The good, the bad, the sunscreen

Halfway–let us face the truth– through the summer, and time to take a tally.

The Good:

I’ve been to two beaches.

I’ve eaten the most delicious and enormous (approximately the size of my head) artichoke ever.

Our beloved Habibi has survived a serious illness, thanks to some wonderful caring vets (and a whole truckload of money).

With great trepidation, I shared  an ARC of “Moonpenny Island” with my friend Mary Norris, who is a superb copyeditor at The New Yorker, and she found only one minuscule mistake (which was my misspelling of minuscule).  Bonus–she loved the book!

I’ve finished a draft of my new middle grade, and gotten a start on my new CODY.

The Not-so-good:

I’ve had to leave two beaches.

Deer devoured my beefsteak tomatoes.

I discovered that buying a Mother of the Bride Dress is another level of hell.

A broken pipe gave us a new slant on the phrase “flash flood”. (More truckloads of money).

 Last winter was so terrible, my usually trustworthy imagination failed me. I couldn’t call up summer, not a single image or scent or taste of it. Yet here it is, the phlox perfuming the air, my wet bathing suit draped over the porch railing, my neighbors ambling by with their happy dogs, the taste of peaches on my tongue. I can still easily imagine winter, though, which is all the more reason to head for the garden right now.

with my dear friend Kris Ohlson, sniffing a Jeffrey pine (they smell like caramel)


I managed to finish a first (messy, flawed, loudly begging for revision) draft of my new middle grade novel on schedule! For my reward, a bask in the garden. You come too…


What is this unidentified bulging object that has landed on someone’s ridiculously messy desk?

What can be inside? Is it friendly? Do we dare peek? Stand back! The portal is opening.

It’s not a UFO! It’s…it’s…ARCs! (And as you can tell, my over-the-moon self was so excited I shook as I snapped this photo).

Summer Cont’d….

Somebody’s about to go visit her daughters! In place of a post this week, here’s one I recently did for From the Mixed Up Files. I know I’ve mentioned the site before–well worth check ing out if you enjoy middle grade:

My Own Two Feet

At the community rec center where I work out, there’s a cheerful, colorful poster titled “I Walk Because…” (you can see it here Inspirational posters normally give me the whim whams, but the first line of this one caught my eye. “Life is not a race.” How many times have I said that very thing about writing? (usually when I’m past a deadline and tearing my hair, but still…it’s true!) Some of my other favorite lines:

Because it’s cheap.

Beacuuse I’m proud to be a biped.

Because I can check on my neighbors’ gardens (aside: one of my favorite things about living in Cleveland Heights is how many people grow their flowers in their front  yards).

Because it’s a great way to meet people.

Because it’s a great way to escape people.

I noticed they didn’t list the reason I became a walker: because my knees hurt too much to run any more. But the poster got me thinking about what an essential part of my creative process the after-writing walk is.  After all that sitting, walking is pure pleasure. The act of it unties knots in my muscles and my brain, and it’s a rare walk when I don’t solve a problem–major or mini–in the work.  I love turning something so every-day into a kind of mediation, both nourishing and creative.  It’s pretty much impossible to feel anxious or depressed while walking, the horizon–or your neighbor’s perennial bed–beckoning.

The last line of the poster is corny but like so many other corny things,  worth considering: I walk because every step is a new adventure.


Candlewick is going to publish two more Cody books! That means I will have my first real live, actual, official series! The first, “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”, with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler, will publish this coming April.  

The Lake House

I just came home from a five day writing vacation on the southeast shore of Kelley’s Island. I shared the rental cottage with two dear friends, one a poet, the other a prose writer. I’ve done this kind of thing before–most recently in VT on a bigger scale–and always there are surprises.

This time:

It’s a water snake, the kraken of Lake Erie! I’d heard rumors of them but this was my first encounter. They loved our rocky quiet shore–my friend Mary even began to name them (Ava, Letty). I was witness as one devoured a fish whole. Needless to say, this was zero at the bone stuff, and put a big crimp in my desire to go swimming.

Other suprises:

—One night I outlined the plot of my new novel and described a dilemma I’m in. This is Unheard Of Stuff For Me. I never talk about work in progress, partly because it relentlessly evolves and partly because I have a deep fear of jinxing myself.  But Mary and Susan were so helpful and pointed out some things lying right before my unseeing eyes. It made me wonder how much of my working methods are left over from when I  began writing, when we lived in a very rural area, and the internet was still a gleam on the horizon, so sharing my work was more or less impossible.  There’s a chance I’ll be less guarded in the future.  

—Angry Birds is not just a game. One evening  as I sat outside eating  my black walnut ice cream, a handsome bird politely eyed me. I shared the tail of my sugar cone with him, but as he flew away with it, a bigger bird pecked him and stole the cone. The humiliated little bugger turned around and  pecked me on the head! There is a story here, but it’s probably not for children.

–St. Brendan the Navigator once set anchor on a large pebbly island, only to discover, when he began to build a fire, that it was the back of a fish. Now that is a good story (thank you, Susan!).

Summer Cont’d

Our cat Habibi has made it his lifetime work to teach me how to relax. He’s forever demonstrating techniques and strategies. Today I’ll share his Sunbathing 101. Feel free to adapt to your own needs.

The Stretch:

The Wait, Is There Something Else I’m Supposed to Be Doing, For Example Meeting a Deadline?

The Nah!

Close your eyes and add a soundtrack of birdsong–relaxation guaranteed.


Blog tour, that is.

My friend Kris Ohlson asked if I’d join a tour of writers posting thoughts about their work and process. Because writing is for the most part a solitary pursuit, I’m happy to jump on the bus and ride along.  

A word about Kris: I’ve known her forever, as both a generous friend and favorite writer. She’s the only person I know who makes her living entirely through writing–anyone who’s ever tried can attest what grit, wit, and sheer brainpower that requires.  Her newest book is the non-fiction “The Soil Will Save Us”, and it brims with revelations about the ground beneath our feet and optimism for our beleagured planet. Read it, pass it on. As Kris urges, “Be a hero of the underground!”

And now for The Questions.

What am I working on?  Happily, a three part answer! I’m almost finished with edits for two books that will publish next year, and I’m working on a new one.

“Moonpenny Island” is a middle grade novel coming out with Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins. It’s the story of Flor, whose mother and best friend have both left their tiny, rocky island. Flor’s determined not to lose anyone else–and that means her big sister, who she’s sure is keeping a dangerous secret. There’s also a lot about fossils and Charles Darwin and a treacherous, bottomless swim hole.  

Up till a few days ago, I could’ve told you the title of my new chapter book, but suddenly it’s up for grabs. It’s sure to have “Cody” in it, though.  Cody adores ants, her genius brother Wyatt, and her scaredy cat new friend Spencer. She also loves to help, with mixed results. This is the first in a series (yay!) and wait till you see the tender yet hilarious illustrations by Eliza Wheeler. Candlewick is publishing this one, o frabjous day! 

I’m finishing (please please please) a first draft of my new middle grade novel, tentatively titled “Just a Second”. This book is a shade darker than anything I’ve published before, and each day when I finish and go for my walk, I feel pretty roiled up inside. Because I’m always scared to jinx myself by talking about things too soon, I’ll just say it’s a story about a girl who hates to choose but is finally forced to.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?  I’m not sure how to answer that. I like to think mine’s another voice in the wonderful chorus of children’s writers singing their hearts out today.  Kids need different books at different times in their lives. My books are quiet. I hope they make readers feel comforted and un-alone, but also more courageous.

Why do I write what I do?  Oh, who knows!

How does my writing process work? I’m tempted to say: see above, but I hate to be branded a shirker.

My work often starts with a place–an island, a dead end street, some little enclave. Setting tends to dictate my plots,  my characters’ choices or lack of choices. Usually I make a lot of notes on the physical place, and on my characters’ habits, likes and dislikes. Lines start to form in my head, and I write them down too, but at some point it all brims and tips and I can’t resist beginning the actual book, even though I still don’t know nearly enough. Thus: a million drafts, a million revises. Wreckage, despair. Light on the horizon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess for me a good question would be: why do you keep writing? And the answer would be simple: I need to make life complicated.  

I now hereby tag the terrific fiction and essay writer Laura Walter. Laura has an award winning collection of stories, “Living Arrangements”, and her work has appeared in the best literary journals, including most recently The Sun. She’s working on her MFA and I am very, very lucky to be a member of her  writing group.  Bonus: her blog is as witty, deft and inventive as her fiction.

Counting down…

I know it’s premature–but this is the kind of bubble-over anticipation I felt in the schools I visited last week. 

First I was in Kansas kindergartens, thanks to a click of my ruby-red-slippers, otherwise known as Skype. A couple of days later I was at a local  school assembly celebrating writing. I was honored to read aloud  first graders’ poems–one about worms (squirm squirm) and the other about birds.  That gave me the chance to talk about how poems  sometimes make us notice what is right beneath our feet, and sometimes tilt our heads, throw wide our arms, and embrace life in all its expansiveness. Luckily I got to give my little speech before the thrid graders got up to sing, because after that I was too verklempt for anything.

Saturday I detoured from school visits to Indie Storytime Day at the Learned Owl, one of our treasured local bookstores. My plan was to read that masterpiece, “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble”, but my audience turned out to be so young, I couldn’t inflict the dark angst of Sylvester as a snow-covered rock with a lone wolf howling on his back (Ingmar Bergman, you got nothing by comparison!) So we read the adorable “Please Bring Balloons” by my friend Lindsay Ward, and also had some intense conversation about fairies.

Later that day, it was teens. Besides giving my workshop on setting and sense of place, I had the privilege of a long, wonderful conversation with a fifteen year old deep into her first novel. We talked about setting, plot, character motivation, and I was able to give some (I hope) usable advice.

What she gave me was this: she told me she’s writing the story because she can’t find enough books where she recognizes herself. She is African American, middle class, questioning her sexual orientation, future career, whether she can really make a difference and find happiness in this big, indifferent world. She doesn’t want to read any more stories about the historic black struggle, or future dystopias: she wants to find herself now, heart and soul, on the page. This is exactly what adolescent me always sought. She’s going to finish her novel this summer–summer!! 

So for me it was a week of being an author. I tend to think of author as the past tense of writer. An author is one who has written. (I do love how close it is to the word authority!) This week, inspired, revved up, I’m back to present tense. I’m a writer.

Close up

Years ago when I started writing this journal, I vowed to only write about writing. Far too many others catalogued what they cooked or bought,  what their cat or kid or boyfriend did, how much they loved/hated their jobs or hair or weekend.  I didn’t want to join the chorus–partly because I’m a snob and partly because I was afraid I’d be too boring.

I’ve stuck to that resolution pretty faithfully, but today I can’t help sharing two up-close and personal things. One is the card, above and below, that my middle girl Phoebe made me for Mother’s Day. My father always taught his kids, and I tried to teach mine, that Handmade Is  Best. Look no further for proof. In “What Happened on Fox Street”, Dottie sometimes breaks out into The Dance of Joy, and that’s what I’m calling this drawing, which will live forever here on my desk.

Two is that my oldest daughter, Zoe, found her wedding dress last weekend. She is not a shopper (direct descendant) and was threatening to buy it sight unseen on-line. Phoebe and Baby Delia boarded a bus to Boston and took her in hand. They phoned me from the shop where The Dress  was found. Many e-mailed photos, some discussion but mostly aahs and oohs later, and the decision was unanimous.  I’d have loved being there with them, but on the other hand, it gives me immeasurable pleasure that the three of them did this on their own, together. Sister Power! The first thing I did afterwards was tell my own two sisters all about it.