My newest middle grade novel publishes next month. It’s different from anything I’ve done before, a risk. The wonderful blog, Nerdy Book Club, offered me the chance to write about why I wrote “Every Single Second” and what I hoped to do. Here’s the post:
Navy blue jumpers and clip-on bow ties, gimlet-eyed nuns in starched white habits, the gravel playground where we jumped rope, May altars decked with lilacs, the catechism I can still recite by heart: my Catholic elementary school looms large in memory. What I remember most keenly is longing to be good. More than good—saintly. When I was eight or nine, the Vision Books of Saints were my favorite reading. Bernadette: Our Lady’s Little Servantand St. Therese and the Roses and The Cure of Ars: the Priest Who Out-Talked the Devil. These stories thrilled me. I vowed to be humble and obedient, but also brave and steadfast, as a saint.
Everyone I knew went to Catholic school. For us, public school kids were objects of fascination. They wore whatever they wanted and seemed loud and unruly. We heard rumors that they ate in a cafeteria rather than at their desks, had a gym where they were actually encouraged to run (a serious sin at our school), and went on something called “field trips.” We judged them barbaric and pitied their ignorance. None of them was ever going to make it into heaven, much less be canonized.
And yet, somehow, by the time I was in eighth grade, I yearned to be one of them. How did that happen? The usual suspect: reading. As I grew, my saints became more secular. The characters I loved best still inspired me to be brave and good, but they also made me strangely restless. I remember the day Sister Eugenia went around the room, asking each of us which high school we’d attend. When my turn came, to my own surprise I stammered the name of the public school. I was a star student, and Sister was horrified. She made me stand in front of the class and list my reasons for abandoning Catholic education. Who knows what I said? No way I could say what I was thinking: I want to see what it’s like out there.
Many, many years later, I began to write about Nella, a dreamy, inarticulate girl who became the main character in my middle grade novel Every Single Second. Like all the other kids in her working-class, ethnic neighborhood, Nella goes to St. Amphibalus School, and though she’s often restless, and asks questions without answers, this is the world she knows and loves. Life begins to change when she meets a girl who’s lived many other places, a girl who questions everything—even God. Things change some more when the diocese closes St. Amphibalus and Nella, who’s white, has to attend the mostly black public school. And everything changes, this time for good, when a boy Nella’s been close to all her life commits a murder that becomes national news.
I was scared to write this book. I’d never written about violence. While I often write about diversity in terms of economic class, I’d never dealt with issues of race. Writing for kids is always a huge privilege and responsibility, and with this book, I felt that more strongly than ever. The tragedy at the heart of the story doesn’t just come out of nowhere, and it was my job to understand where it does come from. I was afraid of offending someone or, far worse, of getting the story wrong. While working on the book, I did a school visit and someone asked what I was writing about now. As I described the plot, some kids flinched. One girl put her hands over her eyes. But others came up to me afterwards, asking how soon they could get the book. This was the same tangle of feelings I experienced all the while I worked. I didn’t want to think about these things. I had to think about these things.
Nella is a girl shaped by the powerful, well-meaning forces of family and tradition, just as I was. Questioning what she’s been taught isn’t just difficult. It feels wrong. Yet as she starts to perceive the walls that stand between her and others, her desire to look over those walls—even to knock them down—grows ever stronger. That feels right.
My old elementary school, like St. Amphibalus, is closed now, but I still remember every nun who taught me. My favorite of all, the model for Sister Rosa in Every Single Second, was Sister Diana Marie. Barely taller than I was, she radiated love and compassion, and I swam in her light. By now, my definition of “being good” has gotten much more complicated, but I have no doubt Sister Diana Marie was good through and through. In my book, I happily gave Sister Rosa/Diana Marie some of my favorite lines:
“Remember, Nella. We need one another almost as much as we need God. Why else do you think he made so many of us?”
Heidi publishes a fun feature: writers sending letters to their kid-selves. Here’s the one I wrote, featured on April 21:
Dear Ten-Year-Old Tricia,
A letter from the next century! Shock-er-oo, right? Before you read this, here’s what you need to do. Tiptoe into your bedroom, lock the door and pray that the barbarians (those four younger siblings) don’t start banging on it. Privacy! I remember how impossible it was to get any in that crowded little house. I remember daydreaming about living on a houseboat, or a ranch out west, or in a peaceful convent.
Next, clear a space on your bed among the books, stuffed animals, books, homework, and books. Lie down. This letter bears astonishing news. Tricia, you’re not going to grow up to be a sailor, rancher or nun. You’re going to be a writer.
It’s too weird, right? Much as you love stories (another way to escape into a private world), you could not care less who wrote them. For you, a good book is like one of those crazy-beautiful mushrooms that pops up after a rainy night. Where did it come from? Who cares? The story itself is all that matters—the characters and what happens to them. You turn the pages as quick as you can, never stopping to reflect that someone, somewhere, made this all up. That thought’s almost insulting. Books feel true and real as life itself, only better. If you thought at all about the writer, you’d have to put Her or Him on a par with God.
But wait. This year your teacher is Mrs. Minot. She has dandruff and coffee-breath and always looks tired, like most teachers, but she seems to trust kids, which is different. At the end of the day, when she actually gives you free time, you usually read, but one day you decide to try to something. You’ve just read Ballet for Julia, where a messy, clumsy girl goes to live with her crotchety old aunt. Julia discovers she’s really a graceful, beautiful ballerina. For some reason, you start to write Ballet for Adelaide, more or less the same exact story with a few name changes. What makes you do that, Tricia? All these years later, I have no answer. But I still remember my heart thrumming as the words spilled out onto the paper. “What are you doing?” Mrs. Minot asked, breathing her coffee breath upon me. And when I told her, “Maybe you’ll be a writer someday”, she said.
Guess what? More than fifty (!!) years later, when you have forgotten many, many other things, you will still remember that.
An archeologist. A teacher. A Russian translator. A gardener on an English estate. You’re going to have a gazillion ideas about who you might be. A professional dog walker. A librarian. Oh Tricia, the world is so full of a number of things, we should all be as happy as kings! And mostly you will be. Mostly, your life is going to be so lucky. Those brutish barbarians who will soon be banging on the bedroom door? They’re going to become your best friends—it’s true, I swear. You’ll have other teachers as kind and perceptive as Mrs. Minot. You’ll travel a little bit for real, and a lot in your imagination, and you’ll fall in disastrous love a few times till at last you get it right and marry—a teacher! Who will, one morning, lean close and breathe his toothpaste breath upon you, saying, “I think you should write. Seriously.”
And this time, you will think, Yes.
That everything happening to you now, all the books you’re reading, wishes you’re wishing, prayers you’re praying, bonds you’re forming and breaking, fears you’re facing and dreams you’re chasing—that all those things will one day turn into stories, don’t think about it. Not now. That writing is as much craft as art, and you will need to work crazy hard before you succeed—don’t worry about it now.
For now, just be ten. Lie on that bed, cuddle your stuffed poodle, watch the breeze lift the pink rosebud curtains. Wiggle your toes, and pick up one of the books strewn all over your room. Don’t think about who wrote that book. Just step inside it and make it yours, as only a lucky ten-year-old can.
Find more Hey Kid! letters here.
|Tricia Springstubb is the author of books for kids of all ages, including the award-winning middle grade novels What Happened on Fox Street and Moonpenny Island. Her other new book this year is Every Single Second, coming in June from HarperCollins. Yes, she continues to be very lucky and very grateful!
Connect with Tricia on triciaspringstubb.com, Twitter: @springstubb, and Pinterest.
My new CODY book has been released!
Here are a few of the nice things reviewers have been saying (blushes):
Booklist: This sequel displays Springstubb’s knack for understanding the ever-shifting questions held by readers this age as their awareness of the universe around them grows in leaps and bounds. Brimming with charm, delight, and a diverse cast of characters.
School Library Connections: This book is perfect for young readers ready to move on from beginning books and early readers.
Kirkus: Understated illustrations subtly reinforce (characters’) diverse identities and bring the cozy world to life. A perennial message, “different strokes for different folks,” delivered with affection and tolerance, 21st-century style.
BCCB: (Cody is) an endearing heroine for kids just starting to puzzle out their own universes. Wheeler’s monochromatic illustrations add depth to many of the characters—slouching Spencer as he heads to school, Wyatt’s rueful smiles as he hangs out with Cody—and the homey details complement the warmth of the text.
You can order a signed copy through this website, or find it in your local indie or on Amazon. I really really hope it’s in your local library, too!
|There are times when, no matter how I try, the words don’t come. Or they do, but they won’t do what I mean them to. Instead they huddle on the page, lumpish and inert. Maybe Hirshfield was feeling some of that when she wrote this poem.
|The Tongue Says Loneliness
by Jane Hirshfield
The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.
As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.
As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.
Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron.
Blogs can be such wonderful things! Thank goodness for bloggers (far) less lazy than I, who share their own wonderful thoughts and discoveries plus give other writers the chance to chime in, too. Sara Grochowski, I am lo0king at you!
Sara blogs at thehidingspotblogspot.com, and she’s doing a lovely series on writers and their childhood reading. I’m lucky enough to be one of those writers she asked. Because, for mysterious and evil reasons, this page often refuses to post links, I’ll print my entry below. But please give yourself a gift and go to Sara’s blog to read the other posts, as varied and revelatory as the writers themselves.
I’m sitting on the floor of the A & P, beside a spin rack of Little Golden Books. My harried mother (I’ve got four younger brothers and sisters) is somewhere in the store, but I’m with the fish family, who are foiling a fisherman by hooking a big rubber boot on his line. I read this book every time we come grocery shopping. Now I wonder, why did such a silly story so deeply satisfy me? Maybe the theme of a family banding together to protect each other comforted me? Or maybe it was my favorite illustration, the one that showed the fisherman above and the fish family below at the same time. Two separate, simultaneous worlds: an idea that continues to fascinate me. I can’t remember ever worrying that the book would be sold and gone. Back then, if I loved a book, it belonged to me. Our relationship was exclusive, its world mine and no one else’s. I’d have been startled to see another kid reading my fish family book. Every week I re-read it, and every week I returned it to the rack until, at last, a miracle: my mother added its $.29 to the grocery bill.
No one ever had to encourage me to read. I’m one of the lucky, born to lose my way in words. The first book I could read was “Dick and Jane”. I loved Sally’s hair, which inspired a lifelong envy of curls, and Father’s dapper suits. A part of me knew these people weren’t real, but a much larger, uncontrollable part believed I knew them, and that somehow they knew me. As I grew, one of five kids in a crowded little house, no one paid any attention to what I read, and all my books came from the library. Once, when I was miserable with chicken pox, my friend Cynthia loaned me two of her books. Her books. She owned “Mary Poppins” and “Pippi Longstocking”. (Years later, I was jealous of her subscription to Seventeen Magazine, another unfathomable luxury.) I loved the stories, of course, but I think the reason they stand out in my memory is that the books themselves felt different. They were unlike library books, and not just because they lacked crinkly plastic covers. They had a different weight, an extra gravity. They were the first books I viewed not just as vehicles but as sacred objects in themselves. I remember thinking that Cynthia, who didn’t care all that much about reading, didn’t deserve them. Book lust. It was upon me.
For years I read solely for plot, for what would happen next. I got used to happy endings, and so I’ll never forget the shock of Flag’s death in “The Yearling”. That staggering blow to heart and mind! For the first time I thought, how could the author do that? I wondered it again when I read “Mrs. Mike” where two small children die of diptheria. (Looking up this title now, I see it was written for adults, so by then I must have infiltrated that section of the library). That life could be so fatally capricious and cruel was new knowledge for me. That a writer could face up to that knowledge and be brave enough to convey it was a revelation.
Later there was “Jane Eyre”, in the edition with Fritz Eichenberg’s terrifying wood engravings. Jane stole my heart. I loved that she was plain. I loved her conversations with Rochester. I considered the narrator unfair to the poor woman in the attic, and I pitied her fiery death. Most of all I loved the novel’s language, the earnest sentences with their semicolons and dashes and piled-on clauses building to an emotional crescendo that swept me up into a reading place I’d never been before. I was still crazy to know what would happen next, but now I also wanted to know why.
One last book: “A Girl of the Limberlost”. The copy I read had yellowed pages that gave off a whiff of mildew, calling up the swamp where Elnora hunted her specimens. Elnora and I both had complicated relationships with our mothers. Elnora’s was much meaner than mine, but both women hoarded their love, and were stingy with praise and affection. I remember reading the scene where Elnora’s mother, who bitterly opposes Elnora’s going to school, surprises her by packing an exquisite lunch for her to take. This scene opened some floodgate inside me. I understood how someone might love deeply but be unable to express it, how love takes many forms, how a good mother need not look like a TV mother. These were things I’d sensed in some deep, inarticulate place inside me, but now I had the words for them, and that made all the difference.
To turn the page and feel the world re-configure itself around you. To be a reader.
This is such a thoughtful conversation on diversity in my MOONPENNY ISLAND and in the wonderful UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER, and on diversity in general. Much to ponder.
I’m someone new. Here’s the person responsible:
My daughter and her husband wanted to be surprised, so for the whole pregnancy we called the baby Little Legume. One week ago today, she became Little Linnea. (Labor began on her due date! She is already a very conscientious child).
I have a strong feeling that writing children’s book is going to be more important to me than ever.
These are snowy days, good days to slow down and turn inward, to take time for thinking about things that can’t be quickly pinned down. In the kid lit world, it’s been a time for controversy, as the Newbery Award, generally given to a middle grade novel, went to a picture book, and a large number of the other awards went to writers and illustrators of color, making most people rejoice but some publicly speculate that diversity was rewarded over quality.
It’s been a time when a picture book about George Washington’s personal slave proudly baking him a birthday cake has been withdrawn from sale after protests over its racial insensitivity, even though its highly respected African-American editor defended its basis in fact. This follows angry debate over several other books and whether their creators made things hurtful and misleading to young readers.
These have been difficult, painful, confusing conversations. I’ve only taken the smallest part in them, for one because at this point, it’s hard to be sure either side, though both are undeniably well-intentioned, is listening to the other. And for two because yes, I’m aware of and afraid of my own privilege and how it blurs my view of the world. What do I know about living inside another skin? All I can do is read about other experiences, and listen to other voices, and then, try to imagine.
My new middle grade novel, “Every Single Second”, is a departure for me. It’s about class and race and there is a violent tragedy at its heart. It’s a book I didn’t want to write but had to. I love the characters; I’m proud of the work I did on it; I so look forward to talking to kids about it.
Yet as the time nears for it to go out into the world, I fear for it. Will it offend or anger someone? Will someone pillory its views? Should I have stuck to non-controversial topics, to things we can all agree on and get warm-fuzzy over? I’m pretty sure the answer to the first two questions is yes. I’m certain the answer to the third one is no.
Reading can be the world’s most comforting activity, but it can, and sometimes should, be a risky endeavor. We need stories that stir and goad and unsettle us, that get us talking and questioning, that may even get us out of our chairs and on our feet, wanting to do something. There are stories that fit cozily between “Once upon a time” and “the end”, but there are also stories that begin way before the first page, and that go on long after the final one. That was the kind of book I had to write this time.
Erin Murphy, a beloved literary agent, had this to say to writers in a Facebook post: “Do the good work of studying, of consulting, of listening to your hearts, of considering how the details of your story will make your readers feel. It’s true, it may fail anyway—but that is the work artists must do, and the risk artists must take. You must be WILLING TO FAIL for the effort of trying, and nothing is worth the effort more than children.”
Nothing is worth the effort more than children.
One of my favorite days of the year! I’ll be celebrating by doing Skype visits far and wide (still some spots left, so if you’re interested contact me through this website!) Whether you read to yourself, a friend, or a whole classroom, raise your voice and join in!
More details are at www.litworld.org
New year, here we come!
“Cody took a slurp of chocolate milk times two. At the end of the lunch table, Molly gave her the skunk eye. Cody shifted on her seat. Across the table, Spencer and Pearl blabbed about the orchestra. Cody shifted some more. And then somehow her bungie slipped off the back. Cody grabbed for the table but whoa! She was on her way down. The milk cartons were on their way up. They somersaulted through the air.
“When Cody got back on her feet, Spencer and Pearl were flapping their arms and squawking. They had chocolate milk all over them.
“Not only them. The table. And the wall. And the floor.
“It was like a TV crime scene, only with chocolate milk instead of blood.”
And in June…
“At first Nella doesn’t recognize the sound. The wind, maybe? Except the trees behind the stone wall don’t move. A flock of birds with heavy wings? Except the sky is empty. Ghosts? Except of course that’s ridiculous. A girl who’s lived her whole life across from a graveyard does not let herself believe in ghosts.
“The July night is warm, but she shivers. Until a few days ago, Nella knew every sight and sound, smell and taste of her neighborhood. The steep hill and narrow houses, the cheesy music at Mama Gemma’s, the supernatural perfume of fresh doughnuts and the zing of lemon ice. She and Angela used to love–no. Don’t think about Angela. Just don’t.”