The Sticky Truth

My daughter is a vegan now, so I’m looking at some of our traditional holiday dishes with furrowed brow. I know she’s made (delicious) pumpkin pie, so we’ll figure that out, but what about my famous dinner rolls? They’ve got milk, butter and eggs in them, all off the list.

While puzzling over that—because we’ve GOT to have rolls—I started thinking about how bread is one of the few things I still really enjoy making. Long ago I swore off chopping, peeling, and mincing, not to mention stirring, skimming and simmering. When the girls were little, I cooked all the time, not because I liked it but because the urge to feed your kid is primal. But now that they’re grown, and well able to cook (or order take out) for themselves, the wooden spoon has passed to my husband, who actually enjoys grating cheese.

But bread.  I never measure ingredients—I bake it by feel. And I still love getting my hands in that dough, pushing and pulling and thumping, turning it from sticky to satiny. I’m thinking there’s something akin to writing about this process, the intuitiveness of it, knowing when it’s not right, understanding what it still needs, never losing faith that this lumpy thing will bake up sweet and luscious and nutritious.  Even though I must have baked a thousand loaves of bread by now, and would swear I know how to do it, no loaf is ever exactly the same as the one before or the one after. Always a surprise: a crack in the crust, a denser crumb or airiness I never again quite capture, rock hard failures. Just like stories.

I’m going to try and make vegan rolls. I’ll read a few recipes to get warmed up, but then I’ll just plunge in on my own. We’ll  see what happens.

On the Road

Hello, hello? Is anyone still here? It’s been so long since I posted, and part of the reason is I’ve been traveling here…

and here…

and to wonderful schools like this one, where my photo was taken by the amazing fifth grade photography club…

and soon I’m on my way here…

and here, where I’ll be among my people…

and in between I’m, well, writing books, I guess. Book festivals are wonderful, for meeting readers as well as other writers (whoa! can you say Christian Robinson? Miranda Paul? Anthony Marra? Rainbow Rowell?) I also wind up discovering places I never otherwise would, like Sheboygan WI, where you can walk down Main Street and stand on the breath-taking shore of Lake Michigan, and Cincinnati OH, a key spot on the Underground Railroad and also the home of the world’s weirdest chili. I have some wonderful photos, and as soon as my camera and computer decide they’re speaking to each other again, I will.

Autumn is always a wistful, homesick-ish time for me. Something about the slant of the light,  the slow, reluctant way the leaves drift down, how early the lamps  come on in the windows.  So going away is sweet, and coming home sweeter.  Hello, hello! Good to be here again.

This Fall

I just updated my calendar with some of the places I’ll be this fall. Hope you’ll check it out. It would be wonderful to  meet in person!

And teachers and librarians, please remember as you plan your year: I do free Skype visits! I just ask that your class or group be familiar with my work.  Please get in touch if you’re interested in arranging this.

You Can’t Have One Without the O-o-other

Reader-writer, writer-reader: I’m never sure exactly which I am, though I do know the writer would not exist if not for being an insatiable reader first. Lucky for me, I get to wear both hats when I review middle grade novels and non-fiction for the Cleveland Plain Dealer–and let us all now raise our voices in a song of praise for a scrappy little newspaper that still has a book page and still prints original, not syndicated reviews.

It’s been an especially wonderful year for MG fiction, a real treat for readers. Here are just a few of the books I’ve loved reviewing:

The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste, Algonquin Young Readers, 240 pages, $15.95, ages 9-13

Jumbies aren’t real. Corinne La Mer is sure of that–until she comes face to face with one in her own house. In this haunting tale based on Caribbean folklore, Corinne lives beside a mahogany forest where few dare tread. The day she does, she’s followed home by a jumbie who works evil magic on her father. The spirit reveals a secret so startling and terrible, it takes all the young girl’s courage to save her island and family. Incorporating bits of true history and tantalizing myth, this is a terrific spooky story as well as a delightful peek into a rich culture.

A Handful of Stars, by Cynthia Lord, Scholastic Press, 192 pages, $16.99, ages 8-12

This simply written, deeply felt book is set in a Maine few tourists know. French Canadian Lily becomes friends with Salma, whose migrant family works in the blueberry barrens. Both girls adore Lucky, Lily’s dog, and together try to raise money for an operation to cure Lucky’s blindness. Salma, a gifted artist, inspires timid Lily. “To do brave things, you don’t have to be hugely brave. You only have to be a little bit braver than you are scared.”  Salma is the first dark-skinned girl ever to enter the town’s Downeast Blueberry Queen pageant. Prejudice flares, but friendship wins out.

Half a Man, by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Gemma O’Callaghan, Candlewick Press, unpaged, $16.99, ages 10 and up

This slender, singular book by the author of “War Horse” tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather, whose ship was torpedoed during the war. Grandpa, badly burned and horribly disfigured, was one of the very few survivors. He now leads a reclusive life as a fisherman on a small island. Most people, including his own daughter, cannot bear to look at him, but the young narrator is an exception. Quiet prose, exquisitely enhanced by O’Callaghan’s prints, limns the pain of isolation, and the healing power of empathy. This would make a fine companion to the best-selling “Wonder”. (Many thanks to my children’s librarian friends for alerting me to this book, which otherwise would have fallen through the cracks.)

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, Dial Books for Young Readers, 240 pages, $20.99, ages 9-12

This terrific graphic novel should instantly take its place on the shelf besides favorites like “El Deafo” and “Smile”. The moment Astrid sees her first Roller Derby bout, she’s hooked. Unfortunately, her BFF prefers ballet, and the first crack in their friendship appears. Roller derby is a punishing sport, and Astrid’s struggles are realistically, often hilariously, served by the ka-pow-packing art. In Jamieson’s nuanced telling, Astrid doesn’t become a star, but begins to understand how in life, as in the rink, we need to thread our own paths. Her bumpy relationship with her mom brought tears to the eyes of this  mother of three girls.

Stella By Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 336 pages, $16.99, ages 9-12

I cherish any  novel that makes history both personal and compelling. It’s 1932 in the little town of Bumblebee, North Carolina. Stella’s father is determined to vote for the first time in the upcoming election, despite the intimidation of the Klan. “I gotta show that I am somebody—no one else is gonna do that for me,” he says.  Draper bases her story in part on her own family history. Stella, a plucky girl curious about the world beyond Bumblebee, collects newspaper clippings. Before this wonderful story ends, she grows to be a hero worthy of any front page. Bonus: writing tips!

I’ve just touched the tip of this year’s glittering iceberg! More reviews in weeks to come. For now, hurry out to the library or bookstore!

Yesterday was…

…my birthday, so I guess that makes this little essay on nostalgia all the more “timely”.

Mother Nature and the calendar are out of synch. The temperature’s in the high 80’s again, with another week of heat forecast, but it’s also the official end of summer, with pools closing and schools opening. In fact, some schools around here have already been in session for weeks, pushing back their start date so they can get in more prep for the Tests. Don’t get me started on that, okay?

Being a fiction writer, I’m often caught unsure what season it is–the one in the book I’m writing, or the one outside my window. At the moment, I’m watching icicles melt and daffodils push their green, butter-knife leaves up through the dirt. The fourth CODY book is set in the early spring, and even as the last tomatoes ripen in my (real) garden, Cody has just lost another mitten, and is horrified to have witnessed a spring-fevered-Wyatt kiss that Payton Underwood (what is he thinking?)

I love living in two worlds. Whenever I come home from a trip, I open my suitcase but can’t bring myself to unpack right away. I enjoy leaving it open, so I’m neither here nor there but both at once. The cat likes it too–so cozy to curl up among rumpled clothes. I’ve always been a greedy sort, one life not enough.

I’m also taking notes for another new book. The intermediate, hunting and gathering phase of writing–my favorite. It’s possible this will be a historical novel. I’m reading about zeppelins. And high button shoes. And poison gas. Here is what my desk looks like right now:

Meanwhile, in Mother Nature’s world, it’s hot and bright and this afternoon I’ll be back at my city pool, my urban Shangri-La, open for three more precious swims! Enjoy yourself, wherever you are right now.


Current favorite quote: Comparison is the thief of joy.

American Association of School Librarians

So come November, this wonderful organization will be holding its national conference in Columbus  OH (aka, my back yard)!   I look forward to going and to meeting as many of my people as I can. Where I live, the School Librarian is an endangered species. I’m anticipating the kind of energy that large groups of smart, dedicated, kid-loving women (and always a few superior men) can generate. Hear us roar!

Meanwhile, I have an essay in the May-June edition of AASL’s  journal “Knowledge Quest” It highlights the crucial importance of the work librarians do, everywhere and always but especially here and now in places like my Rust Belt, where poverty is still on the rise, and the gap between the educations wealthy and poor children receive has never been wider.

Speaking of inequities and those who endorse them:  the Republicans are coming here to Cleveland in two days.  I’ve been eyeing the fallen (rotten) tomatoes in my garden, but promise to behave myself.

Summer Camp of My Dreams

I’m a little late writing about this—other writers, illustrators and educators have been kvelling over it for close to two weeks now. “It” was nErD Camp MI, which took place in little old Parma, Michigan, July 6 and 7. Begun three years ago by teachers Alaina and Colby Sharp, the camp’s attendance has nearly doubled each year.

No wonder. No one pays, or is paid, to come. It’s  grass roots all the way, with teachers volunteering to share their concerns, their successes, their hopes and worries for the future of their profession with one another. I went to a session on Strategies for Working with Disengaged, Reluctant and Struggling Writers, taught by Michigan teacher AnneMarie Johnson. The room was packed, SRO, with dedicated, creative teachers looking for ways to make writing a personal, exciting experience for their kiddos.  On the second day, it gets even better.  There’s no set schedule. Everyone comes together in a sort of town hall, and anyone can propose a session on anything. One dude ran a workshop on protest songs for teachers (Protest? Oh yeah. This was an activist group! Harness their energy and blast off for Mars.)

There were also author/illustrator panels, with superstars the likes of Phil and Erin Stead, Lisa Graff, Lauren Castillo and Matt Cordell talking and goofing around. I discovered that fangirl is a verb.

And then there was nErD Camp Junior. Of course I’d heard that around 5:30 on the second day, hordes of children would descend. But nothing prepared me for the sight of a line of eager, excited young readers and writers stretching out the front door, down the steps and out into the parking lot.  (Cue me turning to mush). I tried to take some pictures, but they didn’t capture the kinetic happiness of the night. The kiddos rotated through sessions with us—and a pizza party!—and before they went home, each one got a free, signed book. I always take away far more than I give when I work with children, but this was extra special, because all of them LOVE BOOKS.  I mean, jump up and down and twirl around LOVE.  It was paradise.

Experiences like that one stay with you. The good will, connections and inspiration they generate is like a bell you can feel vibrating inside you long after it’s stopped ringing.  I say, Nerds 4Ever.

Between Books

Both my new books have gone to copy-editing. That means I have Nothing to Do until I get the manuscripts back, no doubt covered with suggestions and questions (for the record: I bow at the feet of copy-editors. They’re the ones who notice I’ve made a moon go from crescent to full in two days,  or inadvertently renamed a minor character, or used the word “but” to start three consecutive paragraphs.)

When you’re used to writing all the time, every day, Nothing to Do is a strange place to be. It feels a little like being suspended in a hammock—mostly pleasant but also kind of precarious. You want to relax and let your mind go blank, but there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t natural. You close your eyes and exhale and immediately worry that you should be describing this experience, taking notes and interpreting and connecting and seeing what you can make of the breeze, the flickering leaves, the mosquito who’s come to whine at your ear. Shouldn’t those happy, bare feet be on the ground? Shouldn’t you be beginning The Next Book?

Writing becomes more than a habit. It’s a  muscle that wants exercise. It can be hard to remember that it needs to be rested, now and then. We need to let the world flood in, un-interpreted, purely experienced. When Alice Munro announced that she was retiring from writing, she said she wanted to “live  life on the surface”. I think I know what she meant. In that open-ness, that receptivity to the world’s wonders and terrors—that’s where the next stories lurk, where they dodge and duck. That’s where they wait for me to try and catch them.

Munro, to our immense loss, may not make any more stories, but I hope I will. So here I am, suspended. Start that Something New too soon, or wait too long, and I’ll topple out of my hammock and hit the ground with an ignominious, not to mention painful, thud. I’m counting on knowing when it’s time to  climb out.

Till then, please hand me my Charles Dickens, and another glass of peach Izzy.


My new books have names now. Next year, HarperCollins will publish “Every Single Second” and Candlewick will publish “Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe”.  Who’s the world’s luckiest writer?


Today at the pool I saw a girl (with Dottie-red hair) reading “What Happened on Fox Street”.  I flew back to the summer I was writing it, when I’d come to the pool after hours at my desk, to swim my laps and ponder  Mo and Mercedes and Dottie and Da.   Crawl-backstroke-crawl, hearing their voices, puzzling over who they were and what they wanted–once I climbed out of the water to grab a (dry) kickboard and use it as a lap desk to scribble some notes (never go anywhere, even swimming, without paper and pen).  That summer, as I swam up and down, back and forth, day after day, the book was still a secret dream  belonging only to me.

And now to see it,  held tight in two small hands,  a real book out in the world! It startled me. It was  as if Mo Wren and her story had always existed, as if she’d just been waiting, between the sunbeams, on the sparkling surface of the water, to be made visible.  Now her story belongs to that red-haired reader, too.  Happiness and gratitude flooded through me.