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PUNCH UP THE NATIVITY

Is it just me, or does it seem like there’s no better season for crafting than Christmas? The same thing happens every year this time, after the shopping is all done, the tree is up and decorated to within an inch of its life, the Christmas music on the record player, and the lights all strung and blazing. I no more get settled down to finally relax, when my fingers start twitching and I’m overtaken by the urge to fire up the hot glue gun, get out the craft supplies and create something truly unimaginable.

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This year was no exception. Maybe it was the rum in that extra slab of fruitcake, the heady aroma of pine sap, the twinkling lights or Jim Nabors deep hypnotic voice droning on and on about the little lamb, but the Christmas crafting compulsion came upon me something fierce. While my glue gun warmed up, I looked around the room for inspiration. Everywhere I looked I could still see the evidence of the craft I created last Christmas: an ornament-crusted net that is fired from a bazooka, so you can decorate an entire Christmas tree in a single shot. That painful memory reminded me to set my sights a little lower this year. They settled on the old Nativity scene. It always looks a little sad – off in a lonely corner of the mantle or half hidden under the tree. It’s not helped by the fact that the wise men, the shepherd, even the animals – all look soooo serious and even a little morose. Heck, it’s the birth of our Savior – shouldn’t it feel more like a party?

All of which is to explain, if not excuse, how I came up with this year’s craft – a festive punch bowl guaranteed to be the center of your holiday party. You can fill it with your favorite beverage, or try the recipe for Tiny Tim’s punch at the end.

YOU’LL NEED:
• A 12 quart punch bowl and ladle
• A vintage nativity scene, 11 pieces or so
• 18” Styrofoam wreath form
• Miniature pine trees
• 6-foot garland. I used holly.
• Assorted doll house ornaments and other knick knacks
• Glitter
• String of craft lights.
• Ribbon
• Toothpicks – 8 or so
• A staple gun or pins
• Spray adhesive
• Hot glue gun
• Sharpie marker (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. Plastic 12-quart punch bowls (available at party stores or online) are about 14 inches in diameter, so the foam wreath form should fit perfectly onto your punch bowl. If it’s too large or small, maybe try a different bowl. Place the wreath form face down on your work surface, position the bowl upside down on the wreath form, and stick toothpicks into the foam, tight up against the outside edge of the bowl. Then remove the bowl and set it aside for now. 

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2. Turn the foam over so it’s right side up, then spray the top and inside of the wreath with spray adhesive, then dust it lightly with glitter. Let the adhesive set up for a few minutes, and then shake off the excess glitter.

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3. Now arrange your Nativity figures and other ornaments around the lip of the bowl. Group most of the figures at the back to allow easy access to the punch. Once you get an arrangement you like, lift each piece, put a blob of hot glue on the bottom, and then stick in place. Arrange and glue any additional decorations, remembering to stay within the bounds of good taste.

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4. Use pins to tack the garland securely around the outside edge of the wreath form. A six foot wreath fits perfectly around the outside edge of an 18-inch wreath. Once you have it pinned where you want it, tack it down in a few places with hot glue.

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5. Carefully turn the wreath on its side. Hot glue the craft light battery pack to the underside of the foam. Remember the toothpicks mark the outside edge of the punch bowl, so keep the pack outside that invisible line. Now staple or pin the light cords to the underside of the foam. Finally, put a good-sized blob of hot glue over every pin or staple to keep it in place more permanently.

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6. Make an elaborate bow from ribbon and pin it to the front edge.

7. As a final option, you could “Scripture up” your punch bowl by writing a bible quote on the ladle with a Sharpie. Something like Matthew 7:1 “Judge not lest ye be judged” might be a nice touch, and will come in handy later, as the punch begins to take effect. Now fill your punch bowl, turn up the Jim Nabors Christmas album and enjoy!

TINY TIM’S HOT GIN PUNCH

In Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit cooks up a batch of gin punch for his family, and they all toast Ebenezer Scrooge. Gin punch was a popular drink in Victorian England. There are many variations, both hot and cold. Basically any mix of gin, citrus, fruit and sugar will work.

• 4 cups Plymouth gin 

• 4 cups sweet Madeira wine 


• 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar, or more to taste

• Peel and juice of 2 lemons, or more to taste

• Peel and juice of 2 oranges

• 1 20-ounce can of pineapple chunks, or you can cut up a fresh pineapple

• 5 whole cloves

• 4 cinnamon sticks

• Pinch of ground nutmeg




Put all the ingredients in a pot and put on medium heat. Simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and add more brown sugar or more lemon juice if desired. Let the mixture cool until it’s just warm, and then pour into the punch bowl. Garnish with a couple of fresh lemon and orange slices. This is enough punch for a small group, but if you’re having a larger party, you’ll want to double or triple the recipe.

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Seasons Greetings, and Good Cheer!

Posted by michael at 06:11 PM Link to this post



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There are two stories inside every picture book. One is roughly 32 pages long—a glorious combination of text and images around which parent and child commune. The second is an oft-overlooked set of words gracing the front or back page.

The dedication.

I’ve been in love with dedications for as long as I can remember. Through them picture book makers draws us closer to one of their prized people—a muse, a mistress, a lost parent, a friend. They reveal a part of their life beyond the printed page.

I’ve always consumed dedications with as much care as I do the books for which they are written. The abbreviated dedications—little more than a set of initials—sit as a teasing secret. The verbose serve as a thesis statement of sorts. When they’re just right, they become a type of hint fiction—their own artful work worth remembering and savoring and sharing.

So when it came time for me to dedicate my very first picture book, I wanted to make it count.

This is the story behind my dedication. …

In BEYOND THE POND, Ernest D. discovers his pond has no bottom. He dives and on the other side encounters wonderful and frightening things. His experience opens his eyes to all the marvels hidden in the everyday. When he returns, his world—or merely his perception of it—has changed forever.

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When I was twenty, I dropped out of art school because the band I was playing in at the time was, as they say, “making it.” We were filling venues and playing shows with some of our minor heroes. My dream was in a state of becoming. Everything was going according to plan.

And then, I met a girl. Cliche, I know, but it’s an important plot point in this story nonetheless.

We fell hard and fast. Nikki was funny and beautiful and interesting and interested. But she was also the mother of a 1 year-old boy. His name was Jonah.

There was no “oh shit” moment. No “just give me some time to figure this out” moment. It became clear my music dreams didn’t pair well with family dreams. It was that simple. They were worth it, so I quit and went back to art school.

The choice to exchange my dreams for him was the best decision I’ve made in my 32 years. He took me out of my old life and placed me neatly into a better one. He gave me all the obvious good stuff—that immeasurably big pile of joy and love and curiousity. Observing him made me more creative. Being with him made me a better artist.

When my career began to settle, and after Nikki and I became established, I set out in search of a new dream, one that fit neatly into the spaces between fatherhood, marriage, and work. That dream turned out to be picture books.

He gave that to me. He brought me here.

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With every book, we picture book makers extract some piece of ourselves and pound it into pulp and ink and chroma and set it between two covers. It’s a serious business. The experiences we have and the people we love provide us with those pieces. We have them to thank for our stories, and it is through the dedication we express that gratitude.

The thought of revealing the “why” of my dedication scared me. Often times, it’s the mystery of it that makes a dedication so powerful. Not knowing who the person is or what experiences connect them with the author sets the imagination aflutter. In the end, as ever, Jonah—the thought of him—compelled me to do it. He’s a teenager now, and our family has grown. I became scared that I’d never find a quiet enough stretch of time to tell him.

I dedicated BEYOND THE POND to Jonah because I have him to thank for it. Jonah was my pond. To this day, I look at him and think, “all this was hiding in a child. How exceptional!”

So, when you open my book and read its dedication, you’ll know what it means. You’ll know who the person is. You’ll know how we’re connected and what inspired that short statement that just barely begins to describe how important he was to my life and that book.

“To Jonah, for showing me what lies beyond everything.”
Posted by michael at 10:11 AM Link to this post


International Dot Day first started in 2009 when I sent a Facebook message to Peter H. Reynolds, author of The Dot, with a vision of one day where kids in schools take a break from normal school work and test-preparation and get creative. I’ve been a teacher for twenty-nine years and I am always astounded how much attention is now focused on testing. Dot Day seemed like a way to counteract that, at least for a day. I always say that you should share your ideas and dreams with someone who will pour gas on them, that’s certainly what happened with this idea when I shared it with Peter.

The first year, I tweeted about the very first Dot Day. Some friends picked up on it, and started celebrating too. Through retweeting and sharing, more people started to jump in.

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Counselor Teresa O’Meara and I did a joint unit with fourth grade vocal music class where we talked about “making your mark,” and the kids decorated dots that we hung around the room. In high school chorus, I laid out butcher paper and bought watercolors for them to make dots. In junior high chorus, we made a human dot! It was great fun.

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That year, I was surprised to learn that schools I didn’t have any connection to were celebrating too! I was completely blown away by the response, including Richard Colosi’s work with his kindergarten class. I quickly realized the Dot Day, along with Peter’s book was something that spoke to people. The power of social media was palpable.

In 2010, more schools joined the movement. We didn’t keep track of numbers or participants, but it was fun to see people celebrating and sharing the work on Twitter. In 2011, two stellar and connected librarians, Shannon Miller and John Schumacher connected to Dot Day and with each other to super-charge the mission and the movement. They celebrated all week and used social media to spread the word.

Having super-connected teacher librarians made a huge impact. 2011 was the first year we kept track of participants—the total number was around 18,000. Far beyond my wildest dreams.

That same year, I received an email from Newbery Medal winner, Sharon Creech which contained a dot she created. I was struck by how cool it was to see what kind of dot a literary hero would make. Thus, Celebridots was born. 

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With the help of the Celebridots and passionate social media advocates, Dot Day 2012 grew to 839,000 participants. After that, the numbers continued to climb, 1.3 million in 2013, 1.8 million in 2014, and this year, 2.3 million. In addition to growth in participants, the number of countries involved in Dot Day has grown as well. This year, we had participants from 116 countries.

(One of the best examples of the power of creativity can be seen in photos from a pediatric cancer hospital in Vietnam. These photos were so inspiring to everyone connected with Dot Day.)

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Matthew Winner, Shannon Miller, and Andy Plemmons had a huge impact on participation with their idea for an online document for people to seek connections with other classrooms, using Skype Classroom and Google Hangouts. Watching this develop has been a joy. With this tool, classrooms are connecting, reading the book, sharing their creations, and learning about other schools, states, and countries.

DOT DAY CONNECTIONS, 2015 

The success of International Dot Day is owed to many people who believed in a more creative and connected world and made it happen. Dot Day has been celebrated in classrooms, whole schools, after-school programs, homes, daycares, district offices, bookstores, hospitals and probably many more places. If you search the Internet for “International Dot Day” or follow #DotDay on Twitter, you will see that all of these celebrations went above and beyond that first year of butcher paper and human dots. It all started with the perfect book, which launched the imaginations of children and adults around the globe.
Posted by elena at 08:10 AM Link to this post


In 2012, Katherine Applegate won the Newbery for her beautifully emotional middle grade novel THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Her new novel, CRENSHAW, coming later this month, tells a very different story, but with every bit as much love and hope. Katherine’s letter to booksellers about her story—and the imaginary friend at the center of it—was too perfect not to share!

If cats could talk, they wouldn’t.
—Nan Porter


Although I am—as gauged by age, if not behavior—a grown-up, I freely admit to having lots of imaginary friends. That’s not so surprising, I suppose, given my vocation.

What is rather surprising is that I never had any imaginary friends as a kid (at least none I can recall.) I had beloved stuffed animals, and beloved real animals, aplenty. Maybe they were all I needed at the time.

Nonetheless, I’ve always longed to write about an imaginary friend. (This may explain why “Harvey” is one of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and head to Hulu, stat.) Naturally, once Crenshaw, a large—extremely large—cat, leapt into my own imagination, I simply wouldn’t let him leave the premises.

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I loved the idea of casting a cat in the role of a young boy’s confidant. And he had to be a cat, precisely because it played so well against type. Don’t get me wrong: I love cats. Some of my best friends are cats. But let’s be honest. They’re not exactly the go-to species when we talk about “man’s best friend.” They’re aloof, regal, and more than a little stand-offish. “We smirk,” Crenshaw tells his friend Jackson. “We sneer. Rarely we are quietly amused. But we do not laugh.”

It seemed to me that an imaginary friend would be especially welcome in a time of crisis, and Jackson, who’s about to enter fifth grade, is enduring just that. His family is wading through rough economic waters, and he and his little sister Robin have found themselves hungry on more than a few occasions. Jackson is a practical, just-the-facts kind of guy, and the unexpected reappearance of his long-abandoned imaginary friend is disconcerting, to say the least. (In fairness, discovering a giant talking cat, especially one taking a bubble bath, is bound to be a bit unsettling.)

With CRENSHAW, I wanted to limn the experience of so many families in our country—the lost jobs, the scrabbling to make ends meet, the worry and the tears—while realistically portraying a loving family doing their best to get by. I think kids understand far more about the world than we sometimes realize. They know when money’s tight, when parents are on edge, when their world is about to unravel.

And they know, most importantly, when they are loved.

For Jackson, it’s Crenshaw—a big, black and white cat who “looks like he’s heading somewhere fancy in a hairy tuxedo”—who helps him navigate this complicated time. Crenshaw may be imaginary. And he may be easily distracted by a nice, juicy frog. But he’s the best kind of friend to have when times are tough.

If cats could talk, perhaps they wouldn’t. Or perhaps they’d be like Crenshaw, a cat of few words who always knows just what to say.

Crenshaw may be imaginary, but the hunger that Jackson and his family face certainly isn't—thousands of children in the U.S. don't have enough to eat every day. But independent bookstores and food pantries across the country are partnering up to raise food, and give hungry families the same hope that Crenshaw gives Jackson. Have your local indie bookstore register to join the Crenshaw Food Drive, and compete to see which store can collect the most non-perishable food. (Katherine just might make an appearance at your local store!)

Crenshaw Food Drive

Posted by michael at 04:08 PM Link to this post


The long and winding road that led to my novel Firefly Hollow began with some photocopied paintings that arrived in the mail one day. They were by an artist named Christopher Denise, and I spread them out on my big wooden dining table and stood there studying each one.

The idea was that I would write a picture book to go along with them. I love an assignment, but this one intimidated me. The paintings were just so damn beautiful. There was a vole wearing a little sailor's cap, and there was a cricket, and there was a boat and a river. There was the night sky and moonlight and the colors in each painting were like jewels.

Could I write a picture book worthy of those paintings? I wanted to, and I tried. For about a year and half, I tried. But everything I wrote—and I wrote a lot—kept spiraling out into more story than a picture book, with its tiny word count and strict page limit, could handle.

So I gave up. "I'm so sorry. I could probably write a novel around these paintings, but I can't seem to do a picture book."

But it turned out that the artist was okay with the idea of a novel. Hello! I went back to the paintings and studied them with new, novelistic eyes.

What did I love most about them?

The colors. The tenderness in Vole's eyes, the gentle way he bent toward the tiny cricket. The boat and the river and the moonlight. I dreamed of writing a classic novel, one for all ages. I held in my mind the images of Charlotte's Web and Wind in the Willows and My Side of the Mountain. (If you're going to dream, I say dream big.) Because I had room to roam now, I made up two new characters, a firefly named Firefly and a boy named Peter, and I got to work. For years.

Four? Five? More? I honestly don't remember. What I do remember is writing three entirely separate books about Firefly and Peter and Cricket and Vole, and none of them worked. They were dark, heavy, full of anger and fear, at least in my memory, and memory will have to suffice, because I don't feel like unearthing those drafts for verification. The idea of them makes me tired.

I gave up on each of those drafts in turn. Put the paintings away. Took them out again. Put them away. Took them out.

What was the book itself about? What did the book want to be about, on its own terms? Where was its heart and soul?

The answers came to me slowly: Loneliness. Love. Longing.

All things that I remember so clearly from childhood. The enormous thoughts and worries and dreams that children hold inside them. Children live such deep, searching lives. Too often the grownups around them don't give them credit for that. They have forgotten, maybe.

So back to the beginning I went, determined to write a book about loneliness and love and longing. I gathered together three totems: a little wooden cricket, an illustration from the transcendent film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, and Fall and Spring: to a Young Child, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem I first read as a child and which has haunted me ever since.

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I kept the totems on the table as I worked—yet another try at this novel that I could sense somewhere in the ether, this novel that I so wanted to write—and gradually, over another year or so, the book took shape. The firefly and the cricket and the boy told me separately how lonely they were, and why, and how they each longed for a real friend.

Vole was harder. I had to figure him out slowly, over time.

In fact, everything about the making of Firefly Hollow was slow. The heart and soul of the book revealed itself to me only in the fullness of time, only on its own slow terms, not the faster ones I would've chosen. I even, for the first time in my life, had to ask for an extension on my deadline.

But here we are. Five-plus years from start to finish, my hope now is the same as it was in the beginning: to have written a classic book, one worthy of those tender, beautiful paintings.
Posted by elena at 08:08 AM Link to this post



MEETING MY MUSE – Christopher Browne

It’s been said that I was born holding a pencil, which is not entirely true. I didn’t pick up a pencil until a few days later, and at that point I was mostly gumming it. My earliest drawings showcased my inner nerd. The evolutionary process of a fish, futuristic worlds, crazy contraptions, wooly mammoths and of course dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs.

I was a kid constantly lost in my imagination and drawing was my only way to make that inner world a reality. I sketched on individual sheets of printer paper and then stuffed them into a perfectly sized “Where’s Waldo” book. This makeshift portfolio was hardly ever shared with anyone. In fact, I didn’t share my illustrations with people until college.

My twenties was a creatively confusing time. I had the urge to make art but wasn’t sure exactly what to create. I mostly drew cartoons, painted empty landscapes and, after moving to Philadelphia, began wheat pasting illustrations to various surfaces. Slowly moving ahead but with no clear direction.

Enter my muse.

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In the shape of a severely roughed-up little pitbull.

Marlo was underweight and covered in dandruff and scabs. He was found on a North Philly street as kids threw rocks at him. The girl who saved Marlo couldn’t keep him and that is where I came into the story. Once under my roof, Marlo bounced back quickly and began showing his subtle, quirky personality. He was, and still very much is, a blank slate. Marlo’s the kind of guy you could share a beer with while sitting quietly on a front porch, making the occasional comment about the weather. It was only a matter of time before I started filling in the blanks. What was going on inside the little guy’s head? The imagination of my younger years was still intact which led to visions of Marlo going on wild adventures, breaking the law in dramatic fashion and inventing the crazy contraptions of my childhood. These scenarios found their way into my sketchbooks and eventually begged for a larger venue.

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By the summer of 2010 the character of Marlo was fully fleshed out and in need of a proper home. I was also conveniently inspired and motivated to push myself to grow as an illustrator. Growth required discipline, discipline required deadlines and deadlines would work only if someone else held me accountable. To do this, I started a weekly webcomic starring Marlo. Over the next three years I was able to experiment with various mediums and techniques on a weekly basis.


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Creating the comic was a thoroughly satisfying process and a personal one until a high school friend got in touch with me. You might know her. Her name is Elena Giovinazzo. She asked me “ever consider doing a Marlo children’s book?” And the rest, they say, is history… I’m kidding. Elena planted the seed and then helped me navigate the often confusing process of expanding a one panel story into a children’s book. My first children’s book, due out in Winter 2017, celebrates imagination. It is also a love letter of sorts to the amazing little pitbull who quietly walked into my life and became my muse.

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I’ve thanked Marlo many times, but he acts as if it’s no big deal.
Posted by michael at 08:07 AM Link to this post



A Few Thoughts Before the Circus Comes to Town

Tomorrow is June 2nd. Tomorrow is Circus Mirandus’s release day. Tomorrow, for the first time in my life, I will be a published author.

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Since nobody can reasonably expect me to be anything but a tangled mess of joy, gratitude, and nerves tomorrow, I had better take time today to share a few thoughts on my arrival at this long-hoped-for place.

I didn’t get here alone. Maybe everyone else already knows this, but publishing is filled with book-loving magicians—agents, editors, publicists, copyeditors, and so many more people who design the book, market the book, and whip the book into shape. When acquaintances ask what my favorite part of “the process” has been so far, I think they expect me to gush (more than I have already) over things like the book’s gorgeous covers.

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But honestly, the best thing about having your novel published is getting to know all of the people who make it happen. When your book finally hits shelves it’s something more than you could have made on your own, and that’s amazing.

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And what about before? What about those years spent hacking away at bad rough drafts of books that are now relegated to the dust bunny kingdom at the back of my closet? There were people then, too, who kept me going. I had my family and my writing mentors pushing me to write more, better, truer.

Until one day I found the story I had to tell, and Circus Mirandus was born.

It was so different back then. That first draft was years ago, and though it was brimful of heart, it was a mess. I think you have to love a story with all of yourself to make it through revision after revision with your faith in it still intact.

When you do finally put that last comma in place, you find you’ve arrived in the land of firsts. First time seeing the cover design. First time holding the ARC. First time hearing from a reader who isn’t somehow affiliated with the business of publishing. You get to meet librarians and booksellers and teachers—the best sorts of people in the world. You get letters from parents who are reading advance copies of the book aloud to their children.

And then comes the day when you hold a finished copy of the book for the first time.

And the moment when you turn back the jacket on the hardcover, and you see this:

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And it’s magic. Pure magic.

I can’t wait for tomorrow.
Posted by michael at 08:06 AM Link to this post
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