One of the (many many too many to name) pleasures of writing for younger readers is that they send you REAL mail! These are from a batch sent to me by some third graders. To give you an idea of how precocious and thoughtful (not to mention hilarious) they are, here are a few quotes:
“Hello! This is _______one of the lovely children you visited today.”
“I loved your book. There was so much figurative language. The lines flowed like a stream.”
“I like your choice of setting. If you wouldn’t of chosen that, I wouldn’t of known what a dead end is.”
“What Happened on Fox Street is so juicy!”
“Before you came I thought it took a week to make a book.”
“How do you think up all this stuff?”
“My mom thinks cats suck out your soul.”
(That last one is a response to me showing them photos of our cat Billy.)
I have missed these in-person visits and am so glad they are slowly, safely starting back up again. In the meantime, three cheers for penciled and crayoned letters!
In The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, nothing too awful happens. There are some scary parts, including ominous vultures and a possibly haunted turret, but they’re not too scary, and to soothe your nerves there’s also a baby goat, and a thoughtful if troubled best friend. And while I want readers to fly through the pages, anxious to find out what happens next, I also hope they’ll feel as if someone they trust is sitting close, whispering, It’s going to be okay.
I myself am a scaredy-cat. No horror movies, no roller coasters, no casseroles where I can’t identify every ingredient, thank you very much. When I was growing up, in the innocent fifties and early sixties, pretty much every book I read had a guaranteed happy ending. There were no such categories as tween or young adult. Books that dealt with darker themes were reserved for adults, and for years I lived on a diet of Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins, and Nancy Drew. When Beth died in Little Women, it came as a tremendous shock.
Yet little by little, I began to learn that reading was not just for escaping life–it could be for understanding life. One of the first books to help me see that was “A Girl of the Limberlost”, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora has a mother who’s often cold and distant. Her own heart has been broken, and she visits her unhappiness on Elnora. I remember reading this book with a painful sense of wonder. I’d never seen a mother like mine in a book before. When her mother shows Elnora that she does, after all, love her deeply, my own heart swelled so that I thought it might actually be growing. And probably it was–that’s what seeing ourselves in a book, realizing we are not alone, does to us. Our hearts and minds expand. Being understood, we, in turn, can better understand others.
Thank goodness for the many brave, unflinching books young readers have today. I’m so so awed and moved, by novels like Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, Leslie Connor’s The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle, and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies. Books like these, which guide young readers through life’s darkest places and out into the light, were not around when I was growing up.
Yet much as I admire them, I’ll never write that kind of book. I think that, as writers, we discover what we can do, then do that thing as best we can. For me, that seems to be quiet books like The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, whose hero is timid, steadfast Loah Londonderry. While Loah is a homebody, her mother is an ornithologist who often goes off on distant expeditions. When Dr. Londonderry finds evidence that an Arctic bird believed to be extinct may still exist, she embarks on a perilous solo quest to save it. Loah is left alone with her elderly caretakers. When they fall ill, she finds herself truly alone, except for a troubled friend who wants help running away from home, and those ominous vultures.
Does her mother love her work more than she loves Loah? Can Loah be a friend to someone so different from her? Where does a homebody find the courage to do brave, undreamed of things?
Loah embarks on an expedition too. She doesn’t traverse the globe, like her mother or a migrating Arctic tern. Instead, like a Townsend solitaire, she sticks close to home. Yet for me, her expedition, a journey of the heart, is every bit as big and important.
A recurring theme of middle grade and young adult literature is becoming independent –learning to fly–while also craving security and safety–a nest. It’s a theme explored in countless ways, and in The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, I do it through the lens of the natural world. All living creatures depend on one another in ways large and small, a lesson Dr. Londonderry’s work has taught Loah. As she comes to feel her own quiet strength, she reaches out to help others, who in turn support her, setting up a human chain of inter-connectedness that echoes Nature’s own web.
The book’s title comes from naturalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wrote, “I think that, if required on pain of death to instantly name the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird’s egg.” A bird’s egg, with its sturdy yet porous shell, is perfectly engineered to protect the growing chick until the day that chick finds the egg too small and confining and begins pecking its way out. An egg is made to nurture and then to give way, and for me this is the perfect metaphor for childhood and growing up. Hatching isn’t easy for Loah, just as for so many kids. I hope readers see themselves in her struggles to find a place in the world. I hope they’ll be reassured that, even when they feel most alone, light and love are never far away.
We turn to books for different things. Some days we want to laugh, some days to weep, some days to shiver in horror and some days to be comforted. Linda Urban, Erin Entrada Kelly, Cynthia Lord, Renee Watson and Sarah Pennypacker are some of my favorite writers whose books can speak monumental truths in small-ish voices. I’m tucking The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe onto their shelf.
Shh. These are quiet books. They have lots to share, though. Lean close and listen.
…those may be a gardener’s favorite words! I planted these bluebells late last summer, when they looked pretty much like nothing at all–just a few tenacious leaves (in official gardener terms, bluebells are “ephemerals”). I had hopes they’d take, but with gardening–and yes, with writing–you never know!
Now here they are, all a-tremble in the April breeze, ready to burst forth. And The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe has gotten its first review, which I have to keep a secret for now but is as lovely and hopeful as these spring flowers!
(Pubbing on June 1 but available for pre-order now. And if you’d like a signed, personalized copy, order from this most-perfect indie bookstore, https://www.macsbacks.com/book/9780823447572
The title of my new middle grade novel comes from this quote from the noted nineteenth century naturalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson:
‘I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on _____________”
What did Higginson say? Of course you could look it up. OR you could finish the sentence with your own idea of universal perfection! This is a prompt I hope my readers and I will be having a lot of fun with once the book comes out–which is this June 1 (pre-order available now would be a very nice thing of you to do)!! I hope you’ll join in–after all, there can never be too much perfection.
…I can share the cover of my new middle grade novel, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, coming on June 1. Whoa. That’s less than three months away! Better hurry up and show you.
That’s Loah, our hero, on the right and her new friend, Ellis, on the left. Making cameo appearances: Aquaman, the baby Angora goat, Loah’s nameless goldfish, and one of the many, many birds who sing and fly through the pages.
This book was a whopper of a challenge. It started out as my (probably one and only) attempt at a historical novel. (Why didn’t someone remind me that would require research and accuracy?) Like my one and only attempt at writing a crime/mystery novel, which instead became the mystery of the heart that is Moonpenny Island, this new book changed and changed and changed again.
What stayed the same through all the re-visioning was my Loah, a stolid, sweet homebody whose idea of who she is and what she’s capable of is tested when her ornithologist mother disappears on an expedition. Other things I kept: the creaky old house, the ancient caretakers, the new friend with big troubles of her own. The little goat was a surprise.
Now the book is done, it’s tempting to say this is how it was meant to be. A writer wants to feel a certain inevitability about how her story turns out, but really, I can never quite believe in that. Stories, like our lives, can go an infinite number of ways, and by my age I know I’m not in control of all the twists and turns.
But here is my Loah, one of the favorite characters I’ve ever written. I’ll be posting more about her, including some of my favorite lines, here soon. Meanwhile, a toast to her and her friends! (And if you really want to help me celebrate, you can pre-order now!)
I spent this gray, sleety morning babysitting my granddaughters. They are 4 and 2 and when I’m with them, I am approximately 3. We started off with a few educational puzzles, but somehow the puzzle pieces became dishes, and some beads became picnic food, and off we went into Imagination-ville. We rode bikes and drove cars (got caught in a nasty traffic jam and had to be rescued by a crane, which let me tell you was hair-raising), visited a playground, broke bones, visited the hospital, befriended a monkey, ate broccoli-cranberry ice cream (better than you think) and in between had many lullabies and bedtime stories (people who live in Imagination-ville only sleep about 20 seconds a night, it turns out, but they spend a LOT of time getting ready for bed).
Of course we never called it Imagination-ville. While we were there, we just lived it, moment to exciting moment. Who knew what would happen next? We were the bosses of the universe, but the universe still surprised us.
When I write, I live in my imagination, yet even in my first drafts I’m at least faintly aware of bending the arc, shaping a cohesive whole. I feel the constraints of Story tugging at me. But this morning I just played. No need for a beginning, middle and end, or a plot that lasted more than a minute. We did have a theme, though. I’m pretty sure it was: Wow! Life is amazing!
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to welcome a new year. As a friend of mine says, this is one January we will not make a mistake writing the date!
So much has been said and written about all that the world has been through in 2020, I won’t add anything more. Instead I’m looking ahead, hoping to leave behind the anger, confusion and pain and replace them with good will and good work.
I’m happy and excited to be sharing my new novel, The Most Perfect Thingin the Universe, coming in June. Meet three of its characters:
And here is the publisher’s synopsis:
Eleven-year-old Loah Londonderry’s mother, a noted ornithologist, works to save endangered birds of the shrinking Arctic tundra. Meanwhile, shy and timid Loah counts the days till she comes home. But to Loah’s surprise and dismay, instead of returning, Dr. Londonderry sets off on a risky solo quest to find the Loah bird, long believed extinct. Does her mother care more deeply about Loah the bird than Loah her daughter?
When Loah’s elderly caretakers fall ill, she finds herself all alone except for her friend Ellis. Ellis sees things in Loah no one else does, things as hidden yet wonderful as the golden feather tucked away on her namesake bird’s wing. When Dr. Londonderry’s expedition goes perilously wrong, Loah will need to uncover that hidden courage and strength to save her mother, lost at the top of the world.
Beautifully written, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is about expeditions big and small, about creatures who defy gravity and those of us who are bound by it.
Perfect publishes in June with Holiday House! Stay tuned for more about it, and meanwhile, happy, hopeful, new year hugs!
Yes, this IS a real question, not just for readers but for me. Like all real questions, its answer is…complicated.
We humans love to quantify things– how many inches of snow expected, how high our kid’s score on aptitude tests, how many calories in that brownie, even how many followers or friends we have. I guess it gives us some sense of satisfaction and even control to put a number on a thing, and it lets us make comparisons, for better or for worse.
Even writing falls prey to this. NaNoWriMo just ended. Over 30 days, writers try their best to write 50,000 words, the draft of a whole novel or at least a good start on one. And of course we published writers, if we possess a masochistic streak, can always go on Amazon and compare our sales numbers (#7,642 in Children’s Mouse and Rodent Books–word! this is a real thing!)
But back to my reader’s question–how long does it take to write a book? You have to be careful answering this, because when the question-asker is only nine years old, and the answer is “maybe a year or so but sometimes possibly four years or even more”, you risk scaring that child silly and making her secretly vow to never, ever try to write a book.
“As long as it takes” isn’t a good answer for a child either, even though it’s the truth. Between the time I conceived of Khalil and Mr. Hagerty and the Backyard Treasures and the day I finished it, well over a year had gone by–and this for a book only a few hundred words long. While I had the idea for a long time, I couldn’t figure out how to write it, despite many attempts. Seeded between those attempts was the fallow time I spent thinking–consciously and unconsciously–about my characters and their story. I can’t calculate those minutes and hours, but I know I’d never have written the book without them.
Next spring I have a new middle grade novel, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, coming out. I’ll write much more about it as the pub date comes closer, but for now I’ll say: please don’t ask me to try to add up how long I spent writing it. I prefer amnesia. I know I actually wrote an entirely other, entirely different, complete novel first, and when I try to think about what of that book made it into the one I’m publishing, the answer is exactly one single thing: my good, steadfast, shy, self-effacing, infuriatingly timid main character Loah. How patient she’s been with me!
How long does it take to write a book? What I’ll answer my reader is that every book, like every person, is different. If it sometimes takes what seems like forever to finish a story, it’s only because I want it to be the best I possibly can make it. Only then will it be ready to share, and it will be worth every minute.
Not plot holes (I hope)–actual holes. In the ground.
This makes me smile. One of the metaphors I use when I talk to students is how writing can be like digging. At first you’ll turn up all sorts of stuff, some of it interesting (save that), but much of it expected and dross-y. Keep digging (in other words, drafting). The deeper you go, the more digging (and revising) you do, the closer you’ll come to uncovering the things that only you can find.
There’s also the idea of the funny, weird rock your shovel turns up. You wash the dirt off, polish it up, discover it’s in fact a gem…
BUT…I only just realized how much I write about ACTUAL REAL HOLES. Which makes me think again how little I really, truly know, about how my stories come to be. Which is frustrating on one hand, and kind of wonderful on the other.
Now please excuse me because I have a sudden irresistible urge to go out and dig in my garden…
Publishing Khalil and Mr. Hagerty and the Backyard Treasures has been a more joyful experience than I expected. Despite the limitations the virus puts on actually meeting readers, teachers and librarians, I’ve been able to connect in lots of other new ways–virtual story hours, on-line nErD camps, tweets and giveaways, and lovely, generous blog spots and social media posts from fellow writers and friends. I still really look forward to the moment when I can sign a book and put it directly into a reader’s hands, not to mention being able to read it aloud to a class and then talk with them about what they think makes a true friend, BUT, in the meantime, I’ll take the virtual joy! Thanks for sharing it with me.