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.)

PSA: Do not hire these children. At least not as party-planners.

Fun fact: I turn forty on Saturday. I am ridiculously excited about it.

Really, it’s kind of silly for me to be excited at all, given that I’ve been telling people that I’m forty for the last eight years. I figured, at thirty-two, with three kids and a dog and a minivan and a house and a community garden plot, that it didn’t matter what age I told people I was. They’d hear forty no matter what I said. So I thought I’d just beat them to the punch. So one would think, given that situation, that my upcoming foray into forty would seem somewhat anticlimactic. But one would think wrong.

I am crazy-thrilled to be forty. I want to give forty a big, wet kiss. I want to take it places and buy it pretty baubles and romance its panties off. I want to take forty home and introduce her to Mother. I want to eat forty chocolates and drink forty sips of wine and run forty miles and catch forty winks and dream forty dreams.

And yet, I’ve made no plans. Because I stink at making plans. So I put it to my kids. This was our conversation:

ME: So. It’s my birthday on Saturday.

THE KIDS: It is? But we’re not ready!

ME: There’s nothing to be ready about. We’re just going to hang out.

CORDELIA: Mom. What do you want for your birthday? And don’t say socks.

ME: Socks.

CORDELIA: MOM!

(All I ever want is socks. Wool stripey socks. And I never get them.)

ME: But we should do something fun. What should we do?

LEO: I know! Skyzone!

(Do you guys know Skyzone? It’s a huge concrete bunker filled with trampolines, and Leo wants to live there. Here’s a picture:

ME: We are not going to Skyzone.

LEO: Is that because you hate fun?

ELLA: We have to do something that mom likes to do.

CORDELIA: What does mom like to do?

LEO: Grocery shop?

CORDELIA: LET’S GO GROCERY SHOPPING!

ME: We are not going grocery shopping.

ELLA: Are you going to make us clean?

CORDELIA: I hate cleaning.

ELLA: It’s decided. No cleaning on birthdays.

LEO: Mom. I got it. The water park. It’s perfect.

ME: Nah.

LEO: WHY NOT?

ME: Too much man-sweat and back-tats.

LEO: I don’t even know what that means. You’re not making sense.

ELLA: You guys are terrible at this game.

CORDELIA: WE CAN GO TO THE CRAFT STORE AND YOU CAN BUY US THINGS!

LEO: That’s not as fun as a trampoline.

ELLA: Everything is more fun than a trampoline.

CORDELIA: Let’s go to the Mall of America! And shop!

LEO AND ELLA: MOM HATES THE MALL OF AMERICA AND SHOPPING.

ELLA: And probably America. Mom is a communist.

ME: I prefer “pinko”.

LEO: Mom. Just tell us.

And so I considered.

ME: I know. Let’s go to the book store. And then the sock store. How’s that?

My children shook their heads slowly, long-suffering expressions marring their beautiful faces.

ELLA: Oh, mom.

CORDELIA: Poor, poor mom.

LEO: You really stink at having a birthday.

But they are wrong. I am rocking this thing already.

“The wrong boy lived.”

I participated in a reading not too long ago. And there’s video evidence!

Now, in my defense, I was just fresh out of urgent care (I developed a nasty reaction to a vaccination and was in considerable pain), so I was rushing a bit. Okay, a lot. Also there’s quite a bit of background noise. Still. Here is me, reading the first two chapters of The Witch’s Boy.

More proof that babies are brought by the stork.

victorian-postcard-flummoxed-woman-swats-away-stork-parasol-baby-delivery-villain-still-pursues-her-drawing-paiting-image

In a lot of ways, I’m grateful that my kids are nothing like me. I’m the most disorganized person in the world. Messy. Distractible. I can’t draw. I can’t keep cupboards organized. I lose socks. I can’t balance checkbooks. Forms confuse me. I sometimes lose steam on projects due to crushingly low self-esteem. I didn’t do that great in school and I royally sucked at standardized tests. The things I could do well in childhood (and if we’re being honest, adulthood too) fit on an index card: tell stories, talk about stories, sing songs and make people feel wonderful about themselves. That’s pretty much it.

My kids, though. They are not like me at all. They are focused. Intense. Wicked smart. And crazily organized. So where does that come from? How does a So Not Type-A She’s Practically Type-Z And If There Was A Past-Type-Z She’d Be That mom give rise to three very Type-A kids. Even Leo – my sweet Leo! – if viewed through the lens of third-grade-boydom is pretty dang Type-A. He keeps his drawings organized and his magic cards organized and his Scouts stuff organized, and he does his homework the SECOND he gets home so he can check it off on his checklist. He’s even starting to organize his legos. (Good luck, kid.)

But of the three, it’s my middle child who is not just Type-A. She’s Type-A+. We went to her parent teacher conference the other day, and got to hear her teacher gushing about how organized she is, what a leader she is, how she comes up with creative ways to make even dry subject matter come alive. How she organizes other students into schemes to enrich the class – skits, songs, interpretive dance, all with an eye to making learning interesting and collaborative and fun.

“Yep,” I said. “Of my three kids, she’s the one who was born to run things.”

“My guess is that she’ll be my boss someday,” her teacher said. “Or maybe she already is.”

At home, she writes up schedules for the family. She makes goal statements. She starts making homemade Christmas presents in July. She is eleven for god’s sake, and she’s already written out the christmas cookie baking schedule.

We are going out East this year for Thanksgiving – something that we usually don’t do, but it was the only time to get Ted’s side of the family all together. And because it’s not the usual time that we travel, it kind of snuck up on me this year. I was eating dinner with the kids, and my oldest remarked that she has a two-day week next week.

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“Thanksgiving, mom,” my oldest said.

“Are you sure it’s November?” I said. I had honestly forgotten. All three rolled their eyes.

Mom,” they sighed.

“Huh,” I said. “Well. I suppose you guys should pack this weekend. Then you won’t have to do it after school when you’re crazed.”

“You should pack too, Mom,” said my middle child.

“I totally will,” I assured her. But I won’t. I am physically unable to pack before T-minus-five-minutes. I make sure everyone else is packed, and I check their bags to do a socks-and-underwear-count and that there are enough sweaters. For myself, I shove stuff in a bag and hope for the best.

“Well,” my middle said. “I’m already packed.”

“Really?” I said. “We don’t leave for a week.”

“I’ve been packed for a while.”

“How long?”

“Two weeks.”

Two weeks?”

“Maybe three.” She blushed. “I like to make sure the things I want are clean. And maybe I’ll forget what I like to have when it’s almost time to go. I also packed my activity bag. They’re under my bed. I made a list for you, Mom.”

What kind of crazy person packs in advance? My own little crazies, that’s who. They did not get this tendency from me, and they certainly didn’t get it from their dad. They arrived – a crystalline distillation of their Utter Selves, hard, bright, whole, and completely separate from me. And I love this about them, even as it makes my heart break to pieces. They are growing. Even as we sit at that table, they are light and cloud and wind. Energy. Change. Potentialities. They are growing wings. And they will fly away.

(this thing that I have. this life. it will pass away. indeed, it is passing already. and oh, my heart, and oh, my heart, my heart, my heart.)

“You think I’m weird, don’t you,” she accused.

“No, darling. You’re the most normal thing in my life. I’m the weird one. Good thing I have you.”

(What will I do without you? whispers my heart.

I have no idea, I whisper back.)

We are braced for boys.

There will be boys. Fifteen of them. No, sixteen. They will descend tomorrow as the rain pours and pours and pours outside. It will be raining boys.

My original plan, as these eight and nine year old hoodlums celebrate my son’s transition from eight to nine, was to have them outside the entire time. Capture the flag. Pin the nose on the zombie. Running races. What have you. Now, instead, we will be doing a scavenger hunt in the rain, and maybe tag, and then there will be different stations indoors. Legos in the basement. Learn-t0-play-poker-with-buttons in the dining room. Risk in the living room. Duct tape creation station in the attic.

Pray for me, my friends. Pray that barricades hold the huns at bay. Pray for keen minds and sharp wits and cat-like reflexes. And pray that the weatherman is wrong and we really can be outside, because good god. I don’t know if my house is engineered to withstand that kind of level of Crazy.

(And oh! My baby boy! How can he be turning nine? In only a few days. Nine!)

My Eight-Year-Old Son on Junot Díaz: a transcription.

Sometimes, my kids will throw bits of the world at me – tiny nuggets of information hoarded and hidden for later, possibly aggressive, use. They are like squirrels gathering acorns for the sole purpose of hurling it at my head when I least expect it. For example, here’s a conversation, in its entirety, that I had with my son this weekend.

LEO: Mom. Is Junot Díaz a writer?

ME: (stares for a long time at my son, trying to figure out how the hell he knows who Junot Díaz is) Um. Yes?

LEO: Okay. (balls up hands into little triumphant fists) I knew it!

ME: Why the sudden interest in Junot Díaz?

LEO: Do you know him?

ME: Who?

LEO: Junot Díaz.

ME: No.

LEO: (looking truly sorry) Oh. That’s too bad.

And then he left the room. And I was mystified.

Five minutes later.

LEO: Did Junot Díaz write This Is How You Lose Her?

ME: Leo.

LEO: What?

ME: How do you know who Junot Díaz even is?

LEO: (a long-suffering expression) Everyone knows who Junot Díaz is. Gosh, mom.

(Five minutes later)

LEO: Mom. Who’s your favorite writer?

ME: No idea, honey. A lot of writers are my favorite writer.

LEO: Is Junot Díaz your favorite writer?

ME: (I am absolutely going nuts at this point) What is up with your recent Junot Diaz obsession?

LEO: (ignoring me) Junot Díaz is my favorite writer. I think he should be your favorite writer too. I think you should write like Junot Díaz and then you can be more famous.

ME: Hmmm. How do you mean.

LEO: On the first page of This Is How You Lose Her, there are three swear words. Three, mom. Real swears. In a book. A real book. 

ME: Who taught you to read, anyway? No more reading.

LEO: (ignoring me again) If you write like Junot Díaz, then you’ll probably get way more famous. Swears, mom. Real swears. In a book. I didn’t know it was allowed. And if you are more famous then I can have an Ipad.

ME: I see. Cogent arguments, my son. I’ll take them under advisement. And remind me to lock up the books.

LEO: You can’t lock up books mom. They’re escape artists. Everyone knows that.

Later, I was cleaning up his room and I found my copy of The Stand under the pile of hard-worn shorts and tee-shirts and socks. And The Arsonist’s Guide To Writer’s Homes in New England.

LEO: Mom. What does Arsonist mean?

ME: Someone who arranges flowers for a living.

LEO: Are you sure?

ME: It comes from the latin word arse, which means delicate flower.

LEO: I don’t think that’s right. Are you tricking me?

ME: Go to your room.

If the house catches on fire, I have only myself to blame. And also my son. Obviously, I instantly rid my house of any hint of Chuck Palahnuik from my house. And Clockwork Orange has to go. Mr. Burgess and Mr. Zola as well. And everything Russian. I can’t tell if my son is transfixed by grownuppy books because he wants to be like his parents, or if he is actually up to something.

What am I saying? This is Leo. He is clearly up to something. I must now plan for a book-free household. It is clearly my only option.

If I have more children, I am for sure not teaching them to read. And that’s final.

 

A friendly note to the gentleman who nearly killed me today. (Caution: Contains swearing.)

Dear Sir,

I can only assume that the text message that you were avidly sending was far more important than safely transporting yourself from point A to point B. (Where were you coming from, and where were you going? Home to work, and back again? Are there people that will miss you in either place? Are there people who would reject you if you had, as you nearly did, become a murderer?)

I am the woman in the red minivan – the Very Nice Mom – that you nearly murdered today. There were four kids in the car as well – Nice Children, all.

Look. You can’t pretend that you weren’t texting. You were. I know you were. I can see it a mile off. I can see the telltale swerve, the lack of spacial awareness, the sudden loss of speed control. I can tell by the ghastly pallor thrown upon your face by the tiny but powerful screen’s ghoulish glow. And really, that’s a blessing. Because I was ready for you.

Had I not been – had I not been prepared to employ my well-trained Jedi Mom Car Tricks (there are special schools. every mom in a minivan is well versed in how to turn their cars into physics-defying, futuristic bits of magic. But perhaps you knew this. Perhaps this is why you didn’t care to be safe.) – you surely would have slammed your sedan into the side of my car, sending me off the bridge. It nearly happened. Here is who you might have killed.

1. A Very Nice Mom. She bakes cookies and cooks excellent soup and welcomes strangers into her home and makes them feel welcome. She tells jokes and writes books and loves her neighbors and is loved in return.

2. Four Very Nice Kids. These kids, of course, both outnumber and outweigh the Very Nice Mom. They are precious – both to me, and to the world. And they should be precious to you. These kids are the ones who may restart your stopped heart on the operating table someday. Or invent the drug that restores your granddaughter’s sight. Or write the book that makes you believe in God again. Or marry your nephew. Or spoon soup into your withered lips during your last, waning days of life. But you don’t care about that. Your text, apparently, was far more important.

Look. I get it that you’re afraid – afraid of loneliness, afraid of inadequacy, afraid of irrelevancy. I understand your fears. There should be another fear at play though. Fear of assholery. Because make no mistake: you are a fucking asshole. I do hope that’s clear.

You went careening from one side of the freeway to the other as you went flying out of the cloverleaf entrance. You did not look. You did not care. You nearly killed us, but I was faster, smarter, and more nimble. Yay, me. What you did, sir, can only be classified as a dick move. And I hate you for it.

Look, you are not alone. There are other assholes. Hell, I counted eight on my drive home. But make no mistake. IF YOU TEXT AND DRIVE YOU ARE A FUCKING ASSHOLE. And if you harm another person while texting and driving, you are a fucking asshole forever. And I fear this is in the cards for you, sir. I mean, Dick.

Fuck you.

Love,

Kelly

Dear Elementary School Reading Teachers and Librarians – I need your help

We interrupt my unbelievably lackadaisical posting habits of late to send out a sincere and desperate plea to teachers and librarians who have used, or are using, or are familiar with the SRA Reading Mastery curriculum by McGraw-Hill. My son’s school switched over to it last year, and it has been extremely rough around these here parts. He went from reading novels on his own (Dahl, Gaiman, Rowling, Sachar) to coming home from school saying “I’m too stupid to read”.

And then my head exploded.

Now, as his mother, it is easy for me to blame the curriculum – and maybe to do so is valid. The problem, however, may not be the curriculum itself, but rather an ill-defined and poorly-execcuted interpretation of that curriculum in this particular school – one that could absolutely be remedied by additional teacher training and alternate strategies. I know from my teaching days that it takes a while to work out the kinks in a curriculum, and I have TONS OF COMPASSION for the dedicated teachers laboring in the fields, trying to make it work.

Still.

No child should come home saying things like that. And I will not have it. Not in my house. Not with my child.

What I would like to know from any of you who can help me is this:

  • What are your thoughts about this program? What works? What doesn’t?
  • What are the strategies you use in your building for kids who get stuck? In our experience, Leo became so demoralized that he was forced to repeat the same lesson over and over because he wasn’t able to get it at 100% accuracy – for a month. This seems crazy to me. And he wasn’t alone. What do you do for your kids to keep that from happening?
  • I know the program focuses on fluency as the sole indicator of good reading. What additional strategies do you use to supplement – to make sure that your kids are also demonstrating the other indicators of good reading – inference, analysis, criticism, intertextual connections, reasoning, etc.?
  • From what I understand, this program is really expensive. Is it worth it?
  • My main criticism of this curriculum is that it seems utterly devoid of joy. What are you doing in your classroom to build joyful readers?

If you are not a teacher or librarian, but know someone who is, please send this on. I’m really trying to gather as many perspectives as I can in anticipation of a meeting I have with the Administration, as well as several conversations that I will be having with different members of the Board. Also, if this curriculum has been used in your child’s school, I’d love to hear your perspective as a parent.

Thank you all so much, and I promise to resume my random posts about random stuff very soon.

Much love,

Kelly Barnhill

We interrupt this final Friday of summer vacation to bring you this GIANT EYE.

There is, right now, a giant eyeball in Dallas.

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I can’t tell if the artist who designed this is the sort of fellow who frightens small boys off his lawn with rakes and chainsaws and kicks the occasional puppy with his steel-toed boots, or if he is destined to be my very best friend in all the land. Maybe both. What kind of genius/madman comes up with this kind of nighmarish nugget of awesome? This monstrous delight? What kind of person painstakingly copies, then magnifies his own peepers and puts them on display?  And more importantly, is he fun to have over at dinner parties? (Seriously, Tony Tasset, you’re welcome any time.)

A giant, goddamned, eye. What will they think of next?

Spend five minutes staring into that mammoth pupil and….oh, rats. I think it just swallowed my soul. Also? I’m pretty sure I know what Hell is like. Heaven too (same thing, really – two sides of a single coin, darkness and light, matter and wave, hello and goodbye, the vastness of space and the singularity of time, and oh, god, my soul, my soul, my shattered soul). Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, right. The giant eye.

Apparently, this ocular glory/horror was once stationed in Chicago (I’ve been to Chicago; the eye is appropriately bloodshot and bleary), but was recently purchased and positioned temporarily in the State With Which One Must Not Mess. I’ve been to Dallas, too. As I recall, it was rather thin in the art department, for a city of it’s size (of course, as a Minneapolitain, I am spoiled, art-wise). Perhaps they were simply waiting for a Sculpture the Size of Texas. It’s three stories tall. That’s a lot of art, if you think about it

Or, perhaps Texas is secretly Mordor, and you can’t have Mordor without the eye of Sauron. Perhaps there are, in the teeming guts of Dallas, hordes of Orcs and Uruk-hai and a whining Smeagol and perhaps even a giant spider, biding their time and massing their forces to unleash themselves upon the world. I’ve always wanted to visit Mordor.

And dangit. Now I want to go to Texas.

Perhaps I might locate my swallowed soul.

(ETA- Yes, I know, the picture here is from the previous installation. Is it my fault that Chicago is more photogenic than Dallas? No my friends, it is not. And speaking of the artist possibly being my new best friend, he also made this:

And this:

Seriously. New best friend. He just doesn’t know it yet.)

Every day I fall madly in love with someone.

I can’t help it. My heart races and leaps. I am glitter and breeze and sunsets and clouds. I am stardust and radiation and Dark Matter and inexplicable time and the Big Bang. I have told my husband that this is normal. He will believe me one day. When we are ninety, or thereabouts.

This is who I fell in love with today:

He was a skinny thing, all elbows and reeds. A long neck. Sharp chin. Pale skin like milk. Thick black leg hairs standing straight out, as sure as tree trunks. He was wearing black gym shoes and black socks stretched to the middle of his bony calves, long shorts, and a tee- shirt with Phil Collins on it. He had a red white and blue sweat headband around his head and trucker-shaped sunglasses with white, plastic frames balancing on his long, straight nose and another pair of sunglasses on his head just in case. And he had a boom box. One of those ancient magnavox numbers with the double tape deck that I remember asking for Christmas the year I turned eleven.

(I didn’t get it, by the way. Thanks a lot, Santa.)

The boom box was turned all the way up. Peter Gabriel. Of course.

I was on my way to the library to get work done out of the chaos of my house, and I couldn’t stop. But I wanted to. He sat down on a low wall under a tree, his boom box balanced on his pale, bony knees. And I wanted to sit next to him and take his hands.

Here, I would say. This is your life line. And this is your head. And this is your heart. And my heart. And everyone’s heart.

Here. My fingers curling into his, my eyes bright, my lips curled into a smile. Skin and bone, breath and thought. The vastness of space. The beauty of the atom. Your perfect soul. My mind is inscrutable. It is burning and storming and wild. It is a cosmic wind, blowing from one end of the universe to the other, looping inside itself like a snake swallowing its tail, forever and ever and ever.

Here. My life and my love. I have known you before. I will know you again. Every moment happens simultaneously with every other moment, every life harmonizes with every other life. We are linked. We are song. We are the woven roots of the endless grass. And we are all one.

But I had work to do. The light turned green. I adjusted my backpack and headed into the library and left him behind in the shade. He didn’t notice me. He didn’t need to.

(Incidentally, I also fell madly in love with the elderly gentleman playing the Steinway in the workroom next to mine at the library. And now I have my eye on a broad shouldered woman cupping her hands around her eyes as she stands at the bus station. This happens a lot. I am large. I contain friggin multitudes.)

And now I shall pour that love into the work. It is not a bad thing. It bubbles and flows. It is a river. It is the rain. It is the swelling ocean. Who have you fallen in love with lately?

A history of water

I have this memory of swimming lessons when I was a child. We were at the Blaisdell Y in Minneapolis. The floor surrounding the pool was made of small tiles fitted neatly together and patterned in bright, seventies colors – turquoise, orange, brown, yellow. The walls were painted cinderblock, slicked with the damp clouds of chlorine and water and ringing with the shouting of children. I remember trying to slide my arms into my swimming suit (pink, with red and green flower appliqués). I remember the sound of my chattering teeth, my short hair clinging to my face in inky clumps. I remember how slippery the floor was, and how worried I was that I would fall.

And I remember feeling utterly disconnected from the other kids plunging merrily into the weirdly blue-green water. I remember how terrified I was. I remember positioning myself on the top rung of the ladder, hooking each arm into its curved handles, hooking each leg under the sides, and hanging on like a vise.

And I remember screaming. A lot.

“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO IN THERE,” I howled. It has been suggested to me that I may have also yelled something about not wanting to die. I can’t say for sure whether it is true. I do remember that I screamed myself hoarse.

My mother, as I recall, was not amused.

I told this story today to a mother at the beach, as we fanned our faces and huddled under the shade, cupping our hands over our eyes as we watched our children at their last swimming lesson down by the lake. Her son, like me, refused to go into the water. And she was exasperated.

“Is it fear? Is he actually afraid? Or is it just that I want him to go, and he wants to oppose me on principle. I’m worried that’s it.”

“It might be fear,” I said. “But it might be his very real need for personal autonomy. Water is chaotic. The kids are chaotic. The instructors have to yell to make themselves heard. And in the midst of that, here’s this four year old kid engaged in actualized existentialism, but with no words for it. I am me, he says. I make decisions. And then he doesn’t know how to undo them. So he stands neither here nor there, unable to move. He doesn’t want to follow your decision and he doesn’t want to follow his teacher’s decision, but he doesn’t know what he has decided on his own. He’s stuck, poor baby.”

The boy stood at the shore, his toes only barely touching the water, his blonde head shimmering in the hot sun. A statue. A sentinel. A pillar of salt. I understood.

We live in Minnesota, and learning to swim is a statewide occupation. Parents take this very seriously. We have a lot of water around here, and drownings happen. My kids take swimming lessons at the local high school during the winter months, and out at the lake during the summer. (We could do it at the Y, but it is expensive, and I am cheap. And broke.) I don’t particularly care for pools – chlorine gives me a headache and the noise is crazy-making. But they learn stroke refinement at the pool, which is important. At the lake, they learn how to stay safe and move efficiently in chaotic conditions. This is important as well.

My daughters are born swimmers – long and lean with strong legs and broad shoulders. They move through the water in a long, quiet slice, like a canoe cutting across the surface. They go long distances without being winded and can keep their heads even in the wind and the waves. They go back and forth between the shore and the diving dock, and I watch the curve of their arms as they lift, extend and pull. I watch the furrow they leave on the water, and my breath catches. They are marvelous, my girls.

My son, on the other hand. Well. We’re getting there.

I took him to an outdoor pool a couple summers ago. He couldn’t swim at all. Unfortunately, his innate sense of high self-efficacy led him to believe that he was awesome at swimming. This was problematic. It was a hot day – 102, as I recall – and the pool was packed. And he was not even considering staying close to me.

It was, hands down, the most terrifying moment of my life.

I pushed through the crowd of slicked, soaking bodies, standing chest deep in overly-warm water as my son darted from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. He would cling, curl and leap through the water, grabbing onto strangers as he slithered from one end of the pool to the other.

“GET BACK OVER HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG MAN,” I bellowed.

“I’m swimming!” he called back delightedly as he slipped between groups.

“NO YOU ARE NOT!”

No one noticed him. He was a fish. A salamander. A water moccasin. He splashed and wriggled and was gone. And it would only take one second for him to go down. And no one would see him. (Even the life guards, god bless them, would have been useless. There were too many people. And Leo was short.)

I love swimming instructors. I think they all deserve a medal. And the key to the city. They are not just rescuing children, but they are giving kids the tools to rescue themselves. This is a powerful thing.

Lately, after class, he and I have been going into the water together, practicing endurance and troubleshooting. I swim right next to him as we go into deep water. We tread water, we swim toward objects, we lie on our backs to catch our breath. We practice what to do if water gets in our mouths and we start coughing. We make plans on how to get to safety if we need it. We talk about what to do if we see someone struggling in the water.

The water in the lake is dark green and slick. It smells of fish and algae. We can’t see our feet when we stand waist-deep. He knows that if he goes down, it would be unlikely that he would be found in time in that world of green. More reason to be strong, smart and efficient. More reason to be aware.

There is a giant fish that lives in the bottom of Lake Nokomis, did you know? Leo told me. And a race of frog men and women with catfish tails and water bugs the size of golden retrievers. You’d think this would make him hesitant to get in the water. It has not.

“I love this lake,” he said to me as we floated out by the far buoys. “It’s so mysterious. We watch the water and the water watches us.”

Doing my best not to be completely creeped out, I swam back to shore, matching his pace. Kick, breathe, reach, pull, breathe, float, breathe. I imagined the bug-eyed frog men standing below us, looking up. I imagined the the giant fish with eyes the size of tractor wheels sliding through the muck at the middle, peering upwards from time to time to see the wrinkled surface of the lake shirring the sky.

There is something amazing that happens in a kid when they first learn to swim. Or no. When they first learn to move with surety and grace through the capriciousness of water. When they first learn how to survive in a medium that would kill them if it could. That didn’t care if they lived or died.

The water is wide, the child understands. Rise above.

The water is cold, the child feels. Move.

The water is insistent, the child says. Redirect. Recalibrate. Bend.

It might be the first time they learn to rely on themselves for their own survival. It may be the first time that it is their bodies, and their bodies alone, that mark the edges of themselves. The skin is its own shoreline. The brain is its own sky. The lungs contain a weather system all their own. The body exists and it is separate from the watery world that surrounds it. It is complete, whole, and powerful. And fragile. And precious. It is all of these things at once.

“Nice job, kiddo,” I said, as we pushed through the water toward the sand.

“Thanks mom,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”

 

When my son grows up, I hope he is like his dad. If not, I hope he is like this guy.

 

There’s an article you should read. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First I have to tell you this story:

The other day, while at the train station, my sister-in-law saw a bunch of college age dudes checking out the posterior-region of my thirteen-year-old child. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she told me. “It was so galling and so totally out of the realm of what I expected. I felt torn between wanting to tell them off and wanting to usher my beautiful niece as quickly as possible out of the vicinity so that she wouldn’t ever know what happened, and wanting to kick them all in their respective groins. I chose the middle thing.”

(I told her about a similar instance where I ducked behind my innocent child, looked the offending onlookers straight in the eye, gave them my laser-beam stare, and gave them the ole double-middle-fingers. These men were my age. They, suddenly realizing how young the girl at my side actually was, turned beet-red and skedaddled.

We didn’t know, their faces said.

Fuck you, said mine.)

Here’s the thing. In my younger years – on the 21 bus on Lake Street in Minneapolis during high school, at parties and on the job and once even during a professor’s office hours during college, on airplanes and in bars and walking home late at night and again on the job in my twenties, and even at professional conventions in my thirties – I have been subjected to groping, oggling, propositioning, butt-grabbing, space-invading, unwanted pick-upping, cat-calling and even scary and gross insistence (You know you want this, he said. No I do not, I said. Then why are you – OUCH! he said. And then I didn’t need to say anything at all.). It happens. We all know it happens.

To cope with these things I have used a variety of tactics – my fists (twice), my feet (a lot – I am fast), my sharp tongue (in both English and halting Spanish! And once in very bad French! Hooray for lingualism!), my clever maneuvers and quick thinking, and once, the very lucky appearance of a bus.

In my teens and twenties, my body was a liability. A vulnerability. I was not my mind. I was not my accomplishments. I was not my life. I was not my friends or my ideas or my care or my love. I was flesh and breast; I was lips and hair. And nothing else. The world that I loved was full of threats. And it made me angry. This has been true in my thirties as well, though less so, primarily due to circumstance. I live with a good man who is wildly in love with his wife, and associate primarily with good people of both genders with whom we collectively care for our children and trade stories and share food and love our respective spouses. It’s a good life, and I don’t venture away from it all that often. There’s a benefit to not getting out much. I had one horrible experience with an editor at a SFF convention (there was luring, there was a conversation that I thought was platonic but apparently was not, there was a sudden shirt removal and a lot of explosive chest hair and a proposition and a very astonished mother-of-three who had no idea how to respond. Of course I didn’t. I was out of practice), and it makes me reluctant to leave the safety of my neighborhood, to be honest.

But my safety is no longer my main concern. Now I have daughters. And I have to warn them.

We train our daughters to be street smart and tough. We train our daughters to be aware, to know the escape routes of any room, to have a buddy, to protect and protect and protect. We tell our daughters that this is the world we live in. It sucks sometimes. Be tough and be tougher. Find your allies. Make a battle plan. Know the weak spots. Fight. 

My oldest left earlier this summer for a three week summer camp. She was going to be in a dorm, in a college. I’ve been to college. I know what goes on there. So we had to have Conversations. The first one was called “Why You Should Never Leave Your Drink Unattended”. The second one was called “The Buddy System – Not Just For the Beach!” The third was called “How to Know When to Knee a Boy in the Gonads: A Primer”.

And it breaks us to tell our girls these things. It breaks us in half.

Lately, my beloved SFF community has been in some intense conversations about harassment and autonomy and the rights of any individual to feel safe in their environment. Since I have been limiting my time online, I have missed much of these conversations, but they continue, and they deepen and they are important. Folks have been talking about  respect and consent and have been outing serial harassers. A bright light now shines on bad behavior – which is good because bad behavior can only be addressed when it is named, clarified and known. People can learn. They can become aware of their privilege. They can change. I truly believe this.

There was the ugliness at Wiscon and then the attacks on N.K. Jemison after she (rightly) called Theodore Beale a sexist and racist a-hole, and then of course this little brouhaha. It makes me tired, is what.

Then, my darling Genevieve Valentine wrote a piece called “Dealing With It”, which I would urge all mothers to read, and to give it to their daughters. If my daughters are as tough as Genevieve, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings. And the overwhelmingly positive feedback she’s gotten from the piece is telling, I think. We’re all of us dealing with it. And sometimes we have to push back with all our might just to stand still. And sometimes that’s a colossal success.

But then I look at my son, and I wonder what kind of man he will be. How aware is he of his privileged status in our culture? How can I, as his mother, train him to be conscientious and kind, generous and brave, to use his strengthened position to do good in the world and to stand up for others? How does he resist being the guy who takes up more space, who uses more resources, who operates with impunity just because he can? Because we have all met that guy. And nobody likes that guy.

Which brought me to this gentleman, who wrote this piece: “Changing the Creepy Guy Narrative.” Stop what you’re doing and read that piece. I have printed it out and made a file called “Things To Show my Son”.  This is not to say that we should all start sexually harassing the sexual harassers (though it does make for good blog posts), but it is to say that we have a voice. And our voices matter. And my son has a voice too. And I hope he uses it.

How can we, as thoughtful citizens, shine a light on obnoxious behavior? How can we call wrongdoers to task, identify and clarify bad behavior, and insist on change?

We can’t force change. But we can insist. There’s a difference. John Scalzi is insisting. So is Tobias Buckell. So are a lot of people. And so am I.

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


For those of you who have followed me on Facebook and Twitter, back when I used to be on Facebook and Twitter (I am still on the latter, officially, though the only tweets currently are the automatically generated blog post alerts from WordPress. My computer prevents me from accessing the site until September. Because my computer is bossy. Which is to say, my thirteen year old daughter is bossy, because she was the one who set it up.) you may know that I spent the spring engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that.

Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head.

Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do.

Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope.

Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler.

Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself.

Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin.

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerouscapable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.