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Posted by on Nov 8, 2014 | 0 comments

You’re the Best!

JenaBlue - Framed 300A dpi

This is me…

Profile 3

and so is this…

Jena Hugs1

And so, I am proud to say, is this – Ms. Jenaia!

My metamorphosis into Ms. Jenaia has been much like a caterpillar’s and I have children to thank for that. When I began writing the CritterKin series I was following an urge. Any writer will tell you that when an idea captures your imagination it’s best to pay attention. Everywhere I looked I suddenly saw dogs doing what dogs do – being a best friend to a homeless man sleeping on the street; acting as a matchmaker between two strangers, giving them an excuse to stop and talk to one another; joyfully playing fetch with kids in the park; and it suddenly hit me. Dogs are our emotional teachers. They are in our lives to model and give us the chance to practice empathy, compassion and love.

The characters in the CritterKin pack – a goofy  bunch of mixed breed dogs – were appearing right before my eyes. I started writing. I started drawing, but I still had no idea that there was something more in what I was penning. I was working cheerfully in the little box that I had been assigned. Because you see, just like most adults living today, school was not a happy place for me. I was not encouraged to discover or pursue what I loved (drawing, writing and the natural world). Even more disturbing, looking back, was that every subject I was “taught” seemed to exist in a vacuum. I was not taught to see connections, to understand that the hundreds of facts I was expected to memorize in world history were intimately linked to the anatomy and physiology I was being force fed in science class, which in turn had important links to the French grammar and pronunciation I was struggling to master in my foreign language class. But hardest of all for me was the way the education system actively discouraged me from being creative. I was repeatedly told that I was wasting my time and would never amount to anything if I became an “artist.” My parents actually sat me down once and said, “You’re so good with your hands. Why don’t you become a dentist? They make good money.” The memory of that conversation still gives me goosebumps.

What I didn’t understand, and the kids are only now beginning to help me see, is that accepting the label of “artist,” or “writer” or any other label no matter how flattering has the potential to become  limiting, confining and stale.

It took my business partner, Marty Keltz, himself a survivor of a brutal education, and hundreds of children between the ages of 5 and 12 to convince me to not only write, illustrate and read the CritterKin stories, but use them as the catalyst for our collective discovery. It was Marty who encouraged me to don Ms. Jenaia’s baggy overalls, stuff my pockets with poop bags and dog treats and embody her character for the kids. It gives me and them a chance to be more than any label – to play, act and express a part of myself that has no label.

In CritterKin visits kids are not passive listeners. As Ms. Jenaia I lead them “into” stories, asking them to help me keep those stories going by repeating words and sounds, answering questions and singing. Once the story is “finished,” we discuss, draw, research, write stories of our own and take what we’ve discovered back into the world for a test drive. Can being kind to a dog help us be kind to one another? Can we find and tell stories of our own to help other people want to be kind? What kind of projects can we think up that might let us share what we’ve discovered? A newspaper? A quilt? A giant wall mural? A book of photos? A garden planted with kindness stones?

In short, I want the kids I meet to do what human beings do best – make connections while following their hearts as well as their minds. I want them to self-identify as artists, mathematicians and pilots and not see those labels as mutually exclusive. Does that mean that I want my doctor to have been off flying a plane instead practicing how to do surgery? Of course not. But neither do I want him or her to have become so focused on being a doctor that it has become “just a job.” I want my doctor to be an alive, awake and engaged life-long learner; to be as intrigued and passionate about the impact being a doctor can have on the world as any artist.

These days the highest compliment anyone can pay me is not “you’re a good writer,” or “you can really draw,” or even “you’re a good teacher,” though I’ll cheerfully accept all of those. It’s what a second grader said to me at the end of a recent visit as we were sharing the drawings of dogs we’d made with one another. “Ms. Jenaia,” she said, “you’re the BEST!”

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Posted by on Nov 7, 2014 | 0 comments

CritterKin Picks #1

Photos from visits to classrooms across North America that gave us a giggle, touched our hearts, or made us pause and think. Enjoy!

Color Their World With Kindness4

Led by Ms. Jenaia and their fabulous librarian, Erin Preder, second, third and fifth graders at John R. Tibbott Elementary School in Illinois have been drawing and coloring local shelter dogs to help get them adopted.  See all their amazing work here:

Tammy - Every Kind

Tammy Massman’s third graders in Iowa crafted acrostic poems from the letters they’re using in their Kindness Quilt. We asked them to do three things: Color their letters; think of words that begin with those letters; and use the letters in sentences focused on kindness. Well done kiddos!  See all their great work here:

Working on DMDD1

This picture of the 75 fourth graders working on their newspaper, called “The Des Moines Doggy Daily,” makes us smile every time we look at it. The kids have been such dedicated reporters, artists, photographers and book reviewers that we fully expect the first edition to sell off the stands.  Bravo! See more of their work here:

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Posted by on Nov 6, 2014 | 0 comments

Find Your Tribe


Christina - Start with Heart Poster1A

I was recently asked to prepare and present a talk about how to succeed as a self-published author. As everyone knows, traditional print media is struggling, and it’s become extremely difficult to get the attention of publishers. It’s no wonder so many genuinely gifted writers are turning to self-publishing.

All of the above was not to tout the merits of self-publishing, but to share what I realized while creating the presentation. The success of the CritterKin books has much more to do with the relationships we’ve built than the marketing we’ve done. Yes, we promote CritterKin and its mission of teaching kindness and empathy through story, but it’s the people who have invited us into their hearts, homes, classrooms, libraries, cafeterias, blogs, online conferences, Edcamps,  radio shows and TV programs that have made it possible for us to really share what we do. When folks buy CritterKin books they do so knowing the people and programs that went into making them. They are our tribe.

I realize that the notion of creating a tribe – a community of people who know and believe in you and your work – will seem obvious to many. Certainly one of the keys to successful job hunting is “networking,” but I’m talking about something a little different. CritterKin is about tapping and sharing stories that are designed to encourage and empower kids to become caring, compassionate and creative adults, capable of innovative thinking because they’ve been encouraged and empowered to find and use their gifts. It’s a powerful idea, and one that our tribe is helping us define and refine every day.

Therefore, it is with immense admiration, respect and gratitude that we dedicate the video below celebrating CritterKin’s first year to the members of our tribe – all the critters large and small of all species – who have helped us realize and expand our dreams!

CritterKin and Lulu - Slide1 with text

Click to see the Video

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