The Inside Story about the Inside Story

November 16th, 2013

Early this month, our Seattle-born and bred children’s book salon, The Inside Story, went international. In nine bookstores across the US and Australia, people who love children’s books gathered for their first-ever Inside Story experience, sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, aka the SCBWI.

It was a proud moment for George Shannon and me. We invented the Inside Story in 1998. It was a proud moment for our local SCBWI who nurtured it over the years. Here in Seattle we celebrated our 31st Inside Story that evening, hosted by Mockingbird Books.

Our goal when we started the Inside Story was to create a forum where authors and illustrators could celebrate their new titles with local booksellers, librarians, teachers and other friends of children’s books. The idea was that book creators would share “inside” information that booksellers and librarians could use to recommend titles. Along the way, we hoped to build our children’s book community. That’s what’s happened over the past 16 years. Something like 500 books have been presented in these twice-yearly programs at a rotating venue of area independent bookstores.

Each time, authors and illustrators are each given three minutes to tell the stories behind their new books. For instance, at the recent Inside Story at Mockingbird Books, we heard Port Townsend illustrator Richard Jesse Watson talk about his latest picture book, Psalm 23. He began by telling about his atheist childhood and ended with a discussion of how he chose the models for his characters. It was interesting stuff.

The timed three-minute segments are interspersed with The Great Book Give Away, a game in which audience members win copies of the new books by answering children’s book trivia questions. The program is followed by schmoozing and booksigning and a fabulous spread of food and drink supplied by the host bookstore. It adds up to a delightful evening.

After the first couple of years, George and I asked our Seattle chapter of the SCBWI if they’d like to get involved. Kirby Larson signed on for the SCBWI and our little community event grew and prospered. In the ensuing years, Meg Lippert, Jaime Temairik, Martha Brockenbrough and Deb Lund have headed the Inside Story for our Seattle SCBWI, each bringing her inimitable style and humor as the event matured.

It was interesting to note that two local authors who presented at the first Inside Story in 1998 also presented new picture books this month: Brenda Guiberson told the story behind her latest, The Greatest Dinosaur Ever, and Nina Laden showcased Once Upon a Memory.

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Seattle Inside Story, Nov. 2013: Illustrator Dana Sullivan and his new book, Digger and Daisy, and illustrator Jaime Temairik whose new book is How to Negotiate Everything.

When I think back to those first Inside Story events, Ted Rand is always there. He had a new book in every Inside Story salon until his death in 2005. He was the dean of our children’s book scene – and the only person for whom the Inside Story’s three minute presentation limit was ever relaxed.

I also remember an early Inside Story at Chauni Haslet’s All for Kids Books and Music. We wanted to honor George Shannon, so Eastside writer Mary Whittington’s partner Winnie wrote a song we could sing to him. The music and lyrics were distributed and we all sang to the accompaniment of Winnie’s recorder.

The next day George and I got a note from a writer who had just moved to Seattle from New York. She pointed out that the evening felt more like a Girl Scout campfire than a professional gathering. Oh well. Let it be noted that I believe a community bonds when it sings together.

(One of the international Inside Story events this month was at Bank Street Books in New York. I guess they didn’t include a singalong.)

There’s a gang of school librarians who show up for the Seattle area Inside Storys. Chief among them is Lynn Detweiler, who has attended just about every one. She deserves some recognition. Maybe it’s time to write another recorder-accompanied song?

•   •   •   •   •

Lately I am most likely to hear about the publication of new books via a trailer on YouTube that’s friended on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter.  I’m glad that in Seattle we also celebrate these occasions together in person at the Inside Story, as a children’s book community. I love that other cities are going to have this opportunity.

Thanks to everyone who has nurtured the Inside Story along: the SCBWI chairpeople and their committees, the bookstores, the presenters, the audience and the publishers who have sometimes donated champagne (yay, Candlewick). We are all lucky to be part of the Seattle children’s book community.

INGREDIENTS

October 21st, 2013

Internal Editor: Try writing about the creative process. Maybe about how words and sentences are bent to our use at the same time they shape the story? You could start with a music analogy – something about how the instrument shapes the musician – or vice versa? Get started.

ukewallThe walls in Dusty Strings’ music store remind me I am a ukulele. There are rows upon rows of beautiful instruments on those walls, each with a carved sound box and new strings. Each instrument has its own voice according to how it was made and how it is played. Each awaits the talents of a musician to make music.

I.E.: That’s crap. Try a new direction. Maybe something about finding out what you are writing while you are writing it? Would a recipe analogy work? Begin again.

Our Books Around The Table group met around Margaret’s table this week. The discussion was as delicious as the lunch. She made this black bean soup: http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2010/01/black-bean-soup-toasted-cumin-seed-crema/

When you have a recipe, you know what you’re making. With this list of ingredients, the result will be always be black bean soup, not cherries jubilee or chocolate mousse.

Not so with writing.

Often when I begin to mix story ingredients on the page, I am not so sure where it will lead. A poem, a short story, an early reader?

 I.E.: That’s crap. Maybe try something seasonal. A parallel with nature, perhaps? Try again.

IMG_3178As I sit to write my blog post this month, my eyes are drawn outside to the hazelnut tree where a fat grey squirrel makes his way along the branches. He balances out on the spindley twigs, where the nuts are ripe. Sometimes he stops and chows down. Sometimes he scampers away with a nut in his mouth; I guess to bury it. And I think how I gather story ideas. Sometimes to immediately crunch into a story, more often to squirrel away for a hungrier season.

I.E.: Stop looking out the window and get focused. You are supposed to post this today. You need an idea that will go someplace. This is crap. Crap. Crap. Oh. That reminds me of what Kate says. Maybe start with that?

khmcommutekhmBLUEDAWNMy sister Kate McGee is part of an open studio tour in the Willamette Valley near Corvallis at the end of this month, www.PhilomathOpenStudios.com.  She’s been getting ready, sifting through her work for the most successful paintings. She always says you have to be willing to try lots of paintings that don’t work to get to the ones that do. Our mother would object to my use of this word, ‘crap,’ (sorry, Mom), but what Kate’s saying is: you have to make lots of crap to get to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, that’s the way it is with writing, too. Seems like I have to write lots of unsuccessful pieces to get to a story that has the juice.

I.E.: Who doesn’t know that? You need a new idea. And hurry up about it. Izzi’s waiting for her walk.

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I.E. Maybe you could check email. Oh, here’s something that is definitely not crap. Begin again.

My Uncle Bo, who celebrated his 90th birthday this week, is an avid disseminator of internet stuff. He sent along this flashmob performance of the chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth and last symphony, written after Beethoven had become completely deaf. http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=GBaHPND2QJg&feature=youtu.be

ide to joyLike a good novel, this performance of the familiar anthem builds in a satisfying way: the orchestra assembles player by player, then the choir fills in behind. It is filmed so we can see the crowd’s pleasure as well as the musicians’. There’s that quality of shared warmth and welcome that gives it soul.

I remember singing this chorale with the Occidental College Glee Club, first in German, then in English. I think in this YouTube performance it is sung in Spanish. It is traditionally sung on New Year’s Day in Japan. Wikipedia says it’s considered by some to be the best song ever written. Over eleven million people have viewed this performance on YouTube – that’s technology at it’s best, bringing people together through music.

Was it at the last Olympics opening ceremonies that this was sung around the world simultaneously? Another coup for techonology. In any case, this performance is very moving. Which is what we want from the creative process, right?

I.E.: “Let us sing a song of joy for love and understanding…”

Yes. That has some juice.

From Blossom to Blossom

July 8th, 2013

Both of our kids got married recently – Tim to Dede in Palm Springs on May 11

Tim and Deanne on their wedding day with Chicken Noodle and Foxie.

Tim and Deanne on their wedding day with Chicken Noodle and Foxie.

and our daughter in Seattle last month. (She prefers to keep her personal life off the internet).

 

Here is a poem that captures the feeling:

From Blossoms in Rose
By Li-Young Lee
 
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
 
From laden boughs, from hands
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
 
O to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
 
There are days we live as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
To joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

A Tale of Two Foxes

May 31st, 2013

My fox sisters celebrated a new edition in May and it seems like a good time to tell their story.

The first, eponymous, Zelda and Ivy book was published by Candlewick Press in 1998: three short stories about two fox sisters in one picture book format. Both the text and illustrations seemed to drop into my lap: gifts. But with further thought, I realized this material had been trying to become a book for a long time.

We all experience moments when life is larger than usual, moments full of emotion and humor that we recognize as the stuff of story. I gathered a critical mass of such times from childhood home movies and conversations with my sibs. I wanted to make a picture book that carried our growing-up experience: our neighborhood parades, and fairy dust and, maybe most importantly, our relationships. I am the middle of five children. I know what it is to be a bossy, imaginative big sister and an adoring, gullible little sister. I was pretty sure sibling rivalry could fuel the drama.

I first worked with this material in a project called Summer Shorts. Here’s the dummy.

It included four short stories about a family with five human children. It made the rounds at publishers and was roundly rejected. Years passed while I sold other projects and got started in the picture book world.

Meanwhile, Pierr Morgan, a NW illustrator, showed me this cool medium called gouache resist (directions: http://www.lmkbooks.com/fun/gouache.php). I liked how the reds popped. Why not revisit that sibling rivalry material – only with fox characters? I simplified, reducing the cast to two.

From their debut at critique group, these characters seemed to have the juice. When Zelda and Ivy was published, it received lots of starred reviews and SCBWI’s Golden Kite honors in illustration and text.

I was invited to do a sequel. Then a third.

When the fourth book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways, came out in 2007, it had a leaner look. Candlewick’s marketing department had advised these stories belong in the early reader canon – thus we downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch ledger size. That year ALA chose it for the Geisel Award. It was the same year my friend Kirby Larson won the Newbery for Hattie Big Sky. We were both in the ballroom in downtown Seattle when our awards were announced. Pretty exciting.

Two more Zelda and Ivy titles have followed, and the earlier ones were reformatted from picture book to ledger.

By the time I got to the sixth book, I knew Zelda and Ivy’s world as well as my own.

As of May, all six titles are officially part of Candlewick’s Sparks series for early readers; each published as a slim paperback that fits easily into the backpack of a young reader.


INVENTION

February 25th, 2013

ONE OF THE most interesting people at our neighborhood gatherings is Jim Lea. He’s in his 90s now and sits in a wheel chair and he’s great to talk to. He is an inventor – his most famous invention being the Therm-a-rest mattress, beloved by backpackers everywhere.

thermarest

Jim started out as a Boeing engineer, one of 50,000 employees laid off in a scary downturn in 1971. Being out of work gave him more time for backpacking. But he was tired of waking up in the woods on a cold, flat air mattress. His inspiration came when he was kneeling on a gardening cushion. He realized the open-cell foam had a memory. He and fellow out-of-work engineer Neil Anderson rigged a sandwich maker to melt airtight fabric to the foam. They added a valve, and the prototype that birthed a multi-million dollar business was created.

jimlea

I asked Jim how he decides what to invent. He answered, “What do you need?”

SINCE THEN, my friends and I have come up with a few needs:

• A website called “MeetYouHalfway.com” into which you enter two locations and find the best meeting place and activities between you and your friend. I googled this idea. Someone is already working on it.

• A slimline Kleenex box with opening on the side for easy dispensing from the car sidepocket.

• A Lift Chair that not only lifts a sitter to standing but pinches her toosh and says, “You’re still hot.” I would hire Denzel Washington to do the voiceover.

I THINK ABOUT INVENTION in terms of writing, too, of course. Jim’s question, “What do you need?” can be a challenging one to answer.

Is there a story I need to tell? All these years of composting life into story have established my writing habit as a way of thinking. I write to find out what I think, thereby identifying need?

Perhaps it’s easier to consider what any particular story needs. What combination of character, voice, emotion, tension, pacing, metaphor, revelation, etc. are necessary to invent a story? I scratch around, trying one thing or another. Maybe for me, like Jim, some time in the garden will lead to inspiration.

Want to get inventive? Ask yourself: What do I need? Then share here your ideas for inventions — as well as the stories that are evoked by how you answer this question.

The Kindness of Children

February 8th, 2013

Last week when I visited the fifth grade where I volunteer, the kids were deep into a math/art project. They were each making a mobile that demonstrated something about fractions. It involved tying tiny knots and balancing cards hung from strings along a dowel. Soon it was evident that some kids were better at the knot tying and others at the balancing. Small groups gathered as they helped each other. Along with fractions came this other, more important lesson. A spirit of cooperation prevailed.

It’s just one reason I love hanging out with kids. That kindness thing.

I have benefited greatly from the kindness of children. Like the letter from a second grader who wrote: “Here’s an idea. Zelda and Ivy go to the movies. You take it from there.”

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Perhaps you are flailing around for a character. Here are some extra characters offered to me by a student at Sharpstein Elementary in Walla Walla, which I, in turn, offer to you:

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forblog2581

I have been listening to Martin Seligman’s book on the psychology of happiness, Flourish. One of his ideas for increasing your happiness is to plan and carry out an act of kindness. Research shows that such actions boost your sense of well-being. I think the fifth graders whose nimble fingers tied knots and balanced mobiles experienced that.

I know that children also have a great capacity for cruelty. But today I am thinking about kindness and wondering if you have any thoughts or stories to add to mine.

My Sister’s Novel Ideas

January 14th, 2013
First posted January 11, 2013 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

When I was growing up, I always looked to my oldest sister, Susan, to see what was ahead. Because she played the guitar, I was sure I would someday. Because she went to Prom in a dress with a boned bodice, I was planning on that, too.

sue dance

I am lucky to have her example in this matter of writing as well.

Years ago when I began drafting my present work-in-progress, she sent me a list of ideas about writing a novel. I read it every so often for its distilled wisdom, and want to share it with you, verbatim:

Dear L –

Here’s what helps me most, spewed out in not any order at all:

1. See the story like a movie in your head. Write down what you see, even in a broken way, fast. (Fix later.)

2. See the story like a movie in your head with the sound turned off. Then where is the story? Edit to make the story powerful even with the sound off. This is a way to heal the talking head syndrome.

3. Think: What can I do to raise the stakes?

4. Not everything a writers’ workshop says about your story is right. After being workshopped, put your story away for a time, maybe a month. Reflect. Only then tackle again.

5. Choose concrete words, words that cause the reader to imagine as exactly as possible what you imagine. Look for words which create accurate images which are value-loaded.

6. Leave out everything the reader already knows.

7. The story is in the telling.

8. Run all details through the backpack test. (The idea is from my wonderful teacher Sands Hall: Remember that when you give a significant-feeling detail, the reader packs it into her memory and carries it through the whole story expecting her labor to pay off at some point. You must make sure there is a pay off.)

9. Staying in the same pov, you can roll the ‘camera’ in and out. It’s easier by far to start far out and roll camera in — at beginning of chapter or scene.

10. The end is in the beginning. The seeds of the conflict in the story must be present in the beginning. The beginning is often the last thing you know. Drop into the beginning advertisements for the future — foreshadowing.

11. Tense spots are a good place to dump in necessary history.

12. Dialog should never be people agreeing with each other. If they agree, use indirect discourse.

13. The tone of the story establishes it, creates expectations in the reader, as much as anything else — plot, genre, etc.

14. Henry James: “We only care about people in proportion to how well we know them.”

15. When a character walks into a place, how they see it establishes their character. They walk in with a bag of metaphor.

16. Beginnings: have to give the look of things early, or the reader fills in, and then is unpleasantly surprised to have to repaint the picture. Have to foreshadow the major plot strands, so reader can sense them unconsciously.

17. The end is often the reverse of the initial situation. The best endings are implicit, not explicit. They force the reader back into the story and themselves, looking for meaning.

18. Madeliene L’Engle in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art: “All they (children) require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer a protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist. We name ourselves by the choices we make, and we help in our own naming by living through the choices, right or wrong, of the heroes and heroines whose stories we read.”

19. There should be something in the near and in the far distance that the protagonist wants (long and short plot strands).

Do you have a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales? There is this wonderful fairytale about storytelling, The Elder Tree Mother. Among much else, the Elder Tree Mother, sitting in her elder tree which grows from a teapot says, “For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.” and later, “The little boy lay on his bed and did not know whether he had been dreaming or listening to a story.”

Love,  Susan

 The Treekeepers by Susan McGee Britton, published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2003, is now available electronically: http://www.amazon.com/The-Treekeepers-ebook/dp/B00ANX0TSW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1357792592&sr=8-2&keywords=treekeepers  It is a wonderful fantasy novel about a fierce heroine, Bird, whose life-or-death quest sparkles with ingenuity and wit. And I’m not just saying that because the author is my sister.

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Here’s a more recent photo of Susan in her role as Granny Skeeter to Max, Benn and Jake.

This weekend I will be speaking at the Whidbey Island MFA in Writing residency. I plan to share my sister’s wisdom.

Bit by Bit Putting it Together

January 14th, 2013

First posted December 14, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.

It’s a question I am still, always, asking.

Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.

MINING FOR DRAMATIC TENSION

For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.

This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.

Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/.  Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.

trapeze550

I, too, have a commitment to going after a good story, but the voucher for trapeze lessons that my husband gave me last January for my last birthday still waits on the shelf.

We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?” http://thehairpin.com/user/9639/Melissa%20Chandler.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.

tree

After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.

I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!

Autumn Roses and The Hukilau

November 16th, 2012

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

Last June I started spending most Thursday mornings with the Mother Pluckers, a group of ten women aged 48 to 80 who have been strumming ukuleles and singing together for about four years. They are an amazing bunch with a wealth of experience from their other, non-ukulele lives: jeweler, psychologist, university professor emeritus, artists, middle school teacher, art quilt maker, photographer, world-class sailor. What they have in common is their dedicated effort to learn new stuff on the ukulele, to make music together.

Making music! L. to r., Margaret Liston, Carolle Rose, Danielle Carr and me

Today four of us provided music when the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Wells Fargo Advisors gave a ten-year old boy and his family a trip to Hawaii. The whole 35th floor of the Wells downtown offices took on a South Seas flair: the reception area a tiki hut, a corner office done over as an undersea grotto, the big conference room luau-ready, everyone in Hawaiian garb.

The boy, who is battling leukemia, seemed at first overwhelmed by all of this – or maybe it was our lusty rendition of Aloha Week Hula? He hid behind his father. But he warmed up as we launched into The Hukilau, and he donned swim goggles and ‘swam’ into the undersea room, searching for gifts under the hip-high balloons. He seemed quite pleased with the shave ice and pineapple pizza luau lunch, as well.

Back home, Izzi and I headed out for our walk. There’s a bite in the air, and I expect there will be frost tonight. I clipped the last baby roses so we might enjoy them a few days longer. And I thought how here I am in the autumn of my life, still trying to bloom. And how my sisterhood of strummers shows the way. Like music, stories come out of the ideas and insights, skills and experiences we gather along the way. In fact, that’s how this blog post came to be.

 

– First posted November 9, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

Putting our Best Paws Forward

August 24th, 2012

Right from the start, our dog Izzi has had a special quality of patience. Shortly after she came to live with us, I started to think she might be a good therapy dog and we might someday volunteer in the Reading with Rover project.

John reads to Izzi.

Reading with Rover’s mission is to: “Inspire children to discover the joy of reading while developing literacy skills and confidence in a safe environment, using Reading with Rover dogs.” The dogs are willing listeners for child readers at schools, libraries and bookstores.

Our Izzi turned six this year. We signed up for a pet therapy training class this summer. She is one of five dogs – with two great Danes and two labs – who gather for weekly sessions at MyPuppyNanny near Snohomish to prepare for the Reading with Rover certification test.

Monday’s tasks included walking calmly through an area of busy people, sitting, and staying. Then came the task that our instructor, Annemarie Kaighin, called “the deal breaker.” She would bring in another of her dogs from the adjacent kennel. The five dogs being trained must remain quiet as the new dog entered the room.

Izzi barked. My heart fell.

But all is not lost. Annemarie coached me to train Izzi not to bark at strange dogs. So Tuesday, Iz and I hung out at a nearby pet store. Every time a new dog came in I gave her treats. She seemed indifferent to the dogs but loved the chicken bits.

Wednesday, we walked around Green Lake. At first I gave her treats each time we saw and passed another dog. Pretty soon she’d see a dog and look to me for the treat. Mostly she ignored the other dogs or sniffed toward them with interest. Apparently she thinks dogs in pet stores and dogs on the walking path are not bark-worthy.

How can I replicate an indoor situation where strange dogs come by and I can treat her for not barking? We are both scratching our heads, and not because of fleas.

Meanwhile, Izzi and I are working on all the other stuff. She sits reliably at my side when I pause during our walks. She walks well on a leash. Whether or not I am able to teach her not to bark at new dogs, it is truly fun to work with her to sharpen our skills.

And I still hold out hope that our patient pup will pass the test. Stay tuned.

Izzi waiting for John to come home with her best friend, Hudson, our daughter’s dog.

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