On Appropriateness (and the lack thereof) (and learning not to worry about it)

It’s a problem that’s been brewing for a while now. I’ve ignored it, glossed it over, made excuses. I’ve done my best to pretend that I was in control of the situation, that I was driving, leading and in charge. I am not; I can admit that now.

Here’s my issue:

My kid reads too much.

Actually, no, that’s not the problem. My kid reading too much is clearly a point of pride – hell, I’m a writer for god’s sake. I whispered stories to her when she was in the womb, stories as she slid into the world, stories as I wrapped her and sang to her. That child was suckled on stories, so it’s really no surprise that she would read a lot.

But her reading – because of its sheer volume, because of its insistence on continuing itself – it pulls her away from the sphere of my protection. It pulls her away from me. And this is a good thing. Except when it’s not.

When she was in third grade, it became clear to me that the child read faster than I did. (As many of you already know, I was a delayed reader as a child, and remain a relatively slow reader. Or not slow. I saunter through books. I’m a saunterer.) Prior to that, I read everything she read just before she read it. I scanned for hints of inappropriateness or violence or hatred. She lived then in the world I built for her, and I wasn’t going to hand her over to the world at large. Not yet. Not without a fight.

I stayed up late reading. I read while I cooked. I read while I put her siblings to bed. I read for her. (Incidentally, all that reading likely built me into a Middle Grade Author. Prior to that I wrote a couple of crappy grownuppy novels that won me some praise from editors and agents but no actual sales. This experience taught me who I was as a writer, and I’m grateful for it.)

I wanted to protect my child – protect her from pain, protect her from fear, protect her from grief. And mostly (and this is a big MOSTLY) I wanted to protect her innocence. Her innocence, I felt, mattered. I pre-read most of her books, and scoured reviews and discussions online when she was chomping at the bit for a new book.

But even in third grade I was losing ground. She was reading hungrily, greedily. She was desperate for more.

By fourth grade, it was a lost cause. Because she was good in math, and quick, her teachers (in their infinite wisdom) (are you noting my frustration with the public school system? Yup. It’s there) sent her to the library during math class to read, since they knew that she was already ahead of everyone else, and would still boost up their math average by blowing the test out of the water, so why not just let the child read if she likes it so much?

(I am noticing that I still have some unresolved feelings about this. Must blog about it later)

In any case, she started reading books that I had no access to. That I had no knowledge of. Her reading life had gone beyond me, beyond the structures that I had placed around her life to keep her safe, to keep her from pain, to keep her pure.

I had already lost. Her reading life no longer belonged to me. It belonged to the world.

By fifth grade, she was reading a book a day. And she read everything – grownup books, kid books, teen books. When we went to the library together, I’d go with her in the teen section. I wouldn’t forbid books out of hand – instead I would offer the books that I had read, or the books that I had heard were good. I’d say things like, “You can read that if you want, but you should know that it has a TON of violence in it, and it might be upsetting.” Or sex. Or drug use. I explained, I cautioned, I analyzed. I did not overrule. I did not ban. I was no longer in a limiting role. My role was purely advisory.

At Christmas time, her grandmother gave her a Nook. Now, she can download books from the library – though she still prefers paper books. In any case, the library trips plus the electronic gadget keeps the kid in books which keeps her happy. But I am entirely outside now. She reads the book descriptions, reads the user comments, makes her lists, downloads, reads, repeats. She reads all the time, all the time, all the time.

And not just kid books.

Grownup books.

This summer, as she has geared up for seventh grade, she read a bunch of Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë, and Douglas Adams. She read Terry Pratchett, Charles Dickens and Alexander McCall Smith. She read a couple vampire romance novels that were very fun and light and chick-litty – and with a couple very …. um…. detailed sex scenes. I learned about this later. Here was my conversation about it:

ME: So, I guess there was some sex in this book you read.

HER: Oh. Yeah. I don’t know why writers insist on putting that stuff in.

ME: You’ll probably understand why someday, but it’s okay not to now. Was that upsetting to you?

HER: What? No. Why would it be upsetting? If it was a movie, I’d just fast forward it. Since it’s a book, I just skip ahead. It seems to me that writers just put scenes in like that because they don’t know what’s going to happen next in the story and they’re wasting time. But I’m only interested in the story, so I flip the pages until the story gets good again.

ME: Good strategy.

HER: It’s like when there’s swear words. I don’t like hearing swear words at school, and I really don’t like reading them in a book. So I just make a BEEP sound in my head when I read it and everybody’s happy.

Have I mentioned lately how desperately I love that child?

And I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of this awesome article at The Millions and this crappy article at the NYT. Both deal with this notion of separating books – whether by gender or by age. When we balkanize books, when we divide them, sort them, put labels on them – we are implicitly telling readers:

This book is not for you.

This book is not appropriate for you.

Go away and come back when you are older. Or when you have turned into a girl. Or transformed into a boy.

Bollocks, I say.

When I was in seventh grade, I read The Grapes of Wrath. It politicized me, galvanized me. It was the first time that I understood that money was power and that power corrupts. There is also sex in it. And desperation. And despair. Was it inappropriate for a twelve year old?

I defy anyone to tell me that it was.

When I was a little bit younger than that, I read Call it Courage. Is it a “boy” book? I certainly see it now on lists of “boy” books. Was I channelling my inner boy when I read it (or, for that matter, my inner Polynesian)? Was I less of a girl because I read it and loved it?

Right now, as we speak, Ella is reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen. I’m pretty sure there’s some sex in it. I’m pretty sure there’s some violence. I’m pretty sure there’s some bad words. But I’m absolutely sure that what she will carry away from that book will have nothing to do with sex, violence or cursing. What she will carry away from that book will be something larger, richer, and ultimately more pure. When she reads, she inhabits the world that the writer designs and that she herself builds. When she reads, she makes the world new again.

This is why I do not limit. This is why I do not worry about appropriateness. This is why I trust my child. And this is why we talk about the books we read. The conversation matters, the connection matters, and the re-hash matters. It all matters.

Here’s a thing I know for sure: the reason why we read, the reason why we engage in stories,  is to remind ourselves that we are more than ourselves. That we are part of a larger human family. That we, indeed, have souls. When we read we connect ourselves to other cultures, other times, other genders. We remind ourselves that human experience is fluid and changeable and wild. We remind ourselves that every man, woman and child on this earth – no matter how wicked in their actions – is worthy of compassion, worthy of empathy, worthy of redemption, worthy of love.

The reading and telling and listening of stories is the one uniquely human thing about us. It is our birthright. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to put any limits on it. Screw appropriateness. Now, where did I leave that book…..

My Baby Is Twelve

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Twelve ridiculously short years ago, I was sitting in a hospital room, amniotic fluid dripping down my legs, playing cards with my brother and my husband. Hearts, I think, and I won – though truth be told, given my delicate condition, they may have let me win.

You see, I suck at cards.

Anyway, I was supposedly in labor, but I didn’t feel like it. Just some cramps here and there and a bunch of ominous nurses keeping hepped up on antibiotics and using sinister words like “pitocin” and telling me my labor was “delinquent”. They regarded me with tight lips and narrowed eyes.

I actually liked being called a delinquent.

But here’s the thing, despite the slow start, my labor went from zero to a million later that afternoon, and my child emerged – bloody and gooey and squalling – in a single push. A thing of beauty. A howling angel. A screeching goddess. And I was terrified.

Here she is:

Clearly, the child’s a genius.

And there I am, clearly clueless. When I became a mother, I was twenty-five, shiftless, rootless, directionless, in love with my own youth, in love with my own plans, and terribly, terribly in love with my husband.


And over the moon for that little girl.


That baby, those blue eyes, that red skin, that complicated heart – she made us a family. We were not ready for her – not in the least. She didn’t care. She made us ready. She made me a grown-up, because I certainly wasn’t one just a few days earlier. The reason why I work as hard as I do, the reason why I throw all of my intelligence and my spirit and my being into my work as a writer, is because of that little child. So I can deserve her. So I can be the mama that she needs.

Twelve years ago, I sang and sang and sang myself hoarse. I sang as she cried, I sang as she nursed, I sang as she slept in my arms.

Welcome to the world, my darling, I sang. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

And now, a dozen years later, I continue to sing.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

I am a better person now, Ella. Every day that I am your mom, I am a better person. Thank you for surprising me; thank you for challenging me; thank you for your presence and your spirit and your intelligence and your joy.

And I will sing my love to you forever.



It’s been a bit since I’ve sat down with this blog, and I actually have quite a bit to report. But, as tends to happen when we are in the midst of things that we’d like to report, is that more and more things keep happening, and the things that we experienced get jumbled with the things that are happening, and you end up with too many damn things.

Anyway, I’ll sort it out soon.

But what I wanted to announce here in the meantime is that I organized a little book giveaway on Goodreads, and it is over. We have four winners! Congratulations to Tiffany Gilbert, Bonnita Zewike, Kirsten McIntyre, and Yvette Crawford who have a pretty little hardcover copy of JACK heading their way in tomorrow’s mail! I hope you like it, ladies, and I hope, when you’re done, it gets passed onto a kid or two. And I hope that they like it too.

After being in LA for a week, it is so good to be home and surrounded by my children and my very senile dog and my neighbors and family and everyone else who knows the exact marks I leave on the skin of the world. As much as I love meeting new people (and I truly, truly do) there is something wonderful returning to the people that know you better than they know their own hands.

Last night, I slept under a pile of children – all soft skin and fluttering eyes and open mouthed dreaming. Tonight will probably be the same.

Happy reading everyone!

This is the smartest thing I’ve ever done


I know there are more stressful things on earth than a book coming out.

Engineers at NASA probably experience more stress than I am currently fussing over. And brain surgeons. And soldiers. And I know that I should just suck it up and stop worrying and be happy because I’m going to look back at this later on and wonder what the hell my problem was.

(incidentally, my mother told me the same thing when I was about to give birth to my first child. And while she was right, I have to say that being one day out from the official release of one’s first novel is just about as pleasant as being nine months pregnant in August with no air conditioning. Indeed, having experienced both, I have to say the two states are about identical.)

So I’m happy.

(But oh! The worry!)

And I’m excited.

(But oh! The unknowns! The things that can go wrong! The infinite ways that I could fail, might fail, may have already failed!)

However, these worries are pointless. They are not helping my next book get revised, they are not helping the following two slog their way through their multiple drafts, so I should just stuff it already.

Or, I should go out of town.

Which is exactly what I have done.

Right now, as I’m writing this, as my book leaks into the world, I am on the Gunflint Trail on the Minnesota Arrowhead. Right here: 

Well, it doesn’t look like that anymore. Indeed, the trees that were second-growth scrub at the time this was built (in the wake of the first wave of logging) are now tall and strong and stalwart in their assumption of permanence. The lodge itself is larger too, and looks like this:

There’s something to be said for getting out of town. There’s something to be said for (mostly) disconnecting from the outside world, and letting the world take care of itself. There’s something to be said for spending the afternoon paddling with the kids in a canoe and falling on purpose into the water and getting really sweaty on a long run and a longer hike and eating good food followed by sticky smores and sharing a beer with your husband after the children crash out on the couch.

There’s something to be said for letting your book go. And giving it – fully and completely – to the world. And stopping the worry. And stopping the fussing. And just enjoying being alive.

Tonight, when the sun goes down, I will be here:  

And to all of you, here is my wish: beauty, beauty, and beauty again. I raise my glass, and drink in the world.