Spiders In the Night: Aly Weaves a Tale

The fall cold always came overnight, in October, when the moon was a spooky thumbnail.

Aly loved October. She loved how the spiders spun ghostly webs to decorate the house for Halloween.

It was always coldest by late October, when her mother’s outside plants began to droop and wither. Thinking about the spiders and how hard they were working, Aly began to worry.

How would they stay warm, when even the flowers that her mother tended so carefully could not survive?

Spider Eye  by Ian Lynch Schuster pastel crayons

Spider Eye
by Ian Lynch Schuster
pastel crayons


Aly could not sleep. All she could think about was the spiders, outside and freezing in the silky dark.

She had to help them. She slid out of bed (she was already wearing her fleece jammies!), put on her socks and shoes, found her camping flashlight, then glided down the wooden floor, past her parents’ room to the living room. She grabbed her mother’s box full of old yarn. She went out through a side door.

The dark was scary. But Aly was brave as she walked along the porch and decks of the house.

She opened the yarn box, full of tangled, colorful strands. Gently, she scooped up spiders, all curled into tiny balls for the night, and set them in the box. When it was full, she put the lid back on and crept inside.

Sleepy as could be, she stopped in the kitchen for a glass of milk and chocolate chip cookies. She put the yarnbox on the counter. And then she fell asleep at the kitchen table.

She awoke to her father and mother shouting, “What on earth?!”

Somehow, the spiders had escaped the box and the kitchen was draped with webs of all sizes and shapes. Every corner and nook had a spider web. Even the tea kettle was draped in fine webs, and the coffee pot was nearly unrecognizable.

“Mary Alyson!” her mother said in a voice that meant trouble. “What is going on here?”

Aly shrugged her shoulders.

“At least now they can help inside the house, too, Mommy,” she said.

Her mother sighed. Her father put his shoe back on. It was Halloween, and the day had just begun.


Key words: orb weavers, Halloween, spiders, moonlight, creepy, brave girl, knitting, picture book


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Halloweensie: When Spiders Decorate

Aly loved October, when spiders spun ghostly webs to decorate for Halloween.

Fall turned cold early. The thumbnail moon was spooky. Aly worried about the spiders, freezing in the dark.

Aly knew how to help. That night, she tiptoed outside carrying her mother’s yarn box, full of tangled skeins. She gently gathered sleepy spiders, setting them in the box. Once it was full, she went inside and left it on the kitchen counter.


Aly woke to a ruckus in the kitchen: Daddy whacking at scuttling spiders, Mommy waving a broom.

Interior decorating! Halloween would be a wooly tangle!


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What’s Yupo? Learning a New Technique

A few months ago, an artist friend from a Facebook creativity group began to post gorgeous paintings she had made on paper called ‘yupo,’ which is synthetic paper. Among its advantages are that you can wash off what you don’t like, you can blow the watercolors around the page–with your lips or a hairdryer, you can add gouache and then stencils and who knows what as you create something from very little.

While visiting friends last summer, I gave their daughter $20 to run down to the local art shop, buy 2 sheets of yupo, and get something for herself. Well–the two oversized sheets were $20. (Better prices online, from Office Depot to Blick and  Jerry’s Artarma.) So I chopped the oversized sheets into the 6 x 8 inch pieces I’m more accustomed to working with, and waited a while to figure out what to do with them.

I finally learned, thanks to a class last week with the Muddy Creek Artists Guild, of which I am a happy new member (though I still hesitate to say that I’m an ‘artist’.) An instructor showed us one approach to painting on yupo–clean the paper with rubbing alcohol and, once it has tried, splash a bit of water here and there, and then add up to three complementary colors. You can swirl the paper, or patiently watch the colors swirl. I’m glad I took a picture at this point, because mine was so beautiful that I made it into a card (for sale soon on my Etsy site!).

On sale at JustByJanice on Etsy -- $15 for set of 5!

On sale at JustByJanice on Etsy — $15 for set of 5!

The next step was to pick up the still-damp paper and move it across the room, to set it on the floor with all the other yupo-work, where a fan blew the images dry—and all over the place. I did not have my final one made into a card!

Yupo, large

The next time my daughter came to visit, we took my watercolor pencils and small sheets of yupo, and came up with our own designs–mine, the giraffe with runny mascara and hers the Monet-like abstraction. I may frame them both.

Giraffe with bad mascara and Monet lilies

Giraffe with bad mascara and Monet lilies

The point of all this was that it was joyful, intriguing, and fun. When was the last time you played with watercolors? And why did you stop?

Key Words: yupo, watercolors, Muddy Creek Artists Guild, creativity, learning

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Girls to the Front

Last month, my youngest daughter graduated from college–applying her great intellect and innate creativity to make the most of her 4 years there, despite significant health challenges. While earning her degree, she became an advocate for many issues, such as #blacklivesmatter and a #livingwage. She also did things about it, leading a crew at Habitat for Humanity, tutoring vulnerable children, distributing meals, and so much more. To me, she is proof that the universe is built on love and action.

So I drew a new turtle, this time just a single small one, heading out to sea, nothing to guide him beyond decades of nature and genetic. Like my girl, fearless and brave, swimming to whatever beautiful thing catches her eye.


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Sea Turtles: I Will Not Be Broken

Trying to draw many pictures inspired by songs, poetry, or phrases and people I encounter. This is my image of sea turtles on the Atlantic Coast, from Maryland to North Carolina, trying to make their way to the safety of the ocean. Relative safety, but at least from their nest to the ocean, out of some harm’s way, no doubt into other’s. Here it is.


I Will Not Be Broken

I Will Not Be Broken

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Maddie the Red and the Summer of Outside Reading

It is the last day of second grade and Maddie is daydreaming about summer. Swim team. Jumping waves at the beach. A trip to the lake to camp with her cousins. And best of all, she thinks, Mommy says that this Fourth of July, Maddie can light her own sparkler. Finally,, I am not a baby!

She is just beginning to feel the chilly water on the flume at the amusement park, and is bracing herself for the big splash when ‘Crack!’! Miss Pinto raps Maddie’s desk with her ruler.

“Clap, clap, clap!”

Miss Pinto slaps her hands together, a signal for the class to clap back and be quiet. Maddie loves Miss Pinto, with her crazy curls of red hair and her freckles, which, Maddie’s  mother says, are angel kisses.

Maddie has red hair too, and she daydreams that if Miss Pinto were her mother, she would understand why Maddie wants to color her hair black, straighten it, and ask the doctor how to get rid of the freckles. Maddie’s mother always  says that grown-ups pay a lot of money for hair like hers.

“They can have it,” Maddie snaps whenever she hears this.

She once  tried to cover her freckles with her mother’s make up, and and her hair with her Dad’s old bandana, but it was useless. She is Maddie the Red. Mommy says she loves Maddie: “Freckle to freckle and head to toe.”

Her mother doesn’t know how much the other kids tease her about her hair and freckles. They hurt her feelings and make her mad. Once she told a boy who wouldn’t leave her alone that his heart must be the size of her smallest freckle, he was so mean, but that made the teasing even worse. And once, when she pulled a tormentor’s hair, Miss Pinto sent her to The Office. After that, the whole class had to go to the cafeteria to hear a man talk about bullying.

But now it is the last day of school and Maddie can’t wait for her bus to be called.

“Now boys and girls, before you start third grade I want you to promise me that you will read at least 20 minutes every day this summer. All that outside reading will have you ready to go when you start third grade.”

The whole class groans. Maddie hates homework. Maybe Miss Pinto would not be such a good mother after all.  She would probably make her read on the Fourth of July!

When she gets off the bus, Maddie races home, letting the screen door slam behind her. All the pictures hanging in the hall rattle. Her mother shouts at her from her office upstairs.

“Maddie, how do we close the front door? Come up and tell me about the last day of second grade,’ she calls. Maddie grabs two just-baked cookies and a juice box, then runs upstairs.

“Last day of school!” Her mother smiles. “I always loved the last day of school, too! Report card?”

She holds out her hand and Maddie turns it over.

Maddie hesitates. “It was all A’s except for reading. I like to read, I’m just not great at it. Miss Pinto told the whole class that we need more outside reading.”

“Well, a little outside reading never hurt anyone,” Mommy says. “I’m off tomorrow and we’ll go to the library.”

Maddie hugs her mom, then disappears to her own room. She picks out 10 of her favorite books and puts them in her backpack. She fills her water bottle, takes a few more cookies and, at the last second, an apple. She packs the wooden sword she has had since she was five and wanted to be a pirate.

She even packs her sunblock and a hat.  Then she  jumps from the fourth step to the foyer, making a loud crash  and darting off before she gets in trouble.

Maddie pedals her bike as fast as she can toward the woods, where she and her best friend, Chuckie, had built a fort last summer. Then Chuckie’s father got a new job in another state, and they moved. Since neither one of them can have  a phone of their own, they write real letters to each other. Ever since Chuckie moved away, Maddie hasn’t been back to the fort. It makes her miss him too much.

“But Chuckie likes to read, so maybe he’ll rub off on me,” she thinks.

She  walks through the tangled, thorny vines full of their purple berries, slicing away with her sword to clear a path–but the fort is gone!  All that’s left are  the door and a faded “Keep Out” sign.

She can’t believe anyone could have just torn it down, not even the big kids from middle school could be so mean.

Not even the big kids could be so mean!

Not even the big kids could be so mean!

“Maybe the blizzard blew it  away,” she thinks. She says good-bye to the fort, which had been such a great fort, then swings her sword to get out of the woods and back to her bike.

She snaps her helmet on, then looks up and down the street, wondering if she can find a better spot for outside reading. She decides that The Climbing Tree in the neighbor’s front yard would be just right.

She gets a foothold on a low branch, then scurries up to the spot where the tree splits, with a ‘V’ shaped place that Maddie knows will make a perfect place for reading. No sooner has she settled in, book in hand, when she feels something moving in the branches above her.

“It can’t be the wind,” she thinks, a split second before she spies a long black snake, curling its way through the leaves. Maddie is not afraid of snakes, but she does not like to be near them. She stuffs her book in her pack, drops the apple, and jumps from the tree before she even gets to the lowest branch. She looks back up to find the snake, but it is camouflaged.

She feels something on her shoulder

She feels something on her shoulder

Back on the street, Maddie sits on the curb to think a while about the outside reading. Twenty minutes a day, every day? She wonders if Daddy could put a hammock up for her, or maybe put a cozy chair on the porch.

She notices someone sitting and slowly swaying on the porch swing at Chuckie’s old house. She leaves her bike behind, and walks over to get a better look. She hopes against hope that the new people have a son her age, just like Chuckie, or a girl who likes red hair and playing animal hospital. Mostly, she thinks, she wants a friend.

A white-haired lady is sitting very straight and still on the porch swing.. She must be short, Maddie thinks, because her feet don’t  reach the floor. Every few minutes, she uses a cane to give herself a push. Maddie moves even closer, inching along the walkway to the house. She can see the woman’s face. It is crackled with wrinkles.

Just as Maddie is about to turn away, the woman spots her.

“Why hello there! Want to swing a while?” she  asks in a wrinkled sort of crackly voice.

Maddie steps up to the porch.

“Hello, my name is Maddie. My best friend ever used to live here. I miss swinging with him,” she says. She knows she is not supposed to talk to strangers, but this lady looks so old, older than anyone Maddie has ever seen.

“Would it be okay for me to do my outside reading here?” she asks.

The old lady chuckles. “I guess a porch will do for outside reading. Climb on up!” She pats the cushion at her side. “My name is Rosalind, but you may call me Miss Rose. Let’s see what you have here.”

Maddie pulls her books out, all ten of them.

Porch swing with Miss Rose

Porch swing with Miss Rose

“Would you like to hear one? Miss Pinto says I am good at reading out loud,” Maddie says. Outside read aloud! She thinks.

“Why so many books?” Miss Rose asks.

“I want to finish a whole week’s worth today,’ she says. She tells Miss Rose about her problems finding the best spot, the beaten down fort, the snake in the tree.

“How dreadful! Snakes! Not my cup of tea,” Miss Rose says.  “I’m sure your teacher didn’t mean for it to be so hard to find a spot. You are welcome to use my swing any time you want to read.”

She adds, “And you can read to me. I am a good listener.”

Maddie reads two books and guesses it has been twenty minutes. Miss Rose smiles at her.

“Well done, Maddie,” she says.

Maddie thinks it might be nice to have a new best friend next door, and she nods happily.

“Can I come tomorrow, after swim team?” she  asks. “I have to ask Mommy, too.”

“Of course you can, dear.” Miss Rose looks at her watch. “Time for me to head on in.”

Very, very slowly, Miss Rose uses her cane to lift herself from the swing.

Maddie jumps off to help her. There is a walker by the front door and Maddie brings it to Miss Rose.

“Till tomorrow,” Miss Rose  says, which is something she has heard her own grandmother say.

She retrieves her bike and pedals home. She can’t wait to tell Mommy about her new friend for outside reading. Outside reading will be better than she thought it would, she decides.

And there is still time to play before dark.


Key Words: early draft, first novel, children’s books, kidlit, reading

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Drawings for Stories in Process

I’ve been working hard to learn the craft of writing for children–it’s tough to do, but I’ve found a wonderful and supportive community where people trade ideas and offer helpful criticism. So, I thought I’d add a few images from stories in process. These stories all happen to be too long for picture books, but seem to be about right for a middle grades reader. So I’m having great fun writing fiction for the first time since 1994. Completely different process, world, challenge and joy.

Sleepover with Grammy

Sleepover with Grammy

From "Maddie the Red and Outside Reading for Summer"

From “Maddie the Red and Outside Reading for Summer”


“Maddie the Red and the Outside Reading Summer”

Key words: MG books, middle grade books. Maddie the Red, outside reading, adventures for girls, summer break, 12×12 PB challenge

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On the Farm with Granny

Adding this to include as a representative illustration for a little story I am trying to write called, “Nanny Goat and the Purple Coat.”


Granny on the farm


key words: USDA Ag Farm Beltsville, research, sheep, lamb, PB, picture book

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Valentiny: Rose’s Grumpy Chocolate Day

Rose was happy that Christmas was done. That horrid Elf on a Shelf was gone. Rose could stop worrying that someone was always watching her.

Now, it was Valentine’s Day, which was no fun at Rose’s school. The nice teachers might bring Sweethearts or lollipops. Some teachers would wear red, and maybe bring construction paper for classes to make a few cards.

In Rose’s neighborhood, people couldn’t waste money on candy and cards.

“Let’s go!,” Mom said as she grabbed Rose’s backpack. Rose did not  know that the Elf on the Shelf’s cousin, Valentiny, had zipped herself into Rose’s bag while Rose was asleep.

Valentiny was invisible, except to children. Only those with the kindest  hearts ever caught a glimpse of her. She flashed like a star.

Unlike the Elf, Valentiny knew that children were good. And she knew how much children need  TLC, even when they turn 14.

Overnight, Valentiny had swept through Rose’s school, filling each locker with golden chocolate coins–and a few real ones.

When the children opened their lockers that morning, the coins poured out everywhere. It was chaos: joyful disruption. Even the meanest teachers nearly smiled.

And while the children ate chocolate for breakfast and licked their chocolately lips, Valentiny danced away, a shooting star.


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The Miracle In Front Of You: Raymond Barfield On Practicing Medicine With Compassion



I first met physician Raymond Barfield in 2009 in Tunisia, where doctors and other health professionals had gathered to talk about how to improve care for people with cancer and HIV/AIDS. I heard Barfield speak eloquently of the need to bridge the worlds of medicine and the spirit. On the trip home to the U.S., during a layover in the Paris airport, I spotted Barfield hunched over a notebook and writing in longhand. He told me he was working on a novel and that he also wrote poetry and played guitar. I remember thinking, Isn’t healing the sick enough for one lifetime? Honestly I may have just felt jealous.

After the conference Barfield and I kept in touch. A few years ago I developed a painful condition called burning mouth syndrome, and he has assisted me in my struggle to find a treatment that works, often reminding me that art can help the healing process. He encourages me to see the beauty of the everyday, something he does in his own life, not only in his daily practice as a doctor who cares for children living with cancer and other serious illnesses, but also as a musician and writer.

Read the rest of the excerpt here. And even better, buy a hard copy if you can–subscribe! It is one of the best magazines around. I’ve been a subscriber for years–maybe 20 or more? I first read it in the mid-1980s while having a drink across the street from Guilford College.  Meeting Ray, reading The Sun, graduating from Guilford have all been transformative time in my life.

key words: Raymond Barfield, children with cancer, spirituality and health, compassionate care, medical education, medical training, World Health Organization, Duke University, pediatric oncology, palliative care, empathy in training


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