Saturday! At Wild Rumpus!


YOU GUYS! Tomorrow, September 27, I will be reading at Wild Rumpus Bookstore – one of my favorite places on earth. I’ll read from the book, answer your questions, and eat cookies. I had this mad scheme to make cookies in the shapes of wolves, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find any wolf shaped cookie cutters. So. Chocolate chip cookies instead. And perhaps we will discuss the nature of pie. Or Pi.

In any case, I hope you can come! 1:00. There will be chickens! And cats! And ferrets! And birds! And books! Hooray!


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


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

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

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

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

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

Cue the collective sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make art.

Work hard.

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

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

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

And everyone else can suck it.

The Magnificence of Middle Grade – why I read these books, why I write these books, and why these kids are awesome.

There are three boys under the bridge that spans the small creek at the end of my dead-end street. It is summer. They are all eight years old. It is a glorious age, eight.

“Our parents don’t know we’re here,” says one boy, not knowing that I am standing on the bridge, directly over his head.

“I know,” says another boy. “We’re on our own. Let’s never go back.”

Well, it’s happened again. A bunch of people who don’t read children’s literature with any frequency, passion or enthusiasm asked a bunch of other people who don’t think about children’s literature above the occasional passing interest, to name their “top YA novel”. These conversations always make me crabby. Because – and I must confess this bugs the spit out of me – once again we must wade through well-meaning comments demonstrating the rampant and weird conflation of YA and Middle Grade books.

There is a thing I must make clear: Middle Grade novels and Young Adult novels are not the same novels. To conflate the two is to dampen or derail the discussion. And really, what’s the point of a derailed discussion?

Listen, folks. Caddie Woodlawn is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not YA. It’s Middle Grade. The Giver? Also Middle Grade. And Harry Potter (at least the first four books are MG – number five is squarely in YA territory). A Wrinkle in Time? Yup. That’s Middle Grade too.

This distinction is important because middle grade kids and teenagers are different. Their world views are different. The rules governing their lives are different. Their relationships are different. And while it is incredibly common for middle grade kids to “read up” and for teenage kids to “read down” (I know TONS of fourth graders who are huge fans of the Hunger Games trilogy, and I know TONS of teens who are huge fans of Terry Pratchett‘s The Wee Free Menand its tie-in novels), just as it is common for lots of kids – both middle grade kids and teens – to read grown-up books and dig the hell out of them,  it is important to read and understand each separate genre on its own terms. That’s what we do as readers – we categorize, evaluate, compare and understand. And then we read everything. Wildly.

The wildness is important.

It is raining. The sky is dark and dumping. Water streams in great gushes from the corners of the roofs. Fifteen kids, aged four to twelve, tear across a mud-soaked yard. The adults huddle in the closest living room, holding paper plates of pasta salads and barbecue and lemon bars in one hand and cans of beer that went warm hours ago in another.

“Come inside,” the adults say. “You guys are soaked.”

The kids, in mid-step, pause. They stare at their parents as though they have started speaking another language. Sumerian, maybe. Or Elvish. They continue running. No adult can tell what the game is. Only that it is insanely fun.

I read a lot of books. It’s an occupational hazard. I read grownuppy novels and nonfiction and poetry. I read folk tales and fairy tales from around the world. I read science fiction and fantasy. I read YA novels. I read picture books. I read theological texts. I read foundational scriptures of religions that are not my own. And I read Middle Grade novels. Lots and lots and lots and lots of them.

Could I pick a “very best one”? A “top novel”? Not on your life. I wouldn’t even hazard to try. And, in fact, the very idea is somehow, well, icky to me. It is a reductive, banal process that is the very opposite of what Middle Grade novels do for me. The Middle Grade novel, fundamentally, is the act of expansion. This is because middle grade kids, by their very natures, are expansive. They are wild, impulsive, intuitive, inscrutable, curious and contradictory. They speak in multitudes. They yawp. (And believe me, I live in a sea of kids. The collective YAWP from these children is as ubiquitous as air.)

I am listening to “Carmen”. It is magnificent, as usual. The nine year old in my house stops. Listens curiously.

“Did she just say, ‘egg roll’?” he says.

“No,” I say. “Hush. I’m listening.”

“And now she just said ‘Elmo.'”

And then he starts dancing. All rhythmic stamping and flying fingers and bony elbows and knobby knees. Bizet would have been amazed.

What fascinates me about these kids is how easily they transport themselves between their selves now and their selves as they will be. Somewhere around third grade, the notion that the lives that they know will one day fall away – that their child selves will cease to be and their adult selves will take their places – really starts to hit home. Ask any third grader what he or she wants to be when they grow up, and they will tell you approximately nine thousand things. Firemen and scientists and astronauts and doctors and presidents and marine biologists and bush pilots and park rangers and spies and cops and professional divers and janitors and teachers and inventors and acrobats and basketball players and actresses and “just famous”. Sometimes, all at once.

This is a thing I know for sure. When a middle grade kid sits down to read a novel, their adult selves are reading, too. The adult that kid imagines him or herself to be. The adult that will, one day, pick up that same book, and read it. And when we, as adults, pick up the books that we read as kids, our kid-selves are reading with us. Across time, across space, across experience and understanding, across universes, across dimensions, across everything boundless and wondrous and strange. Which means that these books, when done well, allow for that sense of concurrency. They allow our selves as kids and our selves as adults to reflect back at one another. I see you, the child says to the adult she will be. I see you too, the adult says the the child that he was. Both narrative lines, both sets of understandings, harmonize with one another. And it is a wonderful thing.

“What do you want to be when you grow up,” the eleven year old asks her seven year old cousin. They love each other, these girls. They are linked souls.

“I already am grown up,” the seven year old says. “I am already all the things.”

I love the kids of this age. I love everything about them. I love their humor and their silliness. I love their capacity for wonder. I love their bravery and their fears and their litany of worries. I love their valor. I love the boundlessness of their imaginations. I love their willingness to try. I love their willingness to connect. I love them in their big-heartedness and their shriveled soulishness and that both of those things can happen simultaneously. I love their selfishness and their selflessness, and that both of those things can also happen simultaneously. I love their dreams. I love their nightmares. I love  their very selves – their effable, ineffable, effa-ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular selves (apologies to Mr. Eliot).

I read Middle Grade novels. I write Middle Grade novels. I love Middle Grade novels. I spend a lot of time thinking about Middle Grade novels. I will never tell you which one was the very best of all. It is a ludicrous idea. I can tell you which books moved me. I could give you a list that is miles long. I could invite you to my house and hand you book after book, and talk each one up for hours. Because that, in the end, is what books do. They do not belong on lists – the belong in peoples’s hands. And in our hearts. And in our lives.

“WAIT,” one boy says.

“WHAT,” say the others.

It is negative five degrees. Not including the wind chill factor. They are standing on a frozen hillside. Their faces are red. Their upper lips are white with frozen snot. They are balanced on their snow boards, ready to go screaming into the sky. Speed and light. Black jackets. Bright scarves. A frozen landscape. A shattering white.

“We need to decide our superpowers.”

“You don’t need to decide your superpower. Your superpower shows itself to you. That’s how it works.”

But best of all, these novels give us, as grown-ups, an avenue and a tool to connect with middle grade kids – our own children, our neighbor kids, our nieces and nephews, our students, the kids we meet at the library, kids in our church, and, yes, the kids we used to be. These books lay out a blanket in the market square. They call out to all passers by – Come! the books shout Sit! Gather together! This is a story for all of you. Young people! Old people! People of middle age! Come and share and connect and laugh and weep and worry and wonder and live. When I talk to middle grade kids about the books that we have both read, we will talk about characters, and we will talk about amazing feats, and we will talk about jokes and ideas and scary parts and mind-blowing parts, but what we are actually saying is this: I see you. I feel with you. We have hearts and souls. We have compassion and grace. And look! We are so alive.

Next up: Stories Are For Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

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

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

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

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

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

And this:

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

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

And this:

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

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

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

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

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

They were gifts that asked questions.

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

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

A lot.

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

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

And it will be beautiful.

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.

You know that dream when you’re naked in public? Yeah. It’s pretty much exactly like that.

This week, a box of books arrived in the Barnhill house. Two boxes, actually. I opened them up, and peered inside, and saw multiple copies of my book looking back at me, blinking their sleepy eyes.

 I have been a basket case ever since.

Now, to be fair, I’ve been a basket case for a while. The time when I erased the ending over and over and over again, trying to get the thing to land right. The time when I poured over galley pages from sunup to sundown until my eyes were bloodshot and dry and my skin flaked away like dust and my soul became clouds and clouds and clouds. And I was a basket case when the first ARCs arrived in the mail. And when the art was finalized. And when they sent me the map. And when I knew that the first reviewers were holding my book, or pouring over my book, or ignoring it all together.

But now.


Mind you, we’re still well shy of the official release date – October 9 – but that doesn’t matter. There is a stack of VIOLET at the Barnes and Noble. I saw them. And then I ran away. Amazon has them at the ready. Any beloved indie bookstore can snag a copy – or ten – in a matter of days. If they don’t have them already.

Which means that my baby is in the world, and I cannot hold anything back.

I was hanging out with a bunch of other moms from the neighborhood last night. There was wine and cookies and book talks and a bunch of ladies dishing about god-knows-what, and I brought a copy of the book to show them. These are women whose kids play with my kids, who show up at neighborhood functions with caprese salads and noodle bakes and bars. These are good, good women. Anyway, they asked me if I was excited.

“No,” I said. “I’m terrified. I feel vulnerable and hopeful and frightened and exposed. It’s not a pleasant feeling.”

They were amazed at this and somewhat flabbergasted, so I clarified. “You know that moment when you’re in labor, and your clothes have been taken away and you’re wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns, and your feet are in the stirrups and your rump is facing the door and about fifty-seven people have been in and out of the room in the last fifteen minutes, all with an unobstructed view of your nether regions?”

Tight grimaces all around. Yup. They remembered.

“Well, it’s just like that.”

“Oh, honey,” they said.

And then they gave me wine. God bless them.

Violet – the girl that I struggled with and fussed over; the girl who inspired fits of tenderness and exasperation; the girl who haunted my dreams for months and months? She’s gone now. She’s gone from me. And I never get to have her back. And that, my friends, is a mournful thing.

Still, it means that she belongs to more people than just me. She belongs to the reader. She belongs to the library. She belongs to the classroom and the after school center and the back seat of the station wagon on a road trip to Lubbock. She belongs to you. And the kid next door. And the world.

Godspeed Violet. Godspeed Demetrius. Godspeed Cassian and King Randall and Auntie and Moth and Nod. Godspeed Dragon and even the Nybbas. Godspeed to you all. I’ll miss you.


Butt-Kicking Princesses in History – Thyra of Denmark

The Danes, as a group, pretty much ruled in the nicknaming department. Particularly with their various monarchs. Olof the Brash. Halfdan the Black. Harald Bluetooth. And so forth.

Thyra, Queen of Denmark, was a lady of questionable parentage – with more folks listed as possible fathers and mothers than a new-born kit in a bunny factory. Which is to say that her parents, while terribly important, were likely not married. So she was married off to a Danish king who’s moniker was, I’m not even kidding, Gorm the Old.

And he wasn’t even old. And plus, his name was Gorm, for god’s sake.

And that, of course, makes a good story – the clever girl marries the schumpy boy and makes a great man out of him. It is, as we all know, the Marge Simpson approach, (“Lisa, most women will tell you you’re a fool to think you can change a man but those women are quitters.”) with a long and glorious history in storytelling. And it may be true.

However there is another record from the historian Saxo Grammaticus tells us another story, thusly: “This man [Gorm] was counselled by the elders to celebrate the rites of marriage, and he wooed Thyra, the daughter of Ethelred, the king of the English, for his wife. She surpassed other women in seriousness and shrewdness, and laid the condition on her suitor that she would not marry him till she had received Denmark as a dowry. This compact was made between them, and she was betrothed to Gorm.” Was she a princess or a bastard? Who knows. What I do know is this: Stories like that make me question my whole life. Withholding your hand in marriage until the young man in question can produce for you an entire nation? My god. This woman was brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that?


Thyra was already well-known by the time she married poor old Gorm. Or, at least it is said that she was. Thyra has many stories. Perhaps they are all true. Perhaps none are. The stories say that she was pretty, brave and resilient. They say that she fought an army of Germans and held them at bay. They say that she travelled across the Sea of Trolls to retrieve a stolen daughter.

They say a lot of things.

And you know what? I’m inclined to believe it. After all, they called her husband Gorm The Old. Know what they called her? The Pride of Denmark. (Or the Ornament of Denmark. Or the Jewel on the Neck of Denmark. In any case, it’s clear she was held in high regard.) According to legend, she was wooed aggressively by Otto, the emperor of Germany. And she held him off with batted lashes and sly smiles, all the while building a massive dyke (that still stands today) from which to wage war. And friends, war was waged and Otto ran off with his tail between his legs.

Go Thyra.

Later, when Gorm persuaded her to become his wife, she laid down her final terms for the nuptials to take place: He must first build a new house and sleep in it by himself during the first three nights of winter, and record what dreams he had. Only if she liked what she heard would she then consent to marry. When he reported that he had dreamed that a herd of oxen came out of the sea and that birds fluttered down from the sky and landed on the house, Thyra was satisfied.

Which means that Gorm may be cleverer than originally believed. After all, these dreams came straight out of the bible (they are the ones that Pharaoh reported to David – oxen from the ocean symbolizes a bountiful harvest, while birds indicate a strong nation). Gorm wasn’t a Christian, but he knew his beloved was. Could it be that he would think to report the exact dreams that he knew would please his wife? Could it be that he invented the stories that would, for once and for all, remove her last hesitations and pave the way of winning the gril of his dreams? Nice move, Gorm. Nice move.

Tricky fellow.

In any case, Thyra lived a long time, but not nearly as long as her husband. When she died, he mourned desperately, and erected two runestones in honor of his beloved. The Pride of Denmark. The Treasure of Denmark. The Jewel of Denmark. The Mother of Denmark. Thyra.

Tick, tock, tick, tock. Pub day approaches. Yikes!

Well, I’m a basket case, of course. But I’m getting excited.

Last Saturday, I read from IRON HEARTED VIOLET at the Anderson Center – a place that I’ve never been to before, but now will haunt my dreams forever. It is a gorgeous and pastoral farm, tucked into the heart of bluff country in southern Minnesota, that has been transformed into an arts center with a residency program. Gracious brick buildings, art galleries, studios, a completely awesome brick tower with a meditation space at the top.  I can’t even begin to tell you how deeply jealous I am of every person who has ever done a residency there since the beginning of time.

Anyway, they host a children’s book festival every year, and you should all go next September. It’s everything that you would ever want from a children’s book festival: banjo players, art projects, face painting, balloons, STILTS FOR EVERYONE, sing-alongs, marbles, people in costumes, people ringing bells, cool authors giving readings in the parlor of a gracious old brick home, books being bought hand over fist, and……wait for it…… cannons.

Speaking of cannons, one went off, right in the middle of my reading. It was awesome. I was describing a scene when the king and queen stand before the court to present the new princess. I read this sentence, “The king and queen entered quietly, without announcement or trumpets or pomp….” and then there was a terrific boom. I bowed, of course, and added “or cannons.”

I don’t have any cannons today, alas, but I do have this: An excerpt! Of IRON HEARTED VIOLET! If I could, I’d send it to you on the backs of one hundred elephants followed by nattily-dressed zebras waltzing with pretty girls in their arms and prancing ponies singing the soundtrack of The Wiz. Unfortunately, you must use your imaginations to fill in the gaps. Enjoy! 


Butt-Kicking Princesses In History: Isabella of France (aka The She-Wolf)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have decided to start writing a series of posts about real-life princesses who didn’t fit the stereotype of the delicate princess attached to their husbands or fathers or brothers like roses on the vine. My new book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET, features a princess who, like these, does not fit a lot of stereotypes: she is not  beautiful; she is not delicate. She does not wilt in corners or suffer in silence. She is crafty and cunning and full of wiles. And that’s how I like it. I like to write about princesses who make noise, whose actions have consequences – both good and bad.

So I’ve been looking into some princesses who made a little noise. And it’s been fun. First off: Isabella, the She-Wolf of France.

If I had ever been given the power to choose my own moniker, I would for sure choose “she-wolf”. Because wolves rule. And she-wolves are powerful and wily and cunning and strong and I love them. They are excellent mothers, they are good communicators, they back up their sister-wolves always, and they can go from snuggles to throat-ripping to home-building to gonna-stand-my-ground-and-don’t-even-THINK-about-attacking-my-young-you-big-jerkface, to snuggly mama and cubs time again. She-wolves rock.

I, alas, am far from wolfy, so I fear it is a long shot. Instead of Kelly “The She-Wolf” Barnhill, I’m more like Kelly “The Inconsistant Door Mouse” Barnhil. Or Kelly “The Perpetually Late Robin” Barnhill. Or something.

Not so for this lady:

 I mean, look at her. She is holding that rose so dangerously. I half expect it to be hiding a poison dart. And her lovely, calm expression belies her intention to raise an army of mercenaries and kick the royal butt of her philandering royal husband.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Isabella of France. Betrothed at seven. Married at twelve. A pawn for peace between two nations hell-bent for generations on kicking the spit out of one another. As an act of good will, King Phillip (usually called Phillip the Fair) and Queen Joan of Navarre, sent their only daughter to marry King Edward II of England – by all accounts an unserious, incurious and selfish King, more interested in pleasures and parties than the tedious work of running a kingdom. What’s worse is that he was famous for his long line of lovers – both male and female – and it pleased him to use his special-friend-of-the-week as a tool to insult and humiliate his young bride.

A jerk, right? I mean look at that guy:

He’s got “jerk-face” written all over him. I would never invite him over for dinner. And if I did, it would be something that I only mostly reheated from the freezer.

Of course, I am not a she-wolf.

Isabella was young and inexperienced, but she knew an insult when she saw one. And she was not about to take it lying down.

Now, at this time, the control that the King had over England was shaky at best. Like that old adage “all politics is local”, the real power lay in the local authority, and the local Barons were not all that happy with Edward. He had a nasty tendency to pick favorites (typically handsome favorites that he considered dating-material), lavishing favors on the  favored few while ignoring or insulting everyone else. Sabers rattled; battle cries yawped in the enraged throats of the jilted barons. And everyone polished their armor.

The King had a lover named Piers Gaveston, and despite the natural discomfort that one would have in dealing with the lover of one’s husband, Isabella forged a working relationship with Piers, even building strong diplomatic ties between his house and France – and the house of Edward and France, solidifying everyone’s position across the board. Though mostly, to be fair, her own. Isabella gained control over an impressive amount of land – all of which was hers outright – and her own militia and her own treasury. She was a force to be reckoned with. While Edward hardly bothered himself with Matters of State, Isabella was figuring out how to run a country – and how increase her adopted country’s status in the world.

Good on her.

But then Piers was murdered. And things got tricky.

This was, of course, a politically-motivated murder, though, to be fair, most accounts say that Piers was intensely annoying. And insufferable. And the fact that the Crown lavished everything possible on him I’m sure was too much to bear. The barons didn’t like Piers’ favored status, so they slaughtered the poor sod. But King Edward was, well, a man with needs, so he found himself a new boyfriend – Hugh Dispenser the Younger (a guy who tried his hand at piracy for a while. PIRATES!) – and England got bloody. Again.

First, there was the Dispenser War. (Side note to feudal despots everywhere: wars waged in the name of love or lovers typically do not go well. See: Helen of Troy). Then, there was the fact that Isabella and Hugh could barely stand to be in the same room as one another. So the working relationship was out. Add to that, the growing discontentment among Britain’s feudal lords – even those who stayed on Edward’s side during the war. It seemed that few people could tolerate Edward, and NO ONE could stand Dispenser. Things were not looking good for anyone.

So Isabella did what any self-respecting She-Wolf would do.

First, she went to France under false pretenses (and she brought her lover with her. Because why should Edward have all the fun?). Second, she asked the King of France (her brother) for an army. He refused (his own grip on power was tenuous), but Isabella didn’t let that stop her. She used her impressive treasury and land holdings to purchase herself an army of mercenaries. And they all went to England.

At first Edward and Hugh didn’t see her 1,500-strong army as much of a threat. They probably laughed about it over a good bottle of Bordeaux. But once she crossed the channel into England, the barons – all still pretty sore at the King – got wind of it, and they joined the party.

Isabella dispensed with Dispenser, jailed the king (and probably murdered him) (reportedly with hot pokers) (ouch)and put her son – Edward III – on the throne, with herself as regent, as the boy was too young to rule.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t mess with She-Wolves. They will turn your armies against you, humiliate you in public, put you in prison, put your lovers to death, and possibly murder you with hot pokers. You have all been warned.

On Give-aways, Festivals, Jedi-Mom-Tricks, Princesses, and More!

School has begun, with its requisite unloading of parental responsibilities, and driving time, and soul-crushing scheduling, and guilt, and guilt, and more guilt. It’s worse than a church-basement potluck for ex-Catholic-School-Girls. Or Catholic ex-School-Girls. Or whatever. The point is, that, despite my culture’s supposed market-cornering in the guilt department, no one does guilt like grade school teachers. No one.

So, I’m currently signed up for All The Things. Because I powerless against the insistence of shame.

And it’s funny, for all my whining about my limited work time during the summer, I did get a number of things done. I revised a novel, and have nearly finished another. (Assuming I do not erase it.) (This is a big assumption.) I also wrote two short stories – one of which I feel is pretty good. I’m withholding judgement on the other.

And now that the kids are gone for a good chunk of the day, I realize that all the craziness of a typical summer day, with its debris and discussion, its arguments and its awesomeness, is now concentrated in the two hours between getting the kids up and out the door, and the four hours between getting the kids home and homeworked and fed and exercised and read to and loved up and snuggled and put to bed. And of course, that’s not even counting the carpool. Carpooling is a nightmare, folks. An absolute nightmare. I love it, of course, and I desperately love the four extra kids who cram into the minivan with my kids once a day. But hoo boy. It’s a lot of boys in my car. And they are loud. And often stinky. And no amount of yoga can unhook the knots in my neck, because believe you me, I have tried.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered the secret of successful carpooling: Star Wars. Our ancient minivan has a rickety VHS player lodged between the driver’s and passenger seats, and a screen the size of a postage stamp. You’d think that – what with kids today being black-holes with legs in the technology department – that these children would be universally unimpressed with the grainy smudges pretending to be Star Wars, but you would be wrong. After gritting my teeth through a few days of screeching and horseplay and fart jokes and penis jokes and more fart jokes and then some yelling. And then actual farting. So, finally, I’d had it.

I never thought I’d be the mom who puts on a movie in the car. Especially if I’m just driving the twelve minutes between school and home. But oh! The children are silent. And oh! They are rapt! Now, granted, it means that I am forced to suffer through the uniformly wooden dialogue of Episode One and the Crime Against Humanity that is the insufferably Jar Jar Binks, but I do not care. I have told the children that they have to be silent for a full minute before I turn it on, and then they are silent the rest of the way. It’s like I have put them under some kind of Jedi-huju spell. I’m a Jedi-Mom. And it’s awesome.

So. The whole back-to-school transition has some getting used to. And soon I hope to make better use of my time at home. Because I have books to finish. And new books to write. And that’s kind of exciting.

Speaking of books, I have a new one coming out. Really soon! And I’m starting to panic. In the meantime, I organized a give-away on Goodreads a while back, and I get to announce the winners! Jillian Unger, from California and Jenna Pizzi from Massachusetts (is it just me, or does that State’s name always look like it’s spelled wrong). Weird state names aside, CONGRATULATIONS, LADIES! And I hope you enjoy the book. And, even more, I hope the kid you hand it off to when you’re done enjoys the book. No matter what your opinion, I really hope that you drop me a line on the contact button and tell me what you think. Hate it? Love it? Upsettingly ambivalent? Whatever.

And speaking of the new book, I will be reading both from THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and IRON HEARTED VIOLET this coming Saturday in beautiful Red WIng, Minnesota. It’s called the Celebration of Minnesota’s Children’s Authors and Illustrators and it’s here at the Anderson Center. Isn’t it pretty?

And here:

Lovely, yes?

Anyway, I’ll be there with all kinds of awesomy-awesome-types like Cathy Clark and Sheila O’Connor and William Alexander and Stephen Shaskan and a bunch of other amazing people. So you should come.

And lastly: PRINCESSES! I want you to watch this space, because over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be talking princesses in Barnhill-land. As many of you know, my new book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET features a rather unconventional princess. She’s plain, crafty, flawed, reckless and brave. One of the hardest things about finishing the arduous process of writing a book is that you have to give your characters up to the world. I miss Violet. I miss her desperately. So, in her absence in my life, I am going to dedicate some blog space to …… wait for it…………..

Butt-Kicking Princesses in History!

Tomorrow’s princess: The She-Wolf of France, the lovely Isabella. And she rules. So stay tuned.

So here’s my question for y’all: What’s new? What are your projects? And how are you surviving the Crazy ™ of Back To School Madness?

The paperbacks are in!

I am so madly in love with the paperback design of JACK, I can hardly stand it. And look! It arrived today, all shiny and ruddy and alive. I’m beside myself. I’m a fluttery, swoony mess.


I’m not entirely sure how this all works from here – like when they show up on shelves, for example. I know they’re in the warehouse, so one could order them, should one choose (and by “one”, I of course am referring to my mom). In any case, I’m terribly pleased and I had to share.

Anyone else have good news to share with me?

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.

My Cover is All Official and Stuff

So, I’ve been far, far away for the last two weeks. We loaded up the minivan with kids and dog and food and gear and went camping in the Badlands and the Black Hills and the Rockies, and Devil’s Tower (we tried to camp in the Laramie Range, but alas, they were on fire). And it was awesome. And I have Much To Say on the subject, but it will take more brain space than I currently have available. So instead….


My cover!

I got the official cover while I was gone, but I never had a solid enough wifi signal to actually compose a post and heave it onto the internets. But now I am home. So here it is!

Isn’t it a pretty thing?

The artist – like the new cover for JACK – is a lovely Italian man named Iacopo Bruno, and I think he is super special. He also made a bunch of interior illustrations, that I can’t show you yet, but I assure you,  are FANTASTIC.

Anyway, what have you people been doing for the last two weeks? Any glorious adventures?


The Gluecaps: A Sinister Tale of Depravity and Woe.

My daughter and her good friend have penned a poem called The Gluecaps. It is a devilish little urchin of a rhyme – all patchworked aprons and ratty fingernails and whispered fright.

And I’m going to share it with you now because it makes me think of an article that ran in the Wall Street Journal a while back, in which a very silly woman wrote an…impolitic rant about how children’s books are “too dark”.

“Too dark?” people asked. “Really?” The twitterverse and blogosphere summarily exploded, and many people said some smart things and many more people said some misguided things and various wagons were circled and various lines were drawn in the sand.

But no one really talked about kids.  Nobody talked about the darkness that they explore every dang day in their imaginative play.

Here’s the thing: my house, on any given day, is overrun with friggin’ children. And I love them all desperately. There are twelve year old children and nine year old children and hordes and hordes of seven year old boys. And I listen to them all the time. I pay attention to the language of their play and the language of their imagination, and you know what? These kids are darker and creepier and far more sinister than anything that you will find on display of a Barnes & Noble or on any possibly-pinko-commie librarian’s do-gooder shelves. In their imaginations, villains lurk under the stairs, assassins hide behind shower curtains, and tentacled monsters slurp along the basement floor. For these kids, war is a way of life (indeed, it’s what one does between breakfast and lunch, and again in the hours before dinner – preferably in the kitchen while your parents are trying to cook), posses must be constantly assembled, evil stepmothers and overlords are ever threatening both life and limb, and someone is dying of an incurable disease.

Also, we can all, apparently, talk to animals.

The point is, in the bruhaha that followed the ridiculous comments that  Ms. Gurdon laid forth in that article so long ago missed an essential point – people who write for children, even those of us whose work veers into the dark and the creepy and the vaguely sinister – we are only scratching the surface of what is going on inside these kids’ heads. It is not that we are too dark or our books are too dark or that we’re destroying childhood or that we have some kind of sinister intent with our books. It’s that kids are dark. They’re really dark. The imaginative life of a child is boundless; it breaks rules; it is not safe.

The more I listen to kids, the more I know that they are far more brave than we can ever hope to be, and the stories they dream up would keep me in nightmares for weeks.

Which is why I’m glad that the kids don’t mind my listening. Because they are marvelous resources. And by “resource” I mean “people I steal from.”

Anyway, here’s the poem that my daughter and her friend wrote last week. I hope you enjoy!

The Gluecaps: A Sinister Tale of Depravity and Woe

This is Mr. Gluecap
He sits with you at night
And when the dancing bears come
You choke and scream with fright.

This is Mrs. Gluecap
She’s Mr. Gluecap’s wife.
She disappears behind your back
And stabs you with a knife.

This is Baby Gluecap;
She’s her mommy’s helper.
She knocks you out and puts you in
A field without a shelter.

This is Grandpa Gluecap
He grew to be so old.
He disappears into your mouth
And fills it full of mold.

I have to admit: I like the last one best.


Regarding IRON HEARTED VIOLET: where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

this is my book as it was and my book as it is. and this is my desk in the attic.

I am now, and will be for the next week, in the final stages of my work on my next book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET. This is my last chance to get my grubby little fingermarks all over the text and the story and the outcome. This is my last chance to do….. Aw, hell I don’t know. Something.

After I send the book back to Julie Sheina, my beloved editrix, then that’s it. My voice is silenced. My fingers are stilled. I may want to re-set the book on Mars or in the future or in a utopic commune in Zimbabwe, but my cries will be fruitless and my desires thwarted. Once the book leaves my fingers, it is no longer my book.

It will never again be my book.

It will belong to the reader.

And that, my friends, is a gorgeous thing. Scary, yes. But gorgeous all the same.

In truth, there isn’t much for me to do. The copy is pretty dang clean (though I’ll have my titanium-eyed husband give it a once-through just to make sure), and I’m astonishingly happy with the story itself. The weight of the words on my tongue is both both soothing and tasty, with a little bit of a spicy bite, and the yaw of consonants against my molars has a pleasing give to it. And after so many weeks away from these characters, my heart leaps within me to see them again.

Now, many of you already know that I’m a longhand-type writer. I love the scritchy sound of the pen on the paper. I love the fact that I’m forced to slow down, to breathe as my characters breathe, to worry over my inscrutable handwriting after a long day of writing and unwind the story like a bit of tangled thread.

Here is the book as it looks now: a stack of white, clean paper. Four-hundred-and-change pages of goofy fantasy goodness with a healthy dose of my nerdy, nerdy heart, forced into typeface and heavily bleached 8 1/2 by 11 paper.

But that’s not how it used to look.

It used to look like this.

(I’m actually totally astonished that the first line has remained the same. Well, almost the same. There’s a couple sentences that precede it, but the sentence is there. And it still feels like a first line.)



Okay, fine, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s interesting – given that I have the tendency to be a slash-and-burn self-editor, the kind to employ the select-all-delete with wild abandon, to ceremonially set fire to drafts in the fire ring outside with a kind of mad, cackling glee. The shape and heft of the prose in my earliest drafts has remained constant. Maybe this means that I’m growing up. Or maybe it means that I’ve finally moved past the fact that I once lost a novel in a spontaneously-combusting, and subsequently exploding laptop.

(okay, fine, that last part was a lie. It wasn’t once. It was twice.)

In any case, the consistency in this bout of story-making interests me. Perhaps it is the reason that I feel so happy with the text now. Maybe there are benefits to learning to trust one’s instincts.

Now, as you can see here, there are actually two notebooks, which I have out in case I need to refer to my original drafting. The smaller of the two – it’s a little moleskin, which I get is all uber-precious-artiste-ish, and you all should totally make fun of me for using one, and I get it that they’re overpriced and show an over-abundance of Hemmingway-love, but I gotta tell ya, I love those friggin notebooks. First of all, they force you to write small, so a longhand page in one of those is roughly equal to a manuscript page, so they’re useful. Also, it fits in my purse, so it allowed me to keep my page counts up because I could scratch out a page or two at the park with the kids, or a the doctor’s office with the kids or at a stoplight while driving the kids, or whatever. Also, they’re super sturdy, so after a long time of hard wearing, the notebook has resisted any damage to the binding, loss of pages and whatever.

And you can make fun of me all you want, but I can still tell you to CAN IT.

The other notebook is from the very earliest iterations of VIOLET. Mostly, it was my initial experimentations with the narration and the character of the narrator. Originally, Violet was named Evangeline (what was I thinking?) and there was no character of Demetrius, her best friend.

But even at the very beginning, I was wrestling with this notion of story-making. Why do we make stories? And are stories always good? Can stories hurt us? Where is the truth in narrative – particularly now when news media and corporate and political operatives manipulate narrative for their own cynical ends?

I wrote this story because I loved the characters, but I also wrote it as a work of philosophy as well. In the end, I needed to wrestle with the notion of Story – and I needed my characters to do the same.

Did it work? I have no idea. But I’m pretty happy with it right now. While it’s mine. Before I release it into the sky.


The Tanglewood TerrorWould you get a load of that cover? I have so much love for this book, it’s not even funny.

For those of us who spend a lot of time with kids (as I do: students, offspring, short relatives, hordes of neighborhood children stomping around my house all day), we’ve all had the experience of reading a kid’s book and wanting desperately to shove it into the hands of every grubby-faced, scabbed-kneed, gap-toothed kid of our acquaintance. There are some books that speak fluent Kid – and do so in a way that jock kids and nerdy kids and anti-establishment kids and outdoorsy kids and adventurous kids and timid kids will all somehow see a hint of their experience reflected in this novel.

There is a mystery in the woods behind Tanglewood – one that could possibly destroy the town, and Eric Parrish – football player, pig keeper, rotten big brother and poor-choice-maker – decides to find out exactly what it is…..before it’s too late! THE TANGLEWOOD TERROR, by Kurtis Scaletta does it for me on so many levels. Indeed, because of this, I’ve decided to compose a list:


1. SCIENCE! – Now, I love science fiction as much as the next geek, but one thing that we really do not see enough of – in Middle Grade fiction – is fiction that engages explicitly with scientific facts, and uses the unravelling of mysteries in the natural world as a tool to raise the stakes and deepen the mystery. I’ve always been fascinated with fungi and have spent a lot of time mushroom hunting, particularly when I lived on the West Coast. But here we have GLOWING MUSHROOMS! And MONSTER FUNGI! And MAD ADVENTURES! And KOOKY OLD SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS! And SECRET HOVELS! And it’s awesome.

2. PIGS! Honestly, there are not enough pigs in children’s literature. And the pig in this particular book is a delightful creature and I adore her.

3. FOOTBALL! You don’t see a whole lot of books in which science and football overlap, but they do so here. Eric Parrish, like most kids, is good at a lot of stuff, and tries to be better at a lot of stuff and is interested in a lot of stuff. And his willingness to engage in the different parts of himself is one of the things that makes his portrayal so real, so genuine and so endearing.

4. PESKY, UPPITY GIRLS! ‘Nuff said.

5. BULLYING! Actually, that’s not a good thing – of course it’s not – but the issue of bullying, and the consequences both overt and subtle, and the toll that it takes on a person, are all handled with the sensitivity and grace of a grownup combined with the cluelessness and confusion of a kid. It’s handled extremely well, and I was pleased to see it.

6. SELF-CENTERED PARENTS!! There really is nothing worse than people who justify their self-centeredness by claiming that their selfishness is just altruism in disguise. In TANGLEWOOD, we have two parents on the brink of divorce, and neither is demonized, neither is overly wicked, but selfishness really is the underlying organism that begins to pull the family apart. Indeed, that each parents would have dreams of their own – and thwarted dreams – allows the reader to see their actions from their perspective, and mourn their choices that led to this mess. Scaletta never preaches and leaves it up to the reader to make their own determinations about what, exactly, is going on with this family. Suffice to say, as Eric vainly tries to patch up the cracks in his home-life that his parents leave behind, he shows exactly what he is made of – and it is some tough stuff. Good on you, Eric.


8. POSSIBLY CRAZY PULP SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS!  As writer who sometimes writes science fiction, and is more possibly completely crazy….AND who really digs the old school, “Golden Age of Pulp Fiction” stuff, I loved this aspect of the story. And it made me want to cultivate my inner crazy-but-brilliant hermit. Yanno. For posterity.

9. MADCAP ADVENTURES! ON WHEELS! Everything is better when motors are involved. And when it’s motors in the hopes of rescuing a town from possibly-murderous fungi? SIGN ME UP!

Now, I have already purchased a copy for a Certain Nephew on his Certain Birthday, and will be snagging another for myself when Kurtis reads at the Red Balloon this Friday, but I want to encourage all of you to snag a copy now. Hell, get two – one for you and one for a kid.

Back to Normal

The children are back in school. My hands are raised to the heavens. My mouth sings hymns of praise. I have cleared away the debris on my desk (there was beach sand on my desk. And a flip flop. And nine snail shells. And a note from my daughter demanding her own room) and I have gotten back to work.

There was a time, when my kids were small, that my only time to write fiction was between the hours of four and six in the morning. This is a scenario that I cannot recommend. During those years, I would haul my shaking carcass out of bed, stumble to the stove and light it. Sometimes I would forget to put on the kettle, and would, instead stand in the darkened kitchen, staring at the cold blue of the hot flame. Once I burned my hand. Another time I singed my bathrobe. Honestly, I’m astonished that I didn’t – not once – burn down the house.

Or maybe I did. In a different universe. I’ve been obsessing with universes lately.

In any case, I would stumble, tea in hand, sloshing it all over my damn self, and lean into my desk chair and start to write. I wrote a grown-up novel that collapsed under its own weight (I had actually started that one in college), and a young adult novel that was so dark and so upsetting and so violent that no one in their right mind will ever want to read it (all copies – I’m pretty sure – have been destroyed) and a mystery novel that wasn’t horrible, but still wasn’t particularly publishable.

It was an important time for me, but it wasn’t a time of producing good work. Just work.

But then – oh! then! – my kids went to school. No more collapsing at keyboards! No more zombified visage! No more potential disasters with fire! Instead I was rested, rejuvenated and organized. I planned out my writing day the night before, and worked in time to read. I had time, each day, to plunk words on the page, and the words – while not good, per se – weren’t terrible. I had graduated from Sucky to Mediocre. I was on fire!

But here’s the thing about the school year – it’s only nine months. Like a pregnancy. And like a pregnancy, it ends with interrupted schedules and lack of sleep and crying fits (mine, mostly) and bouts of vomiting and sticky surfaces and howls of rage. (Also mine). It is almost impossible for me to work during the summer.

Now sometimes, one has to. Deadlines, after all, exist, and boy did I have one. I needed to get the new version of Iron Hearted Violet to my beloved editrix, and I fear that I tried her patience, alas. My time was interrupted, and the work was slow, and the deadline began to creep, and bend, and topple forward. If I lived in NYC, I think she might have strangled me.

Right now, I miss my kids – I really do. The school day is long, and I’m lonely without them, but I need the time away from them in order to make fiction. Right now, my house is quiet. Right now, my heart is quiet. And right now, my new book is taking shape – even as I write this post, even now – under my hands. It presses on my skin. It whispers in my ear. And now, with the kids blissfully at school, it’s quiet enough for me to hear it at last.

Hey there….you with the stars in your eyes.

So today I received News. A bit of happy, spin-around-the-room, grab-a-stranger-and-waltz, kick-kick-kick-turn-kick-turn-kick-turn kind of News. Booklist has given my book (The Mostly True Story Of Jack) a big fat STAR!

Okay, not that kind of star. But a magnificent star all the same. And it came with a nice review! Here it is in its entirety:

The Mostly True Story of Jack.

When Jack’s parents’ marriage unravels, the boy is sent from San Francisco to live with his eccentric aunt and uncle in Iowa. The experience is a revelation for Jack—who is accustomed to being virtually invisible at home and school—as he finds he has friends that are in their own ways as odd as his aunt and uncle. Then he is noticed and beaten up by a bully, and then the powerful town villain seems to be making plans for him—dark plans. What’s going on here? The answers are not given up easily, and that’s just one facet of this delightful puzzle of a book. It is also wonderful in the best possible way: filled with wonders and magic, yes, but magic that is ancient, numinous, and tied to the natural world. Readers are tacitly invited to help untangle this deep and complex web. Barnhill’s first novel for children is a marvel of both plotting and characterization, and it provides a foundation for the omnipresent magic that elevates this title to the first rank of contemporary children’s literature. Best of all, an open ending suggests the possibility of a sequel. Readers can only hope.

Now, it doesn’t go live until August 1, but I have been given special dispensation to post it here.

And now, my darlings, I must dance around the room. You can join me if you’d like. Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr., will you please serenade us?

How To Roast a Novel

My father gave me a copy of Julia Child’s letters (As Always, Julia), and, as always, that woman is a revelation. I remember watching her show as a little kid and, after being first entranced by her voice and by all the cool stuff in her kitchen, I remember being struck by her relationship  with food. That combination of exasperation and delight, that careless tenderness combined with a firm belief in the democratization of pleasure.

That woman loved food. She love the fact that the food she made existed solely to spoon into another person’s mouth. She loved the communal nature of a meal, the shared experience, the moment of delight and euphoria and grace. And she rocked, that woman. She rocked.

The woman who said, “A few drops of Cognac never hurt anything. Neither did a bottle.”

And, “Cooking is like love: it should be entered into with wild abandon, or not at all.”

And, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”

And, “The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”

And, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

And, “Life itself is the proper binge.”

And, “You could use skim milk, of course, but I don’t know why you would.”

This is the woman who taught me to make omelettes for 300 (a skill I use all the time, though for five instead of three hundred).

I love that woman. I love her forever. And I love that my kids have gotten into the habit of watching bits of her show on youtube.

Now, I know – I know for sure – that Julia, if she was to visit my kitchen, would likely turn up her nose at the kinds of foods I typically cook. My family is vegetarian – a state of being that she regarded with the utmost suspicion – and in the summer we eat lots and lots of raw foods straight out of the garden. Still, despite the fact that much of what she taught me does not apply to how I cook now, and how I eat now, I have absorbed lesson after lesson of her cooking practice into my writing practice.

Or, more specifically, my revision practice.

I’m in the throes of revision right now. It’s not a happy place necessarily, or an easy place. The process is difficult, painstaking and sometimes a pain in the butt. It requires patience, planning, insistence, and love. It needs a willingness to appreciate the raw materials in its ugliness, in its shyness, in its unstructured state, as well as a willingness to coax it into a place of beauty, into a delight of the eye and ear and tongue and nose, into a thing whose very existence requires it to be shared.

Or, in other words, what Julia did for the roast chicken, I am now attempting to do with my novel. Here is my recipe:


1. Prepare your workspace. Wash your hands.

2. Lay out novel. Run your hands along the pages, feeling for cracks, gaps, and bulges. Pay special attention to the eruptions on the skin. Pull out loose hairs. Mind the feathers.

3. Grease your hands (butter works the best, but you may use olive oil if you are concerned about saturated fats). Run your fingers through the words, making sure to massage between the consonants. As with a roast chicken, anomalies will exist – a thickening here, a flaw there. There will be scars, of course – there always are with a thing that is alive. What you’re looking for is signs of illness, mutilation or genetic distress. Third eyes. Extra digits. Teeth in the throat.

This is not to say there is not a market – or indeed an appetite – for a roasted three-headed chicken, or a chicken with a dolphin’s tail, or a chicken with jeweled eyes. Still, it’s best to know such things up front.

4. Take a very sharp knife and a measure of strong twine. Cut away what cannot be eaten. Cut away that which detracts the eye or the tooth or the tongue. Cut away what is not beautiful, or what is too beautiful. Cut until your fingers bleed, or your heart bleeds – whichever is first.

5. Bind what can be bound. Even in this state, your novel is wily and wild. It will slip from your fingers, dance around the room, run out the door. The parts that you cut will become ambulatory too. They will swing from the chandelier and slither up the walls and mess up your bed. They will hide under carpets and in linen closets and will collude with your kids and steal your credit cards. Indeed, they’re doing it all ready.

6. Gather sweet things and salty things and savory things and herbacious things from your garden and your pots and your cupboards and your pockets. Stuff the gap. You are only doing this to flavor the meat. You will remove it all in a minute.

7. Put it in the oven. Walk away. Do nothing. Don’t check it. Don’t fuss over it. Let the novel sit in peace – in the hot dark, in the cloud of its own steam, in the flow of its own juice. Because there is nothing you can do to it anymore.

NOTE: Please take care when you open the oven. It will not behave itself. It will not go willingly to the table. It will knock you down. It will grow arms and legs and feathers and wings. It will fly away. You will only be left with its lingering scent hanging in the house. It will leave you starving.

And with that, I’m off to work. What is everyone else working on today?


Author copies arrived today. A whole box of ’em. My book is multiplying!


After a day that, quite frankly, was a bit of a struggle, and a slog, Ms. Kelly Barnhill is has removed her cardigan and her sensible shoes, and is now dancing around the room with the music turned up very, very loud. In my head I am composing notes of apology to my neighbors for the tremendous din and the whoops of joy, though, really, I know I will neither write nor send them.


Mr. James Brown, will you please serenade us and entertain us with your glorious, fabulous and funky self? Thank you. Ahem.