Author Archives: Nikki Mantyla

About Nikki Mantyla

I adore young adult literature, which is what I read and try to write. On the side, I teach writing at SLCC and home school three adorable boys.

Hiatus

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IMG_3792 Back in September, we got an awfully big surprise.

Around the third week in August, I had started having undeniable pregnancy symptoms. We did some math on our fingers and excitedly planned for a due date of May 6th, which seemed perfect: I’d be on break between teaching semesters (May is my biggest chunk of time off every year), Hubby would be through with an always-grueling tax season. We’d have plenty of time to rearrange our three boys into bunk beds and all that. And we had plenty of time to wait a month before spreading the news to family and friends, so we didn’t tell anyone yet.

IMG_3455Still, we both admitted that something felt off. There was something different about this pregnancy, but we couldn’t figure out what it was.

Three weeks later, in the middle of catching ourselves up on Downton Abbey, the baby kicked me.

I put my hands on my stomach and suddenly couldn’t pay attention to the captivating drama of Mary and Matthew anymore. I froze, waiting for it to happen again, my head spinning to catch up with what this meant.

It meant I wasn’t seven weeks along, that was for sure. It definitely meant we weren’t due in May.

When the episode ended, I timidly revealed the news to Hubby, and we spent the next hour laughing at the possibility. Could it really be true? Could we have been pregnant since last May and not known it?

Two days later, an ultrasound confirmed it: we were over eighteen weeks along! Due February 8th.

IMG_3905With a girl!

Everyone’s response to the news? “I didn’t even know you were pregnant!” Well, we said, neither did we!

Since that ultrasound September 14th my priorities have swung in a wildly different direction. I abandoned the blog and put all my spare energy into prepping our house and lives for a new baby in less than four months.

Today is the first day in those months that I feel suddenly open to blogging, ready to see if I can still write anything after so long out of practice. The older boys’ room is finally outfitted with a bunk bed (including a new handmade quilt for my five-year-old who was previously in a toddler bed), a mural to fill the wall space, and painted closet shelves. The other room now holds a toddler bed, a crib, a changing table, a rocking chair and a train table, with just a few things left to arrange on the walls before it will feel complete. I’ve crocheted a flower blanket, sewed a floral chair pad and girly owl pillow for the rocker, and continued nesting like that to my heart’s content. IMG_3929This past weekend her grandma bought us a bright pink car seat and a neighbor loaned us a bassinet. Her closet now has just enough size 0–3 months clothes for us to get by for a little while. I can finally feel ready.

Last night, sporting a basketball under my shirt, I walked into a room full of strangers facing me in their desks, probably wary as the first thing they learned about their new college English teacher is that she is nine months pregnant. But once we got going, and they opened right into discussion so easily, I felt the usual thrill of discovering I’ve got a good group of students — knowing we’ll be able to analyze and dig into complexities and have the room hum with enthusiasm because I can tell they’re interested and they care. It reminded me how much I love all that, including discussion here on my blog.

At the same time, this is my fourth time around having a newborn, and I know my limits. I cut down to just one class this semester so that those 75 minutes twice a week are my only commitment in these next few months besides my baby and three boys.

This post isn’t an announcement that I’m back to blogging, just an update to confirm that I’m not.

Since my last baby, I’ve learned a lot about shaking off stress and living a peaceful life. That’s the life I want to welcome my daughter into — in just three short weeks! Writing will resume when it feels right.

A Story Jar

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“Tell her about the polar bear!” I prompted my seven-year-old when my sister asked how our latest zoo trip had gone.

It had been probably our best visit yet, full of up-close encounters, including the polar bear swimming right up to the glass where the seven-year-old had been standing, face full of wonder.

He looked at me funny. “What do you mean?”

“Tell her how cool the polar bear was.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

The same thing happened during writing time with school. I’d ask him to write a story — just a one-page, second-grade-level story — and he’d be stumped for ages, even if he already had a prompt and knew what he wanted the story to be about.

I hated seeing him so tense about it. I wanted him to gush with excitement over both the real story of the polar bear and his own made-up stories.

And I realized that the skill we needed to foster was storytelling.

As usual, Pinterest came to my rescue with the idea of a story jar. I sliced up neon note papers and told the kids to write down anything.

The usual protest of not knowing what to write didn’t persist long. Before I knew it, they were begging me to cut more slips. They’d filled out every single one and still had more ideas!

Once I finally said “enough,” the storytelling itself was just as fun. They took turns drawing slips from the jar and adding to an epic-level story with a cast as big as their imaginations.

When their contribution felt weak, I pressed for more details:

Me: “What did the monster look like?”

7yo: “Ugly.”

Me: “How come?”

7yo: “He had brown spots all over him, like dirt and mud.”

Gradually their descriptions became more generous, like when the four-year-old’s monster turned “brown with blue spots and huge horns and three green — no, I mean red — eyes.” They also improved at connections that gave the story a better arc. When a random object showed up, I’d ask how it got there and they’d say things like, “The clever princess gave it to him.” Characters had believable motivations, such as the mouse putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea to get away from the monster who couldn’t swim. Most impressive of all, the ending circled back to the beginning: the monster had squashed the mouse’s house, and in the end the mouse found a treasure chest that he used to make a new house.

We’ve done it twice now, changing slips to create a completely new story, and it’s such a hit that I’m sure it’ll continue to be one of our favorite school activities.

It gets me thinking, too. Maybe I need more creative exercises for my own writing. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling. Maybe I need to find ways to have fun instead of feeling stumped as I stare at the screen. Maybe I need to stretch my imagination just a little more.

Funny how even elementary school can be for grown-ups too.

Maybe I need to put all my story elements in a jar and mix things up a bit. ;)

The Joy of Question and Answer

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From the moment we decided back in March or April that we were going to do school at home the next year, my kids and I have gotten into the habit of answering any and all inquiries with “We should learn about that for school.”

By “inquiries,” I mean the endless rounds of “Mom, why is _____ like that?” or “How come ________?” or “What’s the difference between __________ and __________?” that little kids manage to think of and to which parents usually respond, “I don’t know — it just is.”

So yeah, my clever we-should-learn-about-that answer was really just another way to put off their questions for later.

Suddenly later has arrived.

In some ways balancing school with a toddler, kindergartener and second grader has been a chaotic nightmare. All four of us have had moments crying in frustration. At least every other day I think this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever attempted and I should really just send the two older kids back to “real” school. If the kindergartener reads one ten-page book and writes one sentence, and the second grader reads for fifteen minutes and writes a one-page story, and they each recite ten math facts (addition for the younger and multiplication for the elder), some days we (sadly) call that good.

But it’s August, and I started in August on purpose, figuring it gives us a month to settle into a routine before we judge ourselves too harshly.

The part that is beautiful, though, is when little moments happen where they discover the answers to their own questions.

Today we went to the library to find nonfiction books at their reading levels about specific animals, after studying library books about mammals, reptiles, etc, last week. The kindergartener declared he wanted to learn about leopards, and the second grader decided on cheetahs, and then he stopped and asked, “Mom, what’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?”

“I don’t know,” I responded truthfully, “but maybe we’ll find a book that can tell us.”

“How could a book do that?”

I laughed a little, and it gave him a minute to think about his own question.

“Oh, like maybe it could say that cheetahs have gray spots and leopards have black spots?”

“Something like that.”

When we got through the chaos of the library (three children scattering in different directions as I tried to herd them toward juvenile nonfiction), the chaos of lunch back at home (three children asking for different things all at once), and the chaos of who would get to play educational apps on the iPhone first (two children doing rock-paper-scissors, the loser trickling tears), I finally got to sit down with my second grader as he read National Geographic Kids: Cheetahs.

And there, on the second page spread, was an awesome explanation of the difference between cheetahs and leopards.

It was one of those cool moments, sitting on the couch together and watching him get so excited to learn because it was something he’d wanted to know.

Isn’t that the secret to real learning? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as my own love of and cravings for nonfiction have increased in the last couple years. When I have a specific question I want to answer, whether about nutrition or herbs or gardening or the science of subtle energy, I get so freaking excited about every cool little answering fact I read that I can’t help telling everyone nearby, “Did you know that ________??”

Seeing it happen for my seven-year-old today with cheetahs vs. leopards made me remember why I’m keeping my kids home this year. It recalled the first-grade days of him returning from school declaring it was so hard and so much work and me wishing that I could help him find the joy of it. It reminded me of how much a comment from one of my fellow-mom friends last year had resonated with me:

“Isn’t the most important part of education for them to learn how to learn?”

We’ve got a long way to go to become good at this school-at-home business, but I think their enthusiasm for questions and answers is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.

An Instagram Tour of the West Coast

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As we crossed the Willamette River with downtown Portland on our right, I couldn’t help holding my phone up to the open window and trying to snap a shot between fences and railings and pillars. And of course, a second later, I had to upload the image to Instagram and play with the square cropping and the filters and the brightness until I was smiling at my accomplishment: a little 600×600-pixel souvenir uniquely mine.

I’m still not sure what it is about the filters and such that make me so addicted to Instagram. I often put my phone in airplane mode just so I can edit photos to my heart’s content without overwhelming the people who follow me (in airplane mode, Instagram saves the image to your phone but can’t update to the social media; this might be cheating, but I’m in favor of it). There’s something about choosing a “feel” and “tone” for each picture that makes me super happy.

So as I thought about how I could recap our five-day adventure, I thought Instagram might be a perfect way to show it.

Oregon Coast

We took an elevator down into a huge sea-lion cave, ate seafood on a pier, and camped in a round canvas-lined yurt near a lighthouse and a coast full of soft white sand dunes. The ocean was way too cold unless you had a full-body wetsuit, like the surfers we watched, but our kids had a fun time rolling down the hills while I searched for starfish and anemones along the jetty. No starfish found, but lots of squishy-looking sea-green anemones and spiral-shelled hermit crabs.

Coastal Redwoods

Here the beach sand was gray and coarse. It was strange to me how the trees actually didn’t seem much taller than they had in Oregon, maybe because I’d been expecting them to be even taller or maybe because my vantage point on the ground didn’t do them justice. At a coastal trail head we stopped at (but didn’t hike, since it was 10.5 miles round trip), the path was deep brown, almost muddy from all the moisture but still firm enough to walk on, and ferns and moss covered everything but the trail itself, some ferns shooting up into the air and others spreading out wide.

Avenue of the Giants

The forest here was drier than along the coast, giving plenty of places for walking around and exploring and poking at banana slugs. We also discovered plenty of tree houses or tunnels carved into redwood stumps for visitor amusement.

California Highway 1

South of the Avenue of the Giants, there’s a turnoff for a scenic drive that’s easy to miss. Highway 1 wound us through forests in a serpentine, nausea-inducing route until it suddenly opened to the coast, taking us along the ocean line high above the waves on grass-covered cliffs. Along the way we found little towns like Fort Bragg, where we stumbled on a classic car show while our pizza baked.

San Francisco

Our stay here was way too short, but we managed to squeeze in a drive down the windiest street and then dinner (our third day in a row of clam chowder!) and sightseeing on Pier 39. The view of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and a little herd of sea lions was awesome; even Instagram can’t do those justice.

Monterey

This region wasn’t what I was expecting. The trees and plants were rougher, sort of scraggly looking as their jagged silhouettes jutted out to the sides. The rocky shores seemed as if someone had hacked at them with a huge dull knife that hadn’t cut all the way through, leaving plenty of cracks and crooked edges. And the houses were a mix of styles: some with the painted siding and wood shingles we were used to seeing all along the coast next to others with the red-tile roofs and stucco exteriors of a more deserty local.

Point Lobos

At a marine reserve just south of Monterey we discovered a herd of thirteen harbor seals on a rock close to shore (in the first picture, it’s the little island on the left side in front of the cliff side). They were all different shades of brown and spotted darker or lighter (some of them had spots that were almost white) to blend in with the rocks. The shoreline was pebbled instead of sandy, the sea weed was glossy, the wildflowers short and small, but all of it was multicolored and beautiful. If only we could have gotten as close to the seals as to the squirrel that came begging for treats!

From Big Sur to Ventura

While we didn’t stay completely true to Highway 1 all the way down, we kept to it as much as possible. For long stretches the fog thwarted our view, making it feel pointless to be driving next to an ocean we couldn’t see. But every time the sky opened again we felt compelled to stop for more photos. We also stopped to watch goofy-looking creatures called elephant seals flip sand onto themselves as they lounged on a beach far from civilization. Sandy beaches for people were somewhat scarce, but we finally found a great place to stop in Santa Barbara: Leadbetter Beach with a great little cafe right on the sand. Wish I’d taken a picture of the yummiest shrimp tacos I’ve ever had.

Hollywood

Monday morning we had only a couple of hours to spare before rushing to LAX, but we stopped along the Walk of Fame to get pictures of El Capitan Theater and the little Disney ice cream shop next door. The street was blocked off for the premiere of Brave and the Disney store had tons of scaffolding outside for some kind of remodel, but I managed to click shots of a few details that I wanted.

University of Southern California

This stop was purely research, but the kids amused themselves at a fountain outside one of the libraries while I photographed the McCarthy Quad. I loved the landscape details of Los Angeles, like the huge strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees, leaving them smooth and pale yellow and bare underneath; the scruffy beards of the palm trees; and the purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees that littered the lawn beneath them and infused the air with a gorgeous fragrance.

All in all, the photos don’t show enough of what it was like, especially the wildlife. The harbor seals were my favorite by far, watching me as attentively as I watched them. I wish I had pictures proving how ridiculous the noses of those elephant seals looked or audio of the strange roaring/honking/barking/growling of the sea lions (the wind obscured the sound every time I tried to record it).

But still, I love my little square souvenirs.

A Research Drive

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Let me tell you when research becomes not only fun but outrageously exciting.

It’s when you travel to research the setting of your novel in person.

For years, I’ve been wanting to drive down the West Coast, from Portland to Ensenada, just like my characters do in the novel I’m now querying. Finally, it’s happening!

I partially credit post-cruise blues. The day we got back, we were ready for another vacation. It didn’t take much convincing as far as, “Want to miss three days of work and camp along the coast with the kids?” But forking over the funds to fly to Portland, rent a car, and fly home from LA? Well, since the novel hasn’t sold yet, we’re calling it an investment and a leap of faith.

Maybe this research trip will create big changes for the novel. Maybe it will only add that “touch of verisimilitude” that Stephen King suggests in On Writing. But either way, I am so thrilled!

One goal that I have for my writing is that readers will feel like they’re there , and so far when I’ve written descriptions I’ve done my best to make guesses, based on what I could Google or imagine, but nothing can substitute for gathering input from all five of my senses at once, experiencing the climate, the vegetarian, the weather, the beach sand, and everything else for myself. I want readers to experience that amazing drive down Highway 1 vicariously through my novel, and now I get to make that happen!

The cruise, by the way, was awesome. And while I didn’t work on my new novel quite as much as I thought I would, I did get some fundamental storyline questions figured out, so I’m very much excited to press forward with a new manuscript, too, even while polishing my “finished” one with setting details.