In Which I Take a Hiatus From the Hiatus In Order to Talk About Nerd Camp

Matilda-1-632x362

So. This blog. It’s been . . . well. It’s been a while. And maybe I’m ready to start blogging again, and maybe I’m not. I haven’t decided. In any case there was a thing I wanted to talk about – an experience that was too large, for me, and too nuanced to possibly fit into a tweet or any kind of social media post – and I figured, instead of talking about it, I should blog about it, and then I thought I should seriously consider starting a blog, completely forgetting that I already have one, and have just been giving it the cold shoulder. For months. Because I am a dork. And an ignorer. Well. Here I am. I’m back.

To talk about Nerd Camp.

But before I do, here are some quick updates on me, for those of you who were followers before:

  1. As you know my beloved dog, Harper, passed away. (I had written about her extensively over the years. Here, here, here, and here. Just to name a few.) What you may not know is that, while on our way to the zoo last October, my children cajoled me to stop at the Humane Society to “say hi to the dogs”, and we came home with a puppy. Never made it to the zoo. His name is Sirius Black, and he is marvelous. (My Instagram handle is insufferable_blabbermouth, if you’re interested in seeing pictures.)
  2. I have a new book! With pretty covers! And it’s been getting, like, stars and stuff! It’s called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and you can read reviews about it if you want to. (Linked here are the starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist and PW, as well as the nicest review I’ve ever gotten in my life from Shelf Awareness.) Comes out in August. Having a book come out is stressful. So. Stressful. Maybe I should blog about it.
  3. And another book – this one a novella! For grownups! And it is, shockingly, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award! *faints* It’s called The Unlicensed Magicianand it came out in January, and it also has pretty covers and pretty endpapers and pretty pages and is just as pretty as can be. And a finalist for a fancy award, like a fancypants. Fly, my little book! Fly like the wind!
  4. College. Holy crap. My oldest is applying for college. It literally made me bleed just to write that. My soul is bleeding. And it’s stressful and thrilling and mournful and exciting and scary and joyful and terrifying and sometimes makes me want to barf.

Okay. That’s enough updates. Now on to Nerd Camp.

I had been hearing about this whole Nerd Camp business through the infinite tendrils of the Twitter Grapevine for a couple years now – often in the hushed voices of the passionate Literacy Evangelists preaching the Truth about Books and Building Joyful Readers and Finding the Right Book For the Right Kid at the Right Time, and warning darkly against the wicked temptations of Leveling and Reading Logs and Standardized Tests and other things that kill a kid’s love of reading forever. (I realize that I probably sound facetious here, but I swear I’m sincere. I am exactly on the same page as these folks, and have blogged as much: here, here, here and especially here.)

Back when I was a teacher, I was a big believer in free-range reading. I insisted that my seventh graders read widely and often, and instead of soul-killing reading logs or book reports, had them engage with their reading in creative ways – art, performance, discussion, creative writing and fan fiction. One kid even wrote a song. I would take them to the library every other week and tell them to go nuts, and then I’d flit from group to group, ghosting into their conversations, making subtle suggestions and sly whispers. Try Watership Down, I’d murmur. Or Holes. Or Harry Potter. Or Watsons Go to Birmingham. I’d hide behind stacks or lurk behind tables. Ever heard of Octavia Butler? You’d like her. How about these rad books by Terry Pratchett. My voice was light as feathers. I think you’d dig House on Mango Street, I’d say to no one in particular. It was important to me that my seventh graders were deep readers, wide readers. I told them that a book wasn’t just a book: a book was a conversation. Not only that, a book was a multi-level and multi-dimentional conversation: it was a conversation between author and reader, between character and reader, between itself and other books, between itself at the beginning and itself at the end, and between itself and the world. A book was more than the sum of its pages: all books – all stories – are infinite. As infinite as worlds.

I didn’t last in teaching. I tell people that it was too hard starting out at the time I was, with the near-constant layoffs and the grim reality of having to start mid-stream every year in a different building, all while having small children at home, and the disruption was too much. That was true, but that’s not the whole story. I left because of the testing regime. And the soullessness of reducing books to lexile scales and AR numbers. Of constantly assessing kids and reducing them to their level”, their “score”, their “number”. Removing the joy from the relationship between student and story – indeed, removing the relationship at all. You can’t have a relationship with a test score. You can’t have a relationship with an assignment. You can’t have a relationship with a log or an assessment or a data point. And in the end, I just couldn’t bear it.

I couldn’t figure out how to build readers when their tests were constantly tearing them down.  I couldn’t figure out how to foster relationships, when so much of what I was getting from my district was so contrary to what I knew was true. How could I have a “data driven classroom”, when I wasn’t teaching data: I was teaching children? Honestly, I’m so amazed at the teachers who have been able to hold onto the practice that they know is best for their kids, the practice that they were trained to implement, despite those outsized, outside pressures.

Later on, as a parent, I got into a real drag-out fight with my son’s school over their SRA reading curriculum. Instead of reading Caldecott and Newbery books, he was instead forced to read dull, plodding pre-packaged reading scripts, stylus in hand, pointing to each word as he read it out loud. At home he was reading Holes and Wrinkle in Time and Little House on the Prairie. At school, he was reading texts so dull they made him cry.  Over and over and over again. “Read it until it’s perfect,” they said to my boy who was constantly swapping dull words with more interesting synonyms to jazz it up a bit. But each time he deviated, he couldn’t “progress”, and he was stuck on the same lesson, over and over and over again. Sometimes for weeks. This is what happens when we value curriculum over children. And even though I was able to get him moved to a more interesting class, the weeks of languish left a mark. He lost his joy of reading. And it has not come back.

Coming to Nerd Camp, listening to Donalyn Miller and Kathy Burnette and Colby Sharp and Pernille Rip speak the truth about the power of books in the lives of kids, and the joy that kids feel when they can be a part of a community of books, and the transformative power of language and story and art. Well. It was like coming to the homeland that I had always longed for, but had never found. Or like arriving at the Mothership. Or finding the Spring of Truth and Righteousness. And honestly, it was amazing, in this age of monetization of education, of the systematic deprofessionalization of teachers and librarians by soulless bean-counters and data-worshipers, and of the cynical ploy of big companies to sell districts on pre-made curricula, completely ignoring the fact that great teaching is, in its heart, relational, that there could be this many people willing to come all the way to Parma, MI, to connect with one another and collaborate, swap ideas, and commune with books.

At Nerd Camp, every book is an opportunity for connection and transformation.

At Nerd Camp, every child has the fundamental right to be able to see themselves in books, as well as knowing other through books.

At Nerd Camp, books are not passive; they are active members of a classroom community. They are conduits of radical empathy. They are the catalyst for kids to find their voices, and to speak loud.

This is true everywhere, of course, but there is something magic when two thousand people come together and say YES, books matter. And YES, readers matter. And YES, books must be brave and readers must be brave and authors must be brave and teachers must be brave and librarians – above all – must be brave. It is an act of bravery to read a book and to write a book. It’s an act of bravery to stand up for a controversial book. It is an act of bravery to shelve a book in your classroom or library, knowing that there might be someone who thinks you should lose your job for it.

Literacy, in the end, is not a coward’s game. Literacy, by its nature, is disruptive. It inspires social change. It broadens minds. It foments revolutions. Teach a kid to read and you can change their life. Inspire a kid to love to read, and you can change the world.

Thank you, Nerd Camp. And thank you, profoundly, my beloved fellow Nerds. Let’s go change the world, shall we?

Advertisements

In Which We Are All Terribly Busy

I’ve been going bananas lately. Teaching. Writing. Turning in books. Finishing other books. Starting other books. And a short story. And another short story. And another teaching gig. And volunteering at the school. And taxes. And de-cluttering. Homework. Planning next year’s classes. Summer camp sign-up. College classes sign-ups for my fifteen year old (I am already freaking out about this. My baby! Taking some kind of Math class that I have never even heard of! With college kids! I am dead with sorrow!).

But with all the comings and goings I have been a lazy blogger, which is very silly of me because I have news! Good news! And events coming up. So, let’s share, shall we?

1. Tonight! March 26! I’ll be at the Red Balloon with the other Minnesota Book Awards finalists. There will be wine! And snacks! And you should come.Screenshot 2015-03-26 11.21.57

2. Which reminds me! I am a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards! Or, I’m not, but my book is. I don’t think I’ll win it, but I do very much appreciate being on such a select list. We have a lot of children’s authors in this state, and an astonishing number of very, very excellent children’s authors. It’s the water. Or maybe it’s the winter. Or maybe the ground is magic here. In any case, to get on any list of Minnesota writers is a pretty sweet feeling, and I have been enjoying it immensely.

3. And another thing! I am this year’s recipient of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers of Children’s Literature. I am as astonished as you are. I am also incredibly grateful to my dear writer’s group who told me to stop being such a silly and apply already.

4. My novella! I wrote a novella called “The Unlicensed Magician” that seems to be headed for a June release from PS Publishing. Details are still fuzzy, but it was printed in Locus, which means it must be true! I’ll post links and information when I get it.

In the coming weeks I’ll be revising novels and teaching more and hiking into the forest with my kids and sleeping in old cabins and tree houses and possibly bear dens. I’ll be bracing myself for the onslaught of summer. I’ll be realizing that there aren’t many more summers before I start packing my children off to college, and I’ll be harpooned with grief. You know. Regular stuff.

 

Items of note:

thelittleprinceillustration

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.

letter-writing-vintage-photo

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.

The Sock Crisis

There was a time, in the Land of Barnhill, when socks flowed in abundance. They heaped and flowered and multiplied. They scattered across the wide family room floor like so much snow. We were buried in socks, awash in socks. Our cup of socks raneth over.

This sounds like an exaggeration, I know, but I swear it’s the truth. And what I am about to present, dear readers, is a cautionary tale.

The Barnhills, despite their sockish abundance – or perhaps because of it – were not satisfied.

“What care I,” they said sniffily, “for ten socks, or one hundred socks, or one thousand times one thousand socks. If they are not matched, I have nothing.”

They were not satisfied to wear mismatched socks to school or to meetings or to soccer games. They turned their noses at the wooly warmth in clashing colors offering itself each day to warm their shivering toes.

“If you want matching socks,” their mother told them, “go dig through the stupid sock pile and find them yourself.” Their mother did not, despite reports to the contrary, mutter, “Mister and Miss Complainypants,” but she certainly thought it.

And so the Barnhill children would howl with rage and agony and woe. And then they would stomp down the stairs and find the overflowing sock basket in the basement family room and dig and dig and dig until a match was found. And the socks were happy to oblige.

This went on for several months. And the sock basket grew. It grew, and it grew, and it grew. It went from mound to hillock to bluff to mountain. It had geological features – faults and fissures and outcroppings – that were studied by scientists from around the world. It was featured in documentaries, and folk songs, and fine art. It developed its own weather system. REI rolled out an entire line special shoes designed specifically for the sock mountain’s unique terrain. Brusque European men with mukluks and rucksacks, flanked by packs of well-paid Sherpas, arrived by the dozens to journey into our basement and make the death-defying climb of the storied Mount Sock, conquering it like young bull on its first night in the herd, and leaving a mess in their wake.

And honestly? It was annoying.

“That’s it,” the mother said.

And she poured herself a glass of wine and set up a marathon viewing of “Brooklyn 99”, and set up sacks for each member of the family, and, like the Miller’s Daughter spinning straw into gold (or, I guess, paying Rumpelstiltskin for spinning her straw into gold) quietly prayed for strength in the face of a most insurmountable task.

And she folded into the long night, and well into the morning. And the sock mountain remained, and still she folded. The sun climbed high in the sky and sank into the evening, and still she folded. Days turned into weeks turned into months turned into a year. Finally, after a year and a day, the last sock was folded, and she placed heaping sacks of folded socks on each bed of her beloved family.

“Here,” she said. “Folded socks. Matching socks. Coordinating colors for your sensitive arches and your tough heels. Darned toe beds to keep each adorable little piggie nice and warm. Each loop of yarn is proof of my love to you.”

And the family was happy. For a little while. But lo and behold, the folded socks, once so numerous that the drawers groaned each time they tried to close them, began to dwindle. The drawers began to echo with empty spaces. And slowly but surely, the socks began to disappear. One after another after another, until they vanished altogether.

The children searched over hill and vale. They looked under beds and in the covers. They looked behind toilets and inside grates. They even looked in the refrigerator. But it was no use. There was not a sock – matched or single – to be seen.

Because these were no ordinary socks. These were magic socks. And the magic well from which all socks did flow was irreparably blocked. And there would be no mountain and no bluff and no hillock and no mound. Indeed, even the stinky socks left by the bed would disappear by morning.

“Where are the socks,” wailed the children.

“I have no idea,” the mother said. “I just did all the laundry. AND I JUST FOLDED LIKE NINE MILLION SOCKS FOR YOU.”

It didn’t matter.  The masses of socks were gone forever.

And yea, did the children weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

And, if you listen very carefully, you can hear their toes shivering.

How books infect our brains – possibly forever

HP3-c1

As many of you already know, I am a coach with First LEGO League – where I feebly attempt to assist my little charges in the building and programming of a robot – built from LEGO blocks – and the successful completion of various missions. It’s a cool program -interactive, innovative, creative, and collaborative. The kids learn how to design, engineer, program and work as a team. I am not a very good coach, alas, in that I suck at both building and programming – like, I can’t do them at all – but I’m pretty good at getting my team to work together and help one another, and they have been taking care of the other part on their own. Go team.

As part of this program, the kids have to do a project in which they have to identify a need in the world, and come up with a solution to fill that need. They research, design and create a presentation. But before they present, they have to share their ideas with others. And that can be tricky for a bunch of elementary schoolers.

So I was trying to help them.

“Let’s just brainstorm some ideas,” I said, holding the dry-erase marker for the white board. “What are some ways that we can share our ideas with other people?”

Now let me back up: these kids? They all go to a Classical Education charter school. They all excel in their rigorous curriculum, speak Latin, stand up when called on, and pat their heads when they know something instead of blurting out. They wear uniforms and can name at least six Byzantine emperors and can tell you the long-term effects from the Mongol invasion on European culture. They are adorable, adorable nerds. And they read. All the time. When they asked me who I voted for and I looked at them, all seriousness, and said, “Lord Voldemort,” they nearly peed themselves laughing.

“YOU DID NOT,” they wheezed. Then they paused. Looked at me seriously. “Wait. Did you?”

These are bookwormy kids. They eat books for breakfast.

So, I’m talking to these kids.

“How can we share our ideas? Your ideas are GOOD. You can bring those ideas to other people and talk about them. But how will you do it?”

One kid raised her hand. “Well?” she said. “We could? You know? Build a website? And put it on the Web?”

“Good idea,” I said. “But what’s the problem with the web? How many websites are there?”

“Bijillions,” one boy said.

“That sounds about right,” I said. “So how are you going to get your particular information to the particular people who might benefit from it? Or who might give you more ideas?”

A boy raised his hand, “We could make a committee!”

Another girl raised her hand. “My mom likes Tumblr. We could put it on Tumblr.”

And another girl: “We could present it to our families and get ideas and then present to other people’s families.”

And then a boy started jumping up and down. His hand was outstretched so high it nearly pierced the ceiling.

“Oh!” He gasped, bouncing up and down in his seat. “Oh!”

So I called on him. He stood up.

“I got it,” he said. “We make a brochure. And then we strap it to one million owls and send them out around the nation!”

He beamed.

“I see,” I said.

“It’ll be perfect.”

“Owl post. That’s your solution?”

“Well,” he said. “You want your idea to be memorable. And how much more memorable can you get than you’re biggest dream finally coming true.”

And the thing is? He’s right. I have dreams about messages coming via Owl Post. I dream it all the time. And so do these kids. And I’m guessing, so do you. Thanks, Ms. Rowling. You are in our brains forever. My guess is, that was her aim all along.

Read All the Things – it’s not WHAT we read, it’s HOW we read that matters.

Dorothea Lange - Girls of Lincoln Bench School study their reading lesson. Near Ontario, Malheur County, Oregon, 1939

There have been over the last few months – and I’m sure you’ve seen them – articles circulating. Perhaps you read one in The New Yorker. Perhaps you saw an enraged discussion on Twitter. Perhaps you saw a delightful evisceration or a snarky confrontation on Tumblr. In any case, the format has been the same – some stuffy grownup laments in a poorly-thought-out article about the State of Reading. Adults are reading books for children! Oh, Woe! Children are reading books that they actually enjoy! Oh, Fie! People are reading books that I do not enjoy and do not match this ascot! Gracious, gracious me! The world, it would seem, is on its way to an unpleasant destination after being tucked into this cozy handbasket.

And the concern has been palpable. “If,” one pundit posed, “American adults only read five novels a year, shouldn’t those books be at their level?” This argument particularly interested me, actually, because it revealed the fundamental fallacy in the initial postulations upon which these arguments are built. They are assuming that a book is an accomplishment. Like running a 10k. Or scoring well on a test. Something to be finished, checked off, removed from the to-do list, and probably not thought of again.

But they’re not. Books are not accomplishments. They are relationships. And how we build those relationships matter.

4521033348_8619102590_m

Let me explain:

Around this time last year, I was in the midst of an epic battle. My son, now ten, because of his testing anxiety, had been placed in one of the lowest Reading classes – problematic in and of itself, made more problematic in the dramatic shift in pedagogy between the upper and lower Reading groups. The kids who tested well were placed in Literature, where they, as a group, delved into great works of Children’s Literature – Black Beauty; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Jungle Book. They would read and discuss and make art. It was a wonderful foundational class. The kids in the lower reading group were stuck in a SRA curriculum, which meant they did not read great great novels at all. Instead they read passages from a text book, out loud, placing a stylus on each word as they went, and if they did not read it perfectly, they had to go back. Which meant, if the kids got bored (they were all bored), and they found themselves wandering, and sometimes misplacing an “a” for a “the”, they couldn’t progress, and had to do the same passage and the same chapter over and over and over. It was punitive. It was demoralizing. It was awful. And I had a kid who said he was “too stupid to read.”

And that’s when my eyeballs caught fire.

The_Cricket_in_Times_Square_Cover

That all changed when I fought to get him moved. (And believe me, it was a fight. I donned my armor and pulled out my Sword of Righteousness and marched into battle. As any mother would) Once he was safely placed in his Literature class, from the very first day, he transformed. Instantly. And it was wonderful. The first book he read in that class was The Cricket in Times SquareNow here’s the thing about my son – he is a creative, energetic, highly tactile boy. He enjoys reading, and reads well, but he often just had too much energy to sit down and read. He wanted to run. He wanted to build. He liked listening to books, because he could make crazy spaceships with his Legos while he did so. But this book. This was transformative. It was the first time that I saw him reading ahead, and going back and re-reading passages. It was the first time I ever heard him quote a book he was reading. It was the first time that I saw him get teary-eyed when he read a book, or apply his reading of a text into regular-life situations. He had a relationship with that book. And he counted those characters as his friends.

And that got me thinking.

These articles – these hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, tut-tutting articles – all suffer from the same pedantic sneer, this assumption that since I, the writer, do not particularly care for what those people are reading, that it is somehow suspect. That it is not as cultured or illuminated or difficult or grownup. It does not show up in Harold Bloom’s ranting about Cannon. It was not plucked from a polished library full of old leather tomes by great, white men. It is a book with magic in it. It is a book with speculative science in it. It is a book with children in it. It is – horror of horrors – a book with teenaged girls in it. How we ever got to a point in our culture where reasonable-looking grownups feel no qualms in saying that the lives and struggles of teenaged girls are not worth reading about is mystifying to me. The most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner is a teenaged girl, for crying out loud. And what’s more, what these writers are totally missing out on is the fundamental nature of reading.

Listen. Reading is not consumption. A book is not an accomplishment. And if you think either of those things are true, then you are missing out on the transformative power of a book.

18131

My son, right now, is reading A Wrinkle in Time. Because of that, he is filled with questions about physics and cosmology and astronomy. And angels. And Free Will. And giant brains. He has pulled out all of my astronomy books that I brought home when I participated in the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. He has discovered Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He talks about Calvin and Meg as though they were extra members of our household. He is building Camazots in Lego. He is drawing pictures of the Happy Medium. He sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Whatsit. He wrote a poem about Charles Wallace. He approaches the text with his full self – his curiosity, his creativity, his need for motion, his need to build – and offers his Self to the story. And the Story, in turn, offers itself to my child. That is how it’s done. Open-hearted reading.

My son gets it. I think you get it. But, in our wildest dreams, will the stuffy grownups at Harpers or The New Yorker or Salon or whatever – will they get it too? Do we dare to hope for such a thing?

I will hope. It is what I do.

My reading – like most people I know – is broad and wide. I read a lot. I do not stick to a single genre. I read children’s books and grown ups books and science books and picture books and old books and new books.  I do not care what anyone thinks of that. I sometimes read in fits and starts. I have books around my house in various stages of mid-read, with bits of paper sticking out, sometimes with little notes on them. “Remember this for later,” my notes say. Or, “Use this passage the next time you teach a class.” Or, “Why the hell can’t you write like that, Barnhill?” Or, “Write this on your skin.”

I finished Dana Sobel’s Longitude recently – a book about how one clockmaker changed navigation forever. I just finished We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick that one up. It was wondrous. I just started Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future, by A.S. King. It is also wondrous. It is YA. It is magical. It transcends every boundary imaginable, just as all great fiction should. And I’m also reading One, Two, Three . . . Infinity, by George Gamow, which, oh my gosh, you guys! Read it right now. It is marvelous. I’m also reading A Creature of Moonlightby Rebecca Hahn. Also wonderful. That voice! That vision! It is a remarkable book. I’ve also been very slowly reading through The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – an exhaustive anthology of Weird fiction. It is amazing. You should read it. And, since the passing of Galway Kinnell, I’ve been reading through my various volumes of his work. Because I love him forever. And I have a copy of The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, that I keep on my desk. I page through it and let his odd-ball versions of reality, wrought in precise, alarmingly-clear prose, pummel my brain. Wake up! Borges tells me yet again. Pay attention! The world is wondrous strange! Get it right! And so I do. Borges is my personal trainer. And he is ever so bossy. And soon I will start The Grimjinx Rebellion, by Brian Farrey. If it is anything like the first two books in that series (WHICH WERE AWESOME), I have no doubts that it will be marvelous. I read short fiction as well – on Clarkesworld and Tor.com. And in the New Yorker. And McSweeney’sAnd my every-three-week arrival of One Story.

For those of you keeping track at home, what we see here is that I read everything. I read nonfiction and fiction. History and science. Literary fiction and Middle Grade fiction and Horror fiction and Science Fiction and Young Adult fiction and Fantasy Fiction. I don’t read a lot of Romance – not through any kind of snobbery, but simply because I’m unfamiliar enough with the genre that I don’t know who the good writers are (if you have any suggestions, please send them!) The point is this: I love reading. I love the touch of paper in my fingers. I love the smell of ink. I love the loafe and lean of my couch. I love resting a mug of tea on my belly and balancing the book on my knees. I love letting my mind wander. I love asking questions. I love wrestling with a text. I love caring about characters. I love staying up late with breathless pages, wondering what will happen next. I love every dang bit of it.

Books are maps, yes. And they are mirrors and lamps. And they are the cultural threads that bind us together. But they are more than that. They live with us. They comfort us. They remind us that we are not alone. When I read, I am offering myself to the story. I bring to the story – any story – my own experience and knowledge. I bring my curiosity. I bring my empathy. I bring my own open heart. When we read, we are opening ourselves up to be changed. And the book, whatever we are reading, is doing the same thing. When I read a book, that book is changed. The version of the story that plays out in my head is unique to me. And when I communicate that version – that vision – the larger cultural understanding alters too. That’s how stories live in the culture. They are not static; they are not objects; they are not dead. Books, stories – they are alive. And when we connect ourselves to books, we are larger, brighter, interconnected, ensouled. We are more alive.

And when we talk about books – and our relationships with those books – we are not just talking about the books. We are talking about ourselves. And our loved ones. And the world.

When we ask one another, “What are you reading these days?” it should never be an occasion for judgement or assessment or assignment into any sort of pecking order. That would be missing the point. Instead, what we should say is this: Tell me what you felt. Tell me how you cared. Tell me what you carried with you – both toward and away. Tell me why we matter.

Happy reading, everyone. Please. Tell me what books are living with you right now. And tell me why they matter.

stein

The Architects of our Imaginations

Wizard-of-Earthsea-by-Ursula-K-LeGuin

Yesterday was Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday – one of my favorite writers, thinkers and storytellers. I started the day reading an an essay she wrote called “Introducing Myself”, which later sent me exploring the landscape of my brain in which Earthsea and Ged and Arha and Kalessin still hold sway. It is like this with books, I think. They build structures, cities, regions, and cosmologies. They do not just bend space and time – they create space and time, within us. And those places remain forever.  So I wrote this tweet:

Which got me thinking. What are the books that helped to build my brain? Who are the writers who engineered and designed the different regions of my imagination – imprinting the space from which my own stories are born?

I know for sure that I owe my fascination with landforms and geography to the writings of Le Guin and Tolkien. I’m a nature girl as a matter of course, and have even composed whole sections of my novel while camping in the wilderness with my family (six chapters of The Witch’s Boy, for example, were penned on a lake-dampened notebook while sitting cross legged on a boulder jutting out of Flame Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a million acre wilderness area that stretches across northern Minnesota and Canada.

bde06ea3c98f795e69b5746cdb17d6c4

To L. Frank Baum and his unsettling weirdness, however, I owe my penchant for the Strange, the Odd-Ball, the Disarmingly Creepy, and the Whimsically Grotesque. It was in these pages that I fell in love with vegetable people (who, if you sliced them in half, you just planted them, and they grew new versions of themselves), and gender-swapping hero/heroines, and animated sofa-beasts, and bulbous bellied clockwork men. I grew to love enormous, well-dressed insects and girls made of patchwork and girls made of rainbows and creatures with wheels instead of hands and an army of girls armed with knitting needles. I sometimes have to reign in my fascination for the weird and creepy – not every reader loves the Weird the way I love the Weird – but there is no doubt it seeps into the ground of my stories’ making, even now.

il_570xN.388172227_r8w7

To E. Nesbit, I owe my focus on familial relationships and the nuance of siblingry. C.S. Lewis does this too, of course, but I always found Nesbit’s families and sibling interplay to be far more believable. Family -in all its tensions, feints, and layers of meaning – is its own wild adventure. We’re all lucky we make it out alive. I, myself, was from a large family – four sisters and a brother, plus innumerable cousins and second cousins – and the loyalty and frustration of sibling-hood in Nesbit’s books was always equally as important as whatever magical mayhem the kids in question tended to find themselves in. Wish-granting sand fairies, who’s in charge of the baby brother, various phoenixes, I think you’ve stolen my shoes, wishes gone wrong, sibling rivalry, enchanted castles, and the exact phrase that will make your brother go bananas. The sibling relationship becomes the lens through which the adventure is viewed. And I love that. I still love it. (And I love my siblings, even when they make me crazy.)

 
WrinkleInTimePBA1TheLionWitchWardrobe(1stEd)

And to both A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia series I am given permission to explore aspects of my faith in storytelling. I am, at the best of times, a prickly Christian and an awkward Catholic. My faith is both the balm of my heart and the thorn in my side – I needle; I fuss; I argue; I treasure; I long; I resent; I seek; I close my eyes. I think I am not alone in this. My whole life, I’ve been looking for god, and god manages to show up for me at the oddest times and in the most unlikely places. I don’t write overtly about faith nor do I seek to proselytize through fiction. Indeed, any attempts to do so, I feel, are a mistake. But that part of my spirit that leans toward the Light, that part of me that feels very much that the communion of saints is a physical connection – you and I are part of the same Body, and I am as bound to you as my knuckle is bound to my hand, and my blood is bound to my heart – it is present when I write stories. This is likely why I feel I am much more likely to be accused of heresy than my atheist writer friends (and frankly, I am delighted when this happens), but all’s fair in love and fiction.

For those of you who grew up with books, which authors are the architects of your imagination? Which books built the landscapes inside you? Which are the maps that you travel by? I am terribly curious to know.

 

Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess)

Well, it’s finally happened: my blog has been memed. (Can meme be a verb? And if so, is it transitive or intransitive? And is it irregular?)

Anyway. I have been tagged by the prodigiously esteemable Mr. William Alexander, author of Fine Fictions and Sundry Stories, and an all-around Fine Fellow. You can read about his process here. You can also browse his books – the National Book Award winning GOBLIN SECRETS , for example.

GoblinSecrets

If you haven’t read it, I insist you do so instantly. It is a wondrous strange little beauty, filled with intricate machines, beautiful baubles bent on your destruction, bravery, loyalty and dread. I just loved it. He writes short stories as well, and I’m always happy to encounter a new one. His new book is this:

 

17571252Middle grade science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time? Great Scott. Sign me up.

And since this is a meme, which means that I must pass it on like a game of Hot Potato, I do hereby name Mr. Steve Brezenoff, a writer whose books are both incisive and compassionate, who balances the highbrow and the lowbrow with deft skill and ease, and who manages to force us to remember the ache and confusion and agony of the teen experience while reminding us of the joy as well. His newest book is Guy in Real Life, and I insist that you read it at once.

GIRLslidecover

 

Anyway. The meme. I hope it makes sense. If not, don’t worry about it. I rarely make much sense.

Question the First:

What Are You Working on Right Now?

writers-people-typewriter-vintage

Several things. My editor has a copy of my new book, The Boy Who Loved Birds, on her desk right now, and I am in a place of restless waiting for notes. This is a common phenomenon for writers: restless waiting. It is, I’ve been told, particularly unattractive. Oh well. I’m also finishing up a new book called The Sugar House – a Hansel and Gretel retelling set in Minneapolis. I very much enjoyed writing it. And then I’ll write the next book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon – which has a foundling child, a mad woman in a tower, a five-hundred-year-old witch named Xan, a poetry-quoting swamp monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon with delusions of grandeur (his mother, hoping to boost his self-esteem, convinced him that he was actually a Simply Enormous Dragon trapped in a land of giants). I am rather excited about it.

Question The Second:

Why Do You Write What You Write?

Frederick-Warren-Freer-xx-Mother-and-Child-Reading-xx-Montgomery-Museum-of-Fine-Arts

You know, my husband asks me this all the time. Or more specifically: why don’t you write best selling series fiction that makes millions so we can retire and then you can hire recent graduates to crank out your novels on your behalf like James Patterson? And, to be fair, that is an excellent question. Alas, I can only write what interests me. I write strange fictions because I am interested in strange things. I endeavor to write beautifully because I delight in beautiful things. I write creepy stories because I enjoy the inward shiver of the macabre and the unsettling tale. I write stories about childhood because childhood interests me – how we become, how we find our feet, how we build ourselves into the people we will be, how we shape the world around us. I write what I write to amuse myself. I write what I write to heal myself. I write what I write as messages in a bottle to the lonely, hurting child that I used to be. I write for my kids. And my future grandkids. And the kids in the neighborhood. I write to share the oddness inside me with other people.

Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

6441202219_361d8a414f_z

Question The Third:

How Does Your Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

Oh good lord. I have no idea. Honestly, the notion of genre in general makes me itchy. I don’t like putting firm categories on art, and feel frustrated with the increasing balkanization of literature. Since stories, once absorbed into the Self become part of our internal landscape and our external mapping – since they, once read, become seamlessly integrated in the mind of the reader (and I mean capital-M Mind) they are forever interacting and communicating with every other story that the reader has read. Which means that A Wrinkle in Time is in a lifelong conversation in my brain with Little Dorrit. And The Odyssey. And Anne of Green Gables. And The Sandman. If it were up to me, all fiction would simply be fiction, and that would be that.

I think I’ve digressed.

Anyway, how does my book differ from – not other books of its supposed genre but any book at all? Simple. I wrote mine. Someone else wrote theirs. When we sit down to work, we bring the particularities and peculiarities of our specific life experience. My family. My fears. My hopes. My nightmares. My faith. My loss of faith. My travels. My mental health. My obstacles. My reading life. My bare feet on the green grass and my fingertips in the warm mud and my lungs taking in the air around me and my eyes widening at each new blessed wonder. My books are different because I am different. You see?

 

Question the Fourth:

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

f0702w

Not very well, I’m afraid. I am a chronic destroyer of my own work. My newest book, The Witch’s Boy, was fully erased and given up on, I’d say eight times. I slash and I burn, and my soul burns with it. So this is how it works:

1. I get a notion of a story – sometimes it is a little knot of text that occurs to me while I’m running. Sometimes it is a very clear idea for a character. Sometimes it is a very particular moment. In any case I will will not start the story. I will just start thinking about the story. For a long time. (To put this in perspective, The Girl Who Drank The Moon – the story I’ll be starting this summer – I have been thinking about for about two years. The book I write after that – Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht – I’ve been thinking about for three years.)

2. I get a box. I’ll put scraps into the box from time to time – little note cards, ripped out pieces of paper, articles, pictures, bits of string that I can’t remember what I was thinking of putting it in there, but there it stays. Baubles. Notions. Knick-knacks. Whatever. Things accumulate in the box.

3. I start to write. Longhand. I am a big believer in writing longhand. The problem with this is that I am not very organized and am prone to losing said notebooks. For The Sugar House, I have lost my notebook at the playground, at my kid’s school, at a coffee shop, at the gas station and in a public restroom. Fortunately, each time I’ve lost it, I’ve found it again. So far. But the future is wide and wild and scary and anything can happen.

4. I give up on the longhand. Eventually, the story starts moving in two directions at once, and I need to fix the beginning in order to re-do the end. Or I am just moving too quickly to be able to keep up. So far, I’ve only been able to maintain my longhand-only insistence for about 3/4 of a draft. When I start to move to the computer, each section goes into depth and breadth. So fifty pages in the notebook often translates to ninety pages on the computer. Each sentence is a jumping-off point.

5. I erase everything. I give up. I wonder why I ever started writing in the first place. I say mean things to myself.

6. I confess my erasing to my writing group who tell me to knock it off already. I get back to work.

7. Steps five and six repeat a bunch of times.

8. I read the book out loud. I realize it’s not as bad as I thought. I read loudly, dramatically, and with gusto. My neighbors think I’m nuts. They are not wrong. I edit as I read. I repeat this process about ten times.

9. I send it out. And I collapse:

the-sleeper-1932

10. And the process starts over.

 

 

 

Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.

tumblr_lxi1uo4sgF1qdyv52o1_1280

Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.

WDPPGC01XL

“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

08 Peter and Wendy - F D Bedford - 1911

Regarding BEA, the Kids Author Carnival and other NYC shenanigany stuff.

This weekend, I had a whirlwind, didn’t-see-90%-of-the-people-I-hoped-too-but-still-saw-SO-MANY-GOOD-FOLKS, magnificent visit to good old New York City in order to participate in Book Expo America, or BEA for those who know the publishy-lingo. I went because my book had been chosen as a Middle Grade Buzz title, which was a huge and astonishing honor. My publisher, then, was kind enough to introduce me to lots of librarians and book sellers, and to make a goodly stack of the ARCS of THE WITCH’S BOY available for those who wished to read it before the book came out.

A lot of people wanted it, apparently, because within the hour, the goodly stack was a memory of a goodly stack and all the books were gone. This was surprising to me.

Anyway, some day soon I am going to write a love poem to my publisher, Algonquin, who is filled with wondrous, magical and fiercely intelligent people that I absolutely adored meeting and talking to and getting to know. Meeting the whole team was nothing short of a joy. Plus they made this cool poster for the books – both for kids and adults – that are coming out soon. See?

tumblr_n695wj8jM71rz1q0xo1_1280

Anyway, I am still processing much of the many wondrous conversations I had over the course of the long weekend, and I am still rather jumbled up, I’m afraid. Instead, I will have to provide a List of Highlights. Ahem:

 

1. Meeting my beloved editor, Elise Howard, for the first time.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

Seriously, you guys. She is amazing. I have been telling people for the last year and a half how much I have treasured my experience at Algonquin, how my editor’s insight and intelligence and her knack of seeing not only the bones of the story, but its sinews and connective tissues – the chambers of the heart, the connections in the brain, the ineffable soul (all of it; she sees all of it) – have pushed me into a space in my writing, and a level of artistry,  that I never would have reached on my own.  And I am forever grateful. And I absolutely LOVED meeting her and hanging out and picking her brain and listening to how she works and even chatting about random things – kids, other books, goofy goings-on in NYC. The whole bit. It was most grand.

2. I lost my phone. Three times. And found my phone. Three times. Which was a blessing.

3. Bringing my husband along. I have never done this, actually. And, as it turns out, it was the first time we were away from our kids since 2003. For those of you doing the math at home, that was . . . some years ago. In any case, there is nothing like getting organized for a panel – a Buzz Panel, no less – and seeing your favorite friend in the audience.

speaking of . . .

4. THE BUZZ PANEL! It was awesome!

10338711_10152400264714774_6181674009051766072_n

Despite various snafus regarding microphones (which is why I am standing at that podium instead of facing the people I was actually talking to) we actually had a great conversation. I enjoyed the heck out of all of those people (and Rob and Kat, your books are currently being read to pieces by my kids. So.)

5. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Also awesome! Thirty-seven kidlit authors and an army of bloggers and great crowds of book-loving kids! And how great was it to hang out with hordes of kids swarming the halls of the Jefferson Market Library (which, by the way, looks like Hogwarts), with a bunch of my kid-writer buds that I’ve known for months or years online, but only just got to meet in real life. This whole thing was organized by Claire LeGrand – who is just as amazing in person as she is on the page – and it was a huge success. I had no less than twenty parents come up to me and say that this MUST happen next year. And I agree.

6. Catching up with my beloved Genevieve Valentine, whose new novel, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB (a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” story in 1920’s Manhattan) (I KNOW! I think you should read it too!) releases tomorrow.

7. LIBRARIANS! SO MANY LIBRARIANS! I met children’s librarians and teen librarians and regional librarians and school librarians and legal librarians and scholarly librarians and possibly-nefarious librarians.

(“But,” my son asked. “Were any of them ninja librarians. Or secret-super-hero librarians?” “Yes, my darling, ” I told him. “They all were.”)

8. The food! The best part of  any NYC visit is the food. And yes. I am still full.

9. The books! I have three tote bags full of books that I managed to haul all the way back home. My arms hurt. And my eyes are tired because I stayed up too late reading. There are worse problems to have.

10. Standing for an hour chatting with people at BEA, signing book after book after book until my hand started to shake, and meeting people that I have had lovely and heart-felt exchanges on Twitter, and seeing their beautiful faces and hearing their beautiful voices, and realizing that social media – despite its capacity for silliness and cruelty and infantilized blatherings posing as profound – really does bring us together. It truly, truly does. To those of you who I met for the first time, but have known for far longer than that, I’d like to say this: thank you. Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for lending me your time and your spirit. Thank you for existing in the world. Thank you for your continued conversation with me about books and culture and race and gender and childhood and teenhood and growing up. About the world and everything in it. About the universe we know and the universe beyond. Thank you so much.

Okay. Now to get back to writing. Because this book isn’t gonna write itself.

 

BEA, Kids Author Carnival, and other items of note.

The sky outside has been promising rain for over an hour, which means that I have been delaying my run. It still hasn’t rained. It still wants too. And since I’ve already cleaned, I suppose I should actually try to write something. Actually, this is perfect writing weather – the creek flows, swollen and fast, just beyond rim of my yard. And the world between my window and the water is green, green, green, green. You’ve never seen anything so green. The sticky buds of the crabapple tree have finally burst, and the small leaves are shiny and supple and new.

Is there anything more beautiful than Minnesota in spring? I don’t think there is.

Anyway. Items of business. There are many, so I think I shall number them.

  1. IRON HEARTED VIOLET HAS BEEN RELEASED IN PAPERBACK!  51OdR1F9bDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I know. This is old news. But I got out of the habit of blogging, and I managed to not say it here. But I should say it, because, VIOLET! And DEMETRIUS! and THE DRAGON! And NOD and MOTH and AUNTIE and even CASSIAN! I have missed them, I really have. It’s a funny thing, living with characters for months and months and even years. You inhabit their skins, you hold their beating hearts in your hands. You know them by touch, by smell, by taste, by sound. You know them better than you know yourself. And then you put them in a paper boat and launch them into the river and pray they make it safely to the Sea. I loved them. I will never touch them again. That is one of the many tragedies of authorship. (Well, that and all the cigarettes and jazz and liquor and bad dates with Hemingway and the general Loose Living of the Author’s Lifestyle.) (I’m just kidding.)

    (Note: My life is not like this at all. But it is totally what I thought my author's life would be when I was a dreamy eighteen year old.)

    (Note: My life is not like this at all. But it is totally what I thought my author’s life would be when I was a dreamy eighteen year old.)

  2. First Book! On Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll be at Northport Elementary School, as part of First Book. If you don’t know this organization, you really should. They provide books to children in need, and partner with local companies to bring literacy volunteers to read with kids. One of the hard truths about kids in poverty is that their access to books is severely limited. Add to that the fact that they aren’t read to nearly as often as their more monied classmates (which is perfectly understandable when parents are working three or four jobs just to keep the lights on), which means that kids in poverty are often coming into Kindergarten with a language deficit – a 2000-word vocabulary, as opposed to a nearly 7000 word vocabulary for kids in the middle classes. Having better access to books is vitally important, and I am so thrilled to be partnering with this fine organization. I used to teach at a school in which 92% of our kids were over the poverty line, and later was a GED teacher for homeless youth, so this really feels like the different threads of my life are coming together. On Wednesday, I’ll be doing writing workshops with the kids, and talking about the writer’s life (see above), and on Thursday, I’ll be jazzing up the volunteers. Should be fun! br0057cs
  3. BEA! I’m going! I’m terribly excited, of course. I’ve never been, and from what I understand, it is something similar to being called to the Mother Ship. My new book, The Witch’s Boy, was selected as a feature for the “Buzz Forums” at BEA this year.  I had never heard of this, because I live under a rock, but my friends in the know assured me that this was a Big Deal. In any case, I’m super excited to go. And now I have to figure out how to do this thing without making a total fool of myself. If you are planning on being there, you should come and see me. I’ll be signing too, so you can stop by the Algonquin booth and find me there, but seriously, you guys? I could really use a friendly face or two in the crowd at the buzz panel. Stop by if you can!BEA_logo_starburst
  4. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Seriously, how the heck did I end up on this lineup. This is insane! And wondrous. As an advocate for children’s literature and a reader of children’s literature and a sharer of children’s literature and a writer of children’s literature, I think this is just the greatest thing ever. Saturday, May 31. You’re coming, aren’t you? WELL, AREN’T YOU??? UPDATEDflyer_onesheet
  5. And lastly! My book doesn’t come out for quite a while, but the first blog review has been posted. And she wrote an Ode. AN ODE! It did indeed warm the cockles of my cold, cold, heart. The first professional review goes live on Wednesday (I think), so expect a link. But in the meantime, you can read this one. She sure was nice to my dear Ned and Aine. 

 

And that is it, my dears. It is time for me to dive back into THE SUGAR HOUSE. Beautiful Miss Lacy will get more spidery, and awful Mrs. Otterholt will get more goddessy, and all the while poor, beleaguered Nate will have to figure out how to do right without getting himself into more trouble. What are you working on today?

This is the Work You Were Born For: some thoughts on teaching kids the practice of Story

 

Lions_painting,_Chauvet_Cave_(museum_replica)

Good grief. I haven’t blogged in over a month. What on earth have I been doing?

(actually I know exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ll get into that in another post. right now I have important things to discuss with you. ahem.)

Anyway, once again I am spending a week with some amazing third and fourth grade students at Chanhassen Elementary. I’ve been doing this same residency for a number of years now, through my work with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program, and every year I am stunned by the brains of elementary school kids.

They are philosophers, these kids. They are scholars. They are giant hearts with legs. They are analysts. They are deep thinkers. They are Big-Idea-Types. 

One of the things that I do at the beginning of the residency, and I feel this is vitally important, is I get the kids all jazzed up about writing stories by talking to them a bit about why we tell stories at all. Because they all know stories – of course they do. They read them and listen to them and watch them on television. They act them out. They observe them in photography and sculpture and paintings. They watch high drama unfold every day in the casual gestures of their parents or the overheard side commentaries of their classmates in the hall. These kids are always engaged in Story.

So I tell them stuff about stories. Big stuff. Broad stuff. Big Idea stuff.

“The act of making a story is not the words you write on the page,” I tell them. “When we write the words on the page, we’re just making a pathway for the reader, and a pathway for ourselves, to journey toward the story. The story, you see, is separate. It is a prize waiting at the center of the universe of your brain, and only you can take us to see it.”

Stuff like that. They eat it up, these kids.

“Stories,” I tell them, “are uniquely human. When we write a story or think a story or tell a story or listen to a story, we are connecting ourselves to every other human being who has ever written or thought or told or listened to a story. We are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.”

I tell them this, and they are itchy to start. I can see it in their hands – the way they hold their pencils.

“Human beings,” I tell them, “have told stories even before they had language. At first they told stories through song, through dance, and through rhythm. They made pictures in the mud. They painted on caves. They invented language to be able tell stories more effectively and efficiently.”

This blows their minds, actually. I can see it on their faces. I have to work pretty hard at the beginning of the class to catch all their attention in my little butterfly net and hold them close to me, but at this point, I could stand perfectly still, and each one of my little butterflies would simply cling to my hands and arms and eyes. They don’t fly away. The kids hold their breath. I hold my breath. This is my favorite part, I think.

“Telling stories is your birthright, folks.” This is true, you know. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. “This idea. This story in your head. These words that are about to pour like water out of your giant-bucket brains and onto the page. You were born to do this work.

And then they do. With gusto.

So far, I have gotten stories of hidden super powers and stories of kidnapped parents and stories of hidden treasure and stories of mad scientists who only wanted to find a way to make their teeth stop hurting. There have been friendly bears, wicked giants, dragon librarians, stealthy spies and a boy who becomes King of Poopland. I’ve gotten stories about a best-friend-zombie and a best-friend-talking-bunny and a best-friend-ogre and a best-friend-robot. I’ve gotten stories about a mall full of people suddenly possessed by ghosts and two sworn frenemies who are the only ones who can fix the situation. I’ve gotten stories about parents who download an app and then their children disappear.

So many stories.

And it’s good for me, even though it wears me out – the driving, the teaching, the geyser of enthusiasm that pours out of me every class period and with every interaction with students. It’s tough on an introvert. Necessary, yes, but tough. My family has been most attentive and sweet when I come home. But still, I love doing it because, even as it depletes me, it fills me up at the same time. Standing in a room full of thirty kids all attacking their pages at once, writing furiously as though chasing their stories down like bison on the plain? Well. As I pour, so am I filled. It’s amazing. And bearing witness to the raw enthusiasm from these kids, their joyful chase of the stories in the bright Universes of their brains, that I, too, am born to do this work – this teaching, this writing, this sharing of stories. And that it matters, you know?

The story matters. The telling matters. The sharing matters. The reading matters. It all matters.

It’s nice to be reminded.

 

I have more to say, of course, and some Very Cool Stuff About Various Books to share with all of you, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. I gotta go get ready for class.

photographicemotionsphotographybwchildrenvintageschool-721e36cab5d9687655753f4e359d4f65_h

“Everyone Else Can Suck It” – thoughts on art, work and making things.

LOOK WHAT I MADE!

One of the things I treasure about living here in the Twin Cities is its astonishingly vibrant, well-populated and deeply talented children’s literature community. I have friends who write YA novels and MG novels and picture books. I have friends who are illustrators and graphic novelists and copy editors. And not to mention the editors, publishers, agents and professors of children’s literature. And don’t even get me started on the librarians and curators. It’s ridiculous. And I adore them all.

And what’s more, it’s an incredibly loving, supportive and dynamic community, all deeply committed to children’s literacy, children’s access to books, as well as infusing the art form with the kind of vigor and wonder and love that it demands. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

The other day, I was at a local coffee shop, working at the big table with a bunch of other authors. We had laptops and notebooks and sketch pads interspersed with coffees and scones and salads. We kept one another on track when needed and offered commiseration when needed and told jokes and even, as a group, did some quick research on the names and types of ladies’ underwear. Yanno. Story stuff.

At one point I showed the folks present some of the preliminary sketches for the cover of my new book, The Witch’s Boy (I wish I could show you. But alas. It’s not ready yet), and I enjoyed the collected ooos and ahs, and I shared some of my feelings of anticipation and apprehension and worry. The other writers and artists assembled nodded their heads sagely. We know, their faces said. We super know.

“But,” I said, “fortunately, I have already pre-written my horrible reviews. So that’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Cue the collective sigh.

“Really, Kelly?” they said. “Why do you do this to yourself?”

And it’s a reasonable question. And I do this to myself a lot. The book I wrote. The book I wrote a while ago. The book I’m writing now. It is so easy to see how someone along the way will dismiss it out of hand. Who will turn a small gripe into a condemnation of the book. Who will not see my characters as I see them, and love them as I love them.

And it is silencing, this pre-bad-reviewing. And it is hurtful. And it is mean.

“Well,” my friend Swati said. “What do you think about your book? How do you feel about it?”

And I looked at her, and I allowed myself a rare moment of honesty.

“I love it,” I said. And I meant it too. “I really love it. And I’m proud of it. And I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written in my life.”

She smiled at me. “Well. There you go. You wrote a book that you love and that you’re proud of, and that’s all that matters. And everyone else can suck it.”

And I told her that I was going to make a sign saying that very thing and put it above my desk, which I have done, and am looking at right now, with total love and adoration on my face.

I turned in my copy edits to The Witch’s Boy last week – it was my very last time being able to touch the paper, to make marks or switch things around or affect anything at all. And I took the time to savor it. I closed myself in my office for days, reading the pages out loud. It was, in truth, like the fiftieth time I have done so – I am an out-loud sort of self-editor. And I read each word with gusto, heft and meaning. I felt each sound vibrating in my bones. And I felt as though Ned and Aine and Sister Witch and the motherless wolf and the bandit king and the dead brother and the aging queen and the grieving father and even the insufferable Brin and Ott and Madame Thuane – all of them, you see, were right there with me. Their hands on my hands. Their breath in my ear. Their hearts rattling away inside my rib cage. And I loved them. And I was proud of them. And I slipped them all into a document box and sent them away.

When we make art – and really, when we do any kind of work that we feel born to do – there is this wonderful sense of non-self that comes over us. Hours can vanish, our real life can vanish, even our bodies and histories and futures can vanish. While we work, there is only the work. It’s wonderful, really.  Our work is not us, it is separate from us. And that is important, because we send it into the world, where it can be loved or hated, adored or abused, learned from, built upon, and, ultimately, transformed. The work changes us, it changes the people who touch it, and it changes in return.

There is something wonderful that happens when we make work that we like. We can hold it in our hands; we can turn it around and around; we can run our fingers through the sheets of paper, and listen to it make the sound of ocean waves whispering on an endless shore; we can linger on the scent of ink and paper and fingerprints. But what’s more – we can say to the world, Look. I made this. And you can love it or you can hate it or you can not care either way, but it doesn’t matter. I made this. And it is for you.

I was at South High School the other day, and I said some stuff about making art and being vigorous and demanding and infusing their stories with the fullness of their intelligence and curiosity and perfectionism. But what I should have said was this:

Make art.

Work hard.

There will be people who don’t care for what you do. That’s okay. And that’s their right. Work hard anyway.

Pour your heart and soul and self into whatever you do until you think there is no more you left. (You will be wrong. There is an endless fountain of you-ness. And there is no limit to what you can make.)

Make work that you are proud of. Work that will outlast you. Work that is your gift to the world. Make work that is separate from you.

And everyone else can suck it.

In Which Voldemort Gets the Cheese Touch.

This is the expression on my face most days. Especially the eyes.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog the fact that I, most days, haul a carpool to school filled with delightful elementary school boys. I use the word “delightful” here in its broadest sense, in order to include yelling, cat-calling, fake-swearing, bodily eruptions, poop jokes, gun jokes, penis jokes, fart jokes, farting penis jokes, something about boobies and light-saber-sound-effects. To rescue my thin grip on sanity, I decided a while ago to forgo any crunchy-mama prohibitions I may have had ever in my life regarding screen time and throw a movie into the ole minivan VCR.

(It is, I do believe, a certifiable miracle that the thing still works, as both minivan and VCR are about ten years old. And that thing gets hammered – hot in the summer, absolute zero in the winter, sticky drinks, stray kicks, and, once, projectile vomit. The thing keeps ticking. If it is a miracle, does that qualify my minivan for sainthood? If so, someone should alert the Vatican.)

Anyway, the kids watch movies on their way to school in ten minute increments, and I listen to said movies as I drive. E.T, Apollo 13, Star Wars, Newsies, Cats and Dogs, Galaxy Quest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Dark Crystal, George of the Jungle, and basically whatever else I’m able to pick up at Savers for a quarter. I have become a connosieur of kid-movie sound construction and voice inflection. E.T., for example, is a thing of beauty – communicating more through silence than most films can do in hours of scene-building. The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, while bad to watch, is torture to listen to, and whoever is responsible should be in prison.

Today, they watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or the end of it, anyway. They tumbled out of the car last Friday just as Professor Quirrell was about to remove the turban from his head. They climbed back into the car today shouting turn it on turn it on, despite the fact that they have all read the book and watched the movie approximately nine million times. They were beside themselves with anticipation. I pushed play, rolled into the road, and headed toward school. Here is a transcription of the conversation that ensued in the back seat.

“Shhhh!”

You shhh!”

“We’re missing it.”

You’re missing it.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Wait. What movie is this again?”

“Harry looks like he has to fart.”

“HE DOES NOT.”

“Cheese touch.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“You’re squishing me.”

“Cheese touch.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Look.”

At that very moment, Voldemort, stuck on the back of the doomed professor’s head, instructs Quirrell to take the Sorcerer’s stone from Harry. But when he touches Harry, his hand burns up, thus showing that Voldmort cannot be touched by the boy wizard.

“Harry Potter has the cheese touch.”

The boys nearly peed themselves laughing.

“Now Voldemort has the cheese touch. Lookit him! Cheese toucher.”

“DON’T TOUCH VOLDEMORT HE TOUCHED THE CHEESE.”

“Voldemort smells like a fart. Like cheesy farts.”

“Cheese farts are not as bad as sausage farts. Sausage farts are THE WORST.”

“I’m kinda hungry.”

“Don’t let Voldemort get the Sausager’s Stone.”

“It’s the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“No. It’s the Sausager’s Stone. IT HAS THE POWER TO TURN MERE METAL INTO SAUSAGE.”

“Quit saying stuff like that. I have to pee.”

“Harry Pee-ter and the Sausager’s Stone.”

“I MEAN IT.”

“If it could make me defeat Voldemort I would totally touch the cheese.”

“You already touched the cheese.”

“I AM VOLDMORT. I AM THE CHEESE. AND THE TOUCH. I AM THE CHEESE TOUCH.”

By the time we reached school, I was weak with laughing. And hunger too, as I had forgotten to have breakfast before I left in the morning. When I got back to the house, I went straight to the fridge to grab something quick before getting to work. A nice, square slice of cheese.

Cheese touch.

Why I Love Fourth Graders: A List.

Author’s note: I think more children would love school if they were allowed to be barefoot.

Today I visited the fourth graders of Highland Park Elementary School in Saint Paul. I was feeling crummy beforehand – sniffles, headache, tummy-yuck, etc. – and was probably not in the best headspace to perform at optimum awesomeness. That didn’t matter. The fourth graders had Awesome to spare. They had Awesome pouring out of their eyes, ears, mouths and noses. They left little trails of Awesome on the ground like awesome slugs. They emitted little pollen particles of Awesome like awesome daisies. They rang like bells and surged like oceans and glittered like stars. I think I have mentioned here before on my blog how very very very much love I have in my heart for fourth graders. And while I always know that, intrinsically within myself, it is still completely surprising to me whenever I step into a fourth grade classroom. All the love I thought I had for fourth graders, the moment they congregate in their desks, is amplified ONE SKILLION FOLD.

They are wondrous, these children. Completely wondrous.

To give you a sense of why I love these kids so much, and why they delight me so, and why they – more than any other age group – propel me again and again to the page, I composed this list.

WHY I LOVE FOURTH GRADERS. By Kelly Barnhill

1. Because they ask me if I’ve ever met L. Frank Baum. It doesn’t even occur to them that he has been dead for a long, long time. For them, writers are as alive as their books. And books never die.

2. Because they assume that I’m best friends with J. K. Rowling.

3. Because they want to tell me, RIGHT NOW, that this sweatshirt is new.

4. Because they see me in the hall and say I KNOW YOU, YOU’RE THE WRITER. And they are shiny and happy and proud. They have this funny quality of being both star-struck and familiar. They are reading your book. They are astonished you are real. You are both an object in a museum AND a beloved teddy-bear, clutched under the covers every night. At the same time. They have no problem with that incongruity. For them, the world is an incongruous place.

5. Because they are on the fence as to whether magic exists. Could go either way. They are open to wonder.

6. Because the sit with their hand outstretched to the heavens, bouncing and wiggling and saying “Oh, oh, oh!” and can do so for an entire class period if need be. And when you call on them, they say, “Okay. I have thirty-two questions.”

7. Because they crowd together on their carpet square, jostling for spots near some grownup that they have never met, a close-knit, multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual mob, all unified by one story, read to them by a beloved teacher.

8. Because they want to know where stories come from.

9. Because they believe that stories come from somewhere – a sea of stories somewhere on this green and blue earth, where writers go with their boats and their tackle and their nets. Where we cast and gather and pull and haul. Where we heap stories into our carts and wheel them into the marketplace to be shared for all.

Stories are slippery fish.

10. Because they want my autograph on a random scrap of paper that they will lose within the hour, but that doesn’t matter. It was the asking that mattered. And me bending over, pencil to paper, letting them know that, in this moment, they matter to me.

11. Because they want to matter.

12. Because, deep inside, they are both infant and adult. They want to be cuddled and adored. They want to save the world. They want to be shielded. They want to understand. They want to be connected. They want to be alone. They want to be heroes. They want to be saved. They want all these things at once.

13. Because they love stories. And so do I.

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.

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


For those of you who have followed me on Facebook and Twitter, back when I used to be on Facebook and Twitter (I am still on the latter, officially, though the only tweets currently are the automatically generated blog post alerts from WordPress. My computer prevents me from accessing the site until September. Because my computer is bossy. Which is to say, my thirteen year old daughter is bossy, because she was the one who set it up.) you may know that I spent the spring engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that.

Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head.

Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do.

Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope.

Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler.

Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself.

Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin.

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerouscapable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.