Paperback Writer!

Holy Box of Books, Batman!

I know I announced this when it was official last week, but a HUGE books arrived in the mail the other day, much to the delight of Barnhills everywhere. And so I stacked them up. And…..well. Just look at them! So many! And just after I was complaining to my dear Anne Ursu that I didn’t have a single copy of my own book in my house because I was constantly handing them to children who looked like they may be in need of reading material someday, and viola! Books! Real ones! And they arrived in secret on my doorstep, and I can’t wait to hand them out again to unsuspecting children.

I feel like the tooth fairy. Except without the underlying dental conditions. Also: with books.

Right Writer, Wrong Book

Once, a long time ago, I wrote a book. A mystery novel called Little Girl Blue. I wrote that thing, and re-wrote it, and sliced it and diced it and took it apart and put it back together again. After much labor and effort and care, I wrote up a query letter and sent that baby into the world.

You will never read this book. Not ever. It’s not a bad book, not at all. I just read through it, and I’m still pretty proud of it. But it’s the wrong book. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, Little Girl Blue was not the first book that I started. There were other, sophomoric efforts that collapsed under their own weight, or shifted focus so wildly that they had the frenetic feel of seventeen novels crashing into one. These you will similarly never see. These I am not proud of. 

But LGB was different. It was the first book that I had written that was utterly and completely separate from me. It had legs and eyes and skin and hair. It had breath and hunger and thirst. It moved. And of course that’s interesting because it was the first time that I had drawn deeply from my own experience to create a fictional world. Prior to that, my main characters had been fifty year old women or aged ex-priests or drug dealers or Harley riders. My main characters were entirely not me. Indeed, fiction was my way of being not-me, of taking a break from my neurotic, complicated self. 

And, of course, I wrote a lot of crappy fiction. More stuff that you will not see.

In LGB, I wrote about a woman around my age, an ambivalent mother, wife, and teacher. And that ambivalence was crushing her. In writing this book I was trying to unpack an experience I had working at a school in Oregon that had, two years before I arrived, had Aryan Youth protests that got ugly. At this school, there were kids who were on lists, and I was told to memorize them. Kids who were known AY. Kids who were white supremicist sympathizers. Kids who were there when they should not have been. There were key words that I was to listen for and phrases that I was to report and behaviors that should be written up instantly.

At the time, I was twenty five, pregnant for the first time, married mid-way, and just barely getting by. I was in a time of transition, of saying goodbye to the life I thought I was living, and trying to embrace the life that I now had.  It took many years to be able to make sense of what happened that year – of what happened to me.

changed. And it wasn’t comfortable. The transition from single person to married person. Wonderful, sure, but uncomfortable. The transition from non-mother to mother. Uncomfortable. The realization that people can think and do terrible things – and that you’ll love them anyway. Uncomfortable. And the careful maneuvers in a closed society made crazy in its response to crazy things. Very, very, very uncomfortable.

So I explored this discomfort in the context and form of a mystery novel. I poured who I was then into the character of Abby Blue, and she, in turn, became entirely separate from me. And her story became her own story. And her book became real, true and alive.

I still really like it.

So I sent it out.

I wrote query letters and scattered them across the four winds.

I queried wildly, inappropriately, and with gusto, abandon and verve.

And I got a lot of rejections. And then I got a lot of requests to read the book. These were universally followed by another rejection. I got kind rejections and brusque rejections and impersonal rejections and form rejections that mask themselves as personalized but secretly are not. I read through my rejection notes like a medium reads tea leaves. 

I was addicted to my email. Obsessed. I would wake up three or four times a night to check if anything came. I was impossible to live with. 

Finally, an agent (I won’t give out her name, and honestly she likely doesn’t even remember her kindness to me. The best kind of kindness is that which is unaware of itself. The best kind of kindness spontaneously generates. This was the best kind of kindness) wrote me back. She was a known entity, both a mover and a shaker, and well regarded to be very good at what she does. She represented something called “up-market women’s fiction” which I still can’t entirely define (or even slightly define) but it seemed to me that Little Girl Blue qualified. I queried her. She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. Two weeks later she wrote me back.

“I’ve read your manuscript three times,” she wrote, “and I really like it. But….”

(There’s always a “but”, I thought.)

“There’s a thought that keeps creeping in, and I can’t shake it. The more I read this book – and you really did a good job. The prose is tough and resilient, the characters intricately drawn, the pacing is heart-pounding. But with each page I find myself thinking, “Right writer; wrong book.” If this was your third or fourth book, I’d likely be able to find a home for it. But it’s not the book for you to come out of the gate with. Also, I feel that this isn’t the book you were meant  to write. Write me the right book. Then send it to me.”

I was telling somebody this story recently, and she said, “Oh, that must have been so hard to hear!” But the thing is, it wasn’t. I had been querying and requerying LGB  for months.  I had stopped writing. I had stopped reading. I stared at my computer, all dead-eyes and zombie skin. It was draining my soul away. The moment I read that, I felt a terrible weight lift from my body.

That letter set me free.

The next day I started The Mostly True Story of Jack. And that was the right book. 

My mother asks me from time to time if I’ll ever try again to get LGB published. Probably not, I tell her every time she asks. Because why waste time on the wrong book when the right one is spinning itself, even now on the scribbled notes on my desk, in the stories I tell my kids in the dark, in the quiet glow of my computer, in my wide, wild mind. I’ve learned how to find the right  book – for this writer at this moment.

And for you, dear readers, I hope for the same. I hope that you also encounter a kind person who will tell you if you’ve deviated from the path that you need to be on. The path that you are.  I hope that all of you, perhaps today, will be writing the right book. 

And I hope that I will get to read it.

My House Is Lousy With Amputated Novel Bits

I can’t walk six step across a room in my house without tripping over the bloody stumps of amputated novel bits. They scatter across the floor, hide in corners, collect under toyboxes and under beds.

Some of the bits have joined with others, grafted themselves together – ragged flesh to ragged flesh and sewn tightly with good, strong thread. They are agile creatures, my little homonculi made of paper and letters and ink. They are crafty and sneaky and full of juice. They vie for my attention, whisper compliments from their dusty shadows, try to turn my gaze from the novel on my computer, or the novel in my notebook, or the novel in my head.

“Why, Kelly Barnhill,” they croon. “Aren’t you looking lovely today!”

This is a lie. Today I am the opposite of lovely. Today I am pale skin, wild hair, darkened eyes. But they say lovely, and for a moment, in my imagination, lovely persists.

“Thank you,” I say.

“We have some thoughts,” they say, “about your current project. We have some ….. concerns. Why don’t you open a new document, and we can work it through.”

They do not belong. They do not fit. And oh! How they want to!

There is no home for these bits, alas. And there is nothing I can do. In deference to their plight, though, I will allow one of them to live here, on this blog. This was taken from JACK and it was originally penned by one of the characters in JACK- one Clive Fitzpatrick. I love Clive so very much, and I want him to have his own book someday. Or maybe, I’ll collect his writings and publish it under his name. In any case, here is a bit from one of his stories, from his imaginary book Tales from Nowhere – or Everywhere:

“You are not who you think you are,” the old man said.

“Is anyone?” the boy asked.

The man thought on this. At their feet, three small field mice sniffed at the embers of the dying fire, looking for scraps. The old man reached down and picked one up by his tail. He showed it to the boy. “What is this?” he asked.

“A mouse.”

“If it could think, if it had the concept of Self that you or I have, what form would it think it was?”

“A mouse, of course.”

“And it would be wrong. It is not a mouse. It is lunch.” The old man threw the mouse into the air and caught it in his mouth. He bit down with a grin.

The boy looked down at his shoes and was silent for a while. “So I’m the mouse,” the boy finally said.

“No,” the old man said gulping down his lunch and wiping his chin. “But like the mouse, you are similarly misinformed about your role in this story. If you intend to survive to the end, might I suggest that you attempt to learn something.”

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick

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?


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.

The Perils of Photography (or, My Life-Long Obsession With Oscar Wilde)

My whole life, I’ve wanted to be this guy:

Oscar Wilde. Man of wit, elegance and grace. His stories were delicate, lovely and brutal. He managed to be both honest and coy at the same time and managed a frankness in literary subterfuge that I have always admired and will never, ever master. Indeed, I’ll never come close. He was lovely to behold, lovely on the page; his words could insinuate themselves into underclothes, convince buttons and laces to spontaneously undo, unravel a “yes” with the flick of an eye.

What I’m saying is that dude got around, and got some. And bully for him.

And he’s my total hero.

Which may sound weird, given that I’m a happily married (and matronly) wife and mama of three. Why is it that I am so utterly, utterly delighted by Oscar Wilde? Honestly, I have no idea, but I’ve been in love with him since I was eleven years old – when I first read “The Fisherman and His Soul”, and I’ve never looked back.

I love him for his cunning duality, his dark humor, his moral ambivalence. I love him for his loneliness, for his joyful and unabashed love of his own body and its appetites, for his hunger for true love, even as it eluded him. Even as it betrayed him. Also, to be perfectly frank, I love him for his fashion sense.

Indeed, if I were to name my two fashion heroes in life, it would be Oscar Wilde and Catherine the Great. Because if I could pull off these outfits (which, by the way, I can’t. As I mentioned: matronly; mama-ish) I totally would.

Oh Oscar! That wrap! That saucy mug! That hat pulled rakishly to one side! That is the face of a young man who honestly wants nothing more than to make love to the entire world, and I for one thinks that he should go right on ahead. But first, he must sit at my table so that I may feed him as he tells me stories.

And the only reason why I bring up my dear, dear Oscar at all is because the good folks at Little, Brown were pestering me last week for a photograph. Something authory and not-horrible, which was problematic, because I have an issue with taking not-horrible photographs. Or, in other words, I tend to be so terribly un-photogenic that cameras, when they are in my vicinity, have been known to spontaneously combust and sometimes explode.

I will never be Oscar Wilde! I will never be dashing or debonair or devastatingly clever. Oh Oscar! A lifetime of loving you and yet you give me nothing! It’s enough to make a lady want to despair.

Still, a photograph was owed, so I endeavored to do my best. I had already made it clear that I did not want any images of me to appear on my book at all. Indeed, as a reader, I always find it jarring to see a snapshot of the author who wrote the book on the book. Do I need to know what the carpenter looked like who made my diningroom table? Or the craftsman who built my piano? Or the architect who designed my house?

(Actually, scratch that one. The guy who designed my house also lives in my house. He eats the food that I cook and wears the clothes that I wash and sleeps in the bed where I sleep and I love him very much.)

Anyway, the point is that I had a very bad attitude about any publicity photograph involving yours truly. I didn’t see the point, I was sure that the results would be horrifying, and for god’s sake it would just be further proof that I was not, nor would I ever be, as awesome as Oscar Wilde, and it was as though the universe was just rubbing it in.

Fortunately for me, I have nice friends.  Bruce Silcox, photographer, and all-around Nice Person, was kind enough to snap some photos for me. I’ve known Bruce for years – our daughters have been friends since Kindergarten – and he managed to quell any camera-exploding mojo that I had radiating from my skin. And he took a few good pictures.

I’m not Oscar Wilde, and I never will be. I am neither dashing nor quick-witted nor devastatingly handsome. I do not write with his sly grace, nor his looming heatbreak. I do not have the power to make men weep for me like he could. Still, my lifelong obsession with Oscar Wilde has built me into the writer I am today. He was my first love, my first writer-crush, and I will always appreciate him for it.

I will never photograph as well as he could on an off-day. Still I like these pictures a lot. So I feel a strange kinship with my hero right now, and I have a hankering to say something devastatingly witty to someone who richly deserves it. Perhaps I need to be invited to more dinner parties. Or, even better, perhaps I should start crashing dinner parties.

Yes. I think I would like that very much.

Visual Artists Are Friggin’ Brilliant


So, many of you already know how much I adore the cover of my book. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing – handing your hard-wrought story over to the art department of your particular publishing house and hoping for the best. Hoping that somebody gets your story – and gets it in a way that they’re able to transform the experience of the story (separate, you understand from the story itself) into a single, cohesive image. This requires a person who is fluent in the language of line, the language of rhythm, and the emotion of form.


None of these are skills that I posses. I am not a visual artist. I have neither the eye, nor the fine motor skills, nor the ability to see the world in terms of its elements.


Anyway, I waited and waited for my cover, and I fussed and fussed, because I just didn’t know what I was in for. What if I hate it? I asked myself. It was the first major loss of creative control of my story, and it wasn’t a comfortable place to be in, I’ll tell you what.

And then, they sent me this:

And I love it. Of course I do. I can’t think of a better visual representation of my story. It’s perfect.

And now. Today. Thanks to the miracle of Google Alerts, the brilliant lady who constructed this image has put a little bit of the process on her website. And it is AMAZING.

First of all, her name is Juline Harrison, and she is brilliant. You can visit her website here. She makes beautiful creations out of cut paper, and I think her work is divine. And here, she shows us the original cut-paper piece, before it was altered and colored and covered with words.

See what she did there? What an amazing person. Thank you, Julene, for your soulful interpretation of my story.


And hooray for visual artists! I’m in awe of the lot of you!

The Two Towers…..sort of.

It’s my book! At the ALA Midwinter Meeting! The lovely folks at Little, Brown (and can I say again how lucky I am to be an LB author? Seriously, sometimes it blows me away.) have, through devilishly clever engineering skills and architectural prowess have constructed this:

A shining tower of books! My book. The mind reels.

But wait! There’s more! In their infinite wisdom and enduring capacity to bestow graces upon writers (the laborers in the fields, the builders of stories, the gatherers of rubies from the mines) they have built for my book not one but two towers!

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

(for some reason this photo is very small and cropped. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the limit of my technical powers. I assure you though, there are two, and if you squint and look sideways you can totally see them)

Two towers! Given that the genesis of my book was in the pages of Tolkein’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (printed out by my dad, who, in no uncertain terms, positively ordered me to read it. What a bossy-pants!) the fact that there are Two Towers of my little book fills me with joy.

Hooray for ALA conferences! Hooray for Jack! Hooray for the lovers of books and the collectors of books and the thinkers of books and for books themselves! Hooray for LB, who took a chance on these characters, these whispery voices in the dark, and helped me pull them into the world.

My First Review (sort of)

This may be a violation of protocol, but my kid has reviewed my book. Or, more specifically, my kid used my book – or at least an advanced copy of my book – for her required Reader’s Response journal. The way the Reader’s Response Journal works is that each child is expected to read for 15-20 minutes every day, and then write one or two sentences in response to any from a list of questions.

(Actually, this is my favorite so far of all of the teacher-created we-want-the-kids-to-read-every-day-and-show-that-they’re-reading strategies. In past years, the kids had to keep logs showing how many pages they read each day and for how long. I can see how that would be useful for the children who are reluctant readers (setting goals, showing progress, etc.) but for those of us who have voracious readers, it sucks. If you have a kid who reads all the time, at different times of the day, it’s actually a HUGE pain in the butt to keep a record of it.)

But, I digress.

My eight-year-old decided to use my book for her reading.

“Are you even allowed to use your mother’s book?” I asked.

Cordelia shrugged. “Why not? It’s not mentioned in the rules.”

She had a point. Still, I persisted. “But it’s not even official. It’s not a real book yet.”

“It’s a real book if the reviewer says it’s a real book. I’m the reviewer. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” and she went off to read.

So here are some of the questions and her responses. (Warning: Possible spoilers. Also, possible cuteness.)
In response to the question: Why did you choose this book? Cordelia wrote: “I chose this book because my mom wrote it. Also because the cover is cool. But mostly because my mom wrote it.”

In response to the question: Who is your favorite character? Cordelia wrote: “My favorite character is Wendy because she is so tough and determined. I am also tough and determined. That is why I like Wendy.”

In response to the question: What are your predictions? Cordelia wrote: “I predict that Mr. Avery will stop being so bad and will turn good. Or, he will turn badder.”

In response to the question: What surprised you? Cordelia wrote: “It surprised me that Wendy was sitting in a chair, and that it was a chair and a hand AT THE SAME TIME!!!”

In response to the question: What was a funny part of the book? Cordelia wrote: “I thought it was funny that Clayton has tests that prove he really does get less smarter every year.”

In response to the question: What do you find interesting in this book? Cordelia wrote: “I find it interesting that the voices in the dark think it’s interesting that humans can bleed. What else would they do?”

Another prediction: “I predict that Jack and Anders will save Wendy from the bad lady. Or, that the bad lady will win. Or that Wendy won’t need to be saved and will save Jack and Anders instead. I can’t really tell yet.”

That’s my girl! Even-handed, open-minded and beautifully literal. And honestly, I might be done reading reviews. I hope to get some, obviously, but I think it would be better for me if I pretend that they’re written in a language I don’t know, or that they’re about a book I’ve never heard of. Because I can see myself obsessing. I’m an obsessor.

Cordelia! Thank you for your kind attention to my story! I think you might have a future in book reviewing.

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?