Category Archives: Books

As Monday cannot feel Tuesday

There are times when, no matter how I try, the words don’t come. Or they do, but they won’t  do what I mean them to. Instead they huddle on the page, lumpish and inert. Maybe Hirshfield was feeling some of that when she wrote this poem.
The Tongue Says Loneliness

by Jane Hirshfield

The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.
As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
nor Thursday
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.

As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.

Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron.

Growing a Reader

Blogs can be such wonderful things! Thank goodness for bloggers (far) less lazy than I, who share their own wonderful thoughts and discoveries plus give other writers the chance to chime in, too. Sara Grochowski, I am lo0king at you!

Sara blogs at thehidingspotblogspot.com, and she’s doing a lovely series  on writers and their childhood reading. I’m lucky enough to be one of those writers she asked. Because, for mysterious and evil reasons, this  page often refuses to post links, I’ll print my entry below. But please give yourself a gift and go to Sara’s blog to read the other posts,  as varied and revelatory as the writers themselves.

I’m sitting on the floor of the A & P, beside a spin rack of Little Golden Books. My harried mother (I’ve got four younger brothers and sisters) is somewhere in the store, but I’m with the fish family, who are foiling a fisherman by hooking a big rubber boot on his line. I read this book every time we come grocery shopping. Now I wonder, why did such a silly story so deeply satisfy me? Maybe the theme of a family banding together to protect each other comforted me? Or maybe it was my favorite illustration, the one that showed the fisherman above and the fish family below at the same time. Two separate, simultaneous worlds: an idea that continues to fascinate me. I can’t remember ever worrying that the book would be sold and gone. Back then, if I loved a book, it belonged to me. Our relationship was exclusive, its world mine and no one else’s. I’d have been startled to see another kid reading my fish family book. Every week I re-read it, and every week I returned it to the rack until, at last, a miracle: my mother added its $.29 to the grocery bill.

No one ever had to encourage me to read. I’m one of the lucky, born to lose my way in words. The first book I could read was “Dick and Jane”. I loved Sally’s hair, which inspired a lifelong envy of curls, and Father’s dapper suits. A part of me knew these people weren’t real, but a much larger, uncontrollable part believed I knew them, and that somehow they knew me. As I grew, one of five kids in a crowded little house, no one paid any attention to what I read, and all my books came from the library. Once, when I was miserable with chicken pox, my friend Cynthia loaned me two of her books. Her books. She owned “Mary Poppins” and “Pippi Longstocking”. (Years later, I was jealous of her subscription to Seventeen Magazine, another unfathomable luxury.) I loved the stories, of course, but I think the reason they stand out in my memory is that the books themselves felt different. They were unlike library books, and not just because they lacked crinkly plastic covers. They had a different weight, an extra gravity. They were the first books I viewed not just as vehicles but as sacred objects in themselves. I remember thinking that Cynthia, who didn’t care all that much about reading, didn’t deserve them. Book lust. It was upon me.

For years I read solely for plot, for what would happen next. I got used to happy endings, and so I’ll never forget the shock of Flag’s death in “The Yearling”. That staggering blow to heart and mind! For the first time I thought, how could the author do that? I wondered it again when I read “Mrs. Mike” where two small children die of diptheria. (Looking up this title now, I see it was written for adults, so by then I must have infiltrated that section of the library). That life could be so fatally capricious and cruel was new knowledge for me. That a writer could face up to that knowledge and be brave enough to convey it was a revelation.

Later there was “Jane Eyre”, in the edition with Fritz Eichenberg’s terrifying wood engravings. Jane stole my heart. I loved that she was plain. I loved her conversations with Rochester. I considered the narrator unfair to the poor woman in the attic, and I pitied her fiery death. Most of all I loved the novel’s language, the earnest sentences with their semicolons and dashes and piled-on clauses building to an emotional crescendo that swept me up into a reading place I’d never been before. I was still crazy to know what would happen next, but now I also wanted to know why.

One last book: “A Girl of the Limberlost”. The copy I read had yellowed pages that gave off a whiff of mildew, calling up the swamp where Elnora hunted her specimens. Elnora and I both had complicated relationships with our mothers. Elnora’s was much meaner than mine, but both women hoarded their love, and were stingy with praise and affection. I remember reading the scene where Elnora’s mother, who bitterly opposes Elnora’s going to school, surprises her by packing an exquisite lunch for her to take. This scene opened some floodgate inside me. I understood how someone might love deeply but be unable to express it, how love takes many forms, how a good mother need not look like a TV mother. These were things I’d sensed in some deep, inarticulate place inside me, but now I had the words for them, and that made all the difference.

To turn the page and feel the world re-configure itself around you. To be a reader.

Reading and Writing While White

This is such a thoughtful conversation on diversity in my MOONPENNY ISLAND and in the wonderful UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER, and on diversity in general. Much to ponder.

http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2016/02/writing-diversity-while-white.html

Nana

I’m someone new. Here’s the person responsible:

My daughter and her husband wanted to be surprised, so for the whole pregnancy we called the baby Little Legume. One week ago today, she became Little Linnea.  (Labor began on her due date! She is already a very conscientious child).

I have a strong feeling that writing children’s book is going to be more important to me than ever.

More Than Children

These are snowy days, good days to slow down and turn inward, to take time for thinking about things that can’t be quickly pinned down. In the kid lit world, it’s  been a  time for controversy, as the Newbery Award, generally given to a middle grade novel, went to a picture book, and a large number of the other awards went to writers and illustrators of color, making most people rejoice  but some publicly speculate that diversity was rewarded over quality.

It’s  been a time when a picture book about George Washington’s personal slave proudly baking him a birthday cake has been withdrawn from sale after protests over its racial insensitivity, even though its  highly respected African-American editor defended its basis in fact. This follows angry debate over several other books and whether their creators made things hurtful and misleading to young readers.

These have been difficult, painful, confusing conversations. I’ve only taken the smallest part in them, for one because at this point, it’s hard to be sure either side, though both are undeniably well-intentioned, is listening to the other. And for two because yes, I’m aware of and afraid of my own privilege and how it blurs my view of the world. What do I know about living inside another skin? All I can do is read about other experiences, and listen to other voices, and then, try to imagine.

My new middle grade novel, “Every Single Second”, is a departure for me. It’s about class and race and there is a violent tragedy at its heart.  It’s a book I didn’t want to write but had to. I love the characters; I’m proud of the work I did on it; I so look forward to talking to kids about it.

Yet as the time nears for it to go out  into the world, I fear for it. Will it offend or anger someone? Will someone pillory its views?  Should I have stuck to non-controversial topics, to things we can all agree on and get warm-fuzzy over? I’m pretty sure the answer to the first two questions is yes. I’m certain the answer to the third one is no.

Reading can be the world’s most comforting activity, but it can, and sometimes should, be a risky endeavor. We need stories that stir and goad and unsettle us, that get us talking and questioning, that may even get us out of our chairs and on our feet, wanting to do something. There are stories that fit cozily between “Once upon a time” and “the end”, but there are also stories that begin way before the first page, and that go on long after the final one. That was the kind of book I had to write this time.

Erin Murphy, a beloved literary agent, had this to say to writers in a Facebook post: “Do the good work of studying, of consulting, of listening to your hearts, of considering how the details of your story will make your readers feel. It’s true, it may fail anyway—but that is the work artists must do, and the risk artists must take. You must be WILLING TO FAIL for the effort of trying, and nothing is worth the effort more than children.”

Nothing is worth the effort more than children.

It’s Coming!

One of my favorite days of the year! I’ll be celebrating by doing Skype visits far and wide (still some spots left, so if you’re interested contact me through this website!) Whether you read to yourself, a friend, or a whole  classroom, raise your voice and join in!

More details are at www.litworld.org

What I’m About in 2016

New year, here we come!

In April…

“Cody took a slurp of chocolate milk times two. At the end of the lunch table, Molly gave her the skunk eye. Cody shifted on her seat. Across the table, Spencer and Pearl blabbed about the orchestra. Cody shifted some more. And then somehow her bungie slipped off the back. Cody grabbed for the table but whoa! She was on her way down. The  milk cartons were on their way up. They somersaulted through the air.

“When Cody got back on her feet, Spencer and Pearl were flapping their arms and squawking. They had chocolate milk all over them.

“Not only them. The table. And the wall. And the floor.

“It was like a TV crime scene, only with chocolate milk instead of blood.”

And in June…

“At first Nella doesn’t recognize the sound. The wind, maybe? Except the trees behind the stone wall don’t move. A flock of birds with heavy wings? Except the sky is empty. Ghosts? Except of course that’s ridiculous. A girl who’s lived her whole life across from a graveyard does not let herself believe in ghosts.

“The July night is warm, but she shivers. Until a few days ago, Nella knew every sight and sound, smell and taste of her neighborhood. The steep hill and narrow houses, the cheesy music at Mama Gemma’s, the supernatural perfume of fresh doughnuts and the zing of lemon ice. She and Angela used to love–no. Don’t think about Angela. Just don’t.”

My last post was more than a bit gloomy.  So just to say: life brims with gifts,  and you never know where you’ll find one. Or when one will find you.

Habibi and me

2016, here we come!

Most Wonderful?

“This is the most wonderful time of your life!” the well-meaning relative gushed at the graduation party. “Enjoy! Enjoy!”

My 17-year-old daughter, who’d  hated high school and was anxious about college, looked alarmed. If these were the most wonderful years, she was in big trouble.

The Christmas carols are ubiquitous now, and my ear worm is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  I’m sorry, but could there be a more obnoxious line than “It’s the hap-happiest season of all” ? It’s pretty much calculated to make you feel terrible, unless you, too, are glowing and mistletoeing.  If you’re alone, if you’re  grieving a loss, if you don’t have the money for food and rent let alone piles of presents, if you’re worried for someone you love, if you’re deeply disturbed by your country’s political climate and all the hatred loose in the world, well. The song jangles instead of jingles. Unhappiness is always a lonesome feeling, but this time  of year can makes it feel especially, painfully raw.

We have just lost one of our dearest, bravest, most luminous friends. And so I’m reminding myself that there is no hap-happiest time of the year. Joy is a wild bird that touches down and folds us in its wings, without warning, any time. We can coax it to us, but we can’t  make it stay.  We definitely can’t coerce it, not even with presents and parties. Better to look for it every day, in friends and family, books and art, memories and hopes, the work we do and the kindness we share. Let there be no most wonderful.  Let every day have its own wild, winged life.

Wishing you peace.

The Sticky Truth

My daughter is a vegan now, so I’m looking at some of our traditional holiday dishes with furrowed brow. I know she’s made (delicious) pumpkin pie, so we’ll figure that out, but what about my famous dinner rolls? They’ve got milk, butter and eggs in them, all off the list.

While puzzling over that—because we’ve GOT to have rolls—I started thinking about how bread is one of the few things I still really enjoy making. Long ago I swore off chopping, peeling, and mincing, not to mention stirring, skimming and simmering. When the girls were little, I cooked all the time, not because I liked it but because the urge to feed your kid is primal. But now that they’re grown, and well able to cook (or order take out) for themselves, the wooden spoon has passed to my husband, who actually enjoys grating cheese.

But bread.  I never measure ingredients—I bake it by feel. And I still love getting my hands in that dough, pushing and pulling and thumping, turning it from sticky to satiny. I’m thinking there’s something akin to writing about this process, the intuitiveness of it, knowing when it’s not right, understanding what it still needs, never losing faith that this lumpy thing will bake up sweet and luscious and nutritious.  Even though I must have baked a thousand loaves of bread by now, and would swear I know how to do it, no loaf is ever exactly the same as the one before or the one after. Always a surprise: a crack in the crust, a denser crumb or airiness I never again quite capture, rock hard failures. Just like stories.

I’m going to try and make vegan rolls. I’ll read a few recipes to get warmed up, but then I’ll just plunge in on my own. We’ll  see what happens.