Tuesday, July 28, 2020


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


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.