Category Archives: Inspiration

Mentors that matter

This morning I started working in the ASPIRE program at my local high school to mentor juniors and seniors through the college application process. It’s much more daunting to get into college these days and since I’ve been through the process with three of my four children it seemed like a natural fit. It has also gotten me thinking about all the people who have mentored me and my children over the years.

The one person who has mentored me more than anyone in my professional life is my cousin Kathleen Delaney. She has spent her entire teaching career in some of the lowest income schools in the Chicago area. She has told me stories about her students my entire life–stories about the ones that have inspired her, worried her, made her laugh, made her cry, and sharpened her understanding of the injustices so many face every single day. This August as she was preparing for the school year she stepped across the hall to introduce herself to a new teacher in her building. She was met with a shout of joy and a warm embrace from this new teacher.

The woman had been an 8th grader in my cousin’s school decades ago. Kathy taught 6th grade and after school she coached the girl for the district speech competition. They chose the address of Chief Seattle from 1854 and worked on it together after school for several weeks. Before the competition my cousin gave her the picture book version of Seattle’s speech written by Susan Jeffers. What she didn’t realize at the time was that the girl’s family had come to this country illegally. The mother was struggling to raise five of kids on minimum wage. That book was the first one the girl had ever owned. The first book anyone in her family had owned. They read it until it fell apart. 61gaPRmd8hL._AA160_This girl decided to become a teacher, in part because of my cousin’s example. Her younger brothers and sisters who had Miss Delaney in 6th grade reported that she was the “hardest” teacher in the school, the one who assigned the most homework. She was the one who believed that they could do all that work, even though they were new speakers of English.

This former student took her college classes one at a time over many years because her immigration status made her ineligible for financial aid. But she stuck to her goal year after year and now after all this time, she and my cousin will be teaching side by side. I’ve done author visits for my cousin in recent years and her students are quick to tell me that she is still the hardest teacher in their school. They feign agony in reporting all the writing assignments she’s given but it’s easy enough to see their pride underneath all that complaint. Some of them come voluntarily to school an hour early every day to work in her room before school starts.images

I mention all this at the start of the school year because my cousin cheerfully points out that there is nothing unusual about her. Most teachers mentor students before and after school. Many have very high expectations for even their most impoverished students, and almost all of them give away hundreds of books over a teaching career. So this is my thank you to all of you for all you do to change lives, to raise up one literate generation after another, and encourage those who enter school powerless to leave it with something to contribute to the world. It’s easy to get discouraged and in the minutia of daily work and lose sight of your power.

You make history every day. When a child learns to read, you change that entire family’s economic fortunes forever. Our economy cannot function without you.  I’m grateful–to my own teachers, my children’s teachers and all of you everywhere who work with students wisely and generously every day. Thank you!

 

Where Evil Lives

When I saw the infographic below, I knew I had to pass it along to the followers of Mixed Up Files. Movoto has created a visual comparison of “evil villain lairs” from popular culture that really got me thinking about the places in our books where villains can chill out, and where heroes might find themselves deep behind enemy lines.

Some of the lairs below are massive and imposing, but it’s not size alone that makes a great home for villainy. Malfoy Manor (shown below) is a great Gothic castle of infamy, but Lucius Malfoy was only ever a minion at best, and Draco was more of a bully with aspirations of minionhood. Meanwhile Lord Voldemort, the real villain of the Harry Potter series, lived for a while under another man’s turban, in the dreams of a young boy, in the pages of an old diary, and in a bunch of other random objects. Voldemort was terrifying precisely because he did not care where or how he had to live as long as he could find some way to prolong his life and plot his return to power.

Now look at Mordor and Isengard from Middle Earth. These are some tall, imposing structures! This creates an amazing contrast with our primary heroes, the Hobbits, who tend to be short, barefoot homebodies. The Baggins family Hobbit-hole is an inward-looking place of quiet introspection, while the Eye of Mordor is constantly looking outward in every direction. Coincidence? There are no coincidences in well-plotted fiction.

We also see this kind of contrast in the Jolly Roger from Peter Pan, which is the polar opposite of the lair of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. The Jolly Roger is a mobile weapons platform built in a real shipyard and staffed by actual pirates, while the Lost Boys have an underground clubhouse they built themselves. The mismatch in lairs follows other mismatches in the story–Pan vs. Hook, boy vs. man, wooden swords vs. metal blades, youth vs. experience, fairness vs. cheating, playfulness vs. deadly revenge–all giving Hook and his crew every possible advantage. When the poor villain just can’t catch a break, we readers celebrate his defeat.

The villain’s impregnable lair can usually be infiltrated by a scarecrow, a cowardly lion, and a tin woodsman. Guards can be tricked or overcome. Sometimes the entire place can come crashing down at the hands of a seemingly outmatched hero.

The message for the villains is, enjoy your evil lair but don’t get too comfortable!

Villain Lairs

Villain Lairs

What are some of your favorite villain lairs from middle grade fiction? Put your suggestions in the comments below!

Finding it difficult to focus? Join the club

Lately I’ve noticed my focus has been a little, well, um…wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah. I’ve noticed my focus has been somewhat…how to put it…GONE. Actually, I’ve become constantly unfocused. Anyone with me here?

At first I chalked it up to summer, a houseful of noisy kids, my aging brain…but then I read about a syndrome called “continuous partial attention.” And it turns out I — and probably you — have it.

On Facebook and Twitter multiple times a day? Liking and posting and sharing never-ending content? Checking your phone every few minutes for texts, emails, Instagram photos? Watching way too many videos online? You know you are not alone.

Call it social media overload or living in a virtual reality — researchers say that people today are finding it increasingly difficult to focus on tasks because of chronic and constant interruptions from screens.

social media overloadNot good for a writer. Not exactly good for anyone.

According to a recent article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, we sprint through our days in a state of super-charged distraction and it’s taking a toll on our brains. In one study I read, workers stopped the task they were doing because of a screen disruption every three minutes.

Writers especially need quiet contemplation in order for ideas to form and gel. Time when nothing is beeping, beckoning, begging for our attention. Not quite conducive to today’s world, is it?

Desperate times, as it is said, call for desperate measures. My focus was floating somewhere out there and I needed to get it back. Who else to turn to but my fellow writers? I texted, posted, sent messages (and yes, I am fully aware of the irony here), pleading for help. What are your secrets, I asked, for avoiding the evil temptress of the Internet in order to get in some focused writing time?

Now I realize, some of these suggestions may seem radical, but I’ve compiled them here because I have been assured they really work. (Disclaimer: If you choose to try one of these, you are proceeding at your own risk.)

1. Accidentally “misplace” your phone. Some excellent places to “lose” it include: the bottom of a laundry basket full of smelly socks, under the sofa, somewhere in the backyard, under a seat in a friend’s minivan. Preferably one with fast food remnants and candy wrappers.

2. Journey to a remote mountainous location with no WiFi, cell towers, or sign of human life, and write. Siberia works, but a tree house will do in a pinch.

3. Give yourself a one-hour challenge. Set a timer and write for one hour without checking any electronic device. This will be similar in nature to detox so be prepared. Drink a lot of water.

4. Let a baby borrow your phone. (They need to text too.) Within minutes, it is guaranteed you will have no Internet connection.

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5. Find WiFi free zones in which to write. Suggestions include the beach, a canoe, while skydiving, or on a roller coaster, preferably while upside down.

6. Walk and dictate into an ancient device found in antique shops and on archeological digs: a tape recorder. An added bonus here is that people will stay far away, believing you are a lunatic.

7. Write while walking on a treadmill, with all electronic devices stowed in another room. Do not get off until you’ve written one thousand words.

8. Pile up any and all devices, put them in your car, and park it around the block. Walk back to your writing space and go.

9. Give your Smartphone to a teenager so he/she can install all updates and add a variety of cool, new apps you’ve never heard of. You will not be able to figure anything out when it is returned to you.

10. Find Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. Knock.

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Good luck, fellow writers. May the focus be with you.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of two middle grade novels, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. She will check her Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz when she returns from Siberia. In the meantime, find her virtually at micheleweberhurwitz.com.