What I want for Christmas is the dumbest ever.

Here is a conversation I had with my husband, recently. And you know what? I feel for the guy. I really do. He works so hard. And it can’t be easy. I’m not….well, I’m not the easiest person to be married to. I fully accept this. And I get it that he wants to give me thing, and holy smokes do I appreciate it. But honestly? I feel like I’m past the point in my life when holiday gifts make much sense. I have too much stuff. And the things that would actually make my life easier? Well, they’re a little out of reach, at present. Because all of our available funds are tied up in the kids and the house. But mostly the kids. So I told him that I really didn’t want anything in lieu of holiday gifts.

He did not accept this. At all.

HIM: We have to figure out what you’re getting.

ME: I don’t want anything. Seriously.

HIM: Seriously, nothing. What do you want for Christmas? Like wanting things.

ME: I’m not even going to tell you because it’s too expensive.

HIM: I don’t care. I just want to know what it is.

ME: Just get me socks or a subscription to One Story or something.

HIM: OH MY GOD YOU ARE THE WORST.

ME: It’s dumb. What I want is the dumbest ever. But I still want it. But I want not to want it so I’m not telling you.

HIM: COME ON!

ME: FINE. What I really want, more than anything else, is a Roomba.

HIM: No way.

ME: It’s true.

HIM: ….
…..
…..
ME: I know.

HIM: You mean the thing that scoots around and pretends to clean.

ME: It doesn’t pretend. It cleans. Not very well, I’ll grant you, but probably better than I’m doing right now. So. Yeah. That’s what I want.

HIM: You’re kidding, right?

ME: Alas, no.

HIM: You’ve got all of Western Civilization before you, with its centuries of perfecting the machine of the marketplace. We’ve got the art of making and marketing and buying and selling to a science so exquisite it deserves its own University system …. and on this, the season in which we slaughter yearling calves on our altars erected in temples dedicated to the gods of consumerism ….. and you want a vacuum cleaner?

(Author’s note: I might be elaborating here. I can’t quite remember)

ME: Yes.

HIM: And you don’t mind that it’s, like, housewifey and stuff.

ME: I don’t care. I want it. I want something to clean instead of me cleaning. I want ONE THING IN THIS HOUSE that does whatever I ask it to, because god knows the kids are hopeless with their books and their independent thinkings. I want something to devour the dog hair and attack the piles of sand that inexplicably appear on the living room floor. I want something to suck the dust away while I’m writing. I also want self-cleaning laundry and a macrobiotic chef and electric slippers. But mostly I want a robot. A best friend robot. A cheerful, always wants to help robot. A hard-working robot servant/family member/mostly a servant to clean my floors and look silly carrying unlikely objects across the floor like martinis and doughnuts and do what I ask and I shall name him Algernon. But I shall call him Ernest.

HIM: That’s a compelling argument.

ME: I know, right?

HIM: Hmmm. Well. How much are they?

ME: Like four hundred bucks.

HIM: Ah.

ME: Yeah.

HIM: So. Socks, then?

Which is fine. I made sure to send him a picture of these:

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Saturday Sharing Time – lets see some bits from your WIPs (c’mon. you know you wanna.)

It’s been quite a bit since I’ve asked you people to share bits and pieces from your hidden pages, and I think it’s high time to do it again. Because it’s fun! I’ll start:

(and this piece – called “The Unlicensed Magician”, will likely never see the light of day. It is a novella – and where the heck do you publish a 30k novella? Nowhere, alas. Ah well. Maybe I’ll self-pub it someday. After I fuss at it. Endlessly. For years.)

The Minister had never counted on the wind. He built his tower higher and higher – a wobbly, twisty, unlikely-looking structure, uncurling like seaweed toward the shimmering limit of the sky. Dark stones, blackened windows. Impossible without magic. And now it was higher than any structure in the history of the world. The Minister knew the history of the world. He had all the history books. The ones he hadn’t burned, anyway. And while the books told of impressive structures, they never mentioned the winds.

The wind, at the top of the tower, once nearly sent him careening to his death, which would have been unfortunate seeing how long –how very long – he had spared himself the unpleasantness of dying. Falling off his own tower? The very idea! He started binding himself with straps to keep him in place as he gazed at the sky through his stargazer, and watched for the first glimpse of the Boro Comet.

Four times a century it came. The Minister had seen it more times than he could count. And now he would see it pass by once again – and so close – but he still would not be able to catch it. Not yet, anyway. How many more magic children would he need until his tower was tall enough? Ten? Hundreds? Thousands? How many enhancements would he require before he was able to pluck the comet from the sky and carry it in his pocket forever? It sickened him, of course, this business with the children. But the sickness in his heart didn’t interfere with the surety of his purpose. Besides, that first, singular act of cruelty made the thousands that followed infinitely easier.

There were large red flowers growing along the edges of the walls defining the rooftop patio – a gift from one of his magic children, right before she died. “To help you breathe,” she said kindly, before she breathed her last. Her lips were pale; her eyes were the color of milk, her hair had fallen out months before. He usually did not learn the names of his magic children – or anyone, really. People die so quickly when they are not enhanced, and only the Minister is enhanced. He has seen to that. But the magic children. They die quicker. Best not to know them.

This one, though. This one he knew. Not her name, of course, just the fact of her – that inscrutable bit of the Self that cannot be drawn or recorded or named. And after all these years, he still mourned her. A raw, painful, immediate feeling of loss.

Red flowers, his heart whispered. Red, red, red, red.

He picked a flower, breathed deeply, and felt a tightening in his throat. He inserted the flower stem into his lapel and returned his gaze to the stars, as the taste of sweetness and promise – and magic, always the taste of magic – lingered on his tongue.

Got any bits – a sentence? A paragraph? A page or two? Post it in the comments!

A quick update on my 1,000-year-old…. actually 1,001-year old dog.

The internet is a funny place. I wrote this piece about my ancient, beloved, sometimes foul-tempered, and often stinky, but always utterly herself, cattle-dog-mix – gosh, almost a year ago – and suddenly it has gotten approximately one skillion views over the last two days. Randomly. And people are commenting like mad and sending me beautiful, passionate, and soulful emails, telling me the story of their own beloved pets – those still hanging on, and those tenderly carried into their next grand adventure in that dog park in the sky.

And people are asking: how is Harper? Is she still alive?

And it’s a good question. On my block there are a lot of kids and a LOT of dogs. And this year, two very beloved animals left us, and we are all incredibly sad about it. (One of them, Gebo, just passed a couple weeks ago. My little son is heartbroken. Here is his tender tribute. Be careful clicking. You will smile through your flowing tears.)

As for Harper – she’s great! At the very youngest, she is 18 now, but she is likely over 20. That is friggin’ old. But she is tough. And she’s hanging on. Still kicking, still stinking up the place. Still barking her head off at doggie passers-by (my sweet Alpha female, though enfeebled, is still a dang Alpha – and she makes sure the world knows it). She is slowing down, for sure. She snuggles up at my feet while I write. She still gives the stink-eye to the gaggles of boys who tear up and down our stairs and pretend to be slain by lasers and fart on purpose and for no reason. (She is not alone in her stinky-eye, I have to admit.) And while she can’t go as far as she used to, she still enjoys a hike in the forest, and still enjoys her yard, and still eats her food (and the occasional peanut butter sandwich crust, should the Universe provide) and still seems perfectly happy to be here.

There is a truism among parents that one of the benefits of pet-ownership is that it helps to teach kids about death. I think this is true, but it is not the most important lesson that our dogs (and other furry family members) teach us. They teach us about compassion, too. They teach us to be patient. They teach us that life isn’t just short, it’s also fragile. They teach us that it’s important to be a noticer. To put into words what we see in others. Leo is incredibly aware of Harper’s good days and bad days. Sometimes Harper moves more slowly than others. Sometimes she shakes. Sometimes she is in pain. On those days, Leo slows his feet. He asks me when the last time she had her pain meds. He sits down on the floor and rests his arm on her back. Sometimes, he reads her a story.

Having an aging animal teaches us to hang on to each day.

Having an aging animal teaches us to find moments of grace in very small things.

Having an aging animal teaches us to take our responsibility as pet owners incredibly seriously. They look at us, these animals. They see us to our centers. They demand that we do the same.

Look at me, Harper’s eyes say. I’m counting on you.

I know, honey, my eyes say back. I’m here. I’ll be here with every wobbly step. I’ll be here with every good day and bad. I’ll be here with every rattly breath and every contented sigh. I’ll be here when you’re sick. I’ll be here when you’re well. And I’ll be here at the very end.

I promise.

When kids love pets, they learn how to promise. They learn how to care. They learn how to notice. They learn how to empathize. They learn how to nurture. They learn how to tend. They learn how to love. They learn how to say good-bye. These are good things to learn.

Haper is still alive. For now. As we all are. We will hang on to each day until we can’t. It is a blessed thing, really. And I am grateful.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in and told me your stories. I really appreciate them. I honor them. Thank you for sharing your great love with me. Honestly, it means the world.

Much love,

KB

When books are touchstones. When they are armor and shield. When they are lantern and map. When they are loved to bits, and read to smithereens.

I was twelve years old when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. It was the first time I had read a book where I didn’t just identify with the main character – I was in utter sympatico with her. Everything that Meg Murry felt, I felt. Her loneliness. Her frustration. Her poor social skills. Her emotional immaturity. Her awkwardness. Her separateness from her peers. Her love for her family. Her anger. Her confusion. Her sorrow. The things she said, I could have said. The weird things she did, I could have done (and likely had done). I had never before seen my own struggles in black and white – in the surety of paper and ink. The fact of that book in my hands thrilled me to the core.

I didn’t like the cover, so I tore it off. It was a library book, but I had no intention of returning it. I slid it in between the mattress and box spring of my bed, and read it and re-read it a thousand times. I wonder where it is now. Some nights, I wake up and I am sure I am gnawing on book binding glue. The paper disintegrated long ago – and I am sure I have breathed cloud after cloud of story dust as I sat in the loneliness of that room. The ink seeped into my skin. Those words are written on my bones.

I think I still owe that fine. Don’t tell the library.

I bring it up because, according to the good folks at MPR, it is a Young Adult novel. Except that it’s not YA at all. It’s a Middle Grade novel – and a damn good one. There is a difference, of course, between Young Adult and Middle Grade. I wrote about it, of course, here, and here. It’s been written about on approximately nine million other sites, most notably here and here and here. As expected, the good folks at MPR didn’t care to trouble themselves to learn the difference, and, as expected, it was a Middle Grade novel that won the “Best YA Book of All Time” poll on Minnesota Public Radio, and, as expected, a bunch of children’s authors seethed and ground their teeth that the good ladies of the Daily Circuit couldn’t be bothered to get their terms right – and what’s worse, were incredibly dismissive of those who tried to educate them on what the terms mean and why they matter.

Pete Hautman sums up the situation nicely here and here. Now you can click on the MPR link above, and read through the comments that a bunch of published authors, seasoned librarians, booksellers, and scholars of children’s literature left (myself included) about why it’s so important to get these terms right – if, for no other reason, we can stop all the hand-wringing from parents who don’t understand that if you hand your eight-year-old YA books that explicitly wrestle with the teen experience, said child will be wading through material and life-experiences that are inappropriate to their own experience. A Middle Grade book is a FAR more appropriate choice for that child. The distinctions matter not just for discussion and evaluation, but for purchasing too.

And it’s frustrating to those of us who actually care about books. Who love books. And who are passionate advocates for the role the beloved book in the life of a child.

And THAT’s what I actually wanted to talk about. Beloved books. Important books. The books that matter.

One of the things that I love about my colleagues in Children’s Literature (the writers, the librarians, the teachers, the scholars) is that – to a one – they are all book evangelists in their souls. Each one came to children’s literature because of a central truth that governs their lives. That books matter. That children’s books matter. And that every child deserves the chance to be moved by a book. To be guided by a book. To have a book change their world-view, change their thinking, change their trajectory, change their life.

And, of course, it’s not the book that does this, in the end. It’s the child holding the book who builds the world. And that’s exciting to me.

This time of year, the book world becomes awash with lists. Best-of lists. Newbery contender lists. Folks in the media love the horse-race narrative. They love stories of who’s up and who’s down. They love shadowy contenders. They love statistics. But the problem is that it goes counter to what we all know about books. We do not read for best, and we do not read to give awards, and we do not read to quantify the experience. Our experience with books is a relationship. It grows with us, changes as we change. It is responsive to our evolving understanding, our deepening experience, our complicated lives.

This is because, in the end, a book is a living thing. It insinuates itself into the mind and the heart. It replicates itself in dream and imagination and play. It loves. It worries. It wonders. I have been living with books for a long time, and I understand and believe and will repeat every day until the day I die the one thing that I absolutely know to be true: Books have souls. And so do we.

There have been books, like A Wrinkle in Time, that have taken residence in my life. That have integrated themselves into the landscape of my imagination and written themselves onto my heart. The inform my life as a writer, as a daughter, as a mom and as a wife. They inform my life as a politically aware person, as a good neighbor, as an educator. They protect me when I am sad. They spur me on to fight the good fight. They whisper the truth of my love to the sky. And they stay with me for months, years, decades. My whole life.

For example:

I have no idea how old I was when I read The Silver Chair. My mother had read the entire series to us when we were little, and because I was an averse reader, and frankly a poor reader, the Narnia books were ones that I could pick up and pretend to read with a good amount of authority since I already knew what happened. The truth, man. It’s rough.

But The Silver Chair. It is my favorite of all of them. It is when we learn that Narnia, despite the defeat of the Telmarines, still has its dark places. It’s scary places. There are man-eating giants and soul-sucking swamps and a terrible witch and a scary underworld. But most of all, the two main characters escape to Narnia after fleeing a pack of bullies. This one moment was a talisman for me. That I too might escape. That there might be something beyond the days of soul-crushing humiliation that was my experience in grade school.

That book, in its soul, was me. And it gave me so much hope.

And:

I think I read that book a thousand times. And then I read it to my kids. And then I read it to myself again. What I loved most about it – apart from the adventure and friendship and humor and thrills and whatever – was the fact that the rabbits, in their souls, were storytellers. That their stories had meaning and message. That their stories guided them and fed them and kept them together. That notion plucked at my own inner harmonics – because I was moved by story too. And I self-referred to stories all the time. And I knew that a story could make sense out of senseless situation, and could offer hope and meaning when it seemed that both were lost forever. I knew that a story could light the dark paths, and lead us home.

Also: Fiver. Because come on.

And:

The Outsiders was really my first experience with any kind of transgressive fiction. I had never read a book where kids drank alcohol or said bad words or smoked or fought or whatever. I read it in eighth grade. We had to read Rumble Fish for school – another book that I loved, but I didn’t understand Rumble Fish in its subtlety until much much later. The Outsiders, however, punched me in my guts. It was the first time that I felt exasperated and tender towards characters in my reading. It was the first time that I saw their transgressions as necessary. It was the first time that I really got it that the world can be violent sometimes. And cruel. And unfair. And yet. How the world still has beauty, and friendship, and desperate love. And that poetry matters – as does art. And that we all have the power – even as we take our last breath – to transform.

I am going to do more writing on this subject. On the books that matter, the books we carry, the books that remain in the satchels of our souls  – tools, maps, weapons, comfort, inspiration, joy. Whatever.

In the meantime, what are your talisman books, your guiding books, your treasured books. What books do you carry in your heart? What books are written on your bones?

On Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and the Things That Mystify Me

I am ten years old. I am riding a banana seat bike through the alleys. I am allowed to go as far as 31st Street, and then I have to turn back. Words cannot describe how much I love this bike. It is turquoise with sparkly flower decals and I ride back and forth through blocks of alleys singing the entire “Mary Poppins” soundtrack at the top of my lungs. My knees are scratched. My hair needs a comb. I probably haven’t brushed my teeth.

A man in a car pulls up. He opens the window. He asks my name. I have been well-trained. I have learned about good touches and bad touches in school. I know that good people don’t drive up to children on bikes. My teachers have been very clear. I take a good look at his face. I notice his red hair. I take off as fast as I can in the opposite direction, toward home.

He circles around. Meets me mid-way in the next block. Asks me what my hurry is. Tells me I might hurt myself. I do not make eye contact. I power through the next block. I see him again. I keep going.

I am in my driveway, at the edge. My bike is on the ground. I am blocking the way. I am breathing hard. I do not want him to know where I live. But I want to see if it was real – if he was real. I want to understand what is happening. I want to know if he will come snaking down the alley. If he is looking for me.

He does. He slows down. He grins at me. I realize that he is not wearing pants. I don’t see any – you know. Bits. Or, I’m pretty sure I don’t. What I do see is a thatch of red hair where his pants should be. I am horrified. I feel sick. And sweaty. I dry-heave. He laughs and speeds away. I leave my bike where it is. I go inside. I wash my hands. I wash my face. I will never be clean. I do not tell my parents.

Later, I get in trouble later for leaving my bike on the driveway.

It is the first time I am ever afraid of a man. It is the first time that it ever occurs to me to be afraid. It will not be the last.

Every day, someone comes to my blog after googling “anti-feminist movies”. Every. Dang. Day.

(To be fair, people show up at my blog after googling a lot of things. “Taxidermy porn”, for example. And “how to turn my teacher into a toad”. And the ever-popular “mom butt”. The internets, man. It’s a mad country filled with mad people, and we are the maddest of all.)

Now, a while ago (quite a while, actually) I wrote a post about a children’s movie with some pretty gross lady-hating themes, and I’ve managed to catch heck for it. In the comments, in my email box. Whatever. There are people who are seriously mad at me for pointing out that the movie was, in addition to being a crappily-animated, source-text-destroying, dreckish disaster of a movie – it was also grossly antifeminist. Moreover, it fed into the baseless fears of the men’s-rights folks who seem to think that personal empowerment is a zero-sum game. That to empower women means to disempower men. And that the purpose of feminism is to throw men, collectively mind you, into the proverbial dust-bin of history.

These things make me tired.

And sad.

The most troubling statements, though, are the ones that suggest that I, as a children’s author, have no right to call myself a feminist. Or an anything-ist. I had similar hate-letters when I posted a piece railing against Michelle Bachman, or when I wrote in praise of my GLBT married friends.

But feminism, man. There is a special kind of venom for the feminism.

I am fifteen. I take the Lake Street bus every day after track practice. It takes an hour. I settle in, hoping that my prodigious post-running stinkiness will prevent anyone from sitting next to me.

I am wrong. A man in a suit boards the bus. He takes the empty seat next to me. I look out the window. He asks me my name. I pretend to be asleep. He asks me what grade I’m in. I say I have homework even though I don’t. He wants to know why I’m not friendly. He tells me that if I’m not friendly, no one will like me. His hand is on my knee. I leave it there. If I say something, people will look at me. And I don’t want them looking at me. I want to disappear.

The curious thing for me, though, is the sense of ownership. I write children’s books. I tweet. I keep this blog. I have a readership – a small one, sure. But a readership nonetheless. I get notes from readers – both men and women – saying “I come here to read about the writing process” or “I come here to get your insights on….” whatever. Books. Kids. Pretty things. “Please keep your feminism to yourself,” people say in comments I delete. “No one cares about your politics,” one woman wrote me. She wrote a lot of other sentences, mind, and I’ll repeat none of them here. She closed with, “the next time you want to air your grievances, just keep your yap shut.”

Apparently, for both children and children’s authors, silence is golden.

Or maybe it’s not authors. Maybe it’s women. Maybe women saying things online makes us itchy. Or maybe women saying things at all.

I am nineteen. I am on a date. He is much older than I am. Recently divorced. I am nursing a broken heart. He orders me a glass of wine. He’s already had several. I could smell it on his breath in the car. My heart is broken. I do not care. I don’t drink and I’m too young, but he winks at the waitress and says that both glasses are for him. I tell him about my classes. How General Chemistry is kicking my butt. I tell him about my seminar course on Medieval theologians and mystic poets. I tell him that I want to go to medical school.

“Sweetheart,” he says, “you are the sexiest girl to sit at my table in a long, long time. But you just don’t seem smart enough for medical school.” This devastates me. It is the thing I already fear. The thing that keeps me up at night. I want to cry. I want to yell. Instead, I am silent. And my silence is sharp, and hot, and heavy. It has mass and gravity and presence. I get up and leave. He calls me bad words – loudly. Slurring. People don’t stare at him. They stare at me. Their eyes narrow. Because I’m the bitch who’s walking out. I exit the door. It’s winter. It’s crazy cold. I walk back to my dorm. It is five miles. I do not have gloves. I am wearing stupid shoes. And thin tights.

It takes me a week to warm up.

The thing is though? My identity as a feminist informs every facet of my life. It informs my parenting. It informs my reading. It informs the way I listen to the news. It informs my interactions with others. It informs my understanding. It informs the questions that I ask. And it informs the writing that I do  – the novels for children, the short stories for grown ups, the stuff on this blog. I can’t take the feminism out. I don’t even know how.

And maybe this is the limitations of my world-view. Because I honestly can’t understand how we can be in this world and not be feminist. How can we just not notice inequality and injustice when it is staring us in the dang face? How can we not come up against the blindness of privilege and not want to change? How can we not desire to open our eyes? All social justice movements, in the end, work to remove shadows and blocks. We cannot see injustice if the limits of privilege block the view. If we remove the block we can see unfairness and we can change the world and make it better. Those blocks are removed through experience, through awareness-raising, and, probably most effectively, through story. Story matters.

I am thirty-four. I am at a Science Fiction convention. I am working on a book. I have finished another one. I am submitting short stories. I am hopeful about my future. The panel discussion is interesting and intense. I raise my hand. I contribute. I am seen. An editor –  a prominent guy – comes and chats with me afterward. I have met him before – another conference. I have met his wife. He asks me to join him at the Con Suite to continue chatting. I’m a chatty gal. I’m always up for a good conversation. We continue discussing whatever it is we’re talking about as we go up the elevator. I don’t know where the Con Suite actually is. “Don’t worry,” he says sunnily. “I’ll get us there.” He is standing very close. I don’t think too much of it. He is much older than me. I assume he is hard of hearing. We continue chatting. He opens a door. I follow in. It’s not the Con Suite. It’s his hotel room. And his shirt is off. “Where shall we start?” he says.

I am a feminist. Proudly so. Unabashedly so. It concerns me that I get unpleasant emails and comments just based on this blog. I have in the past. I will in the future. Ugly people will say ugly things, and that is just that. It concerns me that “Writing While Feminist” is offensive to people – that the fact of my world-view and the fact of my voice and the fact that I tell stories and think things and see the world in terms of changing and re-shaping and bettering things for everyone is somehow worthy of vitriol or anger or shaming words.

My books, because they were written by my hands and dreamed up in my brain, cannot be separated from my world-view. The world I live in is much better and more equal than the world in which my grandmothers came of age. But that ain’t saying much. We still put a premium on the male voice in this culture – in publishing, in media, in education, in the law, in medicine. Everywhere. We still discount the female voice. We still discount the female experience. We still discount women’s work. I wish it wasn’t so.

I am at the park. I am wearing a tee-shirt that says “Radical Feminist”. I am with my three kids and my dog. My son is in a sling, his face pressed against my breast, fast asleep.

“Is that shirt a joke?” a woman asks me.

“No,” I say.

“Are you divorced?” she says.

“No,” I say.

“Does your husband know you’re wearing it?”

“My husband bought it for me.”

“Hmph. I would be offended if my husband bought me something like that. It’s like saying ‘I think you’re ugly.’ No offense.”

My books have strong women in them. And unpleasant women. And broken women. My books have strong men in them. And unpleasant men. And broken men. Because all of us are strong, and unpleasant, and broken. Sometimes we are all of these things at once.

I am a feminist because I love men, and I believe that they are capable and strong and wise. I am a feminist because I love women, and I believe that they too are capable and strong and wise. And I am a feminist because I fiercely love my kids. And your kids. And the kids that aren’t born yet. And I think the world that we are giving them can be so much better, so much kinder, and so much more just than the one we got right now.

I am on the bus. I am sitting next to a man who is reading the newspaper. He snorts. He grunts. He shakes his head.

“The feminists are taking over,” he says.

“Yup,” I say, nodding emphatically. “Thank god.”

The Magnificence of Middle Grade – why I read these books, why I write these books, and why these kids are awesome.

There are three boys under the bridge that spans the small creek at the end of my dead-end street. It is summer. They are all eight years old. It is a glorious age, eight.

“Our parents don’t know we’re here,” says one boy, not knowing that I am standing on the bridge, directly over his head.

“I know,” says another boy. “We’re on our own. Let’s never go back.”

Well, it’s happened again. A bunch of people who don’t read children’s literature with any frequency, passion or enthusiasm asked a bunch of other people who don’t think about children’s literature above the occasional passing interest, to name their “top YA novel”. These conversations always make me crabby. Because – and I must confess this bugs the spit out of me – once again we must wade through well-meaning comments demonstrating the rampant and weird conflation of YA and Middle Grade books.

There is a thing I must make clear: Middle Grade novels and Young Adult novels are not the same novels. To conflate the two is to dampen or derail the discussion. And really, what’s the point of a derailed discussion?

Listen, folks. Caddie Woodlawn is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. The Giver? Also Middle Grade. And Harry Potter (at least the first four books are MG – number five is squarely in YA territory). A Wrinkle in Time? Yup. That’s Middle Grade too.

This distinction is important because middle grade kids and teenagers are different. Their world views are different. The rules governing their lives are different. Their relationships are different. And while it is incredibly common for middle grade kids to “read up” and for teenage kids to “read down” (I know TONS of fourth graders who are huge fans of the Hunger Games trilogy, and I know TONS of teens who are huge fans of Terry Pratchett‘s The Wee Free Menand its tie-in novels), just as it is common for lots of kids – both middle grade kids and teens – to read grown-up books and dig the hell out of them,  it is important to read and understand each separate genre on its own terms. That’s what we do as readers – we categorize, evaluate, compare and understand. And then we read everything. Wildly.

The wildness is important.

It is raining. The sky is dark and dumping. Water streams in great gushes from the corners of the roofs. Fifteen kids, aged four to twelve, tear across a mud-soaked yard. The adults huddle in the closest living room, holding paper plates of pasta salads and barbecue and lemon bars in one hand and cans of beer that went warm hours ago in another.

“Come inside,” the adults say. “You guys are soaked.”

The kids, in mid-step, pause. They stare at their parents as though they have started speaking another language. Sumerian, maybe. Or Elvish. They continue running. No adult can tell what the game is. Only that it is insanely fun.

I read a lot of books. It’s an occupational hazard. I read grownuppy novels and nonfiction and poetry. I read folk tales and fairy tales from around the world. I read science fiction and fantasy. I read YA novels. I read picture books. I read theological texts. I read foundational scriptures of religions that are not my own. And I read Middle Grade novels. Lots and lots and lots and lots of them.

Could I pick a “very best one”? A “top novel”? Not on your life. I wouldn’t even hazard to try. And, in fact, the very idea is somehow, well, icky to me. It is a reductive, banal process that is the very opposite of what Middle Grade novels do for me. The Middle Grade novel, fundamentally, is the act of expansion. This is because middle grade kids, by their very natures, are expansive. They are wild, impulsive, intuitive, inscrutable, curious and contradictory. They speak in multitudes. They yawp. (And believe me, I live in a sea of kids. The collective YAWP from these children is as ubiquitous as air.)

I am listening to “Carmen”. It is magnificent, as usual. The nine year old in my house stops. Listens curiously.

“Did she just say, ‘egg roll’?” he says.

“No,” I say. “Hush. I’m listening.”

“And now she just said ‘Elmo.'”

And then he starts dancing. All rhythmic stamping and flying fingers and bony elbows and knobby knees. Bizet would have been amazed.

What fascinates me about these kids is how easily they transport themselves between their selves now and their selves as they will be. Somewhere around third grade, the notion that the lives that they know will one day fall away – that their child selves will cease to be and their adult selves will take their places – really starts to hit home. Ask any third grader what he or she wants to be when they grow up, and they will tell you approximately nine thousand things. Firemen and scientists and astronauts and doctors and presidents and marine biologists and bush pilots and park rangers and spies and cops and professional divers and janitors and teachers and inventors and acrobats and basketball players and actresses and “just famous”. Sometimes, all at once.

This is a thing I know for sure. When a middle grade kid sits down to read a novel, their adult selves are reading, too. The adult that kid imagines him or herself to be. The adult that will, one day, pick up that same book, and read it. And when we, as adults, pick up the books that we read as kids, our kid-selves are reading with us. Across time, across space, across experience and understanding, across universes, across dimensions, across everything boundless and wondrous and strange. Which means that these books, when done well, allow for that sense of concurrency. They allow our selves as kids and our selves as adults to reflect back at one another. I see you, the child says to the adult she will be. I see you too, the adult says the the child that he was. Both narrative lines, both sets of understandings, harmonize with one another. And it is a wonderful thing.

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” the eleven year old asks her seven year old cousin. They love each other, these girls. They are linked souls.

“I already am grown up,” the seven year old says. “I am already all the things.”

I love the kids of this age. I love everything about them. I love their humor and their silliness. I love their capacity for wonder. I love their bravery and their fears and their litany of worries. I love their valor. I love the boundlessness of their imaginations. I love their willingness to try. I love their willingness to connect. I love them in their big-heartedness and their shriveled soulishness and that both of those things can happen simultaneously. I love their selfishness and their selflessness, and that both of those things can also happen simultaneously. I love their dreams. I love their nightmares. I love  their very selves – their effable, ineffable, effa-ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular selves (apologies to Mr. Eliot).

I read Middle Grade novels. I write Middle Grade novels. I love Middle Grade novels. I spend a lot of time thinking about Middle Grade novels. I will never tell you which one was the very best of all. It is a ludicrous idea. I can tell you which books moved me. I could give you a list that is miles long. I could invite you to my house and hand you book after book, and talk each one up for hours. Because that, in the end, is what books do. They do not belong on lists – the belong in peoples’s hands. And in our hearts. And in our lives.

“WAIT,” one boy says.

“WHAT,” say the others.

It is negative five degrees. Not including the wind chill factor. They are standing on a frozen hillside. Their faces are red. Their upper lips are white with frozen snot. They are balanced on their snow boards, ready to go screaming into the sky. Speed and light. Black jackets. Bright scarves. A frozen landscape. A shattering white.

“We need to decide our superpowers.”

“You don’t need to decide your superpower. Your superpower shows itself to you. That’s how it works.”

But best of all, these novels give us, as grown-ups, an avenue and a tool to connect with middle grade kids – our own children, our neighbor kids, our nieces and nephews, our students, the kids we meet at the library, kids in our church, and, yes, the kids we used to be. These books lay out a blanket in the market square. They call out to all passers by – Come! the books shout Sit! Gather together! This is a story for all of you. Young people! Old people! People of middle age! Come and share and connect and laugh and weep and worry and wonder and live. When I talk to middle grade kids about the books that we have both read, we will talk about characters, and we will talk about amazing feats, and we will talk about jokes and ideas and scary parts and mind-blowing parts, but what we are actually saying is this: I see you. I feel with you. We have hearts and souls. We have compassion and grace. And look! We are so alive.

Next up: Stories Are For Everyone.

Why do I love YA? Because Teenagers Are Friggin’ Awesome.

I just picked up my girl after not seeing her since Wednesday morning. She had gone with the other ninth graders in the Open program at South High to some outdoor education program thingie. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but ended up having a pretty good time, despite pretty much freezing her tail off.

As I’m walking her to the car, we walked past another freshman, shivering on the sidewalk, waiting for his mom.

“OSCAR GO INSIDE,” Ella barked at him. “YOU’RE TOO COLD.”

“I CAN’T,” he said. “ALL MY STUFF IS HERE. AND MY MOM ISN’T HERE YET.”

Freshmen, I have learned, only yell at each other. It’s cultural, as I understand it.

“FINE,” she said.

“FINE,” he said.

And we got into the car.

“Ella,” I said. “Do we need to give that boy a ride?”

“Psh,” she said. “No. That’s just Oscar. He never notices the cold. He’s an Anarchist.”

“Anarchists don’t feel cold?”

“No. It’s like a thing. The cold, or feeling cold is, apparently, a cynical construct of the Corporate State.”

“Ah,” I said. “Um. He looks cold.” The kid was wearing knock-off Chuck’s and holey jeans and had no gloves and no hat.

“He might be doing it on purpose. He does a lot of things on purpose. He’s also a self-proclaimed Communist. And my mortal enemy.”

“People still have those?”

“I do, it seems.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why is he your mortal enemy?”

“Because I hate Bronies and he hates Les Miz. The lines were drawn long ago. We do not chose our sides; we are our sides.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I’m just kidding. My friends write fake insulting and vaguely threatening notes to him signed by him and his friends send fake anti-broadway manifestos to me signed by him. It’s become a thing.”

“There are still things?”

“There will always be things.”

And truth be told, I found it vaguely comforting to know that these were being done by hand. Like, old-school note-writing. These kids today! So crazy. So odd-ball. So curious and confused and interested and bored and brave. So hopeful. So cynical. So fully and completely and wonderfully themselves.

This is why I love YA novels. Because I love teenagers. Because they are awesome.

Lately, there have been a bunch of articles and conversations floating around the various places in the media about YA novels – the novels that, when done well, explore the rocky terrain of the teenaged experience – without nostalgia. Without moralizing. Without the limitations of the Adult Gaze. The best of the genre are the books that tell the stories of teenagers experiencing their own particular stories on their own terms, in their own voices, and powered by their own steam. These books are wonderful – not as an aside, or as a lower class of literature, or as a “my goodness can you believe there is a book for teenagers that isn’t terrible – not that I read it you understand, oh god no, but I certainly heard…” sort of way.

These conversations make me cranky. Anyone who ever says, “Here are some YA books that actually aren’t too bad” needs to get dope-smacked.

Books about teenagers have a responsibility to be wonderful. They have a responsibility to be honest and incisive and brutal and brave. They have a responsibility to be just as honest and incisive and brave as the teenagers who read them. And I believe this is true, not for the sake of their readership, and not for the sake of critics, and certainly not for the pointless pontificators on the radio (yammering endlessly about books that they have never read and have no intention of reading either). Those books have a responsibility to be wonderful for the sake of their characters, of their stories. Because those stories matter.

The process of transition between youth and adulthood is confusing and scary and soul-crushing, and sometimes it’s a miracle that any of us come out of it with our bodies and souls and selves intact. There is a reason why so many of us choose to remember our teen years through the foggy lens of nostalgia – some things are too painful to relive. Sometimes it’s easier to see through our adult eyes. And the adult eye is a dim thing. And prone to self-deception.

Teenagers are amazing. Even when they’re awful, they’re amazing. And if you don’t believe me, I encourage you to spend some time with teenagers. I encourage you to get to know one or seven or a hundred.

To the teens in my life, I salute you. To the teen protagonists and side-characters in the books that have moved me, I salute you as well. I salute your struggles. I salute your journeys. I salute your love and your loss and your questioning. I salute you as you become more fully yourselves. I salute you as you seek to clarify the rules by which you will live your life. It isn’t easy.

Be well, be safe, and godspeed.

 

(Next up: Why I love Middle Grade books. Stay tuned.)

PSA: Do not hire these children. At least not as party-planners.

Fun fact: I turn forty on Saturday. I am ridiculously excited about it.

Really, it’s kind of silly for me to be excited at all, given that I’ve been telling people that I’m forty for the last eight years. I figured, at thirty-two, with three kids and a dog and a minivan and a house and a community garden plot, that it didn’t matter what age I told people I was. They’d hear forty no matter what I said. So I thought I’d just beat them to the punch. So one would think, given that situation, that my upcoming foray into forty would seem somewhat anticlimactic. But one would think wrong.

I am crazy-thrilled to be forty. I want to give forty a big, wet kiss. I want to take it places and buy it pretty baubles and romance its panties off. I want to take forty home and introduce her to Mother. I want to eat forty chocolates and drink forty sips of wine and run forty miles and catch forty winks and dream forty dreams.

And yet, I’ve made no plans. Because I stink at making plans. So I put it to my kids. This was our conversation:

ME: So. It’s my birthday on Saturday.

THE KIDS: It is? But we’re not ready!

ME: There’s nothing to be ready about. We’re just going to hang out.

CORDELIA: Mom. What do you want for your birthday? And don’t say socks.

ME: Socks.

CORDELIA: MOM!

(All I ever want is socks. Wool stripey socks. And I never get them.)

ME: But we should do something fun. What should we do?

LEO: I know! Skyzone!

(Do you guys know Skyzone? It’s a huge concrete bunker filled with trampolines, and Leo wants to live there. Here’s a picture:

ME: We are not going to Skyzone.

LEO: Is that because you hate fun?

ELLA: We have to do something that mom likes to do.

CORDELIA: What does mom like to do?

LEO: Grocery shop?

CORDELIA: LET’S GO GROCERY SHOPPING!

ME: We are not going grocery shopping.

ELLA: Are you going to make us clean?

CORDELIA: I hate cleaning.

ELLA: It’s decided. No cleaning on birthdays.

LEO: Mom. I got it. The water park. It’s perfect.

ME: Nah.

LEO: WHY NOT?

ME: Too much man-sweat and back-tats.

LEO: I don’t even know what that means. You’re not making sense.

ELLA: You guys are terrible at this game.

CORDELIA: WE CAN GO TO THE CRAFT STORE AND YOU CAN BUY US THINGS!

LEO: That’s not as fun as a trampoline.

ELLA: Everything is more fun than a trampoline.

CORDELIA: Let’s go to the Mall of America! And shop!

LEO AND ELLA: MOM HATES THE MALL OF AMERICA AND SHOPPING.

ELLA: And probably America. Mom is a communist.

ME: I prefer “pinko”.

LEO: Mom. Just tell us.

And so I considered.

ME: I know. Let’s go to the book store. And then the sock store. How’s that?

My children shook their heads slowly, long-suffering expressions marring their beautiful faces.

ELLA: Oh, mom.

CORDELIA: Poor, poor mom.

LEO: You really stink at having a birthday.

But they are wrong. I am rocking this thing already.

“The wrong boy lived.”

I participated in a reading not too long ago. And there’s video evidence!

Now, in my defense, I was just fresh out of urgent care (I developed a nasty reaction to a vaccination and was in considerable pain), so I was rushing a bit. Okay, a lot. Also there’s quite a bit of background noise. Still. Here is me, reading the first two chapters of The Witch’s Boy.