Good, Not Perfect

Two years ago today, something little short of miraculous happened.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

I witnessed the launch of my first published novel.

It wasn’t the first book I’d ever written. I started my first novel when I was fifteen and labored over it lovingly all through high school and part of college. Then one day, I knew I’d outgrown it. It was crushing to realize that it wasn’t my magnum opus, and that it wasn’t going to be published. I lovingly, sadly filed it away in the proverbial drawer. And I started work on a new book. That one ended up in the drawer too. And the next one.

And then came the book that would become The Illuminator’s Gift. Five years of writing and rewriting–by the shores of an English lake, in the middle of the night, in bed with whooping cough, in fingerless gloves on bitterly cold mornings. A book whose first draft was 100,000 words long. A book that went through at least three titles and about thirty secondary characters, half of whom never made it into the final. A book whose story I didn’t know until I finished it. In some ways, it came to me like a gift.

As I was getting close to finishing, I held long debates with myself over whether this was The Book That Ought To Be Published. I studied literature and writing in college, and I knew enough to see that this was not a perfect book. Should it end up in the drawer with all the other defunct novels? Should I wait to publish until I wrote Something Perfect?

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Well, I decided to go for it. Because I knew that this book had come to me like a gift, and a gift is meant for sharing. I also had the sneaking suspicion that if I chickened out on this book and hid it away out of a sense of fear and rampant perfectionism, I might never work up the nerve to publish anything. After all, when am I really going to write Something Perfect? When is anybody? (Okay, Tolkien excepted.)

And there’s a time to let go of Something Perfect and go forward with Something Good.

This was it.

Not that I don’t still sometimes wonder why on earth I decided to share this imperfect book with the world. (Especially the first time someone found a typo in the book.)

But when it comes down to it, I’m awfully glad I did.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Because it started me on a path of saying yes to projects that are Good-Not-Perfect. Stuff like taking a solo roadtrip to a monastery (and nervously checking my tire pressure approximately 954 times). Like signing up to take graduate-level seminary classes. Like speaking in front of 200 fourth-graders. Like writing, editing, and publishing a second book within a year of the first (and writing a third, due out next year).

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” And as one Good-Not-Perfect project–writing, relationships, teaching–leads to another, this paradigm is shaping my life. With practice, I’m becoming better able to accept what is good in life, even if it’s not perfect. And for this life I am most deeply grateful.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

What are some of the good-not-perfect things in your life?

World Literacy Project 2015

Quick! Before Thanksgiving arrives, it’s time for the World Literacy Project 2015!

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(This is my own private nonprofit initiative, which involves decorating a pumpkin with words from a poem or other literary selection. Raising the world’s literacy levels, one pumpkin at a time. World-changing, isn’t it?)

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Previous years’ selections have ranged from Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” to a particularly sentimental line from The Illuminator’s Gift.

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So, can you guess this year’s poem? I even added some decorative features to help you out 🙂

Comment below if you know the poem’s title and/or author!

All Noisy on the Book Front

Good news! As my summer marathon of writing chugs forward (and Book 3 makes surprising twists and turns) all is not quiet on the book front (hehe, catch that Remarque reference?). Here are some exciting updates in the life of the Voyages of the Legend series:

1. New bookstore!

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I’m thrilled to partner with Bookasaurus, the children’s division of Leigh’s Favorite Books, in Sunnyvale. This charming independent book/toy shop is a paradise for the young and young at heart. A fixture of the community, Bookasaurus now carries both The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test. And the manager, Heather, is a real-life adventure heroine. At just 21, she goes to school, runs a bookshop, and reads every book she stocks. Hearing that she liked The Illuminator’s Gift was praise indeed. I want to be her when I grow up.

So check out this independent gem and shop local for your next book copy!

2. Five-star review!

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I was also thrilled to hear that Readers’ Favorite, an independent book-review service, recently gave The Illuminator’s Test a 5-star review!  Here’s an excerpt:

The author’s language is exquisite and the detailed descriptions make the scenes come alive. The simple and elegant style of writing gives good pace and movement to the plot and the story moves forward fluidly. It resonates with young readers along the lines of the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings with lot of adventure and whimsy that will make readers dream and imagine.

Don’t know if I can really compete with Tolkien and Rowling, but I’m quite flattered anyway.

Speaking of reviews, if you’ve read one or both Illuminator books, would you take a second to leave a review on Amazon? In the indie-publishing world, reviews from readers strongly influence what gets read. Many thanks!

Stay tuned for more events and updates in the works!

A Whole Weekend of Books

I am finally sitting down to review the Bay Area Book Festival! Sometimes life just rolls in like a bulldozer…

This event was the first of its kind in the East Bay, with an estimated 50-60,000 people in attendance. Two days of nonstop immersion in books and readers. So. Much. Fun.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

For starters, I learned that my little 5-seater car can tote 250 books, 3 carts, a box of art prints, and all sorts of other necessary festival paraphernalia. And still leave room to see out the back.

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On June 6-7, whole city blocks of Berkeley were closed to traffic and lined with tables and booths. My illustrator, Amalia Hillmann, and I had a table in the Children’s Area. We had copies of The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test, a coloring book, art prints of the illustrations (now online here), stickers, bookmarks, and all sorts of fun. There was a little of everything in the space around us: independent author displays, publishing houses, educational foundations, a guy twisting balloon dolphins and swords, and some amazing food trucks.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

I didn’t get away from the table much, but I did check out the art installation at the center of the festival. Lacuna was an interactive sculpture designed to feel like an outdoor library. It was stocked with 50,000 donated books that were free for people to take home. And did they ever! By the end of the weekend, the shelves were almost bare.

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Book jackets fluttered overhead, like the winged ideas enclosed within books.

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Our blue-draped Illuminator table saw a lot of action over the weekend. The Children’s Area was busy almost constantly. It was fun to chat with readers both young and young at heart (I was surprised at how many young readers preferred paperbacks to e-books). I even met a girl named Ellie. She was excited to find a book with a heroine who shared her name. 

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

On Saturday we had my amazing mom in residence, painting Vestigian designs on kids’ hands in shimmery metallic colors.

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We also had coloring pages and a box of crayons available. I liked this neon-pink version of Aletheia. The young artist explained that he was helping the islands with their advertising.

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Authors and illustrators gave presentations on a nearby stage throughout the weekend. After her presentation, I got to meet LeUyen Pham, who illustrated Shannon Hale’s latest book, The Princess in Black. She is just as nice as she is talented. She even bought a copy of The Illuminator’s Gift. My only regret is that I didn’t take a picture with her.

By the end of the weekend, I was exhausted, but satisfied. Though I’m not really a big-crowds person, I enjoyed meeting such a diverse assortment of people who all shared my favorite interest: reading. The organizers say they’re already planning next year’s festival for the first weekend in June.

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Photo credit: Amalia Hillmann

I asked one young boy what he liked to read. He answered, “Books!”

That pretty much sums it up.

Literary Candyland

Phew! It’s been a busy month! So far I’ve visited four school groups, with one more to come later this week: one public, one private, and two homeschool co-ops. We’ve done fun activities like making up fantasy names, exploring our 5 senses, and drawing fantasy maps. These students, ranging in age from 8 to 15, consistently amaze me with their insight, creativity, and perseverance. One group was made up of mostly students with dyslexia who use software like Dragon, Siri, or Kindle text-to-speech to overcome their difficulties with print media. Some of them are writing books (or even sequels to books) of their own. It’s always an honor and a joy to meet these fearless young writers. (For details on how to schedule a visit for the 2015-2016 school year, check out my Speaking page.)

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With the school year winding down, it’s now time to mark your calendar for the first bookish event of this summer. I’m SO excited for this one. On June 6-7, downtown Berkeley will be closed to cars and open to readers! The Bay Area Book Festival is the first free, public literary event of its kind in the East Bay. The event is family-friendly and even has a whole area dedicated to children and another for teens. It will be like literary Candyland for two whole days! Here are some reasons to get excited:

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-Appearances by big-time authors like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and Judy Blume

A sculpture built of 50,000 books that readers can take home with them!

-Fun activities like book-themed sidewalk chalk painting, a dance performance by the Ballet Folklorico Mexicano, a giant gecko, a farmer’s market, a chance to play with typewriters, and a petting zoo with a baby kangaroo

-An art installation of flying, talking books

-A visit with illustrator Amalia Hillmann and me! We’ll be at a table in the Children’s Area by City Hall, along with lots of other authors, bookstores, and book-related activity booths, including a stage where performances will be going on all weekend. At our table we’ll have coloring pages and face painting from The Voyages of the Legend, lots of different art prints and some cool new art products, and of course, copies of both The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test. We’ll even be unveiling a reprinted edition of The Illuminator’s Gift at the event, complete with a map and some new illustrations!

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I can’t wait for the Bay Area Book Festival! All the details are on the event website. It will be a weekend of nonstop book fun! I hope to see you there!

Read Like A Girl/Boy?

There’s been a lot of buzz about gender-divided reading lately. Last month Shannon Hale, author of Princess Academy, blogged about her frustrations with gender-divided school visits. Because some of her books have the word “princess” in the title (and perhaps because she’s a female author), some schools have excused their girls to attend Hale’s assemblies, but not their boys, assuming–or forcing–boys’ disinterest. Yet Hale reports the story of a boy who asked to buy her princess book by whispering in her ear, too ashamed to admit it in front of either classmates or teachers.

Then last week, The Independent announced that it would no longer review books marketed to exclude either sex. For example, Buster Books markets books with titles like “The Beautiful Girls’ Coloring Book” and “The Brilliant Boys’ Coloring Book,” limiting the former to topics like fashion and the latter to sports, and using cover colors like pink and blue as cues. The Independent pointed out that such marketing is demeaning to kids, who are people of complex and diverse personalities. Some girls like to play and read about sports; some boys grow up to be fashion writers. The Independent further argued that the best books have universal appeal. Instead of spending energy marketing “boy books” or “girl books,” the publication urged putting out good books and letting people pick their own. Both girls and boys, for example, devour Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, undeterred by the sex of the protagonist and unaided by a pink or blue cover. It makes sense from my own experience: as a kid, I read and loved both Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, simply because both were great books.

As an author and educator, I feel drawn to this debate. Reading fiction is all about identification with a character: learning to see the world through another pair of eyes. If you want to live many lives in the space of one, read books. When kids first start reading, they tend to choose protagonists who are similar to them in age, personality, and life circumstances. This is also true of gender: when they are beginning readers, my girl students tend to choose books about girls, and boys about boys. But the power of reading doesn’t leave us where we are. As we grow and mature as readers, we learn to see the world through eyes other than our own. It’s called empathy, and fiction has been proven to increase this skill. As adults (especially those in the roles of parents and teachers), it’s our job to expose kids to books about people who are not like them. It’s part of raising kind, thoughtful, and compassionate human beings.

As a writer of children’s literature, I feel especially strongly about this. The Illuminator’s Gift features a female protagonist. True, many of my readers are girls who identify with Ellie, a 12-year-old girl. But some of my readers are boys who identify with Ellie too. They’ve told me she’s their favorite character in the book because she’s kind and finds the courage to be brave when she needs to. The fact that she’s a girl doesn’t change that. That’s why I have never advertised my books as being only “for girls,” despite my female protagonist. I applaud these boys who are learning to see through the eyes of someone who is different from them.

Ultimately, it seems to me unjust that a child should be discouraged from reading a book because of their sex. Whether by gender-based marketing or discriminatory school policies, to keep a boy out of a female author’s school visit or label a book on rocketships and backhoes as being only for “Brilliant Boys” seems like a form of soft censorship. How can one person predetermine what another may read, on the basis of sex of all things? Why not filter their reading based on class, ethnicity, or shoe size? Sound like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Giver? (It’s no wonder reading speculative fiction is connected with having better ethics.) Kids (and adults) should never be shamed or pressured out of reading a book on the basis of gender expectations. To do so limits the ideas they’re exposed to, and thereby the amount of imagination, compassion, and empathy they can develop. It’s cutting off our own nose by handicapping our society’s future.

My caveat to this is as an educator. Some of my students are reluctant readers who struggle with comprehension, let alone finding enjoyment in reading. For these students, I place the love of reading as the first and highest priority. I give these students books that are as easy as possible for them to identify with. For my beginner boy students, I choose books with male protagonists and subject matter I know the students will enjoy. It’s most important to me that my students learn to associate reading with pleasure. If that connection isn’t there, they will never reach for the ideas and empathy that harder books can teach them. Only once that reading-for-fun habit is established do I challenge them to read about characters who are different from themselves. Only then can they begin to appreciate the Anne Shirleys, the Jo Marches, the Karanas of literature.

Have you tuned in to the debates on gender-divided reading? Share your thoughts in the comments! 

Get ready! Get set!

Today is Friday, November 21, 2014.

That means there are just 9 DAYS ‘til the release of Book 2, The Illuminator’s Test, on 12/1/2014!

And I have something special to show you…

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The book cover!!! It’s here, thanks to my talented illustrator Amalia Hillmann, who also did the amazing interior illustrations for this book. Here’s a teaser of the inside…!!

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Haven’t read Book 1 yet? You’re just in time! The e-book version of the award-winning first novel The Illuminator’s Gift will be on sale on Amazon.com over Thanksgiving weekend! It’ll be 99 cents on Black Friday, $1.99 on Small Business Saturday, and $2.99 on…whatever that Sunday is called. Then Book 2, The Illuminator’s Test, releases on Cyber Monday, 12/1!

To celebrate the book release, here are some fun events coming up! Watch for more news here, on my Facebook page, and on Twitter. Or sign up to get updates ahead of time by subscribing to my e-mail newsletter!

11/24-12/12: The Illuminator’s Test tours the Internet! Watch for advance reader reviews, go behind the scenes of the writing process, and even listen to a radio interview! First stop will be an advance review on The Book Sage book review blog on Monday, 11/24. The rest of the stops are posted on my News & Events page and on my social media pages.

12/7: Sidewalk chat at Recycle Books, Campbell! I’ll be hanging out at the sidewalk table outside of Recycle Books with book reviewer Lloyd Russell between 10:15 and 12:15. Stop by and pick up a copy of The Illuminator’s Test or just chat about books (which is my favorite thing ever).

12/13: Book launch party at Village House of Books! Want to get your paperback copy of The Illuminator’s Test in time for Christmas, have it signed, and hang out with illustrator Amalia Hillmann and me, all at the same time? Then come to the book launch party being held at Village House of Books in Los Gatos! On Saturday, December 13, the new store on 21 W Main Street will stay open for us after hours and we can party! Treats, face painting, and art activities from 6:30-7:30, then a read-along, Q&A session, and book signing from 7:30-8. Stop by for a few minutes or stay all evening! Hope you can make it!

Even more fun events are spinning together for 2015! I’m already making plans to speak for some fantastic schools, homeschool groups, and book clubs to help kids and teens get excited about reading and writing. I’d love to come visit your organization too! To book me as a speaker for 2015, send me an e-mail

So very many exciting things happening! Buckle your seatbelts; here we go! 

Research on the Weather Deck

Some people think all writers do is sit in dimly lit rooms in their pajamas and commune with the muse. And that’s some of what we do, some of the time.

But when we’re not working our day jobs, making marketing plans, lifting boxes of books, talking to classrooms of kids, crunching numbers, or creating charming social media profiles…

…we might be out doing research.

Sometimes research looks like a Google search. (Heaven knows I have enough weird sites bookmarked to make the government very suspicious.) Sometimes research looks like interviewing a knowledgeable person.

But sometimes it looks like getting on a boat.

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Both The Illuminator’s Gift and its upcoming sequel, The Illuminator’s Test, feature the Legend, a flying ship in the fantasy world of Aletheia. But flying ship though it may be, it still needs to imitate some behaviors of a water ship. Between my history of seasickness and a lack of physical coordination, I had almost no experience with sailing. But when one of my excellent test readers pointed out some major holes in my sailing scenes, I knew it was time to get some.

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Enter the Hawaiian Chieftain, Tall Ship and companion to the Lady Washington (better known as the Interceptor from Pirates of the Caribbean). This ship travels up and down the West Coast every year, doing educational tours and teaching landlubbers like me a thing or two about sailing. So my trusty sales manager/photographer/mom and I set out to see the sea (or at least the San Joaquin River).

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Captain Eamon was incredibly patient in teaching me the ropes–er, lines. In two jam-packed hours, I learned the difference between a ketch and a schooner, a mainmast and a mizzenmast, a jib and a topsail, and of course, a rope and a line. (A rope is a line without a job.)

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More importantly, I learned things the Internet could never have taught me–for example, how much a line weighs. (Answer: a lot.) I got a chance to help trim the sails alongside the crew. Thank you to Bailey and Jamie for giving me a chance to get some rope burns and personal experience.

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I also got to watch some crewmembers climb the shrouds to trim the topsails. It looked fun, but also precarious on this windy day. Unfortunately, passengers were not allowed up (liability issues). Even the working crew clipped themselves on with climbing hooks to keep from falling/flying off.

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Best of all, I got to steer the boat for about twenty seconds. The Hawaiian Chieftain has very sophisticated navigation equipment (what my characters wouldn’t give for a GPS!) but it still has a beautifully old-fashioned helm.

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After a fun and exhausting day of research, I learned two valuable lessons:

1) I would make a terrible sailor.

2) Writing is much improved by hands-on experience.

Keep a weather eye out for the influence of the Hawaiian Chieftain in The Illuminator’s Test, coming December 1st! 

Even on Tuesdays, Dreams Do Come True

About 11 years ago, a hopeful teenager bought a red sign that said “Future Award-Winning Author At Work.”

She hung it on the doorknob of her cave during writing sessions. It motivated her, kept her optimistic. (It also warned the family not to disturb her unless the house was burning down.) She wondered if someday she’d be able to cross out the word “Future.” As she prepared to release her first novel about a year ago, she even blogged about that dream.

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Well, yesterday it came true.

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At about 11 AM, I received The Call, informing me that The Illuminator’s Gift had won a silver medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards! I entered this award back in July and was just coming to the conclusion that nothing was going to come of it (as many of my contest entries have over the years). But some dreams do come true, even on Tuesdays!

Among 1,300 international, independently published entries, The Illuminator’s Gift was second place in the Best First Book (Chapter Book) category! The full listing of contest winners is here (TIG is in category #38)! I’m over the moon (no pun intended) with excitement. Writing books, while full of passion and purpose, can be a long and lonely road,  and validation from the outside is a welcome exhortation not to give up. Especially since there’s a lot left to do on Book #2 before its December release…

After a dizzy day of trying to work in spite of sheer euphoria, texting friends, and celebrating with family, perhaps the sweetest moment was when I took my gold sharpie and did something I’ve dreamed of doing for a very long time. I crossed out a word on my red sign.

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I’d like to send this photo back in time to my shy, geeky high school self, the girl with the pimples and the big vocabulary, who wondered so often if her dreams would ever become reality.

Hang in there, girl. Believe in the gift you’ve been given. Someday the future will be the now.

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How Do I Revise Thee? Let Me Count The Ways…

Blogging has been (and will probably continue to be) spotty this month, because I am revising the draft of my NEW NOVEL–a sequel to The Illuminator’s Gift!

So, in one of my brief appearances above ground, I’ll give you a quick, behind-the-scenes tour of my revision process.

It starts with my stellar team of test readers, who critique confidential advance copies of the manuscript. These amazing people are kind of like FBI agents, only with better punctuation.

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I pore over their comments for hours.

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Then, using all 3 cells from the left side of my brain, I consolidate their comments into a spreadsheet. I look for patterns and common themes.

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Using the comments, I map out a revision plan, using color-coded post-it notes for different sections of the book. Yet another reason I love office supplies.

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Then it’s back to the drawing board–simultaneously the most rewarding and most grueling part of the revision process. Just when I’ve finished writing a whole book, I have to write some more. But on the other hand, I get to write some more (longhand, of course), which is my favorite thing. It’s like having a play date with my characters.

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Then it’s time to type up what I’ve written, editing as I go. I go over the entire manuscript, paying attention to skipped words and long sentences as well as overall structure and flow, trying to make every scene fit seamlessly with the others. (Sneaky writer tip: it’s way easier to write a good beginning when you’ve already written the end.)

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Sometimes revision seems like a neverending process, gobbling up hours and hours and hours on end. But just when I think I can’t keep going…

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…ice cream makes all sorts of things happen.

If you’re a teacher or homeschool group coordinator located in the SF Bay Area, I talk about things like the revision process in my classroom visits! If you’re interested in scheduling a visit, send me an e-mail