More Than Children

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 been a time when a picture book about George Washington’s personal slave proudly baking him a birthday cake has been withdrawn from sale after protests over its racial insensitivity, even though its  highly respected African-American editor defended its basis in fact.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.

It’s Coming!

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

What I’m About in 2016

New year, here we come!

In April…

“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.”

My last post was more than a bit gloomy.  So just to say: life brims with gifts,  and you never know where you’ll find one. Or when one will find you.

Habibi and me

2016, here we come!

Most Wonderful?

“This is the most wonderful time of your life!” the well-meaning relative gushed at the graduation party. “Enjoy! Enjoy!”

My 17-year-old daughter, who’d  hated high school and was anxious about college, looked alarmed. If these were the most wonderful years, she was in big trouble.

The Christmas carols are ubiquitous now, and my ear worm is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  I’m sorry, but could there be a more obnoxious line than “It’s the hap-happiest season of all” ? It’s pretty much calculated to make you feel terrible, unless you, too, are glowing and mistletoeing.  If you’re alone, if you’re  grieving a loss, if you don’t have the money for food and rent let alone piles of presents, if you’re worried for someone you love, if you’re deeply disturbed by your country’s political climate and all the hatred loose in the world, well. The song jangles instead of jingles. Unhappiness is always a lonesome feeling, but this time  of year can makes it feel especially, painfully raw.

We have just lost one of our dearest, bravest, most luminous friends. And so I’m reminding myself that there is no hap-happiest time of the year. Joy is a wild bird that touches down and folds us in its wings, without warning, any time. We can coax it to us, but we can’t  make it stay.  We definitely can’t coerce it, not even with presents and parties. Better to look for it every day, in friends and family, books and art, memories and hopes, the work we do and the kindness we share. Let there be no most wonderful.  Let every day have its own wild, winged life.

Wishing you peace.

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”.