Nella and Maude


From the day their little Amazon boxes landed with a thump at our doorstep, Kiki and Coco in Paris and Lulu & Pip have been Nella’s favorite books. Filled with gorgeous photographs of a girl and her doll and accompanying stories of their adventures together, both of these books have been well-read in our home–taking “first chair” in our bookshelf orchestra beside the bed and first pick for take-along books on trips. Our copies have withstood road trips and have entertained our kids from restaurants here in Naples to pre-bed rituals in Poppa’s Michigan cottage. Inspired by these books and Nella’s love for them, I’ve been wanting to do a personal writing/photography project and turn it into a book for Nella about her own adventures with a toy/doll. Christmas break finally gave us the time to do it, and it turned out to be one of my favorite projects yet. Lainey and I started with shooting around some story ideas, following the conflict/resolution pattern in Kiki and Coco and Lulu & Pip; planned what the story photos should look like; and then set out for several days around town, capturing our adventures and having so much fun in the process. Once we edited a slew of photos, we arranged them in photo editing software and began to add some meat to the bones of our story. It turned out to be a great writing exercise to share with Lainey and a meaningful gift for Nella. The entire family has been impatiently waiting for the final product, Nella & Maude, to hit our doorstop, and once we heard that thump? We ran.

The result? A happy girl.

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Several asked on Instagram if they can purchase this book. This entire project was a personal creative itch, an opportunity to make Nella really happy, and is inspired by another book and artist who already did this theme and did it well. So, I’d encourage you to buy Kiki & Coco or Lulu & Pip, read them with your kids and–especially if you’re a photographer–let them inspire you like it did us to create your own story with photographs of your kids.

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If you’re interested in doing a similar project, I’ll give you a few details and tips I discovered through making ours. There are several companies that can produce this sort of book. I chose Artifact Uprising for their quality, the size and orientation I wanted and the user-friendly book composition guide they offer. We made their 8.25 x 11 vertical hardback book (lemon yellow cover with a paper jacket), chose the 50-page option and cut it down to 40 pages total (based on several children’s books I researched, the amount of photos we wanted to use and the fact that this book option requires minimum of 40 pages). I did the layout and text myself for the cover, back and each page in my photo editing software so I could have full control of how it would look.

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I used a lot of vertical photos to fill one side of a spread, some horizontal to take up an entire spread as well as clusters of photos organized together on a page, leaving part of the page blank for text. When taking photos, I thought a lot about space and color. Leaving lots of negative space in a composition is great for text–dark space for white text, light space for black text.

Example: Putting Nella to the left in this composition and leaving lots of blue sky to the right created a nice space where lots of white text could be placed on the page.

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For one-photo full spreads like the one below….

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I had to cut the original photo in half and place each half on one 8.25 x 11 page. Again, that big span of blurred-out negative space on the left creates a great place against which text can stand out.

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As for writing the story and putting the layouts together, it helps if you have lots of photos to work with. If you’re taking pictures of a scene at the ice cream shop, think of ALL THE THINGS. Take close-ups of the ice cream, get wide angle views, use different perspectives, take pictures of the ice cream being scooped, your kid looking through the glass at the flavors, the scoop that fell on the floor. They make for great engaging photos for kids and help illustrate your story well.

Fun writing lessons for incorporating older kids in the process:


Lainey was great at adding adjectives and describing scenes. I had one sentence that started with “Nella dipped Maude into the water…” and Lainey pointed out, “you didn’t describe the water.”

“Okay, how should I describe it?” I asked.

“You could say salty water.”

“Very well, then. Salty water it is, dear editor.”


Switching Overused Words.

She was also great at suggesting other words besides “says.” Exclaims, adds, asks, whispers, announces. Now if only I can get her to edit my use of “beautiful” and “little” :o)

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My dad called while we were working on the book and insisted it include onomatopoeia because “kids love that stuff.” So we dug through the text and looked for a good place where it would fit. We ended up finding a place where Nella was walking in the water along the beach, and Lainey suggested her feet made a “slap, slap, slap” sound. Very well then, dear editor. Slap, slap, slap it is.


Story Lines and Directing Scenes.

When we were thinking of what we could do for conflict in the story, I suggested something at the beach because–well, that’s what we have for location shoots. Lainey decided Maude should drift out to sea and be rescued. “And I can be the lifeguard who saves her because we have that lifeguard boogie board!”

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I won’t bore you with the entire book, but I’ll give you some of my favorite shots in it:

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Lainey has a serious problem with these next pictures in the book because it’s supposed to be a night time scene, and we shot it during the day for light. “Nobody’s going to think that’s really night time,” she’s pointed out numerous times.

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And my favorite scene in the book…

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This was such a fun project for us, and the kids are already planning sequels–Nella & Maude in Michigan–and other combinations for each of them–Lainey and her blanket, Dash and his dinosaur.

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And while this won’t be a published option for children’s books for me, it did scratch an itch that’s turned into a massive creative rash…something in the children’s literature theme is calling.

Summer Dreams: 4 Ways to Make a Summer Bucket List

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Technically, I’m not a list girl. I make grocery lists and lose them, type Christmas lists and veer away from them and write to-do lists only to leave most of the tasks undone. But there’s something motivating about writing the list itself. It’s an exhale, a first step and, in the case of gratitude lists and bucket lists, an extremely satisfying creative exercise. Every year before Thanksgiving, I make a list of what we need for dinner. That one usually actually makes it to the grocery store, but more than anything, writing the list–usually with coffee in hand and a pile of cookbooks near me–serves to stir up holiday excitement–a prequel to the sensory experience of tasting gravy, peeling apples and clinking wine glasses.

Summer bucket lists are the same for us. It’s less about pressure to do the things we put on the list and more about marrying my kids’ enthusiasm for fun and family and adventure with my own childhood memories. And it’s a great way to put all our ideas in one place. I’m notorious for throwing out the names of movies I want to see, but when we actually sit down and Brett says “pick a movie,” I can’t think of anything to watch. Summer adventures are the same way. Write them all down early at the beginning of the summer so you don’t have to scramble for ideas later.

Here are four different ways to make a summer bucket list this year:

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Scrapbook Summer Bucket List

Using any old scrapbook or even a homemade one hole-punched and tied with yarn, space your summer bucket list items out with room for a photo above them. This gives your family an extra fun challenge of documenting your memories throughout the summer. As you fulfill your bucket list items, take pictures of your adventures, print them and tape into place in your scrapbook. Instant film cameras (we have this Fujifilm Instax camera) make this list much easier to complete. Or you can send your photos to print and ship straight from your phone with many different companies’ print apps. We’ve used Social Print Studio which prints tiny squares and ships incredibly quick.

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Keep It Simple

If summer bucket lists overwhelm you or if you’re working a lot through the summer, keep it simple by making a small doable list one week at a time and display it somewhere your family can see it–the kitchen counter or dinner table. Your list doesn’t have to include “whittle birch branches into medieval swords and host a neighborhood castle party” to make it a good bucket list. Think small and meaningful–a family moon walk, microwave s’mores, eat breakfast for dinner. When I want to feel super productive, sometimes I put everyday things on lists just so I can cross them out: Take a shower. Drink coffee. CHECK! CHECK! Look at me, gettin’ ‘er done. Kids love visual reminders and crossing things off too. So go ahead, put “read two books before bed” and “paint nails a pretty summery pink” on that weekly list even if you were already planning on doing them.

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Grab Bag Bucket

This is a great way to inject a little mystery into the game–you never know what you’re going to pull out. At the beginning of the summer, have your kids help you write bucket list items down on slips of paper, fold them up and throw them into an actual bucket.

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Take turns throughout the week–after dinner, on a rainy afternoon, on a wide open Saturday–pulling slips out, reading them aloud and fulfilling them together.

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Scout’s Vest

This is how we’re fulfilling our Michigan summer bucket list this year, and we can’t wait. Here’s the thing. We tried Girl Scouts last year, but we missed so many meetings and couldn’t keep up with everything else going on. We loved the meetings we did have but, you know….life. The vest though. We never got the damn vest. We are going to reclaim it, summer style. I thought of this early this year and started collecting iron-on patches, going on mad searches for rare ones, anything that fit our summer plans–and I found them! I found tiny s’mores patches and lighthouse patches, a doughnut for our breakfast-on-the-pontoon-boat dreams and even a Mackinac Island one. I’m sure you can easily make a sash with a strip of fabric, or they have inexpensive ones here.

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As we knock off our bucket list items, we’ll iron on corresponding patches, and the kids will get to wear their summer scout sashes and have a wonderful memento from our road trip.

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We found most of our patches on Amazon including movie night, catching a fish, doughnut breakfast, flying kites, kayaking, corn on the cob, and campfire.

Would I be a big dork if I made one too? They don’t have my size.

While we wait for summer, we have desks to clean out, classroom parties to plan and a few more lunches to make. I’m so excited for not having to pack lunches soon!

Woman Crush Wednesday will return next week.

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This Woman’s Work

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My motherhood emotional kryptonite will always lie in my children’s birth songs—the songs that played in the room when they took their first breaths and I held them and locked eyes with those little souls that said hello with blinky stares and steady breaths and weight that settled just so into the crook of my arm.

I became a mother to Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,”—Pray God you can cope calming last minute hyperventilating, I know you have a lot of strength left encouraging one more push and Give me these moments, give them back to me, give me your little kiss serenading one of the most euphoric moments of my entire life. It was too perfect really–the music, the birth, even the impressive Apgar score—and to this day I rely heavily on the few funny that-didn’t-go-well details of Lainey’s birth story to give some disclaimers to what is otherwise a heavenly slice of memory. “The Stadol made me crazy,” I make sure to tell everyone. Nobody likes a perfect story.

Bryan Adams sang “When You Love Someone” when Nella was born, and I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to it all the way through since that day. It makes my stomach sick with love—instant tears at that first pan flute trill–and every single word from there on seems to spell out everything I feel about her. Destiny seems a little unicornish, but yes, destiny.

By the time Dash was born, I took a different route: Don’t plan perfection. Let it ride. It was important to me not to play a particular song when he was born but rather let a playlist stream and see what song happened to be the one he chose to pop out to. We know it was between One Republic’s “Good Life”, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Extreme’s “More Than Words” but he’s the last baby, and we were really tired. I do remember eating a taco that night though because I was so hungry. When he climbs on his dresser and tears all the pictures off the wall, Brett says, “We should have picked his birth song.” He’s every bit of destiny too, and I love that it takes three songs to capture his amazingness.

Either way, these songs are now precious buttons connected to deep emotions that are meant to stay dormant until birthdays and special occasions. They’re too special, too raw. If I hear more than a few chords of any of them, I run to shut them off. I don’t ever want that magic to weaken—to hear them too many times where they’d lose their power, as if that’s possible. It’s just that…it hurts.

My mom didn’t have songs playing in the room when we were born. She was lucky to have my dad allowed in the room, so dragging an 8-track player in and cuing up the Bill Gaither Trio was out of the question. She didn’t have favors for hospital guests or an incense pot burning lavender oil, but I love to hear that a nurse let them sneak in a cake to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the hospital. “We had party hats,” my mom tells me, “We put one on you and someone took a picture.” Sounds like something I would do in 1978.

My mom didn’t have a car while my dad was in seminary. But she never let that stop her from loading up a rickety old stroller with blankets and sandwiches so she could take us on adventures and park dates and picnics. One time the stroller broke while she was crossing a street and she had to drag my crying sister and the broken stroller across while everyone looked on. “It was so embarrassing,” she laughs.

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My mom didn’t have the luxury of a baby monitor when she brought us home. So she developed radar hearing tuned to pull her out of the deepest of sleep at the faintest sound of cries. She kept us close those early days—no Baby Bjorn or ring sling or Mamaroos to make it easier, so she held us in her God-given resource: arms. She perfected the baby bounce, the back pat and the gentle sway that have made her, to this day, a legendary Baby Whisperer.

My mom didn’t have a lot of money when we were little or the convenience of kids’ catalogues and quick purchase clicks with 2-day shipping for things we needed. So she made them with patterns and fabric, a sewing machine and capable hands. Beautiful dresses, hand-stitched rompers, doll clothes and Christmas presents and gifts for our teachers. She crocheted the most beautiful collar with a pearl button for my fourth grade teacher and I still remember how good I felt watching my teacher open it and love it.

My mom raised us with no social media. No blogs for assurance, no Facebook for validation, no online friends reminding her that she wasn’t alone and no Pinterest for birthday treat ideas. But she more than conquered motherhood without it, finding comfort in faith and family and relying on her own brilliance and imagination for ideas. She molded rice krispie treats into baskets, formed chocolate cake into bunnies, and sewed braided yarn into wigs for last-minute Halloween costumes.

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And yet, you should hear her, my mom. When she sees something my brother painted or hears about one of my sister’s D.I.Y. projects or gets a picture of one of my handmade birthday party favors. “You kids are so talented. If I had an ounce of your creativity…”

And I think, Good God, Mom, if only you realized.

A mother, by definition, is the very essence of creativity—a daily symphony of love, a masterpiece of emotions, a lifelong composition of making memories, repurposing energy, forming ideas, facing criticism and swirling feelings and changes and heartache and joy onto a canvas that you don’t even have control over—and yet you never stop painting.

“If I had an ounce of your creativity….”

You’re a mother—da Vinci has nothing on you.

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Since my mother didn’t get to pick any birth songs, I’ve taken the liberty to give her a few pieces of mine today. Taken from the songs that were playing when my three hearts were birthed, sung by Kate Bush, Bryan Adams and Louis Armstrong respectively…for the mamas.

I know you have a little life in you yet
I know you have a lot of strength left.

Give me these moments.
Give them back to me.

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When you love someone, you’ll sacrifice
Giving everything you got and you won’t think twice
You’d risk it all no matter what may come
When you love someone.

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I hear babies cryin’. I watch them grow.
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

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Happy Mother’s Day to all of you beautiful, creative souls. And to those of you who have lost a mother, lost a child and in doing so, lost a heart–may you feel ever so loved today.