Tuesday, July 28, 2020

THE VIRTUAL AUTHOR

Two years ago, it was the hopeful faces online that kept me going. 

When my entire speaking schedule in Spring 2018 was cancelled by my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, I went virtual instead.  A screen became my audience. Skype replaced the cafeteria stage.

To keep things simple, I donated the virtual visits.  Schools knew that if my hair fell out from chemo…or if I had an unexpected doctor’s appointment…or if I just wasn’t up to talking—their visit wouldn’t happen.  Everything was “subject to change without notice.”  They were okay with that.
 
Fortunately, my hair stayed intact, and the virtual visits saved my sanity.  They gave me a schedule and a reason to get up every day.  Kids wore pink t-shirts.  They held up signs of hope and encouragement.  They made me believe that life would get better someday—and it did. 

One of the biggest surprises was the realization that I could still reach readers through a screen.  With a little practice and creativity, it was possible to keep being the interactive, thoughtful (and slightly random) author/presenter that I am. 


Then came Spring 2020 and the COVID outbreak demolished everything again.  I’ll admit that it felt like an awful kind of déjà vu.

But this time it wasn’t just me sitting at home worrying that I might die from a dread disease – it was the kids too.   I spread the word that I would donate virtual visits to any school group anywhere in April and May. 

I’ll never forget those first Zooms and Google Meets. Kids joined from living rooms, unfinished attics, closets, stairwells, and kitchen tables.  They appeared with homemade slime, family pets, and screaming siblings.  Some kids floated in blue galaxies or tropical forest backgrounds.  Others had their family seated around them like a solemn portrait.

Despite the challenges, these impromptu visits actually worked.  (A ton of credit goes to the parents, librarians, and teachers who made them happen.)  I was able to chat with kids about books and brainstorm characters with them. Virtual classes “toured” my office. We shared what we were going through and the various ways we were coping.  As I’d discovered two years earlier, there is something to be said for being there for each other in tough times. 

And as the school year starts at home again for many kids, I’m determined to keep stretching the virtual learning limits: Can we compose poetry on Zoom? Can we use our closets/attics/kitchens for writing inspiration? Can we create fictional characters from shoes?  Can we build stuff onscreen? (Tetrahedron pyramids for All of the Above? Mini-sculptures for The Seventh Most Important Thing?)

I believe that creativity and joy, even the virtual kind, will keep us going. 

I’m proof of that.

Teachers, librarians, and parents: If you are interested in finding out more about my 2020-21 virtual programs (some free and some fee-based) for your students, please check them out on my website or reach out to me at shelleyvisits@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Spiraling Out The Sadness

SPIRALING OUT THE SADNESS

There is no question that we are living through very tough times right now.  COVID-19 has overturned our world.  The challenges of uncertainty, isolation, illness, and loss have touched every age group, everywhere. 

What can we do to cope?

In my latest book THINGS SEEN FROM ABOVE, the main character of Joey Byrd creates giant spirals in the playground dirt as a way to deal with his sadness and isolation—an idea inspired by my own nephew. 

“You think of something sad and you start walking,” Joey Byrd says.  “Then you think of more sad things and you walk…and you just keep walking…until the sad things finally go away.” (p. 114).

It isn’t such a crazy idea.  For centuries, spirals and labyrinths have helped to calm the mind.  My nephew called it “spiraling out the sadness.”  While working on the book last year, I met other kids and adults who used similar strategies to cope, including the amazing sand artist Marc Treanor.  Check out his work below. 

Sand labyrinth by Marc Treanor sandcircles.co.uk

The power of art is a theme you’ll find in a lot of my work. In THE SEVENTH MOST IMPORTANT THING, the artist character of James Hampton creates a visionary box made from things that he scavenges on the war-torn island of Guam. He calls it “Death and War turned into something beautiful.” (p.170) In ALL OF THE ABOVE, the teenage characters use art (and math!) to survive.

Like the characters in my books, I’ve used art and writing to help me cope with my emotions since I was a kid.  During COVID-19, I’ve followed Joey Byrd’s advice to “walk until the sadness goes away.” 

So far, I’ve logged more than 300 miles.

There’s no question that we have a lot of sadness to “spiral out” these days.  It is important to let it out. Draw it. Sing it. Write it. Chalk it. Spiral it. Paint it. Dance it. Walk it.  Make labyrinths out of clay, stones, sand, and chalk – even yarn. Learn more here.  Fill a playground-- or a beach—or a piece of paper—with your feelings. 

Know that you are not alone. 





Sunday, April 5, 2020



Journals: Life Preservers in Scary Times


I’ve kept a journal off and on for more than 40 years.  My first one, in 1977, had a tiny gold lock and key.  I was a sixth grader at the time.  Back then, it was my daily log of events—the place where I recorded everything from Browns’ football scores—to the deadly Ohio blizzard of ’78 which was considered one of the worst in U.S. history (you can read about at the end of this post.).

But it was also my personal sounding board – the place where I poured out my loneliness, my frequent illnesses (yes, I was one of those sickly kids) – and the embarrassing fact that an overnight Girl Scout camp-out scared me so much I cried myself to sleep. 

I spoke to it like a close friend—even apologizing to it for skipped days or dull entries. “Not very exciting today--sorry,” I’d write.  But it never judged.  I could scribble TERRIBLE DAY! (see below)  and it would understand.



That little journal with the gold lock and key was my faithful listener and my sounding board as a kid. Now, as we face the COVID-19 crisis in our world today, keeping a journal continues to be a really important source of comfort and calm for me.

I encourage everyone to give it a try -- no matter what age you are.  Your journal doesn’t need to be anything fancy.  (Right now, I’m using one of my stepson’s old middle school notebooks that I dug out of a box for recycling.  It had a lot of unused pages.  I'm not sure what that says about his work habits…)

There are no rules for how much to write or how often.  Or how neatly. Or how grammatically correct to be. Remember the journal doesn't judge. 

Just write.

Encourage kids and teens in your family or classroom to keep their own journals.  Their reactions to the COVID-19 crisis may be very different than your own. They may want to stick to the facts. Or ignore them.  Or complain about the lack of snacks & decent WiFi in the house--or about you (I did that a lot in my 6th grade journal...). Or they may want to draw and doodle instead.  

Drawing in a journal is okay too!

Let your journal hold you up in this ocean of uncertainty—and let it remind you that someday this will all be in the past, like the long ago Blizzard of '78, and we will be able to look back through the pages to remember how strong we were and what got us through.



Thursday, January 9, 2020


A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words (Or More)


Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words—or sometimes, a book.

About seven years ago, the photo you see posted above took my breath away.  It provoked so many conflicting emotions.  I remember feeling both joy and heartbreak the first time I saw it.  First, there was the whimsical and funny face in the playground dirt—and then there was the lonely little boy in the red jacket lying in the middle of it.
 
I happen to know the boy in the red jacket very well.  He is my nephew—a thoughtful, smart, and sensitive kid named Miles.

Seven years ago when this photo was snapped at recess, he was a fourth grader—and his loneliness is palpable.  Except for the older classmate who took the photo, and a recess aide watching the scene, there is no one else around.

When I show this photo to school audiences, I always get an immediate reaction. Depending on how students relate to the photo, they might call it sad, creative, lonely, unique, awesome, cool, odd, mysterious, scary, or confusing…

And everyone wants to know the story behind it.  

So did I. 

And that is how my new book, Things Seen From Above, began.

Over time, it shifted from being a story about my nephew—to a book for all of those lonely kids on the fringes of our playgrounds, our schools, our classrooms—kids who have unique and special gifts we don’t always see until (and unless) we change how we look at them.

The photo also led me to some totally unexpected places: a windswept beach in Wales, a brick labyrinth in Michigan, the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, Stonehenge, and more…


The book took longer than expected to write…as books often do.  (My nephew is in high school now!)  But the story that started with a blurry cellphone picture snapped on an elementary school playground is finally almost here. Publication date: February 4.  

Yes, a picture can equal a thousand words…or a book.



Saturday, December 28, 2019

2019:Shoes, Stories, and Skypes...oh my!  

It was wonderful to be back on the road in schools again in 2019!  With my trusty road crew (husband Mike),  we toted our writing workshops and presentations to more than 25 schools and libraries in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and New York.  Virtual visits connected us with 12 other places across the country. 

Enjoy some favorite photos from the year showing shoe writing joy!, cardboard wisdom, pyramid building, research magic...and more.  (And if you are looking for an in-person or virtual visit this May, we still have a few openings left.  Contact me through my website www.shelleypearsall.com for more details.)








Monday, December 9, 2019

In Praise of School Janitors







It is probably no secret that I have a special place in my heart for school janitors. 

I can name the first one I ever met: Mr. Boder at Hanna Elementary, where I attended school as a child.  He was a regal, soft-spoken man with iron-gray hair and (I seem to recall) a slight English accent.  In another place or time, he might have been the perfect butler for a queen. 


Later on, when I started my first job in education, my aunt (who was a lifelong teacher) gave me one piece of advice: always make friends with the school custodians. “Trust me,” she said. “They will matter a heck of a lot more than your principal.”  

Sure enough, as I struggled through my first year of teaching fourth grade—stressed and constantly sick—it was Janitor Steve and his wife who showed up at my apartment one afternoon with an enormous pot of homemade pasta to keep me alive.

(In fact, Steve kept all of us going as teachers. He was our daily sounding-board—the keeper of our rants and our sanity.)

As a traveling author now, I meet janitors far more often than I meet principals.  I’ve met janitors who write poetry and ones who impersonate Elvis.  Janitors have read my books and hauled our equipment through wind and rain and snow—and done emergency “clean-ups in aisle 5” during writing workshops (no explanation needed!) 

It’s no coincidence that janitors appear as characters in three of my seven books:  There’s Mr. Joe who protects the students and their project from disaster in All of the Above, mysterious Mr. Ulysses in my upcoming book Things Seen From Above, and of course—Mr. Hampton, the former janitor turned artist in The Seventh Most Important Thing.


So, this holiday season, let’s recognize and PRAISE the unsung angels, men and women, who clean up our schools and keep everything (including us) going each day. 

 As Mr. Hampton says about the angels in our lives: “Some are like peacocks. Others are less flashy. Like city pigeons. It all depends on the wings.” Thank an angel today.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


Writing with Your Halloween Candy


Are you more like candy corn or lifesavers?  I ask students this question in one of my writing workshops. 

It is a way to get kids to think more creatively—more imaginatively—more divergently—which (if you haven’t met me) is a “soap box” issue of mine.  I talk about it constantly.  It keeps me awake at night.  Because I truly believe our students won’t be able to solve the extremely challenging problems of the future if we don’t work on developing their creative thinking skills today.

So, if you are a teacher (or just a random person reading this blog) and you are staring at that large bowl of candy that you weren’t able to hand out last week because of the inclement weather (okay, gale-force winds and rain) that blanketed much of the country on Halloween – try this out:
Which candy are you most like?  Least like?  Why?

You can write about it. Talk about it. Turn it into a poem.  If you teach school, have your students bring in a piece of candy from their Halloween stash—the candy that most represents/ reflects them.  Not their favorite one. Not the one they’d most like to eat.  The one that is most like them.  Have them write about it, talk about it, turn it into poem…

Here’s mine: 

I’m a pack of lifesavers, mostly sturdy and strong. Except for the hole in the middle of who I am.  That’s where the loved ones I’ve lost used to be.  But around those empty spaces are determined circles of sweetness.  And color. And resilience.  That’s who I am.  I go on.

(You can also choose candy for some of the great characters in children’s literature: What candy would be Harry Potter? Or Hermione?)

Your turn.