Why I Love Fourth Graders: A List.

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

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

They are wondrous, these children. Completely wondrous.

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

WHY I LOVE FOURTH GRADERS. By Kelly Barnhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories are slippery fish.

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

11. Because they want to matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

Dearest Readers,

Have you noticed that I haven’t been posting much lately? I have noticed and I am sorry. I am, right now, engaged in the process of novel revision, which means that I have lined my pockets with lead and have covered myself with post-it notes and have dangled baubles from every conceivable extremity, and then set out to run a marathon.

Or, I have engaged in the total reconstruction of a many-gabled house, with only my hammer, my hand-saw, a bucket of nails, and my own strong back, and I have to thread a new support system all on my own self.

Or I am trying to balance a boulder on the tip of a toothpick.

Or I am digging for treasure using an infant’s spoon.

Or something.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some snippets of pieces that are currently on the desktop (because, of course, I am also writing short stories. I love extra work. And punishments.) And it occurs to me that I would very much like to see what you are working on. Because why should I be the only sharer here?

I’ll tell you what: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. In the comments section, copy out a paragraph or two of something you’re working on. Pretty please? I’d love to see it.

Here. I’ll start.

From “The Invisible Dog”

My name is Jackson Marks and I have an invisible dog.
 I know what you’re thinking.
But it isn’t like that, I swear.
I’ve had him now for six years. I don’t know how old he was when he showed up, but he hasn’t grown. The top of his head reaches my knee. He’s got wiry fur and skinny legs and a tail that whips me in the face when he jumps in my bed and turns around and around until he finds a comfortable spot. And good god. He reeks. I suppose he’d smell better if I washed him – and believe me, I’ve tried. But he’s invisible. And he doesn’t like baths. So.

And then, from “The Unlicensed Magician”:

The junk man’s only daughter slides along the back of the low, one-roomed building that houses the constable’s office. The alley lights are out again – energy crisis. It is always an energy crisis. She appreciates the dark. She presses her hands against the wall, curling her fingers into the bricks. The sun is down and the moon isn’t up yet. The night air is a puckering cold, but the wall is still warm, and so are her hands. She can hear the constable inside, explaining things to the Inquisitor.
“I don’t care what you think you’ve heard, sonny,” she hears the old man say, “there ain’t been a whiff of magic anywhere in the county, nigh on fifteen years. Not a drop. Now you can write that down on your report and send it on up to your superiors. You got bad information is all. And not the first time, neither.”
  A scribble of pen on paper.
 An old man’s harrumph.

And then, from “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch”:

The day she buried her husband – a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink orfoolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space – Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest had been waiting for her at the open door.  The air was wet and sweet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk dress belted at the waist. Two white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket – each one tiny shock of fur, with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.

So what’s on your computer right now? Or your notebooks or scratch paper or napkins? Share, please! 🙂

Love,

Kelly

All I Want, In My Whole Entire Life Is A Whale Best Friend.


My son, from time to time, has requested a whale best friend. He’s been wanting this since he was two years old. Indeed, it was one of his first requests.

A whale best friend, he says.

Who talks.

And flies.

And does magic.

Also, when pressed, he would like this magic, flying, talking whale best friend to also go in space. “Because,” Leo assured me, “everything is better in space.”

Alrighty then.

There are things, in parenting, in life, that we simply cannot provide. I cannot give my son a best friend – whale or human, magic or not, talkative or taciturn, on earth or in space. These are things that he must find on his own.

What’s funny is that I wanted a whale best friend as well, when I was his age. Though not in space. Which makes me wonder: is the random oddity of my imagination hereditary? Or am I contagious? And if I’m contagious, is the fact that I put my odd little imaginary constructions into books and disseminate them like germs upon an unsuspecting public (and children! I send them to children! Will no one THINK of the children) constitute a health risk?

Are the writers of stories all secretly imaginary bioterrorists?

Perhaps we are. I’ve already blogged about my callous disregard for my role as Corruptor of Youth, and I meant what I said. But perhaps my role in the world is more nefarious than I earlier admitted to. Perhaps I am, even now, at work at something so insidious that it defies description.

I am writing a story.

Two of them, right now.

And copyediting another.

The two I’m writing may never be read by anyone other than myself. I may yet contain this contagion. We’ll see. I haven’t decided yet.

But VIOLET is a done deal. I will release it into the world later this year. In fact, I’ve already infected my kids, who have gone on to infect the kids in their classes with their games. Just yesterday, Leo was playing a game that involved a one-eyed dragon. “It has a foul temper,” he told his friends.

You see? It’s spreading already.

Stories, I think are organisms. They viruses – injecting themselves into the cellular framework of our imaginations, replicating themselves, making themselves new again and again and again.

My stories were told to my children before they were ever written down. My children turned them into games, and involved other children. And thus the story replicates.

I have not, at least to my knowledge, written a story about a whale best friend. Not one that flies. Not one that talks. Not one that does magic. Not yet.

Perhaps I should.

Or, perhaps I should wait until Leo is older. Perhaps it is his story. And perhaps, if he is lucky, it will infect the world.

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?