Monthly Archives: May 2013

Reading Lives

May 29 was my mother’s birthday. She’d have been 88. This year I’d have given her “TransAtlantic”, Colum McCann’s new novel. I’m not sure if she’d have liked it, but  its Irish-American connections would have intrigued her, and we’d have debated his prose style. I also might have bought her “Dear Life”, by Alice Munro, who is herself in her 80s now and still writing wrenching, beautiful stories. 

It was such a pleasure not only to talk books with my mother, but to buy them for her, something she never did. I mean, never. Why throw away good money–even on something as vital to you as food–when you could get them for free? When I work at the library, the bent old ladies who come in to pick up their reserves always make the tears spring into my eyes.

When we were growing up, Mom never read to us. She never recommended books, or asked us what we were reading ourselves. I’ve thought about this many times, wondering why. I wrote about it here.

Happy birthday, Mom! Your peonies are in full bloom.


I went down  to Columbus, Ohio, the first weekend in May to take part in  the Ohioana Book Festival.  I LOVE meeting readers, but book fairs can be so weird.  There you sit, behind a big, bright, hopeful pile of your books, as people file by.  If they stop to browse, what is the proper writer etiquette? My instinct is to look down at my lap and hum softly under my breath, signaling NO PRESSURE HERE.

But what if they want to talk? What if they’d really like some help choosing among the million good books on display? So sometimes I give a little pitch, and sometimes I fall into a lovely little conversation, and sometimes they buy the book, which makes me happy of course.  But all in all, I’m not very comfortable with peddling.  A big reason I’m a writer is that I trust and like my considered voice, the one I put on paper, more than the one that blabs away aloud.

I got to talk–not blab but really talk– about exactly that with Sally Oddi,  the owner of  Columbus’s iconic children’s book store, Cover to Cover  Shockingly, I’d never met Sally, even though she’s been in business since 1980, which just happens to be the year I had my first children’s book, “My Minnie is a Jewel.” (Long out of print, it was published by CarolRhoda, then just a teeny tiny blip on the publishing screen).  Here the two of us are, leaning back (or leaning in).







 Sally left teaching to open the store. She knows kids and she knows books. She’s seen the book-selling landscape change–understatement of the decade–and  we reminisced a while about ye olden days. She’d just hosted a visit and signing with a very big name writer, a guy who makes kids roll around on the floor laughing. Sally told me he turned out to be shy. He did no presentation, but had a  personal conversation with every child who brought him a book to sign.  We both got nostalgic for the pre-social-media days when a writer wrote her book, put it in the hands of her editor and publisher, and that was it.  Back then, you went back to your desk and got straight to work on the next one.  Sally said watching children’s authors become celebrities has been really startling to her. I said the feeling that you could always be doing more to promote your work is a drag.

Ever since 1980, she’s been having writers who stopped by her store sign the walls.  Walls are easier to share than a guest book, she says. When she moved the shop in 1997, she simply brought the walls with her. They’re  in a back room now, and the new walls are all but covered with the most glorious graffiti ever.


Here’s a miniscule section, the smallest fraction of the whole. You can enlarge it and play I Spy. Aliki, Angela Johnson, Laura Numeroff, Kimberly Willis Holt. The store, an unassuming place on the outside, is a temple of the gods within.

Oh indie booksellers, thank you for keeping the faith.  You are the real celebrities.

Picture Day

You know how I always forget to take pictures.  No problem when I visited Normandy Elementary in Bay Village, OH, last week.  The staff took great photos, just one of  many things that made it one of the sweetest, smoothest school visits I’ve ever done. Here’s how I was greeted when I walked in the door: 

Students made those terrific, reptilian diggers, by the way.

The librarians had read PHOEBE to all the classes. Did I mention Normandy is K-2? Nearly 500 little dynamos in that building. They were so enthusiastic I got bold enough to do my first ever slide show. Here I am showing the difference between some of Jeff Newman’s early sketches and his finished illustrations:

A helpful teacher taught me how to pause the slides, which turns out to be a useful thing to know.  And after a long day of talking, reading, asking and answering questions, here we are chilling in the gorgeous school library:

Thank you, Normandy! I dig you all.

“Writeing is one thing I know…

…and I like Phoebe and Digger.”

That’s a  quote from one of the dozens of letters I got from Boulevard School after a recent visit. Here I am reading–I really need to work on my posture.

And here’s a shout-out to illustrator Jeff Newman:

A few more favorite quotes:

“I like to be a Tricia and a illlustrated.”

“If I see my big brother bullyin on my little brother I will tell him this author name, Mrs. Stringstubb.”

“When you talked I felt like I wanted to bee a Author. But it’s  hard to pick from all the jobs I want. I’m going to tell you. A peteyochrishen, dancer, singer, songwriter.”

“I really like your books!!!!!!!! Hope you win a reward. I believe in you. Make me proud.”

And a couple more drawings–wish I could include them all–this one from the next  Picasso:


And this one from a girl who cut straight to the heart of the plot.

One last treasure: I showed the kids some of the early sketches for the book, and many, including this girl, preferred the earlier, scarier version of The Bully.

Thank you again, wonderful Boulevard teachers and students!

I’ve fallen in love…

…with a new man. We’ve been getting to know each other slowly, long distance, through writing and just a few photos–the most old fashioned kind of courtship. Today my affection for him is brimming over–must be the rampant madness of spring–and I have to share him. Here he is:

Charles Robert Darwin, you’ve stolen my heart! Your sense of wonder, your humor and  humility, not to mention your infatuation with orchids,  barnacles and beetles–how I wish I could take a ramble through the woods or along the shore with you. Once you stood so still, observing, that some baby squirrels mistook you for a tree and raced up your legs and back. Once, you came upon a fox asleep in the daytime, and it woke up so astonished, it stared at you a good long time before running away. Once, hunting beetles, you already had one in each hand when you spied a third and popped it into your mouth, where it released a stream of beetle juice so foul you wound up losing all three specimens.  As a boy, you loved birds so much, you wondered why everyone didn’t grow up to be an ornightologist. In your memoir you wrote, “The passion for collection, which leads a man to be a naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me.”

Darwin plays a role in my WIP, and what a treat getting to know him beyond the standard stuff. After his adventures on the Beagle, he became a stay-at-home. Every day without fail, after working and reading for a few hours, he’d stroll his Sand-walk, a narrow gravel path he’d constructed, bordered on one side by woods full of hornbeam and lime, birch and dogwood, and on the other by a field that gave way to a quiet little valley.  Around and around he’d go, while his children ran past him or played near-by. His dog Polly, a rough little fox-terrier, came along. (“I had a passion for dogs. They seemed to know. I was adept in robbing their masters of their love.”) Imagine what was going on inside that head as he walked, thumping the ground with his stick.  He believed in the fruits of idleness as much as industry–how well we’d have gotten along!

His great-great-grandaughter Ruth Padel wrote the wonderful “Darwin–A Life in Poems.”  For some of the poems, all she needed to do was arrange his words on the page, like these last lines of “More Funny Ideas About Grandeur”:

     But there is a simple grandeur in this view–

that life, with its power to grow, to reach, feel,

       reproduce, diverge, was breathed

into matter in a few forms first


and maybe only one. To say that while this planet has

              gone cycling on 

according to fixed laws of gravity,

              from so simple an origin, through selection

 of infinitesinal varieties, endless forms

             most beautiful and wonderful

have been, and are being, evolved.