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National Book Festival

It’s been a writer-dream of mine to someday go to the…

IMG_0789…and this year I did! My book Moonpenny Island was picked to represent Ohio in the…

IMG_0794…where every state, plus U.S. territories, had a booth.  What an honor and what a wild, wonderful day. Thousands–for real–of readers came out to share their love of books. I’d never seen anything like it. In between meeting and chatting and signing, I was able to duck away to hear Alice McDermott,  Gene Luen Yang, Javaka Steptoe, and Kelly Barnhill wow the crowds.  Roz Chast, my all-time favorite cartoonist, was there too,  Can’t even begin to name all the writers I was unable to catch. A ream of writers! An exaltation of readers! Truly a dream come true.




Once Upon a Time…

…there was a haunted house. No one had ever lived in it, at least no one the children knew. It had always stood on the corner, empty and dark except for the small, dim light that burned in an upstairs window.  The children dared each other to climb the crumbling front steps onto the porch, and some did, only to run back down with pounding hearts. Bones in the cellar. Ghosts in the attic. They were sure of it.

The neighborhood grown-ups, as you might guess, considered the place a hazard and an eyesore. Someone must own it–everything was owned by someone.  But year after year the house stood, empty and neglected and a little bit closer to falling down.

So, at last the city tore it down. The grown-ups were relieved. The children felt sorry.

How big the lot was. The old house had taken up most of it,  but when the rubble was cleared away, everyone was surprised by how much empty space there was. What to do with it? The city said it was up to the neighbors.

And so…something new began to grow. little library 2

Flowers. Some planted, some volunteers. little library

A little free library. (Which is, the narrator will now interrupt to say, her favorite thing of all. And to which she adds,  once or twice a week, children’s books she’s loved or hopes some child will love. And which makes her feel like a fairy godmother, a book fairy–but that must be another story…)

IMG_0623Art. Some by grownups…


…and some by children.

In honor of the haunted house, which some still wistfully remember, our little community park is now called

little library 3May it live, happily ever after!

(And lest you think the park has suffered an earthquake: I have no idea why my photos all loaded sideways, or how to right them. Deepest apologies if you have gotten a kink in your neck reading this.)

I Am Too Lazy to Think of a Title Here

Actually, summer is  a time when I do a lot of writing, long stretches mostly uninterrupted by school visits or appearances. Right now I’m working hard on a total revision of a middle grade novel that sadly imploded, and I think it might possibly maybe in some regards and in certain lights be going very well.  Next week we’re going away for some time by the ocean (my other mother) and since I’m on a roll I don’t dare take a break. I’ll be bringing the book with me, spending the mornings writing, walking the beach with my characters.

It wouldn’t be summer, though, without my garden…


…and Wednesdays with my grandbaby…

at the museum…and a visit to a summer reading program (which used to be my very favorite thing about working in a library) where I had the time of my life…summer reading…and the summer book festival at one of my favorite indies, Loganberry Books, where I got to kibbitz with my buddy Megan Whelan Turner (undocumented by photos, fortunately!)

I also want to write about my local little free library, but that deserves real thought and…I guess I am too lazy right now. Keep cool, everyone.


The Night Before

I love doing school visits–once I’m there  with the kids. The night before, I get nervous. Actually, the whole day before, I’m nervous. Most schools ask me to do large group presentations, which means I’m talking to several hundred students at once, usually four times. Here’s where I presented a couple of days ago, just before the kids started coming in.

empty gymGulp.

The night before, I dreamed that I’d made a mistake and thought it was a Skype visit instead. I was wearing my nice blue top and scarf, with my PJ bottoms, when I got the call asking where I was. As I tried to answer, the phone turned into a plush pumpkin, which I continued trying to talk into, pushing its triangle nose till it turned into a skeletal red thing, which I continued to shout into…You get the picture.

For a while, I thought it was only me who suffered pre-presentation-stress-out, but as I’ve gotten to know other authors I’ve discovered we all get it. We dream we’ve forgotten our laptops, or lost our voices, or gone to the wrong school (one writer I know actually did this in real life, OMG), or gotten so lost on the way it’s hopeless. No matter how many times we’ve stood up in front of those large, eager, brimming-with-life audiences, we still get a little freaked out before.

Then…the kids begin to file in. They’re tall and short, skinny and round, they’re giving me curious looks or ignoring me altogether, they’re playing with each other’s hair or playing air guitar, they’re shuffling their feet or walking on their toes…They are kids! And all of a sudden, it’s okay. I’m chatting with them, asking about their kitty headbands or the books they’re carrying or whether they think the Cavs can beat the Celtics (mostly yes but one no, the other day) and it’s okay. Better than okay. All of a sudden, I can’t wait to tell them how I became a writer, how I’m still becoming a writer, how I mix things from my own life with my imagination to create something new, how we’ve all got stories no one but us can tell.

At the school above, the kids filled up those bleachers three times. For the Q & A I took the mike up there, like a daytime TV show host, and they held it to ask their questions. They loved this. So did I.

Because what makes these visits wonderful is that it’s not about me, but them. If only I can remember that next time, I’ll sleep so much better the night before.

Country roads

Last week I was in Kirksville, Missouri, for a children’s book festival. I’m pretty sure that, were it not for that festival, I’d never have visited that green, rolling countryside dotted with contented cows (cattle, I was corrected) or experienced the open-armed hospitality (home-churned ice cream over home-grown rhubarb crisp, anyone?) or met the zillion volunteers who make the festival happen for well over a thousand  kids, some of whom ride buses for over an hour to get there.

kirksville(These two were great storytellers themselves.)

I could say the same about Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Houghton Lake, Michigan, or any of the other out-of-my-way places I’ve been lucky enough to visit, all because of dedicated librarians and teachers and community volunteers who work so hard to bring writers in.  It’s impossible to thank them enough, though I try.

Kids often ask me where I get my inspiration, and I always answer, “From you!” But festivals also give me the chance to talk to and listen to other writers, some of whom I’ve only fan-girled over from afar. Hearing them talk about their own struggles, laughing with them over best things kids have ever asked us, recommending each other books and movies–I mean. Conversations do not get better than these.


At Kirksville I met Leslie Connor, Ingrid Law, Chris Grabenstein, Natalie Lloyd, Rob Buyea, Liesl Shurtliff, David Schwartz, Fred Koehler, Michelle Cuevas, Katherine Hannigan…here we are, holding up the darling signs that decorated our dinner tables.

kirksville 2Being a writer has given me gifts I never anticipated.

Happy Birthday!

cody and the rules of lifeThe first two CODY books have a new sibling: Cody and the Rules of Life publishes today!

Rules is a story about conscience, and figuring out the difference between right and wrong, which can be surprisingly difficult, especially when it means a choice between Gremlin, your favorite toy, and Pearl, your perfect friend. Cody gets help from Wyatt, Spencer and of course her wise, long-distance trucker dad.  “Now and then, everyone takes a wrong turn,” Dad tells her. “They head down the wrong road. But you know what? Most times they hang a U-ey and head back in the right direction.”

Also in this book, Cody, a reluctant writer, learns the power of her writing voice. And helps Wyatt get back his stolen bike. And discovers some surprising things about the Meen Family. Not to mention makes friends with a lonesome Madagascar hissing cockroach.

Rules are hard. Rules are confusing. Now and then, rules are meant to be broken. But in the end, for Cody, love for family, friends, bugs, and plump sweet cats is the numero uno rule of all.

Happy birthday, little book! May you journey far and make many new friends.

Liberation Literature

This post recently appeared on the Nerdy Book Club blog. So excited to be going to this conference, I’m sharing it here, too!

Back in the day when I was still a fledgling, I was thrilled to get a letter (a real one) telling me I’d won the Ohioana Book Award, something I didn’t even know existed. I wrote my little speech and nervously practiced it, trying hard to eradicate “umm” from my vocabulary. When the day came, my husband and three daughters drove down to the Columbus state house with me. The affair was, as those things usually are, a happy blur. I remember anxiously hoping that my youngest wouldn’t have a melt-down in the middle of the ceremony, but the only other thing I remember with absolute clarity is that Virginia Hamilton was there.

Virginia Hamilton! Regal, serene, beautiful, there she sat, her husband Arnold Adoff at her side.  She was receiving the Career Medal for a body of work that had been honored with every distinction and award. In 1974 she’d become the first African American writer to win the Newbery Medal (yes, it took that long) for M.C. Higgins the Great, and she was only getting started.  I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t find her books on my own. My older girls started bringing them home, inspired by teachers and librarians wiser and more aware than I.  The People Could Fly—yes, and we, her readers, took wing, too.

That afternoon she was besieged by admirers, and I was too tongue-tied to attempt a real conversation with her. Now I regret that, but then it felt enough to be in the same room, to dare to dream that someday I’d have a career that was a small glimmer of hers.

Hamilton called her work “liberation literature.” She asked her readers to be witnesses to the suffering and triumph of her characters, and she believed that, in the process, characters and readers experienced a simultaneous freeing born of courage and new understanding. Memory, tradition and legacy were at the heart of her work. As a young woman she moved away from the Ohio family farm where her grandfather was brought an infant, via the Underground Railroad. Later she returned and raised her own children there. Family and sense of place were deep, recurring inspirations, and it’s here that she and I most connect as writers. I don’t know a better description of fiction writing than hers: “exploring the known, the remembered, and the imagined, the literary triad of which all stories are made.”

Fast forward to the second time I won the Ohioana Award. By then I knew very well what it meant, and I was even more thrilled. By then, tragically, Virginia had died, far too young. Yet my connection with her continued: Arnold Adoff was at the ceremony, honored for the book Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations, edited by him and Kacy Cook. This time, we talked–about her, and writing, and her, and kids, and her.

Our happy, fortuitous bond continues. In 1984, the Virginia Hamilton Lecture in Children’s Literature was established. It grew into the Virginia Hamilton Conference, now the longest running event in the United States to focus on multi-cultural literature for children and young adults. This April, I’ll be presenting there, along with the wonderful writer Shelley Pearsall. Our workshop is “Seeking a Wider Window,” a title inspired by another great Ohio contributor to children’s literature, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, author of the seminal “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.” Shelley and I will be talking about the deep challenges, responsibilities and rewards of writing characters whose backgrounds are very different from our own. We mean to make our workshop an open dialogue with the teachers and librarians who come, a chance to learn as much from each other as we can—a communal liberation of minds and hearts. We very much hope Virginia Hamilton’s generous, wise spirit will be in the room with us.

To imagine…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for empathy lately. In a  recent conversation with  wonderful writer Shelley Pearsall, she said that she believes that If we can’t begin to imagine, we can’t begin to understand.  These are words I’m holding close to my heart.

Next month Shelley and I will be presenting together at  the Virginia Hamilton Conference.  Our workshop is called “Seeking a Wider Window”, and we’ll be talking about the challenges and the rewards of writing characters very different from ourselves. I can’t wait to engage with teachers and librarians over this.