Monthly Archives: March 2013

Anything is possible

As we head into Easter weekend, I’m reminded of why it’s important to log kid moments and keep reading them. Adults forget what it’s like to be a kid. When you write children’s books, you can’t forget being a kid. It’s basically the job description.

Those delightful kid moments keep me laughing when I’m ready to burn my second draft. Mostly, those tidbits help me develop voice, grow characters, and build a plot.

This story comes to me second hand. (Does this particular child live with me? It’s possible.)

Child: Dad, do you think it’s possible for a huge rabbit to carry eggs all over town and hide them in houses? And use big paws to put candy in the eggs?

Dad: Hmmm … I don’t know. What do you think?


Young children. Trick questions. They go together like boogers and fart jokes.


Cat hats, yellow hats and bonnets

George the Curious

George the Curious

It’s “Dress Like Your Favorite Book Character Day” at the local elementary school. You can’t find Halloween costumes in the stores. Required: imagination and planning. (For parents who first learned about the event last night, you have my sympathy.)

As for the favorite characters, my money’s on …

  • Lots of Cats in the Hats.
  • Captain Underpants. Or, in the case of school dress policies, Captain Long Johns.
  • Arthur and his rodent friends/family
  • Curious George and maybe a yellow hat or two. (The man with the yellow hat does have a name. It’s Ted. Consider yourself ready for Friday night Trivia. You’re welcome.)
  • Madeline
  • Peter Pan
  • An assortment of princesses, mostly Rapunzel. What girl doesn’t want hair that serves as a magical healer and an elevator?
  • Sorry Junie B., Judy M. and Ramona Q., but you look like regular kids. No goofy hats. No fur. No ball gowns. You might be fun to read, but you’re no fun to wear.
  • Two hundred or so Harry Potter characters, including my daughter’s “Hermione.” My little witch will be carrying a Hermione wand direct from Hogwarts’ Florida campus. She’ll be wearing my black robe, although she hasn’t yet discovered the teddy bear embroidered on the shoulder.  When she sees it, she’ll protest the robe’s authenticity, and I’ll be telling her if she’s going for authentic, just give that wand a try!

If I could celebrate “Dress Like Your Favorite Character Day,” I’d be Laura Ingalls. I’d leave my little house on the prairie wearing a calico dress and bonnet. I’d do math problems on a slate, ask permission to use the outhouse, and bring salt pork for the classroom snack.

Enchant that, Hermione.

Got five cents?

Kids are fascinating, which is why I like to write for them. As they explore the world and begin to interact with it, we get to watch an evolution.

My daughter is learning she can be involved in changing the world. I’m taking notes. It’s good material.

Inspired by the presidential election, she lobbied her friends to vote Obama. She wore a blazer to school because it made her look presidential. (Note: Obama lost her school’s mock election, but she worked it hard.)

Now she has a new cause. I’d like to say she’s fighting for the homeless or concerned about fracking. It’s not that noble. Appalled by the cost of American Girl dolls ($100), she’s started a petition asking the company to lower the price to $25.

And what determination. She’s after 1,000 signatures. (Doesn’t this sound like something Ramona Quimby or Junie B. Jones would do?)

I thought about explaining the concepts of supply and demand and corporate greed. But that’s not learning, that’s lecturing. As a writer, I know kids can’t stand a lecture. They’ll sniff out attempts to turn a story into a “lesson.” And if they smell it, goodbye book.

So, my daughter grasps the concept of petitioning and advocacy. She’s still a little fuzzy about how it works.

But she understands capitalism. Here’s the deal: if you want to sign her petition, you have to pay her five cents. That’s $50 if she gets 1,000 signatures. If the American Girl Doll company lowers the price from $100 to $25, she could buy two dolls.

She’s really, really good at math.

The dream of ten

One hippo on the phone ...

One hippo on the phone …

I don’t have the skill needed for writing a picture book, but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming. Here are ten picture books I wish I’d written.

Criteria: Can’t include friends or acquaintances and no obvious classics just to sound writerly.

In no particular order …

  1. Hippos Go Berserk by Sandra Boynton (or Barnyard Dance – who could possibly choose?)
  2. The Best Pet of All by David LaRochelle
  3. Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems
  4. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin
  5. Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
  6. The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
  7. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
  8. The Bear Snores On by  Karma Wilson
  9. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
  10. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

The best day of all

David LaRochelle is coming! David LaRochelle is coming! On Monday, he’ll be at my daughter’s school, River Crest Elementary.

He’s the author of many books, of course, but our favorite is The Best Pet of All. Other titles: 1 + 1 = 5, A Christmas Gift, and The Evening King. He’s doing kids programs all day, but it looks like parents can crash the evening session. At least I’m going to.

There’s no information on the River Crest web site, but River Crest parents should have received an email announcement.

Three shades of gray

Dear auto industry,

Why are you taking color from the world?

When writers say “color,” we mean words and phrases that add energy to writing. This letter isn’t about that kind of color.

Medium gray.

Medium gray.

I recently went to your auto show as part of my car-buying journey. Buyers can’t drive vehicles at the show, but you can do the important stuff. You can sit in the car and comfort test the seats with a quick nap. You can play with the gadgets. You can watch the sales guy steam when the two-year-old sticks his lollipop on the leather interior.

Most importantly, you can gaze at the sea of color. You can close your eyes and think about what color would best reflect you during errand runs for the next 10 or 15 years.

Except you couldn’t.

Welcome to the 2013 vehicle color palette: white, pearl white, tan, light gray, medium gray, platinum gray, shimmering black, and midnight black.

Every carmaker offered at least one actual color. A hideous color, such as Alien Green. No, I didn’t add “alien” to emphasize the ugliness of the green. Alien Green is the actual color and the color’s actual name.

Midnight black.

Midnight black.

Tornado Red. Not Tomato Red, which might be ugly but at least tomato describes a shade of red. So what is Tornado Red? Hideous. But not as hideous as Tangerine Orange Pearl, which sounds like a V8 fruit juice.

Then there was Toffee Mocha Brown. Redundant, yes, but it tells the buyer this car is really, really brown. Like toffee. Like mocha.

The only real options available for today’s new car buyers: white, pearl white, tan, light gray, medium gray, platinum gray, shimmering black, and midnight black.

One brochure had a blue car on the cover.

Me: So I could get this car in blue? Temptress Blue Metallic?

Salesman: Ma’am, that’s Tempest Blue Metallic.

Pearl white.

Pearl white.

Me: Isn’t that what I said? You must need your hearing checked. Anyway, could I get that color?

Salesman scratches his chin. I’m pretty sure blue is only available in models with a diesel engine.

Me: So the 2013 semi trucks are Temptress Blue? That must be fun to drive into Billy Bob’s Truck Stop.

Salesman: Let me make a few calls.

A few calls later …

Salesman: Apparently this car is offered in blue in European markets. I had my manager check our computers and there isn’t one single blue model in the five-state region.

Me: Why do Europeans get all the color?

Salesman: Well, if it’s color you want, let me show you the Tornado Red.

Auto industry, please take note: if writers used your palette of non-color in our books, we’d all be self-published. And that’s almost as bad as a bailout.


The new owner of a platinum gray car.

Tweet this: less is more and more is better

After hours of pondering tweet options, this is all I got: I have a blue lamp.

After hours of pondering tweet options, this is all I got: I have a blue lamp.

The Twitter research continues.

Leo Widrich, an interesting guy who blogs here, is a Twitter expert because he uses words like metrics and Twittercounter and retweeting. And he knows his subject.

In this particular post, Leo writes about a man’s goal to double his Twitter audience. Widrich has some ideas, and you can hit the blog to read them.

I call special attention to one point. Widrich says the solution, obviously, is to tweet more. But he advises people to spend no more than one hour a day tweeting. Instead of spending hours a day on Twitter, he says, just be more focused and strategic. Limit  yourself one hour to write tweets, I guess, because most people have other things to do, like read tweets.

Then he said some other things.

But whatever. One hour a day instead of hours a day.

Wow. My strategy had been to block out the whole morning. I’d tweet the best sales from grocery store ads to my 35 followers. This would endear me to them, I thought, and they would cast my tweets into cyberspace. Then my audience would grow and so would my book sales. I’d have my very own metric!

I’m lucky Leo saved me from acting like a tweet-geek with obsessive attempts to build an audience. I’m sticking with Leo and the cool kids and their one-hour rule. Nobody’s gonna be calling me a social media twitwit. Or nitwit, if you’re old school.

Man, I hope nobody retweets that.

Quit the twit? Keep the tweet?

I’ve tried tweeting the way people try exercising. Start with a bang, enjoy the initial rush, commit to a schedule, embrace the results, and …


Hide the weights under the bed and deflate the exercise ball. Order pizza. Play couch frisbee with Jillian Micheals’ workout DVD.

When I can’t remember my Twitter password, I’m at the order-pizza stage. Then it’s time to reboot and twit. (Who doesn’t prefer “twit” over “tweet?” At least there’s an implication of wit.)

Tweeting is the fastest way to keep people in touch with … with the stuff you do. I’m supposed to tweet. Tech-savvy writers tweet. Writers who care about their careers tweet. That’s what they tell us at writing conferences.

I want to appreciate the tweet, but the process seems like mass texting the first draft of a thought. Angry in mayor’s office people are. Or worse, the first draft of a non-thought. I like frosting and puppies. No arrogance intended. I once tweeted about grocery shopping. There’s no twit in my tweets. I’m the first to admit it.

So I’m researching best practices in the Twitter world. I decided to go back to the start and rethink the crucial first question: Why? Why read tweets? Why follow certain people and not others? Why should I tweet when I don’t even call my mom?

I turned to the nice people at Social Media Today. They have several articles that offer a deeper understand of the tweet. But I’m at the beginning, remember? Here’s their basic list of reasons for tweeting–and my commentary.


Tougas tweet angst. Yesterday. Caribou. “Men’s bathroom out of order. Wonder where they’re peeing.” hashtag, hashtag, hashtag.

Reason One: Interaction with your favorite brands.

Interaction is a fancy word for commercials. I get the point: interactive marketing is consumer-driven, two-way communication. In regular speak: Now we get to talk to the ads!

Oreo: Do you like regular me or double stuff me?

Me: Double stuff.

Oreo: Okay. I’ll tell the marketing department. Thanks.

 Reason Two: Networking.

 I resent this techno-development. Networking used to be fun. Networking used to mean going to bars and drinking with colleagues and getting your company to pay the tab. Now we have smart phones, water and hashtags. Nobody needs aspirin and coffee after a night of hashtags.

Reason Three: Staying abreast of the latest trends in your field.

Yup. It’s probably a great tool for people working in light-speed industries, like social media. But my field is publishing, which moves slightly faster than a snail crawling through corn syrup. Yes, I know technology is shaking up the book world. Perhaps someday entire novels will be tweeted line by line. I’ll adapt. Who knows? This new publishing strategy might improve the royalty structure.

Reason Four: Keeping up-to-date on your interests and hobbies.

I’m not expecting an explosive development in the world of cookbook collecting. Or my other hobby, bringing my camera to important events and forgetting to take pictures. But that’s me. Other people have interests aligned to instant information, like sports.

Reason Five: Following your favorite sports teams.

Like I just said.

Reason Six: Finding out about Twitter-only promotions (some companies give away free stuff).

Free stuff? Free? Stuff? Say something’s free and people freak out. They want it. Look! It’s another canvas tote! Only this one has the Keebler Elf on it! They take it. Translation: junk. And the life cycle of free junk? Company, you, basement, garage, landfill. Congratulations on your free stuff, Earth lover.

Following hashtags during events to follow the live “backchannel” chatter.

Live backchannel chatter?  Here’s where I need real research.

Thank you, Social Media Today. I will try to think of ways to apply Twitter to my writing career. You can follow me at shelleytougas@shelleytougas, and no worries. I won’t be the one filling up your Tweet Box.

So, if you can’t sell your treadmill on Craigslist, try Twitter. I hear hashtags chatter is today’s eBay.

A memoir that won’t let you down – part 2

A new memoir by Rachael Hanel

A new memoir by Rachael Hanel

Here’s part two of the Q & A with Rachael Hanel. Her incredible memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You, is now on bookshelves.

You’re a huge fan of memoir as a genre. Why? 

I think this ties into the previous question. I grew up listening to true-life stories. Even as a small child, I felt like the fictional stories I read paled in comparison to these stories that Mom told me or the real stories I sought out to read. I was always fascinated by real stories and was captivated to try to learn how people react to events in their lives. The memoir genre continues to fill this need.

It’s also no surprise that I grew up wanting to be a journalist. I wanted to learn people’s stories and be the one to chronicle them. I remember returning from interview after interview shaking my head and thinking, “Wow, what an amazing story! You can’t make this stuff up.” Real people and their real situations will just always be very compelling to me.

What memoir are you currently reading and name 3-4 you’d recommend.

I just finished Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic, by Luke Longstreet Sullivan and published by the University of Minnesota Press. I was completely blown away. It’s funny, because the couple of books I read before this one were novels. They were very good novels and I enjoyed them. But after reading Longstreet Sullivan’s book, it was once again affirmed that I am completely drawn to memoir. The novels just seemed to be lacking something in comparison—I find it hard to fully care about a fictional character.

My favorite memoir is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I bought it right away when it came out in 2006 because her father worked as a part-time mortician. I came to find out that this is actually a very small portion of the memoir, but the book (which is a graphic memoir) is stunning nonetheless. Bechdel is a very smart writer and she expertly weaves together many different stories and ties everything together in a full circle. I read the book several times as I was writing my memoir. Structurally Fun Home is about as perfect as a memoir can get.

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

I’m partial to memoirs that take place in the Midwest. Some stunning ones include Nicole Helget’s The Summer of Ordinary Ways, Kent Meyers’ The Witness of Combines and Debra Marquardt’s The Horizontal World. These were also books I read several times as I was writing my memoir.

What’s it like to think about your book – your baby – going out into the world?

This is causing me a great deal of anxiety! Ironically, even though I wrote a memoir, I’m a very private person when it comes to my life and my emotions. So there’s anxiety surrounding the idea that I’m going to be revealing myself to friends, family and strangers. There’s also anxiety over the fact that I’m sure not everyone will love the book, so what will the critical reviews say? But even good reviews will make me nervous because I don’t like a whole lot of personal attention. I’m social and I love being around people, but I don’t like the focus to be on me.

But of course, this is a day I’ve dreamed about for many, many years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way! I’m just sure the reality of it will be different than the fantasy I built up in my head!

I’m grateful to Rachael for being part of my blog. I also owe her an overdue, public thank you. Nearly 20 years ago, she was copy editing my news story under deadline.  Rachael and her eagle eyes saved me from spelling my own name wrong. (Really, who hasn’t done that?) She actually prevented public humiliation for lots of reporters during those years. On behalf of all of us, thanks!

A memoir that won’t let you down – part one

Today I’m posting a Q & A with Rachael Hanel, author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down. (Find her on Tumblr.) Rachael’s memoir is published by the University of Minnesota Press. I’ll post three of the questions/answers today and three tomorrow.

Rachael’s memoir confronts her relationship with death and exposes the difficulty people have with grief, not just the raw, throbbing ache of loss, but knowing how to grieve. A gravedigger’s daughter, Rachael is surrounded by stories of death and witness to grieving. But her childhood doesn’t prepare her to cope with her own losses. You’ll be swept into midwestern, small-town life when you open the pages.

So here we go …

Rachael Hanel's awesome book -- and one of my favorite covers.

Rachael Hanel’s awesome book — and one of my favorite covers.

Much of your memoir focuses on your early childhood. I’ve read it, and I see parallels between middle-grade books and your writing about your childhood. You’re just beginning to see the sadness in the world, and that the world is so much bigger than your family. There’s an evolution of awareness. Did your writing change as you aged yourself in the book?

I love this question! I’m so bad at seeing parallels between nonfiction and fiction, or especially between nonfiction and middle-grade books. But you’re so right. I think any story, fiction or nonfiction, that features a young child finds its heart and soul when exploring how the world starts to open and reveal itself to the child.

I don’t think my writing itself changed as I aged in the book. When I sat down to write the memoir, it was always about chronicling this slow awareness of the world around me. The youngest I am in the book is around four or five, and it pretty much is wrapping up as I graduate from high school. I think how I write about myself at those different ages is much the same—what changes are the things that I become aware of.

Were you ever scared of being in cemeteries? C’mon. What kid wouldn’t be?

LOL, no! When you grow up in cemeteries, and working in cemeteries is the only thing you can remember your parents doing, it really is just a normal thing. But there were a couple of cemeteries that kind of gave me the creeps. They were both small, rural, Catholic cemeteries. There was something about the isolation, the stillness, the religious iconography that created a certain darkness. I always made sure I kept my parents in sight! It probably didn’t help that I read a lot of ghost stories as a kid and was fascinated with the unexplained. But in general, most of our cemeteries felt quite safe and I enjoyed being there.

You weave in these fascinating stories about death and grieving, but these parts of the book aren’t about you. They’re stories you learn mostly from your mom. Why’d you decide to use those in your memoir?

These are the stories I grew up with. As I say in the memoir, Mom didn’t read to me bedtime stories. Instead, she told me stories about the people around us, people who suffered tragedies and losses.

As humans, we are drawn to story, and it bonds us together. I felt like Mom’s instinct to tell stories was quite natural, as was my instinct to want to hear them. Why do we want to hear stories? They are instructive to us. We can learn something from them. I learned something about death and grief from the stories that Mom told me. It was a crucial component of growing up and these stories are a crucial part of my own story.

Check back tomorrow for the rest of the Q & A. Until then, you can order the book on Amazon or on the university press website.