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A good question

In my recent reader mail:

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.

Digging In

The Department of Funny Things I Never Realized:

A lot of my books have holes in them.

Not plot holes (I hope)–actual holes. In the ground.

A geologist sets up a dig on the island
Cody and Spencer investigate a giant hole in his grandmother’s back yard

Duh

Khalil and Mr. Hagerty dig for treasure (the greatest of which, as if turns out, is their friendship)


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…

Unexpected Treasure

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.

A New Book

I began this blog in 2010, when What Happened on Fox Street first came out. Since then, I’ve published three more middle grade novels, four chapter books, two picture books, and I have a new middle grade in the works for next year.

Those are wonderful numbers! But in the end, they are only numbers, and they can’t even begin to quantify the joy, gratitude and SURPRISE I feel every time I’m lucky enough to see one of my stories go out into the world. Joy because I’ve put my heart on paper, gratitude because so many people–agent, editors, illustrators, marketing staff– have helped make my words real, and SURPRISE because each time the experience feels new.

New, AKA exciting and terrifying. Sending a little book out into the world is always an unknown, and never more than now, with our poor world battered on every side. Will readers find it? Will it make any difference in their lives? Does it matter at all?

Khalil and Mr. Hagerty and the Backyard Treasures is about many things–the power of language to connect, the treasures beneath our own feet, and– very important–chocolate cake. But friendship is at its heart. Friendship–a gift we’re never too old or young to give and to receive. Khalil and Mr. Hagerty are very different fellows, yet they enrich one another’s lives in ways neither could have predicted. I like to think that the story goes on beyond the last page: children who read it will want to delight someone else with a secret gift of kindness.

I’ll be writing more about how this book came to be, and how teachers can use it in the classroom, but for now I’ll just say, Welcome, little book! Spread your light!

School Clothes

Here’s a short essay I wrote for Cleveland Magazine. It took on new poignancy as I wrote it and my granddaughter’s school (which she loved) closed because of the virus.

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To my mother’s surprise and delight, I made the newspaper on my very first day of school.

The night before, she’d twisted my stubbornly straight hair onto aluminum rollers, so in the morning miraculous curls framed my face. She buttoned me into my new plaid dress with the crisp skirt and round white collar. She buckled up my new shoes. I was her oldest child, the first she sent out into the world, and that morning everything about me was as close to perfect as she could make it. 

The other kindergarteners must have been driven to school, because I rode the school bus with only one fellow passenger, a little guy with a brush cut and a cool Hawaiian shirt. I’d never seen a Hawaiian shirt before, and it added to the immense wonders of the day. When we got to school, I wasn’t the least surprised to find a smiling reporter ready to snap my photo as I came down those tall bus steps. If any event in my life thus far was worthy of being immortalized, it was riding shotgun on a school bus.

In fact, the reporter was there because the two of us were brand new students at the town’s brand new elementary school. When the photo appeared on the front page of the local paper, my mother proudly bought extras for all the relatives. She pasted a copy into the family photo album. It grew yellow and crumbly, but my smile, my dress and curls endured. It’s clear that when my mother sent me off into the big world for the first time, she did everything she could to show how loved I was. The photo’s caption could have been, Take good care of this child! 

For first grade and the rest of my elementary years, she sent me to St. Hugh of Lincoln Catholic School, where we wore uniforms: navy blue jumper, white blouse, and a clip-on bow tie. That crazy bow tie! It was the only part of the get-up I liked, though by the time I was ten, I was sick of it, too. I hated the monotony of that uniform, but she insisted on keeping it neat and tidy. I remember her ironing my blouses and scolding me to polish my perennially scuffed saddle shoes. She even made me wash the shoelaces. I was lucky, really. Though uniforms were supposed to render us as equal in the eyes of the fashion gods as we were in the eyes of God Himself, we managed to establish our own hierarchy. Some girls got new jumpers every year, while others wore theirs till they grew too small, the fabric thin and shiny. One unfortunate classmate, a tall, craggy girl, had a mother who sewed her uniforms. She no doubt grew up to be gorgeous, but in sixth grade her unusual looks and homemade clothes doomed her to the land of outcasts. Today this breaks my heart. I pray her mother never knew.

When I sent my own children off to school, I could never achieve the polished perfection my mother did. I strove for clean and matching. I made sure their hair met a brush once a day. Civilizing children is no small task and I often worried I was failing, but at least I could make sure their sweaters had no holes and their shoes were on the right feet. Like my own mother sending me off on that first day of kindergarten, I could signal to the wide, indifferent world: these children are cherished.  

By now those children are long grown, and I should be exceedingly wise. Books are not defined by their covers, beauty is more than skin deep, and while clothes can be very nice things, they do not make the man (or woman or child). Yet I’m thinking about all this as my first grandchild’s first year of preschool has come to a premature end due to the coronavirus. Back in September, her mother, my daughter, asked me to go to the school orientation. I was delighted to be part of another first day. My grandchild is shy. She’s a thinker and dreamer. She looked forward to school, but she was wary, too. I was glad I could go along and help ease her in.

That morning she dressed herself, ready in a jiffy. I was the one who opened my closet and froze. Blue jeans and t-shirt? Slacks and knit top? What kind of Nana should I be? Would this make me look like an aging hippy? Would that make me look stiff and boring? On that first day at a new school, I was anxious to present myself as the perfect grandma, whatever that meant. I wanted the other adults to approve of my grandchild’s Nana.

It was ridiculous. I wanted to laugh at myself, but I couldn’t quite. It was embarrassing to still be so self-conscious. Yet now, thinking about it months later, I see it a little differently.  Nothing about raising kids is simple. It’s a terrible tangle of love, guilt, worry, and hope. The world is a precarious place where nothing is certain. It’s no wonder, really, that when we send our children out on their own, we grasp at whatever we can, no matter how flimsy, to protect them. A new dress. A hand-made jumper. A pair of polished shoes. A bit of armor, a badge that says, Take good care of her!

Who knows what my grandbaby will remember about her first day? Probably not her crooked pigtails or unicorn t-shirt. For that she’ll need to look at the photo I took.

Today

in my neighborhood corner park

I’ve been taking a lot of walks—pretty much everyone I know has, if they can. In the middle of a weekday, I see families, friends, and lots of happy dogs on the sidewalks and in the middle of the near-empty streets. We shout hello, we call “Stay well!”, which has taken the place of “How are you?”

Back home I try to work on my new novel. I fret over the upcoming publication date (May 26) of KHALIL AND MR. HAGERTY AND THE BACKYARD TREASURES and all the events and readings we have had to cancel, until I remember, Books are not ephemeral things. They are meant to last, they are meant for the long haul. KHALIL, with Elaheh Taherian’s beautiful, whimsical illustration, will find its readers and when it does, it will make them smile. It will tell them, You were right to stay hopeful.

So many things have changed, maybe forever. Here’s a piece I wrote for another blog about the things that haven’t.

A List of Things That Have Not Changed (so far)

The robin’s crazy-cheerful song

The butter-knife-shoots of the daffodils

How my granddaughters love being read to (the little one touches the screen at her favorite parts)

My husband’s maddening ability to fall asleep within moments of closing his eyes

My 4 AM insomnia

The sweet stir of spring at the open window

The impassive face of the moon

How deeply I dislike Twitter

How I cannot stop looking at Twitter

The phoebe bird’s annual return to nest outside my friend’s kitchen window

My being alone for hours every day and liking it, mostly

My managing to envy others, even now (how can that be?)

The solace of books

The insistence of laughter

The creepiness of masks

How my daughter, a physician’s assistant at a hospital and five months pregnant, goes to work every day

How little she talks about what she sees there

How tired she is when she gets home and how hard she hugs her children (after a very long shower)

My husband’s over-the-top cooking

Our dinners together, always with a candle, even as the days grow longer and the light lingers

The way the ten-month-old clambers, laughs, sprouts new teeth, changing by the day (how this in itself is no change at all, only what he’s done all along)

The fact that nobody I know has the virus, giving these days a sense of unreality coupled with guilt over how I can’t comprehend what has happened, is happening, will happen, and so I stumble outdoors to look at the budding trees and listen to the calling birds and feel beneath my feet the greening earth, steadfastly going about its business of renewing, of becoming (please) new again.

I Got Mail

It’s almost spring, prime time for school visits! Whenever I do one, I get repaid in three parts.

First, the prep, which makes me re-think what I want to share with kids about reading, writing, imagination and creativity–all in just 45 minutes. What do I really want them to know? How can I encourage them all to be makers and dreamers? (To tell the truth, I also get nervous during this part!)

Second, I do it!

And third, if I’m lucky–and I so often am–I get letters afterwards. Who gets REAL letters any more, let alone illustrated? My own personal illuminated manuscripts. Here are a few recent ones–enjoy!

Seeing 20/20

I started wearing glasses in seventh or eighth grade, though it really should have been much sooner. At St. Hugh of Lincoln Elementary, we had our eyes tested by the overworked Nurse McGrath, whose small office was on the echo-y, mostly empty third floor of the school. We would stand in line in the hallway waiting our turn to read the eye chart. It was a long wait, because our class had probably fifty kids in it, and so I had plenty of time to eavesdrop on the students in front of me and memorize the sequence of letters and numbers. By the time my turn came, Nurse McGrath, who resembled an agitated partridge, must have been too harried or weary to notice that I cheated.

I got away with this for awhile, but there came a point where even my mother, who with five kids didn’t pay much attention unless there was blood or screaming, must have noticed how fiercely I was squinting at the TV. My first pair of glasses were pinkish-beige-ish plastic, and while I loved seeing through them, I hated wearing them. I knew they made me look ugly (uglier). I took them off at every opportunity and was forever misplacing them.

I kept this up right through college. Everyone knew guys found glasses un-sexy and besides, they (the glasses, not the guys) made my nose sweat. I had been seeing (such a wonderful use of the word) Paul for weeks before he finally asked me, So what is with the glasses? When I confessed I hated how I looked in them, he was incredulous. He himself was so nearsighted he once wore his glasses water skiing (a sad story) and couldn’t believe I’d sacrifice vision for vanity.

Reader, I married him.

Now, in this first year of a new decade, in this last year of my sixties (gulp), and in the thick of my writing career, vision–literally and figuratively–means everything to me. And so I am hoping for a new year of keen and revelatory seeing.

I wish you the same. Happy new year!

(A quote on seeing from “The Story That Cannot Be Told” by J. Kasper Kramer, a beautiful middle grade novel published last year: “The truth is, sometimes it’s not just the world, but your eyes that have changed.”)

Do what is difficult…

I’m nearing the end of a first draft of a new book, and I’ve just written a scene that was very hard to do, both technically and emotionally. I’m not sure if it will stand in the novel’s final version, but I sort of think it will, maybe because it was so hard. And so I am thinking of this deservedly famous quote from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” (though I am neither young nor a poet, this is advice I take to heart):

“Beware irony, ignore criticism, look to what is simple, study the small and humble things of the world, do what is difficult precisely because it is difficult, do not search for answers but rather love the questions, do not run away from sadness or depression for these might be the very conditions necessary to your work.”

Now I am going to restore myself with a sit outside in the afternoon sunshine…