My husband loves photography, and he creates these wonderful photo books for our family at the end of every year and to commemorate trips and other special things. We have a whole collection of photo books in our living room now, and our kids often gather up a stack of them, get cozy on the couch, and flip through the pages. A lot of their clearest memories from when they were younger come from the photos they’ve seen over and over in the books and the stories we’ve told to go along with the pictures.
Recently, he made one for a trip we took to the beach in Delaware last summer with my extended family, and it’s filled with so many joyful, special pictures of our kids with their cousins. I’m so grateful that we have it because that trip WAS joyful and special and full of beautiful, memorable moments. And it was also really, really hard (as most trips with young children probably are).
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You can see glimpses of the hard parts in some of the photos. I was having a bad inflammatory arthritis flare during part of the week, and I’m wearing a knee brace in a few pictures. I can tell where one kid’s eyes are a little red because they’d just been crying. I remember the meltdown that came right after the shot of our really delightful hike.
This photo book is not for Facebook or Instagram. It isn’t something for us to show off to anyone else to prove how much fun we had. It’s for us—so we can remember how much fun we had. Not to push away or forget about the harder parts, but so the harder parts don’t take up too much space when we look back.
The thing is, I don’t need a reminder of the hard moments. I have a kid with sensory processing challenges who is understandably triggered by a lot of things on vacations and big outings and gatherings, and whose sleep is very easily thrown off. I remember all the things that felt explosively, unmanageably hard for her and for me on that trip. I think about some of them—for better or for worse—when I try to decide whether or not some new adventure sounds doable.
But I do need a concrete reminder of the best parts, and I think my kids do, too. So that the bonds with family members and the experiences they loved are the central parts of the narrative they hold onto about that trip—and about themselves. So that I can look at adorable pictures of the kids at Funland, which I tried to convince our daughter to skip because I thought she’d hate an amusement park, but she insisted she was up for it and did an amazing job of deciding what rides and areas she was okay with and what would be too much. She did, in fact, have a whole lot of fun that afternoon at Funland. We all did.
The photo book reminds me of something I wrote about a year ago, in the very first newsletter I sent out. Last December, I was reflecting on what happens when it doesn’t work so well to “focus on what we can control”—as writers are often advised to do. One of the things I said in that first newsletter was that I wanted to try to flip that idea around and control what I focused on, as much as I could, when I assessed how I was doing with writing and publishing things. I wanted to focus on the wins along the way even when I didn’t accomplish big goals. I wanted to pay attention to the glimmering, rewarding moments even if some of my hopes and dreams didn’t pan out.
I know that isn’t always possible. There are times when we just need to feel our frustration or sadness or disappointment. This is a tender time of the year for many of us. If you’re a writer who has published a book this year, you’re probably bombarded with best of 2022 lists and gift guides everywhere you look, and it hurts to feel overlooked if your book doesn’t get attention on those roundups. It hurts if it only got one or two trade reviews, so it doesn’t feel like it even had a chance to be considered and will struggle to get discovered. (This is something I’ve been feeling a lot.)
Or if you didn’t meet all the ambitious goals and resolutions you set for yourself earlier in the year—whether those were things you thought were in your control (though look back at my essay from last December for more on that) like finishing a certain project, or things not fully in your control, like getting an agent or a book deal or promotion. I know that can hurt to reflect on, too.
But here’s what I’m wondering. What if—when we’re ready—we could create our own version of a keepsake photo book to control a little bit of what we focus on as we look back at our year as a writer/author/teacher/parent/etc. What would that look like for you? What would it include? What are the joyful, satisfying, proud, meaningful milestones and moments that you want to hold on to? How about the really subtle ones that no one else can even see?
Here are some of the ones I thought of for myself:
-Opening the box of author copies of Coming Up Short with my kids.
-The Instagram Live conversation I had with Emma Kress just after the book came out.
-The time I looked at Twitter last month and saw that someone had asked for a recommendation of a middle grade novel about softball, and several writers and educators I admire had promptly and enthusiastically recommended Coming Up Short.
-The email I got from two middle schoolers in Iowa who loved Up for Air and Coming Up Short and were hoping I could write a volleyball book next if I had the time.
-The sixth graders in Pittsburgh who applauded when I got to the part of my virtual school visit presentation that’s about Saint Ivy because they’d connected with that story so deeply.
-Taking photos with kids who got their very own signed copies of my books and treated me like a legitimate celebrity at a really special school visit in October.
-Signing copies of Coming Up Short in the Abrams booth at NCTE for a line full of passionate, dedicated teachers, many of whom told me they knew exactly which kid they just had to get the book to first.
-The feeling of finally, finally finishing a draft of my next novel and reading the whole thing over and realizing I love it.
-The email I got from a critique partner saying how much joy that novel draft was bringing her during a stressful time.
-The fact that I haven’t beaten myself up about not immediately jumping into working on something new after turning in a draft. (Progress for me!)
-The spark I’ve been feeling every once in a while lately when I read or see or hear something that inspires me and I think, “There’s something there that could be part of a story I’d love to write even though I don’t know exactly what it is yet.”
How about you? I’d love it if you’d reply to this newsletter email or write a comment to share one or more of your moments or milestones with me if you’re comfortable. I hope it feels good to you to brainstorm some of these kinds of highlights, and . . . I don’t know—maybe we should make some kind of highlights booklet or something as a keepsake for ourselves, so we can cozy up on the couch and flip through it if we need to.
Another quick challenge:
At some point before Thanksgiving, when all my writing and publishing friends on Twitter seemed to be migrating over to Hive, I created an account there, and for a few days before it stopped working, it seemed like a really lovely place to be. There were a bunch of fun Q&A challenges, and one of them, posted by Nova Ren Suma, included the question, “What’s your favorite thing you ever wrote?” I thought about that one for a while, and my very specific answer was: chapters 18 and 32 of Saint Ivy. Those scenes felt like they captured some ideas and feelings I’d tried to explore for a long time in just the way I wanted to. How about you? If you’re a fellow writer, I’d love to know your favorite, too.
Books and Gifts!
I meant to write my December newsletter early in the month, when there was a lot more time left before the holidays, but colds and fevers pink eye and ear infections have kept my kids home from school over and over, and now here we are on December 15th. What I’d planned to tell you is that if you’d like to give any of my books as a holiday gift, you can order a signed and personalized copy at Children’s Book World, the awesome independent bookstore that has hosted all of my book launch events, and they’ll ship it out after I stop in. We’re cutting the time a little close now, I know, but you can still order via that link above! Or I’m also happy to mail a signed bookplate, bookmark, and note to your gift recipient if you want to order one of my books from somewhere else. The books are all best for ages 10-14 (or for anyone who has ever been 10-14 :)).
And if you want to give me a holiday gift, one of the best ways to help authors is to leave reviews online. So if you or a young reader in your life has read or enjoyed any of my books, especially the newest ones, I’d be so grateful if you’d leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads—or recommend the book to someone else.
What I’m Reading:
I just finished Debbi Michiko Florence’s delightful Sweet and Sour, which I held off on reading until I’d turned in my next book because I thought there might be some similarities in the setup between the two main characters. There only sort of were, but it’s wonderful, and perfect for middle school readers who like a little romance. Now I’m in the middle of The Real Deal by Lindsey Stoddard, who is definitely the real deal—one of the best authors of accessible, empowering, character-driven middle grade novels around, as far as I’m concerned, and her new book is fabulous.
Thank you, as always, for reading. Happy holidays, happy new year, and I’ll see you again in 2023.
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Hi, Laurie! I love your photo book tradition. What you said about focusing on the good things resonates with me. I tend to focus on anxiety producing, negative things. So I am trying to be intentional about focusing on what’s good and lovely.
Some of the most favorite things that I’ve written came about through VCFA—the two YA novels I completed. They are favorites because after a while I reached what I call a tinkering stage. No one was looking for them. I didn’t have to please a crowd who had no idea these manuscripts existed. I could revise at leisure and enjoy the journey.