A Letter to My Younger, Nervous Self


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Dear little Ben,

I heard that you’re taking a test in school this week and that you’re very worried about it. You’re worried that you’ll forget everything you memorized. You’re worried that you’ll end up with a bad grade. I also heard that you have to play in a piano recital and that you’re freaked out. You’re scared that you’ll play the wrong notes. You’re afraid that your parents and teacher will be disappointed and angry.

Everything’s so hard when you have to do something important and you get worried. Believe me, I know. I remember how I felt when I was your age. When I took a test my stomach hurt, and my head ached, and it was hard to come up with the right answers. And when I had to play the piano in front of an audience my hands shook and it was so hard to get my fingers on the right notes. I remember my piano teacher saying, “You play so beautifully, why are you so nervous?” I remember my parents telling me, “You’re smart, you shouldn’t worry. You’ll do fine on the test!” This made me very frustrated and angry. I felt like they just didn’t understand. And I know you feel that way, too. You’re suffering and no one understands you. You feel alone.

But I have news for you. You are not alone! Many kids your age feel these things. And no one’s really helping them, either. So here’s the really good news: I can show you how to feel calm when you take a test and you play the piano in a recital. You don’t have to be scared and nervous. You can feel calm and confident.

I can hear you asking, “How can I do that?” Well, right now you’re focusing on how nervous and scared you are. How about if you learned to focus on being calm instead? “Focus” means what you’re thinking about and where you’re putting your attention. In a basketball game, the players are focused on the net and getting the ball into it. Then they score points and win the game. Right now, when you take a test and play in a piano recital you are focused on how nervous and scared you are. Your attention is going to your tight stomach and your throbbing head. So of course you can’t “score.” Of course you feel like you are failing. Learning how to be calm is not hard. In fact, it’s easy. You just have to learn to focus on something else. Let me show you how.

Being calm takes two steps: 

Step 1: Breathing. Of course you’re breathing all the time, but there’s a special way to breathe that will help you calm down. To do this, first you place both hands on your belly. Next, when you breathe in, you feel your belly filling up with air. You don’t have to push your belly out. Just send the breath down to your belly and feel it gently expand. This is called deep breathing. Your body and brain enjoy this. They want to be calmed down.

Step 2: Grounding. This is also easy, and fun. To do it, put both feet flat on the floor. Now feel the floor under your feet. Next, feel the chair you’re sitting on against your legs and bottom and back. Once you’ve done that,  now feel the floor and chair supporting you. Feel them holding you up. And don’t forget to breathe!

When you breathe and ground, you are focusing on calming down, not on how nervous you are. In fact, breathing and grounding are the best ways to calm yourself down.

Let’s practice. Right now, close your eyes and imagine you are taking a test or playing in a recital. If you start to feel a little nervous, use the tools right away! Breathe and ground. Do it again. And do it one more time. You’ll feel better and better.

And remember ... just keep doing it. I did, and now, when I have to take a test or play the piano, I remember to breathe and ground, I don’t get all upset and scared. I stay calm. You can do it, too. I know.

Your bigger self,
Ben (but now people call me “Dr. B”!) 

Ben Bernstein, Ph.D., is an author, educator, and performance psychologist. Trained as a teacher in inner city schools in New York and London, he was a prominent figure in the progressive education movement in the early 70s, and has since gone on to teach at every level of the educational system.

Over the last 50 years he has coached thousands of clients, from high school students to business executives to Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Academy Award winners. He has received numerous awards and grants from the U.S. and Canadian governments, and has been a speaker at national and international conferences. He was the first director of improvisation at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah.


For more information, visit drbperformancecoach.com.

Author Spotlight: Mark Stevens

Bestselling author Mark Stevens loves to tell stories. Ever since his Golden Retriever "Sky" was a puppy, Mark would put him to bed every night by reading a story to him. Now he has written a very special book about his very special dog to bring smiles to little readers all over the world.

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Where did you grow up? 
On the streets of New York. And literally on the mean, lower middle-class streets. 
 
Did you read a lot as a child? 
Voraciously for an interesting reason. Somehow, I was attracted to the famous men of the Old West – Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, General Custer – and read all of their biographies. It was as if I was transporting myself to a time and place I never lived in but somehow knew. 
 
What were some of your favorite authors and books? 
The book that had the biggest impact on my life to this day, is Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast. He was right. “If you are lucky enough to live in Paris as a young man, it will stay with you the rest of your life because Paris is truly a moveable feast.”
 
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I came from a broken family, wildly dysfunctional, violent, and nearly psychotic, and the last thing I had was the ability to plan what I wanted to do with my life. Except to survive. 
 
Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve had before you became a writer. 
On the surface, every job you could have – porter in a children’s hospital, bus boy, magazine subscription sales in the inner city – but paradoxically, they proved to be the greatest training ground and the most rewarding experiences a person who goes to prep school at Harvard could only dream of. 
 
How did you get started writing? 
I was always a storyteller. And the stories turned somehow to plays. And I became the Neil Simon of my elementary school, writing the now world-acclaimed “The Case of Safety Sam and the Rocking Chair.” I was a playwright first and then I took on the school newspaper. But my proudest coup was getting published in Poetry Magazine: The Lobby of the St. Agnes Hotel. 
 
Why do you write books? 
To continue the storytelling tradition and equally important, to educate myself. 
 
What do you like best about writing? 
The experience of discovery. What I mean by that is I don’t write with a plan or an outline and I am always amazed at what materializes before my eyes. This is particularly true for my first novel Evidence of Love. Each time I sat down to write (which I only do on my iPhone), I didn’t think I was creating characters’ tales, I believed I was joining them in action. Like they had lives of their own. And of course, my beloved dog Sky is the son who stayed home, who hikes with me every morning, who gives his life to my happiness, who I thank God for every day. So who wouldn’t want to write about such a beautiful creature who has magical powers? 
 
What do you find the most challenging about writing? 
Nothing. 
 
What do you think makes a good story? 
One that opens your eyes and your mind to something that you never knew, absorbed, experienced, or understood before. 
 
Where do you get your inspiration? 
The eternally mystifying, gorgeous, perplexing and exhilarating interaction between men and women. 
 
Tell us about your latest book.
I hike every single morning with my Golden Retriever, Sky, in rain, sleet, snow and sun. And I talk to him as if he’s a wonderful human being. Which, in part, I think he is. One morning on one of our hikes, a woman approached us, embraced Sky and said almost as if to the heavens, “You don’t have a mean bone in your body.” That day, I wrote a story about my boy, printed it and forgot about it. About a year later, my wife Carol found what I had written, as Sky’s loving mother, recognized it for the book it could be, arranged a photo shoot for Sky, and the rest is history. 

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Sky’s Amazing Dream is the story about a real Golden Retriever named Sky. He has a phantasmagorical dream: he can turn rocks into gold, he takes poor and sick children to happy times in a hot air balloon and he makes amusement parks appear. Sky goes to Hollywood to make movies, but only if they are free for children, including the popcorn! Word travels fast and the president of the United States visits Sky and names him “King Sky!” But Sky starts to get homesick for the big white house and his mommy and daddy so the president gives him a ride home on Air Force One. 
 
What’s next for you? 
I don’t plan. 
 
Is there anything we didn’t ask that you’d like people to know about you and/or your books? 
How I’ve managed to stay so devastatingly handsome. I wrote 25 books which have been translated into many languages around the world including the bestseller, Your Marketing Sucks, I am also the sole biographer of Carl Icahn, King Icahn: The Biography of a Renegade Capitalist and I also became a successful entrepreneur who built and sold a successful marketing firm.

For more information about Mark Stevens and his books, visit www.skysamazingdream.com

Astronaut Clayton Anderson Launches Little Readers on an A to Z Mission

by Melissa Fales

photo courtesy of NASA

photo courtesy of NASA

As Nebraska’s first and only astronaut, Clayton Anderson holds the sole privilege of representing the Cornhusker State in space. Being selected by NASA in 1998 was a lifelong dream come true for Anderson, as evidenced by the faded newspaper clipping he has of a photo taken of him at the Ashland Summer Carnival in the mid-1960s.

In it, he’s 6 years old and dressed for the children’s parade in a handmade astronaut costume, complete with a helmet made out of a hat box and a lot of aluminum foil. “My mother always said that when I was a little boy, I often told her I was going to become an astronaut one day,” he says. Since retiring from space travel, Anderson has been busy writing books, including his first, The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut, released in 2015, and his first children’s book, A is for Astronaut: Blasting Through the Alphabet, released in March.

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Writing a book for kids wasn’t even on Anderson’s radar until a friend who manages a bookstore told him about the numerous titles in the Sleeping Bear Press Alphabet series. “They don’t have a space one yet,” she hinted. The result is an A to Z journey filled with space words, a poem for each letter, and fascinating facts about NASA. “I wrote down the alphabet and picked a word for each letter,” he says. “I had multiple choices for a few of them. I finished the poems in less than a week. I thought that was the really fun part.”

Anderson praised the book’s illustrations by Scott Brundage. “They’re very visually impactful,” he says. Anderson also wrote the sidebar information on each page which gives children a deeper glimpse into what it’s like to be an astronaut. “It’s a book that can really grow with the kids,” he says. “Small children might only be able to read the letters on their own. As they get older, they’ll be able to read the poems. And as their reading skills improve, they’ll be able to learn something about space.”

Anderson hopes A is for Astronaut will spur a curiosity about space among his young readers, similar to the way he was indelibly affected on Christmas Eve 1968 by watching the Apollo 8 mission orbit the moon on TV. “Listening to the communication between ground control and that command module 239,000 miles into space was incredible,” he says. “I remember that tension and that drama and that excitement when they re-established contact after a long period of static. That was a huge Wow! for me. That really planted a seed in my head.”

Of the 30 years Anderson spent with NASA beginning in 1983, the first 15 were as an aerospace engineer. For the last two years before he was selected as an astronaut, he was the manager of the Emergency Operations Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I knew little to nothing about managing emergencies, but NASA had taught me a lot about planning, training, and flying,” he says. “I was able to take the plan, train, and execute methodology from space flight and apply it to emergency response.”

Anderson was fortunate in that although he was completely prepared, he never had to deal with a real emergency. “We simulated a ton of them, just like we do in space flight,” he says. “We simulate all the time so when the time comes, you’re ready.”

Spending 167 days in space took guts, determination, and especially perseverance, since Anderson submitted 15 applications to NASA before he was finally accepted as an astronaut. “That’s supposedly a record,” says Anderson. “Applying to become an astronaut is easy. Getting selected is hard. I just didn’t give up.”

The application, according to Anderson, is tedious, involving hours of work. “Once it’s done, it’s relatively simple to update it every year,” he says. So he did … again and again. After the 13th try, Anderson was called in for an interview. “At that point the flame was lit,” he says. It still took two more tries, but Anderson knew he was getting closer to his goal.

In all, Anderson had the opportunity to experience six space walks, spend five months on the International Space Station, and fly on two space shuttles: Atlantis and Discovery. In 2013, he retired from NASA and embarked on a writing career. In June, Anderson’s third book will be released. It’s a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut’s Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions is a collection of the often thoughtful and sometimes inane inquiries Anderson has received about space over the years.

The most perennial topic, according to Anderson, is food. “The food in space is pretty good, actually,” he shares. “I got to eat both Russian food and American food. The Russian food was preferable. I definitely did not starve.”

Anderson says he hopes It’s a Question of Space will encourage young adults to consider space exploration and other STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) fields when they think about their career choices. “It’s important that we get kids excited about STEAM,” he says. “It’s really important to the future of America that our children are focused on these kinds of disciplines. These are the people who are going to be the problem-solvers of the future.”

Looking ahead, Anderson says he plans to continue his schedule of speaking engagements and to keep writing. “My mantra is: I write to inspire, to entertain, and to educate,” he says. “I can’t get in front of audiences everywhere, but if people choose to look at my books, that gives me an additional avenue and a different way to inspire them.”

Read more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When it Comes to Reviews

Common Mistakes to Avoid When it Comes to Reviews

Once you have decided to get your book reviewed, you have to let it go like a bird out of its cage. It now has a life of its own and there’s little you can do to protect it from harm’s way. If something doesn’t go your way, the temptation is always to try to course correct, but you really can’t do that with reviews.

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