Read All the Things – it’s not WHAT we read, it’s HOW we read that matters.

Dorothea Lange - Girls of Lincoln Bench School study their reading lesson. Near Ontario, Malheur County, Oregon, 1939

There have been over the last few months – and I’m sure you’ve seen them – articles circulating. Perhaps you read one in The New Yorker. Perhaps you saw an enraged discussion on Twitter. Perhaps you saw a delightful evisceration or a snarky confrontation on Tumblr. In any case, the format has been the same – some stuffy grownup laments in a poorly-thought-out article about the State of Reading. Adults are reading books for children! Oh, Woe! Children are reading books that they actually enjoy! Oh, Fie! People are reading books that I do not enjoy and do not match this ascot! Gracious, gracious me! The world, it would seem, is on its way to an unpleasant destination after being tucked into this cozy handbasket.

And the concern has been palpable. “If,” one pundit posed, “American adults only read five novels a year, shouldn’t those books be at their level?” This argument particularly interested me, actually, because it revealed the fundamental fallacy in the initial postulations upon which these arguments are built. They are assuming that a book is an accomplishment. Like running a 10k. Or scoring well on a test. Something to be finished, checked off, removed from the to-do list, and probably not thought of again.

But they’re not. Books are not accomplishments. They are relationships. And how we build those relationships matter.

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Let me explain:

Around this time last year, I was in the midst of an epic battle. My son, now ten, because of his testing anxiety, had been placed in one of the lowest Reading classes – problematic in and of itself, made more problematic in the dramatic shift in pedagogy between the upper and lower Reading groups. The kids who tested well were placed in Literature, where they, as a group, delved into great works of Children’s Literature – Black Beauty; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Jungle Book. They would read and discuss and make art. It was a wonderful foundational class. The kids in the lower reading group were stuck in a SRA curriculum, which meant they did not read great great novels at all. Instead they read passages from a text book, out loud, placing a stylus on each word as they went, and if they did not read it perfectly, they had to go back. Which meant, if the kids got bored (they were all bored), and they found themselves wandering, and sometimes misplacing an “a” for a “the”, they couldn’t progress, and had to do the same passage and the same chapter over and over and over. It was punitive. It was demoralizing. It was awful. And I had a kid who said he was “too stupid to read.”

And that’s when my eyeballs caught fire.

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That all changed when I fought to get him moved. (And believe me, it was a fight. I donned my armor and pulled out my Sword of Righteousness and marched into battle. As any mother would) Once he was safely placed in his Literature class, from the very first day, he transformed. Instantly. And it was wonderful. The first book he read in that class was The Cricket in Times SquareNow here’s the thing about my son – he is a creative, energetic, highly tactile boy. He enjoys reading, and reads well, but he often just had too much energy to sit down and read. He wanted to run. He wanted to build. He liked listening to books, because he could make crazy spaceships with his Legos while he did so. But this book. This was transformative. It was the first time that I saw him reading ahead, and going back and re-reading passages. It was the first time I ever heard him quote a book he was reading. It was the first time that I saw him get teary-eyed when he read a book, or apply his reading of a text into regular-life situations. He had a relationship with that book. And he counted those characters as his friends.

And that got me thinking.

These articles – these hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, tut-tutting articles – all suffer from the same pedantic sneer, this assumption that since I, the writer, do not particularly care for what those people are reading, that it is somehow suspect. That it is not as cultured or illuminated or difficult or grownup. It does not show up in Harold Bloom’s ranting about Cannon. It was not plucked from a polished library full of old leather tomes by great, white men. It is a book with magic in it. It is a book with speculative science in it. It is a book with children in it. It is – horror of horrors – a book with teenaged girls in it. How we ever got to a point in our culture where reasonable-looking grownups feel no qualms in saying that the lives and struggles of teenaged girls are not worth reading about is mystifying to me. The most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner is a teenaged girl, for crying out loud. And what’s more, what these writers are totally missing out on is the fundamental nature of reading.

Listen. Reading is not consumption. A book is not an accomplishment. And if you think either of those things are true, then you are missing out on the transformative power of a book.

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My son, right now, is reading A Wrinkle in Time. Because of that, he is filled with questions about physics and cosmology and astronomy. And angels. And Free Will. And giant brains. He has pulled out all of my astronomy books that I brought home when I participated in the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. He has discovered Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He talks about Calvin and Meg as though they were extra members of our household. He is building Camazots in Lego. He is drawing pictures of the Happy Medium. He sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Whatsit. He wrote a poem about Charles Wallace. He approaches the text with his full self – his curiosity, his creativity, his need for motion, his need to build – and offers his Self to the story. And the Story, in turn, offers itself to my child. That is how it’s done. Open-hearted reading.

My son gets it. I think you get it. But, in our wildest dreams, will the stuffy grownups at Harpers or The New Yorker or Salon or whatever – will they get it too? Do we dare to hope for such a thing?

I will hope. It is what I do.

My reading – like most people I know – is broad and wide. I read a lot. I do not stick to a single genre. I read children’s books and grown ups books and science books and picture books and old books and new books.  I do not care what anyone thinks of that. I sometimes read in fits and starts. I have books around my house in various stages of mid-read, with bits of paper sticking out, sometimes with little notes on them. “Remember this for later,” my notes say. Or, “Use this passage the next time you teach a class.” Or, “Why the hell can’t you write like that, Barnhill?” Or, “Write this on your skin.”

I finished Dana Sobel’s Longitude recently – a book about how one clockmaker changed navigation forever. I just finished We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick that one up. It was wondrous. I just started Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future, by A.S. King. It is also wondrous. It is YA. It is magical. It transcends every boundary imaginable, just as all great fiction should. And I’m also reading One, Two, Three . . . Infinity, by George Gamow, which, oh my gosh, you guys! Read it right now. It is marvelous. I’m also reading A Creature of Moonlightby Rebecca Hahn. Also wonderful. That voice! That vision! It is a remarkable book. I’ve also been very slowly reading through The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – an exhaustive anthology of Weird fiction. It is amazing. You should read it. And, since the passing of Galway Kinnell, I’ve been reading through my various volumes of his work. Because I love him forever. And I have a copy of The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, that I keep on my desk. I page through it and let his odd-ball versions of reality, wrought in precise, alarmingly-clear prose, pummel my brain. Wake up! Borges tells me yet again. Pay attention! The world is wondrous strange! Get it right! And so I do. Borges is my personal trainer. And he is ever so bossy. And soon I will start The Grimjinx Rebellion, by Brian Farrey. If it is anything like the first two books in that series (WHICH WERE AWESOME), I have no doubts that it will be marvelous. I read short fiction as well – on Clarkesworld and Tor.com. And in the New Yorker. And McSweeney’sAnd my every-three-week arrival of One Story.

For those of you keeping track at home, what we see here is that I read everything. I read nonfiction and fiction. History and science. Literary fiction and Middle Grade fiction and Horror fiction and Science Fiction and Young Adult fiction and Fantasy Fiction. I don’t read a lot of Romance – not through any kind of snobbery, but simply because I’m unfamiliar enough with the genre that I don’t know who the good writers are (if you have any suggestions, please send them!) The point is this: I love reading. I love the touch of paper in my fingers. I love the smell of ink. I love the loafe and lean of my couch. I love resting a mug of tea on my belly and balancing the book on my knees. I love letting my mind wander. I love asking questions. I love wrestling with a text. I love caring about characters. I love staying up late with breathless pages, wondering what will happen next. I love every dang bit of it.

Books are maps, yes. And they are mirrors and lamps. And they are the cultural threads that bind us together. But they are more than that. They live with us. They comfort us. They remind us that we are not alone. When I read, I am offering myself to the story. I bring to the story – any story – my own experience and knowledge. I bring my curiosity. I bring my empathy. I bring my own open heart. When we read, we are opening ourselves up to be changed. And the book, whatever we are reading, is doing the same thing. When I read a book, that book is changed. The version of the story that plays out in my head is unique to me. And when I communicate that version – that vision - the larger cultural understanding alters too. That’s how stories live in the culture. They are not static; they are not objects; they are not dead. Books, stories – they are alive. And when we connect ourselves to books, we are larger, brighter, interconnected, ensouled. We are more alive.

And when we talk about books – and our relationships with those books – we are not just talking about the books. We are talking about ourselves. And our loved ones. And the world.

When we ask one another, “What are you reading these days?” it should never be an occasion for judgement or assessment or assignment into any sort of pecking order. That would be missing the point. Instead, what we should say is this: Tell me what you felt. Tell me how you cared. Tell me what you carried with you – both toward and away. Tell me why we matter.

Happy reading, everyone. Please. Tell me what books are living with you right now. And tell me why they matter.

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Dragonflies Draw Flame

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For most of my life, I’ve had a bit of a poem printed out on a piece of cardstock, laminated to make it last longer, tucked into my wallet. I’ve had to re-do it from time to time – even lamination doesn’t last forever. But I hold it and look at it and whisper it sometimes like a prayer.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
                     -Gerard Manley Hopkins
One thing about living with a poem for a long time – and it has been long. I am forty now. Soon I will be forty-one. I’ve had this same bit of a poem in my pocket or purse or wallet since I was fifteen – is that different tangles of language find their way into the gears of my mind and become lodged there. There was a time when I sought the truth from dragonflies. There was a time I listened to the ringing of stones. There was a time the natural world played for me like an orchestra – each leaf, each blade of grass, each feathered wing was for me the tucked string ready to play its song. The whole world was for me the swung bell.
My name, I felt, was a thing flung. Myself it speaks and spells. 
That is still true. All of those things are still true. My soul falls on different beats of the poem and lands there for a while. And where it lands feels meaningful. It is meaningful.
I am writing a book right now that has an ancient creature who quotes an ancient poet. Which means I have been having to make up some ancient poetry that would be for Glerk – my beloved swamp monster – as this poem has been for me: touchstone and riddle; puzzle and balm. This is good because I am reading more poetry than I usually do. Ancient poetry. Sappho and Rumi and Enheduanna and Matsuo Bashō. I discovered “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, an Egyptian epic poem over four thousand years old that I had managed to never know about until now.  This is a good thing. It is good to learn.
After all, what I do is me. I learn. I wonder. I go outdoors. I stare too closely at the sun. Each bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.
When we write stories, we do not do so to express ourselves. We write stories in the same way that a carpenter builds a chair – it is an exercise of skill and precision and artistry and form. It is creating a thing that is separate from ourselves. We tell ourselves this, and it is true. And yet. Each time I write a story, I find my way toward something central in me as well. And often it is an aspect of me that perhaps I have forgotten about. I am writing about a swamp monster who quotes ancient poetry. Researching ancient poetry has led the paths of my mind circling back toward the person that I was when I first printed out that poem and laminated it. A person who looked toward an unknowable knot of language and tried to find the true thing hidden in the spaces between the sprung rhythm. I am writing about Glerk, and Glerk is leading me to me.
It is a strange thing to notice. Glerk is a character borne out of my imagination. And yet he is bossing me around. Typical.
I read another poem today that made me cry. I used to write poetry every day. Now I never do. Perhaps it’s time for me to start again. Maybe that’s what my imagination is attempting to lead me toward. Perhaps that is why I started writing this book – to lead me back toward myself. What I do is me; for that I came.
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LOCATION, PARKING INFO FOR OCTOBER | ‘THE WITCH’S BOY,’ VISIT WITH AUTHOR KELLY BARNHILL

kellybarnhill:

Hey everyone! I’ll be in Stillwater this weekend with the Deep Blue Readers. If you’re so inclined, I’d love to see you. Here are the details about the event. <3

Originally posted on Deep Blue Readers:

Barnhill_frontWhat a treat! Acclaimed Minnesota author Kelly Barnhill, whose newest book ‘The Witch’s Boy‘ has earned glowing reviews from Kirkus, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, will be visiting with us Sunday, 10/26 at 1:30. We hope you’ll join us for book discussion, signing, and festive treats provided by Valley Bookseller. Books will be available for purchase.

As the renovations at Valley Bookseller continue, we will be meeting this month in the upstairs classrooms at ArtReach St. Croix in Stillwater, 224 North 4th Street, across the street from the iconic entrance to Stillwater Public Library. Street parking is available and should prove easier as the autumn festival season winds down and peak tree color is fading.

Click for more about our upcoming November book club title, ‘Countdown’ by Deborah Wiles, whose sequel ‘Revolution’ has been shortlisted for the National Book…

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Attention Minnesota Teachers and Librarians and Book-Wormy-Kids: The 90-Newbery is coming! Are you ready?

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Dear Bookish Children of Minnesota (and their assorted Educators and Media Specialists, and Book-Purveyors),

Obviously, I do not have to tell you what the Newbery Medal is – you see those stickers on books all across the land – but some of you may not have heard of the 90-second Newbery Film Festiva. And what’s more many of you may not know that the film festival is coming here! To Minnesota! For kids, by kids, and it will be AWESOME!

Let’s back up a bit. Let’s have the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival explain itself in its own words, shall we?

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in 90 seconds or less. Every year, the best movies are shown at gala in screenings New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, and Tacoma—co-hosted by founder James Kennedy and other award-winning children’s authors such as Jon Scieszka, Libba Bray, Kate DiCamillo, Blue Balliett, and many more!

This is an amazingly fun program, started by James Kennedy (author of Order of the Odd-Fish),  and this year, there will be a screening here in Minnesota! On Saturday, February 28! Co-hosted by me, Kelly Barnhill (author of some other books)! Need proof? Look! (And I’d like to point out that this is my first screen shot of my whole life. You may praise me at your earliest convenience.)

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This is how it works:

You read a Newbery-Medal-or-Honor-winning book. There are lots to choose from. You make a video acting out the whole story in just 90 seconds. Think it’s impossible? Think again:

Or this silent-film-style gem:

If you need some inspiration, take a look at this list of the top 25 90-Second Newbery films OF ALL TIME!

Anyway, here’s the rules (I’m copying them from the site):

The rules:

1. Your video should be 90 seconds or less. (Okay, okay: if it’s two minutes long but absolute genius, we’ll bend the rules for you. But let’s try to keep them short.)

2. Your video has to be about a Newbery award-winning (or Newbery honor-winning) book. Here’s a list of all the winners.

3. No book trailers! No video book reports! We’re looking for full-on dramatizations, with mostly child actors, that manage to tell the entire story of the book in 90 seconds.

4. Upload your videos to YouTube or Vimeo or whatever and send me the link at kennedyjames [at] gmail [dot] com. Make the subject line be “90 SECOND NEWBERY” and please tell me your name, age, where you’re from, and whatever other comments you’d like to include, including whether you’d like me to link to your personal site. You can give an alias if you want; I understand privacy concerns.

5. Sending the link to me grants me (James Kennedy) the right to post it on my blog and to other websites where I sometimes post content (like Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and to share at public readings, school visits—and hopefully the “90-Second Newbery” Film Festival screenings!

6. The deadline for the FOURTH annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is December 20, 2014.

 

Got it? Let’s review: Read a book that has a Newbery sticker on it. Make a video re-telling the story. Do it with friends! Do it with family! Make your teddy bears act out Dicey’s Song or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or whatever! Send it to Mr. Kennedy by December 20, and mark your calendars, and plan on meeting me at the Minneapolis Central Library on February 28! More details to come. And maybe someone should tell me what on earth I should wear to this thing. Current fashion concept: sequined dress with Converse sneakers and perhaps stripey tights. Thoughts?

 

Seriously though, I can’t wait to watch your videos. This is going to be the best!

 

The Architects of our Imaginations

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Yesterday was Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday – one of my favorite writers, thinkers and storytellers. I started the day reading an an essay she wrote called “Introducing Myself”, which later sent me exploring the landscape of my brain in which Earthsea and Ged and Arha and Kalessin still hold sway. It is like this with books, I think. They build structures, cities, regions, and cosmologies. They do not just bend space and time – they create space and time, within us. And those places remain forever.  So I wrote this tweet:

Which got me thinking. What are the books that helped to build my brain? Who are the writers who engineered and designed the different regions of my imagination – imprinting the space from which my own stories are born?

I know for sure that I owe my fascination with landforms and geography to the writings of Le Guin and Tolkien. I’m a nature girl as a matter of course, and have even composed whole sections of my novel while camping in the wilderness with my family (six chapters of The Witch’s Boy, for example, were penned on a lake-dampened notebook while sitting cross legged on a boulder jutting out of Flame Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a million acre wilderness area that stretches across northern Minnesota and Canada.

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To L. Frank Baum and his unsettling weirdness, however, I owe my penchant for the Strange, the Odd-Ball, the Disarmingly Creepy, and the Whimsically Grotesque. It was in these pages that I fell in love with vegetable people (who, if you sliced them in half, you just planted them, and they grew new versions of themselves), and gender-swapping hero/heroines, and animated sofa-beasts, and bulbous bellied clockwork men. I grew to love enormous, well-dressed insects and girls made of patchwork and girls made of rainbows and creatures with wheels instead of hands and an army of girls armed with knitting needles. I sometimes have to reign in my fascination for the weird and creepy – not every reader loves the Weird the way I love the Weird – but there is no doubt it seeps into the ground of my stories’ making, even now.

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To E. Nesbit, I owe my focus on familial relationships and the nuance of siblingry. C.S. Lewis does this too, of course, but I always found Nesbit’s families and sibling interplay to be far more believable. Family -in all its tensions, feints, and layers of meaning – is its own wild adventure. We’re all lucky we make it out alive. I, myself, was from a large family – four sisters and a brother, plus innumerable cousins and second cousins – and the loyalty and frustration of sibling-hood in Nesbit’s books was always equally as important as whatever magical mayhem the kids in question tended to find themselves in. Wish-granting sand fairies, who’s in charge of the baby brother, various phoenixes, I think you’ve stolen my shoes, wishes gone wrong, sibling rivalry, enchanted castles, and the exact phrase that will make your brother go bananas. The sibling relationship becomes the lens through which the adventure is viewed. And I love that. I still love it. (And I love my siblings, even when they make me crazy.)

 
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And to both A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia series I am given permission to explore aspects of my faith in storytelling. I am, at the best of times, a prickly Christian and an awkward Catholic. My faith is both the balm of my heart and the thorn in my side – I needle; I fuss; I argue; I treasure; I long; I resent; I seek; I close my eyes. I think I am not alone in this. My whole life, I’ve been looking for god, and god manages to show up for me at the oddest times and in the most unlikely places. I don’t write overtly about faith nor do I seek to proselytize through fiction. Indeed, any attempts to do so, I feel, are a mistake. But that part of my spirit that leans toward the Light, that part of me that feels very much that the communion of saints is a physical connection – you and I are part of the same Body, and I am as bound to you as my knuckle is bound to my hand, and my blood is bound to my heart – it is present when I write stories. This is likely why I feel I am much more likely to be accused of heresy than my atheist writer friends (and frankly, I am delighted when this happens), but all’s fair in love and fiction.

For those of you who grew up with books, which authors are the architects of your imagination? Which books built the landscapes inside you? Which are the maps that you travel by? I am terribly curious to know.

 

Today! At Uncle Hugo’s!

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The Will and Kelly show continues for one more day. I will be at Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore with the most esteemed William Alexander, and we will be signing books. 1:00. Be there or be some kind of quadrilateral.

For the book lover, there really is no better place on earth than the twin cities. Our independent bookstores are numerous and well-visited, and each one is unique unto itself. They have their own distinct personalities, flavors, secrets and predilections. They welcome; they entice; they encourage their own particular brands of wonder. Uncle Hugo’s occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart. It is a bookstore’s bookstore – the shelves so crowded and the corridors so narrow, that the weight of stories begin to coalesce into their own strange gravity. Space bends in that bookstore. Time, too. Entire libraries are compressed onto a single shelf. Entire universes onto one dusty page. There is more stuff in that bookstore than there is stuff in the known universe. I will be pulled in, wrapped up, smothered with words. I will be pinned into paper, drowned in ink, surrounded with stories. I may not make it out alive. There are worse ways to go, though, really.

To Uncle Hugo’s I go! Wish me luck! (And you should come!)

 

IT’S BOOKFEST DAY!

*runs down stairs in jammies*

*looks under the bookshelf to see if the Bookfest Fairy has arrived*

(not yet, my pretties, but soon)

Today is the Twin Cities Book Festival, which is one of my top ten favorite things about living in the Twin Cities. I love the booths, I love the conversations, I love the dedication to Children’s Literature, I love the bowls of candy being handed out like, well, like candy. I love finding out what independent artists are working on. I like seeing the latest from letterpress poetry publishers and indie comic producers. I love the myriad of manifestations of story and language and image and art. I love everything about it.

I will be presenting at 11:00 at Middle Grade Headquarters with Our Dear Will Alexander and his Fine Novel, Ambassador. We will talk about our books, and the books we loved and space and time and magic and adventure. And perhaps pie. (I’m just kidding. I won’t talk about pie, I promise.) But I will answer your questions. Even the impertinent ones.

Stop by and say hello if you can.

In Which the Only Way Forward is Forward.

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I have this bad habit, as a writer. I erase. All the time. I’ve written about this, actually, and bragged about it too. My approach to revision: Select All; Delete. I have done this. Many times.

And I’ll use evocative language to describe it – something about standing at precipices, or burning the fields to make them bear, or pulling up the boundary fences and standing in the center of wild, limitless space. I’ll say something about the dust of supernovae giving rise to brand new galaxies and that nothing is ever really lost.

And I stand by it, mostly. But I’ve never actually told the whole story. Because sometimes, my crushing need to rid myself of chaff and weak sentences and imperfect paragraphs prevents my stories from moving forward. I write; I go back; I fuss; I erase; I re-write; I fuss; I erase; I re-write; I fuss; I erase. And the book gets stuck. And I become much more unpleasant to live with (my family denies that last bit, but I think they are just being nice).

Erasing can be empowering, but it can be a trap, too. I have been trapped. Ask anyone you like.

So this next book is erasure-free. I am trying it out as an experiment. I am not allowed to erase anything until I type “The End”. I am walking on a long, straight road, and I am not looking back – not for a second. Each day I write. Each day I bring the story a little further along. Each day I take notes on my little novel-progress notebook. What I noticed that writing day. What questions I have for my characters. Ideas to work in later. Things that I know I’ll have to fix, but I’m not going to right now.

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This is me. Right now. Except with a different hat.

And there is something to it, actually. This forward motion. I have absolutely no idea if the book sucks. I have absolutely no idea if my sentences are working. I have absolutely no idea if the texture of the language works rhythmically – if it feels good in the mouth and ear (this is something I put a lot of time into, actually. My books are read out loud somewhere on the order of a hundred times before I turn that sucker in.) Of course, this is not to say that I won’t erase later, or that I won’t spend hours and hours on a single sentence. What it does change, though, is this stage of the game. This process of invention and discovery. And I have to say, I’m having a pretty good time.

No. I’m having a great time.

I had a pretty good idea about the shape of this story before I began, but even now, thirty thousand words in, I’m encountering all kinds of things that have surprised me. For example:

1. There is a convent of nun-assassins who are both crafty and terrifying. Their needlework is as menacing as their swordplay.

2. There is a stone that looks like a stone but is actually a door.

3. The verses of ancient poetry are carved into the living trunks of ancient trees, spiraling around and around from the ground to the upper branches.

4. Sometimes, carpentry is a better career choice. Not everyone is cut out to be a despot, after all.

5. Paper birds can be used as weapons.

6. Magic, like puberty, can hit a person like a runaway garbage truck, and can be just as confusing, disorienting and undignified.

7. Sometimes we lie to the people we love. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. But it can make them not love us.

8. Gout is the most unpleasant of maladies.

9. Confounding architecture is ridiculously fun to write about.

10. Dragons are the biggest scaredy-cats in the whole wide world.

 As I said: It might be terrible. It likely is terrible. And maybe I can un-terrible it later, and maybe I cannot. But this freedom I feel right now – freedom from worry, freedom from fussing, freedom from beating myself up for not being perfect, freedom from casting a pale eye on the work I had done thereby slowing the work that I will do – well. It feels pretty great. And while clearing the decks on a manuscript and starting over sometimes feels wild and free and unencumbered, there is something to the forward motion as well.

There is no looking back. There is nothing behind me. There’s only my feet and my breath and my swinging arms. There is only my eyes on the mountain ahead. And clear, blue sky.

Double Entendres: the Fourth Grade Boy Edition

In the carpool today, my short-sleeve-shirted son shivered in the back seat next to his two neighborhood buddies. It was forty degrees. He refused to wear a jacket. He refused to wear pants. It was a struggle to even get that child into shorts (“Why aren’t underwear used as regular clothes, mom,” he asked. “Just give me one good reason.”)

“Leo,” I said. “I want you to check the lost and found today for the sweatshirts and coats that have mysteriously vanished from our house.”

“Oh, I have them,” he said. “In my locker. And in my bag.” He was shivering.

“Well,” I said. “Grab a hoodie and put it on.”

The other boys, normally a tangle of chatter, fell suddenly silent. They stared at me open-mouthed.

“Dude,” the red-haired boy side-mouth whispered to Leo. “Did your mom just say ‘woody’?”

And the boys started to choke on their own laughter.

“What?” I said. “No. I certainly did not say-“

“LEO’S MOM SAID WOODY!” one of the blondes wheezed.

AND THEN THEY ALL DIED. They died and they went to heaven and they got booted out and were sent back to their bodies where they died again. They were weak with laughing. They were like hyenas trapped in the grip of boa constrictors. They laughed to death again and again.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE EVEN KNOWS WHAT WOODY MEANS,” one of the other blondes gasped as he was slowly re-asphyxiated with hilarity. But then he came back to life. “Wait,” he said. “You do know what it means, don’t you?”

“Let’s watch Indiana Jones,” I said, popping the ancient tape into the more-ancient minivan VHS player – saying a silent prayer, once again, that the dumb thing still worked.

Because it was KILLING ME to keep a straight face. I might have died of it. I might already be dead.

On Writing Prequels: discovery, recovery, and the art of knowing.

This summer, I was given a challenge: write a prequel story to my new novel in three parts, to be run on three different blogs, one week apart from one another. This challenge I blithely accepted, asking myself what could possibly be difficult about this?

Nothing, I thought.

Everything, I discovered.

So I started writing somewhere around eight stories, all of which were utterly, utterly terrible. After living with these characters for so long, after knowing the timbre of their voices and the exact shape of their eyes, and the touch of their hands as they slid into mine and held on tight – I felt like I couldn’t find them when I sat down at the page. I felt like I was standing in the middle of an enormous cavern – damp, cold, and completely dark. I called their names – Ned! Aine! Sister Witch! Ott! Bandit King! Madame Thuane! Even that ridiculous Brin! – and nothing called back. Only the echoing sound of my own voice, over and over and over.

And I wondered: How do fanfiction writers do it? Seriously how do they? Because that is what I was writing. I wrote fanfiction to my own durn story. And it was hard. Writing a novel is ever so much the process of discovery – we find each character fully fleshed and formed and we just write down what we see. We meet them; we get to know them; we love them like family. But writing a tie-in story was much more the process of recovery. I had to take what I knew of these characters, make assumptions, ask questions, and dig. It was like reconstructing the personality of a recently-deceased grandmother, based on some newly-discovered letters.

Actually, that’s exactly what it was like.

Anyway, eventually I figured out which story was going to work out of my pages and pages of fits and starts, and I found my way through. And I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually. And I got to meet new characters. Interesting characters. And I got to look at the world that I lived in from a completely new direction – like discovering cool neighborhoods in a city where you used to live that you had no idea were there at all. And I was able to learn things about my characters that I did not know before. And that is the best part of my job: digging, sorting, discovering, making connections, collecting artifacts, finding new ways of knowing. I love it, really.

The nice folks at Bookshelves of Doom, Jessabella Reads and My Friends are Fiction were generous enough to host the three sections of my story. I have compiled all three sections into one page and put it up on my website: here. I hope you enjoy it.

And Now We Are Ten.

"Awww, Mom!"

“Awww, Mom!”

Ten fingers and ten toes.

Ten rules broken before breakfast.

Ten new gray hairs on your mother’s head.

Ten reasons why the sky is up and the ground is down.

Ten ways to avoid homework.

Ten routes to climb to the roof.

Ten legos in my running shoes.

Ten handprints on the hallway walls.

Ten baseball craters on the minivan roof.

Ten reasons why we should snuggle this second.

Ten games to play in front of the fire.

Ten tricks on a fast-moving bicycle.

Ten heart-attacks (mine, of course.)

Ten kinds of pie.

Ten trips to emergency rooms.

Ten jokes in less than a minute.

Ten stars in a love-struck eye.

Ten new wrinkles on my brow.

Ten thousand sleepless nights.

Ten million stories in my head.

Ten ways to say I love you. (And ten times ten times ten times ten times ten.)

Happy birthday to my son, a Most Marvelous Boy. I love you ever so much more than Ten.

Saturday! At Wild Rumpus!

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YOU GUYS! Tomorrow, September 27, I will be reading at Wild Rumpus Bookstore – one of my favorite places on earth. I’ll read from the book, answer your questions, and eat cookies. I had this mad scheme to make cookies in the shapes of wolves, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find any wolf shaped cookie cutters. So. Chocolate chip cookies instead. And perhaps we will discuss the nature of pie. Or Pi.

In any case, I hope you can come! 1:00. There will be chickens! And cats! And ferrets! And birds! And books! Hooray!

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On Slowing Down

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A lot of people have contacted me recently, offering hesitant inquiries regarding the health of my dog, Harper. The hesitation is understandable. She is, after all, very, very old. And every day she gets older.

The good news is that she is still very much alive, and still enjoying herself on most days. She has been in our family now since 1998, when she came to us, filthy and scraggly and thin and sick, from the street. At the time, the vet guessed that she was somewhere between 3 and 5. Which means she is now . . . old. Really old. Like, I’d have to do math to figure it out.

She can’t move as quickly as she used to, and can’t see as far as she used to, and sometimes she gets anxious and nervous because the world doesn’t feel the same – and that can be scary. We had a pretty nasty scare with her this summer. Part of inviting a former street-dog into your home and family, is that some of that street-dog-scrappiness still remains. She is, was, and will be, super gnarly. And I love that about her. This summer – on July the first, to be exact – Harper got it into her head to self-surgery a small tumor that had been on her bottom for quite some time. The doctor theorizes that perhaps it had gotten a small cut on the edge, allowing for bugs to get in (I know. Gross. And you didn’t even have to see it), but in any case, it got uncomfortable, so she removed it.

With her teeth.

And she nearly bled to death.

This all happened right before my darling husband and I – after fifteen years of wedded bliss – decided to take our honeymoon at long last. Which was difficult to do with a beloved dog on death’s doorstep. The next few weeks were expensive and exhausting (and did I mention expensive? good lord, I shall be paying those vet bills forever), but Harper, being Harper, despite the blood loss and the shock, despite the infection and the maggots and the open wound – well? She rallied. She healed. You can take the dog out of the Street, but you can’t take the Street out of the dog. And now she’s doing great.

However.

There is no doubt that she is slowing down. It takes a long time for her to go from standing up to lying down and back again. She sleeps more than she used to. While she still finds ways to sneak out of the fence, her solo excursions are far from wide-ranging – she goes down the block and comes back, collapsing in a heap on the front stoop until someone notices her. She likes to lay on my feet, reminding herself that I am still here. She eats more slowly and drinks more frequently. Her walks are slow and thoughtful and plodding.

And there is something to this notion of slowing down. Because it’s not just Harper slowing down. I have to slow down with her. And she is teaching me how to do it.

There, I have learned, an incredible beauty in moving slow. We can know the Infinite in stillness, in quiet, in standing still.

This summer, we took the kids and the dog and the minivan and the tent to Madeline Island in Lake Superior. And it was wonderful. We slept under the stars and swam in the big Lake and jumped off cliffs into the waves and hiked through the forest. Now, Harper loves hikes. Always has. This particular hike was four miles, and while she kept up pretty well for the first three, she slowed WAY down in the last.

The kids and my husband kept their regular paces, and quickly disappeared into the green, and Harper and I were alone. She didn’t complain, and she didn’t seem to be in any distress. She was simply walking very, very, very slowly. And so was I.

There is a meditative quality to walking very slowly through the forest. You are aware in the minute changes in the texture of the ground from footfall to footfall. You watch the dappled light wobble and wave each time the wind blows. You unpack the language of birds. And bugs. You listen to the rhythm of the waves hitting the cliffs – swell, crash, bubble, swirl, swell, crash, bubble, swirl. You listen to the creaking wood and the hum of insects. You notice that each tree produces a particular sound. You notice that moss squeaks when you walk on it. You notice that there are infinite shades of green and infinite shades of brown and infinite shades of blue. The water seems boundless – but it is not. This life feels boundless – but it is not. Each step my dog takes is one of a finite number of steps. As are mine. And yours. You notice the strawberries hiding under green leaves and the gathering of blueberries across the peat bogs and the deep shine of the raven’s wing – the one who shouts at you when you come too near to his tree. Harper would pause from time to time, looking expectantly at me for a treat. She always deserved it.

By the time we got back, the kids had already gone with their dad to the water, and Harper and I were left alone. I could have gone swimming, I suppose, but instead I laid down on her blanket and she put her head on my belly. She slept while I stared at the sky. The weight of her – hot and firm and heavy – seemed so stable to me, so sure. But that was an illusion, too. One day she will be gone. And there will be nothing left – nothing but memories.

I walk with my dog every day. We don’t go very far, and we don’t go very fast. Usually, we just go into the fields behind my house. We look for Great Blue Herons – or I do anyway. She pretends to look for rabbits. We slowly make our way to the old cottonwood tree by the creek. She sniffs the tall grasses. She sniffs another dog’s poo. She is startled when the red winged black birds fly too close (they always fly too close). I notice the sponginess of the ground and the sound of the traffic. I notice the smell of the creek. I notice the conversations of the bikers going by on the paved trail on the other side. I notice the gurgle of the water as it slowly makes its way to the sea.

We spend so much time rushing. We spend so much time trying to fit every blessed thing into the day. We spend so much time worrying – about the mortgage, about how are kids are doing, about our careers, about why I can’t fit into those jeans, about the company that’s coming in an hour, about how to get the kids to their nine million activities, about the bank account, about the leaky faucet, about the lists that our books are and are not on, about numbers and deficits and the ever changing goal-posts indicating our success as a human being. We spend so much time trying to outrun failure.

Today, I went for a longish run – eight miles initially, but at mile seven, I simply could not go on. My asthma was kicking up, and I couldn’t breathe. So I stopped and watched the creek. The leaves are just starting to change. The greens have paled so they may give way to scarlet or tangerine or gold. Their edges are browning like bread. And so I walked. Very, very slowly. I walked the way Harper walks. I breathed through my nose – mud, dust, leaf mold, algae, blossoms emitting their last breath of sweetness before collapsing to the ground. The world smelled green and gold and delicious. Autumn offers itself to us like a feast, and we gorge ourselves mightly, before the world is shoved unceremoniously into the freezer. I listened to the sound of my feet. I listened to my breath as it unkinked itself – wheeze to whine to rattle to sigh to quiet breathing. I missed my dog. She was waiting for me. Sleeping again. My little dreamer, curled up in my office. Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

My dog is doing well, all things considered. We love her every day. We will hang onto her until we can’t. That is the way of things.

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Today. In the carpool.

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This morning, the boys in the backseat of the minivan turned their conversational prowess to the subject of rats.

“I heard,” said the redhaired boy with an air of both authority and gravitas, “that if they are hungry enough, they will eat your face.” He let that sink in. “Your face,” he added, for emphasis.

“I heard,” my son said, “that they ate everyone on a pirate ship. Like a swarm of rats. Are there swarms of rats? I don’t know what you call a lot of rats. But they ate everyone. Pirates. Real pirates. And then they swam. ACROSS! The OCEAN! And found another pirate ship. And they ate them too. Real pirates. And I read that in a book. So it’s true.”

“Not everything in books is true,” I piped in. I don’t think they heard me.

“I heard,” said one of the blondes, “that a bunch of rats? One time? Swam all the way? To Antarctica? And they ate a penguin. Or maybe it was a penguin. Maybe it was a leopard seal. Are there leopard seals in Antarctica?”

“They couldn’t eat a leopard seal,” my son Leo said. “That is insane. Besides. Leopard seals have leo in them. So. Maybe it was a killer whale. Could rats eat a killer whale?”

“They’re called orcas,” the redhaired boy said.

Your called orcas,” said one of the blondes.

Your mom is called orcas,” said – oh god. One of them. I couldn’t tell which. In any case, I decided it was time to intervene.

“Rats are gross,” I pronounced. Because it is true.

“Well . . . ” Leo equivocated.

“There is no well. Rats are gross. They sleep on their poop and lounge in their pee. Their teeth are yellow and their feet look like aliens and their tails are too gross to be allowed. They are sneaky and evil and would eat us all if they felt like it, but they don’t have to feel like it because most of the time we are just garbage cans with legs and they get enough food from our stupid trash. Also? They eat trash. Gross.”

I might have strong feelings about rats. They may or may not haunt my dreams.

“They’re not, like, the grossest,” one of the blondes – a boy named Ozzy – said.

“Oh yes they are,” I said. there is nothing grosser.

“Well,” Oz said. “I am way grosser than rats.”

“My darling boy,” I said. “You are not anywhere near as gross as a single rat, much less a nest of rats. You are not even in the same league.”

“That sounds like a challenge,” said Oz.

I pulled the car in front of the school and the kids started tumbling out of the minivan.

“It isn’t a challenge, dear. It’s just a fact. When it comes to rats -“

“Well,” he said as he hopped out of the car. He turned to me and bowed with a flourish. “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!”

“No. It’s just like -“

And the mob of miscreants from the barnhill minivan all started rubbing their hands and cackling with glee.

And I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to their mothers in advance. I have no idea what’s in store, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be gross. Possibly grosser than rats.

 

I have been incredibly delinquent in blogging lately, and it’s silly of me, because THINGS HAVE BEEN HAPPENING! Good Things! Exciting Things! And I have much to say in the very near future. And I need to be blogging more regularly, because the fact is, it’s super fun.

I hope all of you have been well, and that your projects are going swimmingly and your families are healthy and your work is fulfilling and you are all on tracks for winning Nobel Prizes in Being Awesome. Smooches to all!

 

KB

Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess)

Well, it’s finally happened: my blog has been memed. (Can meme be a verb? And if so, is it transitive or intransitive? And is it irregular?)

Anyway. I have been tagged by the prodigiously esteemable Mr. William Alexander, author of Fine Fictions and Sundry Stories, and an all-around Fine Fellow. You can read about his process here. You can also browse his books – the National Book Award winning GOBLIN SECRETS , for example.

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If you haven’t read it, I insist you do so instantly. It is a wondrous strange little beauty, filled with intricate machines, beautiful baubles bent on your destruction, bravery, loyalty and dread. I just loved it. He writes short stories as well, and I’m always happy to encounter a new one. His new book is this:

 

17571252Middle grade science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time? Great Scott. Sign me up.

And since this is a meme, which means that I must pass it on like a game of Hot Potato, I do hereby name Mr. Steve Brezenoff, a writer whose books are both incisive and compassionate, who balances the highbrow and the lowbrow with deft skill and ease, and who manages to force us to remember the ache and confusion and agony of the teen experience while reminding us of the joy as well. His newest book is Guy in Real Life, and I insist that you read it at once.

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Anyway. The meme. I hope it makes sense. If not, don’t worry about it. I rarely make much sense.

Question the First:

What Are You Working on Right Now?

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Several things. My editor has a copy of my new book, The Boy Who Loved Birds, on her desk right now, and I am in a place of restless waiting for notes. This is a common phenomenon for writers: restless waiting. It is, I’ve been told, particularly unattractive. Oh well. I’m also finishing up a new book called The Sugar House - a Hansel and Gretel retelling set in Minneapolis. I very much enjoyed writing it. And then I’ll write the next book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon – which has a foundling child, a mad woman in a tower, a five-hundred-year-old witch named Xan, a poetry-quoting swamp monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon with delusions of grandeur (his mother, hoping to boost his self-esteem, convinced him that he was actually a Simply Enormous Dragon trapped in a land of giants). I am rather excited about it.

Question The Second:

Why Do You Write What You Write?

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You know, my husband asks me this all the time. Or more specifically: why don’t you write best selling series fiction that makes millions so we can retire and then you can hire recent graduates to crank out your novels on your behalf like James Patterson? And, to be fair, that is an excellent question. Alas, I can only write what interests me. I write strange fictions because I am interested in strange things. I endeavor to write beautifully because I delight in beautiful things. I write creepy stories because I enjoy the inward shiver of the macabre and the unsettling tale. I write stories about childhood because childhood interests me – how we become, how we find our feet, how we build ourselves into the people we will be, how we shape the world around us. I write what I write to amuse myself. I write what I write to heal myself. I write what I write as messages in a bottle to the lonely, hurting child that I used to be. I write for my kids. And my future grandkids. And the kids in the neighborhood. I write to share the oddness inside me with other people.

Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

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Question The Third:

How Does Your Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

Oh good lord. I have no idea. Honestly, the notion of genre in general makes me itchy. I don’t like putting firm categories on art, and feel frustrated with the increasing balkanization of literature. Since stories, once absorbed into the Self become part of our internal landscape and our external mapping – since they, once read, become seamlessly integrated in the mind of the reader (and I mean capital-M Mind) they are forever interacting and communicating with every other story that the reader has read. Which means that A Wrinkle in Time is in a lifelong conversation in my brain with Little Dorrit. And The Odyssey. And Anne of Green Gables. And The Sandman. If it were up to me, all fiction would simply be fiction, and that would be that.

I think I’ve digressed.

Anyway, how does my book differ from – not other books of its supposed genre but any book at all? Simple. I wrote mine. Someone else wrote theirs. When we sit down to work, we bring the particularities and peculiarities of our specific life experience. My family. My fears. My hopes. My nightmares. My faith. My loss of faith. My travels. My mental health. My obstacles. My reading life. My bare feet on the green grass and my fingertips in the warm mud and my lungs taking in the air around me and my eyes widening at each new blessed wonder. My books are different because I am different. You see?

 

Question the Fourth:

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

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Not very well, I’m afraid. I am a chronic destroyer of my own work. My newest book, The Witch’s Boy, was fully erased and given up on, I’d say eight times. I slash and I burn, and my soul burns with it. So this is how it works:

1. I get a notion of a story – sometimes it is a little knot of text that occurs to me while I’m running. Sometimes it is a very clear idea for a character. Sometimes it is a very particular moment. In any case I will will not start the story. I will just start thinking about the story. For a long time. (To put this in perspective, The Girl Who Drank The Moon - the story I’ll be starting this summer – I have been thinking about for about two years. The book I write after that – Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht - I’ve been thinking about for three years.)

2. I get a box. I’ll put scraps into the box from time to time – little note cards, ripped out pieces of paper, articles, pictures, bits of string that I can’t remember what I was thinking of putting it in there, but there it stays. Baubles. Notions. Knick-knacks. Whatever. Things accumulate in the box.

3. I start to write. Longhand. I am a big believer in writing longhand. The problem with this is that I am not very organized and am prone to losing said notebooks. For The Sugar House, I have lost my notebook at the playground, at my kid’s school, at a coffee shop, at the gas station and in a public restroom. Fortunately, each time I’ve lost it, I’ve found it again. So far. But the future is wide and wild and scary and anything can happen.

4. I give up on the longhand. Eventually, the story starts moving in two directions at once, and I need to fix the beginning in order to re-do the end. Or I am just moving too quickly to be able to keep up. So far, I’ve only been able to maintain my longhand-only insistence for about 3/4 of a draft. When I start to move to the computer, each section goes into depth and breadth. So fifty pages in the notebook often translates to ninety pages on the computer. Each sentence is a jumping-off point.

5. I erase everything. I give up. I wonder why I ever started writing in the first place. I say mean things to myself.

6. I confess my erasing to my writing group who tell me to knock it off already. I get back to work.

7. Steps five and six repeat a bunch of times.

8. I read the book out loud. I realize it’s not as bad as I thought. I read loudly, dramatically, and with gusto. My neighbors think I’m nuts. They are not wrong. I edit as I read. I repeat this process about ten times.

9. I send it out. And I collapse:

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10. And the process starts over.

 

 

 

Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.

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Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.

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“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

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The Mountain Dew Guy, the Snickers Guy, the Hot Cheetos Guy, the Taquis Guy

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My daughter’s school, like many others, has banned the sale of junk food on the premises. This astonishes me, given that she goes to the same high school that I went to, and I can’t imagine my high school career without the rush to the pop machine after third hour in hopes that you might be able to drop your quarters in and snag a soda AND eat your lunch in the same twenty minute time-squeeze they called a lunch period.  I can’t imagine a South High experience without those gooey chocolate chip cookies that they were always selling four for a dollar, which tasted exquisite for the first bite or two, followed by a mournful compulsion, followed by nauseous regret.

I mean really, how can one experience the true euphoria of post-track-practice -high without the requisite bag of Funions or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Is it even possible? Kids today live lives of deprivation and woe, and I am sorry for it.

The pop machines were the first to go. The candy machines followed shortly after. And high school, for a very little while, became a very sad place.

Today, I was Target with my fourteen year old, shopping for god knows what.

“Mom,” she said. “Mom. Mom. Mom.”

“What, what, what,” I said, as I was trying to catalogue the entire contents of my fridge and pantry in my head, and plan for the meals for the next few days, and curse myself for not thinking ahead and writing out a damn list.

“Mom. Mountain Dew. It’s on sale. LET’S BUY SOME.”

I stopped in my tracks. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You’ve never had Mountain Dew in your entire life.”

“Shows what you know,” she said. “I have it every day.”

“How?” I asked.

“The Mountain Dew Guy.”

“I hate that kid.”

“HE’S THE BEST.” She nearly shouts this. In the middle of Target. People turn and stare and wonder if my kid is crazy. Yes, I want to assure them. Very much so.

The thing is, I already knew about the Mountain Dew Guy. Ella’s spoken of him frequently. With the elimination of the vending machines in an effort to make our kids more healthy and whatever, an underground economy quickly sprung up in the halls of South High, and I’m guessing other high schools as well. A cottage industry of sorts. Or a backpack industry.

This is how it works: There are kids at school with suspiciously overstuffed backpacks. They sit down in the lunch room – or anywhere really – with the backpack sitting next to them, unzipped, the merchandise visible, but easily hidden from the adult gaze by the quick application of a math book or whatever. The independent vendors have their particular specialties. There’s the kid who sells Mountain Dew (“You want to get that right away in the morning, because it’s not cold anymore by third period,” Ella explained.). There’s the kid who sells Bugles. There’s the kid who sells Snickers. There’s the kid who sells Skittles. There’s the kid who sells protein bars. There’s the kid who sells Coca-cola. There’s the kid who sells Gatorade. Each one has a single item specialty, though there are a few who cycle through different products depending on the day.

Kids sidle up. They already know the price. Everything is one dollar. No one decided this, of course, but it is the easiest denomination to scrounge for the high school consumer. “Anyone can find a dollar,” Ella explained. “And sometimes we pool our coins together and share the Mountain Dew.” Which explains why her entire lunch table all succumbed to Strep Throat in the exact same week.

“Mountain Dew is really bad for you,” I told her. “You really shouldn’t drink it.”

“I don’t do anything else bad for me,” she countered.

“This is true,” I said, “but I’d rather you choose something good. Like French chocolate. How about you get hooked on that?”

“Is it a dollar?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Well then.”

She picked up the twenty-four pack of Mountain Dew and gave me the giganticest smile in the world – all braces and pink cheeks and hope. “Please?” she said.

“Not in a million years.”

“You’re not as nice as the Mountain Dew Guy, Mom,” Ella said, walking dejectedly behind me, appearing to all who noticed as the saddest fourteen year old in all the land. “You are not as nice at all.”

“I know, buddy,” I said.

And so afterwards I took her out for lattes. Which are somehow better for her, though I haven’t yet figured out how. Reasons, I expect. They are better because of reasons.

Regarding BEA, the Kids Author Carnival and other NYC shenanigany stuff.

This weekend, I had a whirlwind, didn’t-see-90%-of-the-people-I-hoped-too-but-still-saw-SO-MANY-GOOD-FOLKS, magnificent visit to good old New York City in order to participate in Book Expo America, or BEA for those who know the publishy-lingo. I went because my book had been chosen as a Middle Grade Buzz title, which was a huge and astonishing honor. My publisher, then, was kind enough to introduce me to lots of librarians and book sellers, and to make a goodly stack of the ARCS of THE WITCH’S BOY available for those who wished to read it before the book came out.

A lot of people wanted it, apparently, because within the hour, the goodly stack was a memory of a goodly stack and all the books were gone. This was surprising to me.

Anyway, some day soon I am going to write a love poem to my publisher, Algonquin, who is filled with wondrous, magical and fiercely intelligent people that I absolutely adored meeting and talking to and getting to know. Meeting the whole team was nothing short of a joy. Plus they made this cool poster for the books – both for kids and adults – that are coming out soon. See?

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Anyway, I am still processing much of the many wondrous conversations I had over the course of the long weekend, and I am still rather jumbled up, I’m afraid. Instead, I will have to provide a List of Highlights. Ahem:

 

1. Meeting my beloved editor, Elise Howard, for the first time.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

Seriously, you guys. She is amazing. I have been telling people for the last year and a half how much I have treasured my experience at Algonquin, how my editor’s insight and intelligence and her knack of seeing not only the bones of the story, but its sinews and connective tissues – the chambers of the heart, the connections in the brain, the ineffable soul (all of it; she sees all of it) – have pushed me into a space in my writing, and a level of artistry,  that I never would have reached on my own.  And I am forever grateful. And I absolutely LOVED meeting her and hanging out and picking her brain and listening to how she works and even chatting about random things – kids, other books, goofy goings-on in NYC. The whole bit. It was most grand.

2. I lost my phone. Three times. And found my phone. Three times. Which was a blessing.

3. Bringing my husband along. I have never done this, actually. And, as it turns out, it was the first time we were away from our kids since 2003. For those of you doing the math at home, that was . . . some years ago. In any case, there is nothing like getting organized for a panel – a Buzz Panel, no less – and seeing your favorite friend in the audience.

speaking of . . .

4. THE BUZZ PANEL! It was awesome!

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Despite various snafus regarding microphones (which is why I am standing at that podium instead of facing the people I was actually talking to) we actually had a great conversation. I enjoyed the heck out of all of those people (and Rob and Kat, your books are currently being read to pieces by my kids. So.)

5. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Also awesome! Thirty-seven kidlit authors and an army of bloggers and great crowds of book-loving kids! And how great was it to hang out with hordes of kids swarming the halls of the Jefferson Market Library (which, by the way, looks like Hogwarts), with a bunch of my kid-writer buds that I’ve known for months or years online, but only just got to meet in real life. This whole thing was organized by Claire LeGrand – who is just as amazing in person as she is on the page – and it was a huge success. I had no less than twenty parents come up to me and say that this MUST happen next year. And I agree.

6. Catching up with my beloved Genevieve Valentine, whose new novel, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB (a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” story in 1920’s Manhattan) (I KNOW! I think you should read it too!) releases tomorrow.

7. LIBRARIANS! SO MANY LIBRARIANS! I met children’s librarians and teen librarians and regional librarians and school librarians and legal librarians and scholarly librarians and possibly-nefarious librarians.

(“But,” my son asked. “Were any of them ninja librarians. Or secret-super-hero librarians?” “Yes, my darling, ” I told him. “They all were.”)

8. The food! The best part of  any NYC visit is the food. And yes. I am still full.

9. The books! I have three tote bags full of books that I managed to haul all the way back home. My arms hurt. And my eyes are tired because I stayed up too late reading. There are worse problems to have.

10. Standing for an hour chatting with people at BEA, signing book after book after book until my hand started to shake, and meeting people that I have had lovely and heart-felt exchanges on Twitter, and seeing their beautiful faces and hearing their beautiful voices, and realizing that social media – despite its capacity for silliness and cruelty and infantilized blatherings posing as profound – really does bring us together. It truly, truly does. To those of you who I met for the first time, but have known for far longer than that, I’d like to say this: thank you. Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for lending me your time and your spirit. Thank you for existing in the world. Thank you for your continued conversation with me about books and culture and race and gender and childhood and teenhood and growing up. About the world and everything in it. About the universe we know and the universe beyond. Thank you so much.

Okay. Now to get back to writing. Because this book isn’t gonna write itself.

 

“Where do your characters come from?”

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I’m sure I am not the only writer that gets this question. Usually it’s about halfway through the question and answer period after a reading, or during a school visit. The hand goes up. I know they’re going to ask it before they do. I brace myself.

“Where do your characters come from,” they ask. And I wince.

Because I seriously have no idea how to answer this question. At least not in a way that makes me sound sane.

But it shouldn’t sound insane. Not really. This is something that we do – all of us, all the time. We create characterizations out of nothing. We see people walking down the street and we make thousands upon thousands of assumptions about them, without even realizing that we are doing so. Our brains are built for narrative. We think in narrative, understand in narrative, process memories in narrative. It is the structure in which we organize information and construct truth. We may be walking down the sidewalk and see a broken bottle in the grass, and then go a little bit farther and see a cast-off shoe, and then go a little bit farther and see a bare spot in the boulevard, or some trampled flowers, maybe, and we start to connect the dots. We start writing a story. We can’t help it.  It’s our brains, you see?

Similarly, if I sit down on the bus, and the man who sits down next to me has a very long beard and very callused fingertips and hand-patched jeans and a tattoo that says “meat is murder” with a drawing of a pig wearing a crown of thorns (this happened to me once; I stole the tattoo and put it in one of my books)? Well. I start inventing all kinds of stuff. It’s a long bus ride. What else am I going to do. And by the time the bus ride is over, I already know that a woman named Elsie broke his heart and that he plays his guitar every night, trying to find the memory of her voice in the harmonics between the strings, and that his grandmother always called him by a name that was not his own and never explained why and that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in six years, even though she leaves a message on his phone every single day that says the exact same thing, “I’m just thinking about you and I love you. Call when you have a sec.”

He hasn’t told me any of these things, of course. And the character in my head isn’t him. Of course it isn’t. It’s just someone like him. It was my brain connecting the dots. It was my brain doing the work it is built for, which is to say, stories.

“Where do your characters come from?” they ask and I always want to shoot back, “Where does anyone come from? Your teacher, your friend, the guy who opens your drains, the meat inspector with the limp, the check-out clerk at the gas station with a wad of gum the size of a golf ball. Where do any of them come from?” And how can we separate what we know about the people we meet with what we invent? I don’t think we can. I think the creation of knowledge requires imagination. And that the world that we live in is largely imaginary. We invent the world around us and the people in it, again and again. We weave the known and the unknown into an experience that is uniquely ours. And we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

Instead I just say that I go fishing. I cast my nets into the sea of the mind and pull in a character. I don’t do this at all, but it is a quick and easy way of answering the question.

I get asked a lot which character is me. “Are you Jack?” they ask. “Are you Wendy or Violet or Cassian? Are you Ned or Aine or the horrible King Ott? Are your Sister Witch or Uncle Clive or Aunt Mabel? Which one are you exactly?”

The answer, of course, is none of them. And all of them. But mostly none. These characters have elements in them with which I identify, but they are not me. They are themselves. I met them one day and I got to know them, and I lived with them for a while. And I loved them. Each blessed one. They were like those roommates that you have in the crazy living situations that you get into those post-college ennui years when your life hasn’t quite found its feet. Those people that you stay up with until the sun rises talking about books or politics or music or whatever. Love. Loss. Love again. And you love them. Profoundly. And then their lives take a turn, or your life takes a turn, and they slip into the wide world and do not look back.

All you have then is a story.

The fact is, the world is filled with deeply interesting and broken and brave people. I have never turned anyone I’ve met into a character in my book. But I have honed in on the strange gifts of Self that people offer to me. I have kept little bits with me from my conversations and connections that never go away. For example: Once, when I was in my early twenties, I worked at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. It was a great job for an insomniac because I had to be there at quarter to five in the morning, when I was already up and fussing, and it gave me something else to fuss about. And I met a lot of interesting people in that job. For example:

The city inspector who would get really mad when people would ask if that little child was his granddaughter. He was sixty. His wife was twenty five. Every time someone said “granddaughter” his face would go red and his lips would suck in and he would hit the nearest table with his fist.

The lady who insisted that we call her “Mrs. Q” – I never learned her actual name. She was incredibly old – a body diminished to sticks and feathers and rice-paper skin. She had deep folds above her copper-colored eyes. She came in every day for a decaf latte that she would never finish. And every day, she would take out a yellowed sketch book. She never drew. She just looked at the pictures. I never knew why.

The guy who sold his zine (remember zines?) every Saturday from one of the back tables. No one bought them, so he started handing them out for free. He had been born a girl, and his wife had stayed with him loved him through his transition. I had never met a transgendered person before, though I know many now. I remember reading his zine – and he was very frank in his discussion of the trans experience, as well as his call for trans acceptance and the rights of all individuals across the gender spectrum – with a hunger for understanding. It’s not every day that someone gives you an open door to their experience, you know? He loved old band tee-shirts and he had very small feet, but large hands. He also had begun to lose his hair – an effect of hormones, he told me. “You don’t know before you start all this if you’re the guy who’s gonna go bald,” he said sadly, running his hand through his thinning hair. I told him it made him look distinguished. And I meant it.

And Horst. Oh, Horst! I’m pretty sure he was in the country illegally. He had been a student at the University of Oregon, but that didn’t work out, so he moved north to Portland. He always paid in cash, and said he avoided bars because he “didn’t believe in photo identification”. Horst was in his late twenties – blond, tall and narrowly built. He had high cheekbones and profoundly blue eyes. He asked me out every single day. Sometimes more than once a day. He knew I had a boyfriend (though I never said boyfriend. I said partner, because we were modern and forward in our thinking. And then people played the pronoun game, trying to pin me down as to which kind of partner I had exactly.). Horst was always cheerful about his lack of chances. “Make sure to tell me the second you’re single,” he’d say, giving a gentlemanly bow. The last time I saw him, it was December, 1998. I was twenty-five and recently pregnant, though I didn’t know it yet. Horst shows up in a long wool coat, covered, I remember, with tiny drops of rain, each shining like a jewel. He removed his hat. He had a purple, handmade scarf wound many times around his neck, and his face was so pale, as though he was made out of milk. He bowed again.

“I must bid you farewell, dear lady,” he said. He was always talking like that.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I am taking my Volkswagon and traveling the width and breadth of you nation. By this time next year, I will be taking up residence in the desert, where I will prepare for Y-2k.”

There were a lot of these in Oregon at the time. Doomsdayers. Survivalists. My partner-soon-husband had just gotten a job with the city helping them with Y-2k readiness. People thought their microwaves would explode and their computers would melt, and that there would be utter anarchy.

“Why do you need to be in the desert to prepare for Y-2k?” I asked.

“You see, dearest,” he said, “we are entering a new phase of the human experiment. Currency as we know it will cease to exist. And good riddance. Numbers as we understand them will also cease to have meaning. Good riddance to that as well, I say. We are entering a time that we have been destined to enter since we first climbed out of the trees and learned to work together. Kindness will be our currency. Love will be our numbers. And an age of blessed one-ness will descend upon us all like sunshine.”

“Really?” I said.

“Most definitely,” he said.

“And the desert . . .”

“Oh,” he said with a casual wave. “I just like it.”

And then he bought a cup of chamomile tea. He paid for it in cash. And he foisted a fifty dollar bill in my hand as a tip. “Make sure you spend it this year, though,” he said. “It will just be paper soon.”

 

I have never put Horst in a story. But I think about him all the time. And I like to think that he is in the desert somewhere, staying in an old trailer, or a small cottage atop a small rise so he has an unobstructed view. And I like to think that he still has that scarf because the desert gets cold at night. And I like to think that he is paying for things in kindness. Because he is kind. And why not? And I like to think that he is meeting people and talking to people and that they are creating and storing stories of their own. That Horst exists in the narratives of people all over the country. And that he is everywhere. Perhaps in a story that you are writing, right now.

 

 

“My god, Bones. What have I done?”

 

I woke up this morning and discovered there was no tea.

And then I remembered that there wasn’t any tea by ten o’clock yesterday morning and I had intended to go to the store. And I forgot to do it. And not I am standing in the kitchen and my world is like this:

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I had a thing I wanted to blog about, but I can’t remember what it was because I don’t have any tea and oh god, oh god, oh god.

If any of you are able to beam me some caffeine, I would appreciate it.

Love forever,

Kelly Barnhill