Tag Archives: stephen swinburne

Take stock

Taking Stock


It is good, as a writer, every now and then, to pause in the relentless angling for words. To take stock, inventory. To take a deep breath and look around at your stuff. I sometimes like to do this, to letup and ask myself: what am I working on? What should I be working on? What could I be working on? 

I recently took a week and half break from my writing. It was a wonderful 10 days of recharging my writing batteries. 

I was one of 9 lucky writers to spend a three-day weekend with Jane Yolen and her daughter, Heidi, at their home in Massachusetts. It was the first time Jane and Heidi offered a Picture Book Boot Camp. Jane shared her treasure trove of wisdom from years in the writing business. I can’t include all of the wonderful things she said, but here are a few “Jane’isms:”Image

“Turn off the internal editor…give yourself permission to write badly.” “A manuscript in a drawer doesn’t sell.” “Work on a variety of projects cause if you’re blocked on one, move to another…” “The eye and the ear are different listeners…read your work aloud…have someone else read it aloud.” “Picture books should have lyricism, sing-a-bility.” “The best motion in a picture book is turning the page.” “Make up words, stretch the language, find the right word.”

I drove away from Jane and friends bubbling over with inspiration and new directions. On the heels of the PBBC, I shuffled off to Boyds Mills, PA, to co-teach at the Highlights Writing for Science retreat. Working alongside host, Andy Boyles, and two gifted writers, Loree Griffin Burns and Gail Jarrow, we helped guide and hone our conferees’ science manuscripts. How great was it to view these stories in the raw, to know with hard work that the rough drafts could become complete and polished manuscripts ready for submission. Here are a few writing tips from the science writing workshop:Image

“”The job of the 1st paragraph is to get the reader to the 2nd paragraph” (Jerry Spinelli); “Always ask the question – why does it matter if this book is available to kids.” “The structure for your nonfiction proposal should be logical.” “A good magazine query is short and to the point (about 250 words).”  “When writing about science, look for real people who are solving or attempting to solve real problems.” “Scientists are passionate about their work – get that passion onto the page.”

This mini-escape was the perfect breather for me. It felt good to take stock, to talk business, and like Humpty Dumpty, to pull apart manuscripts and put them back together again. Now that I’ve stretched, catalogued and fine-tuned, it’s time to hit the refresh button.Image

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Back in the USA


Random thoughts on spending a lot of time in SE Asia…


 We arrived home to Vermont just in time for a mind-blowing 16-inch snowstorm. The ski areas around here (Stratton, Bromley and Magic Mountain) are running full speed and it appears the economy in Southern Vermont is buzzing. On the other side of the world, we hope all our friends are safe and sound with the news of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Kelud in Java, Indonesia.  




Other than this blog, I wrote very little. The school visits kept me plenty busy, and when I wasn’t visiting schools we were traveling on planes, buses and taxis. 




Singapore and Indonesia are wicked hot. They sit almost exactly on the equator; meaning everyday it is hot, like 88 degrees F. hot. No seasons. And very humid. About 80% to 100% humidity most days. I sweated buckets. 




Indonesians are lovely people. Helpful, kind and friendly. All you need to do when meeting an Indonesian stranger with a grumpy face coming down the street is crack a grin. Their face lights up like they’ve just won the lottery.





Indonesians are industrious. We heard many times: if Indonesians can sell something, they will. Scooter fuel (scooters are everywhere and I once saw 5 people on one scooter: dad, toddler, and mom holding two babies), fresh picked fruit (coconuts, jackfruit, lychee fruit), crackers, chickens, water bottles. 




The Singapore metro is the cleanest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The folks in charge of the subways in NYC and Paris and London could learn a thing or two. It’s a delight to travel by subway and millions of travelers do everyday. Throwing a cigarette butt in the MRT will get you a $10,000 fine and gum chewing is banned. There’s no funky smells and artwork adorns the walls. 




Singapore is not Indonesia. Despite its cosmopolitan and commercial vibe, Singapore preserves its large trees. It’s a city within a forest. Wherever I traveled in Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo), I observed little or no infrastructure to collect trash or recycle plastic. Plastic gets burned or worse, dumped into a nearby gutter or canal or river which  eventually leads to the sea. As a recycling advocate forever harping on about plastic waste it was eye-opening to spend a month in third-world countries. When you are poor and trying to make it to your next meal, disposing properly of your trash is not high priority. A huge challenge, for sure. The poor old ocean gets the brunt of the waste. Please check out this wonderful and touching film trailer about Midway Island and the Laysan albatross. 




One powerful memory of my trip to SE Asia will be the smart and funny and savvy students I met in every school I visited. These culturally diverse, globe-trotting kids helped make my assemblies and workshops a total blast! I’m so grateful to the wonderful schools who invited us from so far away: Stamford American International School, International School Riau at Rumbai, International School Riau at Duri, Surabaya International School and Pasir Ridge International School. Many, many thanks!


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Tales of a “tag along.”


  “Trailing spouse” is the term given to the spouses of teachers who come from America, Australia, Canada and Europe to teach in many of the International Schools here in Asia and around the world. Since Steve is not actually a teacher and I am a temporary trailer,  it seemed like “tag along” was more applicable; although neither term seems to have a very positive ring to it.  I am very involved in all aspects of putting together Steve’s school visits and everywhere we went I was made to feel as if I was an integral part of the package.   These daring, adventuresome people who choose to teach (sometimes for their whole lives) in exotic and occasionally politically unstable countries are a unique and wonderful breed. Some of them start right out of college and some at the time of their lives when most people are thinking about retiring to a life of leisure. The spouse is sometimes the one taking the biggest leap,not having any kind of job or routine to depend on to make the adjustment a little easier.  Since our experience is short term (only one month) and we are visiting four different destinations in Southeast Asia we have been able to have a wonderful enriching experience without any of the worries of long term commitments. Steve and I thought it would add a different perspective if I occasionally added some dialogue from the passenger’s seat. Cheers!  Heather Swinburne

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Word graveyards and flat tires

ImageToday we wrestled, we massaged, we hoed, we tweaked, we nipped and tucked. We became word warriors and sentence defoggers and paragraph clarifiers. We took on the job of word undertakers hauling tied and used words to the Word Graveyard. 


R.I.P. “move” “go” “stuff” “nice” “epic” “awesome” and most of all, “went.”


We transformed pre-school into a wild zoo, as we howled like wolves, hooted like owls, screamed like monkeys, and hissed like snakes. The teachers loved it, but the kids gloried in it. 


Second and third graders pounced all over my writing assignment to load up their writing with details. And, as one student declared, when I asked what a detail is, “You zoom into the small parts.” 


Fourth grade through eighth grade accepted my mission: Mission Verb Hunt. They kicked those weak verbs to the side of the road. Go became scramble and went became trundle. 


Tomorrow at the Farewell Assembly, we’ll celebrate with a reading of some the student’s  writing efforts. It’s gonna be awesome…I mean, magnificent! Will share a few sample of our work in a future post.


I can’t finish up this post without a mention of our after-school bike ride. Brian, the technology teacher, and his son, Rex, and Heather and I donned helmets and cycled out of the Chevron campus, and into the outskirts where village meets jungle. We were an hour out, making good time, mud-splattered, and searching the terrain for elephant tracks. Along a wide stretch of jungle road, my front tire blew out. Brian, our go-to guide and bike magician, tried desperately to repair the flat, but we were riding borrowed bikes and fixing wasn’t an option. We hobbled back to school, grabbing a lift from locals. After a shower and late dinner, we feel happy, tired and grateful for a comfortable place to lay down our tired bodies. Image

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Gibbon wake-up call

Gibbon wake-up call

We arrived in Sumatra two days ago and woke our first morning to the wild and bellowing call of the gibbon. I’ve woken to coyotes, owls, New York CIty taxi cabs, the Colorado River down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the haunting cry of sandhill cranes in Nebraska, but nothing prepared me for this in-your-face primate proclamation. I’ve learned these are territorial calls. No worries gibbons. This stretch of Sumatran jungle is all yours.

We are visiting two International School campuses in Sumatra, the 6th largest island in the world and home to more than 50 million people. (Vermont, where we live, has just over half a million people.) Once lush tropical rainforest covered Sumatra from coast to coast. Like so many habitat loss stories around the world, much of this biological wildlife paradise has been lost to development and palm oil plantations. Yet, deep, deep in the untracked remnants of forest live lovely reddish-brown orangutans, and even some last Sumatran rhinos.

Listen to a gibbon here:


January 20, 2014 · 1:43 pm

“Waves growling on the beach”

Day 2 at Stamford American Int. School and we continued the work of adding details to our writing, and look what 4th grader Aidan B. came up with when we did a quick write about sea turtle hatchlings on the beach: 


“The crystal-clear waves of the beach crashed and growled on the

shoreline. There was a faint aroma of salt in the air as our feet

pounded the powdered-sugar sand. The sparkling bright yellow ball

suspended up above our heads burned down on us, as if in a temper. As

we dashed across the scorching sand, something grabbed my attention.

Stopping dead in my tracks, I focused my tired eyes in on the

silhouetted shape on the hill.”


I love it when young authors whack you upside the head with such imaginative writing as “waves growling on the shoreline.” Good stuff. Image

Photo by Guillaume Feuillet

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Writing with cool details at SAIS

Writing with cool details at SAIS

Day 1 at Stamford American International School was a great day. I began, double-shot cappuccino in hand (yes, I drink a lot of coffee…still a wee bit jet lagged) with a general assembly presenting to all 3rd, 4th and 5th grades…all some 400 students. Do you know what it’s like to have 400 students sing along with you on your song, “One in a Thousand?” It’s loud and pretty cool.

I then dove into writing workshops, 5 in all, back to back. We focused on writing with vivid details. With a 20 minute lesson on enriching our language by using strong verbs, cool details and hooking the reader, the students tried their hand at turning a boring group of sentences into an exciting and interesting paragraph. I gave them this: I was on the beach. I saw a lot of baby turtles go down to the ocean. It was fun. And boy, did they do some great revisions. They added cool details (“cloud-splattered skies” “palm fronds that touched the sky”) and strong verbs (“stippled” “tip-toed” “nudged”). We celebrated our revisions with thumbs up and rounds of applause. Way to go SAIS kids!

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January 13, 2014 · 12:15 pm

Welcome to Singapore!

We arrived safe and sound in Singapore. Slowly…ever so slowly recovering from a 23-hour journey to the other side of the world. Went for a walk in the rain and the sun (does that a lot here in Singapore). The temperatures hover in the 80’s and we walk around in shorts and
t-shirts. Without a doubt, we have the whitest legs in Singapore.

Downtown Singapore is a bustling, commercial buzzing metropolis. Loud birds cackle over the commotion, cars honk, traffic guards whistle. On one of our walks to get cappuccinos along a shop-lined street we made a video. Forgive my mashup, my brain was jet-lagged and creativity on short supply.

Looking forward to my first day of teaching at Stamford American International School.

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January 12, 2014 · 12:36 pm

See Ya Later USA! Here we come S.E. Asia!


From the cold snowy tundra of Vermont to the rooftops of Brooklyn then on to the tropical cities and jungles of Singapore, Sumatra, Surabaya, Borneo and Bali we leave this afternoon. I’m taking Sea Turtle Scientist on the road! ll be visiting International Schools, presenting author assemblies, doing book signings and writing workshops. I’m traveling with my true blue partner Heather. I’ll be talking up my new book, Sea Turtle Scientist, as 6 of the 7 sea turtle species swim or nest in the region.  We’ll post photos, videos and travel entries.  Follow us as we journey to the other side of the planet!

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January 9, 2014 · 7:39 pm

Fall in Vermont!

Oh how beautiful Vermont is!  I smell a new book coming…

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