In Which I Continue to Corrupt the Youth of America

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

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

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

I love these kids.

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

What are you folks up to today?

A Pair of Useless Wings

This angel is not happy about her wings either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, on Twitter, I found this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight! At Nokomis Library!

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

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

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

Like this one:

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

Or maybe this one:

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

And it’ll be fun.

AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY COME!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully, I didn’t completely blow it.

(Who am I kidding. I surely did.)

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

First, the rules:

Rules for Worldbuilding

 

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

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

 2.    Be a collector.

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

 3.    Research matters

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

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

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

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

You have my permission.

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

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

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

 7.    Remember the Senses.

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

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

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

 9.    Integration, integration, integration

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

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

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

You ready? Let’s go build a world.

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

Anyway, here’s the list that I gave:

Helpful books for World-builders

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

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood.

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

 

London, A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd.

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

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

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

 

Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

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

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

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

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

Here’s hoping we all find it.

 

Happy Writing, everyone!

Happy birthday, Mr. Baum

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

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

L. Frank Baum built me into a reader.

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

Mr. Baum has indelibly weirded me.

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

I was an Oz kid from the start.

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

“Are those books for you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

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

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

“Thanks, but no.”

“Okay,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are the same, whispers the eye.

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

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

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

The only reviews that matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However.

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

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

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

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

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

That was a friggin’ awesome review.

The second review came by email:

Dear Kelly,

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

I hope to meet you someday.

Thank you for your book,

Violet

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

Beloved Violet,

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

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

The First Fifty Pages of the Middle Grade Novel

By the way, time is running out to sign up for my class at the Loft – starting on March 19. It’s called the First Fifty Pages of the Middle Grade Novel, which makes its topic and focus pretty self explanatory. In essence, as writers for this audience, our stories success hinges on how well we can hook the habitual readers – the kids who always have a book in their back pockets, or under their beds, or tucked under the crook of their arms. Those are the kids who shove our books into their friends’ hands, telling them breathlessly to read this at once. These are the kids who insist that their teachers read our books or who hand it to their favorite librarian and insist, possibly while jumping, that they read this now.

These kids rule.

Hooking those kids, and doing it in those crucial first fifty pages, is crucial, and it’s what we talk about in this class. I work my students pretty hard. I read their first fifty pages of their WIPs pretty carefully, and give them intensive exercises during class and homework and reading and whatever. And, you know what? It’s pretty fun.

Think about it. Here’s the link.

In which I discover that my job has Downsides.

http://candimandi.typepad.com/.a/6a00e5500ff5678833012876763620970c-pi

Extreme caveat: If you are a writer and happen to have a kid or two running around the house, you may want to skip this post. Hell, I lived through it and I kinda want to skip this post.

My son’s second grade teacher returned to work after her maternity leave last week. I’m thrilled about it – which is not to say that I didn’t like the substitute. I did. But oh! I really like this teacher. My daughter had her as well in second grade, and I think she is rainbows and poppy fields and fairy wings. She leaves a trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is wonderful.

So, to welcome her back, I stuck a little care package in Leo’s backpack (a nice pen, yummy candies, note cards, etc.) and stuck in a copy of Iron Hearted Violet to add to her class library for good measure. I figured most of the kids in the class are too young for it, but she has a couple of students who are tearing their way through the Harry Potter books who would be ready for Violet. Plus, she already had Mostly True Story of Jack in her classroom library, so might as well have the two, right? I put both things into the backpack, but one came back again. Leo gave her the care package, but not the book.

So I asked him about it.

“I’m not going to give it to her,” he said. He didn’t look at my face. He shoved his hands into his pocket and looked at the ground.

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to. But I’m curious. Why not?”

He started walking in a circle. My daughters who were both reading their books on the couch looked up. Tight mouths. A grimace hiding in the crinkles around their eyes.

“I don’t want her to know my mom is a writer,” he said. The girls sighed as one. I looked back at them, and they instantly buried their faces back in their books. I turned back to Leo.

“Why?” I said.

“Because, ” he said. He still didn’t want to look at me.

“Do you know that she already knows I’m a writer. She has all of my nonfiction books too. And Jack. Why does it matter if she has Violet?”

“Well,” Leo said. “Maybe she forgot. She probably forgot. So I’m not gonna tell her again.”

I looked back at the girls. They held their books rigid, without turning the pages. “Girls,” I said. They did not respond. I pressed on. “Does it bother you when people know what I do for a living?”

The skin on Ella’s forehead wobbled and bunched, her lips crinkling up into a tight rosebud in the center of her face. “Ummm….” she began.

“It’s not that….” DeeDee said.

“I mean….” Ella faltered.

I raised my eyebrows. “It really bothers you that much?”

DeeDee nodded.

“Not regular people,” Ella clarified. “Regular people know what you do and it’s no problem because we can ignore them. And we do. But teachers?”

DeeDee gave a great, guttural sigh and slumped into the couch.

“Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it. And use their overly-excited teacher voices and get all breathy and stuff and they say things like ‘Oh your mother is a writer and oh that must be so wonderful for you and oh excuse me while I raise my expectations for you forever.”

“They think things about us,” DeeDee said. “Wrong things.

“It’s annoying,” Leo said.

“It’s awful,” Ella said.

“It’s the worst,” concluded DeeDee.

“And they don’t know what it’s like,” Ella said. “They only see the book when it’s done, and they think, oh cool a book! And it’s true. The book is cool. But they don’t know the other parts that go with it. The moping and the whining and the long nights.”

“And crying,” DeeDee added. “Sometimes there’s crying.”

“And the You Being Gone.

“We hate it when you’re gone,” Leo said.

“And the clicking computer late at night and it wakes me up because I know you’re up,” DeeDee said.

“And the muttering. And the emails. And the emails with muttering. And don’t even get me started on Twitter,” Ella said.

“I hate Twitter,” Leo said.

“And then we have to like the book. And, like, what if we don’t?” DeeDee said.

“You don’t have to like it, sweetheart,” I said. “That has never been a rule. You don’t even have to read it.”

“And we’re proud of you,” Ella continued, “but most people just think that writers just print a book out of their computers and viola. But we know all the other stuff that goes with it. And it is not all good stuff.”

I must have looked rather aghast, because the kids all looked at one another and started to backtrack.

“But we really love you, mom,” Ella assured me, and hugged me. And the other children hugged me too. They kissed my hands and nuzzled my face and told me I was a Good Mom, Mostly – which is all I’ve ever aspired to be. Every day, I try to maximize the Mostly.

And then I made soup. And tried to quell the Dark Thoughts in my soul.

And here’s the thing. This job is hard. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on the people who love us. We love the characters in our stories; we worry about them, fuss over them and mourn them when they die. We fashion a world for them to live in, and we labor and sweat to heave huge elements together, to slide whole continents into place and hang the stars in their firmaments and conjure storms and mountains and wide oceans and the vastness of space; we build families and dynasties and nations; lust, joy, betrayal, consequences, and mad, mad, true love. We invent histories and intimacies and broken hearts. We walk on the backs of teeming schools of fish and allow ourselves to be devoured by wolves and consult oracles and, when we are stuck, we offer our dinner to a beggar and hope for the best.

And then – then! We are buffeted by things we cannot control – reviews, marketing campaigns, sales executives and librarians. We experience failure. We experience defeat. We are elated, then crushed; we sink and then we soar – sometimes in a single afternoon. And we don’t get to experience the one thing that drives us to the page every day. We do not get to witness the child that pulls our book off the shelf. We do not get to see the world that we hinted at uncurling from their brain. We do not get to bear witness to the imagination of the reader at work. Our book is our proxy. And we pray that it is enough.

My job is hard on my kids. It is hard on my husband. It is hard. It is not the only job in the world for which this is true. Lots of us have hard jobs – and we do them with real commitment and love. We do them because we are called, or we believe in the work, or because of necessity. For whatever the reason, we balance the needs of our family and the needs of our work, and it is not always perfect. We do our best, and we do a mostly good job.

Later that night, I laid down with Leo and asked him if he wanted another chapter of Watership Down.

“Not tonight, mom,” he said. “I want one of your stories. And mine. The kind of story that we tell together.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s in this story?”

“A boy, and a mom, and a monster that lives in a swamp,” he said.

“Does the monster quote poetry?” I asked.

“All monsters quote poetry,” Leo said. “Ask anyone you like.”

And so we began.

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History – Tomoe Gozen

Okay, fine. She’s not a princess. But she was a samurai – a samurai! –  which is so friggin’ cool I can hardly stand it, so I had to include her. And as a result, I’ve been running around my house all day, slaying my enemies with my imaginary sword, and beheading possibly-carnivorous bunnies in the landscape of my imagination.

(And my kids accuse me of not having a real job. THE NERVE!)

(Is being a writer not a real job? Oh god. It’s not, is it.)

My ten year old just asked me what I was doing. So I told her. “Writing about a girl samurai,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “So you’re writing about me, then? Good.”

“Are you a samurai?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “not now. You haven’t bought me a sword. But I am in my dreams.”

And now I live with the knowledge that my willowy girl lives a double life as a sword-handling samurai princess in her dreams, and my life is awesome forever.

(My kids are cooler than any book I will ever write. This is another bit of knowledge that I must live with. It’s not so bad, as bits of knowledge go.)

Tomoe Gozen was the wife (one of several) to the general Minamoto no Yoshinaka. The samurai business was, at the time (12th century, Japan) a fairly dude-centered industry, but Tomoe was known for her superior fighting skills, her horsemanship and her valor. She was an expert in archery, military tactics, and competitive beheading.

Okay, fine, I made up the competitive bit …. but she was a good beheader, which, really, is an under-appreciated skill. I couldn’t do it. Could you?

The epic poem, The Tale of the Heike, which describes the massive struggle for control over Japan by the Taira and Minamoto clans at the end of the Genpei War, tells us this about our Tomoe:

Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.

According to the poem, Minamoto no Yoshinaka had defeated the Heike and driven them far to the West. He also took the holy city of Kyoto, and tried to declare himself the leader of the clan. He had, after all, done all the work. Or, he and his warriors. Which is to say, he and his wife – who he apparently sent into the thick of battle and only joined her when she made sure it was safe.

Typical.

Anyway, his cousins did not agree, and a battle for control ensued. Specifically: The Battle of Awazu in 1184.

Both Tomoe and Yoshinaka fought valiantly (Tomoe beheading, as usual), but they were vastly outnumbered. With his horse stuck and lamed in a half-frozen field. Yoshinaka told Tomoe to flee, which sounds sweet, until he added that it would be shameful for him to die in the company of a woman. Which, if you don’t mind me saying, is a bit rich. And I hope she socked him one, right in the eye. Because he would have deserved it.

So, righteously ticked off, Tomoe stormed away. And then she got bloody – first beheading Honda no Moroshige of Musashi,  and then running her sword through the middle of Uchida Ieyoshi. She then evaded capture and vanished from history.

Some accounts say that she gave up the sword and became a nun. Others say that she got married again and was domesticated. Baloney, I say. There’s no grave and no further mention of her in the historical record (and by “historical record”, I mean, of course, this cool poem and not much else. There is a grave for her (first?) husband, so we know for sure that he exists. But she is a mystery. I like mysteries.).

Which means that she could have gone anywhere. An outlaw in the forest. A secret friend to travelers. A sword-wielding foe of those who abuse their power. A beheader of bad guys. I don’t know, but I refuse to believe the official account. Any woman that gnarly isn’t going to disappear just because some man tells her to.

She will enlarge. She will become a contradiction, a poem, a legend, a dream. She will contain multitudes. She will inhabit stories just because. And she will not die.

My daughter, apparently, is a sword-wielding samurai in her dreams. Perhaps so am I. Perhaps so are you. Perhaps all of us become Tomoe Gozen the moment our eyes droop and our heads drop back. Perhaps we hear thundering beats of her horse’s gallop and our eyes begin to blaze and our sword arms itch, and all at once, someone yanks on the back of our collars and hauls us into battle.

CHARGE!

A giveaway? Why yes, I think that would be a good idea.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I came to the stunning realization today, after writing things in the calendar and fretting about how I would afford the shocking price tags on school supplies and school clothes and school shoes and school programs and school activities and all things related to the well-rounded education of my darling children that it hit me.

I have less than seven weeks until this book comes out.

Dear god. Or gods. Or possibly-devine-entities currently peering through the vapors at my lost, lost soul. Whatever.

In any case, I panicked, of course. And then I whined on Twitter and Facebook for a while and got advice from friends much smarter than I am. And while I sit down and actually hatch a plan, I figured, since I have an ARC or two in my possession, that I should organize a giveaway.

So here it is!

Between now and September 11 (which, by the way, in addition to being a Day of Somber Reflection also happens to be the day upon which my other book, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, comes out on paperback. Yippee!) I’m hosting a giveaway of two copies of the ARC of IRON HEARTED VIOLET. Both of these I will sign and will also include another little goodie inside that is SOOPER SEEKRIT, so you’ll just have to enter to find out what it is.

Enter today, enter tomorrow, enter next week. I don’t want to make a big thing about it – it’s your schedule, after all. But don’t wait too long, otherwise, I’ll just have to give these copies away to myself, and that would stink.

For those of you who look at my situation and laugh and laugh and make fun of how unbearably disorganized I am, I’m curious: How do you ramp up to publication day? What should I be doing to make sure I am not doomed to failure forever? And what do you do to keep the pesky anxiety at bay – because it does not do to be ushering a beloved book into the wide world and suddenly come down with a case of the crazies. It doesn’t do at all.

“No one is afraid of me at all,” she said. And she grinned a wicked grin.

ImageYou are not afraid of me, are you?

Perhaps you should be. After all, I killed a man yesterday. Granted, he was imaginary, but I showed motive, opportunity and intent, so perhaps I should be in prison.

Particularly since it was not my first offense. 

So far this year, I have – willingly and without remorse – killed seven people. Recently, when assembling my short fiction and laying out the spine of a possible collection, I took stock of the crimes that I have committed since first writing fiction on a professional level. In my short fiction, there are twenty-two murders, one suicide, countless maimings, one self-inflicted limb loss, and a death by burning. (Side note – never smoke cigarettes while sitting on a pile of dead, dry leaves. Trust me. It does not end well.)

And, of course, this doesn’t count the victims of war in my high fantasy stories. My god. People are dropping like flies.

Now, granted, it could have been a lot worse. One of the early draft of one story had an entire universe of people being snuffed out without a trace. That, apparently, was too scary for middle grade, (who knew?) so I changed it. 

The thing is, in real life, I don’t typically strike people as a particularly dangerous person. I am a thirty-eight year old mother of three. I drive a minivan. I volunteer at school. I bake pie and garden and chat with neighbors. I appear sinister or dangerous or threatening to exactly no one.

Once, last year, I was running along Nine Mile Creek in Bloomington. If you’ve never gone running there, I highly recommend it – soft trails along a rushing creek cut in a deep, steep ravine, full of trees and vines and flowers. There is no road noise, no houses in sight, very few people. You run in a river of green. Anyway, last year, I was running along that path, all alone. I was two miles in, and I hadn’t seen a soul the whole time. It was around eleven a.m. on a Wednesday. The bedroom community surrounding the park had all packed up and gone to work. No one was in the park.

Except me.

And some man.

I slowed down. He was about a quarter mile in front of me, travelling in the opposite direction. He looked like he was in his late forties, caucasian, scruffy beard, vest and shirt sleeves ripped off. I could see, even from that distance that he was strong. I looked at him, he looked at me, and neither of us altered our direction.

And I thought should I be frightened? I wasn’t, but I wondered if I should be. I was alone. And attacks happen. 

And I thought, if something happened to me down here, would anyone hear me call for help? Absolutely not. That much I knew for sure.

And I thought, does he think of me as a threat. Is he frightened of me? Again, absolutely not. Though, he should have been. I know how to kill a man with a set of keys. I know how to use someone else’s momentum to throw them to the ground and then step on their neck. I know a lot of things. I’ve been in three fist fights in my life, and broke two noses (neither of them my own) in the process. I would likely be able to defend myself if need be. Plus, I was faster and stronger. And I have a wicked left hook.

And I though, how strange that, because of my gender and my age, because of my Anglo features and my crows feet and my wedding ring, no one sees me as a threat.

Now, of course, the encounter in the park occurred without incident. We passed, I said hello, he nodded, and that was that. He was nothing to be frightened of. Neither, apparently, was I.

But you know, I wish I was. Sometimes, I wish I was frightening. Sometimes I wish I was dangerous. Sometimes I wish I was sinister or ominous or wicked or menacing. I am not. I am the open-armed mama folding laundry and cooking soup. No one is afraid of me at all. 

Real people aren’t, anyway. Characters, on the other hand, are friggin’ terrified.

And really, in my real life, I like being a cookie-baking matron with a swarm of kids in the back yard and a gentle lilt in the voice. I like being the neighbor with the cocoa on the stove and the wine in the pantry and the nine million sleds or bikes or scooters in the garage. I like drawing pictures with kids. I really do. But I also like the idea that I could be dangerous- that I could be a threat, but that I choose not to.

Because the line between good and evil is perilously thin.

And I want to keep the world on its toes.

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

Or, in my experience today, a coffee shop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think I made her day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last night’s #kidlitchat (or: who is this book FOR?)

For those of you who are not twitter-obsessed, kidlit-obsessed, or just generally obsessive (me? obsessive? oh, yes.), you may not know about the weekly chats on Twitter in which the practitioners of children’s literature (as well as the readers of said literature, and the teachers and the agents and the reviewers and the aspirants of children’s literature) all get together and chat on certain topics. It’s called #kidlitchat, and I participate when deadlines and bedtimes and dishes allow. It’s typically lively, full of interesting people, and often useful. Last night’s topic: reviews.

And it got me thinking.

Do kids care about reviews? Does a review impact a kid’s relationship with a given book? And if the reviews are terrible, or great, or nonexistent – and the kids *still* dig the book regardless, do the reviews matter?

Now, I am green enough in this business that I don’t really know. I can only make guesses. I do know that I never met a kid who read reviews. Most of the kids I know don’t care if some grown-up liked the book, but care quite a bit if their friends liked the book. (In my case, though, with the kids I hang out with regularly, they do want to know if I liked the book – but that’s because they know that, secretly, and in my deepest of hearts, I am, and always will be, a fourth grade boy. Or, as one neighbor kid said: “You’re a non-grownup-grownup.” And then I was happy forever.)

Here’s my take on it: I’ve been lucky so far with THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK. The reviews, on the whole, have been quite positive – and sometimes glowing – and I am grateful for them. However, I will say this: getting good reviews for one book while one is working on another book (for me anyway) can be silencing. After getting three good reviews in a row on JACK, I had ceased work on VIOLET, the next book. Like completely. I was completely frozen, and terrified of screwing up. In fact, it took getting some bad reviews on Goodreads to get VIOLET going again. (And to those four people who gave it a two-star review, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Honestly. I need to know what I need to do to be better.)

Now, I know that my grown-up readers (both regular readers, and readers who write reviews) are part of my audience too, (heck, I love children’s literature just as much – or maybe even more – than the next guy) but they are not my intended audience. My intended audience is a thirteen year old kid. Or a ten year old kid. What matters to me, what really matters, is what the kids think.

When I was writing JACK, the only people who knew about it – the only people who engaged with the story at all – were my students in my work as a fiction instructor in the schools. Whenever I taught a residency, I would read to the children from my works-in-progress, and as I pushed through the narrative, I found myself leaning towards things that I knew these kids would like. Because I had seen them like it, you see. I had pulled them along with me on whatever ride we were on, and I was able to notice what they noticed and love what they loved. And my eyes were tuned with kid-eyes.

But reviews are different. Reviews are not written by kids – they are written by grown-ups. And grown-ups think as grown-ups and they feel as grown-ups see with grown-up eyes, which is to say differently. And this is not to say that grown-ups suck and that kids are awesome (though I certainly did say that when I was a kid), but that the book the kid reads is not the book that a grown-up reads. The pages are the same, and the words are the same but the book and the experience of reading it are entirely different.

I get it that reviews matter – I do. I write for an audience that typically does not have control of its purse strings. It’s important that the book I write can be read by and understood by its grown-up audience.

But.

There is nothing better – nothing in the world – than standing in front of a group of kids, reading them a story, and listening to them gasp. Listening to them sigh. Listening to them giggle and snort. There is nothing better than finishing a passage and having thirty hands shoot up, all asking the question, “What happens next?” And having them slump on their desks when I refuse to tell them. (Because I am a meanie.)

I’ll appreciate every good review I ever get, and I will do my best not to let them make me feel silenced, or afraid to tell my story lest I start spontaneously sucking (which, let me tell you, happens like a million times a day), but I don’t ever want to forget who I am writing for: my kids, your kids, the kids down the road. Smart kids, struggling kids, lonely kids and connected kids. Kids in general.

Do reviews matter? Of course they do. But we still need to train ourselves not to think about them. And we need to turn off the constant critical noise machine and get back to work.

Or I do, anyway.

Another Student Story!

Many of you may remember that, a while back, I did a fiction residency at Epiphany Catholic School. I told the kids that if they started a story and wanted to work on it for a while, they could send it over to me at any time and I’d share it on my blog. Well, finally a really cool kid took me up on it! Sixth grader Christine  wrote a very fun little story about a dragon who was convinced that he was just a plain pet lizard, despite the encouragement of the people around him. I hope you guys enjoy this as much as I did. Thanks, Christine, for sharing your story with us!

The Dragon That Could

By Christine Z.

CRASH!

“Henry? What was that?”

“Uh…nothing Mom. Bruce just ran into the door again.”

Bruce is my pet lizard. Well, he’s not really a lizard but he sure thinks he is.  He is actually a dragon, but he can’t fly or breathe fire or doing anything a normal dragon can do, so we just say he’s a lizard.  I’ve been trying to teach him how to fly but, well, I think you know how that’s going.

“I told you, Henry. Lizards don’t fly! No matter how hard you try, I won’t fly because I’m not supposed to!”

       “Bruce, how many times do I have to tell you? You are a dragon! Not a lizard! If I wanted a lizard, I would’ve just gone next door to Monty’s. He’s got a billion lizards. But no. I flew all the way to Zion to find the perfect dragon. Do you know how far away that place is from here?”

          “No I don’t…OF COURSE I DO! I lived on Zion for years before some stupid kid named Henry came and kidnapped me because he wanted a lizard that he could teach to fly.”

          “No, Bruce. He wanted a dragon because he thinks dragons are really cool.”

          “If he wanted a dragon then he should’ve kidnapped a dragon not a lizard.”

          “Okay Bruce. I’m done. I give up. You just won’t accept the fact that you are a dragon, so I will stop trying to make you.” Pft! Yeah right! I would never give up, but I have a plan to make him realize that he really truly is a dragon.

          “Thank you. You have finally found some respect.”

          “Stop it. You’re starting to sound like my sister. She’s all ‘You should learn to respect people. You would have more friends if you did.’ I hate those kind of people.” That sounded really lame. What kind of brother quotes his sister in front of his friends? I’m surprised Bruce is still awake.

“Woah! Take a chill pill. I was just kidding.”

“You better be because I hate my sister when she does that. Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Wow, Henry. Could you be more obvious? I mean, really? ‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’ Just thought I’d blurt that out without thinking because I want my plan to be ruined.

“Since when do you care about my family?”

“Um. I-I’ve always…uh…c-c-cared a-b-b-bout…mm…yo-your f-fam-m-mily. Hehe. I…uh… j-just…um…th-th-thought that y-you…uh…w-wouldn’t want-t-t to…mm…t-talk a-b-b-bout it. Hehe.” I just blew it! I hate how I can never lie because whenever I try to, I always stutter.

“Oh. I know what your trying to do.”

“Ummm….Y-you d-d-do?” Oh no! My plan will be ruined if he finds out what I’m doing.

“Yeah. You’re trying to bring up a sore subject for me so that you can play Mr. Nice Guy who is trying to be a good friend.”

“I can never keep anything from you, Bruce.” That’s a lie. For example, one time I went to the movies with my friends after school and when I came home an hour late, Bruce believed that I was studying at the library. He is so gullible. Gosh. I never noticed how parent-like Bruce is. That’s exactly what I need: another parent.

“And you shouldn’t…keep anything from me. Friends don’t keep secrets, remember?”

“If friends don’t keep secrets, then tell me about your childhood.”

“Okay. Deep breaths, Bruce. You can do it. Just tell Henry about your family. I think I’m ready.”

“Good. Now let’s start with your most interesting memory.”

“My most interesting memory? Um let’s see…oh I remember. It was a long time ago so my memory might be a little rusty, but I’ll try my best. I was outside playing with my best friend Roy, he was a unicorn, when this strange creature came up to us. The creature was big and hairy. He had beady red eyes that stared at you as if you would be a perfect snack. He started to walk toward us growling and gaining speed fast. Roy picked me up and put me on his back because then we could run faster. Roy ran faster than I’ve ever seen him run before. He was obviously just as scared as I was. As we were running, we noticed that the creature’s footsteps had disappeared so we stopped to rest. Then the creature jumped down from a tree and almost landed on us. We quickly got up to run again but something stopped us.”

“What was it? What stopped you?”

“See, that’s the thing. I don’t remember what stopped us. I also don’t remember anything before that day or after that day. The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of wind. That was the day when you came and took me. I don’t know how much time passed between those two events. I don’t remember my family or my home or anything except that horrifying day.”

“Oh my gosh! Are you serious? You don’t remember anything other than that day?”

“Nope. Nothing. It’s as if all those other memories before that were never there.”

“Wow, this is serious. We need to find out what happened to you to make you lose your memory. I guess we get to go back to Zion.”

“Really? You would do that for me?”

“Of course I would. We have only one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“How are we going to get there? My mom took my jet pack because she found out that I stole dad’s hovercraft.”

“It’s too bad you don’t have a sister with a bubble car.”

“Oh yeah! Kat’s car! We can use that to get to Zion! You’re a genius, Bruce!”

“I know.”

“But how are we going to get the car? Kat is always watching and she has fingerprint locks.”

“You get the fingerprints and I’ll distract her.”

“Okay. Meet back here in ten.”

“See ya!”

Okay so now I have to get my sister’s fingerprints. How am I gonna do that? I’m just kidding. I know exactly how to do that. I just have to get her to hold something long enough to get her prints to stay. I think it’s time for her daily dose of Vitamin Q. Vitamin Q is a vitamin that makes your attitude 100%. We give this to Kat once a day because she has a very rotten attitude.

Now that I have a plan, it’s time to take action. I open my bedroom door and walk out and down the hallway. As I walk by Kat’s room, I hear her on the phone with someone and she says that 2:00 would work fine. I wonder who she’s talking to. I’ll probably find out later. Anyway, I walk up the long and winding staircase and finally reach the study. In the study, you sit on a special chair and you hold a book. By holding the book, all the contents of that book absorb into your body through your skin. If I am going to a different planet, I should probably learn more about it. I sit down in the chair and pick up a book about Zion. Every book takes a different amount of time to download into your brain. For example, this book about Zion will take three minutes. I wait impatiently while the book absorbs. Two minutes left. Why is this book so big? One minute. It’s almost done. 5…4…3…2…1…beep beep beep.

Now to the kitchen. I walk through the living room where dad is watching robot racing as usual. Finally, I’m in the kitchen. I get out a glass and go to the computer. I type in Vitamin Q juice and…

“Henry, what are you doing?”

“Oh, hi Mom! I was just getting Kat’s Vitamin Q juice to bring to her room. I thought I would help out and do it for you today.”

“How sweet of you! I won’t disturb you. Just keep working. I love you!”

“Love you, too Mom!”

I press enter and the cupboard opens. Inside the cupboard are the juice and a Unibar (for her unicorn). I take both and head for Kat’s room. I walk back through the living room and the study. I carefully go down the stairs and walk back down the hallway. I knock on Kat’s bedroom door and I hear a loud thump from inside. The door slowly opens and a head peeks out.

“What do you want, squirt?”

“I brought you your VQ juice and a Unibar for Sparkles.”

“Ugh! Why does mom make me drink this crap? It’s disgusting!” She tosses the Unibar to Sparkles and watches her devour it in a second. Kat takes the glass and drinks it as fast as she can. She makes a sour face and gives the glass back to me. She smiles at me and sits back down on her bed. “How’s life, Henry?”

“It’s fine but I actually have to go find Bruce. See you later!”

“Okay, bye buddy! I love you!”

Did you see how fast that juice worked? It’s amazing, isn’t it? I walk out of her room and go back to my room. I carefully put the glass down on my desk, trying not to smudge Kat’s fingerprints. I go to my computer and type in fingerprint kit. My desk drawer opens up and inside is a full fingerprinting kit. I open it up and remove some powder, a brush, and a fingerprint holder that looks like a half cylinder shaped piece of plastic. I dip the brush into the powder and dust the glass. When I can see the fingerprints, I take the plastic and place it on the glass where the fingerprints are. I carefully remove the plastic from the glass. It worked! I can see her fingerprints. Now I wait until Bruce comes back…

“Hey Henry! Did you get the prints?”

“Oh, hey Bruce! Yeah I got them. Did you find a good distraction?”

“Of course! I called your sister and told her I was a boy from school. I asked her if she wanted to go see a movie and she said yes! She is going to see the movie at 2:00.”

“So that’s who she was talking to on the phone! Okay so if the movie is at 2:00 then we still have ten minutes. Let’s get some sketches of what Roy and the creature look like to help us when we are on Zion.”

“Good idea!” He gets out a piece of paper and a pencil and starts to draw. Eight minutes pass. Finally, Bruce says, “There! All done. This one is Roy and this one is the creature!”

“Good job, Bruce! It’s 2:00! Let’s go steal some cars!”

Bruce and I walk down the hall and into Kat’s room. We walk to the other side of the room where the door to her garage is. The door is locked so I take out the fingerprint and put it up to the fingerprint lock. Access granted! We walk into the garage and get into the bubble car. I use Kat’s fingerprint to start the engine. We drive the car out of the house and all the way to Zion. It took a whole two hours!

We land on Zion and get out of the car. I take out my computer and scan the sketches that Bruce drew into it. Roy’s picture comes up and says that this really is a picture of Roy Unigreen. His profile says that he was killed by a unicorn hunter many years ago. The creature’s profile comes up and says that his name is Alek Hunter. He is a well-known and feared unicorn hunter. He has killed over 200 unicorns.

“I’m sorry, Bruce, about Roy. I can’t believe that Alek killed him. It was a very cruel thing to do.”

“That’s okay, Henry. It’s not your fault. Besides, I barely remember Roy.”

“I am going to set up a GPS feature to locate Alek.”

“Sounds good.”

BUZZ! Target located.

“The GPS found Alek! It says that he is in Cavern Cave in northern Zion.”

“I know where that is! I’ll lead the way!”

“I’m right behind you.” This is so exciting and sad at the same time. I’m surprised that the GPS actually found Alek. Usually killers try to hide themselves better than that.

I followed Bruce through forests and jungles, swamps and beaches, meadows and savannas. It seems like we’ve been walking for days, but Bruce never changes pace. He is in a very good mood which makes me happy.

“Hey Bruce?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you ever thought about why you can’t remember anything?”

“Yes, I have. Loads of times. Why?”

“Because I have a theory.”

“Go on.”

“Well, you know when you stopped to rest because you thought Alek was gone but then he came back?”

“Yeah.”

“And you can’t remember anything after that?”

“Right.”

“What if someone made you forget?”

“Maybe. My theory is that I hit my head too hard and lost my memory.”

“Both theories are possible, I guess”

“There it is!” He pointed to a very large cave.

“Wow! That’s Cavern Cave?”

“Sure is.”

“Okay Bruce. Whatever happens in there, just remember that you have always been my best friend.”

“Right back at ya. Oh, and I am glad that you kidnapped me and took me back to your house to live with you.”

We slowly walked into the dark and cold cave. Bats flew above our heads. Spiders and rats crawled below our feet. We travel deeper and deeper into the cave, now shivering because of the cold. There was a loud scream. We both jumped and tried not to scream ourselves. We came to a ledge that looked over Alek’s home or room or whatever you want to call it. We were just close enough to hear the conversation below.

“Please! I’ll do whatever you want!” shrieked the girl.

“Why should I let you live?” Alek asked.

“I have a family! Two sons and a husband. They can’t survive without me!”

“Does it look like I care?”

“No,” the girl said quietly.

“That’s because I don’t! There is only one thing you can do to spare your life.”

“What is that?”

“You must go and fetch me the three unicorns that you helped escape from me. Oh and bring me two extras to make up for it.” Alek demanded.

“But it is wrong to kill such an innocent creature!”

“What are you, my conscience? You have no right to tell me right from wrong. Just do what I say or die!” said Alek harshly.

“We have to save her!” whispered Bruce.

“How are we going to do that?” I asked.

“We have to go down there.”

“Okay but be quiet. We don’t want him to know that we are here.”

Bruce and I quietly tiptoed down to where Alek was. A rock fell and hit the floor near where Alek was standing.

“Who’s there?” Alek yelled.

“Why do you hate them?” Bruce yelled back.

“Hate who? Show yourself!” Alek yelled angrily.

“The unicorns. Why don’t you go after dragons or centaurs? Why Unicorns?”

“Who are you? Why should I answer your questions?”

“Because I can make it all better.”

“Make what better?”

“Your life. I can make you a better person.”

“And how would you do that?”

“I can make you forget all the bad things you’ve done. You can start a new life.”

“What makes you think I want a new life?”

“Because you were so focused on talking to me that you walked away from your prisoner and she escaped.”

“What?!?!” Alek screamed furiously.

“Yep. Look around you. Do you see her anywhere? No. And you wanna know why?”

“Why?”

“Because when you heard me talking about a new life without all the bad things and you started to think. And while you were thinking, you started to walk away from her and towards my voice. That means that you were considering my offer.”

“What do you want from me?” Alek asked with a little remorse.

“Do you remember the unicorn and the dragon that you chased in the forest? Do you remember killing that unicorn? Do you remember making the dragon forget everything?”

“Haha. Yeah, I remember that. That was one of my more interesting unicorn findings. The poor dragon had no idea what hit him.”

“Are you sure about that? Are you sure that you made the dragon forget everything?”

“Of course I’m sure. I never make a mistake.”

“Well, you just did.” said Bruce, stepping out of the shadows into plain sight of Alek.

“It’s my young dragon friend. How’s your unicorn pal?”

“I think you know the answer to that, Alek.”

“Wait! How did you remember that day in the forest?”

“Because you made a mistake. You felt bad about hurting a unicorn in front of his friend, so you accidentally did the spell reversed. You made me forget everything except that day when you were supposed to make me forget just that day. I read somewhere that magic is less effective when the user is sad or mad. That means that you were either sad or mad. I think it’s most likely sad because you had a bad experience with dragons and/or unicorns.”

“I..how..what..you..no..why..”

“Don’t know what to say? Here’s a hint: ‘When you drop that rock on me, will you please not hit my head?’.”

BANG!

“That looked like it hurt!” said Henry, coming out of the shadows.

“We did it!” exclaimed Bruce.

“We’re not completely done yet, though.” advised Henry.

“What did we forget?” asked Bruce.

“Two things. One: we have to bring this young lady home. And two: Don’t you want your memory back?”

“I didn’t even think about that. Do you think Alek could give me my memory back?”

“I think if he could take it away, he can definitely give it back.”

“Yay! We should probably tie him up so that when he wakes up, he can’t escape.”

“Good idea. Hand me that rope.”

We not-so-carefully put Alek onto a chair and tied his arms and legs. Then we made sure everyone was far away from him so that when he wakes up, no one will get hurt.

“Hmm…uhh…um…” grumbled Alek.

“He’s waking up!” cried the girl.

Alek slowly opened his eyes. He started to struggle but soon gave up when he found it useless.

“Good morning, sleepyhead.” said Bruce.

“Get away from me.” Alek said.

“I will as soon as you give me my memory back.”

“Fine. Bring me that book over there. The big blue one.” he opened up the book and then said, “This dragon’s memories are gone. Put them back where they belong.”

There was a big flash of light and then I saw fire. I ran over to see where the fire was coming from. It was coming from Bruce. He can breathe fire again!

“Thank you, Alek. I will always remember this.” said Bruce gracefully.

“Yeah whatever. That was easy magic.” said Alek.

“Now open that book of yours and give yourself a new life without evil.”

“Alright. Hold on…Lemme find it…Aha! Here it is!” he said, “My life is bad and makes me sad. Give me a new one with many balloons.”

There was a bolt of lightning and he was gone. Alek was gone. Hopefully that spell worked and made him a better person with many balloons.

“Wait, Bruce, if you can breathe fire do you think you can fly?” Henry asked anxiously.

“I don’t know. Let me try.” he said right before he started flapping his wings and flying. He was FLYING!

“I can fly! Woo hoo!” Bruce screamed excitedly.

“So when Alek took away your memory, he must’ve made you forget how to fly. This makes so much sense now!”

Bruce came back down to the ground and told us to hop on his back. So the girl and I got on Bruce’s back and flew to the beach. We stopped at the beach and brought the girl to her family. Her and her family thanked us and said that we should come visit them sometime. We told them we would.

After that, we flew to the bubble car. I got in the bubble car and flew home while Bruce flew beside me. We got home and returned the car to my sister’s garage. We went back to my room because it had been a long day and we both needed some rest. I got in bed and Bruce laid on the floor.

“Today was the best day of my life!” whispered Henry to avoid waking up his sister who was sleeping down the hall.

“I agree. I couldn’t ask for a better friend.” said Bruce.

“I would say the same about you. Oh and one more question” Henry said.

“What’s that?”

“What kind of creature are you?”

“Oh that’s an easy one. I am a dragon and I’m proud of it.” 

All Memory is Magic; All Magic is Memory

f

When I was three years old, I walked out into the yard. It was a cicada year, though I did not yet know what a cicada was. All I knew was that the air hummed, and the sky hummed, and the grass and trees and flowers hummed and hummed. I knew that the hum was visceral and alive. It moved and breathed. It had substance and texture and mass.

Which is to say, magic.

 

At three, I did not yet know what magic was. I didn’t know what electric was, either. I simply walked out into the grass, into the green, green grass, and heard a sound that filled me with wonder. Later, I would remember it as hearing magic. And still later, I would remember it as hearing electricity. And even later, I would remember it as hearing bugs.

But the memory of me at three (of unkowingness) has been fused with the memory of me at ten (of intra-knowingness), which is fused still with the knowledge of myself now at thirty-seven (of post-knowingness). Beauty becomes magic, becomes science, becomes philosophy. Now, they are all the same.

Which makes the construction of fiction – particularly fiction with magic in it – a tricky operation. Fiction, you see, relies on memory in which to operate. And this is true for both the writer and the reader. In Story, our memories are gathered, bound, altered, re-formed, re-purposed and re-named. Every story is built again and again in the minds of the reader – an amalgamation of the writer’s memory and the writer’s invention, and the reader’s memory and the reader’s invention.

It is a process that is alchemical, transcendent and infinite in its possibilities.

Which is to say, magic.

Which means that now, as both reader and writer, these fused selves must be parsed out, separated and laid bare. I must remember the magic without the bugs, and I must remember the electricity without the magic. I must rely on my readers to make those connections on their own.

Second Story!

Well, not that kind of story. It’s the Second Story Reading series at The Loft – a literary arts organization in Minneapolis. If anyone’s available, you should come. Phyllis Root is reading. Phyllis Root!

She’ll be reading from this book: https://i2.wp.com/www.boydsmillspress.com/media/hfc/bmp/coverimages/medium/978-1-59078-583-6.jpg Doesn’t it look marvelous! Don’t you want to purchase it instantly? Of course you do.

Though you may know her work already from this book: https://i1.wp.com/www.neatsolutions.com/Images/Products/JKL/kiss_the_cow.jpg

or this book: https://i1.wp.com/photo.goodreads.com/books/1179122658l/878261.jpg

or this book: https://i0.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51CQDV0G7HL._SL500_AA300_.jpg

In any case, I think she’s marvelous. I never knew she wrote a book for middle grade readers, and I’m excited to hear her read. You should come!

Here’s the details:

Second Story, the Loft’s reading series for writers of young adult and children’s literature, curated by Swati Avasthi and Heather Bouwman, presents authors Phyllis Root and Eileen Beha.

Eileen Beha spends summers vacationing on Prince Edward Island, where she has a cottage near the quaint village of Victoria-by-the-Sea. A former middle school principal, Eileen lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two terriers, Tango and Louise. Tango: The Tale of an Island Dog (Bloomsbury, 2009) is her first book for middle grade readers.

Phyllis Root has been writing for children for thirty years and has published over forty books, including picture books, middle grade novels and non-fiction, including Big Momma Makes the World, which won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award.  She teaches in the Hamline University Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Recent books include Big Belching Bog and Lilly and the Pirates

Target Performance Hall
Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South
Minneapolis MN 55415

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Reading Fairy Tales

All right fine, that’s not exactly true. But it’s a little bit true.

When I was a kid, my dad had a book of fairy tales. It was a huge thing – phonebook sized. We struggled to haul it to my parents’ bed for bedtime stories. The cover had long since been worn away to nothing, so my dad re-bound it, using a checkerboard cut to size. We called it The Checker Book, and my dad read to us out of it night after night.

Later, I couldn’t get enough fairy tales – Grimm, d’Aulnoy, Perrault, Lang, Anderson, collections from Russia, Vietnam, Persia, Scotland and Norway. I gathered stories in my arms. Sucked them dry.

Later, because I was SUPER GROWN UP, I turned to more sober fare. I learned to parse language, analyze, make connections, dissect. But there was something about fairy tales. Something that wouldn’t let me go.

I return to fairy tales – in my thinking, in my dreaming, in how I organize the world, in how I operate with others, and in my writing. Take this for example:

(the actual fairy tale starts in the middle of the second minute)

The servant shall be king. Good prevails. The world is both dark and light – the light needs the dark, just as the dark needs the light. There are rules – and we break them at our peril. There are rules – and we follow them at our peril. True love exists – it is instant, revolutionary and life-changing. Those who think they deserve success achieve none. Those who presume nothing achieve all. The princess shall be rescued. Greed is punished tenfold. Kindness is rewarded beyond all imagining. Our perceived weakness hides the key to our triumph. The mighty bear the weight of their own destruction – and they can’t even see it.

What I Need to Turn My Teacher Into A Toad

Confession: I have done this.

 

Okay, fine, I haven’t really.

In my defense, I never really tried,  but that has more to do with a healthy respect for magic and the many laws of unintended consequences. Writers who write about magic know all about unintended consequences. Indeed, it’s one of the few things we excel at.

But the reason why I bring it up at all is because of my current obsession with checking the dashboard page of my blog, which tells me the search engine terms by which folks arrive at my little corner of the internets.

(Hello, by the way, to those of you who are new. This is a quiet little corner. Unfashionable. But comfy, in a old-wool-socks sort of way. I have snacks and grog and a ratty chair that moans pleasantly when you sit on it.)

(The chair, incidentally, tells stories too.)

Now, most of the time, people arrive here because they’ve googled my name, or the name of one of my stories. Sometimes people arrive looking for information on yoga or nautical history, or taxidermy, or Billy Collins – all of which I’ve written about on this blog from time to time. Every once in a while people arrive looking for, well, yucky things. Pornographic things. I can’t help but think they’ve gone away horribly disappointed, and for that I’m mostly sorry. But only mostly.

Today, however, someone stopped by after googling: “What I need to turn my teacher into a toad.”

I stared at it for some time, mouth open, breath halting in quick, short gasps. How did they know? I asked my computer. My computer, as always, was silent. How did they know?

You see, in eighth grade, while raging and fuming over some perceived injustice by one Mr. Trajano, my English teacher (who, incidentally, was a marvelous teacher, and utterly blameless in my adolescent cataloguing of wrongs. Lou Trajano! If you’re reading this, I’m terribly sorry that I ever wanted to turn you into a toad!) I went into a quiet spot in the schoolyard during recess, opened my notebook (my dark notebook. My secret notebook. My notebook that held every inkling towards wickedness, every yearning for wrongdoing.) and wrote the following words:

WHAT I NEED TO TURN MY TEACHER INTO A TOAD

1. String (Magic, as everyone knows, is practical. It needs no store, no catalog, no special order. String can be both net and noose. It can be both ladder and snare. It can be woven into a bag, give direction to the blind, tied in a knot that can’t be loosened. Anything that can be more than one thing at once is magic. Everyone knows that.)

2. Crayons (Magic is the alteration of substance – big to little, rough to smooth, red to green, white to black. Crayons, therefore, are ridiculously magical.)

3. Baking soda (for indigestion.)

4. Honey (to sweeten the sour.)

5. Vinegar (to sour the sweet.)

6. Wax paper (to keep it from sticking.)

7. A small mirror (A mirror doesn’t show us what we are. It shows us what we were. A moment ago, when the light hit your body, hit the mirror and came back again. A mirror shows you what you’ve lost.)

8. Gum (always useful.)

9. A toad (that’s the tricky part.)

Now, in my original list, I only had the items, not the explanations. But as I remember it, the explanations are close – or mostly close – to my thinking in eighth grade. In any case, I provided myself no instructions, believing that magic can have no instruction. Magic is intuitive. An instruction can be manipulated, distorted, bent. Intuition is the child of intention and resources; it is practical, decisive, industrious, and, above all, useful.

Even when it is not used.

I chose to refrain from turning my teacher into a toad. But I kept the list, just in case. And I list them here, not because I want you to use them, oh toad-turning reader. No! But to know that you can, but won’t. There is a marvelous power in won’t.

 

I had the power to turn my teacher into a toad. I didn’t. But the power remained, and it, like magic, transformed into something else – a poem, a painting, a story, a song. What is the thing that you won’t do? What is the power in you – running under your skin like electricity, buzzing in your fingertips, frizzing your hair, dazzling your eyes? And what will it be next?

A year buds, swells, blooms, dies.

All things considered, I really dug 2010, despite its rather inauspicious beginning at which I learned that my book, originally slated to slide into the world in the fall of 2010, was to be delayed until 2011. That was a blow, and a crushing one at the time. Looking back on it, though, I don’t disagree with it and am actually pretty happy about how things have turned out. In the meantime, I was pretty productive this year – finished some projects, started some more, met some good people, tended my family, read some books, and generally had a pretty nice time. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some of the things I managed to get done this year.

1. Wrote two books. One will come out in 2012, the other I have no idea.

2. Sold a short story collection.

3. Caught a fish. My first one. Likely my last.

4. Learned a bunch of cool stuff at an astronomy workshop in Laramie, WY.

5. Hung out with lovely, amazing and ridiculously smart nerds. Will love them all forever.

6. After a lifetime of longing, I finally loaded the family into the car and headed northward to Canada and the Winnipeg Folk Fest, where I spent five glorious days in dusty squalor listening to an amazing array of musicians, and my kids managed to delight all who saw them with their dancing prowess.

7. Sent my baby to Kindergarten. Cried a lot.

8. Sent my other baby to Middle School. Cried even more.

9. Grew bushel-loads of vegetables in the garden. Ate very, very well.

10. Camped on an island in the middle of the Boundary Waters. Saw the Northern Lights reflected on the surface of a windless lake.

11. Showed the children how to find Jupiter. Listened to them gasp as they located it with their binoculars, seeing that bright red spot winking like a ruby in the dark night sky.

12. Welcomed a Brother-in-Law into the family. Learned of an impending Sister-in-Law.

13. Swam in the ocean. Did not get eaten by a shark.

14. Saw wolves. Two of them, and they were huge and wild and wonderful. They haunt my dreams.

15. Met more writers this year than I ever have in my life, thanks to Launchpad, Kidlitcon and World Fantasy. This is good, because the disparate jobs of writing and mothering makes me sometimes feel very alone in my work life. Or that my world life must always happen in the margins. Or something. In any case I just have never had a lot of opportunities to connect with other people in the same work as me – the people for whom the building of stories is a daily vocation, the people who sweat and groan under the construction of sentences, who mine words like precious stones. It was astonishing for me; a revelation. It’s nice to have colleagues, even if you only see them once a year. It’s nice to know we’re not alone.

 

As for 2011 – this year I become a novelist, and while that thought makes me so nervous that I think I might barf with these incessant jitters, I’m very, very pleased as well. My little book! After fits and starts, revisions so severe that only a sentence or two survived, after begging, pleading and ultimate despair, my book will finally live. Grant you sure feet, my book. Strong legs. Clear eyes. Feathers. Wings. In the end, our books really are like our children: we conceive, we nurture, we labor, we tend; and in the end they fly away. Grief, pride, relief. Is this normal? I hope so.

 

In any case, hello 2011! Welcome. We’ll do our best to make you beautiful.