My Life With Gracie…Themes And Conflicts And Character Flaws (Oh, My!)

Sometimes The Only Light Is You

My “vacation time” away from posting new stories and illustrations was very helpful. In the evenings, I would sit with my chickens, read one of several how-to-write-a-novel books from the library, and then jot down ideas in a small notebook. (Some of those ideas from the notebook were used in the background of today’s main illustration.) Then in the mornings, I would type away.

One of the easiest suggestions I read was to be sure that there is a central message or theme to the novel. It should be short. It should be a summary of the entire novel. It should make potential readers wonder more about the novel. You can read it in the words for today’s illustration: “Sometimes the only light is you.”

But everything else was not so easy. With a post story, I most often write about cute little chickens doing cute little things to hold a reader’s interest for just a few short minutes. But a novel has a much longer reading time. Cute does not last long in a novel.

A novel usually needs a main character who has a conflict situation (what the external surface plot is about) and a character flaw (what the real internal story is about). There has to be one “What will happen next?” moment after another.

When writing posts, I almost always present my chickens as “living in the best situation ever and being just about the best chickens ever.” Hardly ever any conflicts. Hardly ever any flaws.

One of the most difficult thing about having chickens as main characters is making their lives and problems relevant to readers. (It has to be about more than finding worms.)

Hopefully all of these difficult things have been accomplished in this short excerpt.

Today is the new day my life will begin...

“Today is the day my new wonderful life will begin,” said Pearl, though there were no other chickens nearby to hear her.

It was the day Pearl had been anticipating. It was the day when her life would finally make sense and come together. It was the day when she would be a hen, accepted and loved by all the others at last. It was the day she was going to lay her first egg.

“I can just feel it,” she told me when I brought out their breakfast salad. “Do I look any different yet? I just know I’m going to look different.”

“You look much happier, Pearl. You truly do,” I said.

She felt as if she must surely glow with joy in the early morning sunlight. She had a few bites of chopped apple to fortify herself for her triumph.

“Finally I will fit in, and the others will love me,” she told me as she headed up to the nesting boxes. “I can hardly wait to start soaking up all of that love!”

The others continued eating their favorites from the breakfast salad. Laying eggs was something they did every day. They did not understand what the big fuss was about.

This was nothing new for Pearl. She had never been understood by the other chickens.

“You must fit in. You must not stand out from the flock,” they would tell her. “If you really feel like you need to be yourself, then you need to go somewhere and do it alone, with no one else looking.”

Pearl did not care whether she was understood or not. She only wanted to be loved.

None of the others except for Blanche ever wanted to be around her, not even when it was time to roost at night. She tried to be like the others with all she knew how to do, and then the next minute there would be another chicken calamity. Feathers would get ruffled. Pearl’s head would get pecked.

“Be.” Peck. “A.” Peck. “Normal.” Peck. “Chicken.” Peck.

“Why can’t you just be a normal chicken?” is what she would hear every day.

Pearl was an outcast.

Once she laid her first egg, she would be a hen just like the others. She would fit in, and her life would turn around for the better. It was what Pearl believed. It was what I hoped.

But not everything turns out the way we believe and hope.

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

The novel I’m working on is based on two posts from last December titled “How To Explain Christmas To Chickens.” You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In the novel, Pearl will be “The Only Light” in The Bottle Cap Lady’s life.

By the way, the title of today’s post is a reference to “Lions And Tigers And Bears! Oh, My!” from the film “The Wizard of Oz” which was used as an example in several how-to books.

Gracie’s Summer Reading List…“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

This was our “vacation book” while taking time away from adding new stories and illustrations to “My Life With Gracie.” It is a perfect book for a vacation, even if it is only in your own backyard.

At first, my chickens didn’t realize this was a book. They had never seen a book this thick. They thought it was just something to stand on. As you may know, chickens like to stand on things, and the first thing my chickens ever stood on top of was a brick. This book is as thick as a brick. I’m not kidding. It is over two inches thick.

Don’t let the thickness fool you. This is not “War and Peace” or “Ulysses” for children. There are many pages with only pictures, and parts of the story are told only through pictures. Some pages are full of text, but others have only a short paragraph surrounded by white space. These all help with pacing. This is a brilliant combination of several book types: novel, picture book, and animated flip book.

While it is a substantial book, it is also a delightful book to read and to treasure. As you can see on the cover, it won a Caldecott medal which is intended for children’s picture books. This was the first novel to ever win a Caldecott medal because of its delightful pencil illustrations drawn by the author. (You can see part of one on the book jacket’s spine.)

“My favorite thing about this book is how the setting is Paris where they dance ballet. There are French words in this book too. All important ballet words are in French. Even though there wasn’t any dancing in this book, I did like the descriptions of the train station and the streets of Paris. My dream is to one day dance in the streets of Paris. This book is mostly about dreams, and it was written for dreamers. You may not know this, but I am a dreamer.” – Gracie

“I felt really sorry for the main character, Hugo. He lived all alone in the walls of a train station and he had no one to take care of him or cook for him. Sometimes he stole croissants to eat. If I knew how to bake croissants, I would make some for him. They do a lot of baking in France. If Gracie and I ever get to visit France, she will study ballet dancing and I will study baking. They do fun things like that in France all the time. I do wish there had been some birds in this story though. Did you know that a chicken, a rooster, is the national bird of France? I do hope we can visit France some day.” – Bessie

“Hugo was very clever, just like me. He collects things and put them together to make clocks and toys. (I collect scraps of fabric and paper and other things. I put them together and make hats.) Hugo even fixed a mechanical man that drew a picture! Most people don’t realize it, but chickens are fascinated by mechanical things. We study them and watch them move and try to figure them out. Isabelle was Hugo’s friend and she liked secrets, just like me. – Pearl

“The wonderful drawings were my favorite part of this book! They helped tell the story and helped me feel like I was right there in the story. I draw with chalk, and I paint with watercolors. The pictures in this book were drawn with pencil on watercolor paper. I will have to try that. This book was also about making movies. I think I might like to see a movie some day. Movies are pictures that move, and they must be quite remarkable if they can do that all by themselves.” – Emily

“Even though this was a book mostly about Hugo, things would have never worked out without Isabelle. She was smart. She was strong too, but also pretty. She read a lot of books. And some books she would read over and over again. I’m not sure I could do that much reading because there are so many real-life adventures I want to have instead, but I do want to read this book again. Anyway, Isabelle is a lot like me, except she reads words and I only read pictures.” – Amelia

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” is suitable for ages 8 to 12 and is available through Barnes and Noble. The regular price is $24.99, however Barnes & Noble is offering it for considerably less. (Currently it is $19.99.) Summertime discount codes offer additional savings.

“Hugo” is the film adaptation of this novel, and like the book, it is also delightful and encourages dreamers of all ages.

Just so you know, “My Life With Gracie” isn’t getting anything from sharing this book with you. We don’t collect anything if you click the link here. Some websites work that way, but for us, it’s about reading. Children (and chickens) need to read and be read to, whether it’s what we write or not!

My Life With Gracie…More Than What We Are Right Now

More Than What We Are Right Now

Recently someone asked me, “Is Gracie your chicken or your wife?”

I replied, “Gracie is one of my absolutely amazing chickens. She is a beautiful Buff Orpington with a very gracious heart which is why she is named Gracie.”

My own heart enjoyed this question, though I am not completely sure why. I hoped this had been asked because the questioner found a special love in my words and illustrations.

I remember once, a little more than twenty-four years ago, when someone had told me, “We can never be anything more than what we are right now.”

Those words come back to me today, almost as clearly as when they were spoken on that front porch swing. It was a summer night, warm with only a light breeze. A golden retriever lay nearby, listening and trying to figure out what those words meant.

The most fragile realities seem to be the ones which depend the most on other people.

And so I wonder if that has anything to do with why I love Gracie so much. She gives me the dream of having someone to come home to, and I give her the dream of being someone to come home to…and of dancing ballet.

As long as there are stories and drawings, Gracie and I will surely be more than what we are right now…L’artiste et son beau poulet dansant…The artist and his beautiful dancing chicken.

I could tell there was still something troubling her. “What else do you want to know, Gracie?”

“In the ballet book, can you draw a picture of me dancing with you in the streets of Paris? I don’t think we will ever really get to dance there together.”

“Of course, Gracie. Drawing lets you do things you would never be able to do any other way.”

From “Seasons Of Friendship”

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated! Today is my 62nd birthday, and today just seemed to be the best day to share this story and illustration.

My Life With Gracie…Time For Vacation!

Time For Vacation
In the last year, we have posted 150 times! And 100 of those have been story posts! (The others have been just general information and special posts like our “Family Photo Friday” and “Gracie’s Summer Reading List.”) That is a lot of posts!

The girls and I will be taking a short vacation for a week or two. It will be their first vacation ever, and they are all particularly excited. We may end up at the beach, but then again, we may just stay home and play in a backyard wading pool! You seriously will not believe how difficult it is to find inflatable beach toys small enough for chickens! Flip flops are easy. Pool toys, not so easy. Then there is the whole issue of swimsuits for the beach! (That backyard plastic pool is looking a lot easier!)

We will be back from time to time, particularly with “Gracie’s Summer Reading List” posts. Poolside reading while dipping our feet and toes in the water sounds like a perfect kind of vacation.

I will also be working on our next book which I hope will be ready by late fall. It’s an expanded version of “How To Explain Christmas To Chickens.” The time away on vacation will give me an opportunity to really work on the story and the illustrations.

You may remember how one of the key characters, The Bottle Cap Lady, has a yard full of Christmas decorations which she has collected over the years. We are talking about a lot of Christmas decorations, and that will be a lot of drawing! I really do enjoy drawing Pearl. She lets me use bright and outrageous colors and props and costumes. While she may often be silly, she truly has a heart of gold.

If you’ve started following “My Life With Gracie” after those posts were shared last December, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Pearl will still be the main character along with The Bottle Cap Lady, and you can be sure Pearl will still be her own unique self as she has always been.

Those two posts were two of the most read and most liked from all of last year. At the time, several people had told me, “John, you need to turn this into a book.” It wasn’t until Pearl died in the spring of this year, that things began to come together for this book. Because Pearl felt such great heartbreak, I knew that she would be the only one who would be able to reach The Bottle Cap Lady and help others who have had to deal with tragedy and loss.

Not to give to much of the plot away though, but here is a brief summary of this book which I’m hoping will be an inspiration to many people.

“How To Explain Christmas To Chickens”

Pearl loves being a chicken, and she loves being a comedian. Her natural curiosity leads her to explore her neighborhood. When she secretly visits The Bottle Cap Lady, she learns about Christmas in a most unusual and unforgettable way. Pearl discovers there is a Christmas gift that only she can give, but will she?

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

Gracie’s Summer Reading List…“We Don’t Eat Our Classmates” by Ryan T. Higgins

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates

When I think about the time spent reading our last book, A Wrinkle In Time, to my chickens, I believe I’ve spent just as much time reading and rereading this short picture book to them. I don’t mind though because this book is delightful. It makes me say, “I wish I had written that!”

Penelope is a young dinosaur who goes to school for the first time. She is a Tyrannosaurus Rex, known as great hunters. All of my chickens could relate to that because they are all excellent worm and bug hunters. They could not relate to school because even though we live only three blocks from an elementary school, chickens are not allowed to be students.

“Penelope is a very fortunate girl to be able to go to school. I like how she has problems just like everyone else. It’s nice how she has her own bedroom. Sometimes I wonder what that would be like. She looks really cute in her pink overalls too.” – Gracie

“I liked Penelope’s teacher. She was very accepting and fair towards Penelope, even when she ate all of her classmates. Oops! I probably shouldn’t have said that. I don’t want to give the story away. Walter was hilarious! Oops! There I go again!” – Bessie

“I would really like to have a backpack just like Penelope’s. It has ponies on it. Who doesn’t like ponies? But seriously, I can really understand how hard she tried to fit in and stay out of trouble. I would be her friend for sure. – Pearl

“One of my favorite parts was when Penelope got to do finger painting with her class. I would like to do that even though I don’t have fingers. Is there such a thing as feather painting? She had a hard time making friends even though she was the biggest in her class. I thought that was interesting because I had a hard time making friends too and I’m the smallest.” – Emily

“To be honest, I thought this was a deeply philosophical book which challenged my moral beliefs. It made me ponder the possibility of being the only chicken in a classroom filled with worms. Would my teacher tell me, ‘We don’t eat our classmates’? And if so, what would I do? Penelope definitely faced a real dilemma.” – Amelia

“We Don’t Eat Our Classmates” is suitable for ages 3 to  5, but there are plenty of chuckles for every age group. This picture book  is available through Barnes and Noble. The regular price is $17.99, however Barnes & Noble is offering it for less. Summertime discount codes offer additional savings.

Just so you know, “My Life With Gracie” isn’t getting anything from sharing this book with you. We don’t collect anything if you click the link here. Some websites work that way, but for us, it’s about reading. Children (and chickens) need to read and be read to, whether it’s what we write or not!

Family Photo Friday!

Today’s “Family Photo Friday” is definitely different from the usual. In the past, I think the most you’ve seen of me has been my jeans and shoes. That is because “My Life With Gracie” is supposed to be about Gracie and my other chickens, not about me.

This photo is what you might call an “author photo,” like one you might see on the back cover of a book. It just seemed like the thing to do since this website is now a year old.

Some of the books I’ve read about being an author and being published have said you need to use an author photo somewhere in your book because your readers will want to know how you look. It’s supposed to make readers feel more connected to you.

As you may be able to tell, I didn’t feel quite comfortable with the whole idea, and so two of my “writing muses” have joined me in this photo. I did have a more serious looking photo that I was considering as a possibility, but this is the one Gracie chose. (She is making sure that I don’t look too serious by tickling my cheek.)

She thought it might be best to have a photo taken right in our own backyard under the camellias because it is a special place…

…where chickens dance ballet and dream of flying to the moon and back…

…where we can think deeper thoughts than what we may be accustomed to thinking about life and love and what it all means…

…where we can innocently hope and believe it will all make sense one day, and even if it doesn’t, we still have love for each other, and that is more than enough.

People are not so different from chickens or each other really. We are all here for one purpose…to give. The only difference might be in what we choose to give. We choose to give love from our hearts.

Each post shares a glimpse into my journey as a writer and illustrator. Every “Like,” “Follow,” and “Comment” is truly appreciated!

“Feed The Chickens!” Card Game…Our Anniversary Gift To You!

Feed The Chickens Card Game

Today we are celebrating our One-Year Anniversary of “My Life With Gracie” stories and illustrations. Here is our “Thank You!” gift to you, our readers!

We have truly appreciated your encouragement and support over the past twelve months! PDF documents to “Print and Play” are at the bottom! Hopefully this game isn’t too “corny,” but my chickens love it!

“Feed The Chickens!” Un-Official Official Rules

(That means it’s okay to change them and even add your own rules! Gracie says so, and what Gracie says goes!)

Object Of The Game Two Chicken Farmers try to make seven different Food Piles for their chickens, one for each different fruit or vegetable. The Winner is the Chicken Farmer with the highest total value for their top cards in their own “Feed The Chickens!” Area. (The illustration above should help explain these rules. You can see how the cards are arranged when playing. White and gray labels are used for Pearl, and pale orange and tan are used for Gracie.)

How To Set Up Shuffle cards. Deal face down on the table to make a Draw Pile for each Chicken Farmer.

How To Play Both Chicken Farmers turn over their top cards and place them face up to see who has the highest value. The Chicken Farmer with the highest value gets to “Feed The Chickens!”

Sometimes both cards will have the same value! (This is what you see in the Illustration. Pearl has Two Kale and Gracie has Two Corn.) When that happens, both Chicken Farmers turn over their top cards again. Repeat until someone has a higher value on their top card. This means there could be a lot of cards to choose from when someone gets to “Feed The Chickens!”

How To “Feed The Chickens!” The Chicken Farmer with the highest value top card takes all the cards turned over and selects one Fruit Card or Vegetable Card for their “Feed The Chickens!” Area. This card may be used to make a new kind of Food Pile or be put on top of a matching Food Pile if they have that kind already. Remember every time there is a card with a higher value turned over, it’s time to “Feed The Chickens!”

Other card or cards taken but not used to “Feed The Chickens!” should be placed in the Chicken Farmer’s Discard Pile. Then it’s time to turn over cards again!

How To Continue Playing When one Chicken Farmer’s Draw Pile is empty, reshuffle Discard Piles (along with card from the other Chicken Farmer’s Draw Pile if there is one). Deal again and continue.

If there are no cards or only one card in the Discard Piles to reshuffle, collect all of the cards in the center and reshuffle all of them. (Sorry, chickens! You will have to wait just a little longer!)

When To Stop Playing Stop when one Chicken Farmer has made all seven different Food Piles in their “Feed The Chickens!” area.

How To Decide Who Is The Winner Total the values for the top cards only. The Winner is the Chicken Farmer who has the highest total. If both have the same total, the Winner is the Chicken Farmer who was last to “Feed The Chickens!” (In the illustration above, Pearl has some catching up to do if she wants to win!)

Fruit Cards and Vegetable Cards are worth one, two, or three.

A Worms Card is higher than any Fruit Card or Vegetable Card. It is worth four.

The Old Shoe Card is worth zero. Sorry, but you never feed an old shoe to chickens!

Super Special “Old Shoe” vs. “Worms” Rule Whenever the first cards turned over are the Old Shoe Card and a Worms Card, the Worms Card can be put on any existing Food Pile for a value of four. (This is what you see for Gracie in the illustration above. Pearl turned over the “Old Shoe,” and Gracie turned over the “Worms.” So she put it on top of her Peas Food Pile to give it a value of four.)

This is the only time the chickens get any worms. (Sorry again, chickens! But we need them to keep the game going! We will run out of worms if you eat them all!)

If the Chicken Farmer who turned over the Worms Card doesn’t have any Food Piles yet, the Worms Card can be used to start a new Food Pile as long as the Chicken Farmer says what it will be (such as “Watermelon” or “Kale”). Any future cards of that kind would be placed on that Food Pile.

Super Special “Can’t Make Seven Food Piles” Rule It is possible that neither Chicken Farmer will be able to make all seven different Food Piles. This can happen when both Chicken Farmers have at least one Food Pile with all three matching Fruit Cards or Vegetable cards.

If this should happen, continue playing until the only cards left are the Worm Cards and Old Shoe Card. The Winner is still the Chicken Farmer with the highest total value. If both have the same value, the Winner is the Chicken Farmer who was last to “Feed The Chickens!”

(Strategy Tip: If you see that the other Chicken Farmer has two of the same Fruit or Vegetable cards and you get to “Feed The Chickens!” you may want to use the last of that kind of Fruit or Vegetable card to “Feed The Chickens!” even if it only has a value of one. Otherwise, you might not be able to make that Food Pile later!)  

Watch Out For This!  There will be times when you have to place a lower value card on top of a higher value card when you “Feed The Chickens!” You won’t have any other choice! This is because the Chicken Farmer who has turned over the higher value card must “Feed The Chickens!” (This is every chicken’s favorite rule! It also can make the game very interesting because you can lose points! Feed your chickens wisely!)

“Print and Play” PDF’s for “Feed The Chickens!”

“Card Backs” If you want pictures on both sides of every card, print two of these. Use card stock weight paper if possible. You can then flip them over and print “Card Fronts – Sheet One” and “Sheet Two” on the other side. This will give you a picture on both sides of every card!

“Card Fronts – Sheet One” Print one of these. The top part has a “Wrap Around Case” for your card game. The bottom part has twelve cards. Cut along dotted lines. Trim with scissors as needed to even them up.

“Card Fronts – Sheet Two” Print one of these. The top part has “Pocket Rules” which you can use for quick reference and then fold up for storage. The bottom part has thirteen cards. Cut along dotted lines. Trim with scissors as needed.

When you have all twenty-five cards from both sheets cut to the right size, place them in a stack. Then place the “Wrap Around Case” snugly (but not too tightly) around the cards. This way you can still slide your cards in and out again. You will probably need to trim the ends some before gluing or taping.

Hey! Why not print a double big deck of fifty cards in all!?!

There are plenty of other rules you can add when you play this game! In fact, you can make up your own rules! Remember how I practically filled an entire notebook with brainstorming ideas from my chickens? There are plenty of ways to “Feed The Chickens!”

You might even want to just print the “Card Backs” on some sheets, cut them out and make your own kinds of cards! Maybe analog games that let you use your imagination and creativity really can still survive in a digital world!

Most important of all, even if you aren’t a kid anymore, you can still be a kid at heart! And kids love to “Feed The Chickens!”

Thanks again!

John, Gracie, Bessie, Pearl, Amelia, and Emily