My Writing Journey

Being a writer is a strange role to inhabit. Sometimes you aren’t sure you are a “writer,” and sometimes you feel like a writer even when you’re not actually writing.

In some ways I’ve been a writer since school. I wrote short stories and got them critiqued by very kind English teachers outside of class. I stopped writing in college when many other things caught my attention. I became a writer again a few years after graduation when I wrote my first novel and to my shock, got a wonderful agent to represent me. I felt less like a writer when the book failed to sell and I thought that was it for my writing career as I couldn’t imagine having a second novel in me. Years later, I became inspired by two friends who wrote in between raising their children, and began to write short stories. I felt even more like a writer when I started this blog and found the incredible online community of talented bloggers and writers.

When I started on my journey of writing children’s books, I knew for certain I was going to stay a writer long-term, no matter if I got published or not. I fell in love with writing all over again. I thought of fifty-plus ideas for picture books, some with potential but many with no potential at all. I joined an incredible critique group and found many other wonderful critique partners, and became better with every revision. I stopped being intimidated enough to write a whole chapter book. I learned what ‘show’ vs. ‘tell’ means, how to pace a story, and how to study mentor texts. I joined SCBWI and attended two invaluable conferences and got to meet so many writer friends I had previously interacted with online.

Along the way I signed with my amazing agent, Mary Cummings. And yesterday I got to announce that my picture book, I HAVE A BALLOON, has been acquired by Sylvie Frank at Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman books and will be illustrated by the one and only Scott Magoon. I still can’t believe I am working with such talented people!

It’s been wonderful finding my voice again in children’s books. The only downside is that I have neglected this blog and the blogging world too much. I know I’ll find the time again to read the blogs I love to follow, but I think for the time being my writing will be focused on the children’s books. I even created an author website, http://www.arielbernsteinbooks.com/, that actually has my name in it. Can you tell I had no idea what I was doing when I named this ‘a3bernstein’??

Thank you for reading this post and any of the posts you read on my blog. Every comment meant so much to me!

How To Re-Live Your Childhood

Swings

One constant of being a parent is that you will often be surprised. Whether it’s an potty accident in the car after you tried to get them to go at the rest stop, a new color on your painted walls that match the crayon lying nearby, or even a sudden interest in learning to play the keyboard after years of screaming ‘no’ when asked if they’d like lessons, you are pretty much guaranteed to be kept on your toes for 18 years and counting.

One thing I was surprised to be surprised about however, was how little interest my children would have in all the things that interested me as a child. Sure, ice cream and swimming and coloring books are classics that they love as well, but there are many things I took for granted they would love because I loved them. I was often wrong.

My favorite book as a child, OUTSIDE OVER THERE? Too weird, Mom. Can we please read PINKALICIOUS and MOO, BAA, LA LA LA? Maybe we’ll indulge you and let you read us WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

Why are you trying to make us watch this annoying movie with a lady singing on a hilltop? We’ll be so much better behaved while we watch THE LEGO MOVIE and FROZEN.

Lincoln Logs were only fun for 5 minutes. Where are the magna tiles and monster high dolls and oh, can we play with your iPad?

Okay, it’s not so horrible. I even like THE LEGO MOVIE and honestly love books by Sandra Boynton, but there’s a feeling of loss when the games and toys that brought me so much joy failed to do the same for my children.

Which is why one of the best parts of nice weather for me is the Don’t Come Back game. No, this isn’t a game where you push your child out the front door and tell them not to come back and see how long it takes for the cops to be called.

It’s a game I learned from my father on the playground up the road from our house. He’d push me on the swing for a bit, back and forth like normal, then tell me he was going to count to three and on the count of three, I had to stay out in the air. If I came back, I was going to get tickled. I loved this game with all my heart, even though I came back and got tickled. Every single time. Now, if I understood at all about physics and gravity at a young age, I’d know there was absolutely no way (other than falling off the swing I suppose) that I was NOT going to not come back, but because the rules of the game were that I had to try and do it, there felt like a smidgen of a chance that if I pumped my legs hard and fast enough, I would be able to stay out in the air. So I tried as hard as I could, every single time. And when I felt myself fall backwards, the anticipation of getting tickled was beyond delicious.

I begged my father to play the Don’t Come Back game whenever we were near a swing and he often obliged. I could never get enough.

Until I grew older, and swings and playgrounds were no longer visited. And the Don’t Come Back game was forgotten.

When we moved to our current house, we got a swingset in our backyard. The Don’t Come Back game was suddenly remembered. I took my daughter and put her on the swing and pushed her back and forth for a while.

“I’m going to count to three, and on the third push you’re going to have to stay out in the air. If you come back, I’m going to tickle you,” I told her.

“Okay,” she said in a confused voice.

“One, two, three. Don’t come back!”

She pumped her legs as fast as they would go. She tried as hard as she could to stay in the air because she thought there was a chance it’d happen. She came back. I tickled her. She squealed with delight.

“Do it again, Mommy! Play don’t come back again!” She begged.

So I did. And I still do.

How to Have a Snow Day Without Watching TV

First, wake up and remember that it is a snow day. Promptly fall back asleep for five minutes until your three year-old wakes up. Tell him that it’s a snow day which means that everyone should sleep in for at least another hour. Watch as he fails to return to a quiet slumber but instead insists on starting his and your day.

After the six year-old is also awake, make breakfast, preferably something warm like pancakes or oatmeal or s’mores, and then tell the kids to watch the snow fall outside. Make a cup of coffee and hear them remark that they’re bored, so remind them that every snowflake is different and therefore watching snow should never be boring because it changes all the time. After they inform you that watching the snow fall can in fact be really really boring, tell them they can play with their toys. Twenty minutes later find every such toy they ever owned, as well as some you worry they might have filched from a friend’s house because you don’t even recognize them, strewn all over the family room. Inform your children you’re all going to play the clean-up game and the getting dressed game. Soon realize they have started their own game called quickly run away to another room. Drink another cup of coffee before spending a good twenty to thirty minutes explaining why they should still get dressed on a snow day, when it’s pointed out that you are still in your pajamas. Realize how wonderfully nice wearing pajamas in the middle of the morning feels and tell them they just need to brush their teeth.

Make another cup of coffee and feel a burst of inspiration. Art project time! Take out the crayons, scissors, glue, glitter and paper and tell the kids you’re going to make Valentine’s day cards early this year. Spread the materials out and watch as they both grab for the glue stick. Declare that there’s another glue stick around here somewhere and go search. By the time you return, the glitter is no longer in the glitter bottle and the crayons have colored the table as well as the papers. Stay open-mouthed as they declare they don’t want to make cards anymore and are bored. Tell them it’s time to make cards or time to clean up the family room. Watch as they play their quickly run to another room game. Admit they are getting really good at it.

Clean the art supplies up and while you’re at it you might as well clean the family room because as least it’s exercise, right? Reward yourself by sneaking a cookie from the pantry at which time both kids decide to materialize with their hands out. Ask them if they want to bake some cookies. They do! Just after they have some pre-made ones first. Make them a snack while you make yourself a cup of coffee.

Take out all of the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies and then realize you are short two eggs. You have many nice neighbors who are normally a two-second walk away but on a snow day they might as well be in another county. Sigh and tell your kids you just won’t be able to make cookies. Be amazed when they are okay with the news until the five year-old says they can just eat more of the cookies in the pantry.

When they request the television be turned on, rack your brains for activities. Want to read books? No, that’s special for bedtime. Want to make puzzles? Maybe later. Want to build with legos or lincoln logs or magna tiles? Mommy, we just want TV.

Bundle them up in blankets and put on a DVD of The Incredibles. Watch them be happy and content and quiet.

Oh, was this called ‘How to spend a snow day with kids without watching TV?’ Yes, well, I never did quite figure that out but if you happen to know I’d be happy to hear all about it. Just after I make one more cup of coffee…

How to Explain Christmas to Your Jewish Children

When I was growing up, I had the best of both worlds during the winter holiday time. My family celebrated Hanukah at our home with the menorah, chocolate gelt and eight days of presents. I only had to walk over to my best friend’s house across the street to bake Christmas cookies, help decorate their tree and count how many candy canes I could eat before feeling sick. I think it was around 3.

While my children have plenty of Christmas celebrating friends, unfortunately none live across the street and my kids miss out on all the fun Christmas traditions. Being that I can’t exactly shield them from knowing all the delights Christmas that has to offer, in order to help them feel less badly about not partaking in the festivities themselves, I’ve decided to explain Christmas to them in my own way:

Santa Claus is a man who never changes his clothes and comes into people’s homes without knocking. He takes their cookies and makes a mess of their fireplaces.

Do you think Santa Claus pays the elves that make all the Christmas gifts? Do they even get healthcare? Doesn’t seem fair to me. Does it seem fair to you?

Yes, the Christmas lights and decorations are very pretty on our neighbors’ homes. Unfortunately many people have gotten hurt putting up and taking down all those lights. Oh look, here’s a folder of all the cases I found online of people getting hurt. Do you think Dad and I should put ourselves in danger just to make our house look pretty for a month? No, I didn’t think so.

The elf on a shelf is a tattletale. If you step out of line just once, you don’t get any presents for Christmas. Just a lump of coal. And not eight lumps. Just one.

For Christmas you have to build a house out of icing and gingerbread and gumdrops, and then you can’t even eat it right away. That’s just weird. I prefer to eat yummy food right away, how about you?

Let’s watch cable news. What a surprise, a segment about The War on Christmas. I’d rather not be involved in a war. Hanukah is a quiet little holiday no one cares about and that’s the way it should be.

Now, you might be thinking that these are cruel and mean ways to get my kids uninterested in Christmas. You might even be right, but don’t worry. Jewish moms require their children to have a quota of angst over the years in order to adequately guilt trip them for the rest of their lives.*

*I’m kidding, of course. Well…sorta.

Molly’s Christmas Gift

I came across a blogpost from the children’s book writer, Susanna Leonard Hill. She’s organizing a picture book contest. Please check it out here, especially if you’d like to enter: http://susannahill.blogspot.com/2014/11/whistle-happy-tune.html%5D. The rules are to write a holiday themed story, 350 words max, where weather impacts the holiday. I wrote the story below, “Molly’s Christmas Gift,” for the contest. I hope you enjoy it!

Molly’s Christmas Gift

It was a fair December day before Christmas. The sun was shining and children were playing outside.

Only Molly was upset.

“I wanted it to snow for Christmas.”

Molly wanted other things too. She pulled out her Christmas list. “This list is too small. I need more dolls. And each doll must have a matching dress and purse.”

Suddenly, the winds began to swirl and the clouds darkened up above.

“I only got three jewelry making kits last year. Tomorrow I better have six.”

Children ran inside their homes as rain dropped from the sky.

“Does Santa know I scratched a tea cup in my twelve tea cup set? I need a whole new set now.”

Lightening began to crack through the skies and thunder could be heard by neighbors far and wide.

Molly continued to write.

During dinner she added a peppermint cookie mix onto her list.

During bath time she added marshmallow scented bubblebath and mermaid bath toys.

During storytime she added the entire Empress Elsie book collection.

Every time Molly added to her list, it became colder, wetter, windier and louder outside her home.

Molly did not notice the weather. She fell asleep dreaming of more and more toys she wanted Santa Claus to bring her.

The next morning it was quiet and calm outside of Molly’s house. The only sound anyone could hear was the sound of Molly screaming out, “Where are all my Christmas presents?”

Under the Christmas tree there were no dolls or books or peppermint cookie mixes. The only item Molly found was a note.

“Dear Molly, the weather was too terrible to bring any gifts. Please enjoy all that you have. Love, Santa Claus.”

Molly sniffled as she gathered her dolls. She read her dolls books and then made a beaded necklace from her jewelry kit.

When she was finished with her necklace, Molly wondered if the weather was still terrible.

Molly looked out the window and saw that it wasn’t terrible at all. It had snowed!

A small smile came upon her face. “Thank you, Santa,” Molly said.

The Queen of Caveats

If you’re like me, once you became a parent you became a lot more talkative. Some of your extra talking is to help your child develop their speech and language skills. But some of it is based on your knowledge that no matter what you tell your child, there will always be questions and misunderstandings about what you’re saying versus what they want to hear. So you learn to add in precautions, known as caveats.

You can have a play date after school. Unless you get sick. Or your friend gets sick. Or it’s cancelled for some reason.

Yes, we can get an ice cream cone. But only one scoop. Kid-sized. And don’t ask for more ice cream or toppings. And don’t tell your brother when we get home that you got ice cream.

We’ll sign you up for piano lessons, but you have to practice. Everyday. Without whining. Before bedtime. Without whining. Seriously, you have to practice without whining.

We’re going to the playground. You have to go to the bathroom before we leave. And don’t play in the sandbox when we get there. And don’t touch any food or trash on the ground. And when I say it’s time to go, it’s time to go. And remember to have fun.

Sure, you can help me bake cookies. Wash your hands first. With soap. Don’t touch the oven. Or get near the oven. Here, stand far away from the oven. What do you mean you aren’t helping bake the cookies if you’re in the living room?
Often times these caveats fall on willfully distracted ears. But saying them at least gives me the sense that I am going to control the upcoming situation. Which rarely happens. But it could. One day. Or maybe not.

Living with Zombies

I am among the hordes of television viewers anxiously awaiting the new season of AMC’s The Walking Dead to start. There’s just something about seeing a diverse group of people figure out how to defeat constant attacks by zombies, constant threats by fellow humans, and constant shortages of food (and formula) all while remembering to hold onto their humanity. Oh, and Michonne’s sword skills and Daryl’s improbable hairstyle don’t hurt either.

But in the meantime, if you have children, you really are getting your daily fix of zombie ruled worlds. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself if these zombie traits sound at all familiar:

1. Zombies won’t listen to reason. In fact, they really don’t listen to you at all.

2. Zombies are constantly hungry yet never want to eat what you wish they would.

3. Zombies are very clingy and never want to leave you alone. Whether you’re in the bathroom, laundry room or needing to pick up food at the grocery store, they’re always trying to stay close and make you rush faster through your day than you want to. Sometimes you just want to get away.

4. Their clinginess can be explained by the fact that zombies depend on you for their survival. Sure, they need to feed on your body to survive, but what breastfeeding mom can’t relate to feeling like her body is sometimes just a buffet?

5. Because of zombies, you are exhausted, hungry, un-showered and you haven’t had a pedicure in ages.

6. The arrival of zombies is a life-changing event. They make you immediately learn a lot about your strengths and weaknesses and they also help you understand the value of being very, very quick.

7. But in the end, no matter how difficult zombies can be, they’re worth it. Well, at least for viewers of The Walking Dead.

The Importance of Lying About Food

When I was a kid, I was a little shit. Not all the time, of course. Maybe not even for a majority of the time. But for the times I remember, and I remember them well because they’re often the times my family remembers well enough to talk about years and years later, I was definitely a little shit.

A perfect example of my childhood jerkiness was my preference for baked chicken. Why, that’s not so horrible, you may be thinking. No, it’s not. And it’s not even horrible that I truly loved the baked chicken my parent’s friend Marcie made when we went to her family’s house for dinner. The horribleness was when I insisted that I ONLY would eat Marcie’s baked chicken, not my mother’s. Still, not so out of the norm, right? Except for the fact that Marcie’s baked chicken WAS my mother’s baked chicken straight from HER recipe box. It tasted exactly the same with all the same ingredients and yet there I would sit at our dining room table, cross my arms and proclaim that my mother’s baked chicken wasn’t as good as Marcie’s, which again, WAS my mother’s, and therefore I would not be eating it. Yep, I was a little shit.

Somehow, instead of throwing that baked chicken on my head, my parents instead decided on a different tack. My mother would come out of the kitchen with the baked chicken and declare that we were having “Marcie’s baked chicken” for dinner. We, the Gordons, would pretend to be the Goelmans. My sister, Debi, would pretend she was Marcie’s daughter, Debbie (yes, they were both Jewish daughters named in the 1970’s, how’d you guess?). And I would be mollified enough to eat Marcie’s baked chicken. Which was really my mother’s, twice over.

I cringe thinking back on what my parents went through to get me to eat a healthy homemade dish, but I realize it’s not so very different with what I go through with my own children. For instance, my son doesn’t eat many vegetables. Never has and despite my following many instructions of many “How to Get Your Child to Eat Vegetables!” blog posts, it just didn’t happen. But one time we were at a party with him and those mini quiches from Costco, baked in the oven, were served. Because my son couldn’t say ‘quiche’ I told him they were ‘egg pies’ and to come try one. My husband blew on one and gingerly put it to our son’s lips as our son made a face. Until he took a bite. And his eyes opened wide with the realization that such manna from heaven existed. And he also must have come to the conclusion that he must eat all that manna at once because he downed those little suckers like nobody’s business. I couldn’t even look the hostess in the eyes when I saw how little she had left after his rampage. But he was full and happy and when you have a picky eater any new food they will digest is a time to feel good.

Later that week I decided to be the genius mother I was always meant to be and made a regular size quiche with bits of broccoli sprinkled throughout. I told my son we were having egg pie and his face immediately brightened until he rushed to the kitchen table. Where he did not see his precious mini quiches but instead an apparently gross and offensive looking big thing that he wanted nothing to do with, ever.

As dismayed as I was over my failed attempt at taking over Goop’s empire through my one quiche attempt, it didn’t compare to my husband’s dismay when he came home that night with a huge box of frozen mini quiches from Costco.

“These were the last ones in their freezer,” he said, and he and I knew what all Costco shoppers know to be true. Costco giveth and Costco taketh away. It perhaps was for the best as frozen mini quiches are not the healthiest of all food, but I knew it would be difficult to ration the quiches over time.

I gave my son about four of them with other food the next day for lunch. He quickly devoured them and refused to eat anything else on his plate. “Pie?” he asked hopefully. “More pie?” I swear, if he had only seen Oliver Twist he would have added in a “Please, Sir?”

“No more for today,” I said, resolving to stand firm. It was pretty difficult as the rest of the day was filled with pleadings for more pie. But we got through to the next day when he asked for pie for breakfast. I explained he could only have four for the whole day and he replied “Pie now. Pleeeeeeease, Mommy. Pie now!” Another four were made and eaten quickly.

It went on like that for a while as the supply dwindled. One morning he caught me before I had prepared his breakfast, begging for pie. I heated four up in the microwave but realized they were too hot to eat. As any parent knows, when your kid sees something they want to eat, they want to eat it NOW. I told him to go to his seat and began to break the mini quiches apart into a bowl to help cool them off. When I set it down before him he looked disappointed.

“It’s the pie,” I assured him. “It’s broken up but it tastes the same.”

With some hesitation, he picked up his fork and took a taste. Luckily he agreed that the taste of a broken quiche was the same as a whole one. Watching him eat, I had a thought. A thought that made me think I just might still be in the running for genius mom of the year.

While my son napped, I made another broccoli quiche and broke up some pieces into a bowl while hiding the rest in the fridge. A little while later he woke up and I asked if he wanted some pie for a snack. His eyes lit up and he raced to his kitchen table seat. I placed the bowl before him. He looked at it suspiciously.

“Little pie?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied with as straight a face as I could muster. “Just broken up.”

He took a small bite and made a face. I sighed, annoyed to be stuck with eating another whole quiche by myself. But then he lifted his fork and took another. And another until the bowl was mostly empty.

“Yummy?” I asked. He smiled, nodded his head and went off to play. I did a very embarrassing dance in the kitchen.

So yes, I lied. But my son ate a healthy quiche and broccoli so I’m pretty sure it evens out.

Guest Post by Toni Hammer! “Dads: You Are Needed.”

I’m very excited to share the first guest post on this blog by the incredibly talented writer and blogger, Toni Hammer! Toni has a very funny facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/tonihammerwriter), a super active twitter account (@realtonihammer) and a blog that makes you laugh, tear up and nod your head in agreement (http://tonihammer.com).   She has been published numerous times on the ScaryMommy.com website.

Without further ado, here is Toni’s post:

We all know that being a mom is hard. Everyone from your own mom to the grocery store clerk will tell you that it’s hard. The hormones are making the new mom crazy. The lack of sleep is making her crazy. If she’s breastfeeding, that is most definitely making her crazy. It’s hard.

But it’s also hard for new dads.

I won’t say it’s just as hard, but it’s hard in different ways.

If the parents have chosen to breastfeed the baby, the new dad can’t do anything to help in that area other than maybe nudge his wife awake when the baby is crying at 2 a.m. He probably feels helpless.

Some new babies can only be soothed by their moms because they’ve been carried around by her for the past 40 weeks. The new dad tries everything he can to calm his newborn only to have the mom take the baby into her arms which instantly calms him or her. The new dad probably feels useless.

In a majority of households, the dad heads back to work before the mom’s maternity leave ends. He leaves the house, seemingly abandoning his partner and new son or daughter at home by themselves knowing he won’t see them all day. He probably feels guilty.

Dads, I don’t know from firsthand experience, but I can’t imagine how difficult this transition is for you. Suddenly you’ve lost your wife to this crying, drooling mess who doesn’t appear to love you or even like you sometimes. You may feel helpless, useless, guilty and a myriad of other negative emotions.

Let me tell you something: you’re doing a great job.

The problem is that your partner may just be too sleep deprived and exhausted to tell you. It’s not you; it’s her. She’s a new mom and in those first few weeks it is an all-consuming job. Chances are her brain is just so fried that she doesn’t remember to tell you how much she appreciates you.

So I’ll tell you.

You are not helpless. New moms appreciate the fact that you’re trying. Of course you can’t breastfeed the baby, but I’m sure your partner loves that you want to help in any way you can. She appreciates the fact that you get her some water when she’s trapped on the couch beneath the baby known as Milk Breath. She is grateful that you bring her the nursing pillow when she forgets it and her woman parts are too sore for her to get up and retrieve it herself. She loves the fact that you ask her what TV show she wants to watch at night even though you know she’s just going to fall asleep before the opening credits.

You have no reason to feel guilty for going back to work. Your partner is so thankful that you are going out into the world to hunt and gather the money that allows for you both to raise this child. She falls more in love with you when you call her on your lunch break to say that you miss her and the baby. She is thrilled when you ask her to send you pictures of your new bundle of joy. She feels immense gratitude that you are sacrificing your time and energy in order to better the lives of your now larger family.

And, my dear dads, you are from useless. You are her rock. Her support. It’s the two of you against this whole new world and she needs you. She needs you to fight for her sanity. She needs you to watch her emotions and make sure she’s not going down the postpartum depression path. She needs you to tell her she’s doing a great job. She needs to know you think she’s amazing for all the hard work she’s putting into this new relationship with the baby. She needs to know you think she is inspiring and beautiful. You are not useless. You are her strength and she needs you.

I know this transition is hard for you, beloved dads. Please know that your partners love you and appreciate you and need you more than they will ever be able to properly express. Be strong. Be loving. Be proud of the hard work you’re doing. And try to get some sleep yourself.