is a ravenous beast and I've got a lot to do! But I wrote back and said Uh, can't open the file. That started a back and forth over opening the file.  It was a little frustrating for both of us, but finally I got to view the movie. 

It had me in stitches from the get-go. Two sixth grade girls played the parts of Joey and Rusty, and another girl played three or four other characters. It was just...funny. I swear to howdy, my jaw was a'danglin' the whole time. 

And then came the car crash scene.

I will not give further spoilers, but yes, there's a crash.

It's serious, life-changing stuff.

But in their movie, the car is one of those pink motorized Barbie cars, and the actor putt-putts it right into a tree.

It's hysterical!

If you know me at all, you know why this did me in. (Let's just say the whole idea of young girls imprinting on Barbies drives me nuts.) The crash scene from the book and that same scene from the movie yielded opposite reactions in me. With both there were tears, but with the movie it was from laughter.

"What's so funny?" Mark asked from across the office where he was trying to work.

"You've got to watch this!"

It took him a moment to adjust to the shift in casting. Yes, two girls are Joey and Rusty. The old clunker is now a pink Barbie car. 

A Barbie car!

When he was done watching it I said, "I have to send them books."

He grinned and went back to his desk. "Of course you do."

So I got to work. 

Opening the box
I started with a book for each of the three girls, but then I got to thinking...who else from the class was involved? Who wrote the script? What about the camera crew? Who built the props? Were there grips? What awesome child was willing to have her Barbie car bite wood? 

And the teacher! Yes! This incredible teacher had to get a book!

So, yeah. I went overboard. Mark just rolled his eyes, like, what else is new? And then he listened patiently as I complained about how I had to wait in line at the post office. (The line was, as usual, loooong and slooooow.) And how after nearly 20 years of mailing books through this post office, once again, I got the clerk who always interrogates me about the contents of my apparently suspicious package. "Books, just books," I assured her again with my hands up. "Swear." 

About a week after I sent the box, I heard back from the teacher. (I will paste in the article that ran in their local paper about it at the bottom of this post.) The funny thing is, I sent them a surprise to make them happy, but the pictures he sent back made me squee.

I didn't have to just imagine.

I got to feel it, way down deep in my heart. 


Author surprises River Valley Middle School students

The old adage goes, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”  The sixth graders at River Valley Middle School found out the other 20 percent is simply trying.
Trying, in the case of three students who put together a movie based on the novel read by the class, "Swear to Howdy." Their effort attracted the attention of the book's author, Wendelin Van Draanen.  “It was one of the best projects ever submitted in my class,” teacher Mason Roulston said.  “The thought, attention to detail, and creativity was absolutely amazing. I just knew I had to somehow show it to Van Draanen.”
After several email attempts, the movie ended up in Van Draanen's hands in California. The response Roulston received from the author was awesome, he said.  Van Draanen, a teacher for 15 years, wanted the names of the student-actresses so she could send signed and inscribed copies of the book to them. Three books turned into about 20 as Van Draanen stuffed a box full of books and other goodies for Roulston’s class. “It’s just small things like this that bring us closer together,” said Macie Snyder, one of the three moviemakers, along with Gabriele Cametti and Kayleigh Morgan.
Van Draanen knows something about trying too.  It took her ten years to get published.  She never gave up and kept writing, in fact, she wrote the first four books of the now widely popular Sammy Keyes series while waiting for her big break!  Roulston hopes that tenacity, will rub off on his own students who begin class every day with an activity aptly named, Sacred Writing Time.  “We’re a month in and already the students are coming up with some amazing stories, observations, and poems,” Roulston said.  “Who knows, maybe some of these kiddos will be published someday.  It seems like a more obtainable goal after connecting with Van Draanen. Through her act of kindness, she made the whole profession feel real and accessible.”
The package arrived adorned with the same frog found on the "Swear to Howdy" cover.  “It took everything I had not to spill the beans to Gabby, Kayleigh, and Macie,” Roulston said.  Van Draanen said in her email, “I hope it’s a party” when the books arrive.  Indeed it was:  First, Roulston replayed their movie then, with much fanfare and hype, produced the package.  The class went crazy when they saw the telltale frog on the address label and practically smothered Roulston as he opened it.  Gabby, Kayleigh, and Macie were presented with their personally inscribed and autographed copies to the delight and squeals of the class. “It really and truly meant the world to me,” Kayleigh said.  “Van Draanen is my favorite author!  I was shaking with anticipation as Mr. Roulston opened the box.”
“I seriously teared up,” Roulston recounted, “it was one of those moments that will be forever engrained in my teacher mind, it was that special and touching.
"Every day, my kiddos show up and try, to me, that’s what life and learning is all about.  Now, thanks to Van Draanen, we have confirmation and validation of our efforts,” Roulston stated.  Gabby summed it up best when she said, “Our goal was one thing, to create the best project we can, but it lead to so many other amazing things.”
This goes hand in hand with our Principal Don Gliebe’s favorite saying, "It all matters at River Valley Middle School," Roulston said. “Everything we work on and produce here might just lead to something extraordinary. I know for Gabby, Kayleigh, and Macie it’s true.  I could tell just by how they held their new treasures how much this whole experience meant to them and the best part is, we’re just getting started.”
Van Draanen’s website is and her story project  allows individuals to submit their own stories. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

When The Ceiling Hits The Floor

The Hope-in-the-Mail house got torn down this week. 

I admit it--I cried.

Which was surprising to me. For most of the time we rented it, I just wanted to move. Mark has always said that we'd look back on the place as our honeymoon cottage, but after being crammed inside 400 sq. ft. with two kids and two dogs, after too many gunshots in the neighborhood and drug addicts on our porch, after recurring mold on the walls and leaks in the roof, I disagreed.  

When we finally moved out, other tenants lived there for a while, and then the house went vacant. Got boarded up. Sat for years, crumbling.

Somewhere along the line I started calling it the Hope-in-the-Mail house because it's the place we came up with that saying. It's the place we learned to let the manuscripts we'd mail off to New York buoy us through our workday. It's the first home our kids knew, and the place I wrote the first six Sammy Keyes. 

Shortly before demolition. That's the ceiling on the floor.
Mark and I went to witness the demolition. I don't know why. Maybe to say goodbye?

What I know for sure is, I would rather work from dawn to dusk building something than watch someone else's work be torn down. There's something terribly sad about seeing anything--even a crumbling house--destroyed. It brings into sharp focus how temporary our efforts, our accomplishments, our lives are.

The guy operating a skip loader recognized me. He's done work at the house we now live in. A house much different than the one he was tearing down.

I was already kinda weepy from watching the crew work. "You're probably wondering what my fascination with this house is," I sniffed."People who know where we live now usually jump to wrong conclusions. This is where we started."

He was surprised, but got it right away. "Did you live here with the kids?" he asked.

I nodded. "Until they were six and eight."

He smiled. "I may own my own business now, but when I was eight, I was a Chicklets boy."

"No kidding?" I asked, because if you've ever been just south of the California border you know exactly what that means. He's come a long way from that life--I'm imagining a real hope-in-the-mail story, one I plan to follow up on.

Mark and I left shortly after that. Neither of us wanted to watch any more. But after we got home I started kicking myself about the mailbox. 

Why didn't I take the mailbox? 

It was right there, bolted to the stucco wall of the porch. Ugly. Old. Metal. Full of spiders.

I wanted that mailbox!

I tried to track it down by phone but it was already gone, which is probably for the best. It's had a good life. A useful life. 

And really, in the end, it's not the stuff that matters. It's the intangible things we bring to a situation, and what we learn and take away. I learned a lot in that little house. About who I am and what I believe and what kind of person I want to be.

It's not the mailbox that's important.

It's the hope that flowed through it. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Going Off the Deep End

I kinda panicked when I discovered that the room in which I was to give a keynote last weekend had only a gooseneck microphone attached to a podium.

Please, no! my mind squealed.  I can't do the podium thing. I can't speak into a gooseneck. I need to move.

I'm really not cut out for public speaking. I was runner-up for shiest in my high school graduating class, right behind my good friend Sandy. I hide it pretty well now, but the truth is, not so far beneath the surface, I'm terrified of public speaking. Given the wrong conditions or the wrong crowd, my mind can freeze and when that happens, panic sets in, the shaking starts, and I become a quivering bundle of nerves.

You'd think a podium would help alleviate this. You'd think reading from notes would be a must. But the funny thing is, they just make it worse. They make everything worse.

If I can move, really move, then I'm okay. Or on the road to being okay. All those nerves have something to do. Someplace else to take me. It's why I can sing loud rock but literally choke singing ballads. Maybe I'm running away from my fears, trying to escape them long enough to forget how exposed I am. Maybe I'm running from the fact that I'm sharing stuff that's personal. Stuff that's painful.

I don't talk about things that don't matter to me. I also don't write about things that don't matter to me. Or for the money. To me, speaking in public or writing for publication is like taking a deep breath and a leap of faith off the high dive. I'm all in, and I'm trusting that there's water in the pool deep enough and wide enough to catch me.

The audience, they're my water.

I'm praying that they'll catch me, buoy me, save me from my dive.

A podium with a gooseneck mic is safe. There's a barrier between you and the audience. There's a place for notes and you can read from them, or use them as a crutch. You don't even actually have to know what you feel, what you think, or even what you're talking about. You just read.

Lots of speakers read. Or act out a part they play from their script. I understand why they do this. It's the safe, sane thing to do. And I have tried it, but every time it feels......fraudulent. Like I'm hiding. Like I'm not brave enough to take that big bounce and really dive in.

The conference tech did find me a hand-held mic. It was bashed in and old...but a beautiful sight. "Thank you!" I said, and then got on the stage. And for forty minutes I moved while I talked about things personal and formative and painful, and shared how they've managed to combine in me to create fertile beds for seeds of hope.

Afterwards, a friend said he'd seen lots of keynotes in his life, but never one like mine. He meant that in the best of ways, and I was grateful for the soothing effect his words had on my frayed nerves.

What I realized in that moment was that what I'm doing during a speech like that is trusting the audience. I trust them with my story, and in doing so, I trust them with my heart.

It's a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. Probably even foolish. But what I hope for, pray for, as I take that big bounce up into the air and spread my arms wide, is that the audience will catch me. That they'll understand that this is not easy or routine or pat. That I'm counting on them to hold me up, to see me through, and to take away the message I'm risking so much to convey.

And, ultimately, that's the reason I do this--the hope that the audience will take something useful away. Something that will make their life better. Something to give them hope, a new perspective, a reason to keep trying.

I realized today that this all also applies to my novels. I don't write from a formula. I don't stand behind a solid oak barricade of what's trending. I don't try to negotiate the shifting currents of critical review. I dive in with abandon, write from my heart, and trust that my readers will see beyond the flaws, understand the purpose, and take something useful away.

So please know that when you read one of my novels, I'm not just sharing words on a page.

I'm trusting you with the story.

I'm trusting you with my heart.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

And Then There Were Mugs

At last year's Central Coast Writers' Conference, I met a scriptwriter/ novelist named Doug Richardson. He was part of the impressively credentialed staff that was brought in from Los Angeles to help aspiring writers get up to speed on the hows of Hollywood. We were backstage waiting to go on for the opening night "keynote panel" when we were first introduced. 

I'm not well-versed in the whos of Hollywood, but even I had heard of some of movies on Doug's credits sheet--Die Harder, Money Train, and Bad Boys

It was an impressive resume, to say the least, but he didn't want to talk about himself or his work. He wanted to talk about Flipped.


Because it was his daughter's favorite book & movie. According to him, she was obsessed with it. 

Clearly, this guy was all right. Not just because he was so enthused Flipped, but because as the conversation unfolded it became obvious that he was a really caring dad. Doug is not a gushy guy. He actually acts all gruff and curmudgeonly. But when he talks about his kids, his wife, his family, that act becomes completely transparent. 

Anyway, last year the conference committee bestowed upon me the Lillian Dean Inspiration Award, and in exchange for my diamond-shaped trophy I was asked to give a short -- three minute or less -- acceptance "speech."

Since I was receiving an award for being inspiring, I tried to say something that would help the audience of aspiring writers continue on their quest for success--in whatever form that was for them. Encouraged to do so by my very supportive friend Wendy who loved the expression, I shared about putting "hope in the mail" and how I started using the phrase during the long rejection phase of my quest to be published. 

Afterwards, Doug told me all the reasons he loved the expression. A lot of people did. But after the conference, he stayed in touch with me and kept mentioning it, and even wrote a post for his very entertaining blog about it. 

Our son Connor is the one who saw a broader application for the expression. We were lucky to have him home for the summer between graduating college and relocating to Portland, and during that time, he took on the task of painting the Big Picture for me: Hope in the Mail could be an on-line home for people who needed inspiration--a place to go to hear about someone else's path through hard times in pursuit of their dreams. From written stories to podcasts to videoblogs, the site could collect stories from around the world and help lift the spirits of anyone who visited. 

There could also be mugs.

So now, a year after my first encounter with Doug--at our second CCWC conference together this weekend--I gave him a coffee mug and told him how his reaction to my little speech contributed to putting the wheels in motion. Today he posted this wonderful picture.

In addition to mugs we also have a fledgling website, which I hope you'll visit. Tell us your story, or tell us about someone you think would help others put hope in the mail. And sign up to get some e-hope yourself once we're truly in motion. Everyone needs a dose of hope once in a while, right? Go find it and give it at

As always, thanks for checking in--see you in the comments!

PS You can find this teddy bear of a curmudgeon (also known as Doug Richardson)...

...on social @byDougRich his website at, where you can also check out his books, including the Lucky Dey thrillers.