I have to admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for the "fair trade" label, especially when it comes to my some of my favorite foods like coffee and chocolate. So, I'm predisposed to like the Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch Bar by Equal Exchange, which was founded to support small farmers and ensure they work for a fair wage and under fair labor practices.
However, I'm certainly not going to buy a fair trade product if it doesn't also taste good. Fortunately, the Equal Exchange Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch is quite delicious. I'm enough of a chocolate nerd to realize that my "sweet spot" (which in my case means it's not too sweet) is between 67% and 72% cacao. For me, the intense chocolate in this bar is just right, and the subtle crunchiness of the mint crunch is a pleasant surprise. Like other chocolate with this percentage of cacao, it's a bit dry, which is something I've come to like. The spearmint flavor nicely complements the dark chocolate.
I like that this bar breaks easily into bite-size chunks, although I'd be lying if I said I only ate one.
If you'd like some reading with your chocolate, there's always the inside of the wrapper, which lists the countries of origin of each ingredient and profiles a Latin American cacao farmer.
The Equal Exchange website bills this chocolate as "vegan, soy and gluten-free," a plus for anyone following a specific diet. For everyone else, this bar is a tasty treat you can feel good about eating.
The Stuff of Stars is a gorgeously written and illustrated exploration of the origins of the universe.
I was hooked on The Stuff of Stars from the moment I saw the stunning cover with its swirling images and vivid colors. The rest of the pages are as visually appealing. As I flipped the pages, I found myself using my finger to trace some of the colorfully explosive images that convey a sense of motion and emotion. Kudos to illustrator Ekua Holmes for creating a book that's truly a work of art.
The text of The Stuff of Stars is equally lyrical and evocative, beginning with the opening line: In the dark, in the dark, in the deep, deep, dark.. Author Marion Dane Bauer makes expert use of repetition, strong action verbs, concise text and some unexpected words (hippopotami, mitochondria) to trace the origins of the universe, the earth and then YOU, the reader. With lines like Waiting, waiting, dividing, changing, growing. Until at last, YOU burst into the world, The Stuff of Stars is poetically playful, the type of book that begs to be read and re-read.
On her author page, Marion Dane Bauer has a link to a Pinterest page with STEM resources related to the topics covered in the book.
I discovered The Stuff of Stars at the library, but definitely tend to make it part of my permanent picture book collection.
For more great picture books, see Susanna Hill's Perfect Picture Books.
I am a chocolate snob. There, I've admitted it. One of my favorite pleasures is an after-dinner treat of really good dark chocolate. Even better if it has a bit of a twist...in this case, sea salt.
If you haven't tried dark chocolate with sea salt, you're in for a treat and I think Mindo's 67% Sea Salt bar is one of the best.
Like many artisanal chocolates, it has a hard, almost crumbly, texture. The chocolate is strong, intense and not too sweet. The sea salt both brings out the chocolate flavor and adds to the flavor profile without being too salty...something that other chocolate makers seem to struggle with.
Better yet, Mindo is a brand based in Dexter, MI, one town over from where I live. Mindo bills itself as producing "bean to bar" chocolate sourced from family farms in Ecuador. Clearly, the company focuses on sustainability and environmental protection -- even the packaging is compostable!
If you're a chocolate snob like me, I'd strongly suggest giving Mindo's 67% Sea Salt bar a try.
You sit down to write, determined to make real progress on your work-in-progress. But, your ideas aren't flowing as freely as expected, you can't figure out the perfect word to replace the one that doesn't work or your character is simply not speaking to you. You get distracted. Before you know it, you're on Facebook...and then way too much time has slipped by.
I know this happens to me. That's why I've been brainstorming some strategies on how to defeat distraction:
1. Make lists. Wherever you're stuck in your book, make a list: possible character names, of ways for your character to solve her problem, a list of action verbs to replace the bland placeholder. Brainstorming is a way to get your creative juices -- and your story -- moving again.
2. Read. I constantly have various piles of picture books strewn about my office. When I'm stumped on my own writing, I'll often take a break and read several. Sometimes, this will spark an idea. If nothing else, it will spark a smile...and I've got to believe that a happy writer is a better writer!
3. Connect with other writers: You're likely part of one or more online communities of writers, e.g., the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, where you can go to ask for help on a vexing issue in your manuscript. Likewise, you can peruse posts and offer assistance to others. Just make sure that you don't spend so much time with your online friends that it becomes a distraction from your writing!
I'm fascinated by picture books starring unusual protagonists, so today I'm reviewing two books featuring the humble hedgehog, which the dictionary defines as "a small nocturnal Old World mammal with a spiny coat and short legs, able to roll itself into a ball for defense."
In Hedgehog Needs a Hug (Jen Betton, G.P. Putnam's Sons 2018), a hedgehog in need of affection gets rejected by
animal after animal in his quest for a hug. Frightened by Hedgehog's quills, the other animals invent creative excuses to avoid touching Hedgehog, until Hedgehog and Skunk get over their mutual fear of each other and embrace.
I love the rhythmic language in this book: Hedgehog "tip-patter-padded" and Fox moves by "sly-slide-slinking." The message of finding a friend when you least expect it and the warm illustrations combine for a solid debut by author-illustrator Jen Betton.
The title of Hedge Hog (Ashlyn Anstee, Tundra Books, 2018) is a creative play on words: hedgehog is literally a "hog" as he doesn't want to share his home (the hedge) with the other animals. This book is a cute twist on the universal childhood theme of "learning to share" told in simple, straightforward language and adorable illustrations. I especially enjoyed the twist at the end when Hedgehog asks the other animals to call him by his real name, Eugene.
If you'd like more hedgehog fun, consider an art project to make a hedgehog out of leaves.
For more great picture books, check out Susanna Hill's Perfect Picture Books.
Hesitantly, I bring one of the bite-sized, ridged triangles to my lips. “It’s really good,” the woman at the store had told me when she’d noticed me eyeing the odd concoction. Now, I'm not so sure.
I like spicy. I love chocolate. I’m always game for a good dark chocolate with chili peppers. But, Tabasco Brand Spicy Chocolate?
I nibble. After all, a little bit of Tabasco sauce usually does the trick. At first, all I taste is…chocolate of the Dove variety: a perfectly fine store brand that doesn’t ascend to the chocolate heaven heights of some of the more artisanal varieties on the market (at least not to the palate of this chocolate snob.) The taste is good, but it’s a bit waxy and slightly sweeter than I’ve come to like my dark chocolate.
Then the heat hits me. Yowza! The spicy sensation begins at the tip of my tongue, then travels up mid-way…where it seems to stop. As the flavors meld, I start to enjoy this chocolate more and more, enough that I decide to have a second triangle.
My 9-year-old gives it a try and pronounces it “the kind of burning you like.” Yes, I do. In small quantities - meaning the triangular wedges are the perfect size.
Anyone involved in writing children's picture books has heard of Storystorm, founded by the amazing Tara Lazar. Now in its 10th year, this online activity is simple: participants read and comment on a daily blog post by an industry expert and commit to coming up with at least one new picture book idea a day.
The idea (behind generating ideas) is this: if you get your creative juices flowing, you're more likely to write. The more you brainstorm ideas, the more likely you are to come up with some good ones that can be turned into stories. A stockpile of ideas is the surest way to negate the "nothing to write about" excuse (you know, when you try to write, can't think of anything and find yourself mindlessly perusing Facebook.)
Sounds easy, right? Perhaps even too easy. Maybe that's why I'd never participated in the past, despite being aware of Storystorm for at least the past few years. This year, as part of my renewed oommitment to writing, writing, writing, with the goal of getting published, I decided to take part.
What a great decision. it turns out that the experts who contribute to the Storystorm blog have some creative tricks for coming up with ideas. And, I've learned that consciously focusing on generating story ideas makes me more likely to do so. Best of all, I've already done a first draft of one of my ideas that I think has a lot of potential.
Whoo-hoo and thank you, Tara!
During our recent "embrace the cold" family trip to beautiful Banff, Canada, I found myself singing the song "Climb Every Mountain" from the Sound of Music. Now that I'm home, I realize this theme song also applies to the life of a children's picture book writer on the path to publication.
Today, my first "official" day of writing in 2019, I'm close to the top of the mountain. I'm exhilarated about the possibilities. I'm excited about the journey. I'm committed to scaling new heights.
But, as we did on our trek to the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff, I'll undoubtedly hit a switchback - a part of the path that seems to take me away from where I want to go. I'll need to decide: do I give in or keep moving forward? On our mountain hike, at one point I asked my husband whether our 9-year-old son was going to make it.. After all, we were not yet accustomed to the altitude and 5.5 kilometers up was starting to feel insurmountable. Of course, it wasn't. After we stopped for a snack, we resumed our route with renewed energy.
I will try to remember the mountain when my energy starts to sag or when I doubt that I'll reach my goal of seeing my stories in print. I will stop for a "snack" - whether it's a literal snack of the chocolate I so love or sustenance in the form of reading picture books, exchanging manuscripts with a critique partner or participating in an online writer's forum.
I will keep climbing the mountain.