2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 37,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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I Never Understood Why My Mom Was Crazy During the Holidays Until I Became a Crazy Mom During the Holidays

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Like many people, I do not choose to engage in the annual spending orgy of Black Friday, opting instead to celebrate Buy Nothing Day on the Friday after Thanksgiving. And I recommend it, really – spending the day going on a long, foresty hike with loved ones as we vainly attempt to walk off the over-eating of the day before. And puzzles. And leftovers. And more puzzles. Always a good time. Also, it’s good for me to take a breather in the midst of holiday madness.

Because, this time of year, and every year, I go mad. Completely, totally, bonkers, bananas, loony-toons, cookoo-for-cocopuffs,  both Hatter and March Hare, mad. And, if I was a betting man (or, in my case, woman), I’d wager that you do too. And it isn’t your fault. It’s the damn holidays.

The holidays are crazy-making. The expectations. The lunatic scheduling. The jittery children. The lists. The shopping. The cupon-cutting. The oppressive darkness. The cold. The near-constant phone calls. And the pressure on parents (and perhaps it’s unfair of me to assume that the pressure is worse on moms. It feels to me like it is, but since I am not a dad, and because the dad in my familial context is the coolest of cool cucumbers, it is difficult for me to say) to make things just so. To make things perfect. We become the guardians of the happiness of every person on earth, and god help us if we fail.

Instead of the normal shopping-tastic Black Friday with its door-busters and Walmart fistfights and television sets for pennies on the dollar and whatever, I have in its place, every year, my own personal Black Friday. My Black Friday is far worse than everyone else’s. I’m not saying that to brag. It’s just the truth. It begins the night after Thanksgiving. And it happens in my dreams.

This is my Holiday Mom Black Friday Anxiety Dream:

I wake up in my bed because of the thunder of feet as my children stampede into my bedroom. (Now, if I ever attain the gift of lucidity while dreaming, this should be my first inkling that I am, in fact, dreaming. My daughters haven’t woken up earlier than me since they were five. Leo, my son, still does wake up early – usually around six or six thirty in the morning, but he never comes into my room. Instead, he goes downstairs and puts water in the electric kettle and puts a tea bag in my favorite mug and either plays his ipod or draws until someone comes down and hangs out with him. And by “someone”, I mean me.) (Also, I should know I’m dreaming because my kids are filling the room. I only have three. And while it often feels like there are masses of them – like I am Girl Genghis Khan, mothering my massive Mongol Horde – I do understand that this is only a stress-induced perception augmentation. In my dream, however, I did not have three children. I have hundreds. Hundreds. And I truly love them all.)

“Mom!” my hundreds of children cry. “Mom! Mom! Mom!”

“What!” I say, wrenching myself out of sleep. I rub my eyes and smile.

“Can you believe it’s Christmas already?” my hundreds of children sigh.”Isn’t that wonderful?”

At this I leap out of bed, my mind and body racing. Christmas? I think in a panicked blur. Christmas already? I’m not ready! I don’t have a tree! I haven’t decorated! I haven’t made the Christmas cards! I haven’t bought any presents! There is nothing for Christmas breakfast! Or dinner! And oh god oh god oh god! I am out of milk!

It’s the milk that gets me every time. Because if there is no milk, then we can have no tea. And if there is no tea, then the thin threads tethering my mind to any semblance of sanity sever one by one.

This is where I wake up, dripping with sweat. This happens every night. Every single night. Starting the night after Thanksgiving and lasting until Christmas morning.

And I think about famous holiday anxiety dreams – Joseph seeing the possible stoning of Mary and having an angel give him what-for, or Ebenezer Scrooge and his three ghosts – and I start to feel anxious about my anxiety dreams. Because at least those guys had dreams that did something. Safeguarding the childhood of the Lord, for example. Or giving an old geezer his heart back. But what do my dreams do? Besides making me into some kind of Mother Goddess, which, frankly is not that bad. I wouldn’t mind mothering a horde, if truth be told. Still, this dream gives me no insight, no perspective, no world-saving change. It just makes me crazy.

And it’s too bad, because this season is wonderful. We are pink-cheeked and singing. We are thinking of the people who matter to us and wondering what would make them happy. We are spending more time at church, at one another’s houses. We are paying attention to snowflakes and the scent of pine and cookie recipes. We are lighting candles. We are making things. Perhaps I am waking up too early from my dream. Perhaps, in my anxiousness, I’m not asking the fundamental next question. “So what?” I should be asking. And then I should hug my kids.

To the rest of you moms and dads who are, right now, hanging onto your sanity by your fingernails, I raise my glass to you. May your goblets flow with wine, and may you be given chocolate for every meal. May your days be filled with sweetness and your nights be filled with song. And may you, in this most blessed of seasons, be filled with light: light that conquers darkness; light that vanquishes misunderstanding or division or despair; light that is conceived, gestated and born, again and again, into our arms. Happy Holidays, my dears. To all of you.

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Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers

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Oh, Ada! Poetical Scientist, Metaphysical Analyst and genius of Mathematical Arts. Mother of programmers. Midwife of computers everywhere. Daughter of a libertine poet and a self-centered socialite/ strict moralist (depending on the day), little Ada proved once and for all that a person can grow and thrive and wonder and create glittering futures despite the inconvenience of sub-standard parents.

After Lord Byron abandoned his family, and Annabella Millbanke abandoned little Ada into the arms of her doting grandmother and a squadron of tutors, Ada grew up curious and intellectually ravenous. Her mother, seeing the ravages of poetry (and laudanum) on her ex-husband, decreed that Ada’s mind would be unpoisoned by romantic excess, and would, instead, be guided by mathematics and science, and filled the halls of the old family home with the best tutors that money could buy.

When she was twelve years old, she decided that she would learn how to fly. She constructed wings out of silk and paper and wire and feathers. She composed a book called Flyology, documenting her theories of human flight, her study of birds, her analysis of the tools she’d need to make a journey across the country by the most direct of routes.

When she was seventeen years old, she fell in love with her tutor, and attempted an elopement. This was thwarted by a cadre of her mother’s friends and relatives – women she referred to as “The Furies”.

When she was eighteen, she made her debut and dazzled society with her beauty, intellect and charm.

When she was twenty, she was married – though not without scandal. She enjoyed a relaxed enjoyment of her own sexuality, and had several lovers outside of her marriage, much to the shock of people around her. Their shock didn’t seemed to bother her much, and did nothing to dissuade her.

She loved the integration of mathematics with the imagination, and often saw science and poetry as being inextricably linked. She felt that differential calculus was, in its foundation, poetical in nature. She wrote:

I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar.

She loved the world, both the seen and the unseen, and valued imagination and intuition as highly as she valued computation and analysis.

She loved to gamble – the challenge, the reward, the complex analytical and mathematical computations necessary to do well. She attempted to create a mathematical model that would allow her to reduce her risk in placing extremely large bets. Unfortunately, the model was not successful, and a shame-faced Ada was forced to admit to her husband the vast fortune that she had just lost.

When she was twenty-nine, thanks to her new interest in electricity, magnetism and phrenology, she attempted to create a mathematical model for the working of the emotional mind – “a calculous for the nervous system.”

In 1833, she met Charles Babbage and saw his Difference Engine – the world’s first automatic calculator, and saw his plans for the Analytical Engine – the world’s first computer.. The two became instant friends, and were both highly enamored of the other’s intellectual prowess. They spent hours and hours on long walks discussing mathematics, and even longer hours writing letters back and forth, discussing theory and ideas. In a letter, Mr. Babbage wrote of her:

“Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans—every thing in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”

Though the Analytical Engine was years away from production, Ada was deeply involved in the development of the design, and wrote extensive and sophisticated analyses of the potential applications of the invention. She wrote the programs to demonstrate what the machine could do, going beyond even Babbage’s limited ideas. Not only was she able to see the implications of the machine, she was able to postulate further modifications and advancement. She was, undeniably, the prophet of the computer age.

Happy Birthday, dear Ada. I write these words on a computer, and am sending it to a massive network of computers so it may be read on still other computers. We would not be here without you.

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Items of note:

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Today, once I usher my children off to school (by car, by train, by school bus; but none, unfortunately, by flock of birds, which is a shame, because that would be a fine, fine way to go to school), I shall be initiating my trusty old Mac Freedom and letting the internets go dark for a bit. (If you are a writer, then you probably already know about these internet-busting tools, likely you use them all the time. If you are not, then you are likely mystified by them. My darling husband, for example, has no idea why such a thing would be necessary. “Why,” he asks, “would you buy a thing to make the other thing that you bought not work according to the specs that you claimed you wanted in the store? It makes no sense.” Perhaps, my darling. But neither does making a living telling stories, and I do that now don’t I.) But before I do, I have some things to share:

  1. I have an essay running today called “Strange Birds”, over at Nerdy Book Club. If you have a moment,  I’d love to know what you think of it.
  2. The Witch’s Boy has been out for quite a bit now, but I am still getting nice reviews. Here, for example. And here, and here, and here.
  3. And it’s list season. My book has been kindly named on Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2014, as well as “best-of-the-year” lists from Kirkus and Amazon.
  4. As I have mentioned here before, I will be co-hosting The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival on February 28. And if you are a film-making-kid, or you are a teacher helping kids do this for a project, and you were worried about the looming deadline to turn in your AMAZING book trailer of a Newbery-winning book, WORRY NO MORE! The deadline has been extended to January 16! So, for those of you who can do math, that means that you have . . . well. Some days. And an entire Christmas Vacation. So, get cracking!

And that’s it. And now I must return to the stories roosting in my mind – that great squawking, preening, cooing, fluttering flock. Perhaps they will peck out my heart. Or perhaps they will fly me into the stars. Really, at this point, it could go either way.

Some Reasons Why I do This Job.

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Look. This job is hard sometimes. Or maybe all the time. The crushing self-doubt. The fear of disappointing people. The yawning mouth of ambivalence, swallowing you whole. The financial worries. The lack of stability. The deadlines. The atrocious posture (and don’t even get me started on my chewed-up nails). The ever-growing list of ways and means and rubrics by which one can fail. Or have failed. Or will have failed forever. Yes, I get to make my own hours. Yes, I get to work from my comfortable home office while keeping company with my geriatric and anxiety-prone dog. Yes, I can go hours and hours in blissful silence. Still. This job is hard. And sometimes it weighs on me.

I had a conversation with one of the kids at the Lego tournament yesterday. She’s on one of the few girls from our school involved in First LEGO League, and even though she’s not in my particular team, she always likes to keep me looped in on her comings and/or goings.

She also likes to tell me – each time we talk – that she liked Iron Hearted Violet. A lot. So of course, I love her to pieces.

Yesterday, during some down time, she asked this question: “Do you think I should be a writer when I grow up?”

And I, being as I have been lately, in a bit of a trough, self-effacacy-wise, gave her what I thought was very sagely advice: “You know, honey,” I said. “My job kind of stinks sometimes. Or most of the time. I think you should pick a better job when you grow up. Like being a CEO. Or possibly ruling the world. Or being a CEO who secretly rules the world. There are lots of options.”

She gave me a skeptical look. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “I think you are not telling very much truth right now,” she said.

“I am telling so much truth right now,” I responded. “I am the truthiest dang thing you ever saw.”

“Your job can’t always stink. There must be some good parts in it.”

“It is true that I get to drink a lot of hot cocoa,” I allowed.

“See?” She said. And she looked so smug about it that I followed with:

“BUT! Every day I look at the same bit of writing. And I think to myself this may be good and it may be terrible and I have no way of knowing either way. And the worst part is that most of the time it is terrible. Like ALMOST ALL THE TIME. And that’s necessary. You have to write the terrible stuff in order to get to the good stuff. But that means that you spend a lot of time – oh, honey! so much time! – writing really, really, really, really terrible sentences. And it weighs on a person, you know?”

She shook her head. “It’s not that terrible.”

“Oh yes,” I said. “It is.”

But she wasn’t having it. “What is in your book right now?”

“A dragon,” I said. And, in spite of myself, I smiled. “A very, very small dragon that can fit in your pocket. He is a particular breed, called Perfectly Tiny Dragons, and while they are a noble breed with a long and glorious history, this particular dragon suffers from delusions of grandeur, and thinks that he is not Perfectly Tiny at all, but is, in fact, a Simply Enormous Dragon, and is surrounded by giants. He is also a fraidy cat, and often accidentally burps fire when he eats spicy foods.”

She crossed her arms. She is a straight-A fifth grader who likes to make jokes with Latin punchlines. She also REALLY enjoys being right. “There. You see? That part is good. What else?”

And so I started telling her the story of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the book that is, right now, kicking me squarely in the behind, and being much more troublesome to pin to the page than I originally thought. Being sick for the entire month of November didn’t help, of course. But I’m so glad I had this conversation, because it made me realize something.

  1. This job is hard – of course, we already established that.
  2. Sometimes, it is easier than it should be to conflate my stress about a project with the project itself. In other words, my feelings of stress and anticipatory failure and woe-is-me-I’ll-never-get-it-right often have nothing whatsoever to do with the story itself. Or the words themselves. Or the sum of the sentences. It’s just really only how I’m feeling about me. And that’s troubling (and probably worth some more work along the way) but it is separate from the work. And that’s important to realize.
  3. Even when this job sucks (which is pretty often) it’s still pretty awesome.

And so, with this conversation in mind, I started making a list. If you are a children’s author, please feel free to add to it. If you are something else, send me a list specific to your profession.

REASONS WHY I DO THIS JOB

by Kelly Barnhill

  1. I have a desk covered in post-it notes. They say things like: “Dragon Digestive Systems: important?”, or “If a Sorrow Eater became a glutton for sorrow, would she have particularities and predilections in the type of sorrow she prefers? Would sorrow be like fine wine, with quality determined by region and soil and what have you?”, or “Research question: what kind of poisons are undetectable in tea?”
  2. I get to write stories with dragons in them. And with sasquatches in them. And swamp monsters and witches and possibly-sinister alchemists and firebirds who come to the rescue in the nick of time. I get to write about magic. Or sometimes I write about the real world and it feels like magic. Or I write about magic and it feels like the real world. I enjoy these things.
  3. I read things out loud. All the time. In the quiet of my house. And I belt it out. No other job would let me do that – except audiobook actor, but I think I would go mad inside a sound studio. This is better.
  4. Last week, I walked across my living room and dining room floor, pretending I was a six-limbed, large tailed swamp monster. I tried to make a muscle memory of how he would amble about – his slow-moving self. I don’t think there are any other jobs where this sort of activity ever feels somewhat necessary.
  5. My job allows me to have lots and lots of conversations with kids. They send me emails, or I talk to their classes and reading groups on Skype, or I visit their classrooms – sometimes I stay for a whole week! I like hanging out with kids. I find them delightful.
  6. When I talk to kids, and they know what I do – and they know that my work is for them – they assume that I like the same things that they like and they strike up all kinds of conversations with me. And they are right – I do like what they like.
  7. I truly believe – in my bones – that, in the life and development of a child, books matter. Stories matter. The conversations that we have around books and stories matter. Imagination matters. Play matters. And that they all are linked. We are in the business of building the structures of Mind that will shelter our readers now and in the future. We are in the business of making the maps to help to navigate their way. We are in the business of building the metaphors through which our readers will one day understand the world. Now, whether or not my books, in particular, matter is an open question. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. That’s not for me to say. However, I like being part of an industry that is making things that matter. I like raising my voice for other books, by other people, that matter to me, and matter to my kids, and matter to the kids that I know. For all of us working in the field of children’s literature, there is, deep in our souls, the immutable fire of the True Believer. We are all, when it comes down to it, Literacy Evangelists, doing our part to bring the miracle of reading to children everywhere. We are preachers, prophets, and literary church ladies with tote bag full of books slung over one arm, and several pans of casserole and jello salad balanced on the other. We invite all, accept all, and embrace all. “A book for you,” we cry out to the world. “A book for you, and you, and you, and you.” And we mean it, too.
  8. I don’t just write for my readers – I write for me, too. And not just this me – the forty-one-year-old lady with three kids and a nice husband and a mortgage and a crummy minivan and a favorite pair of wool socks – I write for the other me, as well. The eleven year old me. The thirteen year old me. The me that I was. I write for her too. I write for her mostly, if you must know. Because I think my stories can help her. And I think my stories would make sense for her – and would help her make sense of the world. And I like helping.
  9. Words are good. Stories are good. Books are good. Okay fine. I guess I like my job.

3, 2, 1, LEGO!

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It’s go time in Legosvile. I’ve been coaching the Magnum Mindstorms since the first week of school, and I love them all. They are all the most magnificent nerds. In the last ten minutes, the conversation has ranged from Minecraft to Greek Mythology to the problem of rusty dust on Mars to who wants to live on Mars to lame jokes with Latin punchlines.

But there is something about the competition – how it gets them to come together as a team; how it completely reframes the exerience of the last few months; how they see themselves in the context of this larger group of school kids, both challenging and encouraging each other to bring their best, best selves into the competition. Each one of them is shiny and bouyant and brilliant.

Each blessed one.

The Hard Stuff – privilege, systemic racism, state-sanctioned violence, the subversive nature of hope, and how I talk about it with my kids.

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Last week, I was talking to the boys in the Lego Robotics team that I’m coaching, and they brought up the heartbreakingly sad story of the twelve year old child in Cleveland who was shot by police. My team – all good boys, ages 10-12 – were visibly shaken up by this. Especially the twelve year olds. They wanted to know what I knew, what details that had eluded them before. They wanted to understand. I hesitated for a moment. After all, these are not my children, and I have no idea how these topics are handled in their families. I know how we, in my family, talk about issues of racism and privilege and the duty of the individual to seek justice – which is to say frankly and clearly and in ways that they can understand – but these kids are under the care of other grownups. And so I hesitated.

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And then one boy, also twelve (and he is a little thing – small arms, spindly legs, a mop of red hair exploding out of his head) said this, “Could this ever happen to me? I have toy guns. Will a police officer kill me too?”

And he looked at me. And he wanted me to tell him the truth. He needed me to tell him the truth. So I did.

“No, sweetheart,” I said. “That is not something that would happen to you. This is what white privilege means – you will never, ever in your life, have to face what that boy faced. Years of unfairness has made a situation in which some people privileged to be safe and some are not.  You didn’t ask for it, but you need to understand it. It is your privilege to be angry, and it is your duty to be angry, too. That boy died because of racism, pure and simple. And it’s up to all of us to make the world more compassionate and sensible.”

And then we built robots out of Legos.

And I felt okay answering like that, because it is how I would answer my son, had he asked it (indeed, he was standing right there, listening intently), and it is how I would hope another adult would answer him as well.

It’s important to talk about the nature of privilege in a society that offers certain privileges to certain people and denies them to others. It is particularly important to talk about these things with children. Children care – and they care a lot – about fairness. About telling the truth. They care about justice and kindness and playing by the rules. When they are exposed to information – as they doubtless are right now – that is teaching them, right now, that some people are protected by law enforcement, and some simply are not, and we do not counteract that lesson with a “Yes, but….” or a “I know that’s unfair, but this is how we change it,” or a, “Good observation; now tell me why you think that is,” we are teaching our kids something very specific: that some topics are off-limits; that when wicked people come for your neighbors, it’s best to say nothing.

In my family, I choose a different path.

I talk about privilege with my kids. Their privilege. My privilege. My husband’s privilege. The aspects that are different and the aspects that are the same.  I tell them that there the things that our culture makes easy for us are difficult for us to see. When we can understand the fact that roadblocks are set up for some and cleared away for others, we can use our collective voice and our relative freedom of movement to make things more fair for everyone.

When I talk about privilege, I also talk about what privilege is not. Privilege does not mean everything is easy and fancy-free and peeled grapes served on silver dishes and house elves that do all the washing. Privilege does not mean a lack of experience – though it does mean different experiences. Privilege does not mean racist – though certainly there are privileged people who are. Privilege is not a term of derision; it is simply a statement of fact.

And the fact is, my kids are privileged. Very much so. I mean, sure, their artisty parents sometimes struggle to pay the mortgage and we don’t have house cleaners or personal assistants or consistently working cars or whatever else rich people have in their houses and family situations. But they are white in a country that gives all kinds of free passes to white people, and they are the kids of an intact family unit in a country where that kind of thing matters more than it should, and they are the children of college educated parents who themselves are the children of college educated parents. And that makes a HUGE difference.

I talk about privilege not so that they have to apologize for their own experience – no one does. But rather, because I want to enlarge their understanding of the world around them so that they may better participate and know and love the whole human family. Privilege separates us. It insulates us from the pain of knowledge. It hides important facts, and alters our ability to analyze and understand even the most basic situations around us. It numbs us to the transformative power of empathy. And it prevents us from entering into true relationship with the larger human family.

(And, of course the Catholic in me sees another thing. We are many parts, but we are all one body. I am connected to you, and you, and you, and you, and you – bright beads on an endless string. You are my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my child, and I am yours.)

The human person – regardless of where he or she falls in the cultural sphere – is in a state of constant change. To be human is to be in flux. We go from weakness to strength to weakness to strength to decay and dissolution. Our time on this planet is brief, and yet our expectations are enormous. When we recognize the humanity in another person – when we accept that humanity in a state of empathy and relationship and connection – when we choose to see the world as they see it and experience things as they experience – we enlarge ourselves. We enlarge our hearts. We enlarge our capacity for justice and kindness and goodness. We become that which has the potential heal the broken heart of the world.

When I talk to my kids about privilege, this is the lesson that I give them: “When someone points out your privilege to you – and believe me, this is going to happen a lot – there is only one proper, appropriate response: you say, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ Because that person has just opened your eyes to a thing that had been hidden from you. That person trusted you enough to believe that you were a good and compassionate person and would understand. That person just opened a door for you to allow you to be a more complete member of the human family. That person just did you the hugest favor ever. Don’t blow it.”

Racism exists. Privilege exists. Police brutality exists. Unfairness exists. Systemic bias exists. And these things cannot be fixed unless we talk about them. Name them. Create strategies to combat them. And sometimes take to the streets. Our great nation was founded, after all, by political protesters and those who engaged in civil disobedience. It is part of our DNA as Americans. And it gets things done.  (This is another thing that I tell my kids.)

“The main thing,” I told them yesterday, as we looked through the photographs of the protests around the country, “is that evil persists in silent places. Evil loves fear and disconnection. Evil loves thoughtlessness and selfishness and despair. Hope isn’t just important: it’s subversive. Hope speaks truth to power. Hope listens. Hope finds common ground. Hope puts other people’s needs before our own. Hope is generous. Hope is spouse of Justice. Pray that they have lots of children.”

These are trying times to be a parent. And yet. I continue to have faith and I continue to hope and I continue to love. And I am teaching my kids to do the same.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill – Review by Katherine Sokolowski

I ❤ the Nerdy Book Club. And not just because they liked my book. And not just because I love nerds and I love books. And clubs. Though all are true. I love them for millions of reasons. Millions and millions and millions. Hooray for children's literature, I say. Hooray forever.

Nerdy Book Club

IMG_3082When trying to describe The Witch’s Boy to my students, I was at a loss for words. I finally said, “Sometimes I don’t know how to describe the books that I love to read, but I know they will be magical from the moment I open them.” The Witch’s Boy was just that type of book, magical from the very first page.

 

Book talking this beautiful book for our Mock Newbery unit was easy. First, I held it up. Immediately students were drawn to the cover and recognized the illustrations as the work of Jon Klassen’s. Their first connection and already they were excited. Then, I began…

 

This is a hard book to describe. Kelly Barnhill has packed so much into this book. It is, at once, a fairy tale, a story of friendship, family, and coming of age. It is a hero’s journey, a quest, a battle…

View original post 617 more words

No One Will Ever Love You as Much as This Dog Loves You.

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Now, before I begin, and before any of you commence any kind of tear-eruptions, let me first just say that Harper, my one thousand year old dog, is perfectly fine. She’s old and creaky and slow and sleepy and arthritic and missing some teeth and sometimes she anxiety-pees on the floor, but other than that she’s doing great. I have to start out with this, because my dog is at an age (a thousand years will weigh heavily on anyone, after all) where people see me post about my dog and they instantly start sobbing because they assume that she is dead. She is not. We can all relax.

My dog loves all of us, but she loves my kids the most. She follows them with her eyes when they walk across the room. When they stand close to her, she closes her eyes and inhales. When they sit at the table, she shuffles between the chairs, finds a pair of feet to lay on, and, after the hard work of bending her old legs, lands upon a child’s slippers with a sigh.

She can’t climb up on the kids beds anymore (she was never allowed, never, but she did it anyway, usually at the request of a child who woke up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, and couldn’t get back to sleep) and I can tell she misses it. She makes her way up the stairs at night and worries at their doors until she nudges them open, and curls up in their rooms – all soft and damp from their open-mouthed breathing. She sighs when they sigh. She perks up her head when they talk in their sleep. She dreams in tandem with the kids she loves.

And she loves them. So much.

When my oldest was little, Harper – a sheepdog by nature – herded her like a lamb. I had moved from Portland to Minneapolis when I was pregnant with her, taking all of my last classes for my Masters in Education as Incompletes, and was desperately trying to finish my many, many papers to turn in for my degree so I could go back to work and support the family while my husband went back to school. And my daughter liked to crawl. A lot. And she was fast. And Harper kept her contained. She ran interference. She headed her off at the pass. And when my little sprogget pulled a fast one, Harper very gently grabbed her by the diaper and brought her back to me.

You remember Nana from Peter Pan. That is my dog.

When my middle child took her to the park behind our house and fell off out of a tree and sprained her ankle, Harper positioned herself right next to that crying girl and would not leave her side, and howled her head off until I heard and came running.

When my son was bitten in the face by another dog, Harper wouldn’t let him out of her sight for months after the incident. Even thought it happened in someone else’s house, something told me that Harper just couldn’t forgive herself. She kept herself pressed to Leo’s side, nudging his hands or his back or his tummy with her nose. She started following him from the computer to the bathroom to the lego room to the kitchen to his room to the back yard. Wherever Leo was, Harper was two steps away. Her ears were perked straight up. She was on the alert for danger.

No one’s hurting my boy, her ears said.

Lately, she’s been building kid-nests. She rotates which child she focuses on. Right now, it’s my son. She will gather the recently-worn clothing of whichever child she’s nesting with. She finds stinky socks and uniform pants and cast-off shirts. Sweaters. Winter hats. Anything that smells like her kids. Fortunately for her, my kids are slobs and leave their clothing strewn about their rooms until I go ballistic and make them tidy up. But lately, I’ve been slower to do so. Because of Harper.

The kids don’t understand what she’s doing.

“Harper!” they admonish. “I was going to wear that sweater!”

“Harper!” they moan. “Not my coat!”

Harper thumps her tail on the ground. Each thump means I love you.

“Harper, did you steal my socks?”

Thump, thump, thump. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“Harper, how on earth did you get my pillow case off my pillow?”

Thump, thump, thump. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Her eyes are watery and dim. She makes a groaning sound when she tries to focus. She closes her eyes and flares her nostrils, seeing them more clearly.

“She’s doing this to feel closer to you,” I explain. “She can’t see you very well, and she can’t hear you very well, but she can smell you like you can’t even imagine.”

“Ew,” the kids say, even as they crouch down and lay with Harper on the nest. “It’s not polite to just go smelling people,” they murmur in her ears. Harper closes her eyes and sighs.

“It is if you’re a dog. It’s the most polite and loving thing for her. You know I love you and you know your Dad loves you, but nobody loves you like that dog loves you. Her love is the stars and the moon. It is all matter in the Universe. It is all Universes beyond. It is infinity to the infinity power. That’s how much that dog loves you.”

“That’s how much I love her too,” my kids whisper into her stinky fur. And they mean it, too.

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All Giraffes Are Blind. So Are Elephants.

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Parenting, at its core, is the process of surrealistic integration and magical thinking. We don’t notice it after a while. We start to accept the odd logic in our kids’ thinking without questioning it. We accept that square ice cubes are spicier than rectangular ice cubes and that all dogs are boys and all cats are girls and that a tiger lives in the keyhole which is why we have to cover it with tape and that blue sweaters are less itchy than red sweaters because they are blue.

“All giraffes are blind,” my daughter said to her cousin over Thanksgiving break. They were in the pool. They had already had a long conversation about a particular breed of freshwater squid who live in pools who live on a diet exclusively of chlorine and swimming suit bottoms. They tickle your toes and steal your water polo balls and disappear, snickering, down the drain.

“All giraffes are blind,” she said again. “So are elephants.”

“Well,” her cousin said, “at least the elephants are nice about it.”

I was sitting in the sun, letting the heat warm me through, baking my bones. It has been a cold November. Oppressively cold. But we were in Florida for the holiday, visiting the grandparents. Florida is a surreal place. Kind of like childhood. The sun is warm but the floor is cold, and people wear sunglasses indoors and have slippers on their feet and bare skin on their arms. The air smells of salt and swamp. Their bugs are larger than their lapdogs. Their cars are driven as though physics does not exist. And giraffes are blind. So are elephants.

And elephants are nicer than giraffes. This is common knowledge, apparently. I accepted it without hesitation.

Elephants, I have learned, enjoy tap dancing and fine perfumes and velvet waistcoats. They are excessively polite. Indeed, more than half of the books ever written on the subject of etiquette was actually written by an elephant. They are highly considerate of the feelings of others and their hearts break easily when they discover they have accidentally caused offense. They always use the correct fork; they never forget a napkin; and they have never neglected to say please and thank you. It was pointed out – I don’t know which swimmer made this assertion, but it was accepted by the group – that elephants, for their part, are aware that their limited visual perception combined with their massive size, can pose to be a bit of a problem. This is one of the reasons why they are so incredibly polite. They will always ask if there is something or someone in their path that they might accidentally trod upon.

“Pardon me,” the elephants say, “but are there any bunny rabbits or butterflies or priceless artifacts along this hallway? It is late, and past my bedtime, and I do not want to tip over a vase or crush a grandmother in a doorway as I make my way toward my jammies.”

They use their great trunks to find their way. They walk delicately, as though they were made of tulip petals. Elephants are experts at making do.

“It’s similar with whales,” my daughter said. “They cannot speak. So they speak in bubbles instead. Their bubbles are like braille. Five bubbles means ‘please pass the sugar’. Twenty bubbles means ‘I love you’.”

“But giraffes,” it was asserted. “They are the biggest jerks.”

“Get out of my way,” say the giraffes. They stumble through tangles of trees, using their necks like whips. Or not whips. What are those weapons – the ones with the stick and the ball with spikes and a chain connecting the two. A flail. This is what giraffes do. They flail. What a bunch of meanies.

“Excuse you,” snort the giraffes. “Learn to watch your step. didn’t break it; you broke it, dummy.  Get out of my way. Oh, look, a very hard object on a very long string just socked you in the guts. Sucks to be you.”

Giraffes,” my niece muttered. “They are the worst.”

“I’d much rather be friends with an elephant.”

“Or an alligator.”

Alligators, as it turns out, are misunderstood creatures, and easily maligned, due to their powerful jaws and their impressive teeth – neither of which they asked for or particularly wanted. They also, interestingly, have no sense of smell. They never mention this, and do their best to fake it.

“My my,” an alligator will say upon entering a home, on those rare cases when he or she is invited for dinner. “What a delightful aroma. Please, you must share the recipe with me.”

Alligators make highly tolerant friends. Because they themselves face daily bigotry on account of their their unfortunate appearance, they live their lives free of judgement or bias. It is not what you look like that they care about, but what you are like. They are only interested in the soul. They will love you implicitly.

They will also never notice your body odor, due to their olfactory deficiency. This can be useful in Florida. Everyone sweats in Florida. The entire state is an assault upon the nose.

“I would totally be friends with an elephant. And definitely an alligator. But never a giraffe.”

“Totally. Giraffes are off the Christmas list. In fact, I don’t think they’ve ever been on it.”