Tuesday, December 31, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Let the Bells Ring Out! An Artist's New Year’s Manifesto

All artists want their creative bells to ring out—want to create stories, music, poems, art. To do that, an artist must protect the creative "sensibility" that makes art possible. In other words, you must protect the bell. So build a bell tower and built it strong—to house the bell, to allow it swing, and most importantly, to guard it.

Mary Oliver writes: “Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarly take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems.” (A Poetry Handbook)

Tell me, when you do creative work that requires reflection and presence of mind, do the following things shrill for your attention: The ringing phone? The beeping Facebook or Twitter update? The pinging e-mail? Other people’s urgent needs? YES.

Now tell me, when you answer that phone or respond to that Facebook update, etc, does quiet reflection interrupt and shrill for your attention? No. Quiet doesn’t clamor. Because of this, creative time requires far more protection than other parts of our lives.

So be vigilant in creating concrete structures and rituals to protect your creative sensibility. Guard it as zealously as you would a young child venturing out alone in the world.

This will be hard. It will require constant practice. Other people will chip away at your bell tower, and you will, too--at first. For we haven’t been taught to value the creative time and space that “houses the possibility” of art, that allows it to arise. We haven’t been taught to shepherd our lives to foster the ringing bell. In fact, we’ve been taught the opposite. When I shared these ideas with a writer friend, she said that quiet creative time is a luxury. That answer, from a working artist, shows how truly indoctrinated we all are.

For artists, creative space/time space where we can ring is no luxury. It’s ESSENTIAL for art. And I tell you this: You may think the ringing bell will patiently wait, but that’s not true. The ringing can die in the face of the shrilling forces ranged against it. And sometimes, if the creative force inside you is thwarted  too long, it twists your life in unpleasant ways. Like depression. Malaise. Fatigue. Rage. Illness.

Remember that scene in the Planet of the Apes where the hero discovers the top of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand? Don’t let your bell be buried and silenced by sand.

So this New Year, I challenge artists everywhere: Build a bell tower in your life to house your creative sensibility, to foster and guard your ringing bell. And watch in joy as your creative power rings out across the land.
Build a bell tower to
"house your creative sensibility"
and hear the bells ring out!

Thursday, December 26, 2013


I am so happy that my middle grade verse novel, After the River the Sun (2013 Atheneum) is featured in A Year of Reading blog for the final Poetry Friday of the year. So I offer the excerpt below from the book.

Inspired by his love of the Arthurian Legend and a video game called The Green KnightEckhart is climbing Heaven's Gate Mountain in Eastern Washington on a quest for home.

Despite his sunglasses,
his baseball cap,
and his long-sleeved T-shirt,
Eckhart began to feel
as though he were made of sunlight--
carried up the mountain by sunlight--
forged by sunlight,
as a knight's sword
is forged
by fire.

After the River the Sun (page 297)
Dia Calhoun

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Chisels of Light

On the Winter Solstice, the sun filtered through my curtains, sculpting the light. Usually, when fall darkness descends, I start counting the days until December 21. I long for the Return of Light.

My bipolar brain chemistry makes me exquisitely sensitive to seasonal shifts in light and dark. I was born for summer. I come alive. Bloom. Creativity dances from my fingertips. How the bells ring! In the winter, I use a dawn simulator to cajole my bio-rhythms. Winter has always been something to be endured.

But this winter has been different. Somehow I’ve embraced it. Somehow I’ve learned that the bells ring in many different ways. The quiet ringing of a snowfall. The considered ringing of a sodden, cloud-shot sky. The elegant ringing of tree-bones against twilight.

In these dark days, I am tuned to anything that sculpts the light. Like poems. Stories. Art. Music. Kindness. Maybe, winter itself is nothing but a great sculptor of the light. Maybe that’s why at last I’m able to embrace it, take up the chisel of light, and ring.

Closing with this stanza from Tennyson:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.


Take up the chisel of light and ring.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

730 BELLS: The Gossamer of Possibility

Art that resonates with you can set the bells wildly ringing. That happened to me this week when I saw the exhibit, A World of Paper, A World of Fashion: Isabelle de Borchgrave Meets Mariano Fortuny, at the Bellevue Art Museum.

Using the exquisite dresses designed by Fortuny (1871-1949) as a point of departure, Isabelle de Borchgrave concocted other-worldly dream dresses out of paper—painted, glued, torn, crumpled. A few have backdrops made entirely of paper, like the tent pavilion pictured below. Some of the other-worldliness comes from surprise and fascination—full size dresses fashioned of paper instead of fabric. Tissue thin veils sway in the breeze. Some of the other-worldliness comes from the evocation of the legendary past—Moorish, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Japanese patterns painted in tromp l’oeil on the paper.

But for me, most of the other-worldliness comes from being cast into a realm of fantastic imagination. Some of these dresses had presences. Standing before a tent pavilion, watching gossamer paper drapes ripple, I rang with possibility. Lines of poetry filled my mind, ideas for stories, and shapes for a sculpture project I’m working on.

You never know what will make the bells ring and bring you alive. Never know what will converge with your current creative tuning and set you on fire. So seek things out. Fantastic worlds of imagination await, if you make time to open yourself to the gossamer of possibility. 

Seek experiences that ignite your imagination,
and the bells will ring.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Poetry Friday: ALWAYS WINTER

This is a poem by twelve-year-old Eva Dehart, from my novel, Eva of the Farm. Eva's parents have to sell the apple orchard where she lives, called the Farm, due to the bad economy and the fire blight that destroyed the crop.


Yellow school buses squirt
down the snowy road
like Twinkies on wheels.
I wait for mine to gobble me up--
wait beside the "For Sale" sign
swinging in the wind.

I want to stay home on the orchard
instead of sitting
packed like a sardine in school.
I want summer--
     crickets rampaging
     hammock swinging
     skylight shining
     fish biting.

My bus screeches to a stop
to pick me up.
I stomp up the steps
into a stink like the inside
of an old man's boot.

Through the steamy window
I see Dad pruning the apple trees.
See scraggly branches
littering the snow like giant antlers--
and know that it is still winter
and probably always will be--
because there will never be
another summer
at the Farm--
because I will no longer be
Eva of the Farm.

--Eva of the Farm

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

7:30 BELLS Guest Post: ASKING QUESTIONS by Nina Laden

Author NINA LADEN inspires us with what makes the bells ring for her
in this month's 7:30 BELLS Guest Post.

The secret to writing for me, perhaps even the secret to life, is asking questions. You have to maintain a child-like wonder, even in the face of adversity. By being curious you will continually learn, open doors in your mind, and you will hear those bells ring.

I went through a very dark period of my life with one family crisis after another and it took the literary wind out of my sails. I couldn’t write the clever and funny picture books that I was known for and I worried that I never would get out of the hole I was in. However I kept journaling and writing what I could here and there. I also kept taking my long beach walks, looking for treasure, looking for answers, and asking questions.

One day, I found an eagle feather on the beach. Eagles live near our home on Lummi Island and their feathers fall on the beach all the time. I have always loved the delicate nature of feathers and the majestic beauty of eagles. I picked up the feather, tested it in the wind, and felt the power that it had to be able to carry the weight of such a big bird, and how it could allow it to soar so smoothly. My own life was not soaring at that time.

I held that feather and I asked myself, “does a feather remember it once was a bird?” Wondering, possibly subconsciously, “do I remember I once was an author and illustrator?” I also started thinking about the Native American legend that eagle feathers must stay where they land so that they can return to the creator, so I photographed the feather and put it down.

As I walked back home, I started asking myself more questions because of that first one: “Does a feather remember it once was a bird? Does a book remember it once was a word? Does a chair remember it once was a tree? Does a garden remember it once was a pea?” I had started writing a poem and I had to run up the hill to my cottage to write it down before I forgot it.

All of those questions eventually became my new book “Once Upon A Memory” which just came out with publisher Little, Brown and Company. Renata Liwska did the gorgeous illustrations. Now the only question that I have is “what will be the next question that starts me down the road to a new book and lets me hear those bells ring again and again?”

Open doors in your mind
 and hear the bells ring

Thank you Nina, for sharing this inspiring essay and making me wonder what I am that I might have forgotten. 

Nina Laden is an award-winning, bestselling children's book author and illustrator who lives in Seattle and on Lummi Island, WA, but mostly she lives in her imagination. She grew up in the New York City area, the daughter of two artists, and received a BFA from Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts. She has over a dozen books in print including The Night I Followed the Dog, When Pigasso Met Mootisse, and Roberto: The Insect Architect.
Learn more about Nina Laden and her books at her website and blog.

7:30  BELLS Posts runs every Tuesday. Guest Posts run on the second Tuesday of every month. Join me next month when author Laura Kvasnosky shares what makes the bells ring for her.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Librarian Kathleen Dale brings books alive for kids

As part of the Smack Dab in the Classroom series,  I am so pleased to offer librarian Kathleen Dale's imaginative ideas for engaging kids with middle grade books.

Dia Calhoun: How do you engage a group of kids with the same book?  Kids who might have different interests?

Kathleen Dale: It is always difficult to find one book that 100% of the kids will love.  Motivated students will read anything, so I try to get my students motivated by doing a classroom/library setup for the book.  Here is an example of how I got all the kids on board reading the following books:

Revenge of the Whale by Nathanial Philbrick
I hang fishnets from the ceiling, a calendar of whales and dolphins (picture side out) laminated together and dangle them on strings, small fish dangling around the classroom, a sailors uniform, a giant wallpaper map of the world covering the back wall, an outline of a boat on the floor when students come in with a life-size skeleton laying on it with blood dripping around it, and lots of fog when students arrive.   I set up eight different stations around the classroom or library. At each station is a dictionary and laminated vocabulary words I think students will struggle with during the book.  Also at each station I have a variety of items to go with the story, such as music at one station, of songs of the sea, cake donuts and water to represent hardtack and the lack of fresh water, rough oyster shells to represent barnacles, etc. After going to each station, their task is to write a short story of what they think the book (our class novel) is about.  During the book we track, on the world map with pins, the route of the whale ship Essex.
I have done this with Beowulf, A New Telling by Robert Nye, Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, Peak by Roland Smith and lots more.

In the library, I do the same set up and then display alike books.  I hang the vocabulary words in the library along with the display, and then have a writing contest about the sea to go with the display.

Dia Calhoun: Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids’ imaginations on fire?

Kathleen Dale: Reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, I covered the back wall of my classroom with white butcher paper and divided it into four sections with marker.  I labeled each section: poetry, articles, comments and thoughts.  After reading the book for that day I allowed approximately seven minutes for students to take markers and fill up the sections.  Under comments, students were allowed to draw a line and make a comment on another’s comments. I even had teachers coming in and commenting on some of the things the students wrote.  We did this each day until we finished the book.  Here is a poem one student wrote, “I have been warned once, but I did not pay heed. I have been warned twice, but I did not believe. I have been warned thrice but will only ignore, I’ve been warned once again only to close the door.  And now before me is a horrible fate, I cannot turn back, it is too late.”

Dia Calhoun: Have you ever done something “outside the box” that worked really well?

Kathleen Dale: Yes, the book club I started eight years ago has expanded from thirty-six to over 100.  We hold our book club four times a year before school.  As a teacher I taught Literature Circles and loved giving the students choice.  For my library book club I choose and read thirteen to fourteen different selections of books.  When students arrive they sit at the table that is marked with the book they read, discuss that selection, eat breakfast and listen to the book talks for the next book club. 

Dia Calhoun: If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be? 

Kathleen Dale: Give students all the prior knowledge they need to help them understand the book.  Too many teachers just plop a classic in to a students’ hands and expect them to love the book as much as the teacher. Before giving students To Kill A Mockingbird, read aloud Mississippi Trial 1955, and then as you read aloud this young adult novel, bring in articles about the Jim Crow Laws, the facts about the south during the 1950’s, have them read articles, and show them pictures/videos about the courthouse where the trial took place.  The students’ love of literature is directly related to the understanding the student has prior to reading.  Make reading fun and motivate them to read.

Thank you so much for these wonderful ideas, Kathleen Dale! 
Kathleen Dale is a Media Specialist at Riverview Junior High School in Utah. 

My Smack-dab-in-the-Classroom series first runs on the 23rd day of each month on the Smack-dab-in-the-middle blog. Then it is re-posted here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Cathedral of Winter

In the rain and wind that followed Thanksgiving, the last leaves fell. On my walk, I was transfixed by this tree, by its dark branches spiraling against the sky. I felt as though I stood in a Cathedral of Winter looking up though the stained glass window of the world.

Most years, I count down the dark days until spring comes. But this year, winter speaks to me of its sanctity, maybe because I’ve embraced it, instead of only enduring it to get somewhere else. And I wonder, what else in my life I might embrace instead of endure?

Winter is Treebone Time. What sun there is can reach the bone.

Embrace where you are, and the world reveals its sanctity

Monday, December 2, 2013

Seattle Times calls AFTER THE RIVER THE SUN a "don't-miss" offering

I am so pleased to have been included in today's Seattle Times article
recommending AFTER THE RIVER THE SUN as a holiday read for kids and teens.

Head into the holiday break with NW books for kids and teens
Kids, teens and young adults in need of a read over the holiday break will be absorbed in these new books by Northwest authors, including George Shannon, Kelly Milner Halls, Patrick Jennings, Kirby Larson, Dia Calhoun, April Henry and Patrick Flores-Scott.