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.

Troy LaRaviere's blog


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…

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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 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.

Some Reasons Why I do This Job.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yes,” I said. “It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Kelly Barnhill

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

3, 2, 1, LEGO!


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

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

Each blessed one.

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


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


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

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

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

And then we built robots out of Legos.

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

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

In my family, I choose a different path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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