Monthly Archives: July 2016

song of the cicadas



Last summer I was knocked for a loop when Kate DiCamillo, that is, THE Kate DiCamillo, wrote about enjoying “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”.  She especially liked the “whim whams”,  an expression Cody uses to describe the feeling that her world is crumbling into an unrecognizable heap.  Kate said she knew that feeling, and was glad to have a word for it.

Fast forward to the end of the summer when she came to the Cuyahoga County library and I waited in a long, long line of fans to say hello. In the photo, I’ve just told her I’m the whim-wham writer.  Oh my goodness. She was so nice.

This summer, I heard Kate speak again, this time at Nerd Camp. She read a speech, a small perfect essay really, that began with the story of her being 8 years old and obsessed with digging. A Florida summer, the sun relentless, and every morning she got her shovel and dug. She didn’t know what she was looking for, just knew the urge to dig. One day she found a small smooth bone with a hollow just right for a young girl’s thumb. It was magic, she was sure. Or wanted to be sure.

I won’t even try to tell the whole story, because so much of it depends on her always startling and perfect choices of words, on her details (not just a dishtowel but a green and white checked dishtowel) and on her trademark rhythms, but the climax comes when she wishes for a pony and, moments later, one comes walking up the street.

Kate’s essay was about writing, and the pony became a metaphor for conjuring, creating, for calling something into being by sheer force of imagination and will. “Where there was nothing, now there was something.”

It was an amazing, stirring talk, a gift to all of us who heard it. I’ve thought of it often since. I thought of it just yesterday, when I was walking across the baking, dry-as-dust schoolyard down the street, on my way to the library. I could see the determined, lonesome little girl, digging in the hot sun, and I was back in my own childhood summers, all those endless, hot afternoons when there was nothing to do. We didn’t go to camp or art classes. We played ball in the street, swam in Nancy Wells’s above ground pool, swished our Barbies around in the backyard shade, but lots of the time, most of the time, there was nothing to do.

We never said we were bored, because our mother would immediately assign us chores. And now when I think about it, I’m not sure bored was the right word, anyway. I remember more a feeling of longing. For something to happen. To be the one who made it happen. To be the hero of a story still unknown. It was a diffuse kind of longing with no clear object, and that made it all the more powerful.

Trying to pin down that feeling might scare it away. Instead: the hot sun. The tar truck slowly coming down the street. The cicadas buzzing in the trees. A girl in red PF Flyers, standing in the shade, squinting into the light, waiting and wishing.

Bitsy bits

So I wrote about Nerd Camp and the ongoing frustration of dedicated, creative teachers with how their profession is being quantified. And now don’t I pick up “Hard Times” and find that that  Dickens of a genius was preaching against the very same thing in 1854. It is hilarious and painful to read passages like the following, about  Thomas Gradgrind, staunch believer in Facts and More Facts, who, looking out over a classroom, sees: “the inclined plane of little vessels, then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim” and the schoolmaster Mr. M’Choakumchild, whose own education is described this way: “He and some hundred and forty other schoolmasters had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs.”

Before I get too depressed: I’ve also been reading some very fun and inventive kids books this summer, and here are just two:


best frints

On Planet Boborp, Yelfred and Omek have been best frints since they were little blobbies. If you’re looking for a belly-laugh-inducing-read-aloud, your search is ended/


Even though I already knew about the outrageous twist at the heart of this story, I still snorted in glee. As our snarky, loveable hero Chloe says when she discovers it, “Upset was so not the right word. There really wasn’t any one word that captured it all; only a phrase would do, like head in a blender.” This is a gentle but still provocative look at the kinds of micro-aggression so many people of color face.

And finally: recently (where have I been before this?) I discovered the amazing organization, Facing History and Ourselves  I’m very excited to be working with them, and will have more to say about that soon!

A funny thing happened… Nerd Camp.

Which is a wonderment that takes place in tiny Parma MI. Which, if you never heard of the place, is understandable but regrettable.  This year about 2,000 (yes I got the zeroes right) teachers and librarians gathered there to talk about reading and writing, with one another and with the authors and illustrators lucky enough to join the conversation.


I went to camp last year, too, and my respect, gratitude, appreciation, indebtedness to these educators, already ocean-deep, grew yet deeper. Working in schools has always been challenging (my husband taught for 30 years, and I saw that firsthand). But right now, teachers face a monetizing and quantifying of their profession that is nothing short of  soul-killing.

Yet here these super-heroes were, putting heads together and arms around one another.  We were galvanized by talks from Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, Kate DiCamillo, Teri Lesesne and Kathy Burnette. We workshopped and brainstormed and lest you think we were too admirable, we drank beer and laughed a lot.

Then, on the second day, 700 kids showed up (got those zeroes right). And we all made stuff together, without  worries about scores or levels or, as Jenni Holm put it, the “curse of perfection”.


nerd camp1

My workshop was on dialogue, and we had mermaids, robots, princesses and guys named Bob talking to each other. When at last we all had to say goodbye, we stepped outside to find a double rainbow arching over the school.

The funny thing? I hoped to help teachers to be better, happier writers, and to inspire kids to let their imaginations run wild. What a gift to discover that over those two days,  my own desire to write  close to the bone and heart steadily grew. And grew and grew, so that when I got home, I couldn’t wait to get to this desk.


Off to…

I’ll be there for two days, working and learning with hundreds of teachers and librarians who make children and literacy the center of the universe. Can’t think of a more hopeful place to be right now. I’ll share when I come home.

No Boys Allowed. At Least Not Yet.

Some of my best friends are boys.  I’ve been married to one for more than forty years.  I have brothers and nephews I adore.  So why don’t I ever write a boy main character?

Last week I Skyped with a book club that had read MOONPENNY ISLAND, and someone asked me this. (If you dislike provocative questions, beware serious young readers.) I tried to get off the hook by pointing out how many dads, brothers, and guy friends I’ve written, but the sad truth is, I’ve never been able to center a book on a boy.

I have tried. In fact, the first two (or maybe three) drafts of MOONPENNY had a boy named Larry Walnut as hero. I loved Larry, who had big ears and an even bigger heart. He was a funny, engaging, troubled person who was very much alive in my head, but on paper he fell apart. I couldn’t get his voice right. I tried first and third person, present and past tense. Nothing worked. Poor Larry always sounded fake, a bland copy of who I knew he really was.

I take this as a failure. I’ve imagined my way inside lots of characters who are, at least on the outside, nothing like me. This is what writers do. We find the place where we connect, where we and the character have something in common.  A fear of heights. A love of the sea. A tendency to be stingy, or talk too much, or try to be in control even when that’s impossible.

Yet with Larry, and other main character boys I’ve tried to write, the spark kept going out. In EVERY SINGLE SECOND, Nella, who has four brothers—four!!—is still baffled by boys (including her crush, Sam). No matter how long she lives with the other sex, she thinks, she’ll never understand the blueprint of their minds.

Not that I’m giving up. By this point, I pretty well know the things I can do in my writing. And the things I’m not able to. Yet.