Years ago when our kids still loved to play Boggle with us (okay, make that eons ago), my husband tried to convince us that debag was a word. You know, he said, when you come home from the store, you debag the groceries.
I haven’t unpacked this blog, but I’ve been a blog delinquent for sure.
My new middle grade novel is due on my editor’s desk this week, that’s why. Today, I made it all the way to THE END (although one of my characters promptly insisted there is no such thing!) I’ll need three or four more days to re-read it, and work through a few more things before I take a deep breath, wish on a star, and hit SEND.
But for today, I’m breathing easy. To celebrate, I want to share a few of the books I’ve especially enjoyed lately.
Margi was a new author to me when I picked this up, but I am now a fan for life. “I’ve stolen the gold and hacked off the fingers and…swiped the wedding food. I’ve lied to my own little sister…” Astri is a wonderful character–brave, selfish, loving, willing to do anything (see the above) to save herself and her little sister. The writing is gorgeous, and Margi manages the trick of imparting history without us even knowing. I am recommending this to anyone who asks and many who don’t.
I’m always a bit wary of novels in verse. I really need to feel there’s a reason for the form. Here is a book I can’t imagine being written any other way. It’s the story of a Guatemalan boy whose life is brutally changed the day soldiers arrive in his village. Escaping alone into the forest, Carlos bands with a group of guerillas. “Caminar” means “to walk”, and Carlos does, each step taking him further from being “solo un nino” (just a boy). Each poem perfectly reflects and enhances the actions and emotions it describes–slowing things down, making our hearts race, evoking the tender and the terrifying.
Oh wait–that’s me! Hanging with the smart, the sassy, the sweet-as-pink- cupcakes Jennifer Holm (she’s a lot like Babymouse, except without the whiskers). I got to introduce her as the keynote speaker at a Cuyahoga County Library event, and to compare notes (as we hung around the fridge) on how excruciating writing our last novels was. Jenny’s has definitely turned out to be worth her dark nights of the soul.
It’s on today’s NY Times bestseller list! I just finished it, and it’s a deceptively simple, mostly happy read that I can’t stop thinking about. One of the themes is the power of science, and how like all things powerful, it needs to be employed with care. Yet the final lines are a wonderful, witty tribute to human possibility and discovery. Her economy of style is something I plan to study…
Below is a post I recently did for the blog From the Mixed Up Files. It kind of expands on some things I said here last time. Think of it as “A Ninny Contemplates Courage”.
Last week at graduation ceremonies for our daughter, who received her physician assistant degree, one of the speakers gave a piece of advice that made it hard for me to listen to what anyone else said.
“Keep your courage in an accessible place,” she told these future healers. Immediately I had visions: a capacious side pocket made for sliding in a hand and pulling out a fistful of pluck; a small pouch concealing a shining dauntless stone; a backpack bulging with fortitude. I could use one of those things, I thought.
So often we talk about finding courage, as if it’s something that wanders off at the first opportunity. I was struck by the idea of keeping it with us, carrying it around, knowing just where to find it at all times.
The young people graduating that day are already far braver than a ninny like me will ever be. Their life’s work will be taking on the sickness and pain of others, of doing everything they can to ease and relieve suffering. They’d already shown their mettle, learning about the endless complexities of the human body, and if you asked any one of them, she’d say she’d only begun. A lifetime of learning lies ahead. The room brimmed with excitement and yes, a tinge of fear over what they’d taken on. The speaker’s advice was going to come in handy.
I found myself thinking how the youngest children have no concept of courage. They know go and see and touch, and the drive to do all those things propels them forward on those first juddering steps into the unknown. Toddlers never know where they’re going till they get there–and there often lasts only a few moments before it’s on to the next discovery. Yet it takes bravery to leave the safety of a parent’s arms–just watch how often a little guy looks around to make sure Mom or Dad is still nearby.
As kids get older, the need for courage becomes conscious. Some risks are physical, like learning to ride a two-wheeler, step onto a diving board, or pet that very large dog. Some are social–nerving up to make a new friend, audition for a part in the play, or go to a very first sleep-over.
The situations that call for moral courage are the ones that the writer (and reader) in me finds most moving and powerful. From early on, even before they can talk, children have a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice and fairness. When my kids played make-believe, the stories they made up were always about good vs. evil, about the kind-hearted and true winning out over the greedy and dishonest. Real life, they discovered, was a good deal more complicated. And the older they got, the truer that became.
In the middle grade novel I’m working on now, my main character hates making choices. She’s slipped through life, getting away with things, not taking responsibility if she can help it–she’s so much like me at age twelve. In my story, she will, at last, face a decision she can’t escape. She’ll have to find her courage, something she’s not used to keeping in a pocket or other accessible place. She’ll have to hunt and dig and probably ask for some help.
One reason I’m loving writing this book–why I always love writing for middle graders –is how central and powerful questions of right and wrong are to these readers. To be worthy of my audience, I have to think hard and deep, not just about how things should be, but how they are, and what we each, with our one wild, precious life, can do. Writing for middle graders forces a ninny like me to be brave, and for that I am very grateful.
One other line from that very wise and compassionate speaker, “The sun shines and shines yet never says to the earth, You owe me.”
Last week we drove through the Berkshires, where we lived once upon a time. Along the way, we stopped in Williamstown and went to the Clark Museum, a place that blissfully combines two of the things that make me happiest in this world–art and being outside. To get to one of the buildings, you climb up through a wood limned with white birch, and afterwards you stroll back down through a pasture (be sure to close the gate behind you). From up there– views of mountains as far as you can see, as well as sculptures like this one:
We drove on to Boston, where our oldest girl received her Physician Assistant degree. My favorite speech offered this advice: “Keep your courage in an accessible place.” A pocket crammed with courage, a backpack brimming with fortitude–these young, compassionate, dedicated healers need just that. Here we are with our own brave Zoe.
No words for the love and pride!
And still some summer left!
As a public service, I’m passing along this link to a post by uber-librarian Betsy Bird (also author, with Julie Danielson, of “Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature”). There are so many wonderful kidlit blogs out there, serving readers, teachers, parents, and librarians. Here’s an overview of some of the best and most fun.
A warning: resist clicking unless you have a couple of hours to spare! http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2014/08/08/the-state-of-childrens-literary-blogs-today-prepare-to-update-your-blogroll/
Our house is getting painted. Like too many of life’s ventures, we set off on this one with glee, only to quickly thunk to earth. Who knew color was so crazy complicated? There is no such thing as yellow or green or even gray, and don’t get me started on white. (The names don’t help the confusion–who wouldn’t want a house painted Dragon’s Breath rather than Knapsack?) Our house is tall and pointy and surrounded by old trees, which means that the light up top doesn’t match the light on the bottom, and when it comes to color, light makes all the difference (If in my next life I’m lucky enough to come back as an artist who intuits all this, I’ll be an en plein air painter, lugging my easel across poppy-bright meadows, flicking my brush as the lark sings overhead).
Anyway. No sooner did we choose colors (out of bewildered exhaustion more than certainty) than it began to rain. What a bizarre July–so wet and so cool, for a few days I padded around in wool socks.
But the clouds have parted and the painters are here! Hooray! Only they listen to talk radio! (Were there a paint crew that pledged to listen to Diane Rehm, I’d hire them sight unseen). And remember about the house being tall and pointy? The screech of extension ladders? Ee-yoo!
(Speaking of ee-yoo: All this makes me sound like an entitled and obnoxious suburbanite, I know! Really, we are flabbergasted and grateful to be able to afford to hire painters. The house was last painted twenty years ago, and it was Paul climbing those awful, scary ladders. So we feel very privileged–and old–to be paying others this time around).
All this tests my concentration and so far my grade is C-. But lucky for me, I’m working on Book 3 in the CODY series. Cody is not a girl who gives up. She stands ever-ready to help. The sight of someone in trouble twangs her heart. Right now, she’s having a bit of trouble herself. The new book is about rules, not high on her list of favorite things. Also, confusing. For example, everyone and his uncle knows that stealing is wrong wrong wrong. But is it stealing if you’re taking back something that belongs to you? Cody is keeping me thinking (and laughing).
Revising the first draft of my new middle grade novel is up next. This book’s form is different from anything I’ve tried before. Remember these puzzles?
(Hey, just realized this: the way we used to work these, with our thumbs, was great practice for texting. ) That’s how the book’s elements feel to me right now. I’m sliding them this way and that, hoping to make a whole, but not right away, and not in a predictable sequence. Tricky fun. (For a book that does this masterfully, see Emily Jenkins’s “We Were Liars”, which I read in one sitting on a recent plane trip).
By the way, the house paint we picked is Hinoki. Can you guess what color that is?
Halfway–let us face the truth– through the summer, and time to take a tally.
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.
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).
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:
At the community rec center where I work out, there’s a cheerful, colorful poster titled “I Walk Because…” (you can see it here www.journeyworks.com) 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.