SCBWI Western PA Fall Conference

SCBWI Promising Writers!

SCBWI Promising Writers!

In November 2015 I attended my third fall conference hosted by SCBWI Western PA. I felt very excited for this conference, mostly because I felt very prepared. It’s nice to be past the novice stage and to be heading to an event with clear goals and specific things I wanted to learn. For instance, Valentine’s Day and Halloween are big book selling times.

(If children’s writing isn’t your thing, here’s some advice about going to a science writer’s conference from my friend Beth Skwarecki. )

As always the conference organizers did an amazing job. We were at the Hyatt Airport and there was an intensive the night before the main day of sessions on Saturday. I decided to stay the night on Friday so I could skip any traffic snarls and get to my volunteer station early. The rooms at the hotel are expensive, and I had missed the discount rate period, but luckily I had enough points (thanks to stays at the Hyatt in NYC for the SCBWI Winter conference!!) and got the room for free.

I helped at registration and greeted many of my writing friends. My favorite presentation was by Ariel Richardson from Chronicle Books. She covered novelty picture books and wow was my imagination sparked. I also particularly enjoyed the presentation by Susan Hawk who went into great detail on the agent/client relationship. She answered some tough questions about what happens once an agent likes your work.

The food at the conference was excellent and the rooms were fine, but I wasn’t thrilled that we didn’t have wireless internet access. I feel like conference attendees should get the code.

SCBWI Promising Writer

One special moment at the conference was when Ariel told me she had selected my story, Mission Compostable!, as her favorite. This meant I was honored with eight other writers as a Promising Writer. We received a coupon for a discount off a future WPA SCBWI event. In addition to her kind words, Ariel also offered some very generous advice and guidance on revising and submitting my manuscript.

It was really thrilling to be chosen as a Promising Writer. As we stood in front of the conference attendees, I looked at the people to my left and right and realized I was in a very special group of talented people! I promised myself again to keep working on my craft.

The networking and education that I get at these conferences is really so valuable, but like many conferences there never seems to be enough time for critique or discussion. And there is always so much to learn!

This year, I’m hoping to get to an SCBWI Conference in Cleveland in late summer and possibly the LA SCBWI Conference in August. Stay tuned!

What conferences do you attend? What is some good advice you’ve gotten at a conference?

Brain Food: SCBWI and SWPFSP

summer reading with kids

Food for Thought

 

I hate being hungry. I can’t concentrate and I’m really grouchy. Imagine if you were a kid who was hungry all summer.  But here in Pittsburgh, that’s not an imaginary thing. It’s real. In fact, there are more than 45,000 children in Allegheny County that are considered to be food insecure, and 73,500 children are eligible for free or reduced-rate school lunches or breakfasts.

So when Chris from the Southwest PA Food Security Partnership approached me and my friend Kathy about helping more kids take advantage of the summer food programs in our area, both of us said YES.

Kathy and I had tables next to each other at the 2015 Farm to Table conference, but we’re also both members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Chris loved the activities we were offering for children that centered around healthy eating but also had a literary and storytelling component. We met in early summer 2015 and he asked us if we could come to summer food sites and provide fun activities for the kids. He hoped that by advertising visits from local authors kids would be more interested in attending. Kathy and I loved the idea and both realized this was a chance to interact with children (something kids’ authors love) and a chance to feed their minds and their bodies.

But we like to think big. So Kathy and I invited all the members of SCWBI Western PA to join us. We had 14 volunteers sign up and they conducted over 10 visits in Allegheny, Somerset and Cambria counties. SCBWI volunteers read books, played games, and told stories while children enjoyed healthy, free meals.

I took my youngest son with me to two of my visits to my old home library, Carnegie Library Woods Run. I used to walk to that library with my young children and we spent many happy afternoons in the children’s section. When my son and I visited in August we found a welcoming staff and adorable kids with incredible imaginations.

For my visit, I brought copies of my book The Bumpy, Grumpy Road to share with the kids. I wanted give them something, a small gift to spark their imaginations. They gave me gifts, too, because in addition to reading stories we played StoryCubes and made up our own stories. And these kids were AMAZING! The little girl in the photo above and another little boy came up with an incredible tale about a boy who had the shadow of a beetle and a beetle who had the shadow of a boy. They traveled together to a castle where they discovered human king…but a beetle queen. You’ll have to use your imagination to find out what happens next.

We definitely plan to continue this partnership next summer so if you’re a local Pittsburgh author or illustrator get in touch and help us feed imaginations while kids get fed.

New Food at Pittsburgh’s Farm to Table

Open wide! New food

Open wide!

It’s almost time for the ninth annual Farm to Table Conference here in Pittsburgh! This is one of my favorite events in the city because I get to meet new people and try new food! I’m really thrilled to participate this year for several reasons. As usual, I’ll be hosting a table and selling copies of My Food Notebook, but I’m also going to unveil a new game for kids called “TASTE or TEST.” When kids visit my table they can choose to TASTE a Mystery Food or take a TEST and answer a really tough (wink, wink) question about Pennsylvania farms and agriculture. If kids are really brave, they can tackle both challenges! When a child does a TASTE or TEST, they will earn an entry into a raffle drawing for a basket of fun, healthy prizes.

I’m also going to bring this fun TASTE or TEST game into the first grades at my local elementary schools to coincide with the Farm to Table unit in the curriculum. As I work on different projects and books for children, I find that taking a look at the standards really helps. I use the PA Standards Aligned System site to see what teachers need to cover in the classroom. Then I try to make sure that the information in my games, activities and books matches the needs of the teacher.

Just because information is required doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! I know kids love learning about healthy foods because I worked with the folks from Farm to Table to create the Super Fun! Local Food Challenge assembly and have performed it in front of screaming crowds of school agers.

I think the TASTE or TEST game is going to be a hit for parents and kids, because trying a new food is a tough challenge for many people.

Trying New Foods

When’s the last time you ate a new food? And I don’t mean trying a new flavor of Triskets. I mean a new fruit or vegetable, maybe a new kind of cheese, or even a new kind of grain.

We get into habits (or ruts) where we eat the same things every day. I know personally it’s easier for me to cook familiar foods. I know how to cook them and (usually) don’t ruin or burn them. But it’s important for parents to model trying a new food if they want their kids to try a new food.

Here’s a challenge. Try to eat one new food every day. Could you do that two days in a row? Could you do it for a week? I’m thinking the next time I go to the grocery store, I could grab five new kinds of fruits and vegetables and give them a try once a day. Sounds intimidating but also a little exciting!

Parents want their kids to try new foods. I asked friends on Facebook what new foods they wished their kids would try and got a great variety of responses. Here are some of the foods:

  • Kiwi
  • Spinach
  • Peppers (red, yellow, orange, green)
  • Tomatoes (twice)
  • Rambutan (I don’t even know what this is!)
  • Mushrooms (twice)
  • Eggplants (twice)
  • Mangoes (I’m allergic)
  • Lima beans
  • Roasted brussel sprouts
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Grapes

That’s a pretty good list of new foods to try! Some of those are delicious. But what the heck is a rambutan? Sounds like a new food I need to try.

Be honest now: Which of those foods have you eaten yourself? Which have your kids eaten? If you’re going to tackle this list of new foods with your family, let me know which ones they taste!

Do you think the TASTE or TEST game would be a hit at your child’s school?

 

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The Pitfalls of Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

freelance writing pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is home to lots of creative types!

Freelance writing in Pittsburgh isn’t always perfect. In fact, it can be full of pitfalls. But what if there was a cushy landing waiting at the bottom? I love doing freelance writing in Pittsburgh. Over the past four years, I’ve enjoyed working the organizations like Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, Cancer Be Glammed, and teli. Right now I am enjoying my freelance writing work with Farm to Table and Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as well as writing for national magazines.

Why I love Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

I have learned a lot in my time as a freelance writer and not all of it pertains to writing. There are lots of extras, both good and bad, that come with a corporate position. Here is a quick list of seven potential pitfalls of doing a freelance writing in Pittsburgh that aren’t so bad after all.

  1. No organized community service. I miss blood drives! In my previous work in the non-profit world, the office manager always organized the blood drives and volunteering was part of my day job. It was easy and a no-brainer. Now that I’m a freelance writer I have to make my own volunteering opportunities. That could be a con, but now I have a chance to pick which causes really matter to me. I’m starting a creative writing club at our elementary school, I’m volunteering with the Food Bank and promoting healthy eating for kids.
  2. No office kitchen. I have no where to take leftover party food! When I worked in an office, I could keep extra sweets and snacks out of my pantry by donating it to the office kitchen. Problem solved. Now as a freelancer, a lot of those leftover pieces of cakes and cookies stick around the house. But as a freelance writer, I’m also not tempted to eat treats brought in by other people. No 4:00 sugar rush! And I can usually avoid the guilty obligation to buy popcorn and chocolate and wrapping paper from co-workers who are fundraising for their kids.
  3. No chit chat. Not working in an office means no water cooler talk. That’s good and bad. It means I don’t have people to bounce ideas off of easily. It means I have to use the phone, social media and scheduled meetings to share ideas and get feedback. That does require extra effort on my part. But losing the water cooler means also means I get to avoid hurtful gossip and misinformation. A definite pro!
  4. No suits. Working from home means there is no need for a business wardrobe. This feels like a real pro for me most of the time. I can do my freelance writing in my workout gear and make sure I have no excuses when it comes to running, cycling or lifting weights. It does make it hard sometimes when I need to dress for a presentation or networking event, but I think this feature has helped my budget and my overall health. I haven’t worn high heels in several months and I don’t miss that at all!
  5. No sick days. As a freelance writer, I still have to work when I’m sick. I’ve taken time off when I’ve felt really bad, but if it’s a bad cough or a sore throat, that doesn’t stop me from writing. That mean seem like a con, but the good part about not working in an office is that I don’t have to work around other sick people. Why do people insist on coming into work sick? No one’s handing out medals for coming into work on your deathbed! And since our nation has really failed to support families with excellent parental sick leave rights, I can now stay home with my sick children and keep working. That’s a real pro.
  6. No carpool. I don’t have anyone to carpool with to work. No HOV lanes for me. When I do have to drive somewhere, I am on my own. But I also don’t drive to work everyday. There are many days I don’t drive at all. That has to be a pro.
  7. No trivia club after work. It is harder to socialize now. It’s very easy to stay home, tuck into my work, and neglect personal relationships. But I am a social person and I make an effort to get out to different kinds of networking events and community activities. And I’ve also tried to prioritize friendships with people that really match my personality instead of gravitating towards someone who just happens to work in the next office. It’s been good to meet a variety of new and interesting people through my numerous freelance writing contracts but it’s also been good to explore friendships that are not related to work. I think in many ways, non-work friendships can be healthier and less stressful. There are so many great people in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I’ll ever truly lack for excellent socializing!

More tips for picky eaters!

Boy eating whole wheat bread

Boy cannot live on bread alone.

Looking for more tips for picky eaters? If you have a picky eater in your family, you are probably familiar with the feeling that you’re in the middle of a food fight. You’ve prepared food but your picky eater won’t try a bite. Let the battle of wills begin! But I found that getting into a food fight with my picky eater left us both feeling defeated and angry. I want my children to have a healthy, curious attitude about food. And I don’t like arguing at every meal. So I looked into ways to work with my picky eater.

One important change was the creation of My Food Notebook. Not only did it help my child remember what foods he had tried and liked, it helped me remember if he liked foods prepared a certain way or with a certain condiment, which we call a “Flavor Buddy.” I also did a lot of research on techniques to that make it easier for kids to try new foods. Some of those tips are available here. But if you need additional ideas, here are five more tips to help create a win-win situation at your dinner table, too.

 

More Tips for Picky Eaters

1. Family Style – Instead of giving each person the same size serving and preparing plates in the kitchen, bring your food to the dinner table in family style bowls or platters and let your dining companions, young and old, choose the size of their serving. You may be surprised how many vegetables your children consume when they are allowed to serve themselves. And for those picky eaters, starting with a smaller portion is a lot less intimidating that facing a huge mound of spinach.

2. Choices – Whenever possible, I offer two or more vegetable choices at our family style dinners. I remind my children that a healthy meal includes some protein, some carbohydrates and a large serving of produce, then I let them choose. I highlight the nutritional benefits of each vegetable in language my kids can understand. We talk about Vitamin A in carrots and how it helps your eyes and Vitamin C in sweet potatoes and how it helps you fight off germs. But giving them a choice usually means they will eat more of their chosen food than if I have forced them to eat a certain vegetable.

3. Sticks – Putting food on sticks is like waving a magic wand for many picky eaters. Foods on sticks, whether it’s a kebob stick, a toothpick, or a really cute bento box mini-fork seems to make trying that food so much more fun.

4. Faces and fun – Since kids eat with their eyes and many children prefer to touch their food before putting it in their mouths, I often let them create faces and have a little fun with certain foods. Especially if we’re building a salad, creating a little monster face or cartoon character out of the salad ingredients can take the pressure off of trying new foods.

5. Be consistent –  There will be times when your picky eater is completely resistant to all tactics. Maybe they just aren’t hungry or aren’t in the mood to have fun. That happens here, too. But we don’t let our kids off the hook, they are required to have one bite of a vegetable – any vegetable they choose – at dinner. We call it our hop-down bite. You can’t hop-down from the table until you’ve taken the bite. And we never waver on this rule. Stick to it and the arguments and testing will fade. Do not give in. Not even once.

My Food Notebook helps picky eaters

My Food Notebook helps picky eaters

Once you’ve started using these tips to work with your picky eater, don’t forget to keep track of the foods they’ve tried in your very own copy of My Food Notebook. And let us know what foods become favorites – or not.

Check out MORE tips for picky eaters here!

The Mom Con in Pittsburgh

the mom con Pittsburgh

Nov. 15 – Don’t miss this!

There’s buzz, no doubt about it, surrounding The Mom Con happening in Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 2014! It’s going to be a great event this year and although I’m not able to attend as a vendor for family reasons, I have to say I’m excited to still be involved and learning from the organizers.

The theme for this year’s event is “Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering” and frankly I’ve felt all of those things even before going to the event! I’ve been learning about the businesses and vendors that will be there and I’ve been inspired by the founding moms. I’ve connected with other moms at pre-Mom Con events. And I’ve felt empowered to reach out and try some new events outside of my comfort zone.

Check out this list of speakers  and the schedule. There are still tickets available and if you haven’t gotten yours, I suggest you get them soon!

 

 

Too Many Critique Groups?

critique groups

Drafts & Revisions

Are you a in a critique group? I am – actually three critique groups! I think critique groups are truly invaluable to any serious writer and not just for works of fiction.

I meet regularly with a friend I met through NaNoWriMo (coming very soon!) to discuss non-fiction queries, article ideas and fiction ideas. We also discuss whether certain writing contests are worth the effort. Having a writer friend as a sounding board is a great asset, and it helps when the writing friend has a different approach than you.

In addition to meeting with my friend, I also meet regularly with two formal critique groups but both have different vibes.

Last summer I learned about the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Editors and attended their summer “critique-nic.” This picnic plus critique group combined my love of food and writing perfectly and following that event I joined an SCWBI critique group in Cranberry. This has been my most successful, continual critique group ever. We have a great chemistry and really work hard to help each other produce our best work.

Joining this SCWBI group has kept me on task and provided good moral support. This group was especially helpful after I had a negative experience at a writing retreat and was accused of being a rude, harsh, inexperienced critiquer. (I’ll have to share more about this story later.) After the retreat, I returned to my familiar group and shared my unhappy story. They reassured me it was probably a misunderstanding or a just a really negative person. This group is a great mix of writers with diverse experience, too. I definitely want to be in this group.

After attending – and loving – my first Penn Writers conference, I learned about a critique group very convenient to my neighborhood and requested to join. I was pretty surprised to learn I had to audition to join this group! I sent off my writing sample and felt very lucky to be accepted. They keep a strict six-person membership limit and while the group meets for an epic 5 hours once a month, they work very hard to give detailed feedback and stay on topic.

I’ve had one meeting with this group and found it to be really engaging and informative. I’m excited to bring my MG novel “Dare Club” and work on revisions with the help of this group. Each person is writing something so different, I also feel like I will learn a lot from each of their works. I definitely want to be in this group, too!

There’s a third critique group that’s still in the growing stages trying to meet every other Wednesday at  Coffee Buddha, a coffee shop also in my neighborhood. Growing a critique group can be pretty hard when people haven’t made the commitment to clear the space on their calendar and prioritize being there. New critique groups are always working out who the leader is, how many people are needed to meet, how often to meet and working to build a comfort level with each other. This is probably the hardest one for me to commit to, since it’s still growing. But I feel responsible for it some reason!

I think two critique groups plus a writing mentor is enough, but three is too many. But I can’t let go of the guilt of abandoning a group of writers looking for support in their community!

Do you belong to one or more critique groups? What’s the best part? What’s the worst?

March Madness and the Healthy Food Challenge

It’s the perfect time of year for a healthy food challenge! March is National Nutrition Month and it’s also March Madness. So on a run, a time when I often get my best ideas, I decided it would be really cool to combine these two great activities into a Healthy Food Challenge!

healthy food

Healthy Food Challenge Bracket

Luckily our elementary school has a principal who supports healthy eating, I have a great working relationship with our PTO and the new Kids of STEEL club is a hit, and our new Food Services Director is setting a tone of cooperation with parents. So many factors came together just right for this activity.

Healthy Food Challenge:

I worked with food services to determine which eight fruits and vegetables would be available every day in the cafeteria. Then I created the match-ups, randomly setting up eight fruit opponents on one side and eight veggie opponents on the other.

vegetables for kids

The Veggie Conference

fruit for kids

The Fruit Conference

We sent the brackets home in advance so kids could fill them out and turn them in. I entered all the picks into a spreadsheet to track the winners. This took a lot of time! Over 200 kids turned in brackets, that’s about 1/3 of our school population.

The first round happened today. I walked around the cafeteria for each of our three lunch periods and asked kids what fruit or veggie they wanted to vote for. They could only vote for fruits or veggies they had tasted that day at lunch.

I must admit, I was surprised how many kids claimed they had not eaten any fruits or veggies for lunch that day. Some tried to claim fruit snacks were a fruit. Not a chance. One kid tried to tell me pistachios were a fruit. As much as I love pistachios and prefer them to fruit snacks, I still had to tell her no. But I told her to keep eating pistachios.

That’s why the title Healthy Food Challenge is perfect. We are challenging the kids to get more healthy foods into their daily diets.

Winners will be chosen from the most accurate brackets. We’re also pulling a few brackets from all the entries to give away some small random prizes.

My motivation to try some fun, healthy activities at school came from listening to a webinar hosted for parents by Action for Healthy Kids. I was really excited to learn tips and techniques for working with schools to increase nutritious foods and more physical activity in the school day, especially after some unfortunately negative experiences with a “wellness committee” that didn’t do much in our district when my oldest son was in kindergarten and first grade.

We have a great district and a great school. I think there’s a lot of potential here. And our principal really supports our Kids of STEEL running program. Unfortunately I’ve also received an automated call from him asking families to support a school fundraiser where teachers work behind the counter at a local McDonald’s. That activity drives me nuts.

I still have a lot to learn about increasing wellness at our school. Luckily there are more webinars from Action for Healthy Kids coming up. I have a dream of the school having a community garden before my youngest, who isn’t even in kindergarten yet, graduates sixth grade. I’m excited to learn more about why taking away recess time as punishment is bad for academic achievement.

 

 

Thank You Notes from Kids

thank you kids thank you notes

Good habits start early

Do you send thank you notes?

Have you ever forgotten to send a thank you note?

I volunteered at our elementary school this month helping with an assembly and the launch of a new school activity, Kids of STEEL. Kids who join this program will get to run together once a week and learn about healthy eating. It’s right up my alley.

But after the assembly ended, our PTO president and principal realized they had forgotten to unroll the giant thank you sign they had created for these kinds of events.

“There’s just so much going on,” lamented our PTO president.

So I opened my big mouth and made this suggestion: “Let the kids take over saying thanks. Have the student government put together a gratitude team, and they can write thank you notes to volunteers and guests.”

We discussed photographing the large thank you sign and creating custom thank you cards. The principal is taking the idea to the teacher who advises student government, and I am hopeful they will give it a try.

The PTO can still write notes or send emails, but I think involving the kids has so many benefits. Writing thank you notes as a kid is almost as important eating healthy and exercises. Writing thank you notes is a physical, active way to help my children develop a strong sense of gratitude. I know that feeling gratitude can go a long way toward helping a child feel happy and satisfied in whatever path they follow in life.

Gratitude and Thank You Notes

I recently finished local Pittsburgh author Britt Reints’ book An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness. Reints dedicates an entire chapter to the science of gratitude. She cites research that argues when we feel and express gratitude, we are happier. She also emphasizes that gratitude is not the same as feeling indebted, and I am working hard to help my children understand the subtle difference there.

Working with volunteers gives me many times to feel and share my gratitude. Over the past ten years, I have often found myself struggling to find ways to express my gratitude that matches the value of the gifts these volunteers have shared. I collected a list of the 100 most creative and relevant ways I’ve said thanks to volunteers and these ideas are available to you as an e-book called Thanks! 100 Ways to Appreciate Volunteers.

Should you force it?

Some families don’t have a habit of writing thank you notes. I often give my grandmother credit for building the habit for me, but really my mom was just as influential. She would often say, “Write the thank you note, or we’ll never hear the end of it from your grandmother.” I guess they had a pretty effective good cop/bad cop system going because even now I say those things to my children.

Technology offers lots of ways to say thank you now beyond the traditional handwritten note. And my family has used a variety of them, like the photo at the top of this blog. But we never abandon the thank you note completely. I do agree that the way we say thank you isn’t as important as remembering to do it in the first place. A true, heartfelt “thank you” is all we need to offer.

I have two requests for feedback here:

Do you value handwritten note more or less than other ways of showing gratitude?

What creative ways you have helped your children – or you have used yourself – to express gratitude?

How to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables

how to get kids to eat vegetables

Give kids a choice

The secret

The secret to getting kids to eat vegetables is really quite simple. Give them the choice. Before you click away saying, “My kid would choose not to eat them,” hear me out. I didn’t say give them the choice whether or not to eat vegetables. Give them the choice of which vegetables and fruits.

There is real scientific evidence to back this up, but let me begin anecdotally. The photo above is from our Pittsburgh-area elementary school cafeteria. How does our school get kids to eat vegetables and fruits? They offer a choice.

And when my boys buy lunch, which is about once a week, I tell them they need to choose a fruit and a vegetable, but it’s up to them what to choose. I offer them a choice.

My second son, who is a bit picky, usually sticks with applesauce and carrots.

My oldest son almost always chooses grapes and the crunchy vegetable mix of cucumbers, celery and carrots. Choices within choices.

The science

Now for the scientific evidence. This study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that offering kids a variety of vegetables and fruit and letting them choose which ones to eat led to them eating more fruits and vegetables!

The researchers observed that “children chose some pieces in 94% of snacks with variety and in 70% of snacks without variety” and “Providing a variety of vegetables and fruit as a snack led to increased consumption of both food types in a childcare facility. Serving a variety of vegetables or fruit as a snack could help preschool children meet recommended intakes.”

Think about your own eating habits. I am sure you prefer to have more than a little choice in the matter. We all love some control over what we eat. So if you are looking for ways to get kids to eat vegetables and fruits, offer a choice.

Have you given your kids choice in their foods? Has it helped?