[UPDATE: So honored to share that this story placed this year!]
I feel like all the seasons have been a frenzy this year but, at least writing frenzies are the GOOD kind of frenzy. If you’re a member of the kidlit writing community, you’ve heard of Kaitlyn Sanchez – mom, teacher, children’s author, agent, (maybe super-human?), and host of so many wonderful contests. This year, Kaitlyn and children’s author, Lydia Lukidis, are hosting the Fall Writing Frenzy and offering some amazing prizes. A story in 200 words or less, based on a provided picture. You can check out the rules here.
Now, usually I stick to picture books and, recently, middle grade, but I couldn’t resist a little YA romance this year. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
ALIVE (199 words) by Nicole Loos Miller
He gasped, taking his first breath in over a year.
Halloween. She must be close.
He flexed his fingers, smiling. Soon he’d be able to move his whole body, if only for one night.
Ten years ago, she’d been playing with her homemade wand in the cornfield. The green spark surprised them both – landing on the scarecrow’s chest, igniting a beat within his heart.
Now, she was eighteen. The farm had been sold. It would be their last night together before he was torn down, his fields paved.
Dried cornhusks crunched underfoot as she approached. He climbed down, limbs awkward with disuse.
His heart ached as her green eyes pierced through him. She was different this year – taller, face thinner. But that same mischievous smile sent a tingle across his burlap skin.
She reached out and nestled her fingers between his.
“I missed you,” she whispered.
His reply caught in his throat.
She laughed – a bright, silver sound.
His heart beat like a caged bird.
“I made a wish,” she said, leaning close. She smelled of cloves and fallen leaves.
So maybe you put yourself out there to do a thing. A big thing. A thing you thought would Really Make a Difference.
And, maybe that thing didn’t work out. And you feel crushed. And you’re wondering if you should just give up.
But here’s THE THING: If you are feeling disappointed and heartbroken, that means that you are passionate. That you wanted this. That you feel destined to keep going.
And you know what leads to success?
Passion and hard work.
So, even the feeling of being disappointed and heartbroken means you are on your way.
You might need time to grieve. To cry in the shower. To shove secret handfuls of chocolate chips in your mouth. THAT’S OKAY. Give yourself time and space to grieve. Care for your heart (it’s really important!)
But then, come back. PLEASE come back. Keep that passion and keep working hard.
And remember, YOU were not rejected: your application was simply not chosen. One piece of work that you put out there was not selected among HUNDREDS.
But that thing you put out there? I guarantee you that it’s big, bold, brave, and wonderful thing. You know how I know that? Because you made it. You created it out of nothing. That’s MAGIC. You have MAGIC in your heart and in your brain.
And if you give up on that, I will be so mad at you.
(This speech was prepared for delivery in my bathroom mirror but, just in case you need it too <3).
Another deviation from writing for fun but very necessary things. Some of this is copied and pasted from my school social work blog (you’ll probably pick up on that vibe).
Big things are going on. Big things that are terrifying and overwhelming. As adults, when we can’t wrap our minds around them, how can we be expected to talk about them with little kids?
But the thing is, little kids notice. They notice when the grown ups they love are distracted or scared or worried.
So… now what?
Try to avoid having the news onaround young children right now. Not because they should be hidden from the information but because you know your child best and it can be very helpful for you to be able to regulate the type of information they receive and the rate at which they receive it. That way you can support them as they figure everything out.
Based on your child’s age, exposure, and developmental level, decide how deeply you want conversations to go.
Use books and shows created specifically for young children. Today’s Parent has a list of picture books here. Even though the library is still closed, many book read-alouds are currently available on YouTube and author sites as a result of the pandemic. Preview the book before you read it with your child so you can anticipate questions they (or you) might have.
Maybe sure you have another adult you can talk to about your own feelings and thoughts. That way, when you talk with your child, you can follow their lead.
You might need some space to sort through everything. Take that space (even if it’s only available after they are in bed). Listen, engage, and do your best to model the conversations and morals you want to see in your children as they grow and begin to shape the world around them. Check out resources for yourself too. There are so many wonderful ones in this google doc about engaging in anti-racist conversations.
Sometimes raising human beings feels like a much bigger and more important job than other times. This is one of those crucial times. Let’s show them we can do and be better.
Sometimes I like to think that there is a parallel universe where parallel-universe-Nicole is still going to work and interacting with extended family members in person and grocery shopping without a mask while listening to news updates about our first female president. I hope she’s happy. She has a lot to be grateful for.
And, honestly, in this universe and, specifically in my little bubble, I also have a lot to be grateful for – even nine weeks deep in a statewide shelter-in-place! OBVIOUSLY – the health of my family. Also, jobs. And food. And sunshine. And on and on and on. I have been surprisingly focused in the scraps of spare time I have been able to carve out for writing too. Uh, recently, at least. Which definitely counts.
Please make sure you are taking care of yourself. Even if you have a lot to be grateful for, it’s still very okay to feel scared and unsure and anxious and guilty and mad and confused and frustrated. All your feelings are very valid. But, if you can, try to find ways to increase your favorite ways to feel and decrease the ones that leave you feeling hollow. I think that guide can help.
You may or may not know that I am a mama to two toddlers and a school social worker currently working with Early Childhood/Preschool-aged children. I know this blog is supposed to be about writing but if there was ever a time for a crossover-episode, this is it.
So here goes:
How are you supposed to explain coronavirus/COVID-19 and the closure of schools, libraries, and everything else to young children?
First, breathe. This is new and rapidly changing territory. That can be scary for grown ups and kids. Make sure you can appear calm and collected when talking with your child about the current state. Take a break if you need to. Avoid having the news on and avoid talking about it around children.
Need help breathing? Sesame Street has you and your kids covered with a video.
Need a social story about COVID-19 that is simple and to the point? It was created for children with Autism but the direct approach paired with visuals makes it ideal for Preschool-aged and young elementary children as well.
Does your child need more? NPR has an article/comic for explaining coronavirus to children. It’s geared toward children older than preschool-aged but might give you some good ideas and visuals you can use. It does not talk about school closure but could be followed up with a conversation about how another way to keep everyone safe is to stay home to stop the spread of germs:
And finally, hereis NASP article with advice for parents.
You won’t have all the answers. Honestly, your kids don’t expect you to. Wash your hands. Love the people close to you – whether in your house or via video chat. Donate money to food shelters if you are able. Feel free to post links to national food banks or charities helping provide childcare for healthcare workers in the comments.
And when you have the mental and emotional capacity for it, let’s be ready to talk about what we learned from all of this and what big things need to change to make things better for the future.
Another contest!!! This one is hosted by the wonderful Vivian Kirkfield and it’s a real challenge: write a story for children in less than 50 words!
You read that correctly. 50 words! I actually came up with a couple. I focused on conveying snapshots of fun childhood experiences and it was a delightful and energizing exercise. But, since we can only submit one, here is mine:
SPRING PUDDLES by Nicole Loos Miller
Grey clouds Pitter Patter Puddles!
Raining here But sunshine there
Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet
A thankful twirl. Celebratory swirl. Hop. Hop. Spin.
[UPDATE: I am so honored and thrilled to announce that this story won first place! Someone pinch me!]
It’s time for ❤ Susanna Leonard Hill‘s<3 Valentiny contest! Her 5th one! She knows how to spread the love.
The challenge: Write a kid’s Valentine’s story in 214 words or less in which someone is curious.
I’m curious about love a lot these days. I’m curious about what we can do to increase kindness and equity. I’m curious about how to make this world a more loving and accepting place for the next generation. And sometimes this curiosity feels overwhelming and threatens to drown me. So I try and remember what I tell my students and my own children: start where you are with what you have. Little things can make a big difference. With open-minded and hopeful curiosity of my own, here is my story:
SEEDS OF LOVE (200 words) By Nicole Loos Miller
“The world needs more love,” says Grandma. She sets a flower pot on the table. We paint it with hearts for Valentine’s Day. I don’t know about love, but the world has more color at least.
The seed is tiny, but Grandma says not to underestimate it. What kind of seed is it? But she won’t tell me. “Life is better when there is room for wonder,” she whispers.
Poke. Dig. Poke. The dark dirt sticks under my fingernails. Scoop. Scoop. Scoop. Back over my seed. Like a cozy blanket.
See you soon, little seed.
You are my sunshine, I sing. My watering can is a gentle rainstorm. Push. Push. Up! A tiny bit of green starts to show. You can do it.
Grow. Secrets, bunched and waiting on a thin green stem. Grow. A little taller each day. Stretch.
At last! A tiny star surrounded by pink. Bright and delicate. Lovely and strong.
“Who should we give it to?’ Grandma asks. I want to keep it. “Love is for sharing,” she insists. We leave it on our neighbors doorstep.
“We did it,” laughs Grandma. And she’s right. I can feel it. There’s more love now.
It’s Sunday afternoon and my delightful winter break is drawing to a close. It’s time to emerge from the time-warp cocoon filled with too many cookies and delighted toddler shrieks. Wait, was that a delighted shriek or an injured shriek?
I’m sure they’ll be fine.
Back before I lost track of what day of the week it was, I had the privilege of interviewing one of my favorite people, Ciara O’Neal, about her debut picture book: Flamingo Hugs Aren’t For Everyone, illustrated by Alicia Young.
If you haven’t met Ciara and you are willing to take one piece of advice from me: get on that ASAP. Ciara is a mother of five, master of words, and lover of doughnuts. When she isn’t shaping hearts and lives in the house, she is bettering them in the classroom through teaching or in the world in general through writing hilarious stories with a big message. I am humbled and delighted to call her a friend, critique partner and my first ever interviewee! (Happy dance commence!!)
Nicole: Thank you so much for being my first interviewee and congratulations on your book! I know from your other interviews that this story was actually inspired by a trip to the ER for your daughter. I have found your ability to turn lemons into lemonade to be very uplifting in your writing, your writing feedback, and in the friendship you offer others. Do you have any secrets for how you are able to see the positive in life so often?
Ciara: Find the funny. Life has more than its fair share of bumps. On the bad days, find a favorite comedian and let the chuckles begin. Find the humor in your current situation and keep moving forward.
Nicole: Excellent advice! Laughter can ease so many aches. Moving on to your debut(!!!!!); what was your favorite part about writing Flamingo Hugs Aren’t For Everyone?
Ciara: Oh! That’s a tough one! Flaminga is near and dear because her character and flaws are a blend of my daughter and me. I guess that means the brainstorming phase where we laughed and giggled.
Nicole: Laughter again, such a theme for you. After the brainstorming, I’m curious about how many drafts of this story you went through.
Ciara: Ummmmmm… A thousand? No, really, I think I have about 14 versions on my hard drive. Even after this story was illustrated, I revised it. I realized I didn’t need several sentences because they were apparent in the illustrations. After I had my test copy, I tried out my book in some of my friends’ classrooms. Even though the kids enjoyed the wordplay and jokes, I realized I lost them in the middle due to much wordiness. So snip, snip, snip.
Nicole: Ah words, the picture book authors biggest love and biggest struggle. Speaking of struggles, what was the hardest part about this book’s journey?
Ciara: I think killing my darlings was the most difficult part of this journey. Flaminga’s story was 1,200 words in the beginning. Now she sits about 700 words.
Nicole: Whoa, excellent editing! Did Flaminga teach you anything along the way?
Ciara: Working with my illustrator, I realized that the pictures of Flaminga were just as important as the words. Alicia’s illustrations brought my clumsy flamingo to life, we worked closely together to make sure the words danced with the illustration as opposed to being two separate parts.
Nicole: That’s wonderful that you were able to work so closely. The pictures and words really do create a gorgeous kind of magic in this story. I know there are so many writers out there hoping to create their own published magic. What advice would you give pre-published picture book writers?
Ciara: Don’t get too attached to any particular manuscript. Write, revise, start something new. Challenge yourself to try different styles, themes, ideas. It will make you a better writer. Besides, you never know which manuscript is going to be the one that lands you an agent or a book deal. But being honest, the manuscript that gets published most likely won’t be the first book you write.
Nicole: It can be a hard pill to swallow but you definitely speak the truth! What’s another important truth you’ve learned about being a human being thus far?
Ciara: EVERYONE is going through SOMETHING. Sprinkle kindness like your decorating doughnuts and be just as sweet!
Nicole: I know for a fact that you live this advice! Writers often want to make an impact beyond the words they leave on the page for their readers. If you could plant one seed in the heart of your readers over the course of your writing journey, what would it be?
Ciara: You are worthy of being loved exactly for who you are right now. Right this minute. Not for who you will be, or who you want to be, but the you in the mirror at this exact moment.
Nicole: Thank you so much, Ciara! And congratulations again!
Isn’t she amazing? Her book makes my household happy and in an effort to sprinkle a little more kindness in the world, I am so excited to be giving away 2 copies of Flamingo Hugs Aren’t For Everyone.
Susanna Leonard Hill has another contest (I seriously don’t know how she does it). The challenge for this contest is to write an original story with kid-appeal, 250 words or less, that focuses on a holiday treat! My brain kept substituting “peppermint mocha latte” every time I read “treat” but maybe that’s just me. You can read more about Susanna’s contest and read the other entries here:
I usually enjoy a bit of wit in my contest stories but I just couldn’t get into the humorous groove this time. My kids are 2 and 4 and I am conscious of trying to shape the traditions and memories upon which they will [hopefully] fondly reflect for years to come. Family is at the center of my heart and mind this humble season.
A TRADITIONAL HOLIDAY TREAT (249 words) By Nicole Loos Miller
Christmas decorations were unpacked, dusted, stacked, and hung.
Emily and Eli felt happiness and heartbreak at the same time.
It was their first Christmas without Grandma.
Mom sang carols from the other room, but they could hear her voice catch and crack.
“Remember Grandma’s gingerbread houses, with the stained glass windows?” whispered Emily.
“And how she’d let us decorate them however we liked?” replied Eli.
“Some of them were so ugly!”
They smiled and their eyes welled up at the same time.
“I wish she were still here,” said Eli.
“If Grandma were here,” said Emily, “she’d remind us that ‘tradition is the best part of the holidays.'”
Their eyes locked. Emily smirked and Eli’s nose wrinkled. Plans were made.
That night, they moved about the kitchen on tiptoes, pulling ingredients out quietly and measuring from memory.
In the morning, their mother found them asleep at the kitchen table; a broken gingerbread house slouched before them. Flour covered the counters and the sink overflowed with dishes.
“We’re sorry, Mom,” said Emily.
“We wanted to surprise you,” added Eli. “But we only made a mess.”
“It reminds me of when Grandma let you decorate your first gingerbread house,” said their mother with a sad laugh. “You were toddlers: so excited and so messy.”
As they cleaned and mixed a new batch of gingerbread dough, they talked about their favorite holiday memories with their grandmother.
Tears and laughter filled the kitchen at the same time as a new tradition was born.
Susanna Leonard Hill, a true kidlit treasure, hosts these amazing holiday contests that challenge writers to think creatively and efficiently. With a limit of 100 words, I wanted to try some free verse this year. But then I wanted to see it rhyme. Rhyming is SO HARD!! I won’t even tell you how many “practice” stanzas I wrote but it was definitely fun.
The Contest: write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (children here defined as 12 and under), using the words potion, cobweb, and trick. Your story can be scary, funny, sweet, or anything in between, poetry or prose, but it will only count for the contest if it includes those 3 words and is 100 words (you can go under, but not over!) Get it? Halloweensie – because it’s not very long and it’s for little people. You can read more about the contest here!
THE ITSY BITSY WITCH By Nicole Loos Miller (93 words)
Bitsy frowned on her web, Eight eyes and a scowl. The bugs flew right by, And her stomach did growl.
“A potion,” she thought “Should do just the trick!” She gathered ingredients, Her cauldron, her stick.
“A special new spell To make escape tricky. My cobweb will glow. It’ll be extra sticky!”
Dawn started to creep As the brew came to a bubble. She hoped it’d be ready And worth all the trouble.
“I did it,” she yelled As the silk threads did twitch. Not hungry, but happy, Was the eight-legged witch.