20th Annual Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference


Are you interested in Children’s Literature? Well, that’s fascinating because so am I! Every year, teachers, librarians, parents, writers, and all sorts of folks who feel passionately about children’s books, literacy, and the glorious journey through Story undertaken every day by children everywhere, all gather at St. Thomas University for the annual Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference.

And it’s tomorrow! And you should come!

On the schedule this year?

Well Christopher Paul Curtis, for one. (And oh! The palpitations of my heart! And oh! The quivering of my limbs! I love that guy, I really do.)

And Linda Sue Park, for another. 

I’ll be there, signing books at ten, and then doing a talk on use and role of magic in the Middle Grade Novel. I shall be telling a story that may or may not make people cry. You have been warned.

In any case, if you’re free tomorrow from nine until three, you should come by. It’ll be fun!

The Gluecaps: A Sinister Tale of Depravity and Woe.

My daughter and her good friend have penned a poem called The Gluecaps. It is a devilish little urchin of a rhyme – all patchworked aprons and ratty fingernails and whispered fright.

And I’m going to share it with you now because it makes me think of an article that ran in the Wall Street Journal a while back, in which a very silly woman wrote an…impolitic rant about how children’s books are “too dark”.

“Too dark?” people asked. “Really?” The twitterverse and blogosphere summarily exploded, and many people said some smart things and many more people said some misguided things and various wagons were circled and various lines were drawn in the sand.

But no one really talked about kids.  Nobody talked about the darkness that they explore every dang day in their imaginative play.

Here’s the thing: my house, on any given day, is overrun with friggin’ children. And I love them all desperately. There are twelve year old children and nine year old children and hordes and hordes of seven year old boys. And I listen to them all the time. I pay attention to the language of their play and the language of their imagination, and you know what? These kids are darker and creepier and far more sinister than anything that you will find on display of a Barnes & Noble or on any possibly-pinko-commie librarian’s do-gooder shelves. In their imaginations, villains lurk under the stairs, assassins hide behind shower curtains, and tentacled monsters slurp along the basement floor. For these kids, war is a way of life (indeed, it’s what one does between breakfast and lunch, and again in the hours before dinner – preferably in the kitchen while your parents are trying to cook), posses must be constantly assembled, evil stepmothers and overlords are ever threatening both life and limb, and someone is dying of an incurable disease.

Also, we can all, apparently, talk to animals.

The point is, in the bruhaha that followed the ridiculous comments that  Ms. Gurdon laid forth in that article so long ago missed an essential point – people who write for children, even those of us whose work veers into the dark and the creepy and the vaguely sinister – we are only scratching the surface of what is going on inside these kids’ heads. It is not that we are too dark or our books are too dark or that we’re destroying childhood or that we have some kind of sinister intent with our books. It’s that kids are dark. They’re really dark. The imaginative life of a child is boundless; it breaks rules; it is not safe.

The more I listen to kids, the more I know that they are far more brave than we can ever hope to be, and the stories they dream up would keep me in nightmares for weeks.

Which is why I’m glad that the kids don’t mind my listening. Because they are marvelous resources. And by “resource” I mean “people I steal from.”

Anyway, here’s the poem that my daughter and her friend wrote last week. I hope you enjoy!

The Gluecaps: A Sinister Tale of Depravity and Woe

This is Mr. Gluecap
He sits with you at night
And when the dancing bears come
You choke and scream with fright.

This is Mrs. Gluecap
She’s Mr. Gluecap’s wife.
She disappears behind your back
And stabs you with a knife.

This is Baby Gluecap;
She’s her mommy’s helper.
She knocks you out and puts you in
A field without a shelter.

This is Grandpa Gluecap
He grew to be so old.
He disappears into your mouth
And fills it full of mold.

I have to admit: I like the last one best.


In Balance With This Life (Some thoughts about Mary Oliver)

I once saw a hawk standing imperiously in the middle of the sidewalk, eating a mouse. The mouse was still alive, tucked under one claw, its skull pierced and bleeding, the bird dipping in for more and more. With each dip, the mouse’s body shuddered and bucked. Its small mouth gaped, then closed, then gaped again. I could hear its wheeze.

It was alive.

Or, perhaps it was not alive, and it was simply the remaining pulses of a defunct electrical system. A last-ditch short after the power’s been cut.

The hawk took another mouthful. The mouse shuddered. I stood on the sidewalk holding my daughter’s hand – she was five, then, and we were on our way to the bus that would haul her to Kindergarten and haul her home again. She narrowed her eyes at the hawk – it was a beautiful thing. Brown and red and shining. It focused its bright, yellow eye on her with an expression that said, indisputably, Find your own dang mouse, Bub.

“When something eats something that is alive,” Ella said, “do they eat alive? Can you eat alive?

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.

“Can you eat dead?

“Most of what we eat is dead,” I said. I tried to pull her along toward the bus stop. I didn’t hear the far-off jangle of the wheels, so we had a bit of time. Also, to be frank, the way she stared was starting to creep me out. “I suppose,” I said, “when we eat things from the garden, they stay alive for a while. The cells still respirate. They still make sugar. They still divide. The lettuce we pick is dying, but when we eat it, it’s still alive.”

“That mouse is dying,” she said.

“I think it’s dead.”

The hawk, as though listening, turned its eye to the mouse. It hadn’t gutted the poor thing yet, and suddenly seemed in no mood to do so. It shook its head, adjusted its shining wings and flapped suddenly, gracelessly away. The mouse remained on the ground. It was quite dead. We walked toward the bus stop. I could hear the far-off diesel engine. It was coming.

“When we breathe in,” Ella said, “we’re alive. When we breathe out, we’re dead. Our hearts are alive, but our skin is dead. Our hair is dead too.”

“The dirt,” I said, “Is made of dead plants and dead bugs and dead animals too. But the dirt is alive. It’s filled with billions and billions of tiny organisms that make the food for the plants to grow. The dead cells on your skin protect the living cells underneath. Those dead cells are your protectors.”

“That’s gross,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “Sometimes, there’s really no difference between alive and dead. They’re just two different sections of the same long road.”

She gave me a sidelong, skeptical glance. “You never make any sense,” she said.

We stood at the bus stop. She crouched down and hugged her knees. “If part of me is already dead, does that mean that I’m in heaven right now. Is being in heaven the same as being with my mom?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But if I had to decide what heaven was like, I’d make it right this second. Right now on this corner. This moment with you.”

“You’re weird,” she said. “But I love you anyway.”

“I love me anyway too,” I said. “Also, I love you. Very, very much.”

The bus arrived. She had been, for the six weeks prior to that day, WAY TOO OLD to give me a kiss goodbye. But she turned and kissed me anyway. Briefly, and without ceremony. Then she slid inside the yawning bus. It shuddered, burped, and took her away.

I have found myself thinking of this story because of Mary Oliver.

I’m sure all of you have read Mary Oliver and have, as I have, significant moments in your lives in which her poems have played a major role. I know for me, there were some dark times in college, and later under the weight of post-partum weariness, and even later during the most terrifying depression of my life in 2008, in which Oliver’s poetry was a warm, earthy, living hand, curled tightly into my own, and leading through the rough terrain. And all the while saying, “Look, the grasshoppers!” And “Look, the early blossoms like crisp sheets drying on the line.” And “Look, the geese! The geese!”

Almost thirteen years ago, I got married to the most wonderful person in the world, but we got married under a cloud: my sister had been in the hospital for a month, and had returned a mere shadow of herself. My father had suffered a major stroke. My father’s two best friends had nearly lost their lives to sudden, and random illnesses. The wedding itself was a hastily done affair, planned because of an unplanned pregnancy, and put on hold when the pregnancy almost ended in a rush of blood and sorrow – not once but six different times. It’s a miracle that Ella survived. A true and real miracle.

And so it was in that cloudy place that, during the ceremony, my beloved Sister In Law stood and read “The Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~Mary Oliver~

It’s a funny thing about poetry. We do not expect it to change us. We do not expect it to be alive. And yet there it is, again and again, a thing both alive and dead. The dead protecting life; life giving life to death; a single moment of beauty announcing our place in the family of things.

I just learned today that Mary Oliver is seriously ill. Some of her friends have launched a tribute blog, in which people can submit and post moments in their lives in which Oliver’s poetry has touched them, changed them, made them whole again. I encourage you to read these, and submit your own. I encourage you to buy another book of her poetry. I encourage you to live the life that her poems tell us we can live: utterly gorgeous, utterly precious, utterly wild.

I’m giving a reading! At Barnes & Noble. And you should TOTALLY COME!

It has been years – years! – since I last visited the Har Mar Mall, in all it’s glittery, cheese-tastic glory. In fact, it’s been so many years, that my memory of the mall is significantly more awesome than the mall likely is anymore.

I’m sure the chandeliers are gone, for example. And the glittery signs. For sure, I know that the theater is gone.
\Har Mar Theater

And that’s a true and real shame. Because oh! Those lights! And oh! those ginormous pendants! What a loss. What a sincere loss.

But I digress.

I’m here to tell you that I’m going back! To Har Mar! For the first time since the early nineties!

On February 18 at 2:00 I shall become a Har Mar Superstar.

And no, I don’t mean the guy who sings in his underwear.

(I am pretty sure that I, for example, will not be singing in my underwear. Mostly sure, anyway. I have, of course, promised that very thing before, and reneged on that promise. Ask my kids. The phrase, “Mom is singing in her underwear. Again.” is, alas, common in my house.)

No, it shall be myself in clothes. Regular clothes. And my book! And reading my book and signing my book and doing tricks with my book and talking to kids and grownups about whatever it is they want to talk about – books, stories, whether or not I wrote all the words. All by myself. And whatever.

And it will be fun! And you should come. Bring your friends, bring your mortal enemies, bring people that you don’t really care about either way. And we’ll have a good time.

I may have to pay a visit to the gravesite of that old movie theater. I did, after all, go on the absolute worst blind date of my entire young life with a young man with a mustache that looked like a caterpillar had died on his upper lip. A young man who was, if it was possible, cheesier than the mall itself.

How cheesy you ask?

This cheesy:

Here’s a link to the store page with more information on the reading. Seriously, you should TOTALLY COME! I might even sing.

Wish me luck!

Today, I’m doing presentations on the foundations and purpose of Story to six different groups of fourth and fifth graders. Have I mentioned before how very, very much I love fourth and fifth graders? So, so much!

Here’s a thing I know about stories – they are tricky, slippery things. They are self-replicating. They learn. They grow. They share their structure and DNA with one another, building new stories. They exist outside of language, outside of image, outside of sound. Indeed, while we use language, image, sound to convey Story, they themselves are not the story. The story is separate and distinct. It lives inside us. It spills into the world.

This is what I know about stories: They are alive, they are alive, they are so alive.

So, in six different classrooms – each with about thirty-two kids – I will be engaging in the business of stories. And so will they. And they will see how, with just a sentence, just a situation, an entire saga can unfold, unbidden, in their heads. They will see how the story is already there. Waiting. Breathing. Ready.

And I, for one, can’t wait.


What’s everyone else up to today?

Round these here parts, you can’t throw a stick into a bar without hitting a writer.

Or, in my experience today, a coffee shop.

I live in a land lousy with writers. We are not just the land of 10,000 lakes: we are the land of 10,000 novelists.

Indeed, just in my random little neighborhood, I know of seven whose houses are in walking distance, and another twenty who are within a five minute driving distance. And these are just the people I know and enjoy hanging out with.

The other day, I met up with a bunch of kidlit author-types from the greater Twin Cities area at a pretty cool bar in Saint Paul. I love these people, I really do. They are funny and sassy and salty-mouthed, three things that I always appreciate in a person. They are also quick-witted and furiously smart, which  means, of course, that I’m always about nine steps behind in any given conversation (childbirth, alas, has significantly impacted my IQ), but I love it anyway.

At this particular bar night, the always-lovely Erin Downing (author of Kiss It and Prom Crashers) informed me that the Caribou Coffee near my house has magical powers.

Well, that’s not how she put it. She just said that she got a lot of work done there while her two youngest kids were at preschool. This, of course, I interpreted as having magical powers. Because right now, getting work done seems magical.

And you know what? I went over there, sat down, installed the good old Mac Freedom to keep my sorry self off the shiny, shiny Internets, and know what I discovered? That coffee shop is magic. MAGIC I TELL YOU! I’ve gotten more done in the last three days than I have in the last month. I think I may go there every day, if I don’t destroy my stomach lining in the process from so much dang coffee.

Today, when I arrived at the coffee shop, I ran into Ms. Downing, and of course it was wonderful.

“I’m so glad you told me about this coffee shop,” I said to her. “It has magical powers. This Caribou is MAGIC.”

The girl who was ringing me up stared at me, open mouthed. “It is?” she said. “I work in a magical Caribou? I had no idea.”

And I think I made her day.

One of the things about this weird job of writing books and selling books and hoping people like your books, is that it can be tricky to find colleagues. And so we work alone in our insufferable insecurities and annoying neuroses. This, alas, is attractive to no one.

When I was writing The Mostly True Story Of Jack I had no writing group (except for during one, small bit of it, but I couldn’t keep it going) and I really didn’t know any writers very well. And the ones I did  know, I was too shy to reach out to. And so I worked alone, writing only during the hours of four and six in the morning, and showing my work to no one, until I finally got an agent.

There were times, after my book sold, that my work as a writer was so divorced from my everyday life – none of my friends were writers, it was hard to talk about at playgroups or at the park – that I started to wonder if I had secretly made the whole thing up.

After all, I’m pretty good at making things up.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do over the last year is to forge stronger bonds with the writers of this community – both my physical community of the Twin Cities, as well as the tribes of cool writers who form little bands online. Because this work is hard, and because we need colleagues, and we need to blow off steam after work sometimes, and we need the support of caring co-workers.

And sometimes, someone needs to tell us about magical coffee shops. Because something needs to give us a little kick in the pants every once in a while. And  magical coffee shops are as good a kick as any.

Real writers steal. Sometimes from children.

(Author’s note: I have never done this.)

(Or, at least, I have never been caught.)

I just got back (like, this very minute) from doing my little song and dance at a Kindergarten class at Wenonah Elementary School in Minneapolis. And it was wonderful. The kids sang their Get In Line Songs and their Transition Song and they sat on a brightly colored checkered rug – each child in his or her own “learning box”, and they peppered me with questions (a few were on topic) and lots and lots of nonsequiter comments. (“Oh,” says I. “You also live in Minneapolis and Minnesota. Marvelous.) And we talked about stories, and why we tell stories, and what we need to make a good story.

And the kids nearly crawled out of their skins trying to participate.

I love Kindergarteners. They are so wonderfully random and impulsive and sweet. Trying to get a bunch of Kindergarteners to do a thing – from listening to writing to learning to becoming minions in my eventual Evil Empire and helping me on my quest of one day Ruling the World (probably shouldn’t have said that out loud) – is like trying to get a roomful of butterflies to stand in a single, straight line: clearly impossible, but fun all the same.

And it’s wonderful, because who, really, doesn’t like butterflies? No one that I want to spend any time with, that’s for sure.

But there’s an ulterior motive as well. There always is. And in my case, it is my incessant and pervasive thievery.

Or not thieving, exactly. Collecting. Saving for later.

For example, in our character-making exercise, a kid came up with a villain named Mr. Mustache. He was hard at work, drawing his villain on his card and explaining to me that Mr. Mustache’s feet were of differing sizes and his eyebrows were as sharp as cacti and his mustache had two sharp points because he was always twisting it.

“That’s a pretty rad idea, kid,” I said. “Mind if I steal it?”

“Sure,” he said, and handed me his card.

I handed it back. “Not the card, sweetheart. The idea. I want to put the idea on my idea shelf and save it for later.”

He stared at me. “But how can you keep the idea if you don’t have the card?” Because he is six. And ideas are things.

“Trust me,” I said, patting his shoulder.

I friggin’ love Kindergarteners.

Other things that I have….not stolen exactly, but collected. Things that have been poured, unbidden, into the imaginary soup of my overheated brain:

A girl with invisible wings.

A magic stone that changes color depending on what kind of magic it’s making.

A planet made of cake.

A villain with two pet monsters – one bad, the other just pretending to be bad.

A mom with magical keys.

A very lost dinosaur.

A dog that fights crime.

A butterfly that saves the world.

I won’t use these things today, and I may not ever use them at all. But I’m terribly sure of one thing: these things feed whatever it is inside me that makes stories. And these things combine to make new things. This is the primordial ooze from which crawls a fish with legs or a multicelled organism or Grendel or God or sixteen eyed aliens or whatever. We who are in the business of Stories act as collectors. Our Cabinets of Curiosities are filled to bursting and spilling onto the ground.

I won’t say it makes my – or anyone’s – job any easier. It certainly doesn’t. In fact, I think I excel at making my job harder for myself. But it certainly makes it interesting. And in the end, interesting is as good a thing as any.