Suzanne Williams, Author of the Month: Brief Reflections on a Writing Career, Plus Advice for New Writers

The just-launched MEDEA THE ENCHANTRESS is Book 23 in the popular Goddess Girls series.

Thirty years ago I saw my very first published piece of writing in print. It was an article for an educational magazine with nursery rhyme-based creative writing ideas for kids.

After that first success, I wrote many other magazine articles over a period of a year or two, none of which sold. Eventually I decided to abandon magazine writing and pursue what I really wanted to write — namely children’s books. When I announced this decision to my ever-supportive husband, he said, “Why not? Your articles are being rejected, you might as well write a book.” Believe it not, I am still married to the guy.

Fast forward to today and no one is probably more surprised than I am (except maybe my husband) to find that my list of published books for children has grown to over seventy. Admittedly, more than half of those are books I’ve written in the last eight years with my incredibly talented and hardworking coauthor, Joan Holub, but that’s a topic for another time.

Though there’s always an element of luck involved in selling a book (or a series of books!), I’d like to think I’ve learned some things during the past thirty years that are worth passing on. So here goes…

Advice for New Writers: Five Tips

1. Take the first baby step. Begin by doing ONE thing.

My first one thing was taking a class in writing for children. The structured assignments with feedback from an instructor, plus basic information on how to submit my work, were all extremely helpful, giving me a good scaffold to build on.

2. Keep on taking baby steps.

Why baby steps? Because trying to do too much at once or looking too far ahead can lead to frustration, or worse, make you want to quit before you even get started. Take it one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter, one story, or one writing assignment at a time.

Writing one article a month was another of my small steps when I was first beginning to write. So was the decision to write a book, page by page and chapter by chapter, and then one more book, and another, and another.

3. Surround yourself with resources and connect with other children’s writers. 

Read and analyze books that are like the ones you hope to write. Read books about writing. Become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attend local chapter meetings in your state. Attend a writers’ conference. Join a critique group.

I’ve done all of the above. Besides learning a lot in the process, I’ve become friends with some really wonderful fellow children’s book writers. Joan Holub and I first met at a local SCBWI conference as a matter of fact!

4. Don’t give up.

I’ve cried or raged over some rejections, especially early on in my career. But over the years I’ve learned to develop a thicker skin. As Issac Asimov wrote: “A rejection of a story is not a rejection of the writer. It is no crime to be rejected or even a sin. Editors do not hate a writer when they reject a manuscript and do not therefore plot the writer’s destruction.” Comforting to know, right?

5. Celebrate small victories.

Each baby step is a victory of sorts. Even your first form rejection. Because it means you got up the courage send something out. When you graduate to personal rejections, where editors actually comment on a story while still rejecting it, that’s a victory too. Editors generally won’t take time to write a personal note unless a writer shows promise.

Setting up a regular writing schedule and sticking to it is also a victory. So is completing that first story or article. Celebrate those moments. (In all honesty, I should follow my own advice here more often. Life should be a series of little celebrations, don’t you think?)

Recently, I was interviewed by a blogger who asked me this unusual question: If someone made a movie of your life, would it be a drama, a comedy, action film, science fiction, or other genre of film?

I answered, “a slow-moving documentary, maybe?” Because even though I’ve been writing for thirty years, I am still taking baby steps. With each new book I break down the actions I need to take to finish that book, from gathering ideas to making an outline to writing the first draft, and so on. I chart my daily writing goals (like drafting four to five pages a day, for example) on a calendar, and monitor my progress.

If the above makes me seem a bit like the tortoise in the Aesop’s fable, well, that’s okay with me. I’m a firm believer in “slow and steady wins the race.” Baby steps not only keep me on track with my writing (and in a way that doesn’t overwhelm), they also help me to live a balanced life with time for other activities I value, like reading for pleasure, visiting with family and friends, walking, yoga, and travel.

What baby step will you take today?

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GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment to enter for your chance to win a FREE paperback copy of Goddess Girls: Medea the Enchantress by Suzanne Williams and Joan Holub! Suzanne will hold a drawing and announce the lucky winner January 30.

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Erik Brooks, Author of the Month: Visual Literacy Visits

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Visual Literacy: The ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text.

Once upon a time, as a newly certified K–12 art teacher (c. 1995) who in three years of job searching and subbing only ever found a single full-time art teaching application opportunity, I ultimately turned my artistic interests to picture books. I haven’t really looked back, except to say that I always look forward to my teaching opportunities.

I get invited to literacy nights (and days) at schools, and as a picture book writer, I really do relish the opportunity to explore reading and writing with kids in the classroom. As an illustrator and wannabe art teacher however, I’m always even more excited to draw! And to me, visual literacy goes hand in hand with a more traditional idea of reading/writing literacy — and perhaps it sometimes even leads the way.

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Kids “read” pictures, and words emerge to match.

Beyond books even, we are surrounded by visual media — and this media generally doesn’t ask you to do a lot of work. It’s passive consumption. Becoming visually literate demands that you analyze these images and try to figure out what you are being asked to learn or read in the process.  And kids should know that they can be active participants — both as consumers and creators. It’s powerful stuff disguised as drawing 🙂

Kids post, they text, they create video etc. And the tools of visual literacy — the choices that one makes about even the simplest things like line or color or composition — all work in tandem to inform the viewer/reader of what you are asking them to see — or what words you want them to conjure to accompany the pictures. And even these most basic tenants of image making help you tell a story. And they also help you read it. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not, but visual literacy is integral to better communication, and making a picture or a picture book is such a great place to introduce this topic to a student audience.

Character, setting, plot, emotion, cliffhangers, hooks, foreshadowing … ALL of these things can be visual or given emphasis by visual cues. Literate art makes for literate readers.

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Just a few of the ideas that I’ll demonstrate as tools for visual literacy. So kids are watching this happen while I talk them through it, and then they get to try in on their own.

And so, all of that being said, for the last few years I’ve been doing a LOT of drawing workshops where kids create characters and scenes with an intentional visual impact. Using lines and details to draw attention to certain things in their artwork; using angles or compositions to help a reader follow their picture in a certain logical order; deciding on just the right expression or gesture to represent an emotion; these are fundamental things to communicating an idea or telling a story — and it’s also drawing, and it’s work — but it’s so much fun!

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Everyone starts with some guided drawing for a foundation…
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…and it’s incredible how many different things will happen when the kids take over and start to add lines, details, emotions, expressions, and setting of their own!
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Are we having fun yet? Do expressions help to tell a story?

And of course it’s always incredible when you hear from a school about visual projects  inspired by your books – even when you haven’t had a chance to visit! Great teaching starts with digging just beneath the surface and giving kids an idea of the process that they can put to work in their own fantastic artwork and storytelling 🙂

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AMAZING expressions and gestures add to the humor and energy in these speedy tortillas inspired by Eric Kimmel’s THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA.
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Inspired by the watercolors in POLAR OPPOSITES, students also emphasized the differences between two main characters using different colored backgrounds.

And finally, for an appropriately visual teaser to keep you on your toes for my next book, here is a sketch from Shelley Gil’s IF I WERE A BEAR (Sasquatch, Little Bigfoot, Spring 2018) to be released simultaneously with IF I WERE A BIRD.

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Cover sketches for the next book. LOTS of little thumbnails like this and sometimes I get even a little more detailed then I should for such a small space!

These are both board books in the wake of our February 2017 collaboration on IF I WERE A WHALE.

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A favorite spread from IF I WERE A WHALE.

And it’s one day too late for this, but “HAPPY HALLOWEEN!”

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Erik Brooks is the author/illustrator of 24+ books for children and their most excellent parents and teachers. Look for his newest picture book, IF I WERE A BEAR!, in Spring 2018.

Erik writes, draws, coaches, and visits schools and libraries from his home in Winthrop, WA. It’s a little off the beaten path, so online visits are the perfect thing — and screen sharing means drawing lesson work as well! To learn more about booking visits with Erik, head to the school visits page of his website at www.erikbrooks.com.

Janet Lee Carey, Author of the Month: Creative Camaraderie

The myth goes something like this. Writers work alone. They are solitary beings who eschew human company to toil day after day on their craft. Invite them out to lunch, and they decline. Disturb them at their work, and they are fierce!

Admittedly, I Do have this sign on my study door:Dragon at Work sign
I love spending hour upon hour blissfully alone working on my novels. And while my husband says, “My wife sits at home all day plotting and scheming.” The truth is, I do leave my work cave occasionally. You may be shocked to learn many authors and illustrators can be social creatures. You just have to know what (aside from chocolate) lures us away from our desks.

Critique Groups

Peggy's two moon journey party 1 Most of us meet weekly or monthly to share our work, give and receive critique, and help each other reach our writing dreams. We work hard in these groups, reading and marking up our manuscripts. But we go wild when one of us sells to a publisher. Recently, my critique group, the Diviners, celebrated Peggy King Anderson’s sale of her middle-grade novel Two Moon Journey with cheers and pom-poms.

And here’s the coveted Diviner Award we’ve been passing around for years — the Nancy Pearl shushing librarian action figure.

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Writer Organizations
We join important organizations like PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). This means we attend monthly meetings, crowd to conferences and meet up at retreats.

Book Parties
We go wild for book launch parties.

Janet in polka-dot boots for Kevan Atteberry’s PUDDLES!
The Diviners in costume at Janet’s book party for IN THE TIME OF DRAGON MOON.
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Celebrating at Martha Brockenbrough’s latest launch.

 

Office to Office
Sometimes we stop our work to contact each other and talk about . . . well . . . our work. Here’s my recent Creative Conversation with Wendy Wahman.

Creative Groups
We gather together to talk shop, celebrate our successes, ponder our failures, and tinker with the mystery of creativity. (Tinker we must, but it will remain a mystery.)

Sometimes we work in large groups at all-day writing retreats.

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Some Mouse House members. How many OAVers can you see in this photo? (I count 4.)

Many mice were present at our recent Mouse House retreat at Dia Calhoun’s house by the river. OAVers Laurie Ann Thompson, Dori Jones Yang, Dana Sullivan, Suzanne Williams, Moi, and more worked silently in the house and outside, breaking for lunch, and later for Happy Hour.

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Meeting Readers
Hands down, we all love meeting readers — at book signings, and at schools, libraries, and bookstores here in the US and abroad.

Janet and OAVer Trudi Trueit sign books at Borders.

 

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OAV’s Dave Patneaude talks with students during a school visit.

 

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Author Lois Brandt visits a classroom.

 

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OAVer Dori Jones Yang gives a book talk in Beijing.

 

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Janet visits a school in Japan.

 

Online Author Visits
And if you contact us here at Online Author Visits, I pinkie swear we will answer your call. The best part is, we don’t have to leave the office. You can get past that sign on my door and see where I work. More dragons await within the inner sanctum, but they gobble stories, not readers.

All of us here at OAV would love to meet you in your book group, library, or class. We might even say yes to lunch!

Dori Jones Yang, Author of the Month: The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball

September is a great time for me to be “Author of the Month” because I have a new book out and I’m planning lots of classroom visits – both in-person and online via skype. I love talking to kids about my books.

My new book, The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball, is about a boy who arrives in the United States and has to learn to speak English and make friends with American kids. At first he doesn’t understand very much and everything feels strange to him. Most immigrant kids can relate to that! Many American-born kids have at least one classmate who was born in another country and struggles to learn English. A book like this can help them to empathize with what these classmates might be going through.

The boy in this book is Woo Ka-Leong. He didn’t pick an English name, but people started calling him Leon, and that was okay with him.

Leon keeps getting into trouble. When he is told to stay put, he runs off because he is curious to see a train engine. When a kid teases him, he swings his fists. Once he gets mad and pushes a boy so he falls through the ice. How is Leon supposed to know about ice? Where he grew up, in southern China, it never snows.

Baseball saves him. He never played it before, but once he starts fooling around with a baseball and bat, he really likes the game. Some boys in town practice in a field, and one invites him to join in. At first, baseball is really hard, too, but Leon learns quickly. He wishes he could play it all the time, but he has to study for hours every day.

Maybe you guessed from the pictures, but Leon lived a long time ago—in the 1870s. In those days, all Chinese boys and men had to wear their hair in one long braid. Some Americans teased him about that and pulled his braid. But he didn’t have a choice. If he cut it off, he would be considered a traitor to China and would be sent home in shame. Not a good option.

Maybe you noticed from my author picture, but I am not a Chinese boy. I’m not even Chinese! And I wasn’t even alive in the 1870s. So why did I decide to write about a Chinese boy in the 1870s?

Actually, I’ve written a lot of books about people from China. My husband was born there, and our daughter grew up Chinese-American in Washington State. I spend many years learning to speak Mandarin and speak it with friends and relatives. But I also spent many years living abroad—two years in Singapore and eight years in Hong Kong.

Above is a picture of me with my daughter when she was little. Below is one of me in my twenties, speaking Mandarin at a contest shortly after I started studying it in Singapore.

I know what it feels like to struggle to express myself in a foreign language. When I first studied Chinese, in my early twenties, I often had a complicated thought in my head, but the only sentences that came out of my mouth were simple. One day it hit me: back home in America, I used to think that if people spoke poor English, they weren’t smart. Now I knew better. They were just as smart as I was, but it was hard for them to find the right English words to express the complicated thoughts in their heads.

At that moment, I made a decision. Once I returned home to the United States, I would do everything I could to help people who were trying to adapt to my country and language. Now, years later, I do that a lot. Recently, I helped an 11-year-old boy and his mom sign up for sixth grade at an American middle school, a month after they arrived from China.

But more important, I write books about kids trying to adapt to America. My first children’s book, The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang, tells of a girl from China who starts fifth grade in Seattle and discovers she can’t speak in class. The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball tells of Leon, the boy who arrives in the U.S. in 1875 and makes friends playing baseball. Both are middle grade novels for readers age ten and up.

I’m planning a book tour of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York October 14-31 and am arranging many school visits there. I’m also scheduling school visits in the Seattle area before and afterwards. I welcome teachers and librarians to contact me about skype visits.

If you live in the Seattle area, please come to my book launch at Island Books in Mercer Island on Sunday, September 10th, at 4 p.m. I plan to show some pictures of the real Chinese boy scholars who came in the 1870s.

In the meantime, enjoy this one-minute book trailer video. It was created and produced by a talented college student I know, David Graham. To see the video, click on this link.

Happy viewing – and happy reading!

Dori Hillestad Butler, Author of the Month: The Underground Ghosts

August is a pretty good month. I celebrate a birthday in August. So does my son Ben. This year I’m also celebrating publication of The Underground Ghosts, which concludes my Haunted Library series.

It’s a “Super Special,” which is the technical term for a book that’s half again as long as all the other books in the series. But The Underground Ghosts is also a “super special” book to me because it’s a sort of “love letter” to the city of Seattle.

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I just moved to the Seattle area three years ago, and the day we pulled in I felt at home in a way I’d never felt before. There’s something about the Pacific Northwest, and the Seattle area in particular, that speaks to me.

When I started The Haunted Library, I knew how the series would end. I knew what would happen in the final scene, but that element was just a moment. I still needed a story to carry me to that final moment. And because this was the series finale, I felt like this story needed to be bigger than the other stories in some way. But how?

My editor said she wanted this book to be a “Halloween Super Special.” A super special is automatically bigger, and Halloween centered seems appropriate for a ghost series. That helped…but I still felt like I needed something more for a series finale.

otter award logo color_180Then, right before it was time to start outlining this book, I found out my first Haunted Library book was on Washington State’s first Otter Award list. The Otter Award is sponsored by the Washington Library Association’s School Library Division and celebrates transitional chapter books. Students in Washington state vote on the winner from this short list of contenders. I was thrilled that Washington librarians created an award for transitional readers, and even more thrilled when they put one of my books on that first list. It’s what prompted me to bring my characters to Seattle for their final story.

Somewhere along the way I realized that maybe this search for a bigger, more special end to my series wasn’t about my characters so much as it was about me. I started this series when I lived in Iowa. So it’s set in Iowa. But now I live here…and maybe instead of saying good bye to my characters (and, in a sense, to Iowa, too) what I was really looking for was a way to say, “Hello, Seattle!” in one of my books. This book is my Hello, Seattle!

It comes out August 15, which is Ben’s birthday, and I couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate pub date because Ben is the one who led us all here. He was an intern for Microsoft in 2008 and then got a permanent job offer for the following summer.

Our younger son Andy came out here in 2012 to go to the University of Washington.

Every time my husband and I came out to visit, we fell a little more in love with Seattle. Finally, in 2014 we decided to follow our kids.

As I began plotting my “Seattle Haunted Library” book in early 2016, I thought back to a family vacation we took in 2007. It was our first trip to Seattle. One year before Ben’s internship. Back when we thought, “Gee, this is a nice city,” but none of us had any idea we would all be living here one day. Back when our kids looked like this:

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And this:

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And my husband and I looked like this:

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What were the highlights of that trip? Where did we have the most fun?

Pike Place Market:

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The science fiction museum. Well…that’s what it was called then. You had the science fiction museum on one side of the building and the experience music project on the other. Today it’s all one big museum, the Museum of Pop Culture:

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And the Seattle Underground:

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Until we took the tour, we had no idea what lay beneath those purple squares in the sidewalk. It’s a fun tour! I’ve been on it several times because I’ve taken most of our out-of-town visitors on it.

I started thinking about some of the things I’ve seen down there…and a plot began to form.

So the book is called The Underground Ghosts, but the series is The Haunted Library. I couldn’t possibly set a Haunted Library book in Seattle and NOT have any scenes that take place in the Seattle Public Library. Especially when the Central Library looks like this:

 

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It’s even more interesting on the inside. Take a tour if you’re in the area! Or take the virtual tour right now.

My friend Linda Johns is a librarian there. She’s also the author of the Hannah West mysteries, which are also set in Seattle. Check them out! Linda was kind enough to give me a behind-the-scenes tour of the library when I was still plotting out my story, which brought everything together for me.

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I wrote most of the book right there in the library. They have a writers room, so I had a quiet place to work every day. Whenever I was stuck on a particular scene, I could just walk around my setting for a while until I got unstuck.

The parking attendant got a little suspicious when he caught me wandering back and forth in the parking garage one day. We had a conversation (parts of which ended up in the book).

Seattle friends…Seattle kids…I hope you have as much fun reading this book as I had writing it!

And if you’re not going to Oregon for the eclipse on August 21, please come to my book launch at Secret Garden Bookshop (2214 NW Market St. in Ballard) on Sunday, August 20 at 2:00pm. Hear more behind-the-scenes stories of this book…brush up on your Seattle trivia…and purchase a signed copy of the Underground Ghosts! Sunday afternoons are a great time to visit Ballard because you can also visit the farmer’s market and you can park for free!

If you can’t make the book launch, leave a comment on this post to enter a drawing to win a FREE signed copy of the Underground Ghosts. I’ll draw the winner on August 15, pub day!

*UPDATED AUGUST 16, 2017

Okay, yesterday was August 15. Pub day for the Underground Ghosts as well as Ben’s birthday. So I thought it was appropriate to have him draw my winner.

Yes, we gave him dragon meat for his birthday. After we ate the dragon meat, I put all the names in the can, shook it up, and told Ben to pick a good one.

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The dog wanted in on the action, too! (Actually, he wanted the dragon meat!) You probably can’t read the winner, so here’s a close up to prove we’re on the up and up here at OAV:

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Congratulations, Denise!

And here they are together in one photo. My August 15 “babies”:

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Patrick Jennings, Author of the Month: Correspondence Is Bliss!

I get letters.

Handwritten letters, mostly, written by readers, teachers, and parents. I get emails now, too, of course, which come to me through my website. I’ve always answered all of the mail I’ve gotten regarding my books. I read once that Maurice Sendak answered all his and figured if he could do it, so could I. The letters I get are blissful to read. I currently have a few bulging pouches and some loose letters on my desk, waiting for replies.

Some of the letters come after online visits. They really help anchor those virtual experiences for me. I’ve been doing school visits for over twenty years, online visits for a few. During the latter, I don’t get the pleasure of meeting readers in person, wandering their halls, dropping into their classrooms or cafeterias, or popping outside to the playground, nor can I sign books for them. The letters help make up for all this. (I do offer to sign and send books, though, through my local bookshop—the glorious Imprint Books, in Port Townsend.)

I “visited” a school in Seattle in April,  and later received a manila envelope bursting with letters from second graders. As I read through them, I found exquisite bon mots in each, and thought a post consisting of them might delight others as much as they do me. I’ve added remarks from letters from a reading group composed of fourth and fifth graders in El Cerrito, California, to boot.

Note: These are all as-is. I did spruce up some spelling and punctuation. Otherwise they’re completely sic.

“I really liked reading and meeting you, especially asking you questions.”

“Can you please send me a picture of Guinea Dog 2 and 3?”

“My favorite part was everything. It was very cool.”

“I was one of the people who talked.”

“I love your whole book.”

“How old are you?”

“My author question is do you have a dog or a guinea pig?”

“Have you ever cleaned up guinea pig pee and poo?”

“Why did you want your book to be funny?”

“I loved your book. It inspired me to make a book, too.”

“I have a lot of favorite books, and this is my third place favorite book.”

“I really like Guinea Dog because that book is the first book I have ever read that made me laugh out loud.”

“I would like to ask you if you would like to do stuff in Guinea Dog.”

I would also like to ask, ‘Is one of your brothers an author, too, and did he make Actual Size’?”

“How much have you read this book yourself?”

“I liked you book since it was so funny! Oh and did I tell you that I’m the funniest person in my family?”

“I want an author when I grow up. I want a guinea pig now.”

“I love to write and read. What’s your favorite thing to do?”

“P.S. We had you as a spelling word.”

“I think you did a really good job on basically all your books even though I haven’t read all of them.”

“Can you make There’s a GIRL in the BOY’s Bathroom?”

“Did your parents inspire you or did the sounds or looks of nature?”

“My teacher is so funny, silly, and cool. Do you remember how your teacher was?”

“My little cousin likes your book. She laughed so hard I had to stop for her to stop laughing.”

“I’m Mexican, but I don’t speak Spanish that much. My mom says I have to learn Spanish but I don’t want to because I want to learn Japanese.”

“Do you want to be an only child?”

“What college did you go to and which colleges do you recommend?”

“Do you like art? What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream? Are most artists neat? Do you get a lot of time for vacation?”

“Can I call you Mr. J? I hope so because I like that name.”

“P. S. My oldest friend moved to Conneticut. It’s very sad. P. S. How do you spell Conneticut?”

“You are the best writer that I know.”

Okay. Time to get to answering the letters.
Bliss.

Clare Hodgson Meeker, Author of the Month: Born to Love Animals

A few months ago, I wrote a guest post for Newbery Honor-winning author Kirby Larson’s Friend Friday blog about my latest book, Rhino Rescue!, and the amazing and risky work that animal-care specialists do to help endangered animals survive.

Shortly after the article was published, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, two National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence I interviewed for the book, had a close brush with death when a buffalo attacked Beverly near their camp one evening in the Okavango Delta. Beverly was speared by the animal’s horns, causing her serious injuries. Dereck was injured, too, but not as badly, and was able to rescue her. They then spent a long, perilous night waiting to be airlifted to a hospital.

Four surgeries later, Beverly has made a miraculous recovery and the couple was able to leave the hospital together earlier this month. Dereck’s comment on their Facebook page this week shows the true grit these Rhino rescuers possess as they look forward to getting back to work with Rhinos Without Borders airlifting these endangered animals to a safer home:

“You can anticipate more fire in our veins for this cause we appear to have been born to.”

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