Sunday 30 September 2012

Boxcar Trips to the Barren North

Lake Superior, 1925.

The other day I wrote a post called "A Dead Tree Really Isn't Dead".  In the meantime, I googled paintings of dead trees and noticed that Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris liked to paint such landscapes.  In fact, according to one website:  "The starkness of the north shore [of Lake Superior] attracted Lawren Harris."  The painter's works became so famous that as of 2008, his paintings could fetch a million dollars or more.

Lawren Harris, the heir to the Massey-Harris fortune (remember Massey Ferguson tractors?), was born and raised in Brantford, Ontario.  In fact, we have a street in the northwest corner named after the painter.  He studied art in Germany for four years and later served in the First World War.  Upon his return to Canada, he continued his painting career, teaming up with fellow Canadian painters like MacDonald, Jackson, etc.  (Tom Thomson had tragically drown at Algonquin Park in 1917.)

In the Fall of 1918, Lawren decided to take the future Group of Seven on some painting excursions via boxcar.  The Algoma Central Railway loaned the artists Car #10557 and they headed north of Sault Saint Marie to paint.  Equipped with bunks, tables, chairs, book shelves, a stove, a canoe, food and other amenities, the men were prepared for weeks.  At certain points, the engineer would unhitch the boxcar, leave it on a side line, and the painters would either canoe or hike to their destination like Agawa Canyon, the Montreal River falls, or Batchawana Bay.  There, they would sketch the scenery for hours on end. 

Much of what they sketched became paintings that were exhibited at the Group of Seven's first Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit in 1920.  The boxcar trips continued until 1923.  However, even when they ended, Lawren Harris continued to paint the stark scenes of Ontario's north.  Lake Superior came out in 1925 and North Shore, Lake Superior the following year.  The latter, arguably his most famous painting, shows rays of light shining down on a dead tree.  Known for his spiritualism, the rays of light remind me of God's light.  Although the scenes were stark, God's abundance was still evident. 

Lawren Harris passed away in 1970 but his work is still recognized worldwide.  In 2008, one of his paintings sold for 1.38 million dollars.  He is credited with being the founding member of the Group of Seven, a group that will not soon be forgotten.

North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926.

Saturday 29 September 2012

The Reading Room

California businessman William Campbell lost his wife to cancer.  She left one dying wish, though, and that was that her husband would open a reading room in downtown Oakdale to help the neighbourhood residents.  William complied by packing up his library of books and carting them downtown to set up in a building which he already owned.  With bars on the windows and graffiti on the walls, he was surrounded by gang members and homeless people.  But he was determined to fulfill the wish of his late wife. 

Bit by bit, neighbourhood people trickled into the Reading Room.  A young girl wanted William to teach her how to read.  A teenage girl wanted magazines with current hairdos.  A young man wanted an SAT prep book to prepare for the exam.  Three young boys wanted a computer to play computer games.  William granted each request. 

A local reverend questioned Mr. Campbell's motives, but as he got to know him, realized that his reasons were altruistic.  Local gang members stole his computer and later trashed his store.  William remained undeterred.  He cleaned up the Reading Room with help from the community members who had become his friends. 

The young girl was soon reading Dr. Seuss books.  The teenage girl kept him company each day as she read her magazines.  The young man studying for his SAT only scored a 900.  But with William's help he persevered and after writing the exam the second time, he scored a 1540, gaining him acceptance to college and even a scholarship.  William employed one of the local gang members who grew to respect and appreciate his employer. 

Made into a movie starring James Earl Jones, it's a heart-warming tale which shows how one person can make a difference.  William honoured his wife's wish of "More Love, Less Hate".  And the man who was never able to have a family of his own, gained a family in the process.

Photo courtesy

Friday 28 September 2012

Layers of the Forest

When we walk along the Grand River rail trail in Brantford, we see the layers of the forest.  I remember teaching an Environmental Studies unit to a Grade 2 class about Forests.  I taught them about the five forest layers.  They are:

1.  Emergent:  these trees are about 30 metres tall.

2.  Canopy:  some of these trees are flowering ones and may grow up to 20 metres tall.

3.  Understorey:  these are often ferns and palms which grow up to 10 metres tall.

4.  Shrubs:  these are young plants which are 5 metres tall.

5.  Forest Floor:  these are ferns and mosses.

The next time you go for a walk in the woods, look for these layers.  Look for a forest that is not too dense so it is easier to pick out the layers.  It is amazing how the plants in the lower layers survive given that they compete for sunshine and/or rain with the plants in the upper layers.  It is amazing how the larger plants don't choke out the smaller ones.  No gardener is present to plant the seeds or water the plants or prune the trees there.  And yet it all gets done.  Because God tends to his garden, every last layer. 


Thursday 27 September 2012

Ten Tips to Avoid Cliches in Writing

One piece of advice I have been given while writing my picture book is "avoid cliches".  I came across this Writer's Digest piece which might be helpful to me.

1.  Avoid stolen or borrowed tales. 

According to novelist Martin Amis:  "Good writing is a war against cliche."  Use crisp dialogue, vivid description and an edgy style.

2.  Resist sensationalism.

It is too easy to write a story about drug deals, kidnapping, crashes, murder or rape.  Pick a topic that might seem humdrum but that you approach in a non-traditional manner.

3.  Turn stereotype on its head.

Rather than writing about the starving artist, write about the successful painter who puts on workshops in the day to supplement his income and paints at night. 

4.  Tell the story only you can tell.

Authenticity is what the reader craves.

5.  Keep it real and take it slow.

One author talks about getting her classes to write two pieces, one riveting and one boring.  Inevitably it's the boring piece which rivets and the riveting piece which bores.  Why?  Because the writer tends to race through the riveting piece, not paying attention to detail; however, he takes his time with the boring piece and it ends up being interesting and authentic.

6.  Deliver your story from circumstantial cliche.

Your setting is important.  Resist the urge to pick a stereotypical setting ex. deserted island.

7.  Elevate the ordinary.

Take trite elements of your story out of the foreground and put them in the background. 

8.  Rescue gratutitous scenes from melodrama.

Avoid gratutitous violence, foul language or over the top action (ex. depressed person jumping off bridge).  It is much harder, but more effective, to find the right words or the more convincing action/reaction.

9.  Avoid overly convenient plots.

Fistfights do not happen very often in real life.  Why would you fill your story with them?

10.  Fill you story with substance.

"When authors explode drama rather than describe it, their material deteriorates into soap opera."  Turn on the T.V. and watch a soap opera.  If you haven't done so before, you will immediately notice how lame the plot is.


Wednesday 26 September 2012

A Dead Tree Really Isn't Dead

When I was driving my kids to school the other day, I saw an eagle perched on a dead tree beside the railroad tracks along Garden Ave.  I started to think about the purpose of dead trees.  What was the point of keeping them?  I started to notice other dead trees along the side of the road, some with vegetation growing around them.  This morning while volunteering at BCS, I read a caption "A Dead Tree Isn't Dead" on a Kindergarten worksheet that I was photocopying.  I thought:  That's a great idea for a blog post!

So, I googled "A Dead Tree Isn't Dead" and several sites came up.  I found out that several species live inside standing dead trees, referred to as "snags".  They include:

-garter snakes
-wood frogs
-wood ducks
-red squirrels
-birds of prey
-small mammals (bats)

Another site gave me a list of what purposes the snags serve for these species:

-hunting perches (like the eagle that I saw)
-nesting (exterior & interior)
-food storage
-weather protection (now I know where local birds go in the winter time)
-food source (insects)
-roosting (settling down at night, for diurnal birds, or during the day, for noctural birds, on an elevated spot for the purpose of resting)

I was curious as to the number of snags in the average forest so I googled the question.  According to one Washington State study, the average wooded acre contains 16 standing dead trees.  A Kentucky wildlife website stated that a wooded area should have a minimum of 6 snags, but ideally 30. 

Apparently, a dead tree can stand for decades according to a Pennsylvania Conservation Department website.  Hardwoods (oak, maple, birch, dogwood) stand longer than softwoods (pine, balsam, cedar, spruce). 

All of the websites seem to agree that dead trees are full of life.  So, the next time you take a walk in the woods or a drive down the road, look for those dead trees.  They're more plentiful than you think!

Photo courtesy

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Getting Milked?

Photo courtesy

We buy at least 3 large bags of milk per week.  That's 12 litres of milk for four people.  At $4.39 a litre, that's  $13.17.  Of course, we have a teenager in the house so he counts for two.  Last weekend, I bought 1 gallon of milk in Niagara Falls, New York for $1.88!  Why is American milk less than half the price of its Canadian counterpart?  Are American cows that much different than Canadian ones?  Does it cost more to milk a Canadian cow than an American one?  Do American cows moo differently than Canadian cows (maybe they have an accent)?  Do American cows not bleed just like the Canadian ones?  Do more cows live in the United States than in Canada? 

I know that the Canadian dairy farmers aren't making money in the milk business because we know of one such family who is thinking about selling their farm because they can't make ends meet.  So who's making the profit?  I'm assuming the milk companies are.  Someone has to be pocketing that extra money given that our colourful bills are just about at par with those plain green ones just below the border. 

It's a sad commentary on society when a plentiful country like Canada has such high prices on staples like milk (or for that matter, bread).  When my Dad was a little boy, he had all the milk he wanted in the summers which he spent on the farm with his five cousins.  They were not considered rich by any stretch of the imagination but they had enough food to go around.  They even made their own ice cream from the milk. 

Now I can see why so many Canadians wait hours at the border each weekend to do their shopping.  Even if they burn up gas while their car idles, they can fill up their tanks at the American pumps and still be further ahead financially. 

So, the next time you buy a bag (or jug) of milk, write a letter to your local milk company.  Maybe if enough of us complain, Canadian milk companies will drop their prices. 

Photo courtesy


Monday 24 September 2012

Ten Reasons to Smile this Fall

1.  Structure

The kids return to school.  Adults return to work.  Everyone is back on a schedule again.

2.  Comfort foods

Enjoy a hearty bowl of soup or a roast.  With the cooler temperatures, you can cook without heating up the house.

3.  Wood burning fires

Take a drive in the country and smell the scent of a wood burning fire.

4.  Green grass coated with morning frost

Take a morning walk in the park and see the grass coated with frost.

5.  Colour

Take a drive and view the leaves changing colour.

6.  Nature's Bubble Wrap

Take a walk and hear the crunch of the leaves under your feet.

7.  Chill

Feel the chill in your cheeks when you come inside for a cup of hot chocolate.

8.  Pumpkins

Carve a pumpkin.  Bake pumpkin pie, bread, seeds.  Cook pumpkin soup. 

9.  Stillness

Be still and know that I am God.  Feel the natural rhythm of the earth on an autumn day.

10.  Thanksgiving

Give thanks.  Feel gratitude.  Thanksgiving is a peaceful holiday without the hustle and bustle of Christmas.



Sunday 23 September 2012

Crow Call

"I sit shyly in the front seat of the car next to the stranger who is my father, my legs pulled up under the too-large wool shirt I am wearing.  I practice his name to myself, whispering it under my breath.  Daddy. Daddy.  Saying it feels new.  The war has lasted so long.  He has been gone so long.  Finally I look over at him timdly and speak aloud."  (Crow Call, Lois Lowry)

Crow Call is a picture book based on a little girl and her Daddy and how they get to know each other again on a hunting trip as he is a soldier just back from the battlefield.  The little girl, Liz, remembers shopping at Kronenberg's department store with her father where he purchased a large plaid shirt, the perfect article of clothing to wear on a hunting trip.  So, Liz dons the wool shirt and  the father and daughter set off on their trip.  Their first stop is the diner where Liz's dad orders not one but two slices of cherry pie for his daughter, her favourite food.  Then they drive further into the hills of Pennsylvania to hunt.  The scenes in the woods are solitary, as if the father and daughter are the only two people that exist at that moment. And the silence is only broken by the little girl's crow call, which invites a flock of the black birds to soar above the trees.  Once they fly overhead, Liz no longer wants them there for fear they will be shot.  She is relieved when her father slings his rifle over his shoulder and says it's time to go home, without having used it.  They walk back to the car, hand in hand. 

Bagram Ibatouilline's illustrations are warm and inviting.  The drawings imitate sepia-toned photographs.  One double spread shows the father and daughter together on the front seat of the 1940's era car driving through the countryside, capturing their bonding experience.  Crow Call is a beautiful story with gorgeous illustrations. 

Saturday 22 September 2012

An Autumn Evening

Dark hills against a hollow crocus sky
Scarfed with its crimson pennons, and below
The dome of sunset long, hushed valleys lie
Cradling the twilight, where the lone winds blow
And wake among the harps of leafless trees
Fantastic runes and mournful melodies.

The chilly purple air is threaded through
With silver from the rising moon afar,
And from a gulf of clear, unfathomed blue
In the southwest glimmers a great gold star
Above the darkening druid glens of fir
Where beckoning boughs and elfin voices stir.

And so I wander through the shadows still,
And look and listen with a rapt delight,
Pausing again and yet again at will
To drink the elusive beauty of the night,
Until my soul is filled, as some deep cup,
That with divine enchantment is brimmed up.
Lucy Maud Montgomery

Autumn evening photo courtesy


Friday 21 September 2012

Ten Ways to Stay Fluent in a Second Language

I studied French throughout high school and then majored in the subject in university.  I taught Core French for seven years and then French Immersion for another 11 years.  However, I took a leave of absence for a couple of years and now I feel like I should brush up on my French skills.  Here are ten ways to maintain fluency in a second language.

1.  Listen to international music. 

My Italian teacher (I also studied Italian for a few years) at Westmount Secondary School used to play us Italian songs and we would fill in the missing lyrics on a sheet that he prepared for us.  I remember him showing us "Sanremo", the Italian music awards. 

2.  Watch foreign cinema.

Rent a DVD of a movie by Francois Truffaut, a French director, or Pedro Almodovar, a Spanish director.

3.  Seek international news sources.

Read online newspapers or listen to foreign radio broadcasts.

4.  Read foreign books or magazines.

Start with familiar stories ex. Harry Potter and then work your way up to the more difficult books.  Subscribe to a French magazine ex. L'Actualite (French) or Spiegel (German).

5.  Connect with others in foreign lands.

Websites connect English speakers with foreigners via teleconferencing, chat rooms or message boards.

6.  Join a language club.

Many cities have language clubs which hold conversation circles.  Visit the website for more information.

7.  Serve as an E.S.L. tutor.

Check out your local library or community agency for tutoring opportunities. 

8.  Explore your neighbourhood.

Visit the local cultural clubs ex. Brantford has the Sonenhoff (German Club) or Rossini Lodge (Italian Club).

9.  See the world.

Travel to countries where your second language is spoken.  As a student, go on a foreign exchange.

10.  Take a refresher course.

Enrol in a high school, college or university course.


Thursday 20 September 2012

Once Upon a Time

How do you capture the readers interest in the first line?  According to literary agent Rachel Gardner, first lines should fulfill one or more of the following criteria:


1.     clever

2.     thought-provoking

3.     give you a smile of recognition

4.     poignant

5.     present a cool word picture

6.     present an intriguing mystery

7.     introduce a character you want to know better

8.     make you laugh

9.     draw you into an unfamiliar world

10.   demonstrate beautiful use of language


Above all, first lines should make you want to read MORE. 

Here are some famous first lines.  See if you can figure out their sources.
1.  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
2.  There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
3.  Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
4.  Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
5.  All this happened, more or less.

6.  When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
7.  “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
8.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
9.  Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.
10.  "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
1.  Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)
2.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C. S. Lewis)
3.  One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
4.  Back When We Were Grownups (Anne Tyler)
5.  Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
6.  To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
7.  War & Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
8.  A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
9.  Roots (Alex Haley)
10.  Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Gone with the Title

Here are ten famous books which originally had less than impressive titles.

1.  First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

2.  Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

3.  The Man Who Disappeared became Amerika (Max Brod)

4.  All's Well That Ends Well became War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

5.  They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen became Valley of the Dolls (Jacqueline Susann)

6.  Among Ash-Heaps & Millionaires became The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

7.  The Last Man in Europe became 1984 (George Orwell)

8.  Tomorrow is Another Day became Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)

9.  Before this Anger became Roots (Alex Haley)

10.  At this Point in Time became All the President's Men (Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward)

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Rotterdam in Ruins

Rotterdam City Centre flattened during World War II except the Laurenskerk courtesy

Rotterdam resident Jeff Noordermeer remembers the event like it happened yesterday.  It was May of 1940 and he and his family huddled on the first floor of their apartment building as the Luftwaffe planes flew overhead, so close that they took the chimneys off some of the rooftops.  They experienced two and a half hours of sheer terror in which their neighbour was so scared her dark hair went completely white.  When they climbed out of their apartment building, Rotterdam was in ruins.

A city of 600,000 residents, Rotterdam was named after a dam on the River Rotte.  The city, the second largest port in the world, was filled with canals in which the young Jeff Noordemeer would spend hours watching the canal rats run back and forth.  He and his family would rent bikes and ride to the outskirts of Rotterdam where they would frolick at a North Sea beach.  The city was also known for its football as it was home to more professional football clubs than anywhere in Holland. 

Jeff's world would change in May of 1940 when the Nazis invaded.  Initial reports indicated that 30,000 inhabitants were killed and that they were still pulling bodies from the rubble seven days after the bombardment.  However, modern reports put the number of deaths at 1,000 and number of wounded at 1,000.  One square mile of Rotterdam was completely flattened.  Eighty-five thousand people were left homeless after 25,000 buildings were demolished, including the apartment building where Jeff lived.   

The Noordermeer family escaped from their collapsed apartment building.  Across the street, the grocery store had been destroyed and loose groceries were everywhere.  Jeff's mother asked him to pick up as much food as he could as she knew they would soon be starving.  They started a "death walk" through the rubble-strewn streets to a park where they hid under trees, while the Nazis continued to attack.  Finally, when the bombing subsided, they made their way to the beach where Jeff had swum not so long ago with his father.  Red Cross members helped the victims there.  Mr. Noordermeer, who was at work when the bombing occurred, returned to find his home in ruins, assuming his family had perished.  However, with some effort, he relocated his family at the beach.  The Noordermeers found a vacant building at the outskirts of the city, but were soon evicted.  The Red Cross found them temporary housing. 

Nineteen forty-four was a vicious year for Rotterdam as many starved to death due to the famine.  Others were rounded up by the Nazis and taken to work camps.  However, many survived to see the rebuilding of the Dutch city.

While Berlin was rebuilt largely by women, Rotterdam was rebuilt with the help of children who gathered the loose bricks. The Dutch chose to start with a clean slate and rebuilt the city using modern rather than medieval architecture. However, the Laurenkerke was rebuilt in its original style. The Noordemeer's moved to Limburg where the father got hired to work in a coal mine. But they always missed Rotterdam, and its beautiful canals and bridges.

A rebuilt Rotterdam circa 1960.

Monday 17 September 2012

Warsaw's Sea of Rubble

Photo of Warsaw circa 1945 courtesy

The Norwalk Hour reported that a full eight months after the total destruction of Warsaw, Poland by the Nazis, you could still smell the stench of thousands of bodies trapped under the rubble (Sept. 20, 1945).  However, despite the devastating loss, Varsovians rebuilt the Old Town within 11 years.

Eighty to ninety percent of Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis in the dying months of World War II, a city occupied for the entire duration of the war.  The vicious attacks were largely a retaliation on the part of the Nazis for the Warsaw Uprising.  Churches, theaters, palaces, businesses and an opera house were all demolished.  Warsaw's market square, with its narrow cobblestone streets, was also destroyed.  A city that, previous to the war housed 1.3 million inhabitants. was reduced to 900,000 by 1944 and 1,000 after the final bombardment by the Nazis.  Eight hundred thousand occupants were killed including 700,000 Jews. 

Old footage of Warsaw streets in 1946 shows German prisoners of war marching in columns with shovels strung over their shoulders to worksites where they collect some of the 720 million cubic feet of rubble.  The backbreaking work was done manually, the debris carted away in horsedrawn lorries.  The work was not just tiring but dangerous as there were 98,000 unexploded mines and shells trapped under the debris.  Women also contributed to the clean-up as was the case in Berlin and other German cities (see my post "Trummerfrauen", October 11, 2011).  The footage shows that as the workers clear the rubble, life goes on in Warsaw:  a policeman directs traffic; children run down an alleyway, playing; and women sit on piles of rubble cleaning radishes. 

By 1956, the Old Town was completely rebuilt, all in its original medieval design dating back as far as the 13th Century.  Rubble workers continued to clear the streets and construction workers continued to rebuild.  Another major section of the city was finished by 1963.  The Royal Castle was restored by 1970.  Today, tourists come from all over Europe and the world to view the beautiful Old Town which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photo of a rebuilt Warsaw Town Square courtesy

Sunday 16 September 2012

Remnants of 9/11

Native New Yorker, Joel Meyerowitz wondered how he could help his fellow Americans in the days after 9/11.  A photographer by trade, he picked up his camera and started snapping pictures of Ground Zero.  However, a police officer reminded him that it was a crime sight and photos were forbidden.  Joel obeyed the policeman and left but after walking several blocks, he thought:  "No photos meant no history."  So he managed to convince the powers that be that he would do an excellent job and they granted him unimpeded access to Ground Zero.  Nine months later, he had a collection of over 8000 photos.

Mr. Meyerowitz remembers the early days of Ground Zero.  He remembers the twin towers being hit by jets piloted by the terrorists and bursting into flames.  He remembers the twin towers collapsing and hundreds of New Yorkers scattering in every direction, escaping the billowing smoke and flying debris.  He remembers the firefighters trying to rescue survivors.  He remembers how 50 firemen discovered a void in a stairwell where five firemen were found, their bodies intact.  He remembers the volunteers who came from all over the country, even from Canada and elsewhere, masks covering their faces,  to help clean up.  He remembers sunsets over Ground Zero, beautiful scenes amidst such ugly destruction. 

He documented, day by day, week by week, the clean up of 16 acres of Manhattan.  After nine months, he placed his 8000 photos in a historical archive collection called "Aftermath:  World Trade Center Archive" for "our children and grandchildren to see". 

By the 10th anniversary, Ground Zero would have parapets with the names of the victims inscribed.  Construction would begin on new towers, but they would stand around rather than on the hallowed ground where the original towers once stood. 

Photo of Ground Zero at night courtesy

Saturday 15 September 2012

The Monuments Men

Photo of looted painting discovered in cave courtesy
The Monuments Men, 350 strong, were a group of middle aged, highly intelligent, low ranking officers who were recruited in 1943 to preserve the culture of Europe.  With day jobs as art historians, curators, architects and artists, these men set out to rescue, preserve and repair paintings, sculptures, monuments, bridges, palazzi, etc.  Many of these objets d'art were looted by the Nazis and were stored in castles and salt mines.  One convoy with 200 paintings was headed to Hermann Goering's birthday party, but was intercepted by the Monument Men.  Some treasures were hidden by the Allied Armies  behind false walls, in wine cellars, basements, country churches and medieval fortresses.  Twenty percent of Europe's art was looted by the Nazis.  Despite having no vehicles, gasoline or typewriters, the Monuments Men were able to save and catalgoue many of these treasures.  Although the Monuments Men disbanded in 1951, the quest for missing objets d'art continues; as recently as 2010, a painting called "Jewish Women with Oranges" was discovered in Germany.  Many missing pieces still remain at large.   

Photo of Monuments Men with looted art courtesy

Friday 14 September 2012

"Absolutely, After 33 Surgeries, I'd Better Be!"

Photo of J. R. Martinez in U.S. Army courtesy
J. R. Martinez found himself lying on the battlefield in Iraq with more than 40% of his body burned back in 2003.  By 2008 he was a motivational speaker with a recurring role on All My Children.  And by 2011, he was the champion of Dancing with the Stars.  How did this American, who once had a dream of playing pro football, get to this point?

Jose Rene Martinez was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1983.  Raised by a single mom, he never met his dad.  Gifted at athletics, he dreamed of a professional career in football.  In 2002, he signed up for the United States Army and was sent overseas to Iraq.  It was there that he was driving a Humvee and rolled over a landmine which exploded and left him with his body badly burned.  J. R. was transferred to a military hospital in Germany and then to one in San Antonio, Texas where he spent 34 months recovering.  His body endured 33 surgeries, both cosmetic and skin graft types, one for every month he was in the hospital.  After foot surgery, it was his mother who helped him learn how to walk eight weeks after the procedure. 

While in the hospital, one of the nurses asked J. R. to come and talk to another patient who had been badly burned and had just been shown his scars, but refused to look at them.  J. R. complied and after 45 minutes of talking to the patient, convinced him to open up his curtain and let the light in.  J. R. talked to more patients and realized that he had a gift for helping others, thereby starting a motivational speaking career.

In the meantime, in 2008, he was cast in a recurring role on the soap opera All My Children as a war veteran.  As his name became known, he was approached by ABC to become a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.  After gaining 70 pounds while recovering in the Texas hospital, J. R. welcomed the opportunity to do something to get back into shape.  Week after week, he danced his heart out; and week after week the judges rewarded him with high scores.  By the tenth week, he had all perfect scores.  Between the judges' marks and the fans' votes, he won the Mirrorball Trophy.

The modest Martinez was voted one of People's Most Sexiest Men Alive in 2012.  In response, he joked:  "Absolutely, after 33 surgeries, I'd better be!"

The veteran's latest endeavour is to run the New York City Marathon this November.  He has partnered with Timex to raise money for the The New York Road Runners Youth Program.  J. R. will start the marathon dead last and for every runner he passes, Timex will donate  $1 to the charity.  Last year, Timex teamed up with a softball star who raised $30,000 plus for her charity.  This year, J. R. hopes to raise $31,000. 

Good bless you on your journey, J. R. !!!

Photo of J. R. Martinez holding up mirrorball trophy courtesy

Thursday 13 September 2012

Manuscript Makeover

I have received lots of feedback on my picture book manuscript from a critique group.  Now I have to decide which suggestions that I should incorporate into my writing.  Firstly, many people have suggested that I either lengthen my book to chapter book length or shorten it to a more manageable length for a picture book.  Since picture books are my first love, I have decided to do the latter.  Besides, there are already several chapter books written about home children.  Although I have already cut my manuscript down from 3000 to 2000, I must cut it again to 1500 words.  As they say:  "Wordiness is not next to Godliness."

Second of all, my manuscript covered 5 years of Daisy Blay's life, a huge chunk of time.  Another children's author suggested that I focus on a day in the life of Daisy.  I'm going to take her up on the suggestion.  While changing the format means that I lose Daisy's London days, it allows me to focus on the Canada days and her life as a homechild (afterall, the book is called I'm Just a Home Child).  With a tight framework, I also eliminate a lot of the awkward jumps in time in the story's chronology.

My target audience has been lowered from 6 to 9 to 5 to 7.  Therefore, I must simplify the vocabulary in the book without dumbing it down too much.  On the contrary, I have read that picture books sometimes have a more advanced vocabulary than chapter books since it is often the parent who reads the picture book whereas often it is the child who reads the chapter book.  How do I paint a picture of the late Victorian period without getting too technical? 

So my task is cut out for me once again.  Getting feedback was invaluable.  I'll keep you posted...