Monthly Archives: January 2014

Kate Messner

I’m writing this on the day before the biggest awards in children’s lit–the Newbery and Caldecott medals, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the honor books that go with each of them–are announced. And I offer huge pre-congratulations and warmest wishes to all the winners. So many terrific books published this year–don’t know how the judges will ever be able to decide.

For every book that wins, there are hundreds (all right, thousands!) of books that don’t, and more than a few disappointed, let-down authors.  So it’s an excellent time to reread this poem written a few years ago by the wonderful, ever-generous writer and teacher Kate Messner, and to remember the real reason  we write. Here’s an excerpt:

What Happened to Your Book Today

Somewhere, a child laughed

on that page where you made a joke.

Somewhere, she wiped away a tear,

Just when you thought she might.

Somewhere, your book was passed

from one hand to another in a hallway

busy with clanging lockers,

with whispered words,

“You have got to read this.”

And a scribbled note:

O.M.G. SO good.

Give it back when ur done.

Thank you, Kate!  To read the whole poem, go to her wonderful  site:

Sending  love to writers and young readers everywhere.

Knowing When to Begin

On Saturday, when I moderated an SCBWI critique session, I brought two bulging folders of notes and discarded drafts as Exhibit A of My Process. This hot mess would make a good example of exactly how not to proceed in writing a novel, except, as we all know, there’s no such thing as How To or How Not To. Even after all these years, I need to write at least one (and usually two of three) complete drafts before I find the right narrative arc. That’s just how it is. With “Moonpenny Island”, pretty much the only thing that stayed constant was the island itself, a little lump of limestone modeled on a real place. My love for that setting kept me going, as my main character’s age and sex changed, as a who-done-it mystery became instead a story about the mysteries of the heart.

So why did I risk throwing out my back by lugging that pile of papers to the critique? Because a picture’s worth a thousand words, and a good laugh is worth even more, and because I really do believe in butt-in-chair persistence. If nothing else,  showing up every day will teach you what’s wrong with your story, and then it’s up to you to decide whether to toss it in the drawer and start something all new, or pull it apart and revise once more. Both of which I’ve done.

Right now, I face a blank page. Off and on while working on “Moonpenny”, I scribbled notes for a new novel. I know I have my two (or maybe three) main characters. For sure I have the setting (I take a walk there at least once a week, and every time it whispers, Ready). But I don’t have the full arc, and I’m trying to resist starting until that becomes clearer to me. Trying to resist generating another hot mess (or two or three) by figuring out ahead of time where the story starts, and what form best suits it. Trying to stay cool, planning.  Trying…


School Library Journal has announced the contenders facing off in this year’s “Battle of the Books”

Even though I wish they’d included a few more under-the-radar books–novels like “The Center of Everything” by Linda Urban, “A Girl Called Problem” by Katie Quirk, or “Written in Stone” by Rosanne Parry–instead of sticking to the books everyone is talking about for the Newbery, I’ll  follow this year’s battle with my usual interest and glee.  It’s a booky version of that other March madness, with fellow writers deciding who wins each bracket and goes on to the final round.  The decisions themselves are usually little writerly gems, laced with insite and wit and sometimes a bit of snarkiness. As a writer and a reviewer, I always get a big take-away.

“Good Problem” and other confusions

This week, within the span of a few days, the temperature in Cleveland swung from minus 11 to plus 50. One day I was behind the wheel of my car, steering through deserted, windswept streets–I swear the asphalt felt brittle beneath the tires–and then people were jogging in shorts. Time lapse of the most extreme variety. For us humans it was disorienting and made for conversation, but I wonder how the animals took it. Were they alarmed? Confused? Did they just accept  it with the ancient dignity that is theirs? One morning I went to the window for a closer look at the bird feeder and gazed down into the eyes of a six-point buck. We exchanged a long, astonished gape before he dashed away.

Life has been confusing ever since Christmas, really. My daughters gave me all kinds of amazing beauty products. They do this every year, and I’m immensely grateful for their efforts to rescue me from perpetual self neglect.   But a shower now presents challenges. First I shampoo and condition with tea tree, wildly stimulating my scalp and brow,  and then I moisturize with lavendar and comfrey, which aim to  sooth and relax.  Which is it? begs my addled body.

And speaking of daughters, our oldest called us from a holiday cross country ski trip with her boyfriend to tell us they are engaged. We love this fellow, so happiness abounds, and yet. My girl, married? Please don’t play “Sunrise, Sunset” anywhere in my vicinity.

And then…Then there came the wonderful confirmation of this fact: I will have two books published in 2015–my novel for younger readers, “Not Even Cody”, with Candlewick, and my new middle grade, “Moonpenny Island”, with Balzer & Bray. Two books in one year is a first for me. It’s a wish-upon-a-star kind of event.  When exactly each will pub is a bit of a marketing conundrum, for now. Though I have complete faith in both publishers, I get a bit nervous, thinking about it, to tell the truth.  But this is yet another good problem, right? A happy confusion. An oxymoron of the sweetest sort.

Bevy of Books

Whenever I had a few spare moments over the holidays, I grabbed my trusty box cutter and opened a new carton of PHOEBE and DIGGER. Mostly I signed them at the dining room table, but I also did some during “Parenthood” commercials. “Springstubb” is a long-ish name, it turns out, but the “p” and  “g” punctuate it with pleasant loopiness.  I wasn’t very efficient. I kept imagining every book in someone’s hands, spread across a lap, held up at story hour–and I tried to invest each signature with friendly cheer and welcome.  Come on in! Have some fun with me!

It was strange to see so many of my books at once. Even at signings, I usually only see a couple dozen at the same time. But here were herds of books, flocks and swarms and packs and coveys of books, mobbing my table, brooding in my hallway. At first I feared that seeing so many of them at once would make them feel more like objects, less like mine, and that did happen, in a way.  A mostly good way. Because of course once you send a book out into the world, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader now, who will love it or toss it aside, make it her own or not. This is something a writer knows, but can stand to be reminded of.

Not that I didn’t still feel protective of the books. Not that each box, which I sealed up with my very professional and lethal-looking tape dispenser, didn’t get a small, farewell-and-good-luck pat from me before I set it in the done pile.

Today I got an e-mail from a reader who lives in a small village outside Munich. She is doing a report on the German version of FOX STREET and had some very thoughtful questions to ask.  I have never been to Germany, but Mo and Dottie and Mercedes have.  The world is so big. The world is so small. And I am daydreaming about that particular book, lying on a table beneath a window that opens out onto a deep, snow-capped forest.