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:


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.

In Which I Engage In Competitive Storytelling With My Son And He Totally Wins.

Leo, my six-year-old juvenile-delinquent Kindergartener, has bested his mama at Stories. Look, I can admit when I’ve been beat. It takes a big man – or woman, in my case – to concede the fight. Leo! You win!

Here’s what happened:

This morning, at the breakfast table, Leo was begging for pancakes and I was avoiding pancake-making. So I picked up a folded piece of paper from the table and held it up like a book. I peered at my son over the rim of the paper and cleared my throat.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “there was a boy named Leo who met a magical bunny. He asked the magical bunny for some pancakes, but the magical bunny said that pancakes had ceased to exist. So Leo had cereal instead and was filled with happiness. The end.”

I put down the paper with a smack and raised my eyebrows. Leo picked it up. Cleared his throat.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a girl named mommy who went into a deep, dark forest looking for a magical bunny. She was chased by the Knights Who Say, “Ni!” and then was eaten by wolves. The magical bunny turned itself into a pancake. The end.”

He slapped the paper onto the table and folded his arms with a grin. I picked up the paper, opened it up, and started to read.

“Once upon a time there was a boy named Leo who found a pancake in a deep, dark, forest. He was about to eat it but the pancake started to cry, because it was secretly the magical bunny. Leo screamed and ran out of the forest where he was captured by the Knights Who Say Ni, who forced him to purchase a shrubbery. The end.”

Leo guffawed. I was on the ropes and he knew it. He approached the table at a swagger and picked up the paper.

“Once upon a time there was a girl named mommy whose eyeball fell out of her head and onto the floor. It stayed on the floor for one year where it rotted. Then, Leo picked up the eyeball and threw it into the trash, and it exploded. The end.”

He cackled.

I picked up the paper.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “there was a magical fairy princess who came to a boy named Leo in a pink cloud. ‘Leo,’ she said, ‘I did not like the story about your mommy’s eyeball one bit. I am going to turn you into a toad.’ And so the fairy princess turned Leo into a toad and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.”

“Hmph,” Leo said. He picked up the paper.

He stared at me over the paper’s edge. His eyes narrowed. He cleared his throat.

“Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit,” he said, “ribbit, ribbit, ribbit. Ri-bbit.”


AAAAAANNNND, that’s Leo for the WIN. Nice work, buddy!

In Which Kelly Barnhill Admits to Lying. Again.

Thanks to the lovely and talented Laurel Snyder and the equally lovely and talented Ellen Potter, who have both stared unflinchingly into the great, pimply, lying face of the ubiquitous falsehood known as the Author’s Bio and dared to spit in its eye, I’ve decided to take a long, hard look at my own.

It ain’t pretty, folks.

Here’s the truth: My author’s bio makes me look a helluva lot cooler than I actually am (*brief side note* – I think it’s hysterical that wordpress’s spell checker thinks that “helluva” is a real word.). Let me be clear: I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be cool. I am the anti-cool. If Cool came to a barbeque at my house, it would stand uncomfortably in the side yard for a few minutes before answering a fake cell phone call with a fake emergency. And then it would leave.

So here’s my real bio. Read it and weep.

Kelly Barnhill took a bunch of creative writing classes in college with dreams of the writer’s life: cigarettes for breakfast, martinis for lunch, drafty attic apartments in NYC, brooding and volatile boyfriends in Paris, a tragic death narrowly averted, followed by wild sales of a volume of poetry. And perhaps it would have turned out that way had she not: a.) quit smoking; b.) hated martinis; c.) settled down with a nice boy from Virginia and instantly started producing cute children; d.) quit writing. And she quit writing for a good long while.

During the Quit-Writing phase, she waited on tables, worked as a park ranger and a janitor and a bar tender and a secretary and a coffee jerk, and later became a teacher. She’s been fired from jobs for being too chatty. She’s been fired from jobs for telling people off. She’s been laid off from jobs when the tax revenue situation totally sucked. She’s had more jobs than most graduating classes – mostly because she is easily distracted and given to moodiness.

Now, she raises children. She tries and fails to keep her house clean. She cooks meals and wipes noses and calls teachers and schedules well-child appointments. Being a mom means dealing with the dregs – overflowing toilets and soaked bedsheets and projectile vomit. She wipes up what can be wiped and fixes what can be fixed and throws away more than she’d like to admit.

She loves her kids, and is exasperated by her kids, and is amazed by her kids. She thinks her kids might one day rule the world. She writes when she can. She is still easily distracted and given to moodiness, but her husband and children are infinitely giving and forgiving. She is luckier than she ever thought possible.  She’s managed to sell some books and some short stories – though her rejections outnumber her sales.

Actually, that was misleading. Her rejections are infinite in the way that time and space are infinite. But we all must carry on, and so must she. One step, one breath, one story at a time.

More Stories from the Ever-Awesome Clive

I love Clive. Millions and millions of love. Now, I know it’s very wrong of writers to pick favorites among their characters – much like parents pouring love onto particular children and ignoring the rest. And while it’s true that I love all of my characters equally, and I take their lives and their stories very, very seriously, there is something special about Clive Fitzpatrick – Professor of Literature, Expert on Ancient Texts, Practitioner of Magic, and Defender of Good.

Clive gets me.

Without Clive, my book would not have been finished. He has been my muse, my support and my swift kick in the pants.

Anyway, in the many revisions of the book, I had to remove several selections from Clive’s scholarly, philosophical and folkloric works, and each one was like ripping a piece of my soul away. Clive, when he appeared in my dreams, or in my conversations with him on the page was much more even tempered about it. He has an easier time letting go. Well, bully for him. I can’t let go.

I’m thinking more and more about taking my little selections and expanding them into actual stories. I may even try to publish it under Clive’s name. Because I think he deserves it. Not that he’s my favorite or anything. He’s just……special. Extra special. Here’s a bit from one of his stories:

Once, there was a boy who looked like a boy and spoke like a boy and thought like a boy, but was not a boy at all. His parents, unaware of the non-boyness of their beautiful child, strapped shoes on feet that were meant to be bare and tethered him with baby carriers and swaddling and five-point harnesses to keep him from flying away.

You are our little boy,” his parents cooed as they buttoned his jacket, although the buttons turned to bugs, which turned to butterflies, which flew prettily out the open window. They pretended not to notice. They closed the window, and the shades, and the drapes.

You are our little boy,” his parents sang as they strapped him into a pram, which sprouted flowers, grass, and a crystal spring. They told the neighbors it was a garden ornament. They entered it into a neighborhood beautification contest and received an Honorable Mention.

The boy resisted. He fluttered, he heated, he trembled with magic and rage and frustration. But eventually came to love his parents and his home and his life. And eventually, he believed he was a boy, and called himself a boy.

But the boy would grow. And with growing comes knowing. Even a child knows that.

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick


So we nixed THE BOY WITHOUT A FACE, and then it was JACK BE QUICK, followed by THE CURIOUS FACE IN THE CORNFIELD. Shortly after that, we played with MAGIC UNDERGROUND, then UPROOTED, then THE SECRET HISTORY OF HAZELWOOD, then A CHILD OF EARTH AND MAGIC then THE WORLD UNDER THE WORLD, then THE UNVANISHING OF JACK and THE BOY WHO DISAPPEARED. And then we went and picked something entirely different, and my book now has an official title.

Drum roll, please……..

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK.   Now, really, Kelly. Was that so hard?



A Great Reluctance

You know in Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo – and then Frodo – are asked to hand over the Ring, and they are overcome and kind of crazed by a sudden unwillingness to part with the wretched thing, despite how it has taken over their lives and made them miserable?

I am in my last bits of Novel edits. The last little things before My Dear Editrix sends the manuscript off to copy editing. And as difficult as the last few months have been, despite the sheer number of times that I’ve bashed my head against the keyboard and torn drafts to shreds and delayed relaxation and having fun and life in general, and the number of times that I’ve seriously considered setting my hair on fire……despite ALL THAT……*sigh*  I just don’t want to let it go.

And I’m dragging my feet. And I’m trying to find major problems that are going to need a month at least to fix. But no. I’m going to have to send my little book into its next phase. And I’m panicking.


I now have a press page. It took me friggin’ hours.

I still can’t fix the box on the side to show that my book, (*sob*) will not come out in the fall of 2010, but the spring of 2011. Which means that this blog is lying all the time.

Or, maybe it’s just spreading a fiction, which of course is a bit of it’s job. Or my job. Is my blog me? Am I my blog? Have I been working on this for too long?

Hell. Yes.

Amptuated Novel Bits

So, here’s another section of the book that ended  up facing the knife. Removing characters from a narrative is an unbelievably tricky operation, because it alters not only the motivation of the characters that remain, but it also raises the issue of the rate of revelation – if I had planned the order and method by which my main character would encounter the facts on the ground that had the potential to change – or end – his life, and then the mechanism to bring those facts to life simply vanishes, what do I do with the rest of the novel? In my case, it involved a massive amount of rewriting, rethinking and re-imagining, which was a gigantic amount of work. And despite the lost sleep and the tears involved, it was well worth it.

Still, I do love my Ladies of the Knitting League, and fully intend to bring them, in some capacity, into another book. Or maybe I’ll give them their own book – give the Evil Henchwomen their day, as it were. We’ll see. Anyway, here’s their chapter.

From a chapter previously called “The Rock”

“The darkness, of course, is crucial. The hero looks for guidance but will find none – or he finds guides who turn him, subvert him, lure him astray. Only by descending into the darkness, does the hero find the true path. Only by not knowing, does he achieve Knowing.”

-“On Heroes”, by Clive Fitzpatrick

Jack told himself that he was not interested in figuring anything else out about the town. Instead, he decided, he would work on gaining speed and confidence on the board, to feel as though he was flying across the wide, black road bisecting the broad, flat farms. This is what he said. And yet, he still shoved the map into his back pocket (don’t want to get lost, he told himself), he still brought his notebook (in case I feel like drawing, he insisted) and he still slipped Clive’s book into his backpack, (after all, he decided, I promised Wendy that I’d read the bit about her brother. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be very friendly. And it isn’t every day that a person makes a friend.) With these explanations firmly in his mind, he kicked the board to a smart start and flew down the street.

Though it was hot and the sun beat mercilessly down on the cracked asphalt cris-crossing the town, Jack skated quickly and easily, enjoying the sensation of his own breeze cooling him off. His arms and legs were red and raw from his constant itching and scratching while he was standing still, but in motion, the itching eased and his skin seemed to soothe itself and calm.

Hazelwood’s streets lay in a general grid along one side of the gentle bluff, which made it easier to find his way around. He had decided to follow the roads east and west until they spilled into the far fields or flowed into quiet country roads. Back and forth he moved, practicing he told himself, but he now skated with such confidence, and grace, that the only thing left to learn was speed. By the second street, he could outpace a bicycle. By the fourth, he could outpace a car.

He supposed that he should be surprised by this growing ability – his way of zipping up a hill without even needing to kick anymore – but for some reason he wasn’t. It felt right somehow.

He came to a large, square building at the far end of Main Street, with strange and detailed carvings in its limestone face. Jack stopped, kicked the board up and under his arm and stared. The carvings showed greenery and flowers and farms and abundance. But there was something else – the shape of a person, a woman maybe, that was untouched by any decoration. It was as though a figure from the picture had simply decided to get up and walk away, leaving only the impression of her body behind. It was, he decided, so curious and strange that it only made sense to make a copy of it in his notebook and show it to his uncle Clive. He may know the story behind it, and who knows, it might make an interesting addition to his study on Hazelwood.

But before he even had a chance to open his backpack, the doors flew open, and a small, nervous man hurried down the steps and onto his bicycle.

“Oh god,” the man whimpered to himself. “Oh god oh god oh god.” After a few wincing wobbles, the man pedaled down the street.

It was, Jack realized, the same man he saw in the yard, and the same man that Gog and Magog attacked. Jack looked up at the limestone building. The words, “The Grain Exchange and Trust” stood tall above the main doors, their letters cut mercilessly in stone. Jack shivered. He dropped his board to the ground and sped off after the man on the bicycle.

So accustomed to streaking freely down the street, Jack found it difficult to slow down enough to keep a far pace behind the small man, in case he should need to duck behind a shrub or tree. To make it worse, the man stopped from time to time to blow his nose and wipe his eyes, and in that last block, he pedaled down the street at a crawl.

Finally, he pulled up in front of a large, white house with a wide front porch. Jack hid behind a wickedly prickly raspberry bush and peered through the branches. Three women sat on the porch, knitting. The fabric hanging from their needles caught the slanting light in a sheen that set Jack’s teeth on edge. The sharp points clicked and whirred in their hands, pulling each thread tight as nooses. Jack gulped and had half a mind to cover his ears to block out those horrible clicks, if it weren’t for the fact that he actually wanted to hear what was going on. Next to him, a warm soft weight leaned against him and began to purr.

What are you doing here,” Jack whispered. Two pairs of enormous, yellow cat-eyes stared back, blinking twice before turning back to the scene on the porch. Their tales lashed back and forth and the hair on their shoulders bristled upwards. Jack shook his head. “Crazy cats,” he said.

“Well,” the first knitter said.

“Our dear Reginald,” said the second knitter.

“On time, for once,” said the third.

The small man trembled and squeaked. He mopped his brow. His skin took on a ghastly gray color and his chin seemed to disappear into his neck.

“G-g-g-good afternoon, Ladies,” the man choked.

The three women didn’t look up from their knitting. They pulled shimmering thread from their basket and wound it around their fingers. Even their faces had a shimmer to them, and Jack wondered if it was a trick of the light. How, he thought, can they go from looking young to old to young again? The alterations were subtle, so much so that they didn’t appear to change at all, they simply were old, then they were young. Jack had never seen anything like it.

The man swallowed hard, thrust his hands into his pockets and began again. “Mr. Avery is in agreement. He says that you will meet him this evening at the usual location. He says,” the man stopped, bit his lip and trembled some more. “That is to say,” he whispered, “he requests, that you will do your best to maintain timeliness.”

The needles stopped. Jack stood up to get a better view. The stone in his pocket began to warm and heat, slowly but noticeably.

“He would dare,” the first knitter said.

“To insinuate,” the second said.

“After the blunders and missteps that bungling fool managed,” the third stood, her yarn spilling on the ground. She pointed her needles at the small man who fell to his knees and began to cry.

Sit,” the first knitter said to the third. She turned to the man on the ground. “Stand up Mr. Perkins. We have no intention of removing anyone’s soul this afternoon,” she turned to the third knitter and gave her a hard look. “Not that we could with yours anyway. It’s been claimed.” Mr. Perkins whimpered again, but did as he was told and stood up. “The remaining issue, of course, is the house itself, as its fate must be delicately handled, I understand.”

“Indeed,” Mr. Perkins said. “We have the first set of orders from the governor currently, and have sent – ahem – incentive monies to the permitting agencies. We should have it dismantled within the next few days, while both Lady and Other are sleepy and pliable.”

Jack wanted to hear more, particularly since the phrase Lady and Other sent a strange shiver across his skin – something that felt a little like joy and a little like fear, but the stone in his pocket spiked, sparked and smoked in his pocket, burning his skin. He stood, jumped and screamed.

“Ow! Ow!” he cried. “Get out!” He threw the rock on the ground.

The three knitters stood, dropped their knitting and trod on it as they scurried down the porch steps.

“You!” said the first knitter, pointing a needle at Jack’s heart.

“Eavesdropper!” said the second, pointing a needle at Jack’s head.

“The Portsmouth!” screamed the third, pointing a needle at the rock on the ground.

Jack would have said something in reply, perhaps making an attempt to talk his way out of any trouble he might be in with these three strange women, but three things happened at once:

First, Mr. Perkins screeched, covering his face with his hands. Lancelot, appearing out of nowhere, bore down on the man, knocking his glasses to the pavement, before swooping to the ground, grabbing the rock in its talons and flying out of sight.

Second, Gog and Magog leapt out of the raspberry bush, hurling their weight on the chests of the first two knitters, causing them to stagger backwards, hitting the third.

And thirdly, Jack’s skateboard yanked itself out of Jack’s arms and began rolling away.

“Come back,” Jack shouted. He ran after it, hopped on and sailed out of sight. Somewhere, between the sweat mopped off his brow and the terrified panting, he heard one of the women call to him. Her voice was soft and sweet and sharp.

You won’t know whom you can trust,” she said.

Yup, Jack thought. That’s about the truest thing anyone’s said all week.