Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers

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Oh, Ada! Poetical Scientist, Metaphysical Analyst and genius of Mathematical Arts. Mother of programmers. Midwife of computers everywhere. Daughter of a libertine poet and a self-centered socialite/ strict moralist (depending on the day), little Ada proved once and for all that a person can grow and thrive and wonder and create glittering futures despite the inconvenience of sub-standard parents.

After Lord Byron abandoned his family, and Annabella Millbanke abandoned little Ada into the arms of her doting grandmother and a squadron of tutors, Ada grew up curious and intellectually ravenous. Her mother, seeing the ravages of poetry (and laudanum) on her ex-husband, decreed that Ada’s mind would be unpoisoned by romantic excess, and would, instead, be guided by mathematics and science, and filled the halls of the old family home with the best tutors that money could buy.

When she was twelve years old, she decided that she would learn how to fly. She constructed wings out of silk and paper and wire and feathers. She composed a book called Flyology, documenting her theories of human flight, her study of birds, her analysis of the tools she’d need to make a journey across the country by the most direct of routes.

When she was seventeen years old, she fell in love with her tutor, and attempted an elopement. This was thwarted by a cadre of her mother’s friends and relatives – women she referred to as “The Furies”.

When she was eighteen, she made her debut and dazzled society with her beauty, intellect and charm.

When she was twenty, she was married – though not without scandal. She enjoyed a relaxed enjoyment of her own sexuality, and had several lovers outside of her marriage, much to the shock of people around her. Their shock didn’t seemed to bother her much, and did nothing to dissuade her.

She loved the integration of mathematics with the imagination, and often saw science and poetry as being inextricably linked. She felt that differential calculus was, in its foundation, poetical in nature. She wrote:

I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.

She loved the world, both the seen and the unseen, and valued imagination and intuition as highly as she valued computation and analysis.

She loved to gamble – the challenge, the reward, the complex analytical and mathematical computations necessary to do well. She attempted to create a mathematical model that would allow her to reduce her risk in placing extremely large bets. Unfortunately, the model was not successful, and a shame-faced Ada was forced to admit to her husband the vast fortune that she had just lost.

When she was twenty-nine, thanks to her new interest in electricity, magnetism and phrenology, she attempted to create a mathematical model for the working of the emotional mind – “a calculous for the nervous system.”

In 1833, she met Charles Babbage and saw his Difference Engine – the world’s first automatic calculator, and saw his plans for the Analytical Engine – the world’s first computer.. The two became instant friends, and were both highly enamored of the other’s intellectual prowess. They spent hours and hours on long walks discussing mathematics, and even longer hours writing letters back and forth, discussing theory and ideas. In a letter, Mr. Babbage wrote of her:

“Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans—every thing in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”

Though the Analytical Engine was years away from production, Ada was deeply involved in the development of the design, and wrote extensive and sophisticated analyses of the potential applications of the invention. She wrote the programs to demonstrate what the machine could do, going beyond even Babbage’s limited ideas. Not only was she able to see the implications of the machine, she was able to postulate further modifications and advancement. She was, undeniably, the prophet of the computer age.

Happy Birthday, dear Ada. I write these words on a computer, and am sending it to a massive network of computers so it may be read on still other computers. We would not be here without you.

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Items of note:

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Today, once I usher my children off to school (by car, by train, by school bus; but none, unfortunately, by flock of birds, which is a shame, because that would be a fine, fine way to go to school), I shall be initiating my trusty old Mac Freedom and letting the internets go dark for a bit. (If you are a writer, then you probably already know about these internet-busting tools, likely you use them all the time. If you are not, then you are likely mystified by them. My darling husband, for example, has no idea why such a thing would be necessary. “Why,” he asks, “would you buy a thing to make the other thing that you bought not work according to the specs that you claimed you wanted in the store? It makes no sense.” Perhaps, my darling. But neither does making a living telling stories, and I do that now don’t I.) But before I do, I have some things to share:

  1. I have an essay running today called “Strange Birds”, over at Nerdy Book Club. If you have a moment,  I’d love to know what you think of it.
  2. The Witch’s Boy has been out for quite a bit now, but I am still getting nice reviews. Here, for example. And here, and here, and here.
  3. And it’s list season. My book has been kindly named on Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2014, as well as “best-of-the-year” lists from Kirkus and Amazon.
  4. As I have mentioned here before, I will be co-hosting The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival on February 28. And if you are a film-making-kid, or you are a teacher helping kids do this for a project, and you were worried about the looming deadline to turn in your AMAZING book trailer of a Newbery-winning book, WORRY NO MORE! The deadline has been extended to January 16! So, for those of you who can do math, that means that you have . . . well. Some days. And an entire Christmas Vacation. So, get cracking!

And that’s it. And now I must return to the stories roosting in my mind – that great squawking, preening, cooing, fluttering flock. Perhaps they will peck out my heart. Or perhaps they will fly me into the stars. Really, at this point, it could go either way.

Some Reasons Why I do This Job.

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Look. This job is hard sometimes. Or maybe all the time. The crushing self-doubt. The fear of disappointing people. The yawning mouth of ambivalence, swallowing you whole. The financial worries. The lack of stability. The deadlines. The atrocious posture (and don’t even get me started on my chewed-up nails). The ever-growing list of ways and means and rubrics by which one can fail. Or have failed. Or will have failed forever. Yes, I get to make my own hours. Yes, I get to work from my comfortable home office while keeping company with my geriatric and anxiety-prone dog. Yes, I can go hours and hours in blissful silence. Still. This job is hard. And sometimes it weighs on me.

I had a conversation with one of the kids at the Lego tournament yesterday. She’s on one of the few girls from our school involved in First LEGO League, and even though she’s not in my particular team, she always likes to keep me looped in on her comings and/or goings.

She also likes to tell me – each time we talk – that she liked Iron Hearted Violet. A lot. So of course, I love her to pieces.

Yesterday, during some down time, she asked this question: “Do you think I should be a writer when I grow up?”

And I, being as I have been lately, in a bit of a trough, self-effacacy-wise, gave her what I thought was very sagely advice: “You know, honey,” I said. “My job kind of stinks sometimes. Or most of the time. I think you should pick a better job when you grow up. Like being a CEO. Or possibly ruling the world. Or being a CEO who secretly rules the world. There are lots of options.”

She gave me a skeptical look. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “I think you are not telling very much truth right now,” she said.

“I am telling so much truth right now,” I responded. “I am the truthiest dang thing you ever saw.”

“Your job can’t always stink. There must be some good parts in it.”

“It is true that I get to drink a lot of hot cocoa,” I allowed.

“See?” She said. And she looked so smug about it that I followed with:

“BUT! Every day I look at the same bit of writing. And I think to myself this may be good and it may be terrible and I have no way of knowing either way. And the worst part is that most of the time it is terrible. Like ALMOST ALL THE TIME. And that’s necessary. You have to write the terrible stuff in order to get to the good stuff. But that means that you spend a lot of time – oh, honey! so much time! – writing really, really, really, really terrible sentences. And it weighs on a person, you know?”

She shook her head. “It’s not that terrible.”

“Oh yes,” I said. “It is.”

But she wasn’t having it. “What is in your book right now?”

“A dragon,” I said. And, in spite of myself, I smiled. “A very, very small dragon that can fit in your pocket. He is a particular breed, called Perfectly Tiny Dragons, and while they are a noble breed with a long and glorious history, this particular dragon suffers from delusions of grandeur, and thinks that he is not Perfectly Tiny at all, but is, in fact, a Simply Enormous Dragon, and is surrounded by giants. He is also a fraidy cat, and often accidentally burps fire when he eats spicy foods.”

She crossed her arms. She is a straight-A fifth grader who likes to make jokes with Latin punchlines. She also REALLY enjoys being right. “There. You see? That part is good. What else?”

And so I started telling her the story of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the book that is, right now, kicking me squarely in the behind, and being much more troublesome to pin to the page than I originally thought. Being sick for the entire month of November didn’t help, of course. But I’m so glad I had this conversation, because it made me realize something.

  1. This job is hard – of course, we already established that.
  2. Sometimes, it is easier than it should be to conflate my stress about a project with the project itself. In other words, my feelings of stress and anticipatory failure and woe-is-me-I’ll-never-get-it-right often have nothing whatsoever to do with the story itself. Or the words themselves. Or the sum of the sentences. It’s just really only how I’m feeling about me. And that’s troubling (and probably worth some more work along the way) but it is separate from the work. And that’s important to realize.
  3. Even when this job sucks (which is pretty often) it’s still pretty awesome.

And so, with this conversation in mind, I started making a list. If you are a children’s author, please feel free to add to it. If you are something else, send me a list specific to your profession.

REASONS WHY I DO THIS JOB

by Kelly Barnhill

  1. I have a desk covered in post-it notes. They say things like: “Dragon Digestive Systems: important?”, or “If a Sorrow Eater became a glutton for sorrow, would she have particularities and predilections in the type of sorrow she prefers? Would sorrow be like fine wine, with quality determined by region and soil and what have you?”, or “Research question: what kind of poisons are undetectable in tea?”
  2. I get to write stories with dragons in them. And with sasquatches in them. And swamp monsters and witches and possibly-sinister alchemists and firebirds who come to the rescue in the nick of time. I get to write about magic. Or sometimes I write about the real world and it feels like magic. Or I write about magic and it feels like the real world. I enjoy these things.
  3. I read things out loud. All the time. In the quiet of my house. And I belt it out. No other job would let me do that – except audiobook actor, but I think I would go mad inside a sound studio. This is better.
  4. Last week, I walked across my living room and dining room floor, pretending I was a six-limbed, large tailed swamp monster. I tried to make a muscle memory of how he would amble about – his slow-moving self. I don’t think there are any other jobs where this sort of activity ever feels somewhat necessary.
  5. My job allows me to have lots and lots of conversations with kids. They send me emails, or I talk to their classes and reading groups on Skype, or I visit their classrooms – sometimes I stay for a whole week! I like hanging out with kids. I find them delightful.
  6. When I talk to kids, and they know what I do – and they know that my work is for them – they assume that I like the same things that they like and they strike up all kinds of conversations with me. And they are right – I do like what they like.
  7. I truly believe – in my bones – that, in the life and development of a child, books matter. Stories matter. The conversations that we have around books and stories matter. Imagination matters. Play matters. And that they all are linked. We are in the business of building the structures of Mind that will shelter our readers now and in the future. We are in the business of making the maps to help to navigate their way. We are in the business of building the metaphors through which our readers will one day understand the world. Now, whether or not my books, in particular, matter is an open question. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. That’s not for me to say. However, I like being part of an industry that is making things that matter. I like raising my voice for other books, by other people, that matter to me, and matter to my kids, and matter to the kids that I know. For all of us working in the field of children’s literature, there is, deep in our souls, the immutable fire of the True Believer. We are all, when it comes down to it, Literacy Evangelists, doing our part to bring the miracle of reading to children everywhere. We are preachers, prophets, and literary church ladies with tote bag full of books slung over one arm, and several pans of casserole and jello salad balanced on the other. We invite all, accept all, and embrace all. “A book for you,” we cry out to the world. “A book for you, and you, and you, and you.” And we mean it, too.
  8. I don’t just write for my readers – I write for me, too. And not just this me – the forty-one-year-old lady with three kids and a nice husband and a mortgage and a crummy minivan and a favorite pair of wool socks – I write for the other me, as well. The eleven year old me. The thirteen year old me. The me that I was. I write for her too. I write for her mostly, if you must know. Because I think my stories can help her. And I think my stories would make sense for her – and would help her make sense of the world. And I like helping.
  9. Words are good. Stories are good. Books are good. Okay fine. I guess I like my job.

3, 2, 1, LEGO!

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It’s go time in Legosvile. I’ve been coaching the Magnum Mindstorms since the first week of school, and I love them all. They are all the most magnificent nerds. In the last ten minutes, the conversation has ranged from Minecraft to Greek Mythology to the problem of rusty dust on Mars to who wants to live on Mars to lame jokes with Latin punchlines.

But there is something about the competition – how it gets them to come together as a team; how it completely reframes the exerience of the last few months; how they see themselves in the context of this larger group of school kids, both challenging and encouraging each other to bring their best, best selves into the competition. Each one of them is shiny and bouyant and brilliant.

Each blessed one.

The Hard Stuff – privilege, systemic racism, state-sanctioned violence, the subversive nature of hope, and how I talk about it with my kids.

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Last week, I was talking to the boys in the Lego Robotics team that I’m coaching, and they brought up the heartbreakingly sad story of the twelve year old child in Cleveland who was shot by police. My team – all good boys, ages 10-12 – were visibly shaken up by this. Especially the twelve year olds. They wanted to know what I knew, what details that had eluded them before. They wanted to understand. I hesitated for a moment. After all, these are not my children, and I have no idea how these topics are handled in their families. I know how we, in my family, talk about issues of racism and privilege and the duty of the individual to seek justice – which is to say frankly and clearly and in ways that they can understand – but these kids are under the care of other grownups. And so I hesitated.

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And then one boy, also twelve (and he is a little thing – small arms, spindly legs, a mop of red hair exploding out of his head) said this, “Could this ever happen to me? I have toy guns. Will a police officer kill me too?”

And he looked at me. And he wanted me to tell him the truth. He needed me to tell him the truth. So I did.

“No, sweetheart,” I said. “That is not something that would happen to you. This is what white privilege means – you will never, ever in your life, have to face what that boy faced. Years of unfairness has made a situation in which some people privileged to be safe and some are not.  You didn’t ask for it, but you need to understand it. It is your privilege to be angry, and it is your duty to be angry, too. That boy died because of racism, pure and simple. And it’s up to all of us to make the world more compassionate and sensible.”

And then we built robots out of Legos.

And I felt okay answering like that, because it is how I would answer my son, had he asked it (indeed, he was standing right there, listening intently), and it is how I would hope another adult would answer him as well.

It’s important to talk about the nature of privilege in a society that offers certain privileges to certain people and denies them to others. It is particularly important to talk about these things with children. Children care – and they care a lot – about fairness. About telling the truth. They care about justice and kindness and playing by the rules. When they are exposed to information – as they doubtless are right now – that is teaching them, right now, that some people are protected by law enforcement, and some simply are not, and we do not counteract that lesson with a “Yes, but….” or a “I know that’s unfair, but this is how we change it,” or a, “Good observation; now tell me why you think that is,” we are teaching our kids something very specific: that some topics are off-limits; that when wicked people come for your neighbors, it’s best to say nothing.

In my family, I choose a different path.

I talk about privilege with my kids. Their privilege. My privilege. My husband’s privilege. The aspects that are different and the aspects that are the same.  I tell them that there the things that our culture makes easy for us are difficult for us to see. When we can understand the fact that roadblocks are set up for some and cleared away for others, we can use our collective voice and our relative freedom of movement to make things more fair for everyone.

When I talk about privilege, I also talk about what privilege is not. Privilege does not mean everything is easy and fancy-free and peeled grapes served on silver dishes and house elves that do all the washing. Privilege does not mean a lack of experience – though it does mean different experiences. Privilege does not mean racist – though certainly there are privileged people who are. Privilege is not a term of derision; it is simply a statement of fact.

And the fact is, my kids are privileged. Very much so. I mean, sure, their artisty parents sometimes struggle to pay the mortgage and we don’t have house cleaners or personal assistants or consistently working cars or whatever else rich people have in their houses and family situations. But they are white in a country that gives all kinds of free passes to white people, and they are the kids of an intact family unit in a country where that kind of thing matters more than it should, and they are the children of college educated parents who themselves are the children of college educated parents. And that makes a HUGE difference.

I talk about privilege not so that they have to apologize for their own experience – no one does. But rather, because I want to enlarge their understanding of the world around them so that they may better participate and know and love the whole human family. Privilege separates us. It insulates us from the pain of knowledge. It hides important facts, and alters our ability to analyze and understand even the most basic situations around us. It numbs us to the transformative power of empathy. And it prevents us from entering into true relationship with the larger human family.

(And, of course the Catholic in me sees another thing. We are many parts, but we are all one body. I am connected to you, and you, and you, and you, and you – bright beads on an endless string. You are my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my child, and I am yours.)

The human person – regardless of where he or she falls in the cultural sphere – is in a state of constant change. To be human is to be in flux. We go from weakness to strength to weakness to strength to decay and dissolution. Our time on this planet is brief, and yet our expectations are enormous. When we recognize the humanity in another person – when we accept that humanity in a state of empathy and relationship and connection – when we choose to see the world as they see it and experience things as they experience – we enlarge ourselves. We enlarge our hearts. We enlarge our capacity for justice and kindness and goodness. We become that which has the potential heal the broken heart of the world.

When I talk to my kids about privilege, this is the lesson that I give them: “When someone points out your privilege to you – and believe me, this is going to happen a lot – there is only one proper, appropriate response: you say, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ Because that person has just opened your eyes to a thing that had been hidden from you. That person trusted you enough to believe that you were a good and compassionate person and would understand. That person just opened a door for you to allow you to be a more complete member of the human family. That person just did you the hugest favor ever. Don’t blow it.”

Racism exists. Privilege exists. Police brutality exists. Unfairness exists. Systemic bias exists. And these things cannot be fixed unless we talk about them. Name them. Create strategies to combat them. And sometimes take to the streets. Our great nation was founded, after all, by political protesters and those who engaged in civil disobedience. It is part of our DNA as Americans. And it gets things done.  (This is another thing that I tell my kids.)

“The main thing,” I told them yesterday, as we looked through the photographs of the protests around the country, “is that evil persists in silent places. Evil loves fear and disconnection. Evil loves thoughtlessness and selfishness and despair. Hope isn’t just important: it’s subversive. Hope speaks truth to power. Hope listens. Hope finds common ground. Hope puts other people’s needs before our own. Hope is generous. Hope is spouse of Justice. Pray that they have lots of children.”

These are trying times to be a parent. And yet. I continue to have faith and I continue to hope and I continue to love. And I am teaching my kids to do the same.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill – Review by Katherine Sokolowski

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I <3 the Nerdy Book Club. And not just because they liked my book. And not just because I love nerds and I love books. And clubs. Though all are true. I love them for millions of reasons. Millions and millions and millions. Hooray for children's literature, I say. Hooray forever.

Originally posted on Nerdy Book Club:

IMG_3082When trying to describe The Witch’s Boy to my students, I was at a loss for words. I finally said, “Sometimes I don’t know how to describe the books that I love to read, but I know they will be magical from the moment I open them.” The Witch’s Boy was just that type of book, magical from the very first page.

 

Book talking this beautiful book for our Mock Newbery unit was easy. First, I held it up. Immediately students were drawn to the cover and recognized the illustrations as the work of Jon Klassen’s. Their first connection and already they were excited. Then, I began…

 

This is a hard book to describe. Kelly Barnhill has packed so much into this book. It is, at once, a fairy tale, a story of friendship, family, and coming of age. It is a hero’s journey, a quest, a battle…

View original 617 more words

No One Will Ever Love You as Much as This Dog Loves You.

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Now, before I begin, and before any of you commence any kind of tear-eruptions, let me first just say that Harper, my one thousand year old dog, is perfectly fine. She’s old and creaky and slow and sleepy and arthritic and missing some teeth and sometimes she anxiety-pees on the floor, but other than that she’s doing great. I have to start out with this, because my dog is at an age (a thousand years will weigh heavily on anyone, after all) where people see me post about my dog and they instantly start sobbing because they assume that she is dead. She is not. We can all relax.

My dog loves all of us, but she loves my kids the most. She follows them with her eyes when they walk across the room. When they stand close to her, she closes her eyes and inhales. When they sit at the table, she shuffles between the chairs, finds a pair of feet to lay on, and, after the hard work of bending her old legs, lands upon a child’s slippers with a sigh.

She can’t climb up on the kids beds anymore (she was never allowed, never, but she did it anyway, usually at the request of a child who woke up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, and couldn’t get back to sleep) and I can tell she misses it. She makes her way up the stairs at night and worries at their doors until she nudges them open, and curls up in their rooms – all soft and damp from their open-mouthed breathing. She sighs when they sigh. She perks up her head when they talk in their sleep. She dreams in tandem with the kids she loves.

And she loves them. So much.

When my oldest was little, Harper – a sheepdog by nature – herded her like a lamb. I had moved from Portland to Minneapolis when I was pregnant with her, taking all of my last classes for my Masters in Education as Incompletes, and was desperately trying to finish my many, many papers to turn in for my degree so I could go back to work and support the family while my husband went back to school. And my daughter liked to crawl. A lot. And she was fast. And Harper kept her contained. She ran interference. She headed her off at the pass. And when my little sprogget pulled a fast one, Harper very gently grabbed her by the diaper and brought her back to me.

You remember Nana from Peter Pan. That is my dog.

When my middle child took her to the park behind our house and fell off out of a tree and sprained her ankle, Harper positioned herself right next to that crying girl and would not leave her side, and howled her head off until I heard and came running.

When my son was bitten in the face by another dog, Harper wouldn’t let him out of her sight for months after the incident. Even thought it happened in someone else’s house, something told me that Harper just couldn’t forgive herself. She kept herself pressed to Leo’s side, nudging his hands or his back or his tummy with her nose. She started following him from the computer to the bathroom to the lego room to the kitchen to his room to the back yard. Wherever Leo was, Harper was two steps away. Her ears were perked straight up. She was on the alert for danger.

No one’s hurting my boy, her ears said.

Lately, she’s been building kid-nests. She rotates which child she focuses on. Right now, it’s my son. She will gather the recently-worn clothing of whichever child she’s nesting with. She finds stinky socks and uniform pants and cast-off shirts. Sweaters. Winter hats. Anything that smells like her kids. Fortunately for her, my kids are slobs and leave their clothing strewn about their rooms until I go ballistic and make them tidy up. But lately, I’ve been slower to do so. Because of Harper.

The kids don’t understand what she’s doing.

“Harper!” they admonish. “I was going to wear that sweater!”

“Harper!” they moan. “Not my coat!”

Harper thumps her tail on the ground. Each thump means I love you.

“Harper, did you steal my socks?”

Thump, thump, thump. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“Harper, how on earth did you get my pillow case off my pillow?”

Thump, thump, thump. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Her eyes are watery and dim. She makes a groaning sound when she tries to focus. She closes her eyes and flares her nostrils, seeing them more clearly.

“She’s doing this to feel closer to you,” I explain. “She can’t see you very well, and she can’t hear you very well, but she can smell you like you can’t even imagine.”

“Ew,” the kids say, even as they crouch down and lay with Harper on the nest. “It’s not polite to just go smelling people,” they murmur in her ears. Harper closes her eyes and sighs.

“It is if you’re a dog. It’s the most polite and loving thing for her. You know I love you and you know your Dad loves you, but nobody loves you like that dog loves you. Her love is the stars and the moon. It is all matter in the Universe. It is all Universes beyond. It is infinity to the infinity power. That’s how much that dog loves you.”

“That’s how much I love her too,” my kids whisper into her stinky fur. And they mean it, too.

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All Giraffes Are Blind. So Are Elephants.

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Parenting, at its core, is the process of surrealistic integration and magical thinking. We don’t notice it after a while. We start to accept the odd logic in our kids’ thinking without questioning it. We accept that square ice cubes are spicier than rectangular ice cubes and that all dogs are boys and all cats are girls and that a tiger lives in the keyhole which is why we have to cover it with tape and that blue sweaters are less itchy than red sweaters because they are blue.

“All giraffes are blind,” my daughter said to her cousin over Thanksgiving break. They were in the pool. They had already had a long conversation about a particular breed of freshwater squid who live in pools who live on a diet exclusively of chlorine and swimming suit bottoms. They tickle your toes and steal your water polo balls and disappear, snickering, down the drain.

“All giraffes are blind,” she said again. “So are elephants.”

“Well,” her cousin said, “at least the elephants are nice about it.”

I was sitting in the sun, letting the heat warm me through, baking my bones. It has been a cold November. Oppressively cold. But we were in Florida for the holiday, visiting the grandparents. Florida is a surreal place. Kind of like childhood. The sun is warm but the floor is cold, and people wear sunglasses indoors and have slippers on their feet and bare skin on their arms. The air smells of salt and swamp. Their bugs are larger than their lapdogs. Their cars are driven as though physics does not exist. And giraffes are blind. So are elephants.

And elephants are nicer than giraffes. This is common knowledge, apparently. I accepted it without hesitation.

Elephants, I have learned, enjoy tap dancing and fine perfumes and velvet waistcoats. They are excessively polite. Indeed, more than half of the books ever written on the subject of etiquette was actually written by an elephant. They are highly considerate of the feelings of others and their hearts break easily when they discover they have accidentally caused offense. They always use the correct fork; they never forget a napkin; and they have never neglected to say please and thank you. It was pointed out – I don’t know which swimmer made this assertion, but it was accepted by the group – that elephants, for their part, are aware that their limited visual perception combined with their massive size, can pose to be a bit of a problem. This is one of the reasons why they are so incredibly polite. They will always ask if there is something or someone in their path that they might accidentally trod upon.

“Pardon me,” the elephants say, “but are there any bunny rabbits or butterflies or priceless artifacts along this hallway? It is late, and past my bedtime, and I do not want to tip over a vase or crush a grandmother in a doorway as I make my way toward my jammies.”

They use their great trunks to find their way. They walk delicately, as though they were made of tulip petals. Elephants are experts at making do.

“It’s similar with whales,” my daughter said. “They cannot speak. So they speak in bubbles instead. Their bubbles are like braille. Five bubbles means ‘please pass the sugar’. Twenty bubbles means ‘I love you’.”

“But giraffes,” it was asserted. “They are the biggest jerks.”

“Get out of my way,” say the giraffes. They stumble through tangles of trees, using their necks like whips. Or not whips. What are those weapons – the ones with the stick and the ball with spikes and a chain connecting the two. A flail. This is what giraffes do. They flail. What a bunch of meanies.

“Excuse you,” snort the giraffes. “Learn to watch your step. didn’t break it; you broke it, dummy.  Get out of my way. Oh, look, a very hard object on a very long string just socked you in the guts. Sucks to be you.”

Giraffes,” my niece muttered. “They are the worst.”

“I’d much rather be friends with an elephant.”

“Or an alligator.”

Alligators, as it turns out, are misunderstood creatures, and easily maligned, due to their powerful jaws and their impressive teeth – neither of which they asked for or particularly wanted. They also, interestingly, have no sense of smell. They never mention this, and do their best to fake it.

“My my,” an alligator will say upon entering a home, on those rare cases when he or she is invited for dinner. “What a delightful aroma. Please, you must share the recipe with me.”

Alligators make highly tolerant friends. Because they themselves face daily bigotry on account of their their unfortunate appearance, they live their lives free of judgement or bias. It is not what you look like that they care about, but what you are like. They are only interested in the soul. They will love you implicitly.

They will also never notice your body odor, due to their olfactory deficiency. This can be useful in Florida. Everyone sweats in Florida. The entire state is an assault upon the nose.

“I would totally be friends with an elephant. And definitely an alligator. But never a giraffe.”

“Totally. Giraffes are off the Christmas list. In fact, I don’t think they’ve ever been on it.”

In Praise of the Activist, the Protester and the Provocateur.

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This is my kid’s school, and somewhere, sitting in the hallways, is my daughter, in her own awakening to her particular place and power and impact in the context of a larger, broken and hurting world. I remember the first time I felt moved to take political action. I remember that burning need – that not only can we change the world, but we must do so this minute. I remember how much I loved this green and blue and spinning Earth, and all its people in it. I remember feeling that I was not only riding the arc of history but actually participating in pushing that justice forward.

I remember that feeling.

I know these kids are feeling that too. I pray that it lasts in them. I pray that it never ceases.

Blessings on all of you, my darlings. My beautiful South High compatriots. I cherish your activism and your hope and your giant, beating hearts. Keep up the good work.

Sometimes, only poetry can tell us how we feel.

Last weekend, an African-American child in Cleveland was shot by police because he had a toy gun.

Today, a grand jury in Missouri denied justice to the family of Michael Brown.

The stain of racism does not wash away. It reasserts itself on the fabric of our society again, and again, and again.

I have no words to tell you how I feel about this. I only have my frustration and my rage and my longing and my tears and my broken heart. This is not the world I want for my kids. Or my kids’ friends. Or my neighbors. Or your kids. We all deserve to be honored and protected and respected and free. The child in Cleveland did not deserve to die. Neither did the teenager in Ferguson. No one does.

 

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

-Langston Hughes

 

The Sock Crisis

There was a time, in the Land of Barnhill, when socks flowed in abundance. They heaped and flowered and multiplied. They scattered across the wide family room floor like so much snow. We were buried in socks, awash in socks. Our cup of socks raneth over.

This sounds like an exaggeration, I know, but I swear it’s the truth. And what I am about to present, dear readers, is a cautionary tale.

The Barnhills, despite their sockish abundance – or perhaps because of it – were not satisfied.

“What care I,” they said sniffily, “for ten socks, or one hundred socks, or one thousand times one thousand socks. If they are not matched, I have nothing.”

They were not satisfied to wear mismatched socks to school or to meetings or to soccer games. They turned their noses at the wooly warmth in clashing colors offering itself each day to warm their shivering toes.

“If you want matching socks,” their mother told them, “go dig through the stupid sock pile and find them yourself.” Their mother did not, despite reports to the contrary, mutter, “Mister and Miss Complainypants,” but she certainly thought it.

And so the Barnhill children would howl with rage and agony and woe. And then they would stomp down the stairs and find the overflowing sock basket in the basement family room and dig and dig and dig until a match was found. And the socks were happy to oblige.

This went on for several months. And the sock basket grew. It grew, and it grew, and it grew. It went from mound to hillock to bluff to mountain. It had geological features – faults and fissures and outcroppings – that were studied by scientists from around the world. It was featured in documentaries, and folk songs, and fine art. It developed its own weather system. REI rolled out an entire line special shoes designed specifically for the sock mountain’s unique terrain. Brusque European men with mukluks and rucksacks, flanked by packs of well-paid Sherpas, arrived by the dozens to journey into our basement and make the death-defying climb of the storied Mount Sock, conquering it like young bull on its first night in the herd, and leaving a mess in their wake.

And honestly? It was annoying.

“That’s it,” the mother said.

And she poured herself a glass of wine and set up a marathon viewing of “Brooklyn 99″, and set up sacks for each member of the family, and, like the Miller’s Daughter spinning straw into gold (or, I guess, paying Rumpelstiltskin for spinning her straw into gold) quietly prayed for strength in the face of a most insurmountable task.

And she folded into the long night, and well into the morning. And the sock mountain remained, and still she folded. The sun climbed high in the sky and sank into the evening, and still she folded. Days turned into weeks turned into months turned into a year. Finally, after a year and a day, the last sock was folded, and she placed heaping sacks of folded socks on each bed of her beloved family.

“Here,” she said. “Folded socks. Matching socks. Coordinating colors for your sensitive arches and your tough heels. Darned toe beds to keep each adorable little piggie nice and warm. Each loop of yarn is proof of my love to you.”

And the family was happy. For a little while. But lo and behold, the folded socks, once so numerous that the drawers groaned each time they tried to close them, began to dwindle. The drawers began to echo with empty spaces. And slowly but surely, the socks began to disappear. One after another after another, until they vanished altogether.

The children searched over hill and vale. They looked under beds and in the covers. They looked behind toilets and inside grates. They even looked in the refrigerator. But it was no use. There was not a sock – matched or single – to be seen.

Because these were no ordinary socks. These were magic socks. And the magic well from which all socks did flow was irreparably blocked. And there would be no mountain and no bluff and no hillock and no mound. Indeed, even the stinky socks left by the bed would disappear by morning.

“Where are the socks,” wailed the children.

“I have no idea,” the mother said. “I just did all the laundry. AND I JUST FOLDED LIKE NINE MILLION SOCKS FOR YOU.”

It didn’t matter.  The masses of socks were gone forever.

And yea, did the children weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

And, if you listen very carefully, you can hear their toes shivering.

In which I am a mama bear. With claws. And teeth.

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I have been on the phone quite a bit so far today. I intend to be on the phone quite a bit for the near future. I’ve connected to the principal, the school office, the crime specialist at the police department, the Climate Coordinator for the school district and someone from building security.

I still don’t have good answers.

Last Monday, November 17, there was an incident at South High School – my daughter’s school, my alma mater, the school that educated my siblings and my cousins and my second-cousins and the children of my cousins and second cousins. I have had a family member attending South High every single year since I graduated in 1992. My bonds with that school are deep, and they are meaningful to me. Still, I am not happy with what happened. I am not happy with the school’s behavior in the moments following the incident in question. And I am SUPER NOT HAPPY about the vague and detail-less communication between the parents and the school in the ensuing days.

This is what I know:

1. On Friday there was an incident in which a girl was beaten up.

2. On Monday, there was a retaliation, and a large fight occurred on school property, just as school was being let out.

3. A Code Red was issued, meaning that kids who were still in the building (in after school activities) were told to lock the doors, turn off the lights and huddle in the corner in the dark. The kids who had already left the building, who saw the large fight and were scared, ran back to the building, and were not permitted to come back inside. My daughter’s good friend was one of them. She was screaming and crying and pounding on the door. And the school did nothing. She was not allowed inside.

That image? Of a kid outside shouting please. It guts me.

And if it weren’t for the fact that it was Monday when my daughter was at Math Team (my darling little mathlete!) she would have been out there too. Banging on the doors. Begging to be let in. This girl – Ella’s friend? She is the sweetest girl in the world – her family came here from Somalia to seek safety and opportunity. She deserves to be safe. Every student at South deserves to be safe.

Now, times being what they are, we are awash in “information” but it is difficult to find out what is actually true. Ella’s friend reports hearing gun shots – lots of kids do – but the police do not have that information and neither does the school. So I have to assume that in the heat of the moment, frightened children hear all kinds of frightening things, and fear the worst. But that speaks to a larger concern: where the hell were the grownups? My daughter showed me some of the videos that had been posted on kids’ pages on Facebook, and all I can see is a lot of chaos and confusion. And frightened children.

I understand the need to keep the building safe. I do. I understand that school officials do not want violence to come inside the school walls. But the kids on the grounds deserve to be safe as well. They were just about to walk home. They are good kids who work hard at their studies and who have bright futures, and they should expect to be safe coming and going. The school has a responsibility – given that it is district policy to hand them bus passes instead of transporting them by school bus – to ensure that each child is safe between school and home.

When we have policies that lead us to lock our doors, lock kids out, and simply say, “Sorry, kid. No grownup will help you. Good luck not getting hurt.” we need to take a good, hard look at what we’re doing, and what the results of these policies actually are. Because this situation? Well, it sucks. And we can do so much better.

Yes, they are teenagers; and yes, they sometimes make horrible choices; and yes, sometimes they get involved in groups and behavior patterns that lead them into some scary places; and yes, they are big and zit-faced and sometimes stinky; and yes, sometimes they have big humungous feelings that they cannot control – confusion and hurt and defiance and longing and bravado and need, and rage, rage, rage; and yes, sometimes they can frighten us – even big strong adults like ourselves. But the fact remains that they are children. Children. And we have duty to protect them. Every last of us. Because we are grownups.

And mama bears.

[ETA: Let me be clear on one thing. I love South High. I do. I love everything about it. I love its teachers. I love its diverse and complicated student body. I love the dedicated folks walking the halls every day to keep those kids safe. I love Ray Aponte – the new, big-hearted principal who has been spending the last few months sitting down with the kids and talking to them and caring about them and treating each one of them as a wondrous and precious human being. I love it that, right now, they have the kids arranged in Peace Circles trying to break down the racial and cultural divisions that often foment this kind of anger and bad behavior. And I love how quickly the grownups at South have been to answer my questions and talk to me. I do love that. And I believe them when they tell me that a.) there were no weapons, and b.) there were grownups present trying to break up the action – though not enough to make the panicked kids banging on the door to feel any safer. What I learned is that this practice of locking the school up and locking some kids out is considered a Best Practice – and is used in districts around the country. I learned that the building safety staff hates this practice but they don’t know what else to do. This means that this is likely the standard operating procedure in YOUR home district as well. I am not okay with this practice, and I hope that you are not either. I truly believe that we can do better. I truly believe there must be a better solution. And I intend to find one.]

In Praise of Quietness.

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(Everything on xkcd.com is brilliant and correct, but this one might be the most brilliant. And the most correct.)

Like many of my friends of the writerly persuasion, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I love how it connects me with larger conversations. I love making friends with people across the nation and around the world. I love that in these spaces, Story and Word are a kind of currency – we trade; we share; we gather; we fill our coffers and our storage rooms, we are stuffed to the rafters with Stories and Notions and Ideas. We marvel at one another’s lexicographic invention and acrobatic turns of phrase. Social media has enlarged my world, deepened my connections, lit fires to my passions and informed my moral compass. It is through social media that I have not only been able to contextualize the issues of the world around me, but I have been able to empathize as well with the very human stories that both hold up and are crushed under these massive, cumbersome, and very necessary movements of intellectual, political and social change.

However.

I hate social media too. Not all the time. But sometimes? I hate it. Social media, by its very nature, is a disruptive tool. Each voice disrupts the voice that precedes it. Each idea disrupts the ideas that came before. It is fast; it is distracting; it is enraging; it often ruins my day. It has a tendency – for me, anyway – to enlarge my own sense of importance and power. This is problematic. I would feel the need to retweet a thing about Feguson, for example, or the astonishing misogyny of men’s rights movement, or a call to action regarding the appalling conditions of the refugees in the countries bordering Syria, or the wrenching letter written by the parents who lost all three of their children on MH17. I do this because I feel I must do something. Because the way in which we engage in social media sets our brain up for panic-mode. Quick! our brains shout. Respond! Take a stand! Protect! Retreat! Attack! Do something right now! Now, this can be used as an incredible tool for good. We’ve all seen how social media – twitter, especially – can be used as an incredible grassroots organizing tool. By allowing voices to collect, connect and amplify, it shines a thousand small light on particular issues – be they police brutality or systemic (and blind) racism in publishing or stuffy grownups saying silly things about children’s publishing. The voices on these subjects, swelling into a chorus, do an amazing job making the case for things that must be changed – but more importantly, that can be changed. And that’s a powerful thing to be a part of. But it disrupts, as well. It disrupts my work. And my work is important, too.

I have two jobs: I am a stay-at-home parent, and I write stories. Both of those jobs require a level of sustained focus that is incompatible with full-time engagement in the wider world. Both of these jobs require an open heart. Both of these jobs require arms and eyes and a ready smile. Both of these jobs require the full muscle of my empathy, intuition, apprehension, planning, tenderness and love.

Which is why I have shut down the social media accounts. (Except this blog, of course. The blog is different. It is slow. I like slow.)

I’m working on a new book right now. First draft. It is the first time that I fully intend to send a draft to an editor, still warm from the touch of my hands – unfiltered, unrefined, un-erased. Raw materials. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I’m doing it anyway. And, as a way of making sure it gets done on time, I have turned the world off, and tuned out. And you know what? It’s been wonderful. Wonderful. The weights of worry typically hanging around my shoulders have been lifted. My day is simpler, ordered, quiet, monastic – tend the children; write the book; make tea; write the book some more; tend the children again. I am a monk, removed for now from the world, and letting the great world spin.

I have to say: I recommend it.

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[ETA: Once I published this, I realized that I wrote another blog post with this exact same title a year and a half ago. For the same reason. One of the things about keeping a blog is that one is forced to realize that the things we struggle with and decide about are the same things, every dang time. I had a friend in high school who was a consistent journaller – pages and pages every day. And she’d go back and read her journals, as a way of keeping herself grounded and engaged and true. And she said to me something that has stayed with me all these years: “One thing that keeping a journal has taught me is that life is nothing but a series of ‘Huh?’ and ‘Duh!”. We have periods when we’re totally clueless and confused and periods when we’re completely annoyed at how simple and pathetic it all was, and annoyed at ourselves for not figuring it out sooner.” True words, dear KrisAnne. And still true.]

In Which Winter Arrives

I woke up last night after a series of strange dreams – one in which my family and I moved into an abandoned library, and discovered that the resident ghosts stole pages from the ancient books and made paper bodies for them to inhabit – paper fingers, paper bellies, paper eyes – and became increasingly emboldened by our presence. I woke in a panic when a couple of paper teenagers jumpstarted my car and convinced my daughters to join them in joyriding and general carousing (my last thought before wrenching myself awake was not, “Oh my god my daughters have been abducted by ghosts” nor was it “Oh my god my car has been stolen again,” – no.  My final thought was, “Those blasted teenagers are going to peer-pressure my girls into drinking alcohol. And stuff!” Which, of course, gives me some insight  into my Map of Fears – the center of which is my fear of peer pressure. I blame a childhood watching After School Specials. And possibly also peer pressure.

Anyway, I lay in bed for a long time staring at the brown, pre-snow sky, and listening to the wind howl and howl and howl. I couldn’t see the line of clouds bringing the snow – my windows face East and not West – but I could feel them all the same. The weight of snow curling at the edge of the sky, tensing its muscles, preparing to spring.

When I woke the world was white. And it will be white for a while. My kids were over the moon.

“Is this just fake snow?” my twelve-year-old demanded.

“What is fake snow?”

“You know. Snow that makes promises and then lies and turns into rain and then everything is sad and terrible.”

“Ah,” I said. “No, this is the real thing. It will snow, then it will stop, and then it will snow a lot, and then the temperatures will plummet. The low on Thursday is five degrees, I think.”

“THIS IS THE BEST NEWS EVER,” my child said, jumping up and down.

I sighed and looked outside. The snow wasn’t deep, but the bottom layer was wet. Best to shovel in stages, getting the bottom layer up now, and then shoveling again later.

“Okay,” I said. “Who wants to help shovel?”

“OH ME PLEASE I WANT TO SHOVEL PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!!!!!” said my son.

This, of course is a delicate affair. So, like any good parent, I channeled my inner Tom Sawyer. “Welllll,” I said after a long hesitation. “I suppose you can help . . . . .but-“

I let that hang there for a moment.

“ANYTHING MOM!” My son already had his snowpants on.

“Brush your teeth, pack your backpack, AND make your bed.”

He was off in a flash.

This past autumn in Minnesota has been astonishingly beautiful – long, lingering, and warm. It was russet and amber and mauve and taupe and blue and gold, gold, gold, gold. We haven’t had an autumn like that in ages. Ages. And we deserved it, you know? After last winter. After the flooding in the summer. We deserved good apples and crisp leaves and bare skin in October. But one of the problems with the beautiful autumn is that it makes us anxious about the coming winter. It hovers at the edges of our imaginations like a specter.

My son and I pulled on our boots and arranged our hats and gloves just so and went out into the snow, our feet crisping into the crust of white. Our shovels slicing dark, wet patches of concrete into the fluff of crystal.

I forgot how quiet snow is. How it softens the edges of the world. How it tames the things that jangle and screech and keen. Cars slide by in a mostly silent swoosh and swish before fishtailing prettily away. The branches are laden and glittering, their ends bending toward the ground. My son shoveled the main walkway and I shoveled the drive way. He reached down, gathered up glovefuls of snow, packed them into balls and launched them in clean, quiet arcs, landing with a muffled thud right behind me, or in front of me, or beside me. Missing on purpose.

“Oh, mom,” laughed each time. “I was this close.”

He thought he was the cleverest boy.

He was the cleverest boy.

My daughters were inside, turning up Christmas music (they do this to annoy me) so loud I could hear it through the walls and the windows. They waited for me to notice. I looked at them through the windows, and watched them laugh and spin around and around and around.

It is winter. And the world is dreaming. And it is beautiful. I don’t know why I was so worried.

How books infect our brains – possibly forever

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As many of you already know, I am a coach with First LEGO League – where I feebly attempt to assist my little charges in the building and programming of a robot – built from LEGO blocks – and the successful completion of various missions. It’s a cool program -interactive, innovative, creative, and collaborative. The kids learn how to design, engineer, program and work as a team. I am not a very good coach, alas, in that I suck at both building and programming – like, I can’t do them at all – but I’m pretty good at getting my team to work together and help one another, and they have been taking care of the other part on their own. Go team.

As part of this program, the kids have to do a project in which they have to identify a need in the world, and come up with a solution to fill that need. They research, design and create a presentation. But before they present, they have to share their ideas with others. And that can be tricky for a bunch of elementary schoolers.

So I was trying to help them.

“Let’s just brainstorm some ideas,” I said, holding the dry-erase marker for the white board. “What are some ways that we can share our ideas with other people?”

Now let me back up: these kids? They all go to a Classical Education charter school. They all excel in their rigorous curriculum, speak Latin, stand up when called on, and pat their heads when they know something instead of blurting out. They wear uniforms and can name at least six Byzantine emperors and can tell you the long-term effects from the Mongol invasion on European culture. They are adorable, adorable nerds. And they read. All the time. When they asked me who I voted for and I looked at them, all seriousness, and said, “Lord Voldemort,” they nearly peed themselves laughing.

“YOU DID NOT,” they wheezed. Then they paused. Looked at me seriously. “Wait. Did you?”

These are bookwormy kids. They eat books for breakfast.

So, I’m talking to these kids.

“How can we share our ideas? Your ideas are GOOD. You can bring those ideas to other people and talk about them. But how will you do it?”

One kid raised her hand. “Well?” she said. “We could? You know? Build a website? And put it on the Web?”

“Good idea,” I said. “But what’s the problem with the web? How many websites are there?”

“Bijillions,” one boy said.

“That sounds about right,” I said. “So how are you going to get your particular information to the particular people who might benefit from it? Or who might give you more ideas?”

A boy raised his hand, “We could make a committee!”

Another girl raised her hand. “My mom likes Tumblr. We could put it on Tumblr.”

And another girl: “We could present it to our families and get ideas and then present to other people’s families.”

And then a boy started jumping up and down. His hand was outstretched so high it nearly pierced the ceiling.

“Oh!” He gasped, bouncing up and down in his seat. “Oh!”

So I called on him. He stood up.

“I got it,” he said. “We make a brochure. And then we strap it to one million owls and send them out around the nation!”

He beamed.

“I see,” I said.

“It’ll be perfect.”

“Owl post. That’s your solution?”

“Well,” he said. “You want your idea to be memorable. And how much more memorable can you get than you’re biggest dream finally coming true.”

And the thing is? He’s right. I have dreams about messages coming via Owl Post. I dream it all the time. And so do these kids. And I’m guessing, so do you. Thanks, Ms. Rowling. You are in our brains forever. My guess is, that was her aim all along.

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.

The_Cricket_in_Times_Square_Cover

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

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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.