The Perils of Harry Potter (and how the whack-job book burners may have been sorta right)

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In my first year teaching, one of my reading groups had chosen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as their shared book for that month. And boy did I catch hell from some parents. I got all kinds of nonsense  – from “the scar on his forehead is an obvious allusion to the Mark of the Beast”, to “I don’t want my child reading about witchcraft. I have a hard enough time controlling him as it is”, to “you shove a bunch of goddamned fantasies into these children’s heads and they won’t be able to know what’s real any more.”

Because I believe in books and I believe in Story (and I secretly believe in magic), I laughed off the parents’ concerns, and relegated their voices under the category of “Total Nuts That I Have To Put Up With.” I made some accommodations for the children whose parents wouldn’t budge, but mostly I just thought those parents were being silly – and I told them so.

And I never thought about their concerns again. Until recently.

Two thirds of my children are Harry Potter fanatics. They’ve read those books, re-read them, re-re-read them, and refer to specific passages as they correspond to particular events or decisions in their lives as sixth graders and third graders, respectively.

They can tell you, in exquisite detail, the points at which the movies diverge from the books; they can tell you – chapter and verse – the moments in the books in which character is revealed, in which clues are hidden, in which mysteries are unraveled. They have spent months assembling character-based costumes – both for Halloween, and just for fun – and have assumed the identities completely – Hermione, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mad-Eye Moody and Professor McGonagall. My children live in the Potterverse. Those books have seeped in through their fingers, permeated their bloodstreams, fed their dreams.

And maybe this is problematic.

My husband was driving my oldest home from a basketball game this weekend. As they drove past the snow-covered field, Ella glanced over at a black lab leaping upwards to snatch a red frisbee from the air. Her eyes widened and she let out a panicked gasp.

“OH MY GOSH!” she screamed.

My husband jolted in his seat. “What?” he asked.

Ella sighed and relaxed. “Oh,” she said. “Phew. Never mind.”

Ted, his heart still racing, said, “What happened?”

“Oh,” Ella explained. “It’s nothing. I just looked over at the field and thought I saw a giant spider.”

Ted drove in silence for a moment. Finally: “A giant spider?”

Ella sat primly in her seat, her hands folded in her lap. “Well, obviously. You see something out of the corner of your eye, something black and hairy with legs flailing every which way as it hurls itself into the air. What was I supposed to think?”

Ted, biting his tongue to keep from laughing, stayed silent.

“It was perfectly reasonable,” my daughter insisted.

And maybe she’s right. It likely is perfectly reasonable – if your brain has been hijacked by Hogwarts and your brain is filled to bursting with magical adventures.

Of course, if the book burners had their way, she’d be exclusively reading the Bible and the Left Behind books, which means that, given the imagination on this kid, she’ll be blowing horns at city walls, expecting them to come tumbling down, and will likely assume that every empty pair of shoes is evidence of the rapture.

I think we’ll stick with the giant spiders.

 

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By the pricking of my thumbs, and so forth.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/84/Macbeth_and_Banquo_encountering_the_witches_-_Holinshed_Chronicles.gifMacbeth and Banquo meet their destiny. And boy will they regret it.

So I’ll admit it. I never really liked Macbeth. And it wasn’t just the disastrous production of it that I saw in high school, either (though, admittedly, there are some bad tastes that can linger in the mouth for years – nay, decades after eruption), nor does it have anything to do with the fact that the boy who played Macbeth in the aforementioned high school production did once ruthlessly and callously and carelessly jilt the easily-brokenhearted Kelly (née Regan) Barnhill.

But seriously, I never really dug the play. And mostly, I never really understood the moment that broke Macbeth, nor was I ever able to place myself in that moment when he transforms from honorable soldier and loyal citizen to bloody madman. Indeed, the transition seemed to me to be so abrupt, so out of character, that I never really bought it.

Does the good man really go bad, I wondered? On that dramatic a scale? Wouldn’t he have a tiny bit of crazy-madman-power-hungry-killer dude in him before his little run-in with the witches? Or was someone else pulling the strings.

Now, obviously, most people point to the general string-puller as Lady Macbeth, and it’s true that from the get-go she’s much more keen on murder, much more hungry for power as her husband is, but in the end, she’s just as crazy, just as broken, and just as manipulated as he is.

So who, then, is the manipulator? The play is, and has been, mum.

But this weekend I went to see my beloved (and beautiful and talented) sister, Sheila Regan, perform in Nightpath Theatre’s production of Macbeth: Rehearsing, directed by Maggie Scanlon. Here’s a picture:

https://i0.wp.com/blogs.citypages.com/dressingroom/Macbeth%20Rehearsing%201.jpgSee what I mean? Beautiful and talented. And a frickin’ scary witch.

And I brought my two daughters with me, which I felt was a bold move. This was, after all, avent-garde theatre (with the e and r reversed!). There might be nudity! There might be bad words! There might be fake blood that looks real that makes my eight year old cry! I fussed and fussed. But in the end, I didn’t have a sitter, so I took her along.

And it was marvelous. The conceit of the play was somewhat reminiscent of Vanya on 42nd Street, in which the audience is invited in to see a play as it’s being rehearsed – and by doing so, exposes the beams and struts of the story. There are pauses and breaks. The director forces the audience to look again – more deeply – into the nuances of ambition and greed, and the terrible curse of perceived deservedness. We feel Macbeth’s public shaming by the king, not once but twice. And his decent into madness is predicated, not by vice, but on the promise that the kingship is already his. He just has to take it. He deserves it. Poor, poor deceived fellow.

Now, the most interesting thing that the show does is its assertion that the three witches have a particular end in mind – and Macbeth is merely a pawn. Throughout the show they are stalking, manipulating, insinuating and pushing – not in word, of course, but in body. It is magic-made-physical, and it is glorious.

And the best part – my kids totally got it. I think if I had taken them to a full-on performance, they would have been bored out of their skulls. But this stripped-down version, with its intimacy and immediacy – this they got.

“I think I’d feel sorrier for Macbeth if he hadn’t started killing all those people,” my eight year old said. “Still, I feel a little sorry for him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”

She thought about the play a little more, then asked: “And does Auntie Sheila have magical powers? Because it really seemed like she had magical powers. Actual ones.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m pretty sure she does.

Visual Artists Are Friggin’ Brilliant

 

So, many of you already know how much I adore the cover of my book. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing – handing your hard-wrought story over to the art department of your particular publishing house and hoping for the best. Hoping that somebody gets your story – and gets it in a way that they’re able to transform the experience of the story (separate, you understand from the story itself) into a single, cohesive image. This requires a person who is fluent in the language of line, the language of rhythm, and the emotion of form.

 

None of these are skills that I posses. I am not a visual artist. I have neither the eye, nor the fine motor skills, nor the ability to see the world in terms of its elements.

 

Anyway, I waited and waited for my cover, and I fussed and fussed, because I just didn’t know what I was in for. What if I hate it? I asked myself. It was the first major loss of creative control of my story, and it wasn’t a comfortable place to be in, I’ll tell you what.

And then, they sent me this:

And I love it. Of course I do. I can’t think of a better visual representation of my story. It’s perfect.

And now. Today. Thanks to the miracle of Google Alerts, the brilliant lady who constructed this image has put a little bit of the process on her website. And it is AMAZING.

First of all, her name is Juline Harrison, and she is brilliant. You can visit her website here. She makes beautiful creations out of cut paper, and I think her work is divine. And here, she shows us the original cut-paper piece, before it was altered and colored and covered with words.

See what she did there? What an amazing person. Thank you, Julene, for your soulful interpretation of my story.

 

And hooray for visual artists! I’m in awe of the lot of you!

Hooray for Etsy!

So I’ve been complaining a lot lately about the impact that my daily writing habit has on my hands. Not only (being that I am now at the ripe old age of 37) am I noticing the first inklings of early arthritis, but what’s even more problematic is the cold.

Typing makes my hands cold. Really, really cold.

I imagine them crystallizing, cracking, and shattering into bright, sharp shards.

Writing longhand makes my hands cold too, but I don’t notice it as much because I can tuck my left hand between the chair and my thigh to keep it warm. I’ve also done this with my right hand, too, opting to write (slowly) with my left. I can’t recommend this. It makes the editing process an absolute nightmare.

Still, though I write my first drafts of my novels in longhand, I do all of my revisions on the computer, I compose blog posts on the computer and I compose short stories on the computer as well. The point is: I type a lot.

And so my hands are ice cold a lot. Thus my ceaseless complaints.

Enter: MY MOM.

First of all, for those of you who don’t know my mom, let me assure you: she rules. Second of all, after poking around on the internets for a while, she finally stumbled on Etsy.com and for that we can all rejoice.

Oh, Etsy! How I love you! How I love your gentle pull towards time wasting! How I love your persistent insistence for beauty! How I love your assertion that beauty has a place on all things – on the body, in the nooks and crannies of the home, in the yard, in the world. How I love your simple democratization of beautiful things – from my hands to your hands and back again.

So my mom found these.

Fingerless gloves. Soft wool. Beautiful colors. Made by a lovely lady from Lithuania, hand-wrapped with an inscription on the package, and sent to me.

To make me happy.

To turn my pain and discomfort into an occasion for beauty. An occasion to that which is pleasurable, body-affirming and good.

Thank you, Etsy! And thank you, my wonderful mom.

The Two Towers…..sort of.

It’s my book! At the ALA Midwinter Meeting! The lovely folks at Little, Brown (and can I say again how lucky I am to be an LB author? Seriously, sometimes it blows me away.) have, through devilishly clever engineering skills and architectural prowess have constructed this:

A shining tower of books! My book. The mind reels.

But wait! There’s more! In their infinite wisdom and enduring capacity to bestow graces upon writers (the laborers in the fields, the builders of stories, the gatherers of rubies from the mines) they have built for my book not one but two towers!

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(for some reason this photo is very small and cropped. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the limit of my technical powers. I assure you though, there are two, and if you squint and look sideways you can totally see them)

Two towers! Given that the genesis of my book was in the pages of Tolkein’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (printed out by my dad, who, in no uncertain terms, positively ordered me to read it. What a bossy-pants!) the fact that there are Two Towers of my little book fills me with joy.

Hooray for ALA conferences! Hooray for Jack! Hooray for the lovers of books and the collectors of books and the thinkers of books and for books themselves! Hooray for LB, who took a chance on these characters, these whispery voices in the dark, and helped me pull them into the world.

Reason #94,762 Why I’m Glad I Don’t Work For the City

Today I found myself in the basement of City Hall, standing in line for – I don’t know. Like an hour and a half. I was in the Criminal and Driving Records unit, which, for those of you who’ve never had the privilege, sits at the end of a poorly lit, ramen-noodle-smelling hallway. You’re not allowed to use cellphones, wi-fi is blocked and the only magazines have most of their pages ripped out.

I needed to get a criminal background check for work – a task I’ve put off until now. Why, did I put this job off, you ask? Well, that’s because it’s a sucky, thankless job, needlessly complicated and inconvenient. (Why, one may ask, can we not do this online? Is this not the Age of Information? Should I not be able to accomplish this with the click of my mouse?)

But, I digress.

After standing in line, being sent to another line, standing there, being sent to the ATM, and standing in line once again, I finally made it to the front. It didn’t take long. The lady took my drivers license, walked to her desk, came back with an official-looking piece of paper, embossed with the city’s stamp.

“That’s it?” I asked, replacing my license in my wallet.

“That’s all there is,” she said.

I smiled at her. “Thanks,” I said. “Have an absolutely marvelous day!”

She paled.

Her mouth fell open. Then she closed it, her lips quivering slightly as she brought them back together.

“That was so nice,” she whispered. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said after getting a criminal background check.” She swallowed. “No one is ever nice to us down here.”

And I’m sure that’s true. Now, I could have given her all kinds of advice on how to create a space that invites kindness. Get rid of the ramen-noodles smell, for starters. Maybe some cut flowers. Or at least some plants. But that isn’t the point. There’s all kinds of places on earth that are utterly devoid of kindness – they don’t expect it; they don’t give it; they don’t get it. Which is why my – I can’t even call it kindness; more a like social nicety – caught her so off-guard and touched her so deeply.

“I’m a mom,” I said. “Making people feel good about themselves is part of the job description.” She laughed as I walked out the door.

Buoyed by this I told three cops that I appreciated their good work as I headed out to the snowy street. I’m pretty sure they thought I was nuts.

But the point is this: I’ve decided to go out of my way to appreciate the people who don’t get appreciated nearly enough. Garbage haulers; tow truck drivers; tax auditors; telemarketers. I am a woman of few marketable skills. I’m neither rich nor powerful nor influential. Kindness is one of my few assets, and I’ve decided to dish it out widely, heavily, and with abandon.

Because that person working in the basement of a building, that person with the thankless job. That used to be me. A long time ago. Maybe its you. I would have appreciated a little bit of kindness back then. So a little kindness now isn’t just a gift to some random person, and it’s not a gift to the world either. It’s a gift to me. It’s a gift to you. And I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What I Need to Turn My Teacher Into A Toad

Confession: I have done this.

 

Okay, fine, I haven’t really.

In my defense, I never really tried,  but that has more to do with a healthy respect for magic and the many laws of unintended consequences. Writers who write about magic know all about unintended consequences. Indeed, it’s one of the few things we excel at.

But the reason why I bring it up at all is because of my current obsession with checking the dashboard page of my blog, which tells me the search engine terms by which folks arrive at my little corner of the internets.

(Hello, by the way, to those of you who are new. This is a quiet little corner. Unfashionable. But comfy, in a old-wool-socks sort of way. I have snacks and grog and a ratty chair that moans pleasantly when you sit on it.)

(The chair, incidentally, tells stories too.)

Now, most of the time, people arrive here because they’ve googled my name, or the name of one of my stories. Sometimes people arrive looking for information on yoga or nautical history, or taxidermy, or Billy Collins – all of which I’ve written about on this blog from time to time. Every once in a while people arrive looking for, well, yucky things. Pornographic things. I can’t help but think they’ve gone away horribly disappointed, and for that I’m mostly sorry. But only mostly.

Today, however, someone stopped by after googling: “What I need to turn my teacher into a toad.”

I stared at it for some time, mouth open, breath halting in quick, short gasps. How did they know? I asked my computer. My computer, as always, was silent. How did they know?

You see, in eighth grade, while raging and fuming over some perceived injustice by one Mr. Trajano, my English teacher (who, incidentally, was a marvelous teacher, and utterly blameless in my adolescent cataloguing of wrongs. Lou Trajano! If you’re reading this, I’m terribly sorry that I ever wanted to turn you into a toad!) I went into a quiet spot in the schoolyard during recess, opened my notebook (my dark notebook. My secret notebook. My notebook that held every inkling towards wickedness, every yearning for wrongdoing.) and wrote the following words:

WHAT I NEED TO TURN MY TEACHER INTO A TOAD

1. String (Magic, as everyone knows, is practical. It needs no store, no catalog, no special order. String can be both net and noose. It can be both ladder and snare. It can be woven into a bag, give direction to the blind, tied in a knot that can’t be loosened. Anything that can be more than one thing at once is magic. Everyone knows that.)

2. Crayons (Magic is the alteration of substance – big to little, rough to smooth, red to green, white to black. Crayons, therefore, are ridiculously magical.)

3. Baking soda (for indigestion.)

4. Honey (to sweeten the sour.)

5. Vinegar (to sour the sweet.)

6. Wax paper (to keep it from sticking.)

7. A small mirror (A mirror doesn’t show us what we are. It shows us what we were. A moment ago, when the light hit your body, hit the mirror and came back again. A mirror shows you what you’ve lost.)

8. Gum (always useful.)

9. A toad (that’s the tricky part.)

Now, in my original list, I only had the items, not the explanations. But as I remember it, the explanations are close – or mostly close – to my thinking in eighth grade. In any case, I provided myself no instructions, believing that magic can have no instruction. Magic is intuitive. An instruction can be manipulated, distorted, bent. Intuition is the child of intention and resources; it is practical, decisive, industrious, and, above all, useful.

Even when it is not used.

I chose to refrain from turning my teacher into a toad. But I kept the list, just in case. And I list them here, not because I want you to use them, oh toad-turning reader. No! But to know that you can, but won’t. There is a marvelous power in won’t.

 

I had the power to turn my teacher into a toad. I didn’t. But the power remained, and it, like magic, transformed into something else – a poem, a painting, a story, a song. What is the thing that you won’t do? What is the power in you – running under your skin like electricity, buzzing in your fingertips, frizzing your hair, dazzling your eyes? And what will it be next?

My First Review (sort of)

This may be a violation of protocol, but my kid has reviewed my book. Or, more specifically, my kid used my book – or at least an advanced copy of my book – for her required Reader’s Response journal. The way the Reader’s Response Journal works is that each child is expected to read for 15-20 minutes every day, and then write one or two sentences in response to any from a list of questions.

(Actually, this is my favorite so far of all of the teacher-created we-want-the-kids-to-read-every-day-and-show-that-they’re-reading strategies. In past years, the kids had to keep logs showing how many pages they read each day and for how long. I can see how that would be useful for the children who are reluctant readers (setting goals, showing progress, etc.) but for those of us who have voracious readers, it sucks. If you have a kid who reads all the time, at different times of the day, it’s actually a HUGE pain in the butt to keep a record of it.)

But, I digress.

My eight-year-old decided to use my book for her reading.

“Are you even allowed to use your mother’s book?” I asked.

Cordelia shrugged. “Why not? It’s not mentioned in the rules.”

She had a point. Still, I persisted. “But it’s not even official. It’s not a real book yet.”

“It’s a real book if the reviewer says it’s a real book. I’m the reviewer. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” and she went off to read.

So here are some of the questions and her responses. (Warning: Possible spoilers. Also, possible cuteness.)
In response to the question: Why did you choose this book? Cordelia wrote: “I chose this book because my mom wrote it. Also because the cover is cool. But mostly because my mom wrote it.”

In response to the question: Who is your favorite character? Cordelia wrote: “My favorite character is Wendy because she is so tough and determined. I am also tough and determined. That is why I like Wendy.”

In response to the question: What are your predictions? Cordelia wrote: “I predict that Mr. Avery will stop being so bad and will turn good. Or, he will turn badder.”

In response to the question: What surprised you? Cordelia wrote: “It surprised me that Wendy was sitting in a chair, and that it was a chair and a hand AT THE SAME TIME!!!”

In response to the question: What was a funny part of the book? Cordelia wrote: “I thought it was funny that Clayton has tests that prove he really does get less smarter every year.”

In response to the question: What do you find interesting in this book? Cordelia wrote: “I find it interesting that the voices in the dark think it’s interesting that humans can bleed. What else would they do?”

Another prediction: “I predict that Jack and Anders will save Wendy from the bad lady. Or, that the bad lady will win. Or that Wendy won’t need to be saved and will save Jack and Anders instead. I can’t really tell yet.”

That’s my girl! Even-handed, open-minded and beautifully literal. And honestly, I might be done reading reviews. I hope to get some, obviously, but I think it would be better for me if I pretend that they’re written in a language I don’t know, or that they’re about a book I’ve never heard of. Because I can see myself obsessing. I’m an obsessor.

Cordelia! Thank you for your kind attention to my story! I think you might have a future in book reviewing.