One More Thing About Teaching . . . the side benefits.

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I’ve been doing fiction workshops in schools for a bunch of years now, and one would think that I would have made it easier on myself by creating a bunch of fairly standardized lesson plans so I wasn’t having to make it up as I went along every dang time. Alas, if one should think such a thing, one would think wrong. I’m not much of a planner as a general rule. When I shoot, I shoot from the hip. Every time I organize a workshop, I re-invent the whole thing. It’s the only thing I know how to do.

This year, I decided to teach the kids about story structure – cause/effect, three-act, non-linear, etc. I had them plan out the stories they had started, starting with fleshing out their main characters, identifying the central problem and mapping out what was going to happen in the beginning section, the middle section and the end.

To demonstrate what I wanted them to do, I pulled out the longhand manuscript of my new WIP, called The Sugar House, and did my own story plan on the white board. So as they were planning out their stories, so I was planning out my own. And talking about my own. And wrestling out loud.

And here’s the thing about spending time with third and fourth graders. They are incredibly encouraging.

“Wait,” one boy said, after I had written the central problem for The Sugar House on the Smartboard and was waiting for the kids to write down their own. “Is that book out?”

“Which book?” I asked.

“That one,” he said, pointing to the notebook in my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “No. As you can see, I’ve just hit the 150 page mark in my notebook, and I’ve run out of space. So now I’m going to start transferring it into my computer, expanding the details, and do fussy little things like work out the ending.”

“Oh,” the boy said.

Later as I wrote out the main events – beginning, middle and end – for The Sugar House as a demonstration, and waited for the kids to write their own, the same boy raised his hand.

“Well,” he said. “It looks like you did it.”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Worked out the end. Right there. ‘Nate and Mrs. Otterholt save the day even though they still hate each other’s guts.’ That’s a GREAT ending.” He smiled encouragingly.

“Well,” I said. “Thank you. I actually haven’t gotten that far yet in the actual narration, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it will end. I’m glad you like it.”

He paused. Raised his hand again.

“So,” he said. “It’s coming out, like, next month maybe?”

“No darling,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when it does.”

“Good,” he said. “Because I can already tell it’s my favorite book.”

 

And that’s what it’s like with these kids. I read them sections from The Witch’s Boy and they tell me it is their new favorite. I read them sections from other books that I love - Winter of the Robots, Breadcrumbs, Goblin SecretsThe Thirteen Clocks - and they tell me those are their favorite books too. They stand up when I walk by to give me a hug. They ask me to autograph random scraps of paper which they shove in their pockets, lose, and then ask again the next day.

I have spent the last year staring at my manuscript in a state of utter fear – writing, erasing, writing, erasing – wondering why I do this job at all, wondering why I scribble words just to pronounce them failures and kill them forever. Wondering how I could ever hope to do right by these characters whom I love so very much.

And then I go to a classroom. And I share my characters with kids. And the kids love them as much as I do. This right here – this is why I teach. I teach to remind myself why I write, and I write to have the opportunity to connect with the kids I teach. The two are connected. And it’s only when I’m in the classroom, that I can feel that connection in my bones.

Time to get back to class. I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday!

This is the Work You Were Born For: some thoughts on teaching kids the practice of Story

 

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Good grief. I haven’t blogged in over a month. What on earth have I been doing?

(actually I know exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ll get into that in another post. right now I have important things to discuss with you. ahem.)

Anyway, once again I am spending a week with some amazing third and fourth grade students at Chanhassen Elementary. I’ve been doing this same residency for a number of years now, through my work with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program, and every year I am stunned by the brains of elementary school kids.

They are philosophers, these kids. They are scholars. They are giant hearts with legs. They are analysts. They are deep thinkers. They are Big-Idea-Types. 

One of the things that I do at the beginning of the residency, and I feel this is vitally important, is I get the kids all jazzed up about writing stories by talking to them a bit about why we tell stories at all. Because they all know stories – of course they do. They read them and listen to them and watch them on television. They act them out. They observe them in photography and sculpture and paintings. They watch high drama unfold every day in the casual gestures of their parents or the overheard side commentaries of their classmates in the hall. These kids are always engaged in Story.

So I tell them stuff about stories. Big stuff. Broad stuff. Big Idea stuff.

“The act of making a story is not the words you write on the page,” I tell them. “When we write the words on the page, we’re just making a pathway for the reader, and a pathway for ourselves, to journey toward the story. The story, you see, is separate. It is a prize waiting at the center of the universe of your brain, and only you can take us to see it.”

Stuff like that. They eat it up, these kids.

“Stories,” I tell them, “are uniquely human. When we write a story or think a story or tell a story or listen to a story, we are connecting ourselves to every other human being who has ever written or thought or told or listened to a story. We are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.”

I tell them this, and they are itchy to start. I can see it in their hands – the way they hold their pencils.

“Human beings,” I tell them, “have told stories even before they had language. At first they told stories through song, through dance, and through rhythm. They made pictures in the mud. They painted on caves. They invented language to be able tell stories more effectively and efficiently.”

This blows their minds, actually. I can see it on their faces. I have to work pretty hard at the beginning of the class to catch all their attention in my little butterfly net and hold them close to me, but at this point, I could stand perfectly still, and each one of my little butterflies would simply cling to my hands and arms and eyes. They don’t fly away. The kids hold their breath. I hold my breath. This is my favorite part, I think.

“Telling stories is your birthright, folks.” This is true, you know. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. “This idea. This story in your head. These words that are about to pour like water out of your giant-bucket brains and onto the page. You were born to do this work.

And then they do. With gusto.

So far, I have gotten stories of hidden super powers and stories of kidnapped parents and stories of hidden treasure and stories of mad scientists who only wanted to find a way to make their teeth stop hurting. There have been friendly bears, wicked giants, dragon librarians, stealthy spies and a boy who becomes King of Poopland. I’ve gotten stories about a best-friend-zombie and a best-friend-talking-bunny and a best-friend-ogre and a best-friend-robot. I’ve gotten stories about a mall full of people suddenly possessed by ghosts and two sworn frenemies who are the only ones who can fix the situation. I’ve gotten stories about parents who download an app and then their children disappear.

So many stories.

And it’s good for me, even though it wears me out – the driving, the teaching, the geyser of enthusiasm that pours out of me every class period and with every interaction with students. It’s tough on an introvert. Necessary, yes, but tough. My family has been most attentive and sweet when I come home. But still, I love doing it because, even as it depletes me, it fills me up at the same time. Standing in a room full of thirty kids all attacking their pages at once, writing furiously as though chasing their stories down like bison on the plain? Well. As I pour, so am I filled. It’s amazing. And bearing witness to the raw enthusiasm from these kids, their joyful chase of the stories in the bright Universes of their brains, that I, too, am born to do this work – this teaching, this writing, this sharing of stories. And that it matters, you know?

The story matters. The telling matters. The sharing matters. The reading matters. It all matters.

It’s nice to be reminded.

 

I have more to say, of course, and some Very Cool Stuff About Various Books to share with all of you, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. I gotta go get ready for class.

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When Light Balances Dark: on wrong numbers, new life, certain death, and the slumbering spark.

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Happy Equinox, everyone. I have been told that this is the day in which we are magically able to balance the unbalanceable – eggs, specifically. I’ve never been able to, myself. And I’ve tried, believe me. It is also the day when the cosmic and equal forces of light and dark – our inward and outward natures – supposedly come into perfect balance. We see and we are seen, we know and we are known, we give and we are given to. On this day we honor the hidden pulse of life under the shrinking snow, and check for signs of its emergence – knowing that it requires the decay of crystal and glitter. The death of snow. The death of ice. The language of cold, written on the landscape, must loosen, drip, rot, and sink into the ground. Even in the face of life, some things must still pass away.

I had a conversation with my mother yesterday about my beloved sister-in-law, nearly bursting at the seams with twins, who is now two centimeters dilated and 60% effaced. New life is on its way. Later that day, I listened to a message left on my machine in error – a woman named Betty was leaving a message for another woman named Ann that a member of her NA group – a young man named Lamar – had died, two days before his twentieth birthday. I have no idea who these people were, but I sorrowed for them all the same. Lost lambs. We are all lost lambs. The womb that protects us in our early days doesn’t last. And the world is sometimes cruel.

I’m sitting here now at my computer with an egg on my desk. I can’t balance it. I’ve tried. Still, I don’t want to put it back in the fridge. Eggs, besides being delicious, are such noble little things. Fragile and delicate, yet strong in certain situations. In some ways so like the human heart, with a whole world hidden inside – able to withstand incredible pressure when it comes from all around, able to maintain its integrity under incredible global force – and yet, it’s the casual, side-long blow that breaks us. Try and crush me in your fist and I will withstand you. Flick me with your fingernail, and I crack.

An egg is fragile, yes, but an egg is brave. I remember once, when I was a little kid, we went on a field trip to a working, old-timey farm. I have a permanent injury from that day, actually – a wrist that clicks – from an unfortunate incident involving a cow who apparently did not want its head scratched. And I got a bruise on my butt from an ill-tempered goat. But what I remember most was the egg barn. A man handed me an egg, still warm from its incubator, and told me to hold it up to a candle. I had seen eggs before, but I had never held one that was so warm. And what’s more, it was shivering.

“Why is it shivering?” I asked.

“Look and see,” the man said.

I held the egg to the candle, and I nearly dropped it in shock. There, inside the quiet curve of the shell, a tiny chick was moving around.  The work of becoming, the work of transformation, was undertaken in utter solitude. By a creature so small it could fit in my hand.  As far as the chick knew, it it was the only creature in the Universe. There is no one else.

“Can it breathe?” I asked, aghast.

“Yes,” he said.

“Is it scared?” I felt the beginnings of tears prick at my eyes, but I blinked hard to keep them at bay. The last thing I needed was for my classmates to see me cry. I’d never hear the end of it.

“It doesn’t know how to be scared. It doesn’t know anything. All it knows is how to eat and how to grow. It only knows how to be itself, how to become itself. Eventually, it will peck its way out. Or it will die in there. No one can say for sure.”

I stared at him, open mouthed. He shrugged.

“It happens,” he said.

It was pretty much the moment when I knew I would never be a farmer.

But really, my job now is closer to that egg farmer than I would have believed at the time. I had no idea then that I wanted to be a writer. I had no idea what I wanted to be at all, really. I had a vague notion that I would be a nun, and another vague notion that I would be a scientist, and another vague notion that I would be a pirate. I am none of those things (except when I am all of those things).

In truth, what I do is this: I create a nest around the egg of an idea. I keep it warm. I watch as it forms. I hope for the best. I hold it up to a candle and make sure it’s still squirming around in there. I listen for the scritch of its nails against its membraneous world. I pray for the first sounds of pecking.

And I pray that it doesn’t die.

I have a really hard time talking about my books while I’m working on them. People ask me what I’m working on and I change the subject. My normally gregarious, effusive self becomes tight-lipped and taciturn. I fold my hands and tilt my gaze to the ground. I didn’t know why for a long time. But I think I know now. I’m making a nest of words and whispers and kind thoughts. I’m keeping it warm, cocooned and safe from the world. I’m letting it transmogrify  from primordial goo into something else – something with legs and eyes and a keen head. Something with feathers and wings and a very sharp beak. Something that will cuddle close for only a moment, and then fly away. How do you explain that to someone? How to you talk about something that is only just now transforming? I still don’t know to do it. Maybe I never will. And maybe that’s okay.

Happy Equinox, everyone. Happy light and dark. Happy life and death. Happy hellos and happy goodbyes. Happy fiddleheads and happy crocuses. Happy seed-buying. Happy puddle-splashing. Happy last sleds and last skis and last snowballs. Happy hidden, new life – in shell, in womb, and waiting underground. Farewell to the world of ice and crystal and snow. And welcome Green.

Green, and green, and green, and green.

The Anxiety Quilt – and other brilliant innovations

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I was having coffee with a writer friend last Tuesday who is in the process of forcing herself not to write her agent. This can prove difficult. Especially when one is waiting on submitting books. Indeed, I was impressed that she was capable of making sentences – I certainly could not when my book was sitting on the desks of very nice editors.

“He called me yesterday and said that he was so impressed with my sense of calm because he hadn’t heard from me. I didn’t tell him that I have written tons of anxiety-ridden emails that go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, that I just delete and don’t send.”

“It feels good to write it down, doesn’t it,” I said. “Just to get it out and separate from you.”

“It totally does.”

And that got us thinking.

Here’s the thing about this business. It’s worrying. It’s anxiety-provoking. It’s a one-way ticket to cuckoo-bananas-loonyville. I have always been wired for being – how shall we say – a little nuts, but since I’ve been in this work, I am, and I don’t mind you knowing it, super nuts.

Anyway, the thing is? The deleted emails that feel so good to write but you never ever send because god forbid that the people we work with ever get a good glimpse at the depths of crazy that exists in our heads – well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with it?

I said: “What you need to do is get a printer that will print it all out on bits of fabric and make something with it. Like a worry doll or drapes or a computer cozy. Or a crazy quilt.”

“No,” she said. “Not crazy. An anxiety quilt.”

Unfortunately, I can’t sew worth a damn (or any kind of crafting, really. The only D I ever got in my life was in Home Economics). But I love this idea. That the language of worry transformed into something cool and lovely that can be thrown over the back of a chair or warm the toes on a cold Minnesota winter night. I like the idea of our worries being separate from us. I like the idea that the little knot of anxiety that lives in the gut or the head – all barbed wire and acid and expectations and knives – can transform into something else. A blanket. A doll. Fire in the hearth. A piece of art. A long, thick thread, knotted into a pair of socks. A string of beads fastened around the throat.

Transformations are powerful, after all. If a magician can turn a tin can into a flying dove or an empty hat into a fuzzy rodent – poof! – then really, it should be no trouble at all to transform anything into anything. Your worries could become a flying castle. Or chain-mail coat made entirely of paper clips. Or a dragon so small it could fit in your pocket. Or a post-it note golem. Or a bird made of stars.

When my daughter was little – around five – she struggled with some pretty serious anxiety. One of the parenting tricks the doctor told us was to teach her to have specific times when we talk about our worries. So, when she would start to fall apart, we would say, “I can see this is a really big worry. Let’s put our worries in our pocket for now and then we’ll talk about it at Worry Time.” It was work – you could see it on her face – but she could usually do it. Largely, it was an opportunity for us to teach her how to take her anxiety out of the driver’s seat of her life – to acknowledge it, but to not leave it in charge. At Worry Time, we’d snuggle up with her with a blanket and an ancient, horrible stuffed chick named Bubble, and she would list all the things that she was worried about. Bubble, as it turns out was a wonderful listener.

“It makes me feel better,” she used to say, “just knowing that Bubble knows.”

Bubble became her worry surrogate. Her secret keeper. A transformation from something overwhelming and consuming and amorphous to something with a fat belly, ludicrous orange feet and a flap of felt posing as a beak. Bubble with his glued-on eyes. Bubble with his sour smell from too many nights in a child’s bed. Bubble with his matted feathers that weren’t actually feathers at all.

Maybe it’s the artist’s curse to be naturally wired toward worry, but I don’t think so. I know a lot of writers and many of them are anxiety-prone, but certainly not all of them. Still, I wonder what their anxiety quilts would look like. I wonder about my own.

Here is a patch in the shape of a star with the name of the book that I had to give up on.

Here are sixteen patches in the shape of a heart for the sixteen times my heart was broken. If you press your ear to their soft centers, you can hear them beating.

Here is a patch in the shape of a mouse. That is for a character that I had to obliterate in order to make the novel work.

Here are patches with numbers on them – numbers I like: three, for example. And fifteen. And zero – but only if you say it with a Spanish accent.

Here is the patch for the career setback. Here is the patch for the financial hardships along the way. Here is the patch for the conflict at school. Or the conflict with friends. Or the conflict with other members of my large and complicated family. Here is the patch for the pregnancy that turned scary. Here is the patch for the sleepless nights in school.

Here is my challenge for you, dear readers: embrace transformations. Think about what is worrying you. Think about it transforming to something else – something beautiful, something strange, something with clear eyes and a strong mind, and flying away.

On Valentine’s Day, we must all read Pablo Neruda. I’m pretty sure it’s the law.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my darlings. I hope it is full of love poems and kisses. And, really, more kisses than poems, because even though poems are wonderful and all, kisses are, admittedly, slightly better.

Anyway, there is no one who does love poetry and the language of longing and tenderness and desire like Neruda. So here he is – from me to you. With imaginary kisses.

I Do Not Love You

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Translated by Stephen Tapscott

 

And if you’re in the mood for a good cry, you can watch Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson read “La Muerta” in both English and Spanish in this clip from “Truly, Madly, Deeply”. That movie, man. It destroys me.

 

On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

I have violated my New Year’s Resolution. I erased a third of the novel. Irrevocably. I erased it on my computer, from the emailed copy I sent to myself, from Dropbox, from my husband’s email. Everywhere. Or so I thought.

I had a really good reason for doing this – largely, the general sucky, lousy prose – but I am regretting it now. I mean, I was. More on that in a minute.

There is a thing that can happen in the quiet of the office space. By the clicking of the keys or the scritching of the pen on the paper. That little, itchy, insinuating voice that creeps along the neck and down the spine. It’s bad breath tickles the ear. It has sticky fingers and a grubby face and hair like thistledown.

Really? the voice says.

That’s what you wrote?

No one could possibly like this.

Now, let’s be honest. The voice wasn’t wrong. The pages – eighty of them in all – were pretty crappy. However, the promises that the voice insisted were true – that my agent will never want to speak to me again, and that my editor will cancel my current book because good god what was I thinking, and that booksellers and librarians will, en masse, remove my book from the shelves and throw them in the garbage, and that my husband and children will disown me and that I will never write again, and really, why would I – well. Those are probably not true.

So I selected the last third of the book. And I erased it. And I stared at the screen. For a long time.

And then I did what many of us do when we are facing something difficult. I avoided.

I am an expert avoider. I could get an Olympic medal in Avoidance. Wait. Do they have those? I hope so, because that would be awesome.

Now, in my past, this period of avoidance has been prolonged and deep. Less so now. Now, at least I have learned to recognize avoidant behaviors and resistant behaviors. Now I have learned the importance of muddling through.

For me, muddling through means sometimes working on other things. Yesterday, for example, I was writing a scene that was emotionally exhausting and painful. To keep me moving, and keep me sane, I turned on a timer and opened another document. Twenty minutes working on the scene, twenty minutes writing a goofy, sexy, satirical story about Helen of Troy growing up – ugly and lonely – in that tower with her randy mom and her slutty dad. And it was super fun. I probably will never publish it, but that’s okay, because it got me through that scene – and that chapter.

Another thing that helps me muddle through is to be – shall we say – non monogamous - in my work habits. The book I’m working on was originally longhand, but the version on my computer is so utterly divorced from the original draft, that I can’t even use it anymore. Which means I am stuck on the computer – not a happy place for me. So I have another novel – that I might be finishing today, actually. And that’s totally longhand. And it’s completely different from the more serious novel that I’m currently married to. It’s funny and irreverent and biting. It’s a total departure from everything I’ve ever done. And – like most affairs, I’m told – it gives me the shivers just to touch it. Just to hold it close. But working on both projects allows me to keep both stories fresh, whole, and energized. It allows me to be fully present in both, because neither have gotten stale.

Also: I have a stack of notecards in my desk drawer upon which I write scene outlines, lovely sentences, story ideas, or whole paragraphs. I save these for later.

Also: I wrote a novella – something Not For Children. It poured out of me at Christmas time, and waits, quietly, while I decide what to do with it.

Also: I am revising two Broken Novels to see if I can un-break them. Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t. But the work itself is satisfying. It is filled with notes in margins in red pen and handwritten pages on looseleaf stuck into the binder. Binders full of words. It is a beautiful thing.

There is a theme here. Did you notice it?

Resistance happens to all of us. Avoidance happens to all of us. The only cure for writer’s block is writing. The only cure for bad writing is more writing. The only cure for those nasty voices that show up, unbidden, in our brains, is to write our way to the other side. Whatever project. Whatever it takes.

I discovered that the pages I erased weren’t entirely erased at all. Google Drive. I had forgotten I had done it. I was there last weekend looking for something else, and my novel winked back at me – beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t erase it. I decided to leave it there, untouched, and will continue on my way until I reach the end on this side. Then I will compare the two. It’s only fair.

Today, I have another tough scene to tackle. And I will tackle it. Today, I have a composition notebook that will have new pages with jokes and witches and perhaps a kid with a checkered past saving the day. Or maybe the witch will save him. I haven’t decided yet. Today, I will put more words in the short story about memory and I will fuss a bit more on the Lake Erie novel with shape-shifting dog-men.

Today, I will write words. I will not resist. And I will muddle through.

But first, I will turn on Freedom. Because, good god. The internets, man. So shiny. So devious. In the meantime, I am curious about you folks. How do you muddle through? How do you break down your resistance and get work on the page? How do you quell those ugly voices and tell them to shut up and be done with it? I am terribly curious.

 

“Everyone Else Can Suck It” – thoughts on art, work and making things.

LOOK WHAT I MADE!

One of the things I treasure about living here in the Twin Cities is its astonishingly vibrant, well-populated and deeply talented children’s literature community. I have friends who write YA novels and MG novels and picture books. I have friends who are illustrators and graphic novelists and copy editors. And not to mention the editors, publishers, agents and professors of children’s literature. And don’t even get me started on the librarians and curators. It’s ridiculous. And I adore them all.

And what’s more, it’s an incredibly loving, supportive and dynamic community, all deeply committed to children’s literacy, children’s access to books, as well as infusing the art form with the kind of vigor and wonder and love that it demands. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

The other day, I was at a local coffee shop, working at the big table with a bunch of other authors. We had laptops and notebooks and sketch pads interspersed with coffees and scones and salads. We kept one another on track when needed and offered commiseration when needed and told jokes and even, as a group, did some quick research on the names and types of ladies’ underwear. Yanno. Story stuff.

At one point I showed the folks present some of the preliminary sketches for the cover of my new book, The Witch’s Boy (I wish I could show you. But alas. It’s not ready yet), and I enjoyed the collected ooos and ahs, and I shared some of my feelings of anticipation and apprehension and worry. The other writers and artists assembled nodded their heads sagely. We know, their faces said. We super know.

“But,” I said, “fortunately, I have already pre-written my horrible reviews. So that’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Cue the collective sigh.

“Really, Kelly?” they said. “Why do you do this to yourself?”

And it’s a reasonable question. And I do this to myself a lot. The book I wrote. The book I wrote a while ago. The book I’m writing now. It is so easy to see how someone along the way will dismiss it out of hand. Who will turn a small gripe into a condemnation of the book. Who will not see my characters as I see them, and love them as I love them.

And it is silencing, this pre-bad-reviewing. And it is hurtful. And it is mean.

“Well,” my friend Swati said. “What do you think about your book? How do you feel about it?”

And I looked at her, and I allowed myself a rare moment of honesty.

“I love it,” I said. And I meant it too. “I really love it. And I’m proud of it. And I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written in my life.”

She smiled at me. “Well. There you go. You wrote a book that you love and that you’re proud of, and that’s all that matters. And everyone else can suck it.”

And I told her that I was going to make a sign saying that very thing and put it above my desk, which I have done, and am looking at right now, with total love and adoration on my face.

I turned in my copy edits to The Witch’s Boy last week – it was my very last time being able to touch the paper, to make marks or switch things around or affect anything at all. And I took the time to savor it. I closed myself in my office for days, reading the pages out loud. It was, in truth, like the fiftieth time I have done so – I am an out-loud sort of self-editor. And I read each word with gusto, heft and meaning. I felt each sound vibrating in my bones. And I felt as though Ned and Aine and Sister Witch and the motherless wolf and the bandit king and the dead brother and the aging queen and the grieving father and even the insufferable Brin and Ott and Madame Thuane – all of them, you see, were right there with me. Their hands on my hands. Their breath in my ear. Their hearts rattling away inside my rib cage. And I loved them. And I was proud of them. And I slipped them all into a document box and sent them away.

When we make art – and really, when we do any kind of work that we feel born to do – there is this wonderful sense of non-self that comes over us. Hours can vanish, our real life can vanish, even our bodies and histories and futures can vanish. While we work, there is only the work. It’s wonderful, really.  Our work is not us, it is separate from us. And that is important, because we send it into the world, where it can be loved or hated, adored or abused, learned from, built upon, and, ultimately, transformed. The work changes us, it changes the people who touch it, and it changes in return.

There is something wonderful that happens when we make work that we like. We can hold it in our hands; we can turn it around and around; we can run our fingers through the sheets of paper, and listen to it make the sound of ocean waves whispering on an endless shore; we can linger on the scent of ink and paper and fingerprints. But what’s more – we can say to the world, Look. I made this. And you can love it or you can hate it or you can not care either way, but it doesn’t matter. I made this. And it is for you.

I was at South High School the other day, and I said some stuff about making art and being vigorous and demanding and infusing their stories with the fullness of their intelligence and curiosity and perfectionism. But what I should have said was this:

Make art.

Work hard.

There will be people who don’t care for what you do. That’s okay. And that’s their right. Work hard anyway.

Pour your heart and soul and self into whatever you do until you think there is no more you left. (You will be wrong. There is an endless fountain of you-ness. And there is no limit to what you can make.)

Make work that you are proud of. Work that will outlast you. Work that is your gift to the world. Make work that is separate from you.

And everyone else can suck it.

“Seriously, how can you stand it?” – a meditation on my beloved Minnesota

As I write this, it is -5°F. I think the high today is two. The snow squeaks underfoot with each heartbreaking step. The wind insinuates itself through our coats, into our boots and long johns and balaclavas. It whispers through the walls. The snowpiles on the sides of the road have not melted since November. They are now as dense and cruel as concrete. The streets are narrow and slick. Salt has grayed the edges of the world, uglying what once was beautiful.

This winter has been long, man. A long, bitter slog. And even the most dedicated of winter enthusiasts has found themselves looking at real estate listings in exotic-sounding places like Arkansas or Louisiana or Texas. Swampy places. Deserty places. Places where they close the schools if someone heard one time that it might be approaching freezing. Right now, that sounds wonderful.

I’m just kidding, of course. I am never leaving my state. I love its farms and its rivers and its lakes. I love its ancient granite cliffs in the north and its insanely fertile soil in the south. I love its forests and its massive bogs and its high prairie to the west. I love the rush of spring, the loll of summer, the symphony of color in the fall. And I love the winter. I really do. Even now.

I get a lot of people looking at our weather reports – did you know that some people read the weather reports of places where they do not live. They look at the crazy low temps in Embarrass, Minnesota, and they fan their faces – thrilled, swept away, utterly spent. It is weather porn. No one can convince me otherwise.

Wait, what was I saying? Oh, right. People write to me and say, essentially, HOW CAN YOU STAND LIVING THERE? Their words are kind, alarmed, and urgent. They talk to me the way one talks to a spouse in an abusive relationship. Or a long-term kidnapping victim. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY, they plead with me.

The thing is? Even when it’s cold, it’s still pretty awesome. And there’s something that happens to us in the cold – an intense camaraderie, a joined sense of purpose, a collective pact of survival and victory. We are Sam and Frodo in Mordor. We are the Light Brigade, facing certain doom, and going down fighting. We are the 10th Mountain Division, fighting and  dodging Nazis on Nordic skis. Nothing makes you love your neighbor more than to help them build a glowing, multicolored ice castle in the front yard.

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Nothing makes you love the half-crazed kids in the neighborhood – especially after they descended on your home to play Minecraft and subsequently tore it to shreds, than to see them doing this outside:

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One thing my state does incredibly well in the winter making a lot of social things for us to do in the winter. Because, no matter how cold it is – and yes, it gets frakkin cold – we can still get outside. And we should. Getting outside changes our relationship with the cold. It changes our relationship with the seasons. And it makes it love it – and one another. I have been accused before that perhaps the over-cold temperatures make us high. This is possible. After, all, we do organize kite-flying festivals every year. On a frozen lake. It is marvelous.

And cross country skiing festivals:

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At some point, we simply learn that it’s not the weather – it’s the gear. And it’s the relationship, too. When we dress warm enough, we go beyond simple survival. We become part of the outdoors. We explore; we connect; we wonder. We have this incredible opportunity to fully experience the astonishing beauty of winter – ice crystals and wind, deer tracks in the snow, deep drifts, frosted tree trunks, the utter silence of a frozen forest, the swish of a ski on a well-honed track, the cut of branches holding up the sky. The landscape is beautiful. The people are beautiful too.

Yesterday, we went to the art shanties – twenty-two ice houses-turned-artist installations. There was a shanty turning wind into art, there was a shanty that had transformed itself into a giant music box, there was a shanty where you could write and read people’s letters. A shanty full of polar bear art. A shanty made of salt. A shanty with a Totally Legitimate Elevator. And the people drove out to the ex-urbs. And they parked their cars and they walked out onto the frozen lake. And they participated in the art – they made, they wrote, they danced. They climbed inside a giant, multiple-bike-powered polar bear puppet, and drove it around. And they smiled in spite of the cold, through the cold, because of the cold. And it was good.

Seriously, how can I stand living here?

Seriously, how can I live anywhere else?

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In Which Voldemort Gets the Cheese Touch.

This is the expression on my face most days. Especially the eyes.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog the fact that I, most days, haul a carpool to school filled with delightful elementary school boys. I use the word “delightful” here in its broadest sense, in order to include yelling, cat-calling, fake-swearing, bodily eruptions, poop jokes, gun jokes, penis jokes, fart jokes, farting penis jokes, something about boobies and light-saber-sound-effects. To rescue my thin grip on sanity, I decided a while ago to forgo any crunchy-mama prohibitions I may have had ever in my life regarding screen time and throw a movie into the ole minivan VCR.

(It is, I do believe, a certifiable miracle that the thing still works, as both minivan and VCR are about ten years old. And that thing gets hammered – hot in the summer, absolute zero in the winter, sticky drinks, stray kicks, and, once, projectile vomit. The thing keeps ticking. If it is a miracle, does that qualify my minivan for sainthood? If so, someone should alert the Vatican.)

Anyway, the kids watch movies on their way to school in ten minute increments, and I listen to said movies as I drive. E.T, Apollo 13, Star Wars, Newsies, Cats and Dogs, Galaxy Quest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Dark Crystal, George of the Jungle, and basically whatever else I’m able to pick up at Savers for a quarter. I have become a connosieur of kid-movie sound construction and voice inflection. E.T., for example, is a thing of beauty – communicating more through silence than most films can do in hours of scene-building. The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, while bad to watch, is torture to listen to, and whoever is responsible should be in prison.

Today, they watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or the end of it, anyway. They tumbled out of the car last Friday just as Professor Quirrell was about to remove the turban from his head. They climbed back into the car today shouting turn it on turn it on, despite the fact that they have all read the book and watched the movie approximately nine million times. They were beside themselves with anticipation. I pushed play, rolled into the road, and headed toward school. Here is a transcription of the conversation that ensued in the back seat.

“Shhhh!”

You shhh!”

“We’re missing it.”

You’re missing it.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Wait. What movie is this again?”

“Harry looks like he has to fart.”

“HE DOES NOT.”

“Cheese touch.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Look.”

At that very moment, Voldemort, stuck on the back of the doomed professor’s head, instructs Quirrell to take the Sorcerer’s stone from Harry. But when he touches Harry, his hand burns up, thus showing that Voldmort cannot be touched by the boy wizard.

“Harry Potter has the cheese touch.”

The boys nearly peed themselves laughing.

“Now Voldemort has the cheese touch. Lookit him! Cheese toucher.”

“DON’T TOUCH VOLDEMORT HE TOUCHED THE CHEESE.”

“Voldemort smells like a fart. Like cheesy farts.”

“Cheese farts are not as bad as sausage farts. Sausage farts are THE WORST.”

“I’m kinda hungry.”

“Don’t let Voldemort get the Sausager’s Stone.”

“It’s the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“No. It’s the Sausager’s Stone. IT HAS THE POWER TO TURN MERE METAL INTO SAUSAGE.”

“Quit saying stuff like that. I have to pee.”

“Harry Pee-ter and the Sausager’s Stone.”

“I MEAN IT.”

“If it could make me defeat Voldemort I would totally touch the cheese.”

“You already touched the cheese.”

“I AM VOLDMORT. I AM THE CHEESE. AND THE TOUCH. I AM THE CHEESE TOUCH.”

By the time we reached school, I was weak with laughing. And hunger too, as I had forgotten to have breakfast before I left in the morning. When I got back to the house, I went straight to the fridge to grab something quick before getting to work. A nice, square slice of cheese.

Cheese touch.

Why I Love Fourth Graders: A List.

Author’s note: I think more children would love school if they were allowed to be barefoot.

Today I visited the fourth graders of Highland Park Elementary School in Saint Paul. I was feeling crummy beforehand – sniffles, headache, tummy-yuck, etc. – and was probably not in the best headspace to perform at optimum awesomeness. That didn’t matter. The fourth graders had Awesome to spare. They had Awesome pouring out of their eyes, ears, mouths and noses. They left little trails of Awesome on the ground like awesome slugs. They emitted little pollen particles of Awesome like awesome daisies. They rang like bells and surged like oceans and glittered like stars. I think I have mentioned here before on my blog how very very very much love I have in my heart for fourth graders. And while I always know that, intrinsically within myself, it is still completely surprising to me whenever I step into a fourth grade classroom. All the love I thought I had for fourth graders, the moment they congregate in their desks, is amplified ONE SKILLION FOLD.

They are wondrous, these children. Completely wondrous.

To give you a sense of why I love these kids so much, and why they delight me so, and why they – more than any other age group – propel me again and again to the page, I composed this list.

WHY I LOVE FOURTH GRADERS. By Kelly Barnhill

1. Because they ask me if I’ve ever met L. Frank Baum. It doesn’t even occur to them that he has been dead for a long, long time. For them, writers are as alive as their books. And books never die.

2. Because they assume that I’m best friends with J. K. Rowling.

3. Because they want to tell me, RIGHT NOW, that this sweatshirt is new.

4. Because they see me in the hall and say I KNOW YOU, YOU’RE THE WRITER. And they are shiny and happy and proud. They have this funny quality of being both star-struck and familiar. They are reading your book. They are astonished you are real. You are both an object in a museum AND a beloved teddy-bear, clutched under the covers every night. At the same time. They have no problem with that incongruity. For them, the world is an incongruous place.

5. Because they are on the fence as to whether magic exists. Could go either way. They are open to wonder.

6. Because the sit with their hand outstretched to the heavens, bouncing and wiggling and saying “Oh, oh, oh!” and can do so for an entire class period if need be. And when you call on them, they say, “Okay. I have thirty-two questions.”

7. Because they crowd together on their carpet square, jostling for spots near some grownup that they have never met, a close-knit, multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual mob, all unified by one story, read to them by a beloved teacher.

8. Because they want to know where stories come from.

9. Because they believe that stories come from somewhere - a sea of stories somewhere on this green and blue earth, where writers go with their boats and their tackle and their nets. Where we cast and gather and pull and haul. Where we heap stories into our carts and wheel them into the marketplace to be shared for all.

Stories are slippery fish.

10. Because they want my autograph on a random scrap of paper that they will lose within the hour, but that doesn’t matter. It was the asking that mattered. And me bending over, pencil to paper, letting them know that, in this moment, they matter to me.

11. Because they want to matter.

12. Because, deep inside, they are both infant and adult. They want to be cuddled and adored. They want to save the world. They want to be shielded. They want to understand. They want to be connected. They want to be alone. They want to be heroes. They want to be saved. They want all these things at once.

13. Because they love stories. And so do I.

If you haven’t watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on feminism, you should watch it now.

Seriously. I love this woman. I love her books, I love her articles, I love her presence in the world. I want her to narrate my brain. I love her clarity, her analysis, her compassion, her fire, her precision, her poise. If you have thirty minutes, give this a listen. I did so yesterday, while doing Very Womanly Tasks, like cleaning my oven and making soup and running after children and folding laundry. You know what makes folding laundry WAY more interesting? Listening to TED talks. On feminism, for example.

Specifically, as a mother of both girls and a boy, and a loving grown-up in relationship with lots and lots of boys, I particularly resonated with this: “Gender as it exists today is a grave injustice….I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world, a fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way – masculinity becomes this hard, small cage, and we put boys inside that cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, weakness and vulnerability.  We teach boys to mask themselves. . . We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”

Seriously, it’s great. And worth the time out of your day.

It is still very cold in Minnesota, and I had the kids home for two days after the Governor closed down the schools due to extreme windchills. We are stir crazy. Cabin feverish. If you are living in a warm place, please tell me a warm story so that my bones may thaw and my eyeballs may un-crystallize and my soul may creep out of the freezer and bloom again.

Can gnomes steal a person’s handwriting? I think maybe they can.

02-Favoite Gnome

So, I’m cleaning my office (I know, right? Shocking), and I come across a notecard with the beginning of a story. One that I have no recollection whatsoever of actually writing. Like, at all. It’s my handwriting, for sure. My handwriting, by the way, is terrible. It’s beyond terrible. It looks like it is the ripped from the final gasp of last Will and Testament of a dying raven, written in its last minutes, in dust and tears and its own red blood. I’m stunned that anyone can read it. Hell, I’m stunned that I can read it.

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right. The story.

There’s not much to it, just the beginning of a story that I can’t remember writing at all. I can’t even remember coming up with the idea. When did I do this? And why is it on a giant note card? Where was I when I wrote it? A bus? A coffeeshop? The dentist’s office? On hold with the health insurance company? No idea.

Anyway, here it is, transcribed, for your reading pleasure. Don’t know if I’ll ever do something with it, but it’s always a possibility.

Arthur stood on the chest of the now-cold body of the giant and pulled his father’s sword from the monster’s heart.

“One down,” he thought. “Nine to go.”

“Is it dead?” a voice came from a small pile of stones nearby.

“It is,” Arthur said, wiping the green blood of the giant off the gleam of his sword. “No thanks to you.” He checked the bright edges for nicks before returning it to the safety of its sheath.

“Are you sure?”

“That it’s dead, or that you didn’t help?” His shoulder ached, the wound on his left hip oozed and legs were giving out. He needed a doctor. And a bed. And a year of sleep.

“Killing giants wasn’t in our agreement,” the pile of stones said. “I was very clear what I wanted you to do. Don’t expect a bonus payment. In fact, maybe we should put this down as a deduction for pain and suffering.”

The pile was silent for a minute. “My pain and suffering,” it added, just to be clear.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He slid carefully down the curve of the giant’s ribcage and landed squarely on his feet, wincing as he did so. The pile of stones shivered and shuddered and quaked. It clattered to one side and then the other, assembling and disassembling, reorganizing itself over and over until a boy about Arthur’s age climbed out of its center, patting the dust and dirt and debris out of his smart tweed suit and beating his cap clean.

The stones were gone. There was only the boy.

“I hate transforming,” the smart-dressed boy said. “So dusty.”

Maybe I wrote this while camping. Or after a long day of cleaning my dusty, dusty house. Or maybe I didn’t write it at all, and my office is infested with story-writing, pen-stealing, idea-surfing gnomes. Maybe the gnomes have been creeping in the walls, burrowing in the ceiling and harvesting our dreams. Maybe gnomes eat stories. Which, honestly, would make sense, now that I think about it.

Has this ever happened to any of you people? Have you ever found work that you must have done but you have no memory of ever writing it? Maybe this does happen to everyone.

Or maybe I’m just nuts.

On resolutions, intentions, and the lack thereof.

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I don’t like New Year’s resolutions. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I recently don’t like New Year’s resolutions. This is partially due to the fact that I typically don’t actually keep resolutions, which in turn is due to the fact that my resolutions are often wildly optimistic. (I have not, for example, won a Nobel Prize, nor have I summited any mountains, nor have I learned any new instruments, nor have I become Suddenly Good at Math.)

I prefer the term intentions. Resolutions are grim, static, imposing. They are good at guilt trips. They glower. They wag fingers. They reek of disappointments. Intentions, however, are different. They are the whisper in the ear, the nudge at the side. Intentions are rooted in a place of kindness. They are forgiving. They are prayerful.

Making a list of intentions for the coming year requires a person to reflect on the year prior – what worked, what didn’t. What fed the soul. What depleted the heart. With these intentions, I would like to find ways to offer myself to the world. To make the people around me happy. To make strangers happy. To make me happy too. But to really get at what I intend for the year to come, it’s important to also identify what I do not intend to do. My Non-Intentions. For example:

  • I do not intend to run a marathon. Yes, I just turned forty, and yes, it does seem like it’s the sort of thing that people do when they reach a milestone birthday, in a “Hey, look at me, I am still young and strong and can OUTRUN DEATH if I feel like it” sort of way. Here’s the thing: I’m a runner. I love running. I do my best writing while I’m running. I like running around lakes and along rivers and down wooded trails and endlessly on lonely, prairie roads that connect my feet to the edge of the sky. But a marathon? Nawp. I don’t even like to drive twenty-six miles. An eight mile run does me just fine.
  • I do not intend to keep my house perfectly clean at all times. There was a time, a few years ago, when we had a bit more extra cash sitting around to allow me to have a little help with the housework. That time, alas, has passed, and our spare pennies are going to boring things like college savings accounts and orthodontics. I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep the house dust-free and dog-hair-free and clutter-free. I do not intend to do so this year. We will not live in squalor – I couldn’t abide it if we did – but I do not intend to give myself guilt trips about it. So there.
  • I do not intend to abide by strict word counts. There have been times when I have done this. Two thousand words a day or four thousand words a day or ten thousand words a day, or you are a TERRIBLE PERSON. This is crazy-making. And not helpful, because as one who is a serial/obsessive eraser, it meant that I was killing myself just to go backward. I write two thousand words, I erase another two and a half thousand. I write four thousand words, I erase five. I have been known to erase sixty thousand words in one sitting. And yes, there is a rip-the-bandaid-off-in-one-go sort of feeling to it, I can’t recommend it as a long-term strategy. This year, I have felt like I was turning my wheels. And I’m ready for a new strategy.
  • I do not intend to finish every book I start. This is a big one. Maybe it’s the teacher-pleaser that never really left my psyche, and maybe it’s the Puritans whose ghosts walk the varied byways of this country and remind us that if it’s unpleasant IT MUST BE GOOD FOR US, or maybe it’s the fact that, as a writer myself, I know how very hard it is to haul a book from idea to word to page to publication. Still. I find that by forcing myself to slog through books I hate in a Sir-Edmund-Hillary-BECAUSE-IT’S-THERE mentality, it damages my relationship with reading and my relationship with books. From now on, Books? I give you a hundred pages. And then I walk.

So. Those are my non-intentions. Here, instead, are my Intentions for this year.

  • I intend to rethink my relationship with social media. I’ve done this before, of course. And it was useful. Social media is, unfortunately, a necessary utility for writers. I say “unfortunately” not because there is anything inherently wrong with it. There isn’t. And, in fact, I take a great deal of pleasure from my deeply felt interactions with people online. I love the conversations, I love the connections, I love the humor, I love the abundance of knowledge and learning, I love the cocktail-hour feel to it. I love it a lot. And there is an incredible amount of joy in the crafting of a well-turned sentence, or a bi-tonal tweet, or a Facebook update that hits those notes of humor and rage, for example, or pathos and silliness, or analysis and rumination. But that’s just the problem. Because writers need to be doing all those things in the quiet of their desks, separate from the world, and utterly alone. Which, of course, is lonely. So it makes sense that writers would, perhaps, be more prone to addictive and obsessive behaviors online. Because it makes us feel wonderful. And the manuscript that we labor over in secret can never give us the kind of instant feedback and thumbs-up validation that we get from a tweet that gets re-tweeted a hundred times in a day. It’s like the Meth version of writing – awesome for a while, but it can up-end one’s life. I spend far too much time on social media, and it eats away at my writing time. So I’m going on a two month break, and will likely keep doing so. I want to experience the fullness of the conversation without the conversation driving the rest of my work. Family comes first, work comes second, and the conversation needs to be way down on the list. It’s just the way it is. So, I closed down my Facebook account, and blocked Twitter from my computer. I’ll still tweet occasionally, but only from my phone, or the automatic posts that WordPress makes every time I post something. In any case, it can no longer interfere with the tools of my trade, as it were. Because I need those tools.
  • Short Fiction. I made a resolution last year to write one short story per month. This, alas, was wildly optimistic. I only wrote three. Four if you count the unpublishable novella, now standing at 30k. Uff. What was I thinking? Still, short fiction feels really good, and it allows me to explore territory that I likely won’t explore in my longer-form fiction. It is a much darker place. Edgier. With sharp teeth. I enjoy the work, and would like to plan for a reasonable increase in volume. So. Five. I intend to write five short stories this year. We’ll see if I can do it.
  • I intend to stop erasing this year. I had a bit of a Coming-To-Jesus moment this year, when I realized that I erased more words than I had in any form in my manuscripts. Like, by many, many, many times. I write; I erase; I re-write; I re-erase; over and over and over. And it’s not useful. And it’s indicative of something else, too – a fear of finishing, a lack of honor in my work, a gap in kindness toward myself. So, step one. No more erasing. If I don’t like something, I make a new document. This is the new rule.
  • I intend to do yoga every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. This has been awesome so far, actually. Because it really has only been ten minutes every day, and even that has huge benefits for me. I have a tendency to live within the confines of my brain (I know I’m not alone in this) and it’s not always the best place for me to be. Not only that, it is not an honest way of assessing how we typically live, you know? Our bodies are the interface through which we experience everything that is wonderful about being alive. One of the things I love about yoga is its insistence that mindfulness is not just the brain. Our skin is mindful. Our spine is mindful. Our intestines and lungs and shoulders and ankles and toes are mindful too. When I can fill my entire body with good, pleasurable feelings, when I can quiet my mind and slow my heart, when I can turn my focus away from the whirling dervish of my brain and focus instead on the flow of air in and out and in and out, it makes my work on the page far more fluid and easy and real. It’s remarkable, actually.
  • I intend to cuddle my kids and my husband and my dog every single day and tell them how much I love them. Actually, I already do this. Every single day. But it is nice to say it out loud. And write it on my blog for posterity.
An important question.

This is a typical moment in BarnhillLand. But with kids instead of cats.

How about you? What are your intentions? And what are your hopes for 2014?

What I want for Christmas is the dumbest ever.

Here is a conversation I had with my husband, recently. And you know what? I feel for the guy. I really do. He works so hard. And it can’t be easy. I’m not….well, I’m not the easiest person to be married to. I fully accept this. And I get it that he wants to give me thing, and holy smokes do I appreciate it. But honestly? I feel like I’m past the point in my life when holiday gifts make much sense. I have too much stuff. And the things that would actually make my life easier? Well, they’re a little out of reach, at present. Because all of our available funds are tied up in the kids and the house. But mostly the kids. So I told him that I really didn’t want anything in lieu of holiday gifts.

He did not accept this. At all.

HIM: We have to figure out what you’re getting.

ME: I don’t want anything. Seriously.

HIM: Seriously, nothing. What do you want for Christmas? Like wanting things.

ME: I’m not even going to tell you because it’s too expensive.

HIM: I don’t care. I just want to know what it is.

ME: Just get me socks or a subscription to One Story or something.

HIM: OH MY GOD YOU ARE THE WORST.

ME: It’s dumb. What I want is the dumbest ever. But I still want it. But I want not to want it so I’m not telling you.

HIM: COME ON!

ME: FINE. What I really want, more than anything else, is a Roomba.

HIM: No way.

ME: It’s true.

HIM: ….
…..
…..
ME: I know.

HIM: You mean the thing that scoots around and pretends to clean.

ME: It doesn’t pretend. It cleans. Not very well, I’ll grant you, but probably better than I’m doing right now. So. Yeah. That’s what I want.

HIM: You’re kidding, right?

ME: Alas, no.

HIM: You’ve got all of Western Civilization before you, with its centuries of perfecting the machine of the marketplace. We’ve got the art of making and marketing and buying and selling to a science so exquisite it deserves its own University system …. and on this, the season in which we slaughter yearling calves on our altars erected in temples dedicated to the gods of consumerism ….. and you want a vacuum cleaner?

(Author’s note: I might be elaborating here. I can’t quite remember)

ME: Yes.

HIM: And you don’t mind that it’s, like, housewifey and stuff.

ME: I don’t care. I want it. I want something to clean instead of me cleaning. I want ONE THING IN THIS HOUSE that does whatever I ask it to, because god knows the kids are hopeless with their books and their independent thinkings. I want something to devour the dog hair and attack the piles of sand that inexplicably appear on the living room floor. I want something to suck the dust away while I’m writing. I also want self-cleaning laundry and a macrobiotic chef and electric slippers. But mostly I want a robot. A best friend robot. A cheerful, always wants to help robot. A hard-working robot servant/family member/mostly a servant to clean my floors and look silly carrying unlikely objects across the floor like martinis and doughnuts and do what I ask and I shall name him Algernon. But I shall call him Ernest.

HIM: That’s a compelling argument.

ME: I know, right?

HIM: Hmmm. Well. How much are they?

ME: Like four hundred bucks.

HIM: Ah.

ME: Yeah.

HIM: So. Socks, then?

Which is fine. I made sure to send him a picture of these:

Saturday Sharing Time – lets see some bits from your WIPs (c’mon. you know you wanna.)

It’s been quite a bit since I’ve asked you people to share bits and pieces from your hidden pages, and I think it’s high time to do it again. Because it’s fun! I’ll start:

(and this piece – called “The Unlicensed Magician”, will likely never see the light of day. It is a novella – and where the heck do you publish a 30k novella? Nowhere, alas. Ah well. Maybe I’ll self-pub it someday. After I fuss at it. Endlessly. For years.)

The Minister had never counted on the wind. He built his tower higher and higher – a wobbly, twisty, unlikely-looking structure, uncurling like seaweed toward the shimmering limit of the sky. Dark stones, blackened windows. Impossible without magic. And now it was higher than any structure in the history of the world. The Minister knew the history of the world. He had all the history books. The ones he hadn’t burned, anyway. And while the books told of impressive structures, they never mentioned the winds.

The wind, at the top of the tower, once nearly sent him careening to his death, which would have been unfortunate seeing how long –how very long – he had spared himself the unpleasantness of dying. Falling off his own tower? The very idea! He started binding himself with straps to keep him in place as he gazed at the sky through his stargazer, and watched for the first glimpse of the Boro Comet.

Four times a century it came. The Minister had seen it more times than he could count. And now he would see it pass by once again – and so close – but he still would not be able to catch it. Not yet, anyway. How many more magic children would he need until his tower was tall enough? Ten? Hundreds? Thousands? How many enhancements would he require before he was able to pluck the comet from the sky and carry it in his pocket forever? It sickened him, of course, this business with the children. But the sickness in his heart didn’t interfere with the surety of his purpose. Besides, that first, singular act of cruelty made the thousands that followed infinitely easier.

There were large red flowers growing along the edges of the walls defining the rooftop patio – a gift from one of his magic children, right before she died. “To help you breathe,” she said kindly, before she breathed her last. Her lips were pale; her eyes were the color of milk, her hair had fallen out months before. He usually did not learn the names of his magic children – or anyone, really. People die so quickly when they are not enhanced, and only the Minister is enhanced. He has seen to that. But the magic children. They die quicker. Best not to know them.

This one, though. This one he knew. Not her name, of course, just the fact of her – that inscrutable bit of the Self that cannot be drawn or recorded or named. And after all these years, he still mourned her. A raw, painful, immediate feeling of loss.

Red flowers, his heart whispered. Red, red, red, red.

He picked a flower, breathed deeply, and felt a tightening in his throat. He inserted the flower stem into his lapel and returned his gaze to the stars, as the taste of sweetness and promise – and magic, always the taste of magic – lingered on his tongue.

Got any bits – a sentence? A paragraph? A page or two? Post it in the comments!

A quick update on my 1,000-year-old…. actually 1,001-year old dog.

The internet is a funny place. I wrote this piece about my ancient, beloved, sometimes foul-tempered, and often stinky, but always utterly herself, cattle-dog-mix – gosh, almost a year ago – and suddenly it has gotten approximately one skillion views over the last two days. Randomly. And people are commenting like mad and sending me beautiful, passionate, and soulful emails, telling me the story of their own beloved pets – those still hanging on, and those tenderly carried into their next grand adventure in that dog park in the sky.

And people are asking: how is Harper? Is she still alive?

And it’s a good question. On my block there are a lot of kids and a LOT of dogs. And this year, two very beloved animals left us, and we are all incredibly sad about it. (One of them, Gebo, just passed a couple weeks ago. My little son is heartbroken. Here is his tender tribute. Be careful clicking. You will smile through your flowing tears.)

As for Harper – she’s great! At the very youngest, she is 18 now, but she is likely over 20. That is friggin’ old. But she is tough. And she’s hanging on. Still kicking, still stinking up the place. Still barking her head off at doggie passers-by (my sweet Alpha female, though enfeebled, is still a dang Alpha – and she makes sure the world knows it). She is slowing down, for sure. She snuggles up at my feet while I write. She still gives the stink-eye to the gaggles of boys who tear up and down our stairs and pretend to be slain by lasers and fart on purpose and for no reason. (She is not alone in her stinky-eye, I have to admit.) And while she can’t go as far as she used to, she still enjoys a hike in the forest, and still enjoys her yard, and still eats her food (and the occasional peanut butter sandwich crust, should the Universe provide) and still seems perfectly happy to be here.

There is a truism among parents that one of the benefits of pet-ownership is that it helps to teach kids about death. I think this is true, but it is not the most important lesson that our dogs (and other furry family members) teach us. They teach us about compassion, too. They teach us to be patient. They teach us that life isn’t just short, it’s also fragile. They teach us that it’s important to be a noticer. To put into words what we see in others. Leo is incredibly aware of Harper’s good days and bad days. Sometimes Harper moves more slowly than others. Sometimes she shakes. Sometimes she is in pain. On those days, Leo slows his feet. He asks me when the last time she had her pain meds. He sits down on the floor and rests his arm on her back. Sometimes, he reads her a story.

Having an aging animal teaches us to hang on to each day.

Having an aging animal teaches us to find moments of grace in very small things.

Having an aging animal teaches us to take our responsibility as pet owners incredibly seriously. They look at us, these animals. They see us to our centers. They demand that we do the same.

Look at me, Harper’s eyes say. I’m counting on you.

I know, honey, my eyes say back. I’m here. I’ll be here with every wobbly step. I’ll be here with every good day and bad. I’ll be here with every rattly breath and every contented sigh. I’ll be here when you’re sick. I’ll be here when you’re well. And I’ll be here at the very end.

I promise.

When kids love pets, they learn how to promise. They learn how to care. They learn how to notice. They learn how to empathize. They learn how to nurture. They learn how to tend. They learn how to love. They learn how to say good-bye. These are good things to learn.

Haper is still alive. For now. As we all are. We will hang on to each day until we can’t. It is a blessed thing, really. And I am grateful.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in and told me your stories. I really appreciate them. I honor them. Thank you for sharing your great love with me. Honestly, it means the world.

Much love,

KB

When books are touchstones. When they are armor and shield. When they are lantern and map. When they are loved to bits, and read to smithereens.

I was twelve years old when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. It was the first time I had read a book where I didn’t just identify with the main character – I was in utter sympatico with her. Everything that Meg Murry felt, I felt. Her loneliness. Her frustration. Her poor social skills. Her emotional immaturity. Her awkwardness. Her separateness from her peers. Her love for her family. Her anger. Her confusion. Her sorrow. The things she said, I could have said. The weird things she did, I could have done (and likely had done). I had never before seen my own struggles in black and white – in the surety of paper and ink. The fact of that book in my hands thrilled me to the core.

I didn’t like the cover, so I tore it off. It was a library book, but I had no intention of returning it. I slid it in between the mattress and box spring of my bed, and read it and re-read it a thousand times. I wonder where it is now. Some nights, I wake up and I am sure I am gnawing on book binding glue. The paper disintegrated long ago – and I am sure I have breathed cloud after cloud of story dust as I sat in the loneliness of that room. The ink seeped into my skin. Those words are written on my bones.

I think I still owe that fine. Don’t tell the library.

I bring it up because, according to the good folks at MPR, it is a Young Adult novel. Except that it’s not YA at all. It’s a Middle Grade novel – and a damn good one. There is a difference, of course, between Young Adult and Middle Grade. I wrote about it, of course, here, and here. It’s been written about on approximately nine million other sites, most notably here and here and here. As expected, the good folks at MPR didn’t care to trouble themselves to learn the difference, and, as expected, it was a Middle Grade novel that won the “Best YA Book of All Time” poll on Minnesota Public Radio, and, as expected, a bunch of children’s authors seethed and ground their teeth that the good ladies of the Daily Circuit couldn’t be bothered to get their terms right – and what’s worse, were incredibly dismissive of those who tried to educate them on what the terms mean and why they matter.

Pete Hautman sums up the situation nicely here and here. Now you can click on the MPR link above, and read through the comments that a bunch of published authors, seasoned librarians, booksellers, and scholars of children’s literature left (myself included) about why it’s so important to get these terms right – if, for no other reason, we can stop all the hand-wringing from parents who don’t understand that if you hand your eight-year-old YA books that explicitly wrestle with the teen experience, said child will be wading through material and life-experiences that are inappropriate to their own experience. A Middle Grade book is a FAR more appropriate choice for that child. The distinctions matter not just for discussion and evaluation, but for purchasing too.

And it’s frustrating to those of us who actually care about books. Who love books. And who are passionate advocates for the role the beloved book in the life of a child.

And THAT’s what I actually wanted to talk about. Beloved books. Important books. The books that matter.

One of the things that I love about my colleagues in Children’s Literature (the writers, the librarians, the teachers, the scholars) is that – to a one – they are all book evangelists in their souls. Each one came to children’s literature because of a central truth that governs their lives. That books matter. That children’s books matter. And that every child deserves the chance to be moved by a book. To be guided by a book. To have a book change their world-view, change their thinking, change their trajectory, change their life.

And, of course, it’s not the book that does this, in the end. It’s the child holding the book who builds the world. And that’s exciting to me.

This time of year, the book world becomes awash with lists. Best-of lists. Newbery contender lists. Folks in the media love the horse-race narrative. They love stories of who’s up and who’s down. They love shadowy contenders. They love statistics. But the problem is that it goes counter to what we all know about books. We do not read for best, and we do not read to give awards, and we do not read to quantify the experience. Our experience with books is a relationship. It grows with us, changes as we change. It is responsive to our evolving understanding, our deepening experience, our complicated lives.

This is because, in the end, a book is a living thing. It insinuates itself into the mind and the heart. It replicates itself in dream and imagination and play. It loves. It worries. It wonders. I have been living with books for a long time, and I understand and believe and will repeat every day until the day I die the one thing that I absolutely know to be true: Books have souls. And so do we.

There have been books, like A Wrinkle in Time, that have taken residence in my life. That have integrated themselves into the landscape of my imagination and written themselves onto my heart. The inform my life as a writer, as a daughter, as a mom and as a wife. They inform my life as a politically aware person, as a good neighbor, as an educator. They protect me when I am sad. They spur me on to fight the good fight. They whisper the truth of my love to the sky. And they stay with me for months, years, decades. My whole life.

For example:

I have no idea how old I was when I read The Silver Chair. My mother had read the entire series to us when we were little, and because I was an averse reader, and frankly a poor reader, the Narnia books were ones that I could pick up and pretend to read with a good amount of authority since I already knew what happened. The truth, man. It’s rough.

But The Silver Chair. It is my favorite of all of them. It is when we learn that Narnia, despite the defeat of the Telmarines, still has its dark places. It’s scary places. There are man-eating giants and soul-sucking swamps and a terrible witch and a scary underworld. But most of all, the two main characters escape to Narnia after fleeing a pack of bullies. This one moment was a talisman for me. That I too might escape. That there might be something beyond the days of soul-crushing humiliation that was my experience in grade school.

That book, in its soul, was me. And it gave me so much hope.

And:

I think I read that book a thousand times. And then I read it to my kids. And then I read it to myself again. What I loved most about it – apart from the adventure and friendship and humor and thrills and whatever – was the fact that the rabbits, in their souls, were storytellers. That their stories had meaning and message. That their stories guided them and fed them and kept them together. That notion plucked at my own inner harmonics – because I was moved by story too. And I self-referred to stories all the time. And I knew that a story could make sense out of senseless situation, and could offer hope and meaning when it seemed that both were lost forever. I knew that a story could light the dark paths, and lead us home.

Also: Fiver. Because come on.

And:

The Outsiders was really my first experience with any kind of transgressive fiction. I had never read a book where kids drank alcohol or said bad words or smoked or fought or whatever. I read it in eighth grade. We had to read Rumble Fish for school – another book that I loved, but I didn’t understand Rumble Fish in its subtlety until much much later. The Outsiders, however, punched me in my guts. It was the first time that I felt exasperated and tender towards characters in my reading. It was the first time that I saw their transgressions as necessary. It was the first time that I really got it that the world can be violent sometimes. And cruel. And unfair. And yet. How the world still has beauty, and friendship, and desperate love. And that poetry matters – as does art. And that we all have the power – even as we take our last breath – to transform.

I am going to do more writing on this subject. On the books that matter, the books we carry, the books that remain in the satchels of our souls  – tools, maps, weapons, comfort, inspiration, joy. Whatever.

In the meantime, what are your talisman books, your guiding books, your treasured books. What books do you carry in your heart? What books are written on your bones?

On Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and the Things That Mystify Me

I am ten years old. I am riding a banana seat bike through the alleys. I am allowed to go as far as 31st Street, and then I have to turn back. Words cannot describe how much I love this bike. It is turquoise with sparkly flower decals and I ride back and forth through blocks of alleys singing the entire “Mary Poppins” soundtrack at the top of my lungs. My knees are scratched. My hair needs a comb. I probably haven’t brushed my teeth.

A man in a car pulls up. He opens the window. He asks my name. I have been well-trained. I have learned about good touches and bad touches in school. I know that good people don’t drive up to children on bikes. My teachers have been very clear. I take a good look at his face. I notice his red hair. I take off as fast as I can in the opposite direction, toward home.

He circles around. Meets me mid-way in the next block. Asks me what my hurry is. Tells me I might hurt myself. I do not make eye contact. I power through the next block. I see him again. I keep going.

I am in my driveway, at the edge. My bike is on the ground. I am blocking the way. I am breathing hard. I do not want him to know where I live. But I want to see if it was real – if he was real. I want to understand what is happening. I want to know if he will come snaking down the alley. If he is looking for me.

He does. He slows down. He grins at me. I realize that he is not wearing pants. I don’t see any – you know. Bits. Or, I’m pretty sure I don’t. What I do see is a thatch of red hair where his pants should be. I am horrified. I feel sick. And sweaty. I dry-heave. He laughs and speeds away. I leave my bike where it is. I go inside. I wash my hands. I wash my face. I will never be clean. I do not tell my parents.

Later, I get in trouble later for leaving my bike on the driveway.

It is the first time I am ever afraid of a man. It is the first time that it ever occurs to me to be afraid. It will not be the last.

Every day, someone comes to my blog after googling “anti-feminist movies”. Every. Dang. Day.

(To be fair, people show up at my blog after googling a lot of things. “Taxidermy porn”, for example. And “how to turn my teacher into a toad”. And the ever-popular “mom butt”. The internets, man. It’s a mad country filled with mad people, and we are the maddest of all.)

Now, a while ago (quite a while, actually) I wrote a post about a children’s movie with some pretty gross lady-hating themes, and I’ve managed to catch heck for it. In the comments, in my email box. Whatever. There are people who are seriously mad at me for pointing out that the movie was, in addition to being a crappily-animated, source-text-destroying, dreckish disaster of a movie – it was also grossly antifeminist. Moreover, it fed into the baseless fears of the men’s-rights folks who seem to think that personal empowerment is a zero-sum game. That to empower women means to disempower men. And that the purpose of feminism is to throw men, collectively mind you, into the proverbial dust-bin of history.

These things make me tired.

And sad.

The most troubling statements, though, are the ones that suggest that I, as a children’s author, have no right to call myself a feminist. Or an anything-ist. I had similar hate-letters when I posted a piece railing against Michelle Bachman, or when I wrote in praise of my GLBT married friends.

But feminism, man. There is a special kind of venom for the feminism.

I am fifteen. I take the Lake Street bus every day after track practice. It takes an hour. I settle in, hoping that my prodigious post-running stinkiness will prevent anyone from sitting next to me.

I am wrong. A man in a suit boards the bus. He takes the empty seat next to me. I look out the window. He asks me my name. I pretend to be asleep. He asks me what grade I’m in. I say I have homework even though I don’t. He wants to know why I’m not friendly. He tells me that if I’m not friendly, no one will like me. His hand is on my knee. I leave it there. If I say something, people will look at me. And I don’t want them looking at me. I want to disappear.

The curious thing for me, though, is the sense of ownership. I write children’s books. I tweet. I keep this blog. I have a readership – a small one, sure. But a readership nonetheless. I get notes from readers – both men and women – saying “I come here to read about the writing process” or “I come here to get your insights on….” whatever. Books. Kids. Pretty things. “Please keep your feminism to yourself,” people say in comments I delete. “No one cares about your politics,” one woman wrote me. She wrote a lot of other sentences, mind, and I’ll repeat none of them here. She closed with, “the next time you want to air your grievances, just keep your yap shut.”

Apparently, for both children and children’s authors, silence is golden.

Or maybe it’s not authors. Maybe it’s women. Maybe women saying things online makes us itchy. Or maybe women saying things at all.

I am nineteen. I am on a date. He is much older than I am. Recently divorced. I am nursing a broken heart. He orders me a glass of wine. He’s already had several. I could smell it on his breath in the car. My heart is broken. I do not care. I don’t drink and I’m too young, but he winks at the waitress and says that both glasses are for him. I tell him about my classes. How General Chemistry is kicking my butt. I tell him about my seminar course on Medieval theologians and mystic poets. I tell him that I want to go to medical school.

“Sweetheart,” he says, “you are the sexiest girl to sit at my table in a long, long time. But you just don’t seem smart enough for medical school.” This devastates me. It is the thing I already fear. The thing that keeps me up at night. I want to cry. I want to yell. Instead, I am silent. And my silence is sharp, and hot, and heavy. It has mass and gravity and presence. I get up and leave. He calls me bad words – loudly. Slurring. People don’t stare at him. They stare at me. Their eyes narrow. Because I’m the bitch who’s walking out. I exit the door. It’s winter. It’s crazy cold. I walk back to my dorm. It is five miles. I do not have gloves. I am wearing stupid shoes. And thin tights.

It takes me a week to warm up.

The thing is though? My identity as a feminist informs every facet of my life. It informs my parenting. It informs my reading. It informs the way I listen to the news. It informs my interactions with others. It informs my understanding. It informs the questions that I ask. And it informs the writing that I do  – the novels for children, the short stories for grown ups, the stuff on this blog. I can’t take the feminism out. I don’t even know how.

And maybe this is the limitations of my world-view. Because I honestly can’t understand how we can be in this world and not be feminist. How can we just not notice inequality and injustice when it is staring us in the dang face? How can we not come up against the blindness of privilege and not want to change? How can we not desire to open our eyes? All social justice movements, in the end, work to remove shadows and blocks. We cannot see injustice if the limits of privilege block the view. If we remove the block we can see unfairness and we can change the world and make it better. Those blocks are removed through experience, through awareness-raising, and, probably most effectively, through story. Story matters.

I am thirty-four. I am at a Science Fiction convention. I am working on a book. I have finished another one. I am submitting short stories. I am hopeful about my future. The panel discussion is interesting and intense. I raise my hand. I contribute. I am seen. An editor –  a prominent guy – comes and chats with me afterward. I have met him before – another conference. I have met his wife. He asks me to join him at the Con Suite to continue chatting. I’m a chatty gal. I’m always up for a good conversation. We continue discussing whatever it is we’re talking about as we go up the elevator. I don’t know where the Con Suite actually is. “Don’t worry,” he says sunnily. “I’ll get us there.” He is standing very close. I don’t think too much of it. He is much older than me. I assume he is hard of hearing. We continue chatting. He opens a door. I follow in. It’s not the Con Suite. It’s his hotel room. And his shirt is off. “Where shall we start?” he says.

I am a feminist. Proudly so. Unabashedly so. It concerns me that I get unpleasant emails and comments just based on this blog. I have in the past. I will in the future. Ugly people will say ugly things, and that is just that. It concerns me that “Writing While Feminist” is offensive to people – that the fact of my world-view and the fact of my voice and the fact that I tell stories and think things and see the world in terms of changing and re-shaping and bettering things for everyone is somehow worthy of vitriol or anger or shaming words.

My books, because they were written by my hands and dreamed up in my brain, cannot be separated from my world-view. The world I live in is much better and more equal than the world in which my grandmothers came of age. But that ain’t saying much. We still put a premium on the male voice in this culture – in publishing, in media, in education, in the law, in medicine. Everywhere. We still discount the female voice. We still discount the female experience. We still discount women’s work. I wish it wasn’t so.

I am at the park. I am wearing a tee-shirt that says “Radical Feminist”. I am with my three kids and my dog. My son is in a sling, his face pressed against my breast, fast asleep.

“Is that shirt a joke?” a woman asks me.

“No,” I say.

“Are you divorced?” she says.

“No,” I say.

“Does your husband know you’re wearing it?”

“My husband bought it for me.”

“Hmph. I would be offended if my husband bought me something like that. It’s like saying ‘I think you’re ugly.’ No offense.”

My books have strong women in them. And unpleasant women. And broken women. My books have strong men in them. And unpleasant men. And broken men. Because all of us are strong, and unpleasant, and broken. Sometimes we are all of these things at once.

I am a feminist because I love men, and I believe that they are capable and strong and wise. I am a feminist because I love women, and I believe that they too are capable and strong and wise. And I am a feminist because I fiercely love my kids. And your kids. And the kids that aren’t born yet. And I think the world that we are giving them can be so much better, so much kinder, and so much more just than the one we got right now.

I am on the bus. I am sitting next to a man who is reading the newspaper. He snorts. He grunts. He shakes his head.

“The feminists are taking over,” he says.

“Yup,” I say, nodding emphatically. “Thank god.”

The Magnificence of Middle Grade – why I read these books, why I write these books, and why these kids are awesome.

There are three boys under the bridge that spans the small creek at the end of my dead-end street. It is summer. They are all eight years old. It is a glorious age, eight.

“Our parents don’t know we’re here,” says one boy, not knowing that I am standing on the bridge, directly over his head.

“I know,” says another boy. “We’re on our own. Let’s never go back.”

Well, it’s happened again. A bunch of people who don’t read children’s literature with any frequency, passion or enthusiasm asked a bunch of other people who don’t think about children’s literature above the occasional passing interest, to name their “top YA novel”. These conversations always make me crabby. Because – and I must confess this bugs the spit out of me – once again we must wade through well-meaning comments demonstrating the rampant and weird conflation of YA and Middle Grade books.

There is a thing I must make clear: Middle Grade novels and Young Adult novels are not the same novels. To conflate the two is to dampen or derail the discussion. And really, what’s the point of a derailed discussion?

Listen, folks. Caddie Woodlawn is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. The Giver? Also Middle Grade. And Harry Potter (at least the first four books are MG – number five is squarely in YA territory). A Wrinkle in Time? Yup. That’s Middle Grade too.

This distinction is important because middle grade kids and teenagers are different. Their world views are different. The rules governing their lives are different. Their relationships are different. And while it is incredibly common for middle grade kids to “read up” and for teenage kids to “read down” (I know TONS of fourth graders who are huge fans of the Hunger Games trilogy, and I know TONS of teens who are huge fans of Terry Pratchett‘s The Wee Free Menand its tie-in novels), just as it is common for lots of kids – both middle grade kids and teens – to read grown-up books and dig the hell out of them,  it is important to read and understand each separate genre on its own terms. That’s what we do as readers – we categorize, evaluate, compare and understand. And then we read everything. Wildly.

The wildness is important.

It is raining. The sky is dark and dumping. Water streams in great gushes from the corners of the roofs. Fifteen kids, aged four to twelve, tear across a mud-soaked yard. The adults huddle in the closest living room, holding paper plates of pasta salads and barbecue and lemon bars in one hand and cans of beer that went warm hours ago in another.

“Come inside,” the adults say. “You guys are soaked.”

The kids, in mid-step, pause. They stare at their parents as though they have started speaking another language. Sumerian, maybe. Or Elvish. They continue running. No adult can tell what the game is. Only that it is insanely fun.

I read a lot of books. It’s an occupational hazard. I read grownuppy novels and nonfiction and poetry. I read folk tales and fairy tales from around the world. I read science fiction and fantasy. I read YA novels. I read picture books. I read theological texts. I read foundational scriptures of religions that are not my own. And I read Middle Grade novels. Lots and lots and lots and lots of them.

Could I pick a “very best one”? A “top novel”? Not on your life. I wouldn’t even hazard to try. And, in fact, the very idea is somehow, well, icky to me. It is a reductive, banal process that is the very opposite of what Middle Grade novels do for me. The Middle Grade novel, fundamentally, is the act of expansion. This is because middle grade kids, by their very natures, are expansive. They are wild, impulsive, intuitive, inscrutable, curious and contradictory. They speak in multitudes. They yawp. (And believe me, I live in a sea of kids. The collective YAWP from these children is as ubiquitous as air.)

I am listening to “Carmen”. It is magnificent, as usual. The nine year old in my house stops. Listens curiously.

“Did she just say, ‘egg roll’?” he says.

“No,” I say. “Hush. I’m listening.”

“And now she just said ‘Elmo.'”

And then he starts dancing. All rhythmic stamping and flying fingers and bony elbows and knobby knees. Bizet would have been amazed.

What fascinates me about these kids is how easily they transport themselves between their selves now and their selves as they will be. Somewhere around third grade, the notion that the lives that they know will one day fall away – that their child selves will cease to be and their adult selves will take their places – really starts to hit home. Ask any third grader what he or she wants to be when they grow up, and they will tell you approximately nine thousand things. Firemen and scientists and astronauts and doctors and presidents and marine biologists and bush pilots and park rangers and spies and cops and professional divers and janitors and teachers and inventors and acrobats and basketball players and actresses and “just famous”. Sometimes, all at once.

This is a thing I know for sure. When a middle grade kid sits down to read a novel, their adult selves are reading, too. The adult that kid imagines him or herself to be. The adult that will, one day, pick up that same book, and read it. And when we, as adults, pick up the books that we read as kids, our kid-selves are reading with us. Across time, across space, across experience and understanding, across universes, across dimensions, across everything boundless and wondrous and strange. Which means that these books, when done well, allow for that sense of concurrency. They allow our selves as kids and our selves as adults to reflect back at one another. I see you, the child says to the adult she will be. I see you too, the adult says the the child that he was. Both narrative lines, both sets of understandings, harmonize with one another. And it is a wonderful thing.

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” the eleven year old asks her seven year old cousin. They love each other, these girls. They are linked souls.

“I already am grown up,” the seven year old says. “I am already all the things.”

I love the kids of this age. I love everything about them. I love their humor and their silliness. I love their capacity for wonder. I love their bravery and their fears and their litany of worries. I love their valor. I love the boundlessness of their imaginations. I love their willingness to try. I love their willingness to connect. I love them in their big-heartedness and their shriveled soulishness and that both of those things can happen simultaneously. I love their selfishness and their selflessness, and that both of those things can also happen simultaneously. I love their dreams. I love their nightmares. I love  their very selves – their effable, ineffable, effa-ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular selves (apologies to Mr. Eliot).

I read Middle Grade novels. I write Middle Grade novels. I love Middle Grade novels. I spend a lot of time thinking about Middle Grade novels. I will never tell you which one was the very best of all. It is a ludicrous idea. I can tell you which books moved me. I could give you a list that is miles long. I could invite you to my house and hand you book after book, and talk each one up for hours. Because that, in the end, is what books do. They do not belong on lists – the belong in peoples’s hands. And in our hearts. And in our lives.

“WAIT,” one boy says.

“WHAT,” say the others.

It is negative five degrees. Not including the wind chill factor. They are standing on a frozen hillside. Their faces are red. Their upper lips are white with frozen snot. They are balanced on their snow boards, ready to go screaming into the sky. Speed and light. Black jackets. Bright scarves. A frozen landscape. A shattering white.

“We need to decide our superpowers.”

“You don’t need to decide your superpower. Your superpower shows itself to you. That’s how it works.”

But best of all, these novels give us, as grown-ups, an avenue and a tool to connect with middle grade kids - our own children, our neighbor kids, our nieces and nephews, our students, the kids we meet at the library, kids in our church, and, yes, the kids we used to be. These books lay out a blanket in the market square. They call out to all passers by – Come! the books shout Sit! Gather together! This is a story for all of you. Young people! Old people! People of middle age! Come and share and connect and laugh and weep and worry and wonder and live. When I talk to middle grade kids about the books that we have both read, we will talk about characters, and we will talk about amazing feats, and we will talk about jokes and ideas and scary parts and mind-blowing parts, but what we are actually saying is this: I see you. I feel with you. We have hearts and souls. We have compassion and grace. And look! We are so alive.

Next up: Stories Are For Everyone.

Why do I love YA? Because Teenagers Are Friggin’ Awesome.

I just picked up my girl after not seeing her since Wednesday morning. She had gone with the other ninth graders in the Open program at South High to some outdoor education program thingie. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but ended up having a pretty good time, despite pretty much freezing her tail off.

As I’m walking her to the car, we walked past another freshman, shivering on the sidewalk, waiting for his mom.

“OSCAR GO INSIDE,” Ella barked at him. “YOU’RE TOO COLD.”

“I CAN’T,” he said. “ALL MY STUFF IS HERE. AND MY MOM ISN’T HERE YET.”

Freshmen, I have learned, only yell at each other. It’s cultural, as I understand it.

“FINE,” she said.

“FINE,” he said.

And we got into the car.

“Ella,” I said. “Do we need to give that boy a ride?”

“Psh,” she said. “No. That’s just Oscar. He never notices the cold. He’s an Anarchist.”

“Anarchists don’t feel cold?”

“No. It’s like a thing. The cold, or feeling cold is, apparently, a cynical construct of the Corporate State.”

“Ah,” I said. “Um. He looks cold.” The kid was wearing knock-off Chuck’s and holey jeans and had no gloves and no hat.

“He might be doing it on purpose. He does a lot of things on purpose. He’s also a self-proclaimed Communist. And my mortal enemy.”

“People still have those?”

“I do, it seems.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why is he your mortal enemy?”

“Because I hate Bronies and he hates Les Miz. The lines were drawn long ago. We do not chose our sides; we are our sides.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I’m just kidding. My friends write fake insulting and vaguely threatening notes to him signed by him and his friends send fake anti-broadway manifestos to me signed by him. It’s become a thing.”

“There are still things?”

“There will always be things.”

And truth be told, I found it vaguely comforting to know that these were being done by hand. Like, old-school note-writing. These kids today! So crazy. So odd-ball. So curious and confused and interested and bored and brave. So hopeful. So cynical. So fully and completely and wonderfully themselves.

This is why I love YA novels. Because I love teenagers. Because they are awesome.

Lately, there have been a bunch of articles and conversations floating around the various places in the media about YA novels – the novels that, when done well, explore the rocky terrain of the teenaged experience – without nostalgia. Without moralizing. Without the limitations of the Adult Gaze. The best of the genre are the books that tell the stories of teenagers experiencing their own particular stories on their own terms, in their own voices, and powered by their own steam. These books are wonderful – not as an aside, or as a lower class of literature, or as a “my goodness can you believe there is a book for teenagers that isn’t terrible – not that I read it you understand, oh god no, but I certainly heard…” sort of way.

These conversations make me cranky. Anyone who ever says, “Here are some YA books that actually aren’t too bad” needs to get dope-smacked.

Books about teenagers have a responsibility to be wonderful. They have a responsibility to be honest and incisive and brutal and brave. They have a responsibility to be just as honest and incisive and brave as the teenagers who read them. And I believe this is true, not for the sake of their readership, and not for the sake of critics, and certainly not for the pointless pontificators on the radio (yammering endlessly about books that they have never read and have no intention of reading either). Those books have a responsibility to be wonderful for the sake of their characters, of their stories. Because those stories matter.

The process of transition between youth and adulthood is confusing and scary and soul-crushing, and sometimes it’s a miracle that any of us come out of it with our bodies and souls and selves intact. There is a reason why so many of us choose to remember our teen years through the foggy lens of nostalgia – some things are too painful to relive. Sometimes it’s easier to see through our adult eyes. And the adult eye is a dim thing. And prone to self-deception.

Teenagers are amazing. Even when they’re awful, they’re amazing. And if you don’t believe me, I encourage you to spend some time with teenagers. I encourage you to get to know one or seven or a hundred.

To the teens in my life, I salute you. To the teen protagonists and side-characters in the books that have moved me, I salute you as well. I salute your struggles. I salute your journeys. I salute your love and your loss and your questioning. I salute you as you become more fully yourselves. I salute you as you seek to clarify the rules by which you will live your life. It isn’t easy.

Be well, be safe, and godspeed.

 

(Next up: Why I love Middle Grade books. Stay tuned.)