It’s getting real! Here is the lovely title page.
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:
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 www.facinghistory.org I’m very excited to be working with them, and will have more to say about that soon!
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.
This is Oma Springstubb a few months ago, celebrating her 92nd birthday with her two favorite things: friends and something delicious to eat.
She died last Sunday. Eunice was a true believer. For those of us who knew her well, it makes sense that she passed away in the afternoon, and the Cleveland Cavs won the NBA championship that evening. No doubt she had a word with the Man Upstairs.
At her funeral, when my daughter described her grandmother, the first word she used was “tenacious”. That only became more true the longer she lived. Eunice Enid was tenacious in her faith, her loyalties, her grudges. I dedicated a very early novel to her, with deep thanks for how she supported me in every way. As the years went by, I got to see her give that same unwavering support to my daughters and, for four happy months, to my own grandbaby.
She was a Lutheran who loved to belt out a hymn. She’d requested 15+ for her funeral service. We did our valiant best though, with her good ear, she was probably wincing. Sorry, Oma! We miss your voice so much.
It’s out in the world!
The Horn Book has made it the book of the week. I’m so honored that Monica Edinger reviewed it.
Every Single Second
by Tricia Springstubb; illus. by Diana Sudyka
Middle School Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins 360 pp.
6/16 978-0-06-236628-3 $16.99 g
e-book ed. 978-0-06-236630-6 $9.99
Nella Sabatini’s life is largely centered on her tight-knit Italian American family, including her harried mother, her cemetery-groundskeeper father, her four unruly younger brothers, and her crotchety great-grandmother, Nonna. But things are changing around her: her school, St. Amphibalus, is closing due to high costs and low enrollment; college students and other Invaders (i.e., yuppies, professors, and people of color) are moving into the neighborhood; and the people Nella thought she knew best have deeply kept secrets. Nella’s friend, Clem, is obsessed with the idea of the upcoming “leap second,” and halfway through the book everything does change, tragically, in an instant. This terrible fulcrum of the novel is an event that upends families and brings to light issues of deep-seated racism, violence, post-traumatic stress, accountability, remorse, and regret. Springstubb adroitly weaves multiple story lines and themes throughout her nonlinear narrative, moving back and forth in time (“now”; “then”) and occasionally interrupting her omniscient third-person perspective with interstitial commentary from a mournful, stoic cemetery statue (“What the Statue of Jeptha A. Stone Would Say If It Could”). The result is a complex and rich tale, one that will have readers pondering, along with Nella, life’s big questions.
From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
My newest middle grade novel publishes next month. It’s different from anything I’ve done before, a risk. The wonderful blog, Nerdy Book Club, offered me the chance to write about why I wrote “Every Single Second” and what I hoped to do. Here’s the post:
Navy blue jumpers and clip-on bow ties, gimlet-eyed nuns in starched white habits, the gravel playground where we jumped rope, May altars decked with lilacs, the catechism I can still recite by heart: my Catholic elementary school looms large in memory. What I remember most keenly is longing to be good. More than good—saintly. When I was eight or nine, the Vision Books of Saints were my favorite reading. Bernadette: Our Lady’s Little Servantand St. Therese and the Roses and The Cure of Ars: the Priest Who Out-Talked the Devil. These stories thrilled me. I vowed to be humble and obedient, but also brave and steadfast, as a saint.
Everyone I knew went to Catholic school. For us, public school kids were objects of fascination. They wore whatever they wanted and seemed loud and unruly. We heard rumors that they ate in a cafeteria rather than at their desks, had a gym where they were actually encouraged to run (a serious sin at our school), and went on something called “field trips.” We judged them barbaric and pitied their ignorance. None of them was ever going to make it into heaven, much less be canonized.
And yet, somehow, by the time I was in eighth grade, I yearned to be one of them. How did that happen? The usual suspect: reading. As I grew, my saints became more secular. The characters I loved best still inspired me to be brave and good, but they also made me strangely restless. I remember the day Sister Eugenia went around the room, asking each of us which high school we’d attend. When my turn came, to my own surprise I stammered the name of the public school. I was a star student, and Sister was horrified. She made me stand in front of the class and list my reasons for abandoning Catholic education. Who knows what I said? No way I could say what I was thinking: I want to see what it’s like out there.
Many, many years later, I began to write about Nella, a dreamy, inarticulate girl who became the main character in my middle grade novel Every Single Second. Like all the other kids in her working-class, ethnic neighborhood, Nella goes to St. Amphibalus School, and though she’s often restless, and asks questions without answers, this is the world she knows and loves. Life begins to change when she meets a girl who’s lived many other places, a girl who questions everything—even God. Things change some more when the diocese closes St. Amphibalus and Nella, who’s white, has to attend the mostly black public school. And everything changes, this time for good, when a boy Nella’s been close to all her life commits a murder that becomes national news.
I was scared to write this book. I’d never written about violence. While I often write about diversity in terms of economic class, I’d never dealt with issues of race. Writing for kids is always a huge privilege and responsibility, and with this book, I felt that more strongly than ever. The tragedy at the heart of the story doesn’t just come out of nowhere, and it was my job to understand where it does come from. I was afraid of offending someone or, far worse, of getting the story wrong. While working on the book, I did a school visit and someone asked what I was writing about now. As I described the plot, some kids flinched. One girl put her hands over her eyes. But others came up to me afterwards, asking how soon they could get the book. This was the same tangle of feelings I experienced all the while I worked. I didn’t want to think about these things. I had to think about these things.
Nella is a girl shaped by the powerful, well-meaning forces of family and tradition, just as I was. Questioning what she’s been taught isn’t just difficult. It feels wrong. Yet as she starts to perceive the walls that stand between her and others, her desire to look over those walls—even to knock them down—grows ever stronger. That feels right.
My old elementary school, like St. Amphibalus, is closed now, but I still remember every nun who taught me. My favorite of all, the model for Sister Rosa in Every Single Second, was Sister Diana Marie. Barely taller than I was, she radiated love and compassion, and I swam in her light. By now, my definition of “being good” has gotten much more complicated, but I have no doubt Sister Diana Marie was good through and through. In my book, I happily gave Sister Rosa/Diana Marie some of my favorite lines:
“Remember, Nella. We need one another almost as much as we need God. Why else do you think he made so many of us?”
Heidi publishes a fun feature: writers sending letters to their kid-selves. Here’s the one I wrote, featured on April 21:
Dear Ten-Year-Old Tricia,
A letter from the next century! Shock-er-oo, right? Before you read this, here’s what you need to do. Tiptoe into your bedroom, lock the door and pray that the barbarians (those four younger siblings) don’t start banging on it. Privacy! I remember how impossible it was to get any in that crowded little house. I remember daydreaming about living on a houseboat, or a ranch out west, or in a peaceful convent.
Next, clear a space on your bed among the books, stuffed animals, books, homework, and books. Lie down. This letter bears astonishing news. Tricia, you’re not going to grow up to be a sailor, rancher or nun. You’re going to be a writer.
It’s too weird, right? Much as you love stories (another way to escape into a private world), you could not care less who wrote them. For you, a good book is like one of those crazy-beautiful mushrooms that pops up after a rainy night. Where did it come from? Who cares? The story itself is all that matters—the characters and what happens to them. You turn the pages as quick as you can, never stopping to reflect that someone, somewhere, made this all up. That thought’s almost insulting. Books feel true and real as life itself, only better. If you thought at all about the writer, you’d have to put Her or Him on a par with God.
But wait. This year your teacher is Mrs. Minot. She has dandruff and coffee-breath and always looks tired, like most teachers, but she seems to trust kids, which is different. At the end of the day, when she actually gives you free time, you usually read, but one day you decide to try to something. You’ve just read Ballet for Julia, where a messy, clumsy girl goes to live with her crotchety old aunt. Julia discovers she’s really a graceful, beautiful ballerina. For some reason, you start to write Ballet for Adelaide, more or less the same exact story with a few name changes. What makes you do that, Tricia? All these years later, I have no answer. But I still remember my heart thrumming as the words spilled out onto the paper. “What are you doing?” Mrs. Minot asked, breathing her coffee breath upon me. And when I told her, “Maybe you’ll be a writer someday”, she said.
Guess what? More than fifty (!!) years later, when you have forgotten many, many other things, you will still remember that.
An archeologist. A teacher. A Russian translator. A gardener on an English estate. You’re going to have a gazillion ideas about who you might be. A professional dog walker. A librarian. Oh Tricia, the world is so full of a number of things, we should all be as happy as kings! And mostly you will be. Mostly, your life is going to be so lucky. Those brutish barbarians who will soon be banging on the bedroom door? They’re going to become your best friends—it’s true, I swear. You’ll have other teachers as kind and perceptive as Mrs. Minot. You’ll travel a little bit for real, and a lot in your imagination, and you’ll fall in disastrous love a few times till at last you get it right and marry—a teacher! Who will, one morning, lean close and breathe his toothpaste breath upon you, saying, “I think you should write. Seriously.”
And this time, you will think, Yes.
That everything happening to you now, all the books you’re reading, wishes you’re wishing, prayers you’re praying, bonds you’re forming and breaking, fears you’re facing and dreams you’re chasing—that all those things will one day turn into stories, don’t think about it. Not now. That writing is as much craft as art, and you will need to work crazy hard before you succeed—don’t worry about it now.
For now, just be ten. Lie on that bed, cuddle your stuffed poodle, watch the breeze lift the pink rosebud curtains. Wiggle your toes, and pick up one of the books strewn all over your room. Don’t think about who wrote that book. Just step inside it and make it yours, as only a lucky ten-year-old can.
|Tricia Springstubb is the author of books for kids of all ages, including the award-winning middle grade novels What Happened on Fox Street and Moonpenny Island. Her other new book this year is Every Single Second, coming in June from HarperCollins. Yes, she continues to be very lucky and very grateful!|