Henry Winkler Interview….

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Henry Winkle recently for Parents.com. Although I was a little bit star struck, his warm, casual demeanor quickly put me at ease, and we had a wide-ranging, funny, thoughtful conversation.

Henry Winkler and elephant

Most people know Henry Winkler for his iconic role as the Fonz inHappy Days or for his many other acting gigs since. What most people don’t know is that Winkler barely graduated high school, and that although he was great at memorizing scripts, reading them was a challenge. He’s struggled with dyslexia his entire life, only getting a diagnosis at age 30. Now, he travels around the world talking to kids about his early years and raising dyslexia awareness.

To that end, Winkler has written a wonderful series of children’s books about a dyslexic boy named Hank Zipzer. Hank’s smart, funny, and resourceful; but, like Winkler as a child, school and reading are a huge challenges for him.

The books are printed in a special font that makes it easier for dyslexic kids to read them, and although they concern the adventures of a dyslexic child, they will appeal to any early-middle grade reader. The newest book, You Can’t Drink a Meatball with a Straw comes out March 8, 2016. I highly recommend reading it with your kids— it’s laugh-out-loud funny, extremely clever, and you’ll find yourself cheering for Hank throughout the story. I caught up with Winkler recently to talk about his books, parenting, his recent trip to Asia, and more:

Meatball through a Straw

How did you get started writing books and what is your writing process like?

I never saw myself writing books—I carried the mantle of being stupid for so long— but an agent suggested it to me, and then I met my wonderful co-writer Lin Oliver, and the rest was history. We work only in person, so every morning since 2003, I’ve gone to Lin’s office for a few hours. I sit in the same rocking chair I’ve been sitting in for the last 13 years, and we do the outline of the book. We are intertwined in every rhythm, word, and story. I talk and she types, then she reads it back to me, and we argue over every word. We ask questions like, “What does Hank do well?” and then we’re always surprised by where the story takes us.

We just started working on a short story for the magazine Boys’ Life—which I find incredible because I got my first copy of that magazine years ago when I was a Cub Scout. I couldn’t read it at the time, and now here I am writing for them!

What was school like for you as a child?

I remember it all—the shame, the fear, the anxiety, the embarrassment. My brain is like a Magic 8 Ball, sometimes it’s all gobbledygook. Sometimes there’s no answer there, and sometimes I get it right. When I’m writing the Hank Zipzer books, I relive those moments like I’m 8 years old. I’ve not forgotten how painful it was to have done things like memorized all my spelling words for a test and then get to school, and not be able to remember any of them.

Is reading easier now?

It really depends on the kind of book. I’m great with thrillers (Daniel Silva is a favorite), and the style of writing can make the work of reading easier. I don’t have any favorite children’s books because I didn’t read as a kid. In fact, when we were reading The Tale of Two Cities in school, I poured water over the pages, so it looked like I was really diving into it.

Would having a dyslexia diagnosis have helped you as a child?

Absolutely, yes. My life was like a stainless steel cylinder with no footholds, no handholds. I tried like a frog to crawl up the wall towards the sun, and kept sliding back down.

Read the full interview here: http://www.parents.com/health/special-needs-now/meet-the-celeb-behind-these-books-for-kids-with-dyslexia/

What I Wish I’d Know when My Son Got an Autism Diagnosis

This full post is on Parents.com:

15 Things I Wish I’d Known When My Son Got an Autism Diagnosis

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Autism surprised me five years ago, and it continues to surprise me today. Over the years, I’ve written this sentence so many times: “On my 32nd birthday, my son got an autism diagnosis…”

And although I still remember almost everything about that morning, today, on the five-year anniversary of my son’s diagnosis and my 37th birthday, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself these things:

You’re not “going to a funeral.”

As I wrote five years ago, when we walked into the doctor’s office to get my son’s diagnosis, I said to my husband, “I feel like I’m going to a funeral.” I realize now how melodramatic and wrong-headed that statement was—my son wasn’t dying, and the grief I felt would have been mitigated had I known more about neurodiversity or had I met the wonderful autistic adults I know now.

Don’t forget to hope.

In the early days after my son’s diagnosis, I despaired. There were so many people telling me my son was broken, I lost my way. Eventually, hope replaced fear, but I wish I could tell myself that my child moving along a different developmental trajectory is not a reason to lose hope.

Things will be harder than you expect, and there will be more joy than you can imagine.

The last five years have had some very rough spots, but they’ve also been filled with more joy than I ever expected. I’d like to tell my younger self that yes, there will be hard days, but you will be constantly surrounded by laughter, snuggles, and joy from both your children.

Autism means a different neurology, not a broken one.

Why didn’t someone tell me this sooner? Autistic adults and other writers are certainly trying to share the message that our kids are different, not damaged. They don’t need a cure, they need support. Knowing this on diagnosis day would have changed so much for me.

Your boy will laugh, love, connect, and grow—all in his own time.

The first prognosis seemed so grim: severe autism, probably will never communicate or show affection. Likewise checklists showing his “developmental age” were just dreary. I want to tell my younger self—don’t believe these! Believe in your child. Nurture his potential, follow his interests. If he loves something—like stimming or spinning or watching Elmo—let him enjoy it. He will be a happier child if you do.

L at zoo

He will communicate.

When my son stopped talking, I thought that meant he would never communicate. I was so very wrong about this, as his use of RPM and other communication methods have shown us he’s got a lot going on in his mind that he wants to tell us.

More here: http://www.parents.com/health/special-needs-now/15-things-i-wish-id-known-when-my-son-got-an-autism-diagnosis/

We Cannot Dismiss Some Bodies as “Inconvenient…”

You can read this full blog at Parents.com:

No! Parents of Kids with Severe Disabilities Should Not Be Able to Stop Their Growth

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A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story called, “Should Parents of Children With Severe Disabilities Be Allowed to Stop Their Growth?” This provocative headline refers to a medical procedure that uses estrogen therapy to stunt the growth of kids with severe disabilities. While employing this “therapy,” doctors have also performed surgeries on some of the children to remove their uteruses (so they would never get a period), breast buds, and other “adult” parts. The reaction to news of these procedures and the NYTstory has been swift.

On one side of the debate, disability advocates like Alice Wong—who wrote a fantastic Twitter Storify sharing her opinions—cuts to the heart of the matter, saying things like: “Caregiving is difficult, no doubt. What about additional state services & supports? Where’s the broader context?” or “Why does the child have to change their body (w/o consent) to make life easier for their parents? There are many non-verbal & developmentally disabled people who are aware but cannot object or give consent.”

In a similar matter, Ingrid Tischer from the blog Tales From the Crip wrote a scathing indictment of substituting an unnecessary medical procedure for funding of in-home services and support. She answers the question of ‘Why would we even consider a procedure like this?’ with deeply satirical and bitingly poignant replies:

  • “Because it’s so much safer to be a physically immature person than a physically mature person when it comes to abuse and other forms of violence.
  • Because what’s the big deal if you’re not even going to use your uterus?
  • Because why would an adult caregiver consent to an experimental treatment to, say, increase their physical strength, instead?”

One the other side of the debate are parents of kids with severe disabilities, many of whom have considered getting this procedure and who are angry at those who judge them. I talked to several parents via social media who mentioned the hardships of caring for a large child with severe disabilities. Underneath their frustration was a very strong sense of not having enough help, and desperately wanting to do what was best for their child by continuing to keep him or her at home. Without adequate and affordable support, however, they found themselves contemplating and justifying choices like stunting their child’s growth.

And while all of this has given me pause, it’s not changed my initial gut reaction—which is one of horror—at the thought of a parent or anyone else manipulating a child’s body for their own convenience….

 

Read the full post here: http://www.parents.com/health/special-needs-now/no-parents-of-kids-with-severe-disabilities-should-not-be-able-to-stop/

Book Review: “The Thing About Jellyfish”

I just started writing book reviews for the Middle Grade Mafia’s website!

My first review is of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish for MGM. Here’s the link, and here’s the review:

Thing about Jellyfish

***

Ali Benjamin’s debut Middle Grade book, The Thing About Jellyfish, is luminous.

And that’s a terrible pun, I know, but truly this book glows with a subtle inner life, much like the jellyfish that float throughout it.

The bones of the story are simple: our narrator Suzy and her best friend Franny drift apart as they enter middle school. Increasingly, Suzy feels isolated as the things that interest her—science facts and the world at large— pale in comparison to Franny’s interests— makeup, boys, and fitting in with the right social circles. The last time Suzy saw Franny, she played a cruel prank on her friend. Then, over the summer, Franny drowns. Suzy never got to say good-bye, and she tries to carry on and make sense of Franny’s death.

This book is permeated by a strong sense of the senselessness of loss and the hopelessness of grief. It’s heavy stuff for a Middle Grade book, and sometimes, the weight of this sadness was too much for me. I often wept silently as I read, and, accordingly, it took me a long, long time to finish such a short book. (I averaged about a chapter a night).

And that’s partially because the story itself is sad. And it’s partially because Benjamin’s lyrical sentences transported me back to middle school, reminding me of losing a friendship that was dear to me. And it’s also because Suzy grapples with a lot of real-world things that I find terrifying and overwhelming.

Like jellyfish blooms. And here I must pause and admit that I knew nothing about jellyfish blooms—or jellyfish—until I read this book. But since Benjamin grew this novel out of a non-fiction essay on jellyfish, it’s full of interesting facts about jellyfish that Suzy mulls and applies to her own life. As Suzy thinks about her friend’s death, wondering again and again how a strong swimmer like Franny could have drowned, she concludes that it must have had something to do with jellyfish. Which due to global warming are spreading like a plague, and moving silently in tremendous numbers throughout the world’s oceans.

Jellyfish blooms

The thought of those silent hordes of poisonous goo taking over the oceans makes me panic—much like it does Suzy—and it makes me feel quite overwhelmed by things I cannot control.

Which when I consider this as a metaphor for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a child, it kind of takes my breath away. Because it’s perfect. And sad. And strange. And something I’m still making sense of.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with my strong recommendation: read The Thing about Jellyfish.

It will take your breath away. It will stir your middle school insecurities, and make you think great thoughts about life, love, and loss. You will see why it was nominated for a National Book Award, and why it’s also being hailed as a book that will make girls like science again. If you’re a Middle Grade writer, I bet you’ll find yourself jotting down Benjamin’s sentences and taking notes on the clever science-experiment structure she uses, praying you’ll be able to perform similar feats of syntactical magic in your next book.

And if you find yourself panicking as you Google “jellyfish blooms” late into the night—like I still do— let me reassure you that there’s enough hope at the end of this book that it will sustain you even in the face of things we can’t control, like loss or jellyfish.

-JP

 

 

That Time I Called Amanda Palmer to Chat about Motherhood, Making Art, and More

Ahem.

I got to interview Amanda Palmer last week.

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Like the Amanda Palmer, whose music I’ve loved for years. Whose songs make me laugh, cry, sing along, and feel like a badass usually all at once. The Amanda Palmer whose book–The Art of Asking— I buy for my girlfriends when they’re having a tough time. The Amanda Palmer whose married to the Neil Gaiman…

It was amazing. And unexpected. And kind of perfect. And rather spontaneous, as these things go.

The interview confirmation came through while I was on the way to the airport to pick up my husband. I’d been solo parenting for 4 days, I was worn out from lack of sleep and battling Portland traffic, my kids were screaming in the back of the car, and then Amanda Palmer’s assistant emailed me: “How about tonight? In 2 hours?” Nearly crashing my car into the airport parking garage, I replied: “YES!”

How could I not?

So, while the boys danced around after dinner that night, I picked up the phone, and casually called Amanda Palmer like it was no big deal.

It was totally a big deal.

And it was a great call. We talked a lot about her new song, “A Mother’s Confession” and people’s reaction to it, which you can check out over at Parents.com, but my editor had to to cut some of the Q & A for space, so I’m printing the full interview here.

Long story short, AMFP is kicking ass at motherhood. Her baby (Ash) is 5 months old and AP’s still making art (she hinted at a new song about death called “Machete” coming out on her Patreon this week!), and although motherhood’s changed her, we can all still expect a whole out of the same fierce songwriting, music making, Amanda Palmering as before.

What does parenting look like logistically for you and Neil, since you’re both so busy?

 

For the first three months of Ash’s life, we didn’t do much. I stayed with him and took him everywhere I went. I felt very strongly about creating a fence around my birth and those early months, which are such a sacred, important time to be able to do nothing and bond. In those months, I was really excited to put my work down and just be a mom. My plan was to be a full time mom until I decided I needed help. This seemed like a more organic approach parenting then setting everything up in advance. When Ash was about 3.5 months old, I was craving getting back into the studio, and Neil was starting to feel overwhelmed with being my tag team partner. We both knew it was time to get a sitter. We don’t have a full-time nanny, but we have hired a local sitter who’s at home with us and the baby while we work.

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How is it going balancing work and motherhood?

 

The thing you want most as a parent is to never feel conflicted between your job and your child’s need. And that’s tricky since you never know what your child is going to need or what you’re going to need. I’m lucky because I have a job that lets me have a flexible schedule. What I love about my Patreon, as opposed to being on a record label, is that I can conceive a song or project in my own time. Since I have a subscribership, I can shelve it, put it out tomorrow, and as a working musician and mother it’s a godsend that I don’t have to commit to anything ever.

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Is parenthood harder than you expected?

 

That’s a hard question to answer because I had no expectations—good or bad—about it. I figured I’d be doing myself and my kid a disservice if I went into it with any expectations—either of all love and rainbows or that it would be hell. So, I worked hard not to expect anything. I didn’t buy baby books or go on the internet, and, although I had almost no exposure to babies, I figured I’d allow my instincts to kick in and I’d listen to the wisest voices in my environment.

 

The steepest learning curve for me was following the new organization of my mother-brain. It’s very disorienting, and I felt a bit like I’d been dropped on another planet without a map. Yes, I had instincts—but it was a challenge to have my parent and non-parent sides living together in my mind. Figuring out the new relationships with my child, with my partner, and myself were the hardest parts for me.

 

“A Mother’s Confession” is your first song about being a parent—were you surprised to write it?

 

I’ve always been a confessional song writer, it’s what I do. So, it didn’t surprise me that that was the song that wanted to come out. I never have any giant strategy for my career, or my songwriting in general. But if you take the ingredients of Amanda Palmer, it’s not a huge leap of imagination that something confessional about motherhood would come out. I’m at most interesting when I’m at my most vulnerable and confessional, but there were some lines that were hard to write.

That said, the song has given birth to such a wonderful and growing bunch of parent confessionals I’m glad I did it.

 

Stating our fears, mistakes, and anxieties can be a really wonderful way of communing with one another. I love that the internet, which can be so dark, can also be such a light and wonderful place.

 

What does the future hold for you and your family?

 

I have no idea, but I approach parenting like art making— plans are you enemy. It’s better when you react and listen, and I’ve spent my life getting really good at improvisation, so I feel like I can improvise life. I don’t think parenting is going to be any different.

 

Any other thoughts?

 

We can’t control anything anyway, so do what you can do that you love in the moments you have. Do your best, constantly forgive yourself, and go on your merry way.

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Click here to listen to “A Mother’s Confession,” read the lyrics and footnotes, and share your own parenting confessions and stories in the comments.