The Night Before

I love doing school visits–once I’m there  with the kids. The night before, I get nervous. Actually, the whole day before, I’m nervous. Most schools ask me to do large group presentations, which means I’m talking to several hundred students at once, usually four times. Here’s where I presented a couple of days ago, just before the kids started coming in.

empty gymGulp.

The night before, I dreamed that I’d made a mistake and thought it was a Skype visit instead. I was wearing my nice blue top and scarf, with my PJ bottoms, when I got the call asking where I was. As I tried to answer, the phone turned into a plush pumpkin, which I continued trying to talk into, pushing its triangle nose till it turned into a skeletal red thing, which I continued to shout into…You get the picture.

For a while, I thought it was only me who suffered pre-presentation-stress-out, but as I’ve gotten to know other authors I’ve discovered we all get it. We dream we’ve forgotten our laptops, or lost our voices, or gone to the wrong school (one writer I know actually did this in real life, OMG), or gotten so lost on the way it’s hopeless. No matter how many times we’ve stood up in front of those large, eager, brimming-with-life audiences, we still get a little freaked out before.

Then…the kids begin to file in. They’re tall and short, skinny and round, they’re giving me curious looks or ignoring me altogether, they’re playing with each other’s hair or playing air guitar, they’re shuffling their feet or walking on their toes…They are kids! And all of a sudden, it’s okay. I’m chatting with them, asking about their kitty headbands or the books they’re carrying or whether they think the Cavs can beat the Celtics (mostly yes but one no, the other day) and it’s okay. Better than okay. All of a sudden, I can’t wait to tell them how I became a writer, how I’m still becoming a writer, how I mix things from my own life with my imagination to create something new, how we’ve all got stories no one but us can tell.

At the school above, the kids filled up those bleachers three times. For the Q & A I took the mike up there, like a daytime TV show host, and they held it to ask their questions. They loved this. So did I.

Because what makes these visits wonderful is that it’s not about me, but them. If only I can remember that next time, I’ll sleep so much better the night before.

Country roads

Last week I was in Kirksville, Missouri, for a children’s book festival. I’m pretty sure that, were it not for that festival, I’d never have visited that green, rolling countryside dotted with contented cows (cattle, I was corrected) or experienced the open-armed hospitality (home-churned ice cream over home-grown rhubarb crisp, anyone?) or met the zillion volunteers who make the festival happen for well over a thousand  kids, some of whom ride buses for over an hour to get there.

kirksville(These two were great storytellers themselves.)

I could say the same about Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Houghton Lake, Michigan, or any of the other out-of-my-way places I’ve been lucky enough to visit, all because of dedicated librarians and teachers and community volunteers who work so hard to bring writers in.  It’s impossible to thank them enough, though I try.

Kids often ask me where I get my inspiration, and I always answer, “From you!” But festivals also give me the chance to talk to and listen to other writers, some of whom I’ve only fan-girled over from afar. Hearing them talk about their own struggles, laughing with them over best things kids have ever asked us, recommending each other books and movies–I mean. Conversations do not get better than these.

kirskville

At Kirksville I met Leslie Connor, Ingrid Law, Chris Grabenstein, Natalie Lloyd, Rob Buyea, Liesl Shurtliff, David Schwartz, Fred Koehler, Michelle Cuevas, Katherine Hannigan…here we are, holding up the darling signs that decorated our dinner tables.

kirksville 2Being a writer has given me gifts I never anticipated.

Happy Birthday!

cody and the rules of lifeThe first two CODY books have a new sibling: Cody and the Rules of Life publishes today!

Rules is a story about conscience, and figuring out the difference between right and wrong, which can be surprisingly difficult, especially when it means a choice between Gremlin, your favorite toy, and Pearl, your perfect friend. Cody gets help from Wyatt, Spencer and of course her wise, long-distance trucker dad.  “Now and then, everyone takes a wrong turn,” Dad tells her. “They head down the wrong road. But you know what? Most times they hang a U-ey and head back in the right direction.”

Also in this book, Cody, a reluctant writer, learns the power of her writing voice. And helps Wyatt get back his stolen bike. And discovers some surprising things about the Meen Family. Not to mention makes friends with a lonesome Madagascar hissing cockroach.

Rules are hard. Rules are confusing. Now and then, rules are meant to be broken. But in the end, for Cody, love for family, friends, bugs, and plump sweet cats is the numero uno rule of all.

Happy birthday, little book! May you journey far and make many new friends.

Liberation Literature

This post recently appeared on the Nerdy Book Club blog. So excited to be going to this conference, I’m sharing it here, too!

Back in the day when I was still a fledgling, I was thrilled to get a letter (a real one) telling me I’d won the Ohioana Book Award, something I didn’t even know existed. I wrote my little speech and nervously practiced it, trying hard to eradicate “umm” from my vocabulary. When the day came, my husband and three daughters drove down to the Columbus state house with me. The affair was, as those things usually are, a happy blur. I remember anxiously hoping that my youngest wouldn’t have a melt-down in the middle of the ceremony, but the only other thing I remember with absolute clarity is that Virginia Hamilton was there.

vhamilton
Virginia Hamilton! Regal, serene, beautiful, there she sat, her husband Arnold Adoff at her side.  She was receiving the Career Medal for a body of work that had been honored with every distinction and award. In 1974 she’d become the first African American writer to win the Newbery Medal (yes, it took that long) for M.C. Higgins the Great, and she was only getting started.  I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t find her books on my own. My older girls started bringing them home, inspired by teachers and librarians wiser and more aware than I.  The People Could Fly—yes, and we, her readers, took wing, too.

That afternoon she was besieged by admirers, and I was too tongue-tied to attempt a real conversation with her. Now I regret that, but then it felt enough to be in the same room, to dare to dream that someday I’d have a career that was a small glimmer of hers.

Hamilton called her work “liberation literature.” She asked her readers to be witnesses to the suffering and triumph of her characters, and she believed that, in the process, characters and readers experienced a simultaneous freeing born of courage and new understanding. Memory, tradition and legacy were at the heart of her work. As a young woman she moved away from the Ohio family farm where her grandfather was brought an infant, via the Underground Railroad. Later she returned and raised her own children there. Family and sense of place were deep, recurring inspirations, and it’s here that she and I most connect as writers. I don’t know a better description of fiction writing than hers: “exploring the known, the remembered, and the imagined, the literary triad of which all stories are made.”

Fast forward to the second time I won the Ohioana Award. By then I knew very well what it meant, and I was even more thrilled. By then, tragically, Virginia had died, far too young. Yet my connection with her continued: Arnold Adoff was at the ceremony, honored for the book Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations, edited by him and Kacy Cook. This time, we talked–about her, and writing, and her, and kids, and her.

Our happy, fortuitous bond continues. In 1984, the Virginia Hamilton Lecture in Children’s Literature was established. It grew into the Virginia Hamilton Conference, now the longest running event in the United States to focus on multi-cultural literature for children and young adults. This April, I’ll be presenting there, along with the wonderful writer Shelley Pearsall. Our workshop is “Seeking a Wider Window,” a title inspired by another great Ohio contributor to children’s literature, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, author of the seminal “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.” Shelley and I will be talking about the deep challenges, responsibilities and rewards of writing characters whose backgrounds are very different from our own. We mean to make our workshop an open dialogue with the teachers and librarians who come, a chance to learn as much from each other as we can—a communal liberation of minds and hearts. We very much hope Virginia Hamilton’s generous, wise spirit will be in the room with us.

To imagine…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for empathy lately. In a  recent conversation with  wonderful writer Shelley Pearsall, she said that she believes that If we can’t begin to imagine, we can’t begin to understand.  These are words I’m holding close to my heart.

Next month Shelley and I will be presenting together at  the Virginia Hamilton Conference. http://www.kent.edu/virginiahamiltonconference  Our workshop is called “Seeking a Wider Window”, and we’ll be talking about the challenges and the rewards of writing characters very different from ourselves. I can’t wait to engage with teachers and librarians over this.

Another Pair of Shoes

Here’s a post I recently wrote for the wonderful blog “From the Mixed Up Files”…

On a recent gray afternoon, during a desultory spin through the Twitter-verse, I came across a tweet that perked me up. It was from Sara Grochowski. To say Sara loves reading is to say flowers lift their faces to the sun. She and I have met at a few book events, and it’s been a deep pleasure to talk with her about my work, and to keep up with what she’s reading and thinking. (You can meet her yourself, at thehidingspot.blogspot.com or @thehidingspot)

The tweet I read the other afternoon said something like, “I always thought it was my parents who taught me empathy, but I’ve come to realize it was books.” This caught my attention for lots of reasons. One is that the need to see through someone else’s eyes, to walk in another’s shoes―lies at the heart of all my work.

Childhood is a self-centered time. Kids have an entire world to learn and process, so it’s no wonder that at first they put themselves at the center of it. Yet a baby gets upset when she hears another baby cry. The capacity for empathy exists from the very beginning, and in my books, that wondrous capacity is what makes characters grow and change, as they come to understand they’re not the center of the world, but are instead an essential, powerful part of it.

There’s another reason I loved Sara’s tweet. Even the best intentioned parents can’t do everything. Neither can teachers. A lot is up to our children themselves. For empathy to grow, they need experience. And next to real-life, a close second to actual experience, is reading.

A 2013 study published in the journal Science proved what most of us already know: reading good fiction increases sensitivity and empathy.https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/

To read we need to understand motivation, make connections, note nuances, seek what’s beneath the surface. Picture books, where illustrations and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other, introduce this. And middle grade fiction? Over the last years it’s been growing ever more wonderfully, deeply diverse. A reader, safe in her own familiar world, can have lead many lives vastly different from her own. We’ve all had the experience of feeling as if a writer had x-rayed our hearts, eavesdropped on our thoughts. Reading makes us feel less alone, yes, but more than that. I love the phrase “lost in a book”. When we read about others different from us, boundaries fall. We lose ourselves to become those others.

These days, lots of people are fretting we need empathy more than ever before. I don’t think we need to worry. Empathy and compassion are essential parts of us all, seeds waiting to be nurtured. This spring middle grade writer Shelley Pearsall and I are lucky enough to be doing a workshop at the beloved Virginia Hamilton Conference. http://www.kent.edu/virginiahamiltonconference We are calling it “Seeking a Wider Window”, and we’ll discuss the challenges and rewards of being white, middle class writers creating characters with lives very different from ours. I’ll be sure to report back!

Tricia’s most recent middle grade novel is Every Single Second. The third book in her CODY series, Cody and the Rules of Life, will publish this April (and yes, one of those rules is to always ask yourself, How would you feel if it happened to you??)

25 Years

candlewick coverIt’s hard to believe Candlewick Press is 25 years old. Not because that seems old, but because it’s one of those happy things that seems to have been around forever.

Just look at the cover of their spring catalog, a tiny sampling of the stellar books they’ve provided our children for a quarter century and counting: Owl Babies (how I love this book), Because of Wynn Dixie (this one too), Feed (chills), Where’s Waldo (how many hours did my kids pore over these?) Voice of Freedom, Jazz Day (sing it!). Almost Astronauts,  the Judy Moody and Maisy books–a minuscule sampling of the wonders this small, mighty house has published. Lots with shiny gold stickers. Lots that quietly, indelibly worked their way into children’s heart and memories.

I guess you can tell how grateful I feel to have worked with editors and art directors in that cozy, playful office in Boston. Turn to page 50 of this landmark catalog and…

rules of life catalogThank you, dear bear with candle burning bright all these years, from me and readers past, present, future!

 

Stuff of Dreams

Dreamer

Last night I dreamed I was writing/struggling with an entirely different book. It featured a boy as the main character (this alone would be  dreamy, since I’ve never managed to pull that off) and maybe a dog (ditto). In the dream, I woke up in the middle of the night knowing the perfect solution to a knotty plot problem. In the dream, I found a pen and clean sheet of paper miraculously close at hand (in real life how often have I scribbled illegibly on the cover of a New Yorker lying on the nightstand?) and effortlessly wrote notes.

When I woke up–for real–I knew at once it was a dream, yet it was so vivid I had to check the nightstand to be sure. No paper, no note.  A wishful dream, for sure.

And yet…An hour later, as I was working/struggling with the book I actually am writing, good things began to happen. I figured some big stuff out. Or, it figured itself out–that’s always how it feels. As if the book is revealing itself. As if the story finally trusts me to know it.

Did my subconscious know what was coming? Or did the dream give me the boost of faith I needed to keep going?

I don’t know. But thank you, dream.

Let there be…

candle

This is a post I wrote this week for the wonderful blog From the Mixed Up Files.  Sharing it here with love and hope:

This shortest day of a too-dark year seems like a good time to share a story I sometimes tell on school visits. I can’t remember where I first heard or read it, and I change it a bit every time.

Once there was a king who was growing old. Soon it would be time to leave his kingdom to one of his three daughters, so he called them to him. Which of them could fill the throne room, wall to wall and ceiling to floor with something precious? She would inherit the crown.

The first daughter ran to the royal coffers and had the servants drag in bag upon bag of gold coins and spill them out. Yet they did not fill the room.

The second daughter ran to the royal wardrobe and had the maids carry in piles of gowns and jewels and dancing shoes. They did not fill the room either.

The third daughter stood before her father and quietly smiled. She reached into her pocket, making her big sisters laugh and sneer. As if a person could fill this grand room with something small enough to fit into her hand.

But they stopped laughing when their sister drew out …a candle. For when she lit it, its yellow glow grew and grew till it reached every corner of the room, spreading its golden warmth everywhere.

A book, I tell the kids, is like that candle. Stories and poems glow and spark and warm the world with their shining light. They show us the way. They make us less afraid. They fit in our pockets, yet their light fills hearts. A book, a great poet once said, “should be a ball of light in one’s hands.”

So on this longest night of the year, let’s light candles, let’s warm ourselves by fires, let’s write and read and share stories. Let’s remember again some of the wisest words ever spoken. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Warmest, brightest holidays to you and those you love