Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Where has the year gone? It seems like I haven't had a chance to breathe in the past four months, so thinking about everything that's happened this year makes me want to have a bit of a panic attack. Among moving and conferences and natural disasters and turning 30, I can't believe all the adventures and experiences I was able to fit in.

It's strange to think that a year ago I was still dealing with a lot of sadness from the deaths of both Ashley and Prince, and struggling to find time to read and write. At the time, I set five goals for myself:
  1. Find joy, even in the sadness.
  2. Live a more active lifestyle.
  3. Visit my brother in Hawaii.
  4. Find balance in reading.
  5. Make writing a priority again.
I'm happy to report that I made great strides in fulfilling these goals.

Life is truly beautiful, and even through tragedy, happiness is found. Earlier this month I attended a memorial service for the family and friends of people killed in Washington, DC. After a program presented by the DC police homicide family services, we went to visit Prince's grave. While it was an incredibly sad day, we were also able to share memories of Prince, sing hymns, and give lots and lots of hugs. That day I realized I could even think of Ashley without also thinking of the terrible grief her death left behind--I could pick up her favorite books without wanting to cry and look at pictures of her without getting lost in memories.

As I've recently discovered, lifestyle changes are not easy to make, but they are well worth the effort. I was first diagnosed with IBS when I was 17, and it's been getting progressively worse since. In June, I finally decided enough was enough. Unfortunately, this meant cutting out lactose, corn, beans (including soy) and brassica (broccoli, mustard, cabbage). Fortunately, it also meant getting control of my health by heading to the gym almost every day and visiting my doctor regularly to balance medications and monitor progress. While I've lost a significant amount of weight throughout this process, the best benefit is waking up every morning feeling better than I have in almost 15 years.

A dead computer and other travel obligations prevented me from getting to Hawaii this year, but I don't regret it. I was able to attend my first national SCBWI conference in New York, be at my cousin's wedding, visit the Alamo, enjoy my first snowfall of the year from the Berkshires in Massachusetts, show my best friend around my hometown, visit my friends in North Carolina, and take part in so many YA lit events it's hard to count.

My last post broke down the books I've read this year, and while I'm still 17 books short of my goal of 150, I can't really complain about all the reading I got done. It's been a lot of years since I've explored picture books so thoroughly, and I checked off a lot of classics I've been meaning to read for years. But the most fun I had was becoming more educated about audiobooks, an education that has the opportunity to expand now that I have a longer commute and can take public transportation to work.

Probably the best thing that marked 2011 for me was my decision to attend graduate school for a degree in creative writing for children. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I said I'd never go back to school. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that life never goes as planned. I've also made decent (though not wonderful) progress on a few of my manuscripts, and I have the most amazing writers' group that keeps me improving and thinking and reading critically.

If it's even half as amazing as this year was, 2012 is going to be a good year. How lucky am I?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Best Books I Read in 2011

This list gets harder and harder to compile every year, but I love going back and looking at the books I've read in the past year--what books have stayed with me, which ones I've passed on or recommended to friends, what new authors I've discovers, and which characters have become my new best friends. Usually I only choose five books to share, but this time I wanted to share the five new authors I discovered this year. That doesn't mean these authors debuted this year--a couple of them stopped publishing years ago--but all of them are new to me.

Stephanie Perkins

My year was bookended by Perkins—I read Anna in January and Lola in December. Perkins' books leave me completely contented and totally mushy though I don't usually get all warm and fuzzy from a good romance. So why I love these books so much is a bit of a mystery. Maybe it's because they're all at once funny and meaningful, totally real and a little magical, typically romantic and full of longing. They capture what it's like to be a teenager in love while possessing a depth of character that leaves you knowing not only that the characters have become something better but also gives you hope that you can be something more in the end as well.

Il Sung Na

Na is my favorite new illustrator; his books are just beautiful. The plots are so simple yet clever, which makes them the perfect board books, though Rabbit hasn't yet been released as a board book. I'm always looking for illustrators who can create something innovative yet familiar, and that's what Na has done to perfection.

Jennifer Donnelly

I first heard of Donnelly years ago when her novel A Northern Light received a Printz Honor, but I never got around to reading it. With my goal to become more versed in audiobooks and being familiar with Emily Card's work, I made it a point to listen to this one. And the audiobook blew my mind. Really. I couldn't wait to listen to Card and Bering give a new outlook on a fascinating historical period with beautiful accents, perfect rhythm and infallible timing. Their skills should make every recording artist green with envy. (It probably also helped that Donnelly referenced some of my all-time favorite bands in the same sentences as my most beloved classical composers.)

Adam Gidwitz

I'm a sucker for a good re-imagining of the Brothers Grimm. This book has perfect comedic timing (who know that was even possible in print), and the elements of the macabre that defines the Grimm tradition are well balanced with morality and tenderness. I laughed out loud and even found myself reading aloud to an empty room just so I could enjoy my favorite passages all over again.

Norton Juster

I still can't believe I had never read this book before. For years people told me I'd love it, but there were always so many other good books I wanted to read. So for the 50th anniversary of its publication, I thought I'd take a spin through the Tollbooth. And oh what a ride it was. This is a fantastic (and fantastical) novel about word-play and numbers and adventure, which equals the perfect book for me.

Five Old Favorites Made New
The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan: Eleven months after finishing this novel, I'm still thinking about it.
The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima: And I thought I was over high fantasy.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr: No one understands losing yourself and finding home again like Zarr.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: Sight and sound take on new meaning in yet another amazing novel in words and pictures by Selznick.
Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems: A bitter-sweet ending to my favorite stuffed bunny.

Reading List Analytics
Out of the 132 books I read this year, about one-third were picture books (48), another third were audiobooks (44), and the final third were novels (40). I gave 38 books five stars, 53 books four stars, 29 three stars, 10 books two stars and only two books received one star.

Best Books of 2010
Best Books of 2009

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Sick Day for Bookworm

'Tis the season for cold and flu! This past week, I've had a lovely ear, nose and throat infection, so in honor of my sick days, here are a couple of my favorite picture books about being sick:
Llama Llama Home with Mama by Anna Dewdney

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin Stead

A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer

And here are a couple bonus books for older readers:
An American Plague by Jim Murphy
Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith and Gioia Fiammenghi

P.S. I'm feeling much better now—practically back to normal, whatever that is.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ambitious Goals: Falling Short of 150

This year I signed up for the Goodreads 2011 Reading Challenge for 150 books. It started out that I set a goal for 60 books, but within four months I knew I would surpass that. Then I changed my goal to 100 books, and by July, I knew I'd pass that. So I took a look back over my 4-year membership with Goodreads and realized that I could probably read more books in 2011 than I have ever recorded reading: 150 books.

What was I thinking?

Apparently I wasn't thinking about grad school applications, or the writing conference I was helping plan, or that work always gets busiest at the end of the year, or my travel plans for the fall, or that I'd need to find a new apartment for the week before Christmas.

So now I look back at those 125 books that I've read this year. 125 books. And I think, "Wow, that's pretty impressive that I've read 125 books." And I still have three weeks to get some reading done. Maybe I won't make my goal, but the thing about ambitious goals is that the journey is often more rewarding than the destination.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Imagine a Winter Wonderland: Celebrate the Season with Picture Books

I had a few people over for dinner last night, including the 3-year-old daughter of my good friend. M loves coming to my house and exploring all of my picture books—it fascinates her to no end that I have so many and no kids. To make up for my lack of reading audience, M makes me read book after book to her in between spinning circles to her favorite Christmas songs.

Last night, her favorites included any book featuring snow. So in honor of M, here are my favorite winter picture books to share with the little elves in your life.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
This is my favorite winter book that came out this year. While it's sweet and a little sentimental, which tends to appeal to parents, it's also creative and adventurous, which makes it appeal to kids. Even the author notes about the animals' hibernation patterns makes for a fascinating read.

I think I've mentioned my love affair with Il Sung Na's work a couple times. It's just so beautifully illustrated using digital technology that you can't help but wonder, "How'd he do that?" On yeah, and kids love its color and simplicity as well.

Snowmen at Night by Caralyn and Mark Buehner
This is my stand-by favorite for the holiday season. The illustrations are vivid and bright, and the text is rhythmic and funny. I get a kick out of this book every time I pick it up.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
No other book quite captures the magic of a walk in the snow like Yolen's tale, beautifully illustrated by John Schoenherr.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This book has been the winter-read of choice for more than 50 years. You really can't go wrong with a classic--and the cultural significance of this book makes it a truly historic picture book for any season.

Another classic, the Grinch will never get old. And if you can get your hands on the 1966 movie version of the story, you'll enjoy an evening of great music and a faithful recreation of the story.

The Night Before Christmas Pop-up by Clement Clarke Moore and Robert Sabuda
A few years ago I wrote about how much I loved the pop-up version of this story I had as a kid, and I admit that I love this new version just as much even if it doesn't hold the same kind of memories.

Cajun Night Before Christmas by "Trosclair" and James Rice
And of course Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a little bayou adventure. If you can find a really Cajun to read it to you (or even someone who can fake it well enough), all the better.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Top Ten Holiday Albums

So I'm a little obsessed with holiday music. Nothing puts me in the holiday spirit like a good tune. While some of these music selections are really traditional, many of them put a modern twist on the classics as well as introduce new tunes that are quickly becoming holiday classics to me. Feel free to leave your favorite albums (or even songs) in comments!

The Hotel Café Presents Winter Songs by Various Artists

Let It Snow Baby... Let It Reindeer by Relient K

Christmas Child by Carbon Leaf

A Santa Cause: It's A Punk Rock Christmas by Various Artists

Maybe This Christmas by Various Artists

Gift Wrapped - 20 Songs That Keep On Giving! by Various Artists

It's Christmas Time by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra

Rejoice and Be Merry by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Featuring The King Singers

A Very Special Christmas Live From Washington, D.C. by Various Artists

Boogie Woogie Christmas by The Brian Setzer Orchestra

And what would my lists be without bonus recommendations. Because the first bonus is a soundtrack that only features one original recording, I didn't think it deserves the same recognition as the other albums. The second bonus some people argue isn't really a holiday CD at all, but isn't Halloween really the beginning of the holiday season?

Elf: Music From The Motion Picture by Various Artists

The Nightmare Before Christmas Special Edition by Danny Elfman, Featuring Various Artists

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why can't I just have a crappy day?

Today was supposed to be about writing my critical essay for my grad school application. Instead, I spent my morning cleaning my house and cooking for a Thanksgiving meal I didn't want to have. I kept getting emails and phone calls about issue I shouldn't have to deal with. And my evening was taken over by house hunting--a task I despise on a good day. I hadn't gotten any writing done, and I wasn't any closer to finishing my grad school applications.

And then I walked into a bedroom in a house we were looking at and saw this:
(So it was really a regular white coffee mug with the Vermont College logo, but I couldn't find a picture of it online.)

One of the current tenants of the house we were looking at had recently graduated from one of the colleges I'm applying to. So I got to ask her questions about the program and play the "Do you know him/her?" game and talk to her about my concerns with the critical essay. All of a sudden, my day didn't seem like such a waste. In fact, even though we decided the house wasn't a good option for us, I was glad we went house hunting this evening.

That got me thinking, maybe my day wasn't so bad. After all, I got to sleep in for an hour. I even spend more time on my post-cardio yoga routine than I ever have time for. My carpet is clean and my refrigerator is full of good food. Almost all of my holiday shopping is finished, and my friend whom I rarely get to see went with me to a free screening of The Muppets on Monday. I got 10 cents off each gallon of gas I put in my car this afternoon because I had bought a Thanksgiving meal for three women who are far from home this year--four, if I count myself. My best friend sent me the sweetest email that made me feel like maybe my friendship is worth more than I give it credit. Tonight I get to visit with two of my favorite people, and I still have Friday, Saturday and Sunday to get my paper done.

I know it sounds sappy, but this Thanksgiving I'm grateful for all the little things. I'm grateful for one little coffee mug that made me realize giving thanks isn't about what you have so much as it's about all the good things that are yet to come.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Five: Bad blogger. Bad, bad blogger.

I am well aware that I have been woefully neglecting my blog. To all you who come looking for book lists and NoVA children's/YA lit event news, I apologize. And to all you who come looking for updates on what I'm up to (yes, that means you, Mom), well, the lack of content is indirectly proportional to the amount of obligations in my life.

So, for this Friday Five, I have the five things preventing me from being a reliable blogger.

Number 1

I spent Veteran's Day visiting friends in North Carolina. Tim, Annie and Maddie have made many appearances in this blog, including Thanksgiving two years ago, last fall, last Thanksgiving and this Labor Day. This time we headed down to their neck of the woods to help with remolding their house. Of course, we couldn't go to Jacksonville, NC, without a quick trip to the beach.

Number 2

A much larger chunk of my time is now dedicated to my commute as my office moved into the city this month. Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, I've missed taking public transportation to work, and in the past 18 days I've to listen to tons of audiobooks.

Number 3

I've been doing a ton of manuscript critiques. While this is tons of fun and a great way to deconstruct the mechanics of writing in order to build up my own skills, all of the manuscripts I'm currently reading are historical fiction, which takes a ton of time to critique effectively. But it also means I get to learn about exciting places like Revolutionary-era London and mid-evil Scotland and even a fictitious island in Polynesia during the Victorian era.

Number 4

I started working with a personal trainer, which makes me feel obligated to do things like work out every day and pay attention to what I eat. Being healthy takes an amazing amount of time, effort and money (that I don't have). Lucky for me, two-year-old Maddie helped me out last weekend by showing me the proper form for downward facing dog.

Number 5

And of course there's the ever-present grad school applications. In fact, I'm taking the day before Thanksgiving off—not to drive anywhere or prepare food, but to write my critical essay while everyone else is gone. But least you fear I'll spend all my time writing and no time giving thanks, I ordered a ready-made Thanksgiving so I won't miss out. (P.S. This is in no way an indication that I have nowhere to go for the holiday. Don't feel sorry for me as I've been invited to several dinners, but I desperately need to finish my applications.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Classical Greek Meets Modern YA

I've been working on my critical essay for my grad school applications this week. While I'm really excited about the topic I've chosen, the research for the essay is turning into a lot more work than I originally planned.

Without giving away too much, I wanted to do something that combined my love for contemporary young adult fiction with my academic background in the development of Western literature. (Yes, that was my self-written minor as I wanted to take philosophy, religious history, ancient literature and modern literature classes.) So I've been combing old philosophy papers and reading forgotten textbooks for tidbits of information I can use.

Now that I have the philosophy section outlined, I need to choose a modern young adult novel that has been banned in several schools and libraries across the country to tie it all together. The problem is, there are so many banned books that I love that will fit my purpose and that I'd be excited to read again. At least I've narrowed it down to three novels that made the ALA's Top Ten Frequently Challenged Books in 2009 and 2010:
My question for you is, which of these novels do you love best? I own all three books and have read them multiple times and often recommend them to other people. I really can't decide which to choose, and I need to have the book read, quotations chosen and outline completed by Thanksgiving weekend.

Come on, internet, don't fail me now.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Five: Five Weeks in Five Pictures

The past five weeks have been a little crazy, but it's been one of those crazy wonderful months. I know that I posted a couple of these pictures, but they kind of bear repeating. So here are the five best things that happened to me in the past five week.

Chicago Trip

When you get to spend an entire week with your family and best friend, you'd be thinking about it and smiling about it a month later as well. I wish we could be together everyday, but I'll just have to be content with fond memories and plans for another trip soon.

Uncle Ron's Visit

I love when people visit me in DC, but I especially love seeing my family. So when my uncle came to town, we had an amazing few days touring the monuments—especially seeing MLK Memorial for the first time— and spending a morning at the National Arboretum—my uncle's a master gardener, which made this visit especially fun.

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference

I know, I can't say enough about how wonderful this conference was. I net so many wonderful people there that I hope to keep in touch with for years to come. Joining and then volunteering with SCBWI was the best decision I've ever made.

Meeting in the Berkshires

I was asked to speak at a conference in Massachusetts, and despite the early snow, I had a wonderful time. Hopefully the attendees found my presentation worthwhile (I spoke about building relationships with local media) because I know it was lovely to meet all of them.

Grad School App

That's right, my very first graduate school application is complete (except for one promised letter of recommendation that hasn't been submitted yet). I cannot tell you what a relief it is to have the first one in—now the other two don't seem like such insurmountable obstacles. My decision to go to graduate school is seeming more and more real and getting more and more exciting.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Series to Grow Up With

Transitioning from YA to adult books is a common theme on my blog, and today I wanted to address another way of doing this: series with increasingly difficult reading levels.

Not only do the characters in these series grow in age, but the situations they face become increasingly complicated, and the level of difficulty for the reader also increases. This is much more complicated than authors who write continuing series, books both for YA and adults or books with cross-market appeal. They have to sustain characters through years of growth and development as well as keep readers engaged.

The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
The Austin Family Chronicles by Madeleine L'Engle
The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
Ender Books by Orson Scott Card
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
Jessica Darling by Megan McCafferty
Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer

Most of these books also work well as read-alouds because they are accessible to both children and adults, and they explore issues that promote discussion and help develop connections. Don't stop reading to your child just because they can finally read on their own! Even if you don't read aloud, your child will still benefit from both of you independently reading a series at the same time, although it takes some planning to make sure there are two copies of a book in the house.

When introducing your children to a series, it's a good idea to not only be aware of their current reading level and emotional maturity but also the pace at which your child reads to prepare for when they'll approach later books in the series that might address more mature issues.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Screaming Good Books

Last year, Neil Gaiman proposed giving scary books as gifts on Halloween. As some of you know, I don't really do scary books, mostly because they're...well...scary. But scary picture books? Those I can mostly handle. So as my gift to you, I give you my list of Screaming Good Books.

Here are a few off my favorite spooky picture books to give to your little ghoul:
Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
Mommy? by Maurice Sendak
The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
Julius's Candy Corn by Kevin Henkes
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams
Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willams
Piggie Pie! by Margie Palatini
Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola
The Littlest Witch by Jeanne Massey
Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (This book's for older readers but is still a picture book. Also, if you haven't read this book in awhile, make sure to check out the new edition illustrated by Brett Helquist—of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame.)

And four bonus spooky chapter books that I read this year:
A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Cryer's Cross by Lisa McMann

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dream Big, or Highlights from the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference

This was my first official year on the SCBWI Fall Conference Planning Committee, and boy was it crazy hard work. I don't know how these women (and sometimes men) do this year after year after year. But all the hard work totally paid off this weekend. Children's book industry professionals all came together just outside the Beltway to inspire, teach and even sometimes admonish the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI community.

We all know I'm a sucker for both baseball and books, so Brian Lies didn't have to work all that hard to get me rooting for him. But when he showed up at the conference hotel around 11 p.m. while I was setting up the AV equipment, he proceeded to spend the next hour making sure his presentation worked with our system and even let me be a fangirl for a little while. Then bright an early the next morning, Brian gave an amazing opening address.

He framed his speech around his marketing plan for his books, including advice on brainstorming (nothing is off the table), going beyond what the publisher is willing to do (his family wraps their van in art for every book) and the most important meal of the day (breakfast, of course). While much of his concepts directly translate into promotional ideas for published authors, the underlying message was clearly for everyone: Investing in yourself will give you the best returns.
"If you believe—if you imagine the wacky stuff—it can happen... Success really does breed success, but you have to keep the ball rolling."
—Brian Lies
author of Bats at the Ballgame and Bats at the Beach

Brian was followed by a panel of literary agents who talked about what they do and what they're looking for in clients. This is also where I get to insert a plug for my friend Megan Sheperd, whose book The Madman's Daughter comes out from HarperCollins in 2013, in large part thanks for her agent, Quinlan Lee. And after hearing Quinlan speak and talking to her after the conference, I can understand why Megan speaks so highly of Quinlan. Both her and Jennifer's dedication to their clients and the children's book industry was clear in their advice.
"If you send to everyone at one time, you lose the opportunity to revise and resubmit."
—Jennifer Rofé
agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency
"One book, two hands, countless reasons we do what we do."
—Quinlan Lee
agent with Adams Literary
Next up as editor extraordinar Chelsea Eberly talking about "The Hook for Your Book". While I missed the first part of her talk because of other conference responsibilities, she gave wonderful insight into why you need to know what about your novel will hook the reader. In knowing what makes your novel strong and unique, you are able not only to pitch it to industry professionals but also fix a lot of problems in your writing before you begin submitting.
"Think about the book industry, which means doing your homework... If you don’t know what you’ve written, you’ve kind of handed us an easy rejection."
—Chelsea Eberly
editor at Random House
National Book Award-winner Han Nolan gave the keynote address. She is both talented and insightful as well as humble and kind. I have never heard a speaker expose herself so fully to an audience, and it nearly broke my heart. She spoke about some of her most embarrassing moments as a writing and why she keeps writing despite the challenges.
"We don’t need more junk, and the young people we’re writing for don’t need more junk. They need to be inspired and invigorated... Powerful art can change you, it can change the world."
—Han Nolan
author of Pregnant Pause and Dancing on the Edge

Time management is a huge issue for authors and aspiring writers alike, and the local author panel addressed how to accomplish your writing goals without sacrificing the rest of you life. And these woman—who are writers, mothers, teachers, friends—understand what it takes to be a Renaissance Woman.
"It is fair to ask yourself what you’re trading your writing time for."
—Wendy Shang
author of The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu
"You can expect kind things to come your way, and you should extend kind things to others as well."
"At some point you have to say, okay, this is when I’m going to write and this is when I’m going to take care of business... We all get the same 24 hours in a day."
—Anne Marie Pace
author of Vampirina Ballerina and Never Ever Talk to Strangers
"You have to compartmentalize yourself...but you also need a break."
—Amy Brecount White
author of Forget-Her-Nots

The day finished off with an the editor panel discussing how voice influences plot and character development. With both practical and theoretical advice on how to develop a unique, believable voice in writing, these editors proved why they are so trusted and respected in the children's book industry.
"It’s so easy to forget to look through your character’s eyes and [instead] look through our own eyes because they’re more familiar... Ask yourself: What would I do if I were the character in this scenario?"
—Abby Ranger
editor at Disney-Hyperion
"There are no absolutes in writing, so clearly all of the rules we give you you are free to break."
—Chelsea Eberly
editor at Random House
"Figure out what your character is most afraid of and then make them do it... When the internal and external conflicts interlace, it makes for a very nuanced story."
—Caroline Abbey
editor at Bloomsbury
It's pretty obvious why I enjoyed this conference so much. Every SCBWI event I attend gets me excited to do more with and be better at what I feel such a deep passion to do. If you aren't a member of SCBWI, join now. And if you already are a member, it was great to see you at the conference, and I look forward to seeing you again next year!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Falling in Love with the Second City

Growing up in the shadow of man-made mountains, I never realized that most kids don't go to Broadway plays or museum exhibits practically every week. It wasn't until high school that I discovered even the kids from my hometown didn't spend their summers exploring the ethnic neighborhoods, swimming in the largest of the Great Lakes or cheering on the Boys in Black.

A few weeks ago when my best friend from Idaho met me in Chicago for vacation, I wanted to help her fall in love with my favorite city in the world. There was only one slight problem: I've had almost thirty years to explore Chi-Town, and Tammy only had six days.

Day One: Home Sweet Home

After landing and meeting up at the airport with many hugs and much giggling (yes, I giggle), Tammy and I met up with my family at Protillo's, the best greasy Italian beef around—and their chocolate cake shakes aren't bad either. We then drove around my hometown to show Tammy where I went to school (it was homecoming weekend, so we saw everyone leaving the powder puff game), all the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings along tree-lined streets, the library where I spent the majority of my free time, and the old downtown area, complete with riverboat casino and the last theater Frank Sinatra preformed in before his death.

Day Two: Bookends

We started off the day with an L ride up to the Newberry Library. Though I've walked past it many times, this was the first time I had ever been in the library built by the man who founded the American Library Association and has the highest honor in children's writing named after him. We then walked down the Magnificent Mile and saw one of the only buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Of course, sampling Chicago's famous stuffed pizza and taking pictures of Cloud Gate (more commonly known as "The Bean") are must-do tourist activities. We then ended our day chilling at the Harold Washington Library, which was—at the time of its completions—the largest public library in the world.

Day Three: Faith and Family

Saturday morning we headed to the LDS temple in the morning with my mom. The grounds are always so peaceful and beautiful, and this particular temple has a lot of meaning to me personally. We also ran into some old friends of my parents who knew them BC (Before Children), which was kind of cool. Back at my sister's house, her boyfriend Tom was getting ready to leave for a month of Army training in Germany. We ate lunch and played some card games until he had to go. While Tom will only be gone for a little while, his trip to Germany is in preparation for deployment to the Middle East next year. Not an easy afternoon of good-byes.

Day Four: Hyde Park

This had to be the most beautiful day of the entire trip. We didn't spend anywhere near enough time browsing the local bookstores, but we did spend a few hours learning the history of the written word in the Oriental Museum. They were setting up for a wedding at the Rockefeller Chapel, and a few knights in shining armor were practicing their sward skills on Quad of the University of Chicago. After walking around the Museum of Science and Industry and discussing the Columbian Exposition that took place there in 1893, we enjoyed the perfect weather along the lakefront. To cap off a pretty perfect day, we had dinner with my middle school English teacher, who, after all these years, is still correcting my grammar.

Day Five: View from the Top

What does the world look like from the top? Very small. The Willis Tower—nope, I just can't do it. The Sears Tower is not my favorite tourist stop in Chicago, but we did start off the day walking through Grant Park, where we strolled the Museum Campus and enjoyed the cooling spray of the water at Buckingham Fountain. The gardens were still a bit of a mess from the Chicago Marathon the day before, we everything was still in bloom. We also caught a bit of the Columbus Day Parade, and I stopped by my favorite paintings at the Art Institute. Then we traveled up to catch a glimpse of four states on Skydeck before hopping on the L to Old Town where Second City performs. I've seen the troupe several times, but as improve mandates, no show is ever the same.

Day Six: Boat Ride

The Wendella Boat Tours have been a staple of family activities for years, and no matter how often I do it, I always have fun. It's the perfect view of my favorite city. After five days of non-stop touring, we headed back to my parent's house for a not-so-quiet dinner with my high-school best friend and her family. (I love it when my worlds collide like that.) It doesn't seem to matter how far away I live or how long I've been gone, but dinner at my mom's table always feels like home.

Honestly, I already miss Chicago—especially my family. But I'm also glad to be back in DC. My heart might reside in a few places across the country, yet I'm always glad to come home again.