A Rejection Acceptance

Savor the failure.

Savor the failure.

I am intimately acquainted with rejection. As I sometimes like to report, I received 114 rejections on various picture book manuscripts before I was given a contract for Sarah Gives Thanks. In the months since Sarah was published, I’ve gotten about a 100 more. Getting an agent earlier this year has also allowed me to get rejections from publishers that do not normally look at unrepresented manuscripts.

Long story short, I understand rejection quite well, thank you.

So, last year, when I learned that Cairn Press was seeking submissions for an anthology on rejection, I thought, “I need to get an essay in that book. I need to.”

And I did!

Blood on the Floor is a collection of fiction, poetry, and essays about writers trying (and often failing) to grab the brass ring. Sometimes funny, occasionally poignant, and always inspirational, Blood on the Floor is the perfect holiday gift for the scribe in your life. Get a copy now! Pair it with booze.

Christmas Contest!

Ho Ho Ho!

Ho Ho Ho!

When I heard that it was time for Susanna Hill’s Fourth Annual Holiday Contest two thoughts sprung to mind:

  1. YAY!
  2. Didn’t I just do the Halloween Contest? (Answer: Yes. Yes, I did.)

But that’s holidays for you; they like to creep up when you least expect ‘em.

So, between the decorating, the cards, the shopping, and all the extra work that makes me a Christmas crabbypants, I wrote a story!

And writing this story, I am pleased to say, made me a lot less crabby. So thank you, Susanna, for that much-needed dose of de-grinching. 

The contest rules are simple: In 350 words or fewer, write a story in which wild weather impacts the holidays. 

Enjoy!

 

A CARBON CHRISTMAS

Santa numbly stared at the enormous hole in the ice.

“Did everyone get out?” he asked.

“We’re all here,” an elf replied. “But the toys…”

Santa nodded. His beloved factory was deep underwater. All the toys were inside.

“I told you we needed to move,” Mrs. Claus sighed. “Haven’t you heard of Global Warming? Why would you build a factory on a glacier? And Christmas is just one week away!”

Santa nodded once again. One week wasn’t enough time to make new toys. He needed to get them from someone else.

 ***

“We’d love to help you, Mr. Claus!” said the chipper factory manager. His factory was a lovely place, filled with happy workers making excellent toys of all kinds. “Here’s the estimate!”

“Estimate?” Santa asked.

“Well, sure! We don’t give toys away. Making toys for millions of children costs 32 billion dollars.”

Santa coughed. “Could I maybe pay you in cookies?”

“Get out,” said the manager.

***

The second toy factory had much lower prices.

“Is that lead paint?” Santa asked.

“Just a little,” the man assured him.

“Are you putting broken toys in boxes?”

“Broken toys are cheaper!”

Santa walked away in disgust.

***

“It’s no use,” he told his elves. “We can’t make deliveries this year.”

He went on TV. Through his tears, Santa let the world know. Then he sadly steered his sleigh for home.

When he arrived, he found an enormous pile of boxes waiting for him.

“What are these?” he asked.

He pulled a note off one box. It read:

Dear Santa,

I was sad to hear you couldn’t make toys this year. So I took my allowance money and bought this one. Could you give it to somebody who’d like it?

Santa looked at the other notes. Every box was a gift for someone else. And more boxes were arriving by the second.

“It’s unbelievable!” Then Santa remembered how long his “Nice List” was and it didn’t seem so unbelievable anymore.

“We’re delivering toys!” Santa announced. The elves cheered.

“And, for the record,” he added. “We’re no longer giving out coal.”

I think I'll just give the bad kids underpants.

I think I’ll just give the bad kids underpants.

 

Sprout Story

Terrible, just terrible.

Terrible, just terrible.

Sometimes a person can just look at a food and know he’s going to hate it. I’ve had this gift my entire life. It’s sort of a Picky Eater ESP.

Unfortunately, my mom had a blind spot when it came to my sixth sense. She could never wrap her brain around the idea that horrible foods can telegraph their horribleness without ever having to come in contact with my mouth.

“How do you know you hate it if you’ve never tried it?” Mom asked me time and time again.

“I just do.”

“Well I just don’t,” she fired back.

Then she’d say, “Michael. Eat. Now.”

Once Mom started talking in one-word sentences, the discussion was over — if I knew what was good for me.

So I’d grit my teeth and fill my fork with the squash or the asparagus or the green beans or whatever else. As soon as the juices hit my tongue, my throat would shut down and set up detour signs.

“Oh, ya want ta get that outta your mouth, do ya?” my throat would ask with the brassy indifference of a New York Transit Authority employee. “Well, it’s goin’ out the way it come in, pal.”

Then the rest of my body would start to fail me. My tongue would quiver. My head would spin. My ears would sweat. The dry heave machine would switch on.

Sometimes, by sheer force of will, I’d be able to push the morsel past the esophageal gatekeeper, but not always.

“Michael? Did you just spit your squash into a napkin?” Mom asked, her eyes narrowing.

I couldn’t answer her immediately for I was too busy gargling orange juice. When I finally did respond, I found myself hung up on Mom’s choice of pronoun.

“It’s not my squash. Not anymore.”

When my parents forced me to eat a pre-hated food, I was never pleasantly surprised. Never in my life did I say, “Oh! That tasted better than I thought!”

It always tasted exactly as bad as I thought — and if it wasn’t exactly as bad, then it was worse.

Fortunately, Mom did not belong to the Clean Your Plate Club. She was a member of the Eat Three Bites And You Don’t Have To Eat It Anymore Club, which is just about as good as I could have hoped for in that particular parenting era.

Eventually Mom ran out of new horrible foods I had to eat three bites of. As a consequence, the number of times I turned beet red at the dinner table dwindled to zero.

Once this happened, a little something in my older sister died. Gina just loved to watch me gag on food. So, a few years ago, when she took over Thanksgiving responsibilities, she seemed to make it her mission to come up with at least one bewildering, un-Thanksgiving-y side dish that would make me go “Ew.”

“Will you join us for the artichoke course?” She’d ask me with a wide smile. (Not only was Gina serving artichokes — a certified Mike Allegra gag food — she dedicated an entire course to eating them.)

Fortunately I am a grown up. So, in the giving spirit of the holiday, I could tell her where she could stick her artichokes. Then everyone would laugh – with no one laughing harder than Gina.

This year Gina outdid herself. As usual, she put out an amazing Thanksgiving spread. And, as usual, there was a curious new side dish. In fact, Gina so eagerly anticipated the debut of this side dish, she felt the need to call me up the week before Thanksgiving to tell me about it.

“I’m making Brussels sprouts!” she announced.

“You gotta be kidding me.”

I had never tasted Brussels sprouts — Mom wouldn’t have ever dreamed of serving them — but I knew I hated them. I knew I hated them more that anything else in the world. I could tell. They were evil. It was obvious.

“No, Michael, listen,” Gina went on. “I don’t like Brussels sprouts either, but a few months ago I made this new Brussels sprouts recipe with honey and cranberries and, I swear to God, Michael, we fought for the last serving.”

“That is something,” I said.

“I swear to God,” she replied. “We fought over it. Swear to God.”

“That is something,” I repeated.

“Promise me you’ll try it.”

“No.”

“You gotta try it.”

“I don’t gotta.”

“You’re gonna love it.”

“I’m not gonna.”

Gina and I went back and forth like this for a little while longer before moving on to other, more pleasant, non-sprout-related matters.

After I hung up, I remained a bit unsettled by Gina’s call. This wasn’t Gina’s typical culinary abuse. This was a different Gina, one I hadn’t seen before. She really, sincerely, wanted me to give the sprouts a try. Not because she wanted to see me gag, but because she genuinely thought I might like them. I didn’t know what to make of this.

Gina crowed about the Brussels sprouts to other family members, too.

“Did you hear about the Brussels sprouts?” my Auntie Susie asked me a few days later when she called to wish me a happy birthday.

“Yeah,” I replied. “You gonna eat them?”

“I don’t like sprouts,” she said, “but I promised Gina I’d try them.”

“Well, I didn’t promise,” I said with smug defiance.

“She really swears by them. So who knows?” Auntie Susie always had a “Hey, why not?” quality to her, a trait both charming and — at times like these — irksome.

Gina had also persuaded my wife, Ellen, to give the sprouts a try. Ellen, unlike me, actually knew what Brussels sprouts tasted liked – and she hated them, so this was no small achievement. My parents also were willing to give the new side dish a go.

What is going on here? My brain bellowed. Why is the entire family thumbing their nose at common sense? When are these sheeple gonna wake up?

The night before Thanksgiving – and I swear I am not making this up – I dreamed about Brussels sprouts. I didn’t eat them in the dream, instead I dreamed that I refused to eat them. I sang my refusal to the melody of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“But I stiiiiiiill will not eeeeeeeeat…

Your damn Brussells sprooooooouts…”

Clearly this sprout business had crept its way into my subconscious.

Thanksgiving arrived. Ellen, Alex and I watched the parade on TV and marveled at the ugliness of the Paddington Bear balloon.

“There should be a Sarah Hale balloon,” Alex announced with indignation.

I love my son.

Ellen made her famous corn casserole and baked brie and then, at the last possible moment, we all changed out of our jammies and drove off to Gina’s house. Gina knows how to throw a great dinner party — and this day was no exception. The choices were plentiful, the drink options vast, and even the white meat on the turkey was moist and in need of no gravy support system.

But, sitting there in the  center of the table, was the metaphorical 600-pound gorilla.  Peering up from their glossy cranberry glaze those infamous sprouts stared at me. It wasn’t long before a reluctant ladle dug into it. Auntie Susie was true to her word; she was going to try them.

Auntie Susie is one of the louder family members, so her surprised, delighted, “Ooh! This is really good!” attracted some serious attention.

“I know, right?” Gina exclaimed, matching Auntie Susie’s decibel level. “It’s amazing!”

This lively exchange encouraged more ladle activity. More plates welcomed sprouts, which led to more praise, which led to more ladling.

One by one the number of sprout converts was growing. I was beginning to feel like a heathen at a tent revival.

With each new wave of kudos, came a new round of pressure for me to give the sprouts a try.

“Mike, you have to try these!”

“They’re really good!”

“They’re wonderful.”

“You’re gonna love them!”

Ellen knows me well enough to realize that this type of peer pressure might make me uncomfortable, but it will never persuade me to try anything. She took a different tactic.

“Oh, just eat it, you baby.”

I turned to face her and found a way-too-large forkful of Brussels sprouts poised an inch from my mouth.

Ugh.

I sighed. And she shoved it in.

The normally raucous Thanksgiving table grew silent as the family watched me chew. There was not a person present at that table who was unaware of my picky eating habits. Everyone there had either seen or heard about the infamous Green Bean Incident of 1981, when Mom and Dad were convinced I was about to pass out.

I chewed and chewed and chewed some more.

Then I swallowed.

There was a long pause. The family awaited the verdict.

“Oh!” I said at last. “It tasted better than I thought.”

And the people around table did everything short of giving me a standing ovation.

And I have to be honest; for the first time in my life one of my pre-hated foods was better than I had thought. Because I thought I was going to die. And I didn’t.

But, just to be safe, I am never, ever, ever taking my chances with another forkful.

Never. Ever. Ever.

Happy Thanksgiving! Buy My Book!

It’s Thanksgiving week, and I think I’ve been pretty good about keeping my shameless promotional urges in check.

But, hey, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend a lovely gift for all of your friends and extended family.

You're not just bringing corn casserole, are you?

You’re not just bringing corn casserole, are you?

Not only is the book a fine gift, it also keeps an aging writer off the streets.

It also has gotten some great reviews. (In fact, I will probably blather on about that Kirkus star until my dying day. Allow me to apologize in advance for this.)

Wanna buy it? Good for you! Click here.

Have a joyous Thanksgiving, my friends! 

You’re Grounded!

I don’t write about my day job on this blog too often, because my day job doesn’t have much to do with writing for children.

On rare occasions, however, I get lucky.

GroundingI draw my salary from The Lawrenceville School, editing and writing for The Lawrentian, the School’s alumni magazine. Not too long ago, I learned that Julian Thompson, the author of 20 YA books, was an alumnus, and, well, I just had to interview the guy.

I read Thompson’s young adult novel, The Grounding of Group 6, when I was an actual young adult. I remembered loving it, but, after 30 years, I couldn’t remember much else. All I could recall was a couple of basic plot points. I also recalled that the book had some dirty parts – which might have been why the 12-year-old me thought the book was so dang wonderful.

I gave Thompson a call and he could not have been more gracious. He happily agreed to sit for an interview. In preparation, I reread Grounding and found it to be every bit as good as I had remembered. And yes, the dirty parts are still a little dirty – but not nearly as dirty as my memory had led me to believe, which is kind of a relief, really.

Whew! I thought. Thompson is not the Henry Miller of middle school lit!

For those of you who might be interested, I am posting a PDF of the story below. I don’t think the finished article is a great piece of magazine writing by any stretch, but I do think it is as good a way as any to remember a fine writer and a generous human being.

Julian Thompson: Grounded by Experience

 

A Mouse Divided

Hiya!

How can you not love me?

I’ve written a great deal on this blog about how much I like cute little rodents. Over the course of my life, I’ve owned three gerbils, one fancy rat, one sewer rat, and an adorably blorpy guinea pig named Pig.

I also sometimes run a mouse hotel.

This has led Jilanne Hoffmann – one of my more smart-alecky blog followers – to suggest that my pro rodent (“prodent”) views must be the result of some sort childhood trauma.

Well, Jilanne, you’re right. Thanks so much for forcing me to dredge up my past. I hope you’re happy!

Sigh. Well, I might as well tell all of you what happened.

***

My story takes place in the summer of 1979. I was eight.

When I was young, I loved to sleep over at my maternal grandparents’ house. In retrospect this is kind of strange thing for me to love. Yes, both Grandma and Grandpa were very nice to me (and neither thought twice about plying me with ice cream) but there was also a lot of tension in that house. My grandparents didn’t have a marriage that one would describe as “happy.”

Actual dialogue between my grandparents:

Grandpa
(Entering the kitchen:)
So! What’s for dinner?

Grandma
Poison.

I usually stayed overnight at their house by myself, but on this occasion, my six-year-old cousin, Jason, was there, too. This was great, for it was the middle of summer and my grandparents’ pool was always more fun when there was someone else to swim with.

Shortly after my Mom dropped me off, Jason and I were taking turns doing cannonballs off the diving board when I came up with my brilliant idea: I had noticed that the pool’s water level was about ten inches below the topmost edge. To my eight-year-old brain this was kind of a bummer.

“I got an idea!” I shouted to Jason. “Let’s fill up the pool to the very, very top!”

My plan was simple. We would get some buckets and go into the house. We would fill the buckets up in the bathroom sink, go back outside, and dump the water into the pool. We would then repeat these actions until the pool was completely full. Easy peasy mac ‘n’ cheesy.

There were a couple of problems with the plan, of course – the first of which is that all pools have pumps to regulate water levels. But even if that machinery didn’t exist, it would have still taken a few thousand gallons to raise a pool’s water level 10 inches. That’s a lot of trips to Grandma’s bathroom.

I had no grasp of these problems. The only problem I could discern was that there was only one bucket in the dilapidated shed that held the pool toys. But this didn’t faze me. I handed my cousin a toy tugboat. It had small holes in the top which allowed it to be filled with water. It was no bucket, but it would still help the pool-filling cause.

Happily wielding our water receptacles, we went into the house, leaving wet footprints in our wake. I filled up my bucket and turned to leave, expecting Jason to be a few steps behind me. Instead, he screamed like a banshee.

This was not part of the plan.

Little did either of us know, a mouse was living inside of the toy tugboat – and this mouse didn’t take too kindly to drowning. So, once water started gushing in it’s home, it leapt onto Jason’s shoulder just long enough to give a kid a coronary. Then the mouse scrambled into the kitchen and under the refrigerator.

Grandma was on the scene in an instant. She spotted me first. When she was agitated, she would mix up her grandchildren’s names. Without fail, she would start to call me Jason before switching gears in mid-word.

“Ja-Michael! What happened?”

But all I could do was shrug. I hadn’t seen the drama unfold.

She ran into the bathroom. I followed. There we found a paralyzed Jason – who was not quite paralyzed enough to not rat me out.

Grandma learned of my pool-filling idea. More importantly, she learned that because of my pool filling idea there was now a mouse hiding in her spotless kitchen.

To my surprise, she took the news in stride. Then she did something that was even more surprising, something I had never seen her do before or since: she sought out Grandpa.

As I mentioned earlier, Grandma and Grandpa did not get along. I learned just about every  curse word on the planet from Grandma; she used those words to describe Grandpa. I had grown up believing that those two old people had absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing in common.

But I was wrong. When it came to rodents, my grandparents were of one mind: the deader the better.

Grandpa, normally a pretty excitable fellow, was also shockingly sanguine upon hearing the news. He just nodded, hopped into his livingroom-on-wheels of a car, and glided down the street.

Ten minutes later he was back bearing mousetraps. I had never seen traps like these before. The traps my father used in our house were called “Hav-a-Hearts.” They kept the mice secure in a cage until they could be released into the wild.

My dad had this! This is a good trap.

My dad had this. This is a good trap.

Grandpa’s trap didn’t have a cage.

Grandpa gathered Jason and me to his side. “Let me show you boys how these work.” He was in Mr. Wizard mode.

With some effort he pulled back the metal bar and clicked it into place. He laid the trap flat on the kitchen table. Then he handed me a wooden spoon.

“See that spot?” he said, pointing to the trigger.

I nodded.

“I’m gonna put peanut butter there for our little friend. Now touch that with the spoon.”

I did.

And THWACK! The bar slammed down with such force it left a dent in the spoon. Grandpa smiled, I suppose he was expecting me to be delighted.

Grandpa had this. This is a bad trap.

Grandpa had this. This is a bad trap.

But I wasn’t delighted. I was shocked. Then I was furious.

“You’re not using that,” I said.

“Of course I’m using that,” he replied, a little bewildered. “You let a mouse into the house and we have to get rid of it.”

It was at about that point I became unglued. “No, no, no!”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Settle down.”

“You can’t use that trap! You gotta use the other kind! The kind with the cage! The kind daddy uses!”

Then Grandma joined the conversation. “Knock it off, Ja-Michael! We’re not going to keep that thing in a cage!”

I could not believe my ears. Grandma was taking Grandpa’s side? Grandma never took Grandpa’s side! How could she take his side when less than an hour before she called him s***head? Had the world gone topsy turvy?

I was dumbstruck. My grandparents had joined forces to oppose me and I was powerless to stop them.

And it was all my fault! If it wasn’t for my stupid pool filling idea, that mouse would’ve lived his entire cute little life in a cute little toy tugboat. My God, he was like the main character in a picture book and my grandparents wanted to snap his spine in two!

So I did the only thing I could do under these terrible circumstances: I waved an accusing finger at them both. “If you use that, I’m going home!”

“Oh, stop it,” said Grandma. “Get an ice cream.”

“I mean it!” I screamed.

And I did mean it. I carried on like this until Grandma called Mom and told her to pick me up. My overnight trip to Grandma’s was no longer than two hours.

I didn’t say much on the car ride home. I was sick to my stomach; I was afraid of what Mom was going to do to me. Mom was the one who laid down the law in our house. I had stupidly brought a mouse into her parents’ house and then, when they attempted to deal with the problem, I screamed at them like a maniac. Maybe I had the math wrong, but I was pretty sure that was grounds for justifiable homicide.

I sat in the shadowy-est corner of the backseat. I tried to become invisible. Mom and I were quiet for a very, very long time.

She spoke first.

“What you did,” Mom said finally, “was very principled.”

That was it. As far as Mom was concerned, nothing more needed to be said. She knew how much I loved my pet gerbils. She got it.

My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t get it. She never really got over it, either. For the rest of her life, she told that mouse story to anyone who would listen. The takeaway of the story was, “My grandson is nuts.”

But I never minded. In fact, when Grandma told the story, it filled me with a weird sense of pride. No, I wasn’t able to save that mouse. But that little guy didn’t die in vain. He radicalized my prodent beliefs — and I am grateful.

It’s PiBoIdMo Time!

Yay! Woo!

I do love PiBoIdMo (which, by the way, is pronounced Pie Bow Id Moe — I don’t care what anyone else says) and I recommend It to everyone!

Except for me, that is. This year I decided to (unofficially) give the NaNoWriMo thing a go. I gotta middle grade novel in me that’s just bustin’ to get out. I know Tara will be so disappointed. Or, more likely, she won’t notice or care; this is a busy month for her!

But to show my love — and to give myself  a little extra time to focus on said novel. I’m recycling the PiBoIdMo post I wrote for Tara last year. Recycling is good for the environment.

Enjoy!

Erector!!

THE PLAY’S THE THING

My mom has a habit of mixing bad news with the good.

“Happy anniversary!” she joyously sang into the phone. “Ten years! Congratulations!”

Before I could thank her, Mom followed up her salutation with words that were far less joyous:

“I think it’s high time you got your crap out of my house.”

Ugh. In an instant, my plan to use my parents’ home as a storage locker for the rest of my life was dashed to bits.

It was under these circumstances I found myself alone in my old room facing my childhood closet, mustering up the strength to take a reluctant trip down memory lane.

Inside were stacks of sketch pads filled with primitive drawings; old machines I, once upon a time, had a penchant for hoarding; and lousy souvenirs from equally lousy vacations. Then there were the toys – lots of them.

There was so much stuff to sift through, I was confident the job was gonna be a complete nightmare.

But it wasn’t. Quite the opposite, really.

I both smiled and winced at my homemade comic books. After reading a few, I decided that, with a little bit of tweaking (OK, maybe quite a lot to tweaking), the storylines weren’t a bad jumping off point for a new story.

I marveled at the bigger-than-a-bread-basket adding machine I got from my Great Uncle Bill. By force of habit, I removed the machine’s olive green Bakelite cover to reveal its steampunky guts. It was almost comical just how many moving parts it had. I punched a few numbers and watched the thing spring to life. In that moment, my mind filled with ideas about a kid inventor.

Then I spied my Erector set.

Shortly after this discovery, Mom strolled into the room to check on my progress. What she found was her 30-something-year-old son lying on the floor constructing a racecar of his own design.

She didn’t even blink.

“Good,” Mom said with a sharp nod. “You’re taking that home.”

Indeed I was. The Erector set, the other toys, the machines, and my primitive doodles. I was taking all of it. I had barely begun working on my closet and my brain was already swimming with new ideas.

Toys facilitate play. Play is an essential component of the creative process. There is a reason why social scientists say that The Creative Spirit flourishes in kindergarteners and begins to sputter once those same children head off to middle school. As we grow up, we voluntarily – eagerly – purge the fun stuff from our lives.

That was certainly the case with me. I still remember being a 12-year-old who desperately wanted to be an adult. I gave away most of the stuff that had once given me pleasure and shoved the rest into the far corner of my closet. I thought these actions would speed the growing up process; instead, they just made me a sullen teen with an un-fun room.

With age comes a sort of wisdom, however. Almost in tandem with the launch of my professional writing career, I began to rekindle my interest in toys. I soon noticed that my best ideas occurred when I was horsing around with a hand puppet or had a box of 64 Crayolas within arm’s reach.

I even had a Bert puppet! I was the cool kid.

I even had a Bert puppet when I was a kid! I was so cool.

Unrestrained, unselfconscious play moves my mind in new directions; moving my mind in new directions helps me to discover new ideas.

I am well aware that a lot of grownups don’t feel comfortable playing with an erector set without a grownup reason for doing so. Fortunately, many of us have children – or if we don’t, we can easily borrow some. Kids need Quality Time, and Quality Times gives us the justification we need to build with Legos, squish Play-Doh, and color Snoopy green.

You couldn’t ask for a better situation. You’re being a good parent and you’re mining for inspiration. You’re multitasking! Well done.

That kind of multitasking was exactly what I had in mind when I loaded up the trunk of my car outside of Mom’s house. I’ll bring this stuff home to my young son, I thought. We’ll play with it together. We’ll pretend together. And, in so doing, my little guy will become my unwitting picture book collaborator.

It doesn’t get more inspiring – or wonderful – than that.