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.”

****

Warmest, brightest holidays to you and those you love

 

Some Things I Was Thinking About As I Lay Awake at 3AM or…

…a look into a disordered mind:

***Whether my two daughters who are applying to grad schools will get their applications done in time

***If I will ever give up the delusion I have any control over my children’s lives

***What the fate of Hanne, a character in my new novel, should be

***How much I admire women who wear lipstick while they work out

***The election (again and yet again)

***Names for the fictional country in my new novel. Discarded: Amitria and Skylland

***If we should get a big or small Christmas tree this year

***How much more I would love the holidays if they only came every other year

***If I really needed to get up to pee or could make it till morning

***this face

linnea-in-karstins-clothes

…and so, at last, to sleep.

On Our Feet

 

delia-runs

Whenever I visit schools, a question I’m sure to be asked is: Which is your favorite book you ever wrote?  (What’s your favorite book you ever read? is also a big one). I can try to weasel out of it by saying what a wishy-washy person I am, and how I can never pick a favorite anything. Or sometimes I turn the tables and say, What’s your favorite book? 

But most often I give the tried-and-true, official writer answer: Parents can’t ever choose a favorite child, and a writers are the same with their books. Sometimes I add that I don’t want to pick one and make all the other books jealous.

It’s a true answer. As writers we love this book because it’s our first-born, that one because it came so hard but we never gave up on it, yet another because it’s got the character who’s the most like us.

I’m thinking of this analogy now because I’m birthing a new book, one unlike any that has gone before. Writing it has been even slower than my usual sloth-like pace. This book has balked, then gone racing off in the wrong direction, then fallen into a sleep so deep I could barely rouse it. But now, at last, I’m pretty sure it’s found its feet. It’s on its way.

I’m thinking of it, too, because this last weekend we watched our youngest daughter run the New York City marathon. This was Nov. 6, a purely golden day in the city. In case you don’t know, a marathon is 26.2 miles. Repeat: 26.2 miles. This was the daughter who walked late. She was a plump, placid baby, third of three, surrounded by family and friends all too willing to pick her up and carry her about. She was slow to creep, slow to crawl, and for quite a long time saw no good reason to figure out walking, let alone running.

Yet here she was! And there she went, racing by, waving and blowing us kisses. (That’s her in the white t-shirt, and, in the left hand corner of the photo, that’s me, going batty for her.) Who’d have guessed she’d do this one day? How thrilling to think of the surprises locked up inside each of us. How wonderful the things we can do and places we can go, just putting one foot before the other, over and over again.

 

 

 

Booking

Just back from a few days on my favorite island. The real Kelleys Island is so closely tied to my fictional Moonpenny Island that as I saunter around, I nearly expect to see Flor zip by on her bike, or Joe pitch a stone at the school clock tower, or Cele slip down into the abandoned quarry on her way to her secret life, or Flossie the Thug Cat slink out of the brush with a doomed field mouse in her jaws. The writer’s loony double life!

harbor_springs_mi

I didn’t put my suitcase away, because tomorrow I leave for the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book http://www.hsfotb.org/  Another great lake! I get to see my dear friend Alison DeCamp, and meet some other writers I’ve long admired, including Lynn Rae Perkins (squeals a fangirl squeal), and some I’ve just discovered, including Dan Gemeinhart. I have a very nifty presentation on Moonpenny that I look forward to sharing with some middle school classes.

Autumn’s closing in. Once winter gets us in its bony clutches, I hate leaving my house, let alone my city. Then my travels will once again be mostly imaginary. But for now…

 

Blank Canvas

We just spent a little more than a week in New York, near the sea and  our two daughters, and my heart is still singing.  On the rug there’s a little pile of sand that spilled from my shoe just after we got home, and I refuse to sweep it up.

We went into The City one afternoon to check out the new Met Breuer, where we saw a heart-stopping exhibit of Diane Arbus’s early photos (I’ll write more on that for sure) and “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”, a fascinating exhibit of art never completed, for one reason or another.

By now I should know better, but I still tend to torment myself with the idea that turning an idea into a work of art comes easy for other people. At least for geniuses. But here were unfinished canvases by Cezanne, Picasso, El Greco, Klimt, some scrapped after many tries to get them right, some interrupted by illness or sorrow or even death, some abandoned for unknown reasons. It was a chance to see the way a painting takes shape layer by layer, how outlines are filled in, sketches given dimension and texture. To remind myself that creating something where there was nothing is not supposed to be easy.

Some of the art, like a group of glorious canvases by Turner, was perfect in its imperfection. In a NY Times article on the show, one viewer said, “An artist is never finished, so their art is never finished. When you finish it, you kill it. Leaving it unfinished, you keep it alive.”

Yes. No book I’ve ever written was as good as I meant it to be. Nowhere near as good as my racing heart  hoped to make it. And this is another reason I’m so grateful to readers, who take an imperfect thing and find their own beauty in it.