Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 5, 2016

Finding the End of a Book

I’m the sort of writer who lets lots of words, ideas, and pages sprawl, then sweeps a great deal aside to find a center. I often quote E.L. Doctorow on how writing is like driving in the dark: you just need to see just as far ahead as your headlights. But I add that I don’t generally drive without knowing where I’m going. For the novel I just completed, even while I was writing sloppy or exploratory drafts of early chapters, I was writing a similar messy draft of the ending. I had a vision, and while the particulars changed, the characters and general action of the last scene stayed the same up to my last draft.

But like the perfect beginning, endings are hard. Writing poems is good practice for how to open a door and how to shut it — or should you leave it a little ajar? My students just wrote picture books with interesting characters and reasonably steady arcs, but some endings left me feeling “Oh.” instead of “Ohhhhhh.”

How do we reach a good ending? The answer seems partly tied up to the depth of what’s happened along the way. Some good picture books can move along on one idea, but I think most of the best have layers, and we get a sense of them coming together on the final page or two.

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Author Jill Esbaum recently pointed some of us toward an interesting article about how the megahit Frozen left the small audience at an early screening wiggling and clearing their throats. People cheered for the characters, humor, and some songs, but something was off. Discussions ensued about how to find and fix it. Could what was lacking be hidden in an ending that fell flat? Apparently the two sisters in the early version of the film had clashed throughout, though neither gave anyone much to root for, and at the end the change was about a lesson learned that didn’t evolve from their relationship. You can read the article to see how the writers explored layers in themselves, asking themselves their own hard questions about sisterhood, kindness, and the hazards of perfectionism to create more believable characters and an unforgettable conclusion.

The way to the good ending may be through writing lots of drafts, perhaps adding a new layer with each one, including those we take away. I just read an essay by Arthur Miller in which the playwright said that all anyone needed to know about tragedy is the story of Jesus. He noted that had the great man’s life just ended on the cross, it wouldn’t be so much. What makes it powerful is Jesus then asking God why he’d been forsaken. Miller points out that not only do we need that line of dialogue, but we need just that single line. Had Jesus gone on to say other things he thought and felt, it would have been too much.

How do we know what to put in and leave out? The best way I know is by trying lots of combinations. And asking, again and again, have I said yet what I really really want to say?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 25, 2016

Poetry Panels at NCTE

My day at the NCTE convention, bracketed by an evening and early morning hours, was bright with hopeful words and some happy hugs. On Saturday morning, I entered a room overflowing with people who wanted to hear ideas from some wise poets and teachers about Writing to Change the World. Irene Latham spoke about writing from the heart, which for her sometimes means, like the quilt-makers she admires, starting with images instead of words. I was deeply touched by her conversation about the courage we need to make mistakes bound to happen as we foster connections across divides. Sometimes fumbling is better than silence, she reminded us.

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Amy Ludwig Van Derwater, who loves handing out poems, said, “When we write poems or read poems we connect and change,” and gently guided us through the process. Laura Shovan spoke about the need to trust oneself and others, and generously shared ways to make that happen by deepening conversations and writing. Tara Smith spoke of the value of poetry for becoming citizens of the world. She gave beautiful examples of the ways her students “unpack poems and lyrics” and “pull big ideas from small texts.” Margaret Simon spoke of her students as generally having been protected, and said that poetry, which can speak on different levels, can show some dangers, so they’ll have choices about how to act when their world becomes bigger and less safe.

All put an emphasis on hope, with Irene speaking about the deep history of racial clashing in her home of Alabama, but how that state also has a history of overcoming violence and misunderstanding, too. Margarita Engle said, “When two cultures meet they clash or they get married.” She mentioned that a deep bond might not be possible, but that we must at least try to seek ways to get along. “For every tyrant, we can find a nonviolent freedom leader.”

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In another panel organized by Sylvia Vardell, Margarita Engle, Janet Wong, Patricia Hruby Powell, and I talked about verse novels and performing poetry. Since I’m more of a face-to-page person than performer, I thanked Sylvia for pushing me out of my comfort zone. It’s a small zone. Then I quoted Octavio Paz: “The poem is an original and unique creation, but it is also reading and recitation, participation. The poet creates it; the people, by recitation, re-create it.” Patricia Hruby Powell gave some background about the real people behind her verse novel, Loving Vs. Virginia. Margarita Engle also offered a look behind the people of her newest book, Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words. Sylvia Vardell arranged our works to be read in different voices by volunteers, and she and Janet Wong introduced us to the diverse group of young people in You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book. Sylvia and Janet make us laugh, think, and be glad we’re part of the warm world of poets for young people they do so much to nourish.

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For a panel on the Magic and Wonders of Poetry, Leslie Bullion spoke about poetry and (juicy) science, with slides showing some fascinating creatures in gorgeous habitats. I spoke about ways that poetry and biography work happily together, boiling down research that takes a few years to a six minute summary. Nikki Grimes described the “Golden Shovel” method she used for the poems in her forthcoming One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance. Like Nikki, Marilyn Singer recited poems with verve, and explained the genesis of the reverso technique she used in Mirror Mirror and Echo Echo, but I’m still in awe of those poems that gives different stories depending on where the reader begins.  r

Every writer and teacher inspired me in some way, during talks or in corridors or at tables. It was great to meet people from Simon and Schuster, who were so kind to support me to attend and so lovely in person. And let’s not forget the strangers, or, should we call them the people I’d not yet met. A few said some words to me that felt so generous and sustaining, and that I mean to hold close when times get tough.

Poetry reminds us that we may never know who our spoken or written words touch, but that every one matters. Poetry means connecting, and I’m grateful for the chance to do that in some interviews about researching and writing Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. Sylvia Vardell asked great questions and offers suggestions for ways to use the book in classes in the current Book Links.

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In Finding Wonder in the Process, Doraine Bennett interviewed me about writing and research.

And Jules Danielson, lover of poetry and picture books (and other good things) asked more questions about how I select subjects and use metaphors for Kirkus Reviews.

Wishing you all a weekend with pie, books, dogs, family, memories, and all kinds of joy. For more Poetry Friday, please visit Carol’s Corner.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 3, 2016

Grateful

Many of us are nervous about the election, watching too much news and eating too much stale candy corn. Happily, lots of trees are yellow and many days are warm. When our walk yesterday was postponed, my dog rested his big head on the windowsill and gazed out, reminding me that the world beyond my computer is waiting. And so we walked, breathing the slightly burnt scent of dried leaves. And one of us took a dip.

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Sometimes I wait for a peaceful time to write. And sometimes I remember that peace comes when I write. I recently had a conversation with a woman who’s starting out as a writer and looking for answers about whether she has what it takes to add to books that children will want to read. Of course there isn’t an answer – you knew I’d say that, right? And isn’t that annoying. But the way toward writing a good book, or any book, is pretty much through the dark. We can’t know if anyone, at least beyond a few trusted friends – and they are a most excellent start – will want to read what we write. To keep going, we have to lean on our own desire to put the right words in the right order.

For me that has meant years, and I mean a lot of years, of writing without being published. Now Finding Wonders is just out and Stone Mirrors will be published in January. I couldn’t be more grateful. But back at my laptop, it’s still just me following a vague vision in my mind, trying to make the pieces clearer, and maybe even shine. Eventually the person I’m writing about joins me on the window seat, then on my walks. Her choosing to appear is my assurance, the only kind I might get for a long while, that what’s under my hands is slowly on its way to becoming a book.

But sometimes I leave my laptop and not just with dog treats in my pocket. Earlier this week, I was lucky to work with some of the high school students who rode busses and vans to Greenfield Community College to listen to, write, and read some poetry. The program was sponsored by the Massachusetts Poetry Organization as part of their mission to bring more poetry into communities. Yay!

I’m thrilled to have an essay in the current issue of The Horn Book called Saving Sisters: Sisterhood in Little Women, The Hunger Games, and Frozen.

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And so happy that my first two reviews for Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, coming out in January, have stars! I lived with this book for about fifteen years, writing lots of drafts and collecting lots of rejections. Kirkus Reviews writes: “Atkins’ compressed verse evokes both the racial realities of the time, including violence, and the artistic process: A fascinating, tantalizing glimpse.” And Booklist says, “How this brave, driven young woman overcame prejudice and trauma to pursue her artistic calling to the highest level … is a story that warrants such artful retelling.”

It’s a good feeling to know the girls and women I’ve come to love are loved by others. And so I return to another woman who’s been part of history all along, but it’s time for her to step out of the shadows.

I’ve read a lot of books about writing over the years, and this one moves straight to my most-recommended shelf, which only has room for books with strong (and often funny) voices, such as we find from Anne Lamott, Steven King, and Nancy Willard. Right on the first page, we’re in a coffee shop where people bend over laptops or narrow-lined notebooks, and “a woman with messy gray hair who’s at risk of spilling her coffee down your neck” as she strains to see your work.

Alice Mattison tells us that The Kite and the String is not for beginners who should just write. She has in mind people who’ve written seriously, whether or not published, “people who earn a living and manage friendships and love, who look after children or frail parents, or who are slowed by their own ill health.” And she makes excellent company. She tells us how she began writing poetry in the basement by the washing machine, publishing very little for years, and created habits that work for her. “I’ve been lucky but also fierce. Selfish. I learned to protect my writing time.” She writes that she wants to do other things besides write, and she does, but has learned to put writing ahead of other worthy considerations at times “even though we can’t be sure that what we write will be worth reading. It’s a gamble we have to make.”

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Invention is at the core, which means, “We need the courage to waste time, even though we have so little of it.” We may work with and from intense feelings – and she suggests daring to find them is part of what takes time – and then shaping scenes using common sense and an awareness of how books are structured. “I needed abandon and control – a kite that takes off into the wind, … a string that lets if fly, but not so far it gets lost.”

I love what she has to say about writing stories or even novels not just as events that come to mind but as figures a speech. A novel may be an extended metaphor, or by using hyperbole, become a fantasy, for instance. She writes about the need for trouble in fiction, for authors to step back from protecting our characters. That baby crawling toward the broken honey jar? Don’t snatch her up. And we need to step thoroughly into each character, becoming them more than writing about them. But we’re also not to get stuck in their feelings, but write action, for “focusing too intently on psychology makes writers look back, not forward. … the expression of psychological complexity through – primarily – a series of actions is what makes fiction work. Characters do things.”

Decades of writing and reading stories, novels, and poems have taught her much, and she greets us as a practical and astonishingly generous companion. For instance, re finding critique partners, she suggests not just to stay away from readers who make you want to quit, but if asked about seeing new work: “If you can’t bear to say “Never!” … say, ‘Hmmm… I don’t really know.’ Then glace at your phone as if checking your calendar and shake your head slowly, in bafflement at your own unpredictable habits.” And she returns to that kite and string. “Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your own work.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 24, 2016

True

How does one know when a novel is done? There’s some sense that what began as a spark and murk in my mind is clear now, but that conviction is shaky. After months of adding to scenes and rearranging paragraphs, my revision of a novel for middle readers funneled down to deleting sentences and changing some words. This weekend I combed the manuscript for dropped punctuation or explanations. There’s never certainty of success, but I have a sense of being done deep down, close to where the knowledge that here’s- a –novel-I-must write began.

“I’m sad to see these characters go,” I told a friend.

“Can you write about them again?” she asked.

“I’m not that sad,” I replied.

Finishing one book makes an opening for a new one, and that’s always exciting. I have two manuscripts I’ve begun, and the research for one means looking at paintings and reading poetry. Still, there’s some sadness to coming to the end of this round of the first contemporary novel I’ve written, and the first that uses magic. Even when my books about girls or women in history were published, I love revisiting them in other books, museums, or historic sites. And while those books drew both from the past and my personal experience, THE LOST NAME feels true to me in a new way. None of the characters are much like me, and the plot depends more on a fairy tale than anything I’ve ever known. But there’s some knowledge of silence, differences, trust, and family that feels as if it comes from something in my bones.

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And it is lovely to send off a manuscript toward the end of golden and green October days. My dog is enjoying his first fall, bouncing along a road he’s galloped and pranced along almost a hundred times already. I’m the one who walks. But yesterday in the woods, in the wind, I did a happy little spin for if not completely-finishing, then coming close.  Finishing is a word I’ve learned to use loosely. But also enjoy, like the leaves that change color one day, then drop the next, opening a wider view. We love what we write, when it’s not making us crazy, and we’re meant to let it go. And move on ourselves, at least until that manuscript returns with its tidings of joy or woe and, in ways we can’t expect now, we get back to work.

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Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 13, 2016

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

When I opened Lab Girl, I expected to learn a thing or two about a woman who devoted herself to science, but was drawn in still more by the author’s tenderness and humor. Hope Jahren is extraordinary: she switched from an English major to science after her first year in college, and right after grad school began a career in geochemistry and geobiology that included setting up three laboratories and lots of inspired teaching. But some of what touched me were the lucid depictions of ordinary loneliness, setbacks, and small triumphs that many people might recognize. A friendship that’s both one of a kind and familiar is at the core of her life and the book. The course of a life and career are set within a lovely arbor of information about trees and plants, a frame of small chapters that give us a glimpse into her research and the green world.

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Hope Jahren begins the memoir with a depiction of her childhood that was marked not only by the long winters of Minnesota, but a family whose conversations are very limited. The chill is shown in contrast to feeling at home in the laboratory where her father teaches physics at a community college. Sometimes sitting under tables, sometimes arranging drawers, she was “transformed from a girl into a scientist.”

We learn that though in 1950 her mother had won honorable mention in a prestigious nationwide science search, she couldn’t babysit enough hours to pay her tuition as a chemistry major at the University of Minnesota, so returned to her hometown where she married, then gave birth to and raised four children. Hope mentions that growing up in the 1960’s she never heard of, met, or saw, even on television, another living woman scientist.

She writes: “I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. …I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. …I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. … Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.”

Still, she finds it hard to not be seen for who she is – which seems one motivation for writing this book showing some hardships she confronts – raising money for her work is a big one – and also the ways her persistence brings rewards. I recognized some themes of the scientists who lived more than a century ago that I wrote about in Finding Wonders: the importance of a father passing along knowledge, the sense of isolation – which Hope Jahren seems to suggest may be part of any creative work – and the joy. She makes us care as she does about her work exploring the complicated lives of plants. And agree that “Being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

 

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 3, 2016

Poetry Camp

I doubt there’s a poet for children alive who isn’t in awe of Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell, the creative team behind Pomelo Books and other wonders. Pair them with the also-dazzling Nancy Johnson and Sylvia Tag of Western Washington University, and you get a new phenomenon called Poetry Camp. In a grand library on a campus with sidewalks lined with blooming lavender and holly and a view of the bay, about three dozen poets who have work included in the Poetry Friday anthologies gave and attended workshops on writing, teaching, and performing a favorite genre. We learned about publishing and promoting, and led by Julie Larios, who challenged us with structures and some surrealist strategies, drafted some new poetry.

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We also enjoyed freewheeling exchanges over breakfasts or dinners, in hallways and carpools. On Friday morning, I followed poet Eric Ode under a campfire-marshmallow arbor made by friendly WWU students to a room where we had a lively discussion about the different pleasures of poetry on the page or on the platform, to borrow Donald Hall’s phrasing. Should we ask all students to read their work aloud? Are we in danger of them limiting what they might say, taking away a safe space for silent thoughts, or empowering them, asking them not to hide? There was some debate between those who love the white space between lines on paper and those who crave the feel of well-chosen words in their mouths. We clapped or finger-tapped while discussing meter and the place for scanning in the classroom, which most agreed was when a student wants to know about it — when they ask – and that rhythmically tapping the table is more important than the Latin words naming the beats. We want a bit of song, but some also praised visual art and movement as inspiration, too.

Julie Larios (I think!) reminded us that Ezra Pound says a poem needs music, image, and intellect, and a loss of one may hurt the whole. Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook added that teens may think poetry is all or primarily feeling, and they generously shared some techniques for how to encourage self-involved teens to expand their horizons, tell a story within a poem, and develop craft.

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Here are some of the lovers of arcs and poetry in a longer form we generally call verse novels – though we had some discussion re that, too! Stephanie Hemphill, me, Lorie Ann Grover, Nikki Grimes, Kathi Appelt, and Holly Thompson.

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I look forward to reading Nancy Bo Flood’s latest novel, Soldier Sister, Fly Home, and was happy to meet Kathi Appelt and tell her how much I admire her work in general and her newest novel in particular. Someone called Maybe a Fox sad, but I call it transcendent. Sorrow is there, but it’s part of the path to a wider world, which includes forging connections between beings who live in houses and those who live beneath trees.

While Friday was devoted to more to sharing ideas between ourselves, the public was invited to join us on Saturday, though the roles of poet, poetry-lover, and teacher often overlapped. After great workshops and lectures that included many poetic voices, camp moved toward its close with a lively and moving presentation by Jack Prelutsky, who made children giggle and warmed all our hearts – while performing poets took note of his exquisite sense of timing.

Back home now, I remain happy to have met people I knew before only online or through their work. And happy to have spent a bit of time with people I’ve met but rarely see. Here I’m with Doraine BennettApril Halprin Wayland, Robyn Hood Black, and Irene Latham.

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I made my way back across the country with new friends, a heavier-with-books bag, and a list of more volumes to find and read. Who could ask for more?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 23, 2016

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Open this gorgeous book to meet scientists illustrated in mid-air, surrounded by signs of amazing discoveries. The 50 women are quite diverse in scientific fields, time periods, and cultural backgrounds, which adds to the energy and hope on paper that’s pink, purple, and various shades of blue and green. The illustrations are surrounded by smaller pictures labeled with impressive feats, with a quote from or about the scientist drifting like a cloud under her feet.

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Rachel Ignostofsky’s joy in the accomplishments is contagious in her well chosen words and vibrant illustrations of Hypatia, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Katherine Johnson, and other mathematicians, geologists, chemists, and more. Each section ends with an allusion to the scientist’s place within history. Illustrated lab equipment and a glossary, as well as recent statistics on women in STEM fields, rounds out the book, with an afterword urging girls to keep changing the world. Yes!

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I’m also happy that Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science is now in stores. Many thanks to Tara Smith, who gives an overview of the book at A Teaching Life and to Steve Pfarrer for his review in Book Bag at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.  And it was fun to answer questions about metaphors and other important things from April Halprin Wayland in a Poet to Poet interview.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 12, 2016

Girls at Thirteen

Plenty of young girls enjoying looking under rocks and don’t mind getting muddy. The daughter of my friend Heather Richard could imagine a happy princess scientist.

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But studies show that some girls learn to hide their curiosity, energy, and ambition by the time they turn thirteen or even younger. A new report says that age is seven. Yikes. Was this always so? For centuries, some girls pinned back their hair and lowered their skirts. Some of them simmered. In Finding Wonders, I write how Maria Merian, who grew up in Germany in the 1600’s, hates how “growing up means more rules instead of fewer./She’s supposed to walk slower instead of faster,/look around less instead of more.”

But even in the 1600s or 1800s, not all girls were kept out of science. The three girls in Finding Wonders were encouraged by their fathers to take up their professions, partly because they wanted to share their passion, and partly because they needed practical help that their daughters could provide. Before Darwin and Einstein, science was considered a somewhat suitable pursuit for girls who were good with details and found particular ways to glory in the Creation. But there were limits. Beatrix Potter could draw plants and animals as a girl, but when she wanted to publish scientific papers on mushrooms, doors were shut. As an adult she abandoned detailed drawings of fungi, mosses, and butterfly wings and took up writing and illustrating Peter Rabbit and other tales.

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By age thirteen, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell were all engaged in work they’d pursue for their whole lives. At thirteen, Maria Merian painted the life cycle of a caterpillar, at a time when metamorphosis was just beginning to be understood. By thirteen, Mary Anning was the first person to discover an ichthyosaur fossil. And at thirteen, Maria Mitchell was accustomed to helping her father observe the night sky from their Nantucket roof and make sky charts. She also used her gift for mechanics to fix an intricate chronometer, which was used at sea to measure distances. On a recent list of “senior superlatives” for a just-for-fun yearbook at The Horn Book to mark back-to-school, these three girls were chosen for “best science projects.” Absolutely!

You can find out more in Finding Wonders. Many thanks to Irene Latham who quotes three poems at Live Your Poem and proclaims the book “Great for wonder-ers of all ages!” Here’s my carton of author copies, with a green cover peeking under the starry jacket. I hope to see some of you at my book launch at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I’ll talk with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger,  on September 27 at 6:30!

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Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 8, 2016

Book Launch with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger!

I’m happy to be launching Finding Wonders at the Odyssey Bookshop on September 27 at 6:30 with my friends Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger, both of whom will be celebrating new books of their own. Jo just published Still a Work in Progress and Ellen’s latest novel is Local Girl Swept Away. We’ll all read a bit and talk about inspiration and what keeps us going. Spoiler. The answer to that last part is partly: each other. But we’ll give more details.

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I met Jo about sixteen years ago at an SCBWI critique group generously led by Jane Yolen in the basement of the Hatfield, MA library. People took turns reading new work, taking a break in the middle of the evening to pull out a carton filled with boxes of various kinds of tea from a carton kept under the stairway. There were also celebrations with champagne when someone sold their first book.

I’d read Ellen’s YA novels before I ever met her, but we became friends when she moved to western Massachusetts. Over the years, Jo, Ellen, me, and other friends sometimes met at each other’s houses or in coffee shops to write, inspired by each other’s quiet company, and discuss events that are dramatic in a writer’s life, though from the outside they might not seem like so much. We cheer for each success and wince together when we hear about hurdles. We’re all lucky with our families, but writers understand writers. And that is something to celebrate, too.

I hope you’ll come hear us talk about some of this and read from our newest books. There will be hugs, laughs, and cookies. What more fun could you have on a Tuesday evening?

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Here we are three years ago when Jo had just published See You at Harry’s.

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