In Which I Continue to Corrupt the Youth of America

Here is the male, Victorian, and shiny-shoed version of me, gazing out at row after row of scrub-faced students.  (And I’m not gonna lie to you.  I would totally rock that suit.)

Yesterday, I taught a world-building class to a bunch of completely adorable writing nerds at the Young Author’s Conference.  Today, I have a whole new crop of young writers, and supposedly the same workshop. It will not be, though. As a dyed-in-the-wool shoot-from-the-hipper, I am compelled by biology to stay up WAY TOO LATE the night before changing every blessed thing.

Last night, my inbox was full of notes from my student. “Dear Kelly Barnhill,” they said. “Can you email me that slideshow?” or “Dear Kelly Barnhill, what was that story you read by that other lady named Kelly?” Or “Dear Kelly Barnhill, Actually, the information you gave us about the planet Mars was in error. Let me give you a ninety page treatise that I just wrote just wrote this second.”

I love these kids.

And today there will be more. Of all the benefits of writing for kids, actually hanging out with said kids is pretty much the best of the lot.

What are you folks up to today?

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A Pair of Useless Wings

This angel is not happy about her wings either.

Last night, I dreamed I grew a pair of wings with iridescent, shining feathers. They did not fly – or not that I could ever figure out. I couldn’t control them at all. They would shudder and flap one moment, and hang limp the next. They knocked against the walls, hit the ceiling, reduced a set table into a spangled mess on the ground with a casual flick. They didn’t fit under my clothes, so I had to attack my shirts with scissors and rip out sweaters with my fingers. They sometimes dragged on the ground.

And they hurt. Horribly. The skin around where the wings had erupted was red and raw and oozing. I left circles of blood and pus on the sheets.

And the worst part – the very worst – was the incessant compliments. It was all people could talk about. Oh look! they cried. Those wings! Look how they shine! Look at the colors! How lucky you are. How proud of them you must be.

My wings collected dog hair like you wouldn’t believe. They broke glasses and knocked books off the shelf. They sometimes smacked my kids on the back of the head. They made it difficult to drive, and sometimes tripped little old ladies as they hobbled down the street. They molted. They shed dander. They were a mess.

And it was funny, because my whole childhood, I imagined myself with wings. I imagined myself to, when confronted by a bully, or by stress, or by a simple social interchange that made me feel uncomfortable (there were, alas, a lot of those in my wobbly youth), I could simply shoot suddenly skyward, and leave the earth behind. I could become invisible. I could become air and wind and cloud – nowhere and everywhere at once.

Instead, I got a pair of oozing, dusty, malcontented wings. I was more weighted than before. And I was more fully present, too.

For those of us who write for children, this disconnect between what the child wants and what the adult understands is a sticky thing, and sometimes tough to parse out. When we sit down to write a book for kids, we must do some serious communication with our selves as kids, and I don’t know about the rest of the children’s authors out there, but my childhood self? She was a moron. For real. When I think about the things that she wanted, I end up with silly things, or painful things, or things I cannot use. A pair of useless wings, for example. Or hypothermia from my new-found ability to breathe underwater. Or a fist-fight with a bear that I accidentally insulted with my new gift of animal-talk.

What we want is not what we need. What we want reveals much of who we are, and where we hurt, while what we need reveals much of the external pressures of our physical environment. My needs were largely met as a child, but I wanted escape. Hence, wings.

What did you want as a child? What did you need? And were there any moments during your transition from childhood to adulthood in which you realized that what you wanted were about as useful as the ability to swear in Bear? Or a pair of painful, spastic and unflyable wings?

If so, I, for one, would love to hear about it.

In which the words transfix, translate, transmogrify, transform.

Today, while doing All The Things that writers are warned away from (“Do not go unto the Goodreads,” the prophets said, “and yea, resist the sin of the self-google, as it is a vile thing, and an abomination. And for crying out loud, do not seek thy name in the din of the Twitter of Babel. For that way leads to darkness.”)…

I did all of those things. All of that and more. And bless me Father, and so forth, but I’m not even sorry about it. (I still may do my ninety-seven Hail Marys, though. Just in case.)

Anyway, on Twitter, I found this:

bosnian tweetThe text is a bit blurry, but it says: “Priče su beskonačne. Beskonačne su koliko i riječi.” It is a sentence in Bosnian. It means, “Stories are infinite. They are as infinite as worlds,” which is a sentence in Barnhill.

This, obviously, is not the first time that I’ve seen my writing translated. Heck, the Swedes translated a whole book, and the Brazilians are doing the same thing, to be released sometime in the near future. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen myself quoted on Twitter, either. That also happens a lot. And it’s interesting to me, just seeing what sentences leap out for people, what phrases they catch in their hands, shove in their pockets, and carry away. Sometimes it’s quotes from one of the books, and sometimes it’s quotes from the stories, and sometimes it’s quotes from this blog.

And it’s never the quotes I think that will matter. That’s the beauty of it. We write words and words and words down and we hand them to the world. Here, we say. Words from my mind and words from my hands and words from my mouth and words from my body. Take them. Take what you want and leave the rest behind. And make of them what you will.

Here’s the other beauty of it: everything we read, we read in translation.

It’s like this: The writer reaches into the swamp of their experience, of their imagination and worry and wonder, and pulls out word after word after struggling word. They are slippery fish. They are ornery amphibians. They are fighting butterflies. They are living and struggling and raging and alive. And we pierce them through the throat and pin them on the page and know it is only an approximation of what we had in our heads. The story in our head is alive. The story on the page is not. And finishing a book is a kind of grieving.

But! The reader! The reader gathers our pierced fish and our impaled butterflies into her arms. The reader presses each word to her chest. She teaches them to breathe. She returns them to her own swamp. And they wriggle and flutter and swim and live. And they adapt to their new surroundings. They follow new patterns. They feed on new species and change color and texture and heft. They are transformed.

The book you read is different than the book I write. The book I write is an approximation. The book you read is an approximation. Both are only mostly true.

And it’s easy to forget this. The other day, a little girl sent me a scanned picture of a drawing that she did of Iron Hearted Violet. And it was a picture of the end, with Violet and Demetrius in a new world, walking toward a new life, and the dragon is hiding in the trees watching them.

“I don’t believe the dragon actually died,” she said. “I think the dragon is following them and will tell them that he is alive in two days.”

This is her translation. It is mostly true. And it is just as true as my own approximation of the story. I write the words, I give her the words, and the words transform. But the story?   Well. That is something else entirely.

I don’t know if any of the words on this post make any sense to you, or if they are useful to you, or if they matter at all. All I know is that I offer them to you – fully and completely. All I know is that you will gather them up, breathe upon them, and make them live. All I know is that the act of reading is not only an act of faith, but it is a kind of resurrection as well. And it is good.

Here. Take these. Make of them what you will.

Tonight! At Nokomis Library!

(this is not me. this is Flannery O’Connor as a little child – and even as a little child, she was way cooler than I could ever be.)

I’m giving a reading tonight (Tuesday! May 21!) at 6:30. I’ll read a little from JACK, a little from VIOLET, and a little from the new book, THE WITCH’S BOY. I also will be answering questions and going off on tangents and engaging in total non sequiturs and maybe cracking jokes. It’ll be awesome. There will be books for sale, AND a drawing for my last two ARCs of Iron Hearted Violet.

And we may even talk a little about some butt-kicking princesses in history.

Like this one:

(princess Alice of the UK. Feminist. Philosopher. Ran the field hospitals during the Franco-Prussian war. And generally rules.)

Or maybe this one:

(Joanna of Flanders. Part princess. Part Freedom Fighter.)

And it’ll be fun.

AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY COME!

On World-Building, Conferences, and Other Bits of Bookishy Goodness

This weekend is the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference at the Loft (located at Open Book, pictured above), and I have been having a wonderful time. Not only was the workshop that I presented right away at the beginning, leaving me to attend sessions feeling both footloose and fancy-free, but I had the opportunity to bear witness – once again- to the mind-blowing levels of literary talent that resides in my dear State. I had lunch with John Coy, Steve Brezenoff, Erin Soderberg, Bryan Bliss, Jeff Geiger and Charlotte Sullivan. I went to an AMAZING workshop on sex in YA literature by Carrie Mesrobian and Andrew Karre. And later, hung out at the bar with the aforementioned, along with Swati Avasthi, Heather Bouwman, William Alexander, Stephen ShaskanTricia Shaskan and Heather Zenzen. So much talent, ladies and gentlemen. So very, very much.

(As for our out-of-town guests, while you may not be Minnesotans per se, I feel that we can work on you to rectify this situation. YOU GUYS! Move to Minneapolis this instant! How can you not want such awesome, book-writing neighbors?)

Anyway, I taught a workshop called World-Building for Fantasy Authors… And Everyone Else. Here is the description:

It doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing—contemporary or historical, realism or fantastic, speculative or introspective, science-fictive or science-facty—there is one thing that is always true: Place matters. Our characters have bodies and those bodies occupy space. Our characters are in time, and the time frame in which their life is contextualized affects not
only their world view, but what is possible. The world, the landscape, the climate, the culture, the laws of physics, the resources, economics, politics, and religion are all are integrated into our characters. And we must know them. We will explore the mechanics of place and discuss how to integrate our characters with their surroundings without committing the sin of info-dumping or tedious expositions.

Frankly, I’m not sure if I actually taught any of those things. What I do know is that I said a lot of words, and that people laughed and asked questions. I have no idea what I said. It was as though a waterfall of language started pouring out of my mouth and I was powerless to stop it. I may have told them how to build a thermo-nuclear device for all I know.

There is a slim possibility that I might have – completely by accident, mind you – said a couple of Smart Things, as evidenced by the fact that I was asked to repeat things so that people could write it down. Unfortunately, each time I had this moment of ice-water panic because I honestly had no idea. Like at all. My response was, “Erm, erm, blabber-blabber-blabber,” while my mind said sheet! (though, maybe some other words too that I won’t write here) I figure it was likely a monkeys-typing-Shakespeare situation. It happens, I’m told.

Hopefully, I didn’t completely blow it.

(Who am I kidding. I surely did.)

Anyway, I had a bunch of folks come up to me after, hoping to snag a copy of the handouts. Unfortunately, I had just enough run off and only had a couple extra, which I gave out right away. I promised folks that I’d put them on the blog, so here they are.

First, the rules:

Rules for Worldbuilding

 

 1.    In order to think outside of the box, it is useful to actually have a box.

World building is hard. And fussy. Get a box. For sure you will need it.

 2.    Be a collector.

Remember that bit about the box? Forget your fancy internets. There is still something about the tactile artifacts grooving together on your shelf. Note cards, diagrams, maps, cut-outs from magazines, a cool picture that your kid made that made you think that he might be downloading your brain, fortune cookies, objects found in the gutter. Whatever. Put it in the box.

 3.    Research matters

While our out-of-the-way and terribly out-of-fashion planet has only sported human civilizations for a miniscule portion of its long life, many of those civilizations have been pretty rad. They make excellent starting-points. From the Mongolian Empire to seething London to the Maori’s astonishing traverse across the Pacific ocean, human cultures find incredibly inventive ways of organizing themselves, creating art, fostering innovation, building, destroying, hating their neighbors, and finding new and exciting ways of killing each other. We are superstars at all of those things. By understanding how civilizations build and run and replicate themselves, we can begin to build worlds of our own.

 4.    Remember when you learned about journalism in third grade and you had to ask Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, and then write an article about your teacher’s new brand of chalk, or whatever? Well, do that.

This is Quick-And-Dirty Worldbuilding 101. Often, we are blundering into the worlds of our creation, utterly blind. And that’s all right. Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to pull yourself out of the draft and take a look around. Make a sheet of the basic questions. Be a reporter. Find answers as best you can. Put them in the box.

 5.    Be a Smug, Insufferable Know-it-All

You have my permission.

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing – historical fiction, fantasy fiction, contemporary, sci-fi, or a little bit of each – the writer will always know more than what is shared on the page. Our job as writers is to hold the flashlight for our readers – illuminate the path, illuminate enough details to go on, and allow them to create the world on their own. A massive infodump is the result of a writer who does not trust his or her reader. Trust them. They’ll keep up.

 6.    If You’re Going To Bother Being a Know-it-All, it’s Important to Actually Know It All.

Local history. Local lore. Personal tragedies. Family sagas. Weather. Architecture. Energy. Power dynamics. Religion. The history of said religion. Social norms. Cultural taboos. Structure of governance. Laws of physics. Agriculture. Flora. Fauna. Holidays. Family relationships and structures. Food. Medicine. Law. Punishments. Water purification. Waste disposal. Landscape. Soundscape. Smellscape. And so on. Do you know these things? You should probably know these things.

 7.    Remember the Senses.

Again, you learned about them in third grade. Your writing is best when it is centered in the body. The more your reader can experience the physicality of the scene, the more compassion they’ll have for your characters. So thinking about the experience of corset-wearing or the sensation of weightlessness, or the taste of roasted peacock, brined in the collected tears of the Blessed Sisters of Perpetual Virginity, or the smell of the breath of the manticore, right before it rips out your throat. These are helpful storytelling tools.

 8.    Give yourself a break already and write the damn story.

Look. You’re not going to know All The Things. And even when you do, some of those things will change. In the end, you’re job is to tell the story of an individual trying to make sense of their lives, make sense of their world, and to put whatever disrupted elements that are wreaking havoc with their lives back into some semblance of balance. Expect changes. Expect revelations. Keep moving.

 9.    Integration, integration, integration

 Place matters. Character matters. Story matters. And what’s more, all three are inextricably linked.

It is not the clever description of a world that draws in a reader – rather, it is the interaction between the individual and that world. By understanding our characters, we gain insight into the peculiarities of the world in which they live. By understanding the world, we gain insight into the point of view of the characters that we have grown to care about over the course of the narrative. By linking the reader’s understanding of the world to the character’s understanding, we illuminate our characters at their most essential, their most basic, and their most true: this mind, this spirit, this longing, this heart.

We are shaped by our surroundings, just as we, in turn, shape our world. 

You ready? Let’s go build a world.

Next. Resources. I gave out a list of resources, that I instantly started adding to the moment that my yap started flapping. I added Guns, Germs and Steel, for example. And The Tattooed Lady.

Anyway, here’s the list that I gave:

Helpful books for World-builders

Here, in no particular order, are some books that you should have. And use. A lot. 

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood.

Yes, it’s a novel. Yes, it’s a sprawling epic of the slow decline of a powerful industrialist family in Canada, and, like some things about feminism and sex and marriage politics and what have you. BUT it is also a sly exploration of the broad thinking and subtle questioning of a pulp-fiction fantasist in the midst of the painstaking process of building a world – weaving in elements of history, legend, supposition, conjecture, myth, and that great, wild hope that there is, in truth, something more.  If you haven’t read it yet, then, dear god, I insist you do so at once. If you have, then knock your TBR stack to the ground and read it again. And you’re welcome

 

London, A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd.

This book will change how you understand cities forever. The story of London over the past 2,000 years, spun in yarn after yarn after yarn. Part history, part gossip, part architecture, part politics, part social critique, part lore, part personal stories, part tall tales. A city is built from timbers and iron and stone – but it is also built out of stories. It is equal parts design, politics, betrayal, ingenuity, lust, vision and luck. It is all of those things at once.

Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond.

Instead of analyzing how Civilizations conceive of themselves, grow and thrive, Mr. Diamond has, through exhaustive research, tracked how they crack, shatter, and crumble to dust. Much be learned about how someone lived by looking at how they died. Similarly, by exploring how cultures fall apart, we can better understand the cracks in our own cultural foundation – and how we are all, most likely, doomed.

 

Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

What? You don’t have this book. My god. Go to the used book store and purchase one AT ONCE. A must-have for the fantasist, and a should-have for everyone else.

How to Build a Flying Saucer and Other Proposals in Speculative Engineering, by T. B. Pawlicki.

Fringe science at its best! Not only is there an exhaustive essay on the engineering details of the design and construction of the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge and the like (lest your characters take a notion to do some time travelling), but it is full of other fun tidbits for the geeky worldbuilder. Navigating time streams. Planetary intrusions. Transmuting elements. Standing waves as energy sources. And so forth.

I have no idea if any of this is useful. I hope it is. What I do know is that there is nothing better than being in a roomful of people talking about books and thinking about books and recommending books to one another. There is no better feeling that surrounding oneself with people who are learning, and working, and committing themselves every damn day of their lives to improving what they do and growing as writers. Every day, we move a little bit closer to that one true thing – that moment in Story that lets us hope more, love more, want more be more. 

Here’s hoping we all find it.

 

Happy Writing, everyone!

Happy birthday, Mr. Baum

Today, the inestimable Anita Silvey on her wonderful blog discussed The Wizard of Oz, and instantly, and I felt my heart give a great leap.

I don’t know about any of you, but I was an obsessive Oz fan as a kid – like in a wild-eyed, trembly-hands, gotta-have-it-now sort of way. I was an addict. I read those books over and over and over again, sometimes staying up late into the night just so that I could plunge straight from the ending back to the beginning, without coming up for air. In fact they were the first books outside of fairy tale collections and Compton’s Encyclopedias that I read with any kind of voracity or fervor (I was late to books as a child, preferring to listen to recorded books on my Fisher Price record player, or just pretend that I was reading than actually read – like, with my eyes). L. Frank Baum changed that for me.

L. Frank Baum built me into a reader.

In fact, you can’t scratch very deep into my work to see the thumbprints of Mr. Baum on my odd little brain. People swallowed by trees. Children transformed into a cloud of locusts. A boy made of roots and vines. A razor-toothed demon child pressed tenderly to the breast of its chosen mother as it eats out her heart. I don’t think I would have written those things had I not been enamored by all things Baumian as a child – that giant, insufferable bug, for example (who continues to lurk in my dreams, dear fellow!). Or the man made of clockwork. Or the boy who transforms into a girl – though she still is referred to as “father” by one of her creations. Or the man made of sticks and a pumpkin head (an idiot, of course, but a beloved idiot). Or the desert that will transform you to dust. Or a tin man in search of his long-lost head. Or a group of people made of tubers (who just need to be planted if you accidentally cut them in half, which is a useful trick if you think about it). These things have taken root inside of me, and they will never go away.

Mr. Baum has indelibly weirded me.

I remember running into a girl I knew from school at the library. She was getting a stack of Sweet Valley High books. I never read any of them – still haven’t. Not from any kind of book-snobbery, mind you. I am egalitarian and ominvoracious when it comes to my reading habits. Instead, it was that those books smacked of a clique that I was not invited to join. I was too awkward. Too funny-looking. Too odd. For me at that age (and still now, kinda), the Sweet Valley High books represented what I would never be. Pretty. Popular. Aware of social norms and behaviors. And what have you.

I was an Oz kid from the start.

And because of that, I was a regular at the library. The house I grew up in was five blocks from the local library, and I was allowed to walk it by myself – and I did so quite a bit that summer. On the day in question, I had my stack of Oz books in my arms (most of which I had read already) and she had her stack of blonde twins in matching tennis outfits giving sidelong glances to hunky football players. We nearly ran into one another headlong. Startled, I dropped two books on the ground. She looked at me for a moment, deciding whether to speak to me (she often didn’t). She blew out her breath in a long, slow stream, as though extinguishing a candle. Finally, she spoke:

“Are those books for you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She decided to give me a chance. “They’re not for anyone else? Like your baby brother, maybe?”

“No,” I said. “I like these books. They’re really good. This one has a girl who’s made of-”

“Thanks, but no.”

“Okay,” I said.

She sighed and turned away. “Can you go five minutes without being completely weird?” she asked over her shoulder.

She didn’t wait for a response, and I didn’t give one. We both knew the answer anyway. I brought my books home and enjoyed them prodigiously.

Since many of Baum’s books were out of print, my Oz obsession also taught me about the magic of inter-library loans. Now that is a useful tool for a dorky, off-putting and vaguely unpleasant child (which, let’s be honest, is what I was) to learn about. Transformative, even.

It’s a funny thing, too, as a children’s author – one who once was the type of child who just didn’t fit – to realize the potential impact that the weird stories that I fuss at and labor over might have on the developing brain of a child that I have never met.

Will that child, like I was by Mr. Baum, be permanently weirded? Is weirdness a virus? Or a curse? It gives a girl pause, I’ll tell you what.

Or perhaps it is something else entirely. Perhaps instead a book is a tool for validation. Perhaps it is an open, honest, unblinking eye. Yes, says the eye, I see you. I see your weird notions and your strange imaginings. I see the way you stare too long and laugh too hard. I see your turns-of-phrases and your lingering dreams and the beautiful places in your head how you wish and wish-  with everything in you- that they  were real. 

We are the same, whispers the eye.

We are the same, whispered the Woggle-Bug and the Patchwork Girl and the Nome King and the forgotten and ill-tempered head on the shelf. We are the same, whispered the military force armed with knitting needles and the flying couch and the girl who lost her rainbow. We are the same, the author told me. And I believed him.

And this is what I tell you, right now. Kids, grownups, whatever. In your oddness, in your weirdness, in your bits that don’t fit. We are the same.

Happy birthday, Mr. Baum. And good on ya.

The Me that is, and the Me that might.

It is the third day of my residency in Chanhassen, which means, as per tradition, that we have – through trial, through tribulation, through desert and plain, through  fields of lava and and impassable mountain ranges and outer space, through robot armies and radioactive spider attacks and hordes of maniacal villains,  arrived at SUPERHERO WEDNESDAY. It is clearly the best day of the week.

My reasoning for instituting SUPERHERO WEDNESDAY was simple – I work these kids really hard. I have a theory about teaching story writing to kids, and it involves writing a lot. And I say a lot using my ever-so-serious I mean business voice, and the kids take it to heart. They write a lot. And they learn about narrative arcs and character development and the integration of personality, choice, and the options of the physical environment into the creation of plot, and they write like crazy.

But, by Wednesday, they need a break.

By Wednesday, they need to do something fun.

And by Wednesday they need to engage in one of the purest forms of storytelling for the upper-elementary-school kid: The Superhero Narrative.

These are kids who, for the first time, feel utterly in control of their bodies. They know what they can do, they know what they think.  They are starting to be global thinkers – connecting their own experiences to the wider world. Puberty hasn’t hit yet, but they know it’s coming. They know they’re headed toward a massive transformation – that the body they have will become something….else. They know that everything about themselves will change – they will have eruptions, additions, bizarre pustules attacking their faces. Their very voices will change (imagine! your voice!).

I think it’s no wonder that kids this age are drawn to the narrative of transformation, where that transformation is something powerful, noble, and can possibly save the world. (Because, really, what kid doesn’t want to save the world. I know these kids. They all want to save the world.)

Today we will write transformation narratives. Today we will also draw, dream, and sketch out panel-based storytelling. Today we will be superheroes. And it will be awesome.

 

What’s on your schedule today?

 

The only reviews that matter.

I got two of the best reviews ever yesterday. I’ll tell you about them in a minute.

I’ve been having this long-ranging discussion over the past few weeks with a number of writers over the utility and feasibility of avoiding the reviews for new book headed on its inexorable journey into the wide world. I love this idea, and I would love to say that I am capable of such a thing. Alas, I know I am not. I am a glutton for punishment.

I read everything. Goodreads, Amazon, random blogs. I read it all. And it destroys me. And I’m trying to change that.

Here’s the thing about reviews, and this may seem counterintuitive: even the good ones hurt. In fact, the good ones hurt more. No one warned me about this. When The Mostly True Story of Jack came out, the reviews were, well, good. Really good. Way better than I expected. I had starred reviews coming out of my ears and a glowing write-up in the L.A. Times. And what I felt was nothing. No. It was worse than that. What I felt was paralyzed. I was in the middle of doing the re-write of Iron Hearted Violet, and I was utterly, utterly paralyzed. The work that I had been doing in silence, the work that I had been doing in secret, the work that I had carved out on my desk from 4am to 6am each morning before waking up my kids and sending them to school – well, it was public. And it was loud. And I felt exposed in a way that I did not expect.

And I felt suddenly thrust into a space where I couldn’t make mistakes.

And I felt suddenly that the only thing I could do at that point, the only thing, was fail.

And I felt that I no longer had the freedom to totally suck.

I take great pride in my ability and willingness to write sucky, sucky fiction. Indeed, I feel that by embracing The Suck, we are able to wrap our arms around the gooey ooze of human experience, and slowly, slowly mold it into something true, something real, something with vision, muscle and heat. 

It isn’t that the reviews took this away from me – clearly they didn’t. I did it all on my own self. I am infinitely adept at making things difficult in my life, let me tell you. And it was a dark time.

When Violet came out, the reviews were much more mixed. And while it didn’t help to ease the crushing fear of failure (that wolf at the door for most artists that never really goes away), at least it didn’t get in the way of the creation of new work. The new work continues apace. This is a good thing.

I had a conversation with a graphic designer friend of mine (Jeff Johnson of Spunk Design Machine) who told me to lighten up already. “Critics make nothing,” he told me. “The only thing that matters is art you make and the work you do. Quit worrying and make something. Then you’ll feel better.”

He was for sure right about the second bit. It’s much easier to turn off the din of reviews when you’re in the throes of a new novel. And making something new? Well, it’s satisfying. And it eases my wretched soul. So I focused on making new work, and that was good.

But he was wrong about the first bit. Critics do make something. I appreciate criticism, and as a consumer and lover of art and books and movies and whatever, I love reviews. The purpose of the critic is to pin down the experience of art – to clarify and unpack the relationship and the meaning that transpires between artist and audience. And I do think that it matters. And I do think it is something.

However.

It does nothing for the artist. It does not form new work, nor does it inform new work. It is utterly separate from the creative process – and worse! – when artists allow themselves to get caught up in any of it, they are actively subverting the creative process. And they are hurting themselves.

When people ask me for advice for their first book coming out I tell them this: “Be aware that you’ll be a crazy person for at least a year,” and “When you’re reading reviews, pretend it is for someone else’s book. And if you can, avoid it all together.”

And particularly for those of us who write children’s fiction, our reviews are written by folks who aren’t even our primary audience. I love teachers and librarians and parents with my whole heart and soul, but, in the end, it is not their opinion that matters the most to me. The only thing that matters is what the kids think.

Lately, I’ve started getting fan mail. I would get little bits from time to time – little cards given to me when I would visit a classroom, or a little note handed to me at a reading. I loved these desperately. Lately more have come by email or by mail.

Yesterday, at the elementary school where I am teaching right now, a fourth grader came up to me and said, “Um… I just wanted to say. I mean. I wanted you to know. Um. You see. I wanted to say that….” she trailed off and sighed. Finally, she just threw her arms around my waist and whispered, “I’m just so glad you’re here.”

That was a friggin’ awesome review.

The second review came by email:

Dear Kelly,

My name is Violet and I am five years old. My daddy is reading me your new book, ‘Iron Hearted Violet’. I really like the book. It’s adventurous and scary and there are so many stories in it. Violet is my favorite character.

I hope to meet you someday.

Thank you for your book,

Violet

She included a picture of herself and her dad, and they both wore pirate costumes. Which is awesome. This is how I replied:

Beloved Violet,

Thank you so much for your letter. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me. You are lucky to have a daddy who reads books to you. My daddy used to read to me, too.  I hope all those books are feeding your brain and building brand-new stories that the world has never heard before. I hope those stories are wiggling their way into your heart and hands and eyes and mouth, and that you are drawing lots of pictures and playing lots of imagination games. And I hope that one day you write those stories down and share them with the whole world.
Have a wonderful day, dear Violet. And I hope that yours is as wonderful as you have made mine.
Best wishes,
Kelly Barnhill
P.S. Your pirate costume rules! 

This is the only thing that matters. Kids reading stories. Artists making work. Hard work is good for the soul. So go out and make something already.

Please play this video to all the fabulous, amazing, butt-kicking teachers in your life.

I think we need a new holiday. We can call it Make A Teacher A Delicious Cake Day. Or Give A Teacher A Pedicure Day. Or Hook A Teacher Up To A Wine I.V. Day. Something like that.

Teachers rule. You know it; I know it. Anyone who says differently is not allowed in my house or at my dinner table. Observe:

I just finished week #2 at Roosevelt High School, and I continue to be blown away by these kids – and even more blown away by these teachers. The two women who have graciously opened their classrooms to me are amazing. They are tough, funny, compassionate, razor-sharp, and built of stronger stuff than I am, I’ll tell you what. And they love those kids. And the students love them in return.

The student body at Roosevelt is remarkably diverse – racially, economically, religiously, as well as their educational backgrounds. What unites them is their kindness. These kids, man. They are kind. 

Within each classroom there is a broad skill-level range (extreme low-performers, extreme high-performers, and everything in-between), but each child – regardless of where they’re coming from – is charged with the same thing:  do your best; learn the material; don’t make excuses.

There were some kids in class today who, due to a cascade of reasons outside their control, happen to be reading way below grade-level. It happens. And yet, they still had lots to write about. Their imaginations were vigorous and intense, and when they looked inside to find the stories of their own, they realized that they had much to say. There was one kid who reads at a third-grade level, and yet when given a prompt and a little guidance, cranked out six pages of fiction in a half an hour. And it was good. 

Nice work, kid.

Whenever I do these teaching gigs, I am reminded how hard – how very hard – this job is. Right now, my voice is sore, my legs ache, and I feel like my body has spent the last six hours having tennis balls chucked at it. My head hurts, my skin hurts, and I think about nine million germs are having a party in my sinuses.

I think most of us forget how physically demanding it is to just be in a high school, much less teach in one. And Roosevelt is not even that large a school – less than a thousand students. Still. The crush of kids, the cloud of hormones, the din of voices shooting this way and that. Each one of these kids is like a nuclear reactor about to blow – all their love and hurt and hope and rage and lust and confusion and questions and knowledge – it boils and churns and accretes inside them. They are nascent stars. They are supernovas. They are quasars. Steam shoots out their ears and their skin bubbles and smokes and splits. They are a fury of kinetic energy and potential energy. They are both particle and wave.

It’s fucking hard being a teenager. Each one of them deserves a goddamn medal.

I got home, after being in that radioactive, glorious, primordial stew, and collapsed in bed. I am exhausted. I am ravaged. I am spent. My eyes are raw. My bones are made of glass. I am Chernobyl. I am Love Canal. I’m the friggin’ Bikini Atoll.

Teachers go through this every day. Teachers take these burning hunks of radioactive particles, and transform them into stars.

Good work, teachers. And God bless you.

(And Ms. Sheehan, Ms. Ober: My glass. It is raised.)

First Lines (again)

Last week I started my long-term artist residency at Roosevelt High school, and it has been awesome. The kids are engaged, the teachers are passionate – it’s all you can hope for in a writers residency.

I’m here today. It continues to be awesome.

One of my favorite things to do with a school group is an exercise in writing opening lines – the initial breath of a story that hasn’t been written yet, but that the student themselves would like to read some day. What interests me most in these workshops is to get kids to engage with the kind of stories that hook them individually as readers. Now, I have a selfish ulterior motive in this – I am an omnivoratious reader, and find myself personally grooving on lots and lots of different kinds of stories. One thing I tell my students all the time is the simple fact that writers, in the end, are selfish. We write to entertain ourselves. We read to entertain ourselves. It’s one of the few perks of this lonely, lonely job.

So whatever. I’m super selfish. Sue me.

Anyway, the problem with coming into a classroom to do a writer’s workshop is hesitation. We have a limited amount of time, and the kids are naturally hesitant. Well, of course they are!  I’m a complete stranger, after all, and I’m asking them to remove all pretense and self-consciousness and to sit down and write stuff. Madness!

So, we start with first lines. First lines are fun because they shine a light onto the story as it can be while still being a story all on its own. And that’s exciting. And it tricks the kids into engaging their imaginations, their what-if muscles, and it tricks them into writing even when they aren’t writing.

Here’s some of what they came up with:

  • I was used to waking up to the smell of burnt bacon.
  • I’m only eighteen, and I haven’t seen the world.
  • A rush of cool breeze crawled up my arms.
  • Not just darkness, but the silent kind.
  • She opened the book, and then she disappeared.
  • The sun set at the far end of the dusty road.
  • He was the child of no one.
  • We were happy. That’s when everything changed.
  • The wind of the world washed everything away.
  • Damn him and his luck.
  • I wasn’t anyone worth knowing. That’s what made me special.
  • When I woke up, I was already dead. That’s what they told me, anyway.
  • I heard a voice whisper in my ear, but when I turned, only the wind was there.
  • Night was scary, but I was scarier.
  • Don’t believe anything I’m about to say.
  • His face was the perfect frame for the bright red outline of my fist.
  • I told her to stop, and she didn’t. I told her to run, and she wouldn’t.
  • Whatever you do, don’t read to the end.
  • Her wedding dress lay on the street, wet and muddy.
  • They emerged from the burning tree.

And, of course, my favorite, “Once upon a f***ing time.”

Onward!