Posted in Halloween, Writing

The Ghostly Tales of Austin

In October 2015, I went on an Austin ghost tour with some fellow members of the local chapter of SCBWI. We met at the Omni Hotel, then strolled around downtown, visiting the Driskill and the Texas State Capitol and other buildings with haunted histories while our guide, Monica Ballard, regaled us with stories of sinister secrets, ghastly murders, and eerie experiences.

Austin Ghost Tour, October 28, 2015

I love the night and especially love walking around my favorite places at night, seeing them by moonlight and learning their shadows. I would’ve had a good time exploring Austin in the dark regardless of what the topic was. But add ghost stories to a late-night stroll, and I’m in my happy place. I enjoyed myself so much that, when the tour ended, I bought a copy of Haunted Austin: History and Hauntings in the Capitol City by Jeanine Plumer to read more about Austin’s ghosts. I took the book home and gobbled up all the good stories inside.

I had no idea on that night back in 2015 that six years later I would be adapting Plumer’s book for middle grade readers.

In 2020, I wrote my first book in the Spooky America series from Arcadia Publishing: The Ghostly Tales of New England. I was excited about the chance to adapt one of the Haunted America books for young readers and loved learning more about New England, an area of the country I’ve visited a few times and whose history and scenery I love. But I really wished I could write about some ghosts closer to home, so when the opportunity came along to write the haunted history of my own town, I was thrilled. The Ghostly Tales of Austin comes out on Monday, and I can’t wait to share the spooky side of my city with young readers.

I put a lot of heart into this book and learned a lot about Austin along the way. Did you know that Austin suffered a devastating flood in 1900? Or that a ghost wagon haunts Westlake? Some of the stories in this book are not for the faint of heart. For instance, I suggest you don’t read Chapter 2 about Josiah Wilbarger while you’re eating. But if you’re going to the Capitol anytime soon, you should definitely read Chapter 9 before you arrive, so can be on the lookout for the ghost of Colonel Love. And I highly recommend visiting Mount Bonnell while in Austin, but you might want to leave before sunset if you don’t want to experience anything unsettling.

I have fond memories of that ghost tour back in 2015, and I’m proud to now have a part to play in passing down the spooky history of a city that I love. Austin’s ghosts await. If you’re willing to meet them, pick up a copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin!

If you want an unsigned copy of the book, you can order it from Amazon or, better yet, from BookPeople, Austin’s own one-of-a-kind local bookstore. But if you would like a signed copy, you can order directly from me for $12. Send me a message via my contact page with your name, address, and what you want written in the book (either just a signature or a dedication). I’ll let you know how to send payment, then I’ll get to the post office ASAP, and you’ll have a personalized copy of The Ghostly Tales of Austin before you can say poltergeist three times*!

*Just to be on the safe side, I do not actually recommend saying poltergeist three times.

Posted in Life

“Sometimes” / A Holiday Memory

This year, like most people, I did the bulk of my holiday shopping online (and am still waiting for a few gifts to arrive from wherever they are currently lost under a pile of packages at the post office). But usually, I prefer to do my shopping in person. I like wandering the aisles with a list but also allowing for things to jump off the shelves and grab my attention—that perfect something for someone that I never would have thought of if I hadn’t seen it. One year (I think it was around 2007) I set a goal for my holiday shopping: only buy local. I had such fun running around the city, shopping at Kerbey Lane and BookPeople and Waterloo Records and the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

One Saturday just before Christmas, I had a few things left on my list, and I set out to get them. I was on a timeline (I can’t remember why—it’s hard to remember the days when I had places to go and people to see) and doing my errands fast. I zipped into Uppercrust Bakery for some unique holiday treats and scurried into Trudy’s for a gift card. I was making good time.

My last stop was Spiderhouse, one of my favorite coffee shops in Austin. All I needed there was a t-shirt. I had a tradition of buying my cousin t-shirts from cool Austin places, and this year I’d decided he’d get one from Spiderhouse. This sprawling indoor-outdoor, old-house-turned-into-an-all-night-coffee-shop was often hopping. No empty spots in the parking lot, long line at the counter. But on this day, I lucked out. I got a premier parking spot and stepped inside to see only one customer ahead of me. What luck! I would make it to my (whatever I was going to) on time.

The barista behind the counter was a twenty-something guy in a poncho with long blond dreadlocks, a friendly smile, and big stoned eyes. (That’s cool. You be you. I don’t judge.) He finished the transaction with the girl ordering coffee, then turned his large pupils on me. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey!” I said. “Do you sell t-shirts?”

Barista Dude stared deep into my eyes and said, “Sometimes.”

I nodded.

He nodded.

I realized this errand was not going to be as quick as I had hoped.

“Cool, cool,” I said slowly, placing my palms on the counter. “Do you have any t-shirts right now?”

Barista Dude crinkled his brow in thought, then said, “Yeah, I think we have some in the basement.”

He smiled.

I smiled.

He nodded.

I nodded.

“Awesome,” I said, choosing my next words carefully. “Do you think I might be able to see one?” I raised my eyebrows and shrugged at him as if we were co-conspirators in some great game.

“Yeah!” Barista Dude said. And then realizing that the ball was still in his court, he pointed a thumb over his shoulder and said, “I’ll go get one.”

I nodded encouragingly, and as he trotted off, I yelled, “Extra large if you have it!”

Barista Dude emerged a couple of minutes later with a single t-shirt, size extra large, and it was perfect. Black with a motorcycle on it and the Spiderhouse logo. I sighed in relief and said, “I’ll take it.”

It ended up being more than I’d wanted to pay for a t-shirt, but I didn’t argue. I honestly didn’t have time for that conversation, but also, I knew at this point that I wasn’t just buying a t-shirt anymore; I was buying a story. I paid for my prize and hurried off to (wherever I was going).

When I gave my cousin his t-shirt at Christmas, I told him about my experience buying it. Everyone laughed, and some of my Dallas relatives said, “That’s so Austin,” which I guess it is. It’s become a running joke between my hubby and I to answer a direct question with, “Sometimes…”

This year, I ordered all my gifts, and I’m glad I did. But I don’t want online shopping to become a habit. I look forward to going back out into the world, interacting with people, discovering unexpected surprises, and getting the bonus of a good story along with my gifts.

***

Happy Holidays!
May your packages arrive on time or with a good story to tell.

Posted in Poetry, Teaching

Vision+Voice 2019 / Why Poetry Matters

I almost didn’t make it to the Vision+Voice reception this year.

Teaching all day + Writing Club + grading + trying to perfect that PowerPoint for Monday, and suddenly it was 6:30PM, and I was still in my classroom, and the Vision+Voice reception was starting across town in half an hour. For a quarter of a second, I considered not going. Then I dropped everything and jumped in the car.

Traffic was not in my favor as I made my way from south Austin to the ACC Highland campus. Once, my uninformed GPS even routed me through a construction zone. (Hello, men in hard hats! Sorry! Don’t mind me!) By the time I arrived at the community college, my shoulders were stiff, and I was calculating what time I might finally be home. 9:00PM? 9:30? 10:00? I felt the weight of my day bearing down on me as I walked across the parking lot.

Then I stepped inside, and all my stress lifted away. I couldn’t believe I considered missing this event for even a quarter of a second.

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Vision+Voice is everything I love in one place. It’s students, dressed up and looking happy and nervous at the same time. It’s families, beaming and hugging and taking pictures. It’s teachers, nodding and saying how proud they are. It’s music, art, and good food. And it’s poetry.

The program was launched by Austin Community College in 2013. It’s an annual contest for students in Austin to submit poetry on any topic, in any language. ACC Creative Writing students and published poets judge the poems. One winner and a number of honorable mentions are selected from every grade level. The poems are published in a beautiful anthology, and the poets are invited to record a video reading their poems at KLRU. In addition, the first place poems are paired with a piece of art created by an ACC student and made into posters to be displayed in homes, schools, and libraries across the city.

This year, my school was honored to have three young poets recognized for their poems: Harper J (sixth grade honorable mention), Noah L (seventh grade winner), and Hadley S (seventh grade honorable mention). Hadley wrote a tritina poem called “Shooting Stars” during our class’s poetry unit. Noah wrote “Cactus Poem” (about cacti who need a break from posing for pictures all the time) based on another student’s creative writing prompt during our school’s Writing Club. And Harper, who also recently joined the Writing Club, wrote a poem called “Love Letter” which reads the same forward and backward. So cool.

I walked in to the beautifully decorated atrium where the reception was being held. I met my students’ families and congratulated the poets. I got some food, sat down, listened to speeches, watched videos of young poets reading their words, and didn’t stop smiling for the next two hours.

Seeing these young writers, ages 5 to 18, stand in front of a camera with their poems in their hands, sharing their creativity with the world brought tears to my eyes. They were articulate and vulnerable and proud and passionate and confident and true and beautiful. They give me hope for our future.

A few of my favorite lines and moments…

The second grade winner, Maple W, wrote a song called “I am still me.” It begins, “I am a monster in my tomb/ singing with the tune,” and it ends, “be nice to me,/ because I am still me.”

The beginning of fifth grader Beatrix L’s poem “The Sapling” gave me shivers:

“The spirit inside the tree
Is full of unrest.
She thinks I have come
To take away her host.”

Sixth grader Didion C’s poem “Coral” addressed environmental concerns, saying, “Fate may be inevitable/ But we can help.”

The last lines of these poets’ poems all stayed with me:

“You must ask questions of all sizes.” – Nicole P, 7th grade
“I am alive” – Andrea H, 9th grade (She was my student two years ago!)
“These streets could belong to me.” – Amy S, 12th grade

I can’t help it. I get chills when I hear these lines.

Brad Richard, the keynote speaker at the reception, gave a speech titled “Why Poetry Matters.” His words were true and inspiring and thoughtful, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were also unnecessary. I challenge anyone to listen to children read poems about life, love, nature, the earth, freedom, home, truth, and monsters without understanding—immediately and inherently—why poetry matters to our world.

I almost didn’t make it to the Vision+Voice Reception this year, but I’m SO GLAD I DID.

* * *

Note: The poems mentioned in this post are only a few of the incredible pieces of writing in this year’s anthology. And there were so many more poems that weren’t recognized with awards, but which are also beautiful and thought-provoking. All of the poems entered this year can be found on the Vision+Voice website. I recommend getting a cup of coffee and spending an hour or so immersing yourself in them. Start with “My Home” by my student Rayaan H about his beloved Pakistan. It put a lump in my throat when he read it in front of my class earlier this year.

Links to All Poems Mentioned in This Post:

Haiku