On Wildness, Cracked Worlds, Monsters, and the Odd Nature of the Short Story



(note: this essay originally appeared at Powells Books Blog.)

Once upon a time, I worked for the Park Service, minding a little ranger station on Marmot Lake — well above the treeline, about 30 miles into the backcountry from any direction. The station was not much of a station at all. Just a tent on a platform and a steel cache full of tools and gear, and even a sealed bottle of stove gas and a stash of MREs for any ranger who might find herself lost and in need of meager shelter and stomach-turning food.

(It should be noted that this is not a story about the Park Service, or the outdoors, or about wildlife encounters, though it will seem so at first. This is a story about writing stories. You are going to have to pay attention.)

I lived in that tent with the man that I would later marry, though we didn’t think about such things then. Or, at least I pretended that I was the sort of person who didn’t think about such things. Instead, we carried out the tasks necessary to preserve and maintain one of the last remaining pockets of wildness left in this once-wild world: we fixed trails, moved downed trees, attacked certain — but not all — invasive species, cleaned up after the incessant onslaught of Boy Scout troops. This was our job: shoring, dismantling, cutting, hauling, digging, moving, and then tidying up. We had been trained by a ranger named Vic Stanculescu — a man whose whiskers stood out from his face like Douglas Firs, who rolled his own cigarettes with one hand while whittling a stick with the other. A guy who could get it in his head to just disappear into the wilderness while he was mid-sentence in a conversation — and would do so, vanishing just like that, for days on end, returning only when he was good and ready and just wanted to finish his thought. I haven’t seen Vic in years, but I think of him often. He was a good teacher. “Here’s my theory on trail maintenance,” he said to us over and over again. “You take the worst stretch of trail, and you turn it into the best.” It was good advice, as it turns out.

(Do you see? Are you noticing? Pay attention.)

We lived, that summer, at the roof of the world. Snow and spongey turf. The shadow of mountain peaks. Sedge so green it made your eyes ache to look at it. Ice-cold lakes. The constant call of marmot to marmot and bird to bird. Grunting black bears, endlessly hunting berries. The quiet prowl of mountain lions — always worried about but rarely seen. The barnyard smell of our local elk herd, wafting across the valley in great clouds. Two thundering rivers had their source at our little alpine meadow, each one starting as a rocky gurgle pouring out from opposite ends of the lake. Later, the rivers became swift veins that cut through mossy soil, shaded by enormous trees. And still later, they became deep gorges, gouged cruelly into the rock. And then cascades. And then broad, treacherous rapids. And then they churned, all force and foam and volume and velocity, into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, each at their own, screaming mouths. Those rivers did not scream where we were, up on the mountain. They whispered. Each morning, I filtered our water from a rocky bowl in the stream. Each morning, the river told me secrets.

(Pay attention.)

One day, I was hiking down the well-trodden track from the lookout to the tent site, with tools strapped to my back and a water bottle strapped to my hip, when I nearly ran into a mountain lion, right there on the trail. He was astonishing, and astonished. We were not expecting to see one another, our encounter occurring as it did on a blind curve. But once in view, it was difficult to look away. Coming face to face with mountain lion feels like a crack in the world — the Kracken shattering the skin of the ocean; a dragon peeling off the top of the sky, as though it was the pith of an orange. My breath caught. So did the cat’s. I could hear it. Also audible: that low, calculating rumble in his throat. That sound a mountain lion makes as it stands on the cusp of action: attack or retreat?

(Listen. Pay attention.)

It is, at its heart, a question of cost. Each movement, each slice of tooth and claw, each leap and bound and snatch — these are expensive for an animal that lives on the razor’s edge of feast and starvation. Cougars, like house cats, have highly specific digestive requirements, and highly exacting needs to fuel the delicately tuned, muscular machinery of their bodies. A mountain lion lives with literally nothing to spare — each calorie it eats is a calorie used. Almost immediately. Nothing is wasted. Every action must be paid for. This is how they live.

(This is a story about stories. Are you listening?)

He was huge, that cat, so much bigger than I had imagined a mountain lion to be. Broad paws pressed into the soft ground. The loping curve of his shoulder blades rippled and swayed. His muscles announced themselves. He took a step back. Showed his teeth.

(Pay attention.) 

I took a step back. Pulled my Pulaski from my back and held it above my head like a sword. I kept my eyes tilted away. I had to see without appearing to see, assess without aggressively observing. I needed to see with my other eyes; to hear with my other ears. I had to feel his movements with my skin. And in my feet.

(It’s how we build stories. Do you see?)

The cat made a sound. I don’t have a word for it. It wasn’t a roar or a bark or a growl or a snort or a snarl. It was something bigger. He didn’t make the sound with his mouth — or, at least it wasn’t only his mouth. He made it with his feet, his tail, each muscle, each bone. It rattled the ground and smacked the air. I could feel it vibrating in my molars. I swung the Pulaski over my head, and brought it down to the earth with a crash. I opened my mouth and I made the sound that the big cat made. That exact same sound. My feet, my muscles, my bones, my throat, my tongue, my teeth. They had never spoken that way before, and they never will again. Not a growl. Not a roar. Not a snarl or a bark. Something else. I didn’t look directly at the mountain lion. I knew better. I saw him with my skin instead. I felt him start. Startle. Rear. And then he bounded away.

(You see it, don’t you?)

People ask me sometimes about my writing process. They ask me about where my stories come from, and I tell them about listening to rivers. They ask me about revision, and I tell them Vic Stanculescu’s rule about trail maintenance. They ask me about writer’s block, and I tell them about the careful planning required to remove downed trees from across the trail — the dangers of pinned trunks and sprung branches, the singularly powerful feeling of bringing the spinning teeth of a chainsaw to the broken torso of a silver fir, and the clarifying smell of pine sap.

And people ask me about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel, and I don’t always know what to say. Sometimes I borrow the language of architecture, and sometimes I talk about engineering, and sometimes I talk about poetry and the ways in which silence speaks. But now I see that’s all wrong. When we write a novel, we live in the novel. We call the leaky tent on the rickety platform home. We wash ourselves in the ice cold water of the nearby lake. We tend to the landscape. We know each animal, each plant, each rock. We listen to the rivers as they whisper. We know their secrets. A short story, on the other hand, is an encounter. We cannot look it in the eye. We have to see with our skin and hear with our bones. A short story is a crack in the world; it is tooth and claw; it is the choice between attack and retreat. Nothing is wasted. Everything is paid for. It makes a sound that we cannot identify or name, and we make that sound in return.

Perhaps it will attack. Perhaps it will devour us. Perhaps it will bound away.

This is why I like reading short stories, and this is why I write them — to be astonished; to be left breathless; to return to the world, shaken and dizzy, and looking over my shoulder, waiting for the monster to return.

(Pay attention.)

In Which the Authoress Delivers a Commencement Address, and Randomly Decides to Put Mother Hulda in it. And also a sorta subversive read of Scripture. And also a Call to Action.

Dear Ones,

I know I keep promising to return to a practice of regular blogging, and I continue to fall down on the job. My apologies. I’ve been busy. And scattered. But I was asked to give a Commencement Address at St. Catherine University – a Catholic, all-women’s college and my alma mater, and I wanted to share my remarks here. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be graduating from college right now, with our nation in the state it is. And I had a hard time thinking of what to say. I shouldn’t have worried. I spent some time talking to those women, I am deeply convinced that we are all in excellent hands. I came away inspired, hopeful and completely convinced that things are going to be fine. These women are going to make sure of it.

Here’s the speech:


Regarding Fairy Tales and Faith:

How We Bear Witness to the World by Bearing Witness to Ourselves


Happy graduation, dear Katies. It is an astonishment, isn’t it? To be here, in this moment? I remember feeling astonished. It doesn’t seem so very long ago that it was me sitting out there, at my St. Kate’s graduation, my family nearby, my parents both exquisitely proud and deeply, deeply fretful.  I have discovered since then that this is the role of parents, from the moment our children are born until they lay us down for our final rest – we are so, so, so proud, and gosh we worry so, so, so much.

And to be fair, my parents had some things to worry about. I went to St. Kates intending to study medicine, until my path was swayed by the siren call of the English Department, with its promises of close reading and sensuous sentences and gorgeously specific vocabularies and scintillating literary analysis. Well. That will turn any girl’s head. And then, my parents had contented themselves with the promise of eventual graduate school in literature or composition or rhetoric, and perhaps a dissertation and even a “doctor” in front of my name, until I informed them that I would, instead, be travelling to Florida. In the sweaty summertime. In a rusty, ancient Oldsmobile in the company of a young man with long hair . . . and obscure intentions. And I was going to work in a bar.

“We have a free place to stay!” I told them brightly. “So practical!”

And so they stayed behind, and they worried.

And then I got it in my head to travel to the Pacific Northwest and got a job in the Park Service, where I was trained in Search and Rescue and Wildand Firefighting and Wilderness First Aid.

“Is there even any health insurance with this job?” my parents asked.

“Health in what now?” I replied.

There wasn’t.

(It was the nineties. It was a crazy time.)

And so my parents worried even more.

I continued to move restlessly through the modes of my life, trying on different futures the way most of us try on shoes – in a place of wild hope and enthusiasm, and sometimes valuing aesthetics over practicality. So it goes. Youth, though inefficient, is a wonderful thing. Eventually though, my path led me through graduate school in education and into teaching in high school classrooms and then in middle school classrooms, and then in GED classrooms, and then in college classrooms, eventually bringing me to the work that I do now: writing outlandish novels for children, writing strange short stories for grownups, connecting with kids through the power of stories and the power of the imagination. It is good work, my job, and it feels good to do good work. It feels good to do work that matters, as we journey forth. But it’s not the journey that I want to talk to you about today.

Instead, I want to talk about bearing witness. And what it means to bear witness in the context of a life of faith. And what it means to bear witness in the context of a St. Kates education. And what it means to bear witness in the context of this odd moment of history that we now find ourselves in. This odd moment in history in which all of you now are poised to inherit  . . . well, everything. You’re inheriting the fruits of your education. You’re inheriting the fullness of your adulthoods. You’re inheriting the course of your own life and the fruition of your precious selves. And because this is happening right now, in this context, the context of the world as it is now . . . well. The notion of how we bear witness becomes even more important.

But first. Bear with me. Because I have to start with a story. (Sorry about this. It’s a professional hazard.)

(And obviously, because I am this person, and this writer, I will be bringing up fairy tales. Every room in my brain has a fairy tale in it. The maps of my life and the talismans in my pockets and even the clever ravens and kindly wolves and speaking stones who sometimes give me life advice? Fairy tales. Everything I have and know comes from fairy tales. It’s good to establish this now.)

Once upon a time, there were two sisters – one good and one wicked. Their mother loved the wicked sister and hated the good, and consequently decided to send the good sister into the deep dark wood in the middle of winter to search for strawberries. She made the girl a dress constructed entirely out of paper, which gave her no protection from the cruelties of the North Wind.

“Fill this basket with berries,” the mother said. “And don’t come back until you’ve done it.”

Because the little girl was good, and because she tried to do right, she did as she was told. She journeyed into the deep dark wood, through the deep, deep snow. And as she walked, she shivered. And as she shivered, she wept. And as she wept she knew in the deepest part of her heart that there were no strawberries to be found in the snowy wood, and that she could never come back. And that she had nowhere to go.

And because of her tears and sorrow and shivering, the good sister lost her footing in the snow, and found herself falling and falling to the bottom of a deep, deep well. Down and down and down she fell, and she gave herself up for lost.

But when she landed, she found something very curious. She expected to land in darkness and damp and deep water, but instead found herself in a clean, well-kept room. A swept floor and comfortable chairs and a merry fire in the fireplace. Hooks for coats and hats, and bins for shoes. And a little old woman sitting by the fire. The little old woman looked at the good sister. She appeared tired, and sickly.

“Have you anything to eat?” the old woman said.

The girl had a single crust of bread – her only food for the whole day. This she gave to the old woman, since she looked so very hungry.

“Have you anything to drink?” the old woman said.

And the girl had a single swallow of water in her water skin – her only water for the whole day. And this she gave to the old woman, since she looked parched.

The old woman stood, suddenly hale and vigorous. “You are a good girl,” she said, “and you are willing to offer entirety of yourself. If you work for me for nine days and nine nights, I will reward you with a basket of strawberries, and another gift that I shall not say.”

The girl agreed, and she spent the next nine days and nine nights in the company of the old woman – caring for her, cooking for her, sweeping her floor and making her bed and offering acts of kindness and service and faith. Offering her whole mind and heart and work and Self. At the end of their contract, the girl felt herself lifted as though by a mighty wind, and before she knew what was happening, she stood in front of her house. She was clothed in a dress made of the warmest wool and boots of the thickest fur, and held a basket overflowing with strawberries. And what’s more, every time she shook her hair, a shower of gold coins fell to the ground. The girl was amazed. “Just think of the good I can do,” the good sister said.

I’ll stop the story there, but you can imagine what comes next. The wicked sister and mother, filled with jealousy (because that what we learn in fairy tales – that wickedness and jealousy are inextricably linked. As Pete Seeger used to say, “there’s a moral there somewhere”.) journey out into the deep dark woods and find the well and plunge in. But when the old woman asks for something to eat and something to drink, they say, “No. We only brought enough for ourselves.” And when the old woman asks for service, they refuse and demand gifts instead. (Entitlement, ladies and gentlemen, along with rapaciousness, are humanity’s ugliest emotions.) And  . . . they get some gifts. Just . . . not very nice ones. So it goes.

This story is actually a very ancient one. The old woman is called Mother Hulda in some versions and Mother Holle and Frau Pechtka and Old Mother Frost in others, depending on who’s telling it, and it is believed that she not only is one of many Germanic goddesses that simply transmutated into fairy tales, but that she might even be older than that, from the pre-german tribes that wandered the mountains, thousands of years ago. But while this story is pagan in origin, it seems to my eye to be stitched through with this very Christian notion of bearing witness – not in terms of courts of law or statements of fact, but in terms of how we bring the fullness of ourselves to bear in our work, in our interactions, in our willingness to do right by others. We bear witness by refusing to look away. We bear witness by showing up to our lives, and bringing our full selves to the task.

Now this Christian notion of bearing witness has always delighted me, actually, because it has, at its center, a subversion of what we expect from a faith that has operated in the historically patriarchal way that it has for the last two millennia. Our faith has always sought to find sly and unexpected ways to uplift the downtrodden and to shine light on the forgotten among us – we see this in scripture and we see it in the lives of the Saints, even though sometimes the most faithful among us tend to . . . well sometimes they forget about the subversive bits. That’s okay. We’re here to remind them. We live out a faith that insists on the fundamental humanity of sinners and lepers and deviants; we live out faith that insists that it is the poor and the meek and powerless who will one day inherit the Kingdom. It’s hard to get more subversive than that.

So too, with this notion of bearing witness. Because the first witnesses to the faith – the very first ones – were women. They were women. It’s important to remember this in a women’s university. It was a very young woman who gave that first, clear and emphatic YES to God With US – an important form of witness. She brought her whole Self to the task, literally witnessing with her body and her life. And it was a grieving woman who not only wished for miracles but insisted that there must be miracles when she scolded Jesus as she mourned her brother Lazarus. “How dare you not get here in time,” she railed at the Lord. And then, quietly, under her breath, “You big jerk,” she added. And this was a form of witness too. The acceptance of miracles. The utter embrace of the Divine. And then later, in the process of engaging in the deeply female task of cleaning and caring for and coddling and swaddling the body of Jesus one last time before laying him to rest, it was women who saw the stone, and it was women who saw the discarded shroud on the dirty ground, and it was women who spoke to the angel, and it was women who went back to declare the story. To speak loud and true.

We have a great history, dear women, of bearing witness. And it serves us to remember it.

When I was a student at St. Kates, my professors demanded that I bear witness. That I vigorously confront each task, each problem, each paper, each test, bringing the fullness of my intellect, my curiosity, my knowledge, my logic and extrapolation, my supposition, my analysis to bear. And to bear what, exactly? Insight. Understanding. Compassion. Connection. Truth.

This was true in my General Chemistry class when Sister Mary Thompson – and oh! I was terrified of her! – took our textbook and threw it on the ground with a colossal crash, saying, “It doesn’t matter if you memorize every chapter, every sentence, every letter in this entire book. The text is dead without the force of minds to make it new. If you can’t bring me your intellectual vigor then stay home.”

That woman wasn’t kidding around.

It was true in my Shakespeare class when Sister Margery Smith – who we just lost this year, and oh! What a terrible loss – handed me back a paper that I had thrown together at one in the morning the night before, and had scrawled at the top, “Please. Don’t waste my time.”

I still have that paper, by the way. And her note. And I gotta say. She wasn’t wrong.

It wasn’t enough to do what was required. It wasn’t enough to stick to the text. It wasn’t enough to perfunctorily perform in any sort of prescriptive way. My professors wanted me to bring it. To bring the fullness of myself to myself, and then go farther. They wanted me to bear witness to my education, to my intellect, and to my life.

It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t always comfortable. Still, I’m grateful to them. Because of that training, that rigor, that insistence on curiosity and analysis and hunger, I ended up on a path not fueled by ambition, but rather fueled on a need to make things better. To connect and feel and engage with the world from a place of radical empathy. As a writer – specifically as a writer for children – I take this notion of bearing witness very seriously. Through my work, I ask my readers to engage with their imaginations and to ask big question – about love and faith and justice and hope, about tenacity and friendship, despotism and division, and the arc of the universe bending towards something greater than ourselves. Through my work, I bear witness to pain and loss and grief. I bear witness to tyranny, propaganda and deception. I bear witness to honest mistakes and unintended consequences. This is what it means to be a writer. But this is also what it means to be a person in the world.

All of you have the gift of a Saint Kates education, and all of you are personally called to bring that education to bear in the larger world – to bring your light to dark places and hold it high. The gift of ourselves is only relevant when it is given – a light under a bushel is a useless thing. In the story of Mother Holle, the girl’s goodness and kindness and empathy is its own currency. She brings the gift of herself to bear. And that gift matters. And yours matters too.

Now. I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but we’re living in . . . interesting times. Where strife and division are cottage industries and where the task of witness and kindness and empathy and connection are hampered by so much noise. It makes our job harder. Once upon a time, trolls only lived in stories, but then the people who once told stories somehow invented the internet, and now trolls roam and snarl and howl hateful things at good people. Troll armies and their nihilistic love of discord and chaos are real now – they subvert news narratives, and sneer at laws, and disrupt discourse, and spit on science, and even elect presidents.  There is no more important time, then, than right now, in this moment, to be willing to bear witness. To bring the vigor of your analysis and the gift of your knowledge and the perspicacity of your insight and connection and compassion and empathy to wherever your precious St. Kates education takes you – to the halls of hospitals or the halls of business; to classrooms or boardrooms or artist studios; to houses of worship to libraries to laboratories to makerspaces and to field work out in the wide, wide world. Your knowledge matters. Your interpretation matters. Your work matters. Your goodness matters. Your witness – and your willingness to bear witness to yourselves and to your work and to humanity and to the world – matters. It matters. And it is vitally important.

I’m standing here before you as a St. Kates graduate, who was, once upon a time, sitting where you are now. And I was filled with plans and hope and excitement and juice. But I was also scared. And I didn’t trust myself. And I worried.

I shouldn’t have. What Sister Mary and Sister Margery were trying to tell me all those years ago was this: “You are more than you think you are. Be more.”

And this: “Your mind is broader and more complex than you have been willing to acknowledge. Bear witness to the fullness of yourself, and bring that fullness to your work.”

And this: “Be brilliant. That’s an order.”

And that is where I want to leave you, dear graduates. Your goodness and kindness are the only currency that counts, and I want you to spend it freely.  I want you to remember that your faith can move mountains. I want you to remember that your knowledge can move industries. I want you to remember that your insight can move minds. And I want you to remember that your education can open doors.

So go forth. Be more than you think you are. Bear witness to the fullness of yourself. Be willing to bring it, to give everything you have to your work and your relationships and yourselves and to the world. Leave nothing behind. Offer everything. Be brave, be kind, be open-minded, be good. And be brilliant. That’s an order. Congratulations, graduates. Just think of the good you can do.

Oh. Right. I have a new book.



It’s been a bit, my darlings.

Almost a whole year. And a lot has happened. Since, yanno. Winning a Newbery Medal and my life changing forever. Or whatever. I also have traveled around the country, visiting kids and classrooms. I’ve read my book out loud more times than I can count. I told kids that their stories mattered and I made them believe it. Because I believe it. It took a while for the world to get quiet again.

I sent a child to college. I cried a lot. I have been mothering my other two through this new relationship landscape with their beloved sister so very far away.

I suffered a concussion. Back in May. And it took way longer than it seemed like it should have for my brain to . . . come back online, as it were. I’m still not at 100%. Maybe I’ll never be.

And I put together a new book. It’s called Dreadful Young Ladies, and Other Stories. This one is for grownups. As many of you know, I’ve been writing short stories for a long time now. Mostly speculative. Mostly strange. Mostly dark and sharp and misshapen. I did a lot of thinking and work to choose and assemble the stories that would make up this collection. Here is what people have been saying about it:

Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. 

So did Library Journal.

The Star Tribune said some nice things.

And so did the Washington Independent. 

And the Milwaukee Sentinel.

And I was on NPR! (side note: Lulu Garcia-Navarro is JUST as awesome as you hope she is!)

And then there was this nice review too.

There’s more, but that’s enough for now.

I’m writing this from the road – my first leg of a fairly long book tour. I can’t say yes to everything, unfortunately. I have to get home. Make dinner. Cuddle my kids. See to the needs of my endlessly needy dog. Curl up with my husband and watch dumb television. But I try to get out when I can. Because it’s good to share stories, you know? It’s very, very good.

Maybe I should start blogging again. I’m working on a new book now – two, actually. And I’m finding that there are, after a long time of quietness – things that I’d like to say. And maybe I’m ready to say them.

Watch this space.

In Which the Authoress Gives a Commencement Address at Her Alma Mater and Does Not Cry (okay, maybe just a little bit)


This has been a year of the unexpected – awards, lists, etc. I feel as though I’m in a state of perpetual astonishment. But likely the most unexpected of them all was the request by South High School – the place where I went to high school, along with my sisters, my brother, my cousins, my second-cousins, my cousin’s child and now my own children – to give the commencement address at this year’s graduation. I hesitated, and told them that I had to ask my daughter first – herself a graduate this year – and get her permission. It’s her day, after all.

Frankly, I assumed she’d say no, but she didn’t, and there I was, trying to pull together my thoughts, trying to make something useful, cohesive and true for those beautiful kids. After all, the world is big and beautiful and wonderful . . . and terrifying. And unknown. And the pathway from childhood to adulthood is full of twists and tricks and dangers. And sometimes we wander in the dark. And sometimes we are lost. And that’s okay.

Anyway, here are my remarks in their entirety, for those of you who are interested. And to the beloved class of 2017 – congratulations, my darlings. You are so beautiful and brave and big-hearted. Go make something wonderful.

Hello fellow Tigers. Congratulations. Twenty-five years ago I sat where you’re sitting, and I remember feeling overwhelmed. South High, of course, is a big place. And jangly. Full of contradictions. A place that once seemed chaotic and unknowable to me, but after four years had become familiar, protective, and even comfortable. And it’s only just when you get comfortable that it’s time to leave. So it goes. And the world – the rest of the world, and the rest of my life – felt overwhelming in its bigness and darkness. In its unknowableness. And frankly, I was afraid.


As you know, I write fantasy stories for my job – odd magicks and ill-tempered dragons and treacherous journeys into the Deep Dark Wood. It’s a strange job, I’ll admit, but I’m a strange person, and I came of age, like you, in a school that is wondrous strange, so in the end it all fits. But, really, that journey in to the Deep Dark Wood is not limited to fantasy novels and fairy tales – it’s a fundamental aspect of growing up, changing, leaving your family, and leaving your childhood behind. Welcome, all of you, to the Deep Dark Wood. Prepare to be changed forever. And it’s okay to feel afraid. It’s normal.


As for me, I stayed afraid for a while. Longer than I’d like to admit. But looking back on it, I have realized that there are bits and pieces of my unique South High experience that have led me to this life I live right now – writing books, teaching sometimes, building a career out of luck and hope and hard-work and constant re-invention – and I wanted to share them with you now. These are the tools that helped me navigate my own strange journey since leaving South High.


  1. Empathy. Being a writer requires empathy. It’s literally the one skill that we absolutely have to have – inhabiting the point of view of another person. South High, in its diversity of experience and culture and faith and family structure and racial identity and thought, has taught you how to be more than yourselves. Empathy forces us to understand the world in a multi-directional way – it is the most important kind of intelligence. And whether you become writers or teachers or bus drivers or doctors or social workers or stay-at-home parents or business owners, the empathy you honed at South will help you build lives that matter.



  1. Inventiveness. Look. No school is perfect, and South certainly has its fair share of imperfection. But those places where the gears grind and the sparks fly and the world doesn’t seem quite right are actually useful. You had to build your education. All of you. And it hasn’t been easy. And sometimes you had to invent things on your own. Or find work-arounds. Or alternatives. All of you have had to find your own way, force people to help you, and make stuff happen, and this is a useful skill. It’s a skill I’ve used as an author. It’s a skill you’ll use wherever your journey takes you.


  1. Uncertainty. I’m a writer, which means I live with uncertainty. My career – hell, my whole life – has been built on precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And that’s okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits. Life is uncertain. So you work with it, and make it work.



  1. Curiosity. South High has some of the best teachers in the state. Always has. Your teachers have taught you to ask questions and demand answers. To look past the easy stuff and embrace complexity. To seek new perspectives. To break down your sources and find the complicated and nuanced truth. Your curiosity will help you navigate, create, connect, and discover. It will help you forge a path that matters to you.



It isn’t easy. This transition. This journey. You will wander and you will fail sometimes and your hearts will break and you will get lost. That’s part of the deal. But I know you can do it. You guys are Tigers. You can literally do anything. The journey matters, so make the most of it.


And now, I have to say one more thing – not as a fellow graduate, but as a parent. Because my kid is out there in her cap and her gown and I’ve been observing the lot of you for the last four years – on sports fields and choir concerts and plays and just hanging out in the Commons with your friends. And some of you for longer than that – I’ve known some of you since Middle School, and some since fourth grade, and some since Kindergarten, and a few of you – and you know who you are – since you were babies in ECFE. And because of that, I’m going to speak on behalf of the moms here. And the dads. And the grandmas and grandpas and the aunties and uncles. And the foster parents. And social workers. And every adult who has stood by you and held your hands and loved you this whole way: Darlings, we are so proud of you. We are so, so proud of you. We knew you could do it. And we love you so much.

In Which I Take a Hiatus From the Hiatus In Order to Talk About Nerd Camp


So. This blog. It’s been . . . well. It’s been a while. And maybe I’m ready to start blogging again, and maybe I’m not. I haven’t decided. In any case there was a thing I wanted to talk about – an experience that was too large, for me, and too nuanced to possibly fit into a tweet or any kind of social media post – and I figured, instead of talking about it, I should blog about it, and then I thought I should seriously consider starting a blog, completely forgetting that I already have one, and have just been giving it the cold shoulder. For months. Because I am a dork. And an ignorer. Well. Here I am. I’m back.

To talk about Nerd Camp.

But before I do, here are some quick updates on me, for those of you who were followers before:

  1. As you know my beloved dog, Harper, passed away. (I had written about her extensively over the years. Here, here, here, and here. Just to name a few.) What you may not know is that, while on our way to the zoo last October, my children cajoled me to stop at the Humane Society to “say hi to the dogs”, and we came home with a puppy. Never made it to the zoo. His name is Sirius Black, and he is marvelous. (My Instagram handle is insufferable_blabbermouth, if you’re interested in seeing pictures.)
  2. I have a new book! With pretty covers! And it’s been getting, like, stars and stuff! It’s called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and you can read reviews about it if you want to. (Linked here are the starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist and PW, as well as the nicest review I’ve ever gotten in my life from Shelf Awareness.) Comes out in August. Having a book come out is stressful. So. Stressful. Maybe I should blog about it.
  3. And another book – this one a novella! For grownups! And it is, shockingly, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award! *faints* It’s called The Unlicensed Magicianand it came out in January, and it also has pretty covers and pretty endpapers and pretty pages and is just as pretty as can be. And a finalist for a fancy award, like a fancypants. Fly, my little book! Fly like the wind!
  4. College. Holy crap. My oldest is applying for college. It literally made me bleed just to write that. My soul is bleeding. And it’s stressful and thrilling and mournful and exciting and scary and joyful and terrifying and sometimes makes me want to barf.

Okay. That’s enough updates. Now on to Nerd Camp.

I had been hearing about this whole Nerd Camp business through the infinite tendrils of the Twitter Grapevine for a couple years now – often in the hushed voices of the passionate Literacy Evangelists preaching the Truth about Books and Building Joyful Readers and Finding the Right Book For the Right Kid at the Right Time, and warning darkly against the wicked temptations of Leveling and Reading Logs and Standardized Tests and other things that kill a kid’s love of reading forever. (I realize that I probably sound facetious here, but I swear I’m sincere. I am exactly on the same page as these folks, and have blogged as much: here, here, here and especially here.)

Back when I was a teacher, I was a big believer in free-range reading. I insisted that my seventh graders read widely and often, and instead of soul-killing reading logs or book reports, had them engage with their reading in creative ways – art, performance, discussion, creative writing and fan fiction. One kid even wrote a song. I would take them to the library every other week and tell them to go nuts, and then I’d flit from group to group, ghosting into their conversations, making subtle suggestions and sly whispers. Try Watership Down, I’d murmur. Or Holes. Or Harry Potter. Or Watsons Go to Birmingham. I’d hide behind stacks or lurk behind tables. Ever heard of Octavia Butler? You’d like her. How about these rad books by Terry Pratchett. My voice was light as feathers. I think you’d dig House on Mango Street, I’d say to no one in particular. It was important to me that my seventh graders were deep readers, wide readers. I told them that a book wasn’t just a book: a book was a conversation. Not only that, a book was a multi-level and multi-dimentional conversation: it was a conversation between author and reader, between character and reader, between itself and other books, between itself at the beginning and itself at the end, and between itself and the world. A book was more than the sum of its pages: all books – all stories – are infinite. As infinite as worlds.

I didn’t last in teaching. I tell people that it was too hard starting out at the time I was, with the near-constant layoffs and the grim reality of having to start mid-stream every year in a different building, all while having small children at home, and the disruption was too much. That was true, but that’s not the whole story. I left because of the testing regime. And the soullessness of reducing books to lexile scales and AR numbers. Of constantly assessing kids and reducing them to their level”, their “score”, their “number”. Removing the joy from the relationship between student and story – indeed, removing the relationship at all. You can’t have a relationship with a test score. You can’t have a relationship with an assignment. You can’t have a relationship with a log or an assessment or a data point. And in the end, I just couldn’t bear it.

I couldn’t figure out how to build readers when their tests were constantly tearing them down.  I couldn’t figure out how to foster relationships, when so much of what I was getting from my district was so contrary to what I knew was true. How could I have a “data driven classroom”, when I wasn’t teaching data: I was teaching children? Honestly, I’m so amazed at the teachers who have been able to hold onto the practice that they know is best for their kids, the practice that they were trained to implement, despite those outsized, outside pressures.

Later on, as a parent, I got into a real drag-out fight with my son’s school over their SRA reading curriculum. Instead of reading Caldecott and Newbery books, he was instead forced to read dull, plodding pre-packaged reading scripts, stylus in hand, pointing to each word as he read it out loud. At home he was reading Holes and Wrinkle in Time and Little House on the Prairie. At school, he was reading texts so dull they made him cry.  Over and over and over again. “Read it until it’s perfect,” they said to my boy who was constantly swapping dull words with more interesting synonyms to jazz it up a bit. But each time he deviated, he couldn’t “progress”, and he was stuck on the same lesson, over and over and over again. Sometimes for weeks. This is what happens when we value curriculum over children. And even though I was able to get him moved to a more interesting class, the weeks of languish left a mark. He lost his joy of reading. And it has not come back.

Coming to Nerd Camp, listening to Donalyn Miller and Kathy Burnette and Colby Sharp and Pernille Rip speak the truth about the power of books in the lives of kids, and the joy that kids feel when they can be a part of a community of books, and the transformative power of language and story and art. Well. It was like coming to the homeland that I had always longed for, but had never found. Or like arriving at the Mothership. Or finding the Spring of Truth and Righteousness. And honestly, it was amazing, in this age of monetization of education, of the systematic deprofessionalization of teachers and librarians by soulless bean-counters and data-worshipers, and of the cynical ploy of big companies to sell districts on pre-made curricula, completely ignoring the fact that great teaching is, in its heart, relational, that there could be this many people willing to come all the way to Parma, MI, to connect with one another and collaborate, swap ideas, and commune with books.

At Nerd Camp, every book is an opportunity for connection and transformation.

At Nerd Camp, every child has the fundamental right to be able to see themselves in books, as well as knowing other through books.

At Nerd Camp, books are not passive; they are active members of a classroom community. They are conduits of radical empathy. They are the catalyst for kids to find their voices, and to speak loud.

This is true everywhere, of course, but there is something magic when two thousand people come together and say YES, books matter. And YES, readers matter. And YES, books must be brave and readers must be brave and authors must be brave and teachers must be brave and librarians – above all – must be brave. It is an act of bravery to read a book and to write a book. It’s an act of bravery to stand up for a controversial book. It is an act of bravery to shelve a book in your classroom or library, knowing that there might be someone who thinks you should lose your job for it.

Literacy, in the end, is not a coward’s game. Literacy, by its nature, is disruptive. It inspires social change. It broadens minds. It foments revolutions. Teach a kid to read and you can change their life. Inspire a kid to love to read, and you can change the world.

Thank you, Nerd Camp. And thank you, profoundly, my beloved fellow Nerds. Let’s go change the world, shall we?

In Which We Are All Terribly Busy

I’ve been going bananas lately. Teaching. Writing. Turning in books. Finishing other books. Starting other books. And a short story. And another short story. And another teaching gig. And volunteering at the school. And taxes. And de-cluttering. Homework. Planning next year’s classes. Summer camp sign-up. College classes sign-ups for my fifteen year old (I am already freaking out about this. My baby! Taking some kind of Math class that I have never even heard of! With college kids! I am dead with sorrow!).

But with all the comings and goings I have been a lazy blogger, which is very silly of me because I have news! Good news! And events coming up. So, let’s share, shall we?

1. Tonight! March 26! I’ll be at the Red Balloon with the other Minnesota Book Awards finalists. There will be wine! And snacks! And you should come.Screenshot 2015-03-26 11.21.57

2. Which reminds me! I am a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards! Or, I’m not, but my book is. I don’t think I’ll win it, but I do very much appreciate being on such a select list. We have a lot of children’s authors in this state, and an astonishing number of very, very excellent children’s authors. It’s the water. Or maybe it’s the winter. Or maybe the ground is magic here. In any case, to get on any list of Minnesota writers is a pretty sweet feeling, and I have been enjoying it immensely.

3. And another thing! I am this year’s recipient of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers of Children’s Literature. I am as astonished as you are. I am also incredibly grateful to my dear writer’s group who told me to stop being such a silly and apply already.

4. My novella! I wrote a novella called “The Unlicensed Magician” that seems to be headed for a June release from PS Publishing. Details are still fuzzy, but it was printed in Locus, which means it must be true! I’ll post links and information when I get it.

In the coming weeks I’ll be revising novels and teaching more and hiking into the forest with my kids and sleeping in old cabins and tree houses and possibly bear dens. I’ll be bracing myself for the onslaught of summer. I’ll be realizing that there aren’t many more summers before I start packing my children off to college, and I’ll be harpooned with grief. You know. Regular stuff.


90-Second Newbery – the Twincy Edition!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I had the great pleasure of co-hosting the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the beautiful Downtown Minneapolis Library a couple weeks ago. For those of you who don’t know what this is, I encourage you to take a peek at the link here, just to check it out. It is a wondrous thing.

And here is Our Dear Mr. Kennedy’s write-up of the whole experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and blogging too, about schools and teaching and learning – how we can support teachers in their creation of authentic learning experiences while simultaneously creating classrooms that are places of intellectual curiosity, rigor, creativity, broad knowledge, connection, empathy and joy. And I have never seen so much joy on the faces of that many kids – my goodness! there were tons of them! – as they saw themselves, larger than life on the screen, demonstrating their excellent reading and cooperative play and extended, creative thinking. About books! Great books! It was wonderful.

If you are a teacher (and many of you are) and you are reading this, I hope you will think about incorporating this program into your classrooms next year. These videos require very little investment (many are made using the phones in their pockets, or the video equipment in the media center), and are a great way to introduce books that your students may not have read before. I also highly encourage you to show a couple of these goofy videos to your students in class, just to show the amount of cool things a bunch of kids can make if they put their minds to it.

Kudos, Mr. Kennedy. And kudos to all of you great Minnesotan readers. My hat! It is off!


When Tests Fail: Opt Out

This. A thousand times.

Power concedes ....


On March 2nd, members of my school’s PTA sent letters home to parents encouraging them to opt their children out of the PARCC Test. Their effort was covered in an article by Lauren FitzPatrick in the Chicago Sun-Times. Many parents asked my position on the matter.  As a result, I released the following letter to our parent community.


I am writing to make it clear that the Blaine administration fully supports the PTA’s effort to maximize Blaine students’ instructional time. As a result we will respect and honor all parent requests to opt-out their students from the PARCC. Students whose parents opt them out will receive a full day of instruction.  Teachers are developing plans that will provide enriched learning experiences for non-testing students during the testing window. I want to clearly state that whether you opt-out or not, Blaine’s administration and teachers will respect and support…

View original post 890 more words

A Modest Proposal.

Dear Administrators, Legislators, Pundits, Superintendents, Mayors, Governors, Education Policy Writers, Board Members, General Directors, Committee Members, Department Heads and other members of the Blowharding and Bloviating classes:


I hope this letter finds you well. First of all, let me thank you – truly and sincerely – for your tireless work on behalf of students everywhere. I know that we don’t always come to the same conclusion, but I do appreciate your hard work and your efforts.

I am writing to you today because I have just finished writing another letter to my son’s teacher, opting him out of the upcoming Standardized Tests. I feel – no, I know – that his time will be much better spent doing enrichment work or reading a book. There are other parents at his school who have opted to do the same, and it makes me terribly happy to know that not all of the children will be subjected to the same mindless, soulless, and, frankly, pointless drudgery of yet another standardized test. And for what? What do these tests actually accomplish?

Alas, not much, according to recent research.  It is not particular tests that are the problem, Dr. Walter Stroup’s research finds. Alas, the problem rests in the DNA of the test itself. To use a rather silly analogy – we are using a bathroom scale to measure how high a student can jump. The bathroom scale works fine. It’s just the wrong tool for the job.

(The vehemence and nastiness with which Pearson Education has attacked Dr. Stroup only indicates to me that they don’t like seeing their faces in the mirror, and are attacking the person who happens to be holding it. It is a childish move, detailed here.)

I went on a bit of a rant about the subject today.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 11.09.30 AM

Actually, it went on from there:

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 11.38.25 AMWhich leads me to my proposal:

In this country, we spend 1.7 billion (or we did in 2012. It is higher now.) (and that number is just what we pay to the companies – it does not count the labor hours we spend to get the kids ready to take those tests, or the labor hours needed to re-test the kids who fail) on tests that do not give an accurate or clear or even coherent view into the landscape of a student’s learning. The only thing a test demonstrates is a student’s ability to take a test. That is it. Which means that we are spending a heck of a lot of money getting information on our kids that is, ultimately, useless. How often do you use your ability to do well on a test? Personally, I never do. So why are we doing it.

Now, I know that representatives from these companies have done an excellent job convincing you of their worth. And these representatives are well-spoken and well-dressed and well-heeled. They have shiny shoes and pressed suits and statement necklaces and polished teeth. Wide chins. A sharky look about the eye. I have met these people too. I have also smiled and nodded. I know that when they explain why their 35 million dollar test was riddled with errors, it sounded vaguely reasonable, and you left the room thinking that the teachers were somehow responsible or complicit.

I get it. These people are good at what they do. They just are wrong.

The best assessment tool for a child’s learning is from one source: the child’s teacher. They are the professionals. They are the experts.

So. Given that landscape, why don’t we try a different approach. We don’t have to do it forever – I’d never suggest something so hasty! Instead, we can try an experiment: let us, for a period of one year, refrain from testing. Just one year. All across the country. And let’s investigate what else we could do with that extra time and extra money.

And then let’s see, after the one year period expires, if the current testing regime continues to make sense.

Imagine what we could do with 1.7 billion extra dollars for that one year. Imagine what the kids could learn with that extra time.

We could buy 1.7 billion dollars worth of books.

We could increase spending on school nutrition programs.

We could hire more teachers and de-crowd the classrooms.

We could hire some librarians.

Hell, we could build some libraries.

We could take the kids out on a field trip to a museum or a nature area.

We could hire more counselors. Or social workers. Or nurses.

We could enrich the classrooms.

We could take the month that it takes for test prep and do a unit on Pablo Neruda. Or string theory. Or computer programming. Or robotics.

Just one year. Then we can go back to overspending on tests and getting nothing in return. But oh! Just think of what it would mean to our kids to have one year to just focus on their learning! Just think of what it would be like for the teachers to have the freedom and professional responsibility to actually teach! Just think of what we could do with that year and with that money. It warms the heart to think about it.

And that is what I am asking, ladies and gentlemen. I am asking you to think about it.

Yours in Solidarity and Learning,

Kelly Barnhill.

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival – TODAY IS THE DAY!

Ladies and gentlemen and fabulous kids, today at 3:00 at the beautiful Downtown Minneapolis Library is the Twin Cities screening of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival , hosted by the amazing James Kennedy and yours truly! Come and see kids-book-trailer films made by kids, with kids, and for kids. It’s gonna be awesome. I might wear a tiara. Oh, wait. I don’t actually own a tiara. Maybe I’ll wear my knee-high converse boots instead.

Seriously, you should come!

Here is a link to some information and particulars and what have you.

Seriously, guys. How do teachers do this every day?


Boots: check.

Lasso: check.

Yodel: check.

Folks, this week, I’m back in the classroom again. Cue music.

As many of you know, I am a former full-time teacher (Middle School, natch. And I have the scars to prove it) (I’m just kidding. Middle School kids are puppy dogs with fairy wings and butterfly kisses. For real.), and now, in addition to my writing work, from time to time I return to the classroom to teach fiction writing for a week with eager, energetic, enthusiastic, and oh, good god, tiring children.

I’m so tired right now. I can barely see straight. I may melt into the floor.

With each class today, I stood in front of these kids and poured my energy out so they could pour that same energy onto the page. That’s what I do – pour and flow, crackle and burn, light the room, hold their attention in the palm of my hands, and set their stories ablaze. They were maniacs today. Story-writing maniacs. They wrote stories with spies in them and stories with aliens in them and stories with best friends in them and stories with soldiers in them and stories about jury duty and super heroes and cranial implants and stories narrated by an arthritic dog. And they were awesome.

Since this is not my regular classroom and these are not my regular kids, I can’t rely on the relational foundation that most teachers use to keep their classrooms going. These kids don’t know me. So the only way I can get them to lose their inhibitions long enough to get their stories written down is to do my little magic tricks on my makeshift stage.

“Look here,” I say. “Storytelling is ancient.”

“And here,” I say. “Stories are an integral part of your humanity. We tell stories, therefore we are.”

“Look here,” I say. “Your brain can do tricks. Watch.”

“Look here,” I say. “I can tell you words and turn them into sentences and use those sentences to make your heart beat fast and your breathing go shallow and make all of you sit on the edges of your seats. Look at yourselves! Look at how you’re gripping your chairs. Look at how your knuckles are white. Now you make that happen in your stories.”

“Look here,” I say. “There is a dragon that can fit in your pocket. And a kingdom made of cattails. And a forest with fire in its belly. Look! A witch! Look! A liar! Look! A horde of bandits, smiling in the dark.”

I told them stories. They wrote stories. They read their stories out loud. We postulated and discussed and argued and laughed and made excellent points. I think we’re all exhausted. The kids walked out holding their writing hands limply in makeshift slings.

On my way out to my car today, I literally waded through a sea of Kindergarteners. They swirled and swelled and crashed like waves. They clung to my boots like seaweed. Third graders jostled me from side to side and fourth graders shouted like fog horns in my ears. Fifth graders pulled at my coat sleeves as I left, and sixth graders called me back because I had to listen to the funniest joke. It took me like an hour just to leave.

I love them. I love them so much. But I forget how tiring this work is. I’m sitting on the couch right now and it is so much work just to keep my skeleton from turning into a puddle on the floor. I am a pot boiled dry. I am an empty husk. I am the ashes from yesterday’s campfire. I have no muscles. My skull has shattered. My eyeballs rolled away an hour ago, and I think they’re lodged under the refrigerator. It hurts to breathe.

And I just want to point out that your kids’ teachers do this every single day. Every day, they work themselves to the dang bone. Every day they pour out their love and their intellect and their training. Every day they chart a course on your kids’ learning. You are here, they say, pointing to the map. And just look at where you are going. Isn’t it wonderful?

Teachers are awesome. And I know that, of course I do. But I know it even more during my little teaching stints. Where I meet these kids and work with these kids and love these kids, and they inhale every joule of energy in me. They drain my essence. They absorb every ounce of my soul. And I know that for their teachers, this ain’t nuthin. For them, it’s just Wednesday. They pour themselves out every single day. They are inexhaustible wells. And god bless ’em.

So here’s my challenge for you: Go out and do something nice for a teacher. Any teacher. Buy ’em a latte. Give ’em a Target gift card. Write ’em a note. Do something. Because holy smokes. Do they ever deserve it.

My hat, ladies and gentlemen. It is off.

And now, will someone please bring a hose and an air machine? Because I seem to have deflated. And I need to be re-inflated by tomorrow so I may return to the classroom and teach my heart out once again. ONCE MORE, MY FRIENDS. INTO THE DEEP.

Good dog. My good, good dog.

Harper, my one thousand year old dog, died last night. My heart is very broken.

By the time you read this, the shell of her body will have transformed: heat and light, vapor and smoke, ash and wind, then wide open sky. I miss her. Oh, you guys. I miss her.

The fact is, death is weird. Even when we know it’s coming – and we all know its coming for every living thing, though for some it’s coming faster than others – it still seems sudden. My dog was twenty years old. At least. We have prepared ourselves for her last days on several occasions. Still. This seems sudden. We are not surprised, and yet we are surprised. And in the face of the most banal fact of life we are wide-eyed, and astonished.

We almost lost her in mid-January. But she rallied. She always rallies. Or she did. Past tense. That’s going to be a hard one. Yesterday morning, I fed her, but she was annoyed at the inadequacy of her dog food. She gave me the stink-eye. “Fine,” I said, and opened another mini-portion of the fancy wet stuff – the one with the picture of the fluffy white, vaguely jerkish-looking dog on the label. Not nearly as cool as my dog is.

Was, I mean. I mean was.

“Be careful,” I said to her. “Someone’s going to think you’re one of those fancy hounds, with assistants and butlers and perhaps having some old guy leaving you their entire fortune in his Will. Is that what you want?”

Harper just stared at me. She never gets my jokes.

Got, I mean.

I took her on a walk before the ice storm hit, and marveled at how well she was doing. How strong she was. “Good dog,” I said. “My good, good dog.” Three weeks ago, she couldn’t even go outside to pee on her own. I had to hoist her in my arms, croon soothing words into her ear, stand her up on the snow and tell her to let it rip. Two weeks ago, I was praising her with all the treats on earth for making it to the end of our half-block and back. And here she was, walking next to me, sniffing every patch of yellow snow, keeping a keen eye out for the occasional squirrel.

There weren’t any squirrels out, though. Not one. They were hunkered down in their dens, waiting for the storm to hit.

When we got to the field behind my house, I took off her leash and let her go. And she ran. It was the first time I had seen her run since she got sick. I’d seen her scamper on occasion, but never run. She wasn’t particularly fast, but she was joyful. A vision of fur and nail and clever paws, motion, intention, and the thrill of success. I was so proud of her. “Good dog,” I called over the snow. “My good, good dog.”

We came in, had more snacks, and she took a nap. She spent the rest of the day drinking her water, finding new places to lie down, asking to go out, barking up the neighborhood. A regular day. A good day.

And then last night she had a seizure. A long one. And then she was fuzzy and weak and out of it. And then she was tired. And then she was gone.

And we touched her and talked to her. We read stories. We sang songs. We didn’t really think she’d go. Not really. She always rallies. It’s what Harper does. “My good, good dog,” we said over and over and over. We had put the kids to bed, but we woke them all back up to say goodbye.

She was so soft. Had she always been that soft? She must have been. But I couldn’t stop petting her. Even though I knew she was gone. “My pretty girl,” I crooned. “My good, good dog.” After the kids had said their goodbyes and went to bed, we put Harper in the car and drove to the clinic for the last time.

This morning, by instinct, I checked the landing as I went downstairs in the dark, making sure I didn’t accidentally step on her. I chided myself. She’s gone, I told myself. Don’t be silly. And then I had to stop myself from putting food in her bowl. I had to stop myself from opening the back door, knowing that just the sound of the knob would send my Harper running, anxious to get back in her yard. My behavior patterns, the rhythm of my day, were written by my dog. How long before they get over-written? How long before I stop searching for her with my foot while I’m writing, seeking a warm body to warm my toes. She was always there, right next to me. Always.

My dog was old, loud, stinky and scrappy. She loved her family. She had terrible breath and was sometimes abrasive. She practically raised my kids. She loved camping and hiking and canoeing. When she was at the shore of a lake, she tried to herd the waves. She loved stinky socks and sweaty shirts and sheets that smelled like the kids. She lived longer than most, stayed active longer than most, and was, by all measures, a marvel. And she was a thousand years old. And she built my husband and I into a family.

And I loved her. Oh, you guys. I loved her so, so much.

ETA: Here are some earlier posts about Harper. You don’t have to read them or anything, I just thought it would be a good idea to put them all in a list.

“The Barnhill Family’s Disaster in the BWCA”

“Regarding my 1,000-year-old dog”

“No one will ever love you the way that this dog loves you.”

“A Quick Update on my 1,001 year old dog”

“On Slowing Down”




Well, this blog has been dark for a bit because I have been fussed about my kid. This is nothing new. I am often fussed about my kids. I am a born fusser.

Two weeks ago, my daughter was downhill skiing – the last run at the end of a long day down a not-so-difficult slope. And she decided to jump on some kind of box or obstacle or whatever, because she felt like being a hot shot. It was a trick she’d done a hundred times. And she face planted on the ice. Hard. She was wearing a helmet, thank goodness, but brains are delicate. Ridiculously so.

My husband brought her home, gash-lipped and swollen-cheeked. The side of her face had swelled to the size of a softball. The cut across her lip was not infected, but it would be soon. And she had a concussion. And I went bananas. Like, I was so anguished at the injuries on my offspring, that I could hardly even see straight. Or think straight. Or even walk straight. I am only just recovering.

The brain is a funny thing – all mush and squish and water. The consistency of tofu. The color of porridge. And yet. It organizes the mechanization of the the organism – powering motion and control, balance and awareness, analysis, planning and synthesis. How is it that something that fragile is responsible for the miracle of thinking, wondering and imagination? How is it that it only takes three pounds of delicate goo to create Calculus? Or write the Divine Comedy? Or design the Forbidden City?

My kids are smart. Way smarter than I am or was. And their brains are precious to me. My daughter – math genius, painter, voracious reader, novel writer, aspiring engineer/comic book artist, opera singer – is at this moment in her life when her intelligence and talents are revealing themselves to her. Where she is seeing for the first time what her brain can do and where her brain can take her. Where she is taking ownership of all that she is. And the thought – the very thought – of a disruption in that was, frankly, frightening to me.

So I started learning about brains.


Did you know, for example, that the brain is 70% water? Our thoughts are fish, I think. They are bright schools of flashing fin and scale and eye. They crowd the waves and plunge in the depths and strike out on their own. They have teeth. They have speed and agility. And sometimes they are sharks.

Did you know that the first sense that we develop in utero is not smell, as I have so very often erroneously told my students, but touch? We develop our sense of touch at eight weeks gestation, and the first place we experience touch is on our lips and on our cheeks. A kiss, I think. We are ready to kiss before we can kiss, we are ready to be kissed before we ever see another face. The first thing we kiss is water – just as our thoughts live in water. Our first moment of love and thought is experienced alone.

When awake, the human brain uses about the same amount of energy to power a light bulb. We don’t actually have to be particularly bright in order to do this. Dull and tiresome people are just as shiny. This is good to remember. Water and light, particle and wave. We are many things at once. 

When we learn something new, the structure of our brains changes. This change is visible on scans. We are flux. We are change. We are the tides of the ocean and the wandering river. We are water droplets in the air, dispersing and gathering and dispersing again. We are a gathering storm.

When a person is deprived of food, their neurons begin to eat themselves. This can happen very quickly. This is the reason why we become foggy and stupid when we accidentally miss lunch, and why it is a terrible idea to ever go on a diet. We are cannibals. We are insatiable. We are the Worm Ouroboros, devouring ourselves forever. 


When I took my daughter to the doctor, he did his tests and pronounced a concussion. He gave her a serious look. “Concussions are no joke,” he said. “You need to let yourself turn off for a little while. No school. No homework. No reading. No screens. Just you and a dark room and your eyes on the wall, kiddo. You need to let that brain heal.” He explained what a concussion was and how they worked – how she had two bruises on her brain and not just one – a bruise on the front, and a bruise on the back. He explained that, just like a sprained ankle, the brain heals best in a state of rest.

“Brain rest,” he said. “That’s what they call it. And I’m not going to lie to you: it’s really, really boring. You just have to let yourself do nothing. All day.” She stared at him as though he had asked her to swallow a truck full of sand.

“Can’t I just get a new one?” she asked. “A brain, I mean. Surely you have extra brains in jars, sitting around somewhere.”

The doctor assured her that he did not, but Ella was skeptical. “What’s the point of science if we can’t put our brains in jars and swap them out when we feel like it?”

(She denies saying this, by the way. I assure you that she did. Plus she is an unreliable narrator of her life, currently, because of the concussion. Or, at least she was then. And anyway, this is my blog. So.)

Screen shot 2011-10-31 at 3.45.57 PM

Fortunately, her teachers take concussions seriously, and were extremely amenable to flexibility. They like her brain, too, and were happy to have her stay home and rest. “Better to have her rest at home for an extra day,” one teacher said, “than to send her to school before she’s ready, and have her feel so lousy that she has to go home anyway.”

And so we did. But still I worry. I found out yesterday that she has been carrying her stuff around all week because she couldn’t remember her locker combination. And I notice that she is tired a lot more. I don’t want to foist my worries on her – she’s got enough worries of her own. And so I bite my tongue and fuss.

About three years ago, I was out for a run and slipped on the ice, knocking myself unconscious. I don’t think I was out for very long – in fact I know I was not, given that it was incredibly cold, and I hadn’t frozen yet. But it didn’t even occur to me to get myself checked out, nor did it occur to me that I might have a concussion. But I was super tired for weeks after. And I had atrocious headaches, the likes of which I had never experienced before or since. And I did find myself forgetting stuff. And three months later, I fell into one of the worst depressions of my life – and I’m only just now finding my feet.

Did I have a concussion? Did that concussion make me more prone to outsized sadness and anxious thinking? Would I have avoided later complications had I given myself space and time to heal when it was necessary to heal? Perhaps. All I know is that I will take no such risks with my child.

My daughter is now at her rehearsal at Project Opera (the youth training program at Minnesota Opera – a wondrous organization), and things are getting back to normal. I’m still encouraging her to limit her screen time, and to try to maximize her sleep every day. And she is very good at noticing that she is more tired than usual. She lays down for a little bit when she gets home from school. She turns in early. She is giving herself permission to relax. This is a good thing.

I hate it when my kids get hurt. I hate it. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to protect that beautiful brain. It is ever so precious to me. Of course it is.


In which I am called *that word*.


Oh, don’t be coy with me. You know exactly which word I am talking about.

I called my husband right after it happened. I was in tears. “A man called me the baddest word,” I said, sniveling like a little child. Enraged at the outrage of it, and enraged at my own hurt as well.

It’s just a word, I fussed at myself.

No it isn’t, my hurt fussed back.

My husband paused. “Which bad word?” he asked carefully.

“The baddest one,” I said.


I amended. “The baddest one for a lady,” I said primly.

What came from my husband’s mouth next was a series of “Oh.”

“Oh,” he said, uttering the “Oh” of comprehension.

Oh,” he said next, uttering the “Oh” of disbelief.

“OH!” he said finally, uttering the “Oh” of rage.

“Do you want me punch him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I probably won’t punch him,” he said. “Plus, we don’t know who he is.”

This was true. It happened on the corner of 46th and Hiawatha, where I had walked through the wind and the cold to get medicine for my dog at the pharmacy. I had a green light and a walk sign. He nearly hit me as he tried to turn illegally through the crosswalk. I jumped backward, and he missed me by inches. I was too astonished to say anything, too terrified to register anything except relief that I wasn’t hurt. He rolled down his window, leaned across the passenger, his face was twisted and angry and hard.

“Get out of the way you stupid c***,” he said.

And then he sped away.

And I walked home, horrified.

I have been called bad names before. Sometimes deservedly so. Sometimes not. But I’ve never been as upset as I was this time around. Now, granted, I was having a rough day (my dog, my dog. everything returns to my dog). And there was the fact of my near-squishing as well. As a person of faith, I’m not particularly afraid of dying, but there is something gravely undignified in a Death By Squishing – by a horrible-looking van driven by a foul-mouthed man, no less. It wouldn’t be my preference is what I’m saying.

But why, though. Why insult the person you almost killed? I have been thinking about this for days, and I can’t figure it out. What is it about fear that makes it harder to be compassionate? What is it about doing something wrong that makes people have a harder time to show care? Why is it so damn hard to say “I’m sorry”?

It did not occur to the driver to check for pedestrians. I get that. It did not occur to the driver that there might be someone crossing in the crosswalk on so cold a day. It was very cold. And it was bright. I get it that mistakes can happen.

But why yell ‘stupid’. And why, why, why that other word. The baddest word. And why does that word hurt me so?

In the 30 Rock episode “The C-Word” Liz Lemon is called it by a petulant employee (the petulantest), and she tries to shake it off, but can’t. In the episode she says, “There isn’t an equivalent insult for a man,” and that isn’t entirely true – men get called “dicks” all the time, which feels like it should be the same, but strangely it is not. Perhaps it is the venom withheld from one word and piled in the other. Perhaps it is our culture’s misogynistic distain for the female body – Francis Grose, in his 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, defined it as “a nasty word for a nasty thing.” Indeed, even though the word was in popular usage since the 1300’s, it didn’t even show up in any regular English dictionary until 1961, when Webster’s finally decided to use it, helpfully calling it obscene. 

It is that, for sure.

Now, it wasn’t always so. Chaucer uses the word playfully in the Cantebury Tales. And Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, plays with the word, substituting it with “quaint” and lets the reader fill in the blanks. So how did a playful turn on joyful sexuality become the ugliest of insults. Intention? Body hatred? Lady hatred? Maybe all of those things. Maybe we can blame the Puritans. Maybe we can blame mean men in vans.

And I know people who seek to reclaim that word. To use it powerfully, lovingly, playfully. To assert that the nastiness in the word is not emblematic of the thing described, but of the speaker himself. There is no part of me that is nasty, after all. Every part of me is a gift from my Creator, and has in it the spark of the Divine. And I can say that, and I can use that word in my own private conversations and it does not change the fact that the intention of that insult matters. And that ugly talk is ugly talk, no matter how we try to reframe the context of our vocabularies.

There are few words in our language with this much power to shock. And hurt.

Which brings me back to the near-squishing. There is no way this person could think he was in the right and I was in the wrong. There was no way that he could have thought that I actually was stupid for crossing the street. At a crosswalk. With a green light and a “walk” sign. So what is really going on?

He said that word to hurt me. He said that word to belittle me. He said that word to remove my humanity – to make me feel as though I did not have the right to occupy that space, to move across a street in safety in the winter. He said that word to make himself feel better. If my humanity is lessened than the potential harm is lessened too. He said that word to absolve himself. He said that word to remove me from the possibility of compassion. He said that word so as to relieve himself of the bother of caring. He said that word because his power of movement was more valuable to him than mine. He would not have said that word to a man. He likely would not have called him a d***, either. He likely would not have said anything at all. Men have the right to exist, right?

This all happened days ago. Friday, to be exact. And I’ve been stewing ever since. I have been thinking about the things I should have said, and the things I should have done.

“Did you get his license plate,” my mom asked. “Because that was illegal. You were on a crosswalk”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t even think of it. I could only be shocked.”

She shrugged. “I probably wouldn’t have either.”

And maybe that’s why. When words have the power to shock – they have more power than the word itself. They remove the impulse of action from the recipient. They pin us in place.

I hate that. I hate how powerless I felt. I hate that my instinct was to crumple up. I hate that my instinct was to flush and sputter. To feel less than. It is a crummy feeling. The crummiest.

I’m not sure what I want out of this post. Other than to pin this experience to the great bulletin board in the sky. “See,” I say. “This is what happened. This is how I felt. Make of it what you will.”

Update on the Ancient Dog

Well, the Vet came and went yesterday, but Harper, my one thousand year old beastie, still remains. He said to us, “You know? Every time I see your dog’s name on my patient list I think, ‘Oh, god. This is it.’ And every time I see her, I think, ‘You know what? Maybe not.'”

So that’s our answer right now. Maybe not. I’ll take it.

In the meantime, we’re managing her pain and giving her fluids, in hopes that she starts eating and drinking more regularly on her own. She’s sleeping a lot, but she’s not in any kind of visible distress, which is good news.

The Vet said to us yesterday, “So, outside of the last couple days, which have been admittedly terrible, how would you describe her quality of life?”

“Well,” we said, “she eats her food and drinks her water and is super excited when someone drops something on the ground so she can taste it. She loves her yard, and loves chasing the rabbits and the squirrels. When she can see them. Which isn’t very often. Sometimes she chases nothing because she thinks that there might be a squirrel there maybe. She likes it when one of the kids takes her for a walk, and she really likes going for a hike.”

“She hikes?” the Vet said.

“Sometimes,” we said. “Not as far as she used to go, but she went five miles this summer. Slowly. With breaks. But she made it.”

“And she’s twenty years old.”

“At least.”

He listened to her heart and listened to her lungs and felt her belly and looked in her mouth. He looked at us. “Honestly, it could go either way – you never know if a dog gets it in their head to circle the drain. She might have decided that this is it. Or maybe she just feels crummy, and this is her feeling crummy. The main thing is getting her through the next couple days. But, given all that? There’s a good chance she might rally.”

My husband thinks he has money on her. Maybe I should put money on her.

In any case, I really appreciate all the prayers and well-wishes from yesterday. I think she heard them and I think she felt them. She’s resting comfortably right now. Is that rallying? I don’t know. I’m just trying to get through the day. And that’s what it will be for a while. One day at a time.

I told my kids that every time we think, “This is it,” with our dog (and believe me, there have been lots of those), what we feel is relief. And we should feel relief. But we also have to remind ourselves that each time this happens, it brings us closer to the actual “this is it” moment. Our dog has lived longer than most dogs. She is older than my oldest child. She is older than my marriage. But she won’t live forever. None of us will.

And maybe that’s the point. Life is fragile, and fleeting. A dog’s life; a person’s life. We are precious because we are fragile, and because our time is brief. We mark the spot where we were and lived through our connection, our kindness, our affection, our love. Our dogs do not build cities or write policy or make war or give speeches or build bombs or write books. And yet they leave profound and lifelong impacts on the people who love them. And we treasure them forever.

“We may get to keep Harper for another day or another week or another year, but the way we remember her will be the same. She will be the bad-breathed beastie who loved you best and most. And we will hold ourselves lucky to know and have known her.”

And really, that’s what any of us hope to be known for. The one who loved best and most. The one who was kind. The one who cared. The one who was ever present with an open heart. So that is what I carry with me today. A bit of Harperishness in my heart.



My dog is bathed and dried and wrapped up and next to the heating vent. I got her to eat a little this morning. She drank some watered-down unsalted beef broth (organic, because she is worth it), and it felt like a miracle. I’m sitting next to her, my computer on my lap, pretending to write my book, but really I’m just looking at my dog. Keeping close.

“Stay,” I say.

She thumps her tail.

“Stay,” I say again. She closes her eyes and groans she pushes her nose against my leg with a sigh.

When we live with dogs, we have a set of words that our animals are trained to obey on cue. We say, “Sit”, and they sit. But that isn’t always what we mean. When Harper was young – a gnarly, snarly, scruffy little street dog, narrowly escaping Death By Dogcatcher – I would say “Sit” and it would mean something very specific. “Sit” meant “Oh My God Stop Being Such A Crazypants, You Crazypants.” Sit meant “No, You May NOT Remove The Mailman’s Leg!” or it meant, “Bashing Your Head Against The Door Doesn’t Actually Open The Door!” or it meant, “If You Don’t Stop Barking At That Squirrel, I Might Actually Explode The House And Then You Will Be Sorry.”

Later, when we had kids, “Sit” meant “Keep Close To The Baby,” or it meant, “Stop Pulling On The Leash Or I Might Accidentally Knock Over The Stroller,” or it meant, “No, You May Not Climb Up Onto The High Chair Tray; You Must Wait For The Baby’s Food To Fall.”

And later than that, “Sit” meant, “Yes I Know Our House Is Overrun With Crazy Boys; Sit And Lean On Me And Know You Are Safe.” “Sit” meant “Everything Is Fine, I Promise.”

Today, she is having trouble pulling herself into a sitting position. She did it for a little bit this morning. “Sit,” I said, and I meant, “Please.”

“Sit, honey,” I said. Please, oh please.

“You can do it,” I said. Oh please, oh please, oh please.

She did it. For a little while. But eventually, her legs splayed out in front of her and she pressed her belly to the ground. She sighed.

When she was young I used to tell her to stay. It took a while for that one to stick. She was a ranger – it’s how she came to us in the first place. And no matter how tightly we had our fences and how high, she managed to find her way out of them. Usually at night. She’d trick us into letting her out claiming she had to pee (what a trickster!) and two minutes later she’d be gone. We’d hear her scratching at the door in the middle of the night (she’d climb over the fence), and there she’d be – shiny coat, bright eyes, a wanderer’s grin about her mouth. Sometimes she’d have something with her – a ham bone or a squeaky toy. We figured she had regular folks that she’d pay visits to.

“Stay,” we told her. What we meant was, “We’re worried about you. We know you’re smart and savvy and no car would ever squish you and no street dog would ever best you in a fight. We know you’re street smart and gnarly and canny. We know you can take care of yourself. But we miss you when you’re gone. And we need you.”

“Stay,” we said again and again and again. And, finally, she stayed.

Now “Stay” means something else.

She is pressing her back against my leg. I am leaning against the bookshelf and it is uncomfortable. I should get a pillow but I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave her.

“Stay,” I say. She thumps her tail.

Don’t go, my heart says. Please don’t go.

She thumps her tail.

“Stay,” I say again. “Stay, stay, stay.” Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.

I love you, thumps her tail.

“I love you, too,” I say. “Don’t go,” I say out loud.

She thumps her tail.

I might have to, she says.

The vet is coming at three. I’d appreciate a kind thought or a prayer, if you happen to have an extra one lying around. Harper would appreciate it too.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 37,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

I Never Understood Why My Mom Was Crazy During the Holidays Until I Became a Crazy Mom During the Holidays


Like many people, I do not choose to engage in the annual spending orgy of Black Friday, opting instead to celebrate Buy Nothing Day on the Friday after Thanksgiving. And I recommend it, really – spending the day going on a long, foresty hike with loved ones as we vainly attempt to walk off the over-eating of the day before. And puzzles. And leftovers. And more puzzles. Always a good time. Also, it’s good for me to take a breather in the midst of holiday madness.

Because, this time of year, and every year, I go mad. Completely, totally, bonkers, bananas, loony-toons, cookoo-for-cocopuffs,  both Hatter and March Hare, mad. And, if I was a betting man (or, in my case, woman), I’d wager that you do too. And it isn’t your fault. It’s the damn holidays.

The holidays are crazy-making. The expectations. The lunatic scheduling. The jittery children. The lists. The shopping. The cupon-cutting. The oppressive darkness. The cold. The near-constant phone calls. And the pressure on parents (and perhaps it’s unfair of me to assume that the pressure is worse on moms. It feels to me like it is, but since I am not a dad, and because the dad in my familial context is the coolest of cool cucumbers, it is difficult for me to say) to make things just so. To make things perfect. We become the guardians of the happiness of every person on earth, and god help us if we fail.

Instead of the normal shopping-tastic Black Friday with its door-busters and Walmart fistfights and television sets for pennies on the dollar and whatever, I have in its place, every year, my own personal Black Friday. My Black Friday is far worse than everyone else’s. I’m not saying that to brag. It’s just the truth. It begins the night after Thanksgiving. And it happens in my dreams.

This is my Holiday Mom Black Friday Anxiety Dream:

I wake up in my bed because of the thunder of feet as my children stampede into my bedroom. (Now, if I ever attain the gift of lucidity while dreaming, this should be my first inkling that I am, in fact, dreaming. My daughters haven’t woken up earlier than me since they were five. Leo, my son, still does wake up early – usually around six or six thirty in the morning, but he never comes into my room. Instead, he goes downstairs and puts water in the electric kettle and puts a tea bag in my favorite mug and either plays his ipod or draws until someone comes down and hangs out with him. And by “someone”, I mean me.) (Also, I should know I’m dreaming because my kids are filling the room. I only have three. And while it often feels like there are masses of them – like I am Girl Genghis Khan, mothering my massive Mongol Horde – I do understand that this is only a stress-induced perception augmentation. In my dream, however, I did not have three children. I have hundreds. Hundreds. And I truly love them all.)

“Mom!” my hundreds of children cry. “Mom! Mom! Mom!”

“What!” I say, wrenching myself out of sleep. I rub my eyes and smile.

“Can you believe it’s Christmas already?” my hundreds of children sigh.”Isn’t that wonderful?”

At this I leap out of bed, my mind and body racing. Christmas? I think in a panicked blur. Christmas already? I’m not ready! I don’t have a tree! I haven’t decorated! I haven’t made the Christmas cards! I haven’t bought any presents! There is nothing for Christmas breakfast! Or dinner! And oh god oh god oh god! I am out of milk!

It’s the milk that gets me every time. Because if there is no milk, then we can have no tea. And if there is no tea, then the thin threads tethering my mind to any semblance of sanity sever one by one.

This is where I wake up, dripping with sweat. This happens every night. Every single night. Starting the night after Thanksgiving and lasting until Christmas morning.

And I think about famous holiday anxiety dreams – Joseph seeing the possible stoning of Mary and having an angel give him what-for, or Ebenezer Scrooge and his three ghosts – and I start to feel anxious about my anxiety dreams. Because at least those guys had dreams that did something. Safeguarding the childhood of the Lord, for example. Or giving an old geezer his heart back. But what do my dreams do? Besides making me into some kind of Mother Goddess, which, frankly is not that bad. I wouldn’t mind mothering a horde, if truth be told. Still, this dream gives me no insight, no perspective, no world-saving change. It just makes me crazy.

And it’s too bad, because this season is wonderful. We are pink-cheeked and singing. We are thinking of the people who matter to us and wondering what would make them happy. We are spending more time at church, at one another’s houses. We are paying attention to snowflakes and the scent of pine and cookie recipes. We are lighting candles. We are making things. Perhaps I am waking up too early from my dream. Perhaps, in my anxiousness, I’m not asking the fundamental next question. “So what?” I should be asking. And then I should hug my kids.

To the rest of you moms and dads who are, right now, hanging onto your sanity by your fingernails, I raise my glass to you. May your goblets flow with wine, and may you be given chocolate for every meal. May your days be filled with sweetness and your nights be filled with song. And may you, in this most blessed of seasons, be filled with light: light that conquers darkness; light that vanquishes misunderstanding or division or despair; light that is conceived, gestated and born, again and again, into our arms. Happy Holidays, my dears. To all of you.


Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Items of note:


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

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

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