Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Doll's House by Jody Casella

My dream gift when I was a little girl was a dollhouse.

I had a vision of it: A house made of wood-- not flimsy plastic like my Barbie camper--  but something finer. With multiple rooms. A winding staircase. Carpets on the wooden floors. Curtains hanging in the windows. Blankets folded on the beds. 

All shrunken down, of course, to fit dolls smaller than my statuesque, matted-haired barbies and headless Ken. 

Small was the key. I loved the idea of the tiny furniture. Teeny drawers with things hidden inside. Miniature table settings on the table. I had read the Borrowers series and liked to imagine tiny people living inside my walls, sneaking out at night to swipe a dropped pea for their dinner.  

When I turned nine, I was given a dollhouse by my mother and stepfather. It was your basic design. The back wall missing. Four rooms. A roof that folded back to reveal an attic. It wasn't finished yet--still unpainted, the wood bare--and unfurnished, which disappointed me. Plus, I was nine years old, and thinking of myself as past the dollhouse phase.

I didn't want to show my disappointment to my mother though. Over the next few months she painted the house. She wallpapered the rooms. She sewed curtains. She bought furniture. My best friend, who made it clear that she was also too old to play with dollhouses, came over to look at it. 

All finished and not much to do with it, and that seemed to be the end of that for the dollhouse.

But then we discovered something interesting in our neighborhood. In the window of one of the houses, was a dollhouse. Bigger and more elaborate than mine. My friend and I were intrigued and confused. We didn't think a little girl lived in that house, so who the heck was playing with the dollhouse?

One day my friend marched up the front walk and rang the doorbell. An old lady poked her head out and who knows what she was thinking at the sight of two strange nine year olds on her front porch. "We want to look at your dollhouse," my friend said.

The lady, oddly enough, invited us inside. This dollhouse was my vision come to life. Three stories. With multiple rooms and a winding staircase. A back wall that hinged. Shingles on the roof. Lights that you could switch on and off. Carpets and drapery.

My friend and I stood in awe as the woman opened a dresser drawer with tweezers. Inside were small items tucked away and folded. Clothing and towels. She lifted a book from a bookshelf. The pages had teeny words on the pages. And in the kitchen there was food pretend-burbling in a pot on the stove.

"Those are beads," the woman told us. Teeny green ones to look like peas. She confided other secrets. How you could cut pictures from magazines to make art to hang on the walls. Use scraps of fabric for the bedding.

My friend and I raced back to my house to get to work. My dollhouse wasn't a toy, we realized, it was a project. The game was to create the things to arrange inside. We played with the dollhouse for the next few years, long long after we should've been too old to play with dollhouses.

I have the house still. It's pushed in the back of my closet and nowhere near as amazing as I remember it being. Layered with dust. Some of the furniture broken or missing pieces.

But when I open a drawer, I find a bit of cloth, folded and tucked away. Forgotten by my nine year old, ten year old, eleven year old self. 

A small gift to me today of friendship and joy and play. 



Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Santa's Little Helpers by Jodi Moore


This month, we're talking about gifts and giving. Not to sound corny or anything, but the absolute greatest gifts were given to me by my husband: our two sons.

Like so many parents, we enrolled our boys in Cub Scouts when they reached the proper age (6 and 7.) While we're not what one would call "outdoorsy" people, we wanted our boys to have those experiences and judge for themselves. 

(Side note: We learned they're not the outdoorsy types either.)

That being said, we all loved the service projects associated with the group. The boys visited nursing homes, raised money for charities and helped kick off our local Toys for Tots campaign.




I remember that night so clearly. One of the marines representing the local drive attended as the guest of honor. He was resplendent in his uniform! Both of our boys were captivated.

And oh, how he impressed upon us the importance of the toy drive...conveying how so many families have so little. How too many children will wake up Christmas morning without any presents...unless we help.

The boys were unusually quiet as they climbed into the car afterwards. "How about we stop and buy some toys for the kids on the way home?" I asked.

They both nodded, although I could tell something was bothering them. So I asked, "What's wrong, pups?"

"How could this happen?" Steve asked, his eyes wide and teary. "I thought Santa brought toys for everyone. Why would he leave any kids out?"

Uh oh.

You see, at those ages, our boys still believed.

(Side note: Okay, we all still believe...and everyone still has to write their letters to Santa, first thanking him for everything we already have, and then asking for something you'd love to find under the tree. If you don't, you get underwear. It's a rule in our house.)

But I digress...

Since I wanted them to keep believing, I said, "Sometimes families lose their homes in a fire, or a flood. Sometimes they have to move...and Santa isn't able to find them. He relies on us to help him, since the Marines know where they are."

"Oh!" His little face brightened. "That's a good idea then."

So off we went to the toy store. We stood in the Lego aisle for at least 45 minutes. My seven-year old, Alex, would take a box down, carefully study it, put it back and move on to the next one. "Boys, the store will be closing soon," I said. "We have to make a decision."

Alex frowned. "Mom. This is important business. We have to chose the very best toys. We're helping Santa."

I think at that moment, they internalized the "gift "of giving. Did I mention these boys are my bestest gifts?

From our family to yours...

Wishing everyone the happiest, healthiest, holiday season, filled with, and surrounded, by those you love. There's no better gift than that.


Monday, December 11, 2017

The Best Gifts (Maryanne Fantalis)

When I was growing up, my parents had a very clever way of getting some sleep on Christmas morning. My mother hung our stockings on the doors to our bedrooms and Santa always left one present on the floor below the stocking. A real present, not just a little stocking knick-knack or piece of candy. Like all kids, we'd wake up early but because of that gift, we'd have something to do -- and something to share with each other -- for at least an hour before waking up the parents.

Santa -- I mean Mom -- was pretty smart.

One year, Santa left the BEST present outside my door: a Spirograph.

This is my new Spirograph. I bought it again two years ago. Because that's how much I love this toy.
I love it so much I haven't even used it yet. 
As you can see from the picture, Spirograph enables you to draw perfect spirally-swirly-starry shapes by putting a pen in one of the many holes in one of the many circular shapes and dragging the pen repeatedly -- and carefully -- around and around inside (or outside) the hollow circle guide. It's amazing. The possibilities are almost endless. And if you're meticulous -- and I am -- you can try to produce every. single. combination. 

I got so lost in this magical toy, they had to call me down from my room to see what else was under the tree. Who cares? As far as I was concerned, I already had the only gift that mattered. 

The only imperfection of Spirograph is its impermanence. The tiny wheels get lost over time. The pens run out of ink and are hard to replace. It's surprising, actually, how few pens will fit through those tiny holes. Believe me, I tried. 

So I'll tell you about another very BEST present from my childhood, and that was a big yellow teddy bear waiting for me under the tree.

My memories of finding him are fuzzy enough that I think I was four or five years old at the time. The fact that I named him Butterscotch Strawberry because he's yellow and pink also leads me to think I was pretty young. I was giving horses in my stories literal names like "Brownie" and "Chocolate" around that time. Also, I remember trying to sleep with him in my bed and feeling like he took up the whole thing, like another me. 

This is Bubby. Still fuzzy after all these years.
He lost his ribbon long ago, but he's still quite handsome.

I wish I had access to my dad's photo albums because I know there's a picture of me that Christmas morning. In the picture, Bubby (as he soon came to be known) is brand new and looks dashing with his bright red ribbon, and his tongue is still stuck properly to his face (nowadays, it half-dangles down, but I think it gives him personality!).   

You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Bubby has absorbed a lot of tears in his life. He has heard a lot of secrets and given a lot of hugs. His leg is a great pillow for napping or reading. He's a perfect best friend.

Do you have a favorite holiday gift? One that you can still remember vividly to this day, no matter how long ago it was? Tell me about it in the comments! 

December is a month for giving, and in that spirit, I'd like to give back some of what I've received so generously from other authors: time. Along my journey to publication, I've been helped by authors who talked to me about their journeys, answering my questions and giving me their insights. I'd like to return the favor. I'll choose at random one person who comments on this post, and I will answer five emailed questions for that person about anything related to writing and publishing. 

Whatever holidays you celebrate, may they be joyous!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Best Gift? Books!!!! (Sydney Salter)

The other day my college-aged daughter posted this image in our family texting group:

The caption above the photo reads: It's a book!


My daughters exchanged jokes about my propensity to give books, and yeah, so far the only packages under our tree are books.



After finals week, my college senior will savor that new thriller like comfort food for an overworked brain. I'm also giving her the cookbook that contains her favorite pecan pie recipe now that she's just a few months from moving into her first apartment. The book of dinosaur art will be a reminder of her passionate younger self - and I'm sure she'll share it with her own family someday.

My 18 year old doesn't have time to read the books I've chosen for her, not with the relentless pace of IB papers and projects, and all that college application stuff. *nerves* Yet someday that clever photography book might inspire one of her own projects. Or maybe she'll open one of the books someday just to see my handwriting again.

Books have long lives, connecting us in an ongoing conversation with authors and so many varied readers throughout time. I like to think that my daughters will remember me through books - not so much because I write books, but because I passionately love reading them.

So my gift to you? Books, of course! You can win a $25 gift certificate to your favorite place to shop for books. Just leave a comment below. I will announce the winner in my January 10th post!



Friday, December 8, 2017

The Twelve Gifts of Writing Wisdom by Kimberly Sabatini

I'm going to give you the greatest gift I can. 
Think of it as The Twelve Days of Christmas--but not really that. 
It's more like the Twelve Gifts of Writing Wisdom for the aspiring author, 
or the author who is always aspiring. 
Basically, it's for everyone who's a writing nerd like me.




So, here it is. 
The Twelve Gifts of Writing Wisdom. 
Perhaps, in no particular order...

1. Your writing will always improve with practice and education. When you're stuck, it's often because you do not know how to successfully execute the thing you're trying to create. Don't be afraid to take a moment to learn what you need know. It will help you to move forward.

2. Reading counts. It's part of that education I just mentioned. Reading books will not mysteriously make writing occur on your lap top or notebook. But when you read broadly--in genre and outside of it--you are learning a million different things about being a writer. Good books will teach you and so will poorly written ones. READ!

3. Know what goes on in the business of publishing. The information net is deep and wide and you can not get away with claiming ignorance. Do your due diligence. Think of this as your opportunity to stop yourself from stepping out in public with toilet paper sticking out of your underwear. Dress for success.    

4. Don't get so fixated on publishing that you can't write. And before you ask, this is not me telling you two opposing things. It's about moderation. You must learn to balance business AND art to be an incredible writer. You must learn when and how to turn off the business voices in your head to make room for the creative ones. They do different jobs and you need them both. I believe we are capable of managing all the voices in our head. 

5. Jealousy happens. It doesn't make you a bad person to feel envious of someone else's success--especially when you've been working really hard. But how you handle your jealousy can make you a rockstar or it can make you a butt head. First of all, just because you work hard doesn't mean someone else hasn't worked hard, too. But let's just say, someone else got a little lucky. It happens. Vent your frustration in private. Eat as much chocolate as you need. And then redirect your energy to where it will be productive--your writing. And if you're capable of it, give an offering to the writing Gods. Go do a good deed for someone else who's writing is under appreciated. Leave an unsolicited review. Donate a copy of someone else's fantastic book. Recommend someone else's work to people who appreciate your recommendations. This may not do anything for you in the moment, but someone day, all those karmic acts of kindness may come back to you in unexpected ways. 

6. Write what intrigues you. Write to answer the questions you have about the world. Write to discover who you are and what you're about. DO NOT write to fix someone else. No two people are exactly alike, but there is a great commonality between so many of us. If you write for yourself, you can't help but create a genuine connection with the right readers for your work. If you write with yourself as your most important reader, you will bring an authenticity to your work that can not be denied.

7. No matter what you write, someone is going to dislike it. The best strategy I've ever seen to combat  harsh criticism has become a kind of time honored tradition with writers. Go to the review pages of your most favorite and cherished authors and read all the bad reviews. Then digest, exactly how crazy pants, those reviews sound to you. Understand that those reviews in no way change your passion for your favorite authors and their writing. Then pick yourself up, get back to work in the hopes that a fraction of those people will one day hate what you write, too.

8. Social Media is both a gift and a curse. Use it wisely. It's like any other tool--it can be used for good or for evil. You must discover how to have a healthy relationship with this tool. And be aware that it's okay to change up your usage as needed. The reality is, this great social experiment is far from over and the unknown can be a tricky thing. Go boldly and tread with caution.

9. Be a mentor for a less experienced writer. Do you remember what it felt like when someone in the writing tribe did this for you? I do. It was the most incredible feeling ever. I felt like I became a real writer that day--included. I still tell stories of incredible people who went out of their way to share their knowledge and encourage me. I always hear how the KidLit world is exemplary in this way and it's one of my favorite things about this job. I believe passionately that a high tide raises all boats. I believe that when you welcome someone into your tribe, you create a powerful, positive bond. I believe that we all want to be accepted. Be a giver and then watch what you receive.

10. Let's talk about luck. You can be very lucky or very unlucky at any given moment. And you can't control it. Yep--it kind of stinks--doesn't it? But what you can do, is choose how you respond to your luck. It's important to remember that luck isn't always what it appears to be when you're standing close to it. "Good" luck can bring later complications and "bad" luck can be a blessing in disguise. My advice is to avoid taking credit for the good stuff and to believe that the bad stuff has a long term gain attached it, one that will become visible at a later date. Don't depend on luck and certainly don't let it determine your success.

11. Listen. This is hard. And it does not require you to take all the advice that is give to you. But give yourself the time to digest the information you've been given. Allow yourself the opportunity to be a learner. Try something BEFORE you rule it out. Learn to understand why we cling to the things we do. Fine tune your intuition by running advice through a series of checks and balances. I always ask myself one last question when I'm sorting through advice...Do I want to be right, or do I want to be a better writer? Listen to what is offered to you carefully, then discard what you don't need. And if you're smart about it--even what you push to the side will have given you some kind of wisdom or experience that you can use to your advantage.

12. Embrace your own journey. The truth is, there's not just one way to be a writer or a bang-up human being. There are a lot of stories out there and I'm excited about that. I'm a bit addicted to finding my own way forward and how I travel shouldn't alter your own unique trajectory. Be intrigued by your own journey and let the process be part of the reward. 

These Twelve Gifts of Writing Wisdom mean something to me--that's why I shared them with you. And because they resonate with me, there's a chance they might be the right thing for you to hear in this moment. 
Often, like attracts like. And sometimes coincidence is something more than we can imagine. 
If these bit of my experiences are helpful, then I'm happy I got to share them with you. 
But, don't forget that you have more gifts then you realize. And please feel free to share at least one of them in the comments. 
I'm listening...



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Easy Bake Ovens, Macy's Parades, and A Book Giveaway!!!

Once, early in our marriage, my husband gifted me with an Easy Bake Oven. We'd had a conversation at some point about 'stuff our parents didn't let us have'-- and Easy Bake Oven was on my list. For whatever reason, my mother had decided that this was too expensive or too frivolous or too something, announcing that if I wanted to bake something I could do it in our actual oven and really what was the point of this thing. Which only made me want it more. Because who doesn't want to cook tiny cakes under a light bulb? Well, I did.

So one birthday, there was this sizable wrapped box and when I opened it there was my Easy Bake. For a number of months, I cooked us tiny baked goods until (as my mother probably predicted) the excitement wore off. It's still in the back of my closet where I peer at it occasionally while looking for lost hangers or that stray pair of boots that seems to have wandered off.

It was, let me say, one of the BEST GIFTS I've ever received. A surprise and yet not exactly because I'd coveted the stupid thing since I was like six and it felt both weird and wonderful to actually get it and mostly it felt wonderful that my husband had tromped through Toys R Us because my six year old self had wanted something. Would I have felt as delighted if I'd gotten it when I was still in first grade? Probably. But the sweetness was different at 30.

Which is all to say that sometimes it's the waiting that makes gifts sweeter. (Of course sometimes it isn't but stick with me.)  Like last Thanksgiving when the whole family decided they were tired of listening to me say that 'gee, I want to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in person some day' and decided that this was year. And then I decided the heck with pesky things like mortgage payments, I was going to find us Hamilton tickets and so when four popped up for the matinee the day before Thanksgiving I closed my eyes and bought them and we still talk about that trip and probably will for a very long time. I stood in the cold and watched those balloons and yeah, it was pretty amazing.

Writing is like this. See where I'm going? Some people get their Easy Bake right away. Often it goes well for them and they are very happy with their tiny cakes. But some of us keep on dreaming a little longer, and then just as we've convinced ourself that whatever, life is fine, it drops the Macy's Parade in our laps and we add to it with a full blown vacation and possibly almost get squashed in the subway at one point but it's okay because we are living the dream. Sometimes none of this happens. And we keep making our list.

And hey! Here's something you weren't expecting! I'm giving away 8 copies of the pb of IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS, my most recent YA novel in which, among other things, forever seventeen year old Emma beats out more than one evil huckster con man to save the day. I think we all need a bit of that. 
Tell me you want one in the comments and then message me or give me your email or some way to contact you and I'll send one your way.



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Gift of Paying Attention (Mary Strand)

Christmas is coming for those who, like me, celebrate ... or who simply like parties and cookies and brightly lit houses up and down the street.  It also brings with it, for better or worse, the topic of gifts.

Like my mom before me, I do virtually all of the Christmas shopping in our house.  Unlike my mom, I also shop for gifts for myself and hand them to my husband to wrap, in order to make sure there’s SOMETHING decent for me under the tree.  Looking back, I’m guessing my mom was probably disappointed every year.  I take action.

(My daughter’s Christmas wish list at age 12 included the following:  "Clothes (to be picked out by ME but also you can do some guessing IF IT IS GOOD)."  Hey, I understand!)

The best gift I ever received?  NO idea, but mostly I remember that, long after I grew up and flew the coop, my mom bought me a gorgeous sweater for Christmas every year.  It was the only gift I really looked forward to, because she knew my taste in clothes and colors and fit, and I think she aced it every year but one.  It wasn’t really the sweaters, though.  It was the fact that she paid attention in order to find a gift I’d love.

Speaking of gifts I'd love...
The thing is, whether at Christmas or any other time, the best gifts don’t have to be big or expensive.  I still remember the time a friend bought a Corona and set it in front of me but pretended he’d gotten it for someone else.  The moment I saw the Corona label, I knew he bought it for me.  If I’m having a beer, I drink Corona, and no one else in my crowd does.  He paid attention.  It was as insignificant and significant as that.

In my novel Being Mary Bennet Blows, a guy named Josh hands Mary a Diet Coke.  At the Mall of America.  As a Minneapolis chick who knows the MOA like the back of my hand, I can tell you that the MOA has a Pepsi contract, so only a couple of places in the entire mall sell Coke products.  (I cherish them!)  Mary Bennet drinks Diet Coke — always.  When Josh gets a Diet Coke for her, Mary thinks it’s no big deal, but her sisters realize that he must like her.  Why?  He paid attention to what she drinks and went out of his way to find it.

For me, the best gifts simply show that you pay attention.  If you pay attention, you’ll give me milk chocolate, not dark.  White wine, not red.  (But not chardonnay!)  Yellow roses, not red.  Hugh Jackman, not Brad Pitt.  Books and movies with happy endings, not sad ones.

Or maybe a bottle of Corona.

* * *

Hey, since we’re talking gifts, and my life involves a lot of music, here’s my gift to you:  links to six songs (since it’s the sixth of December) that I LOVE, in no particular order.

1.  Tomorrow Never Came”: Lana Del Rey and Sean Ono Lennon (who sounds eerily like his dad; beautiful song)

2.  "Cake by the Ocean": DNCE (always makes me wanna dance!)

3.  Read My Mind”: The Killers (a band I played in did this song, and I loved it so much that I referred to it in my novel Livin’ La Vida Bennet)

4.  A Dios le Pido”: Juanes (the first song of his that I discovered, and part of the most perfect album I’ve ever heard in any language: Un Día Normal)

5.  Please Remember Me”: Rodney Crowell (my favorite singer/songwriter; wistfully sweet song)

6.  All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Mariah Carey (because a December list of my fave songs should include a Christmas song, and I love this one)

Whatever holiday(s) you do or don’t celebrate, enjoy!

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at marystrand.com.

 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

by Fae Rowen

I received my best Christmas present years ago.

My father went to Chicago on business the week before Christmas. He bought a fake-fur-lined hat that had ear flaps, along with a pair of gloves, and a heavy coat for the trip. It's the only business trip he ever took, and I was a devastated five-year-old Daddy's girl when he left the house in a taxi. I'd never seen a taxi before that night.

My mother had to have earned sainthood that week. All I did was ask how long until Daddy got home. I used to run out of the house when my dad drove in the driveway, home from work. He'd pick me up, ask what was for dinner, and carry me up the four stairs to the front door. Every day he was gone, I waited for him to drive up the driveway. My mother and I baked Christmas cookies for him. A lot of cookies, a batch everyday he was away. Amazing, I didn't eat any of them. I saved them all for him.

Finally THE DAY arrived. Because my mom didn't drive, friends took us to the airport to pick him up, so we didn't have to wait for a taxi to return him to us. I don't remember much about the airport, except my mom's hand holding my hand like hers was a vice. There were so many people hurrying, crying, laughing, and kissing that she was probably afraid I might get lost. And there was a big Christmas tree with lots of presents under it. An attractive nuisance for a five-year-old who wasn't there to meet her father.

Back then, the planes landed on the tarmac, workers rolled stairs up to the door, and the passengers exited down that long flight of steps. A rope held back those waiting outside for the travelers.

My mother's friends explained that my father would come out the door of that huge, tall plane, walk down the stairs, make his way across the red carpet to the outside of the building where everyone meeting their loved ones had gathered. Except, we weren't anywhere close to that carpet.

I watched each head duck through the door. Too many people left the plane. I was sure he wasn't going to come out. I almost started crying.

And then, I saw his dark hair duck under the door and he stood at the top of the stairs, scanning the crowd before he started down. I broke free from my mother's hand and ducked under the rope, dashing toward those stairs, yelling, "Daddy! Daddy!".

I don't remember pushing people aside, but I ran up the stairs and met him on the gangway. He laughed, picked me up and kissed me, then carried me to my mother, who stood waiting behind the rope.

Best present ever. I had my Daddy back.

ABOUT FAE:

Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
For the first three months of P.R.I.S.M.'s release, I'm donating $1 for every book sold to the World Wildlife Federation for their tiger preservation program. Today, for our YA Outside the Lines readers, I'm giving away a free e-book of P.R.I.S.M. Just tell us about your best present ever. I'll post the name of the winner, randomly picked, after midnight tonight.

Monday, December 4, 2017

ARC Giveaway -- Jen Doktorski


 
Last month YA Books Central hosted a cover reveal for my forthcoming book, August & Everything After. They’re also hosting a giveaway of three ARCs, which is ending in five days. So in the spirit giving, or in this case giving away, click the link below and enter for your chance to win!
I talked a little bit about this book in my October post, but here’s the blurb from my publisher.
 
Graduation can’t come soon enough. Desperate for a fresh start, Quinn is eager to escape to her aunt’s house on the New Jersey shore for the summer…away from teenage drama and having to answer everyone’s questions about “what comes next” after high school.
Quinn can’t bear to focus on the future. She doesn’t even think she deserves one—not after her best friend died in a car accident that Quinn feels responsible for. But when Quinn meets Malcolm, a musician who has been trying to escape his own demons, she starts to believe in second chances.
 
Happy holidays, everyone! Wishing you all peace, love, joy, and book deals in 2018 and beyond!
 




Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Most Important Gift - by Janet Halpin

I’ve mentioned before that I wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to pick up a pencil. As a kid, I wrote (and read) stories all the time. We lived in public housing, which gave me plenty to write about, both good and bad. I observed and recorded. I remembered. And what I observed, recorded and remembered about one Christmas was a particular gift. It wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t expensive or fancy. It wasn’t even the best gift I ever got.

But it was the most important.

It was 1971, I was 12 and it was one of the darkest times for our family. My oldest brother was still recovering from major spinal surgery that had him flat on his back for 6 months. My other brother, at 13, was growing out of his shoes and clothes every month. My father was slipping further into an alcoholic haze and we were slipping deeper into debt. Bill collectors called all the time and would badger anyone who answered, even my 8 year old sister.

Like a lot of the other girls in my class, what I wanted for Christmas that year was “Mystery Date,” a ridiculous game centered on getting enough points to open the door at the middle of the game board to see our “date.” Would we get the dreamboat, the skier, the bowling guy--or would we get the dud? Heady stuff for a romantic tween like me. However, with money tight, I knew the chances of me getting what was a relatively expensive present were slim, especially since 3 of the 4 of us Halpin kids had birthdays in the first week of December. I still hoped, though.

Christmas morning came and the gifts were opened. No Mystery Date. But when I opened my present I forgot my disappointment. You know how in writing fiction, the goal isn’t to give the character what they want, you give them what they need--and that’s just what I got that Christmas.

I tore the wrapping paper off a thick, spiral bound notebook and a package of pens. On the notebook’s red cover, Santa (aka my mother) had written in black magic marker: THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. I was beyond delighted, and had many pages filled with my left-handed slant before the Christmas goose was served (well, really meatloaf, a family favorite).

I didn’t think much about the gift’s significance at the time, but over the years I came to realize just how important it was. The whole shebang, pens and paper, had probably cost my mother 79-cents at Woolworths, but to hit a cliché as hard as I can, the gift, to me, turned out to be priceless.

Because, though I loved to write back then, I’d always felt like a weirdo for doing it. Reading and writing weren't exactly "cool" in my neighborhood. I'll never forget the neighbor who visited our apartment, took one look at the bookcases overflowing with books and let out a horrified, "You read books?!?" I didn't talk about wanting to be a writer and hid my scribblings from the world.

But my mother had noticed. The notebook was encouragement and validation, her way of telling me not to hide and not to care what others thought. That I might be a kid from the project, but what I had to say mattered. That I could do anything I set my mind to.

I finally did get Mystery Date for Christmas, and probably was bored of it by New Year’s, but that notebook has stuck with me for always. Especially that time, a year before my mother died, as I was walking with her down the main hallway of her assisted living facility, and she called out to anyone who would listen as we passed, “This is my daughter, a published author.”

__________

Now, it’s been suggested we offer a giveaway to go along with this month’s theme, but I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to make a small donation to the library/literacy program in the neighborhood where I grew up, hopefully reaching that project kid who’s scribbling under his/her bedcovers like I used to. I will tack on $1 for every comment my blog entry gets—so comment away (and please share!).

Here’s wishing you all a safe and healthy holiday season, filled with joy, family and many important gifts!