My new middle grade novel, “The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe” will publish with Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House in spring 2021. This book has been in the works for a long time–and in my heart even longer. My hero, Loah, has always considered herself a quiet, timid homebody, but when her home and her mother are in danger, she discovers she is anything but. Over the next months I’ll share some of the loooong writing journey she and I took together, but for now–so happy to share my most perfect news! (Yes, I know–how can anything be “most” perfect? Believe me–that is how this feels!)
The long, harsh winter and cold, wet spring have finally given way to fragrant, blooming summer. To add to the happiness, I’ll soon have some good news to share…
Still, the end of a school year is always bittersweet. For me, school visits are wonderful for many reasons:
***Getting to hang out with kids, something that weirdly enough, holed up in my writing cave as I so often am, I don’t do nearly enough.
***Popping the bubble. I live in an inner ring suburb, and I get to meet kids growing up in settings far different from mine: urban schools where the challenges are enormous and never-ending, private schools where the environment is rich and nurturing for children of every ability and learning style, and everything in between. It’s a sober reminder that the kids we write for grow up in shockingly different situations and begin life on unjustly uneven playing fields.
***Being inspired. And I don’t mean just to keep writing, or to write the stories kids deserve, though that always happens. This year I took part in #KidsNeedMentors, where I partnered with two third grades who not only shared their writing with me but collaborated with me on first drafts of a new picture book. Their perspectives and observations blew my mind. I’ll be writing a post about this program and how teachers and librarians can become part of it next year.
But for now…it’s time to wander outside and smell the peonies.
I spent the morning working on a new novel. About 11,000 words in and it’s going so well I should be alarmed. I shouldn’t even say how much I’m enjoying writing it aloud, much less put it in writing, for fear of jinxing myself–especially since it’s in two voices and one of them is a boy’s, something I’ve never been able to make work. But for now I’m humming happily along. It’s a little like the first stages of making a new friend, when the excitement over what you’re discovering about the new person (and so yourself) far outweighs the fear of the disappointments and problems that may life ahead.
Does that make sense?
Other things that have been happening–lots of school visits. I’ve done so many of these over the years, and yet they never get old. I still get nervous the night before. I still wonder, as soon as the kids start filing into the library or gym, why on earth I ever get nervous.
I’m about to make a small video for the Nutmeg Book Award. CODY AND THE MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE is one of the (many wonderful) nominees.
The State Library of Ohio hosted a celebration for all the Choose to Read Ohio authors. I can’t think of kinder or more interesting people to spend time with than these librarians and my fellow authors, including Jennifer Maschari, Carmella Condon Van Vleet,Brandon Marie Miller, Louise Borden, Mary Kay Carson,Margaret Peterson Haddix and Tim Bowers. This year’s Floyd’s Pick is Jacqueline Woodson. She is from Ohio and lives in New York. I’ve from New York and live in Ohio. So glad our shooting stars crossed. (The only reason I’m front and center is because I am so ridiculously small!)
And on a (more) personal note, on March 8 our youngest daughter Delia married Patrick, the love o’ her life, at New York City Hall. Delia had new shoes, a handsome groom and, I’m sure you’ll agree, the world’s most adorable flower girl.
Years and years (and years) ago, when I was still a beginning writer, I read and loved Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”, his account of his own time as a fledgling writer. He lived in a tiny apartment in Paris with his young wife Hadley. Sometimes he wrote there, standing at his desk, and sometimes sitting in a cafe, filling up lined notebooks like the ones used by French schoolchildren. In the evenings, he and Hadley would drink and talk with their friends, friends like Sylvia Beach, who owned the legendary bookshop Shakespeare & Co., and other writers like Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The life he described seemed perfect to me: the work, the companionship. It was romantic and productive–good and true, as Papa himself would say. It still seems perfect, which means, I now know too well, mostly impossible. Somehow Hemingway never had to go to a job, or do his laundry (poor Hadley, who wasn’t his wife for long), or take care of a sick child or failing parent. He didn’t have the distractions of social media (lucky him) or adorable grandchildren (poor him).
Still, now and then, I get to create my own version of that perfect life. I did it earlier this month, with six other women writers. We rented an old farmhouse in the Ohio woods for a week. Each morning we had coffee together and then we scattered around the house, everybody holing up in her own nook to work. Here was mine:
I started something new, and I revised the book I’ve been working on for what seems a century. In the afternoons I’d go for long, cold, glorious walks in the woods–okay, not Paris, but for me just as good. There was a waterfall about a mile and a half away, and this was the vertigo-inducing view from the top:
In the evenings we ate and laughed together. There was wine, and conversation on all things big and small, and a mouse who scurried around the dining room, intent, I became convinced, on having one of us write a picture book about him.
My work went so well. There’s much to be said for being removed from real life, and for being among others working hard at the same thing as you. In the afternoon when I’d come in from my walk, there’d be a sort of sacred silence in the house. Words floated in the air. Characters slipped around the corners. Invisible worlds hovered, softly humming.
Hemingway for a week! We all plan to do it again, as soon as we can manage.
This spring, the final book in my beloved CODY series published. Here’s a little essay I wrote about that for the Nerdy Book Club blog:
In this life, many things are bittersweet:
–the last day of school
–growing out of your favorite PJs, so you get a fuzzy new pair, but you feel bad for your old favorites
–publishing the final book in a series you’ve loved writing
On a recent school visit, a student asked me why I began all the Cody books with “In this life…” followed by a list. I got the feeling he considered it a lazy move on my part, so I tried to explain how I wanted to link the books and give readers the feeling of returning to a familiar world, but also hint at the new developments and adventures to come. He seemed satisfied (or maybe he was just a very polite child).
The full truth is, I began every book with “In this life…” for me as much as for my readers. Typing those words was like opening a door and joining a family reunion. Everyone was there—Cody, of course, but also her parents, Dad in his cowboy hat and Mom wearing yet another pair of new shoes, big brother Quiet Wyatt, best friend Spencer and his tai chi master grandmother, the unpredictable Meen kids, loyal Pearl and sweet, deaf old MewMew. With each reunion, I had the chance to hang out with them again and get to know them even better. Like family, they stayed the same–but not really. They revealed new quirks, opinions and secrets. Some of them I could relate to easily, others not so much (think Payton Underwood, aka P.U.). But these were my people, and I loved being among them. Plus, each time I said goodbye, I knew I’d get the chance to visit them again.
Till this past April, when the final book in the series published.
People are often curious about how a writer plans a series. I was lucky in that, soon after signing up to write two Cody books, I got word that Candlewick wanted two more. Book 1, Cody and the Fountain of Happiness, is set in the summer, so it felt natural and right to follow her and her friends through the school year and all four seasons, coming around to Book 4, Cody and the Heart of a Champion, set in springtime with another summer just around the corner. Cody’s friendship with Spencer, a friendship that thrives on how different they are as how much as it does on how much they share, has gone through its ups and downs and is about to enter a new phase. Cody’s discovered a lot about herself and her world. In this life, she won’t be good at everything she tries, but she’ll discover talents she didn’t know she had. She will make mistakes (some big), but with courage and help, she’ll figure out how to fix them. She’s developed a pesky thing called a conscience. She will never be patient, for better and for worse.
Cody lives in a neighborhood like mine here in Cleveland–diverse, striving, bustling with activity. The other day when I was out for a walk, two little speed demons on bikes tore past me on the sidewalk, and I immediately thought, Maxi and Molly Meen. People were sitting on their porch swings, making me think, Spencer and GG. Book life and real life have merged, which is some comfort as I say goodbye to the first.
Another comfort is seeing all four books together, like siblings or best-friends-forever. They look so cozy, supportive and happy. (It makes me feel bad for my stand-alone books, which by comparison look a bit lonesome.) I feel good about them being out in the big world together, even as, in my life, I’ll sorely miss the pleasure of writing them.
I just came back from the pool, where the lifeguards, who up till now spent their down time twirling their whistles, playing cards and flirting, all had their heads in books. Summer reading! The deadline approaches. It made me smile and think of all those What I Did on My Vacation essays I had to write on the first day back to school. I remember how strange my fingers felt clutching a pencil again–all summer they’d held nothing but baseball bats, jars of lightning bugs, creamsicles, and, of course, books (no, I didn’t want to be a writer when I was growing up, but I have been a crazed reader since age 6).
My summer has been happy, though there was one thing I desperately wanted to do and didn’t. First, the happy news:
–I went to an art class at the museum with my 2 1/2 year old granddaughter.
(Rorschach test: I see pangea)
–I heard this girl laugh for the first time.
–I went to the conference of the International Literary Association in Austin, Texas, where I presented with my wonderful friends and stellar middle grade writers Ruth Freeman, Karin Yan Glaser, Janet Johnson and Laura Shovan on a topic close to all our hearts. This was one of the most wonderful conferences I’ve ever been to–it was all about the kids we try to serve. The teachers and librarians who came moved me to tears with how hard they work at their jobs, often against odds those of us who aren’t in schools every day can only guess at.
I also got to yuk it up at the Candlewick booth where I was signing CODY.
–I went on a writing retreat with my best women friends, including Kris Ohlson, who shared her family’s house in Lake Tahoe with us. Kris and I hiked the Barker Pass one glorious, glorious June afternoon.
I’m still a little surprised we ever came back.
—And, I wrote. And re-wrote. And re-wrote.
Which brings me to what I never did. Which is finish this novel. Not yet. It continues to twist and turn in my hands, a frustrating, thrilling moebius strip of possibility.
The book still isn’t done. But then, neither is this summer.
I’ve always shied away from competition. As a child, this wasn’t hard. Though I loved to swim at the town beach and to play baseball in the street with the other neighborhood kids (our mailbox was first base), there was never a chance of being on a real, competitive team. That was for boys only. (When I recently said this during a school visit, hundreds of little jaws dropped–whaaaat? It made me very happy that they couldn’t fathom such a benighted world.) Once in a while I’d win a class spelling bee, which was satisfying, but I hated the sweaty palms and racing heart that went with it.
My daughters were different. They were–they are–excellent runners, and they competed in track and cross country. As much as I wanted to cheer them on, I could barely stand to watch. I remember hiding behind trees on the cross country course, afraid to look as the runners pounded by. It’s ridiculous. I can’t even watch the Cavs play their post season games, I get so nervous and distraught. (For the record, let me say how proud I am that they reached the finals, no matter what happens. See? Bad at competition.)
It’s different with my books, thank goodness. Yes, I would love to see them all receive awards (they’re kind of like my children, after all). But my biggest wish for them is to be read. And so I’m grateful and excited when they become finalists for prizes, because it means that more kids, teachers and librarians will get to know and, I hope, love them. Recently, two of the CODY books have been recognized.
CODY AND THE RULES OF LIFE is up for the Nutmeg Award, which young readers all across Connecticut get to vote on and choose. And CODY AND THE MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE is a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award, chosen by a panel of librarians and educators. They’re both nominated along with many other stellar books for young readers. It’s an enormous honor and thrill to be in their company. It makes my heart skip, but in a good, happy way. Writing is not a race.
This post is part of celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Twitter #kidlitwomen or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen.
I recently read a New York Times article https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/us/twitter-mystery-photo.html about the search for the identity of the lone woman in a 1971 photograph of marine biologists. The young woman, who was African American and mostly obscured by the man standing in front of her, was the only one not named in the caption. It’s highly likely she’d have gone forever overlooked if Candace Jean Anderson, aiming to write a picture book about marine mammal protection, hadn’t come across the picture and wondered who she was.
Anderson turned to Twitter, where professional and amateur researchers alike joined the hunt, finally identifying and locating Sheila Minor Huff. Now 71 and a grandmother (not to mention a belly dancer), she holds a master’s degree and had a long, successful federal government career working on wildlife and environmental projects. The discovery drew cheers all around, but Ms. Huff just sort of shrugged. The Times reported:
“’It’s kind of like, no big deal,’ she said. ‘When I try to do good, when I try and add back to this wonderful earth that we have, when I try to protect it, does it matter that anybody knows my name?’”
Up till this point in the article, I’d been furious and outraged on Ms. Huff’s behalf. But here I paused. Because something in me was agreeing. A voice was saying, It’s true. If we do good work, if we know we’ve done good, important work that makes a difference in the world, why do we need others’ praise and recognition?
Sheila Huff and I are the same generation. As a white woman, I know our childhoods differed in deep, essential ways. To achieve what she did took a determination and courage I can’t begin to understand. But when it comes to her thoughts on being recognized, I’ll risk saying: I think I know how she feels. Every woman of our generation heard a version of the same lesson. We were brought up to feel grateful for any good fortune, large and small. No matter how hard we worked, in school and our careers, no matter what success we experienced, pride was an unattractive, even dangerous, trait in us. Feel proud for your husband, feel proud for your children, but for yourself? Smile and say how lucky you are. Never blow your own horn, was the lesson we got with our corn flakes. Be humble.
Be satisfied, was the real message. And I have been. Enormously. Like Sheila Huff, I’ve had the satisfaction of doing meaningful work and believing that work will live on after me. Tending the earth and writing for children are both joyful, creative, life affirming acts. Who—especially a woman brought up to think that humility was her cardinal virtue–wouldn’t feel grateful for the chance to spend her life the way she and I have?
And yet. Every day this month, I’ve read extraordinary posts by other writers at https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen/ They’ve made me laugh and fume, sometimes nod and sometimes gasp–and over and over again they’ve pulled me up short, forcing me to stop and think. They’ve made me consider the empowering, you-are-a-star messages I repeatedly give my daughters, my granddaughter, the children I speak to in schools and libraries. How fervently I believe what I tell them! And yet, this month I’ve come to realize that, hard as I’ve tried to banish the old attitudes, they still lurk inside, waiting to pounce.
True humility springs from embracing our commonality. It’s nothing like self-deprecation, just as pride doesn’t imply arrogance, and wanting recognition isn’t greed. One of my favorite quotes from this month of posts came from Lita Judge who wrote, “Thinking we are lucky when we are accomplished steals our power.” It’s exactly the message I try to give others, so why do I still have trouble believing it’s true for me too? And here’s the most important question of all: if I don’t believe it, deep in my own bones, can I ever be a real agent for change?
We all deserve to be seen, to be heard, to be named. Sheila Minor Huff—we see you now, we know your name, and we thank you for your wonderful, generous work. As this month of posts draws to an end, I’m grateful, in the most positive sense of that word, to the fellow writers (men and women) who’ve shaken me up. They’ve called out to me, and I’m going to try to answer.
The writer-teacher-librarian world has so many wonderful conferences. Years ago I got to go to the American Library Association, and last fall I was at the meeting of the National Council of English Teachers. These are amazing events, with energy levels through the (very high convention center) roof. I attend as a presenter, but spend most of my time listening and taking in what others have to share. Also–I get to fan-girl at talks by favorite writers and bloggers.
This coming week it’s
I’ve never been to AWP before–let alone Tampa. And though I know Karina and Janet through e-mail and e-chat, I’ve never met them for real. Writing is a solitary profession, so the chance to talk shop and craft with my co-workers is a crazy delight. Besides the Florida sunshine, there’s much to look forward to.
(By the way, AWP stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs! Lots of university presses and MFA programs are represented, so the book-browsing should be stellar.)
It’s school visit time again. One of the questions kids often ask me is, What inspires you to write? My answer is always YOU! Writing is usually a solitary job. It’s me, my cat, and my muse, who too often sleeps in or decides to spend the day with some other writer. There’s a lot of mumbling to myself, a lot of squinting out the window (where the view, Cleveland in mid-winter, is bleak).
So visiting with kids who brim with energy and curiosity, who have imaginations and hearts so big that they care about the characters in stories as deeply as they do real people–well. I always leave tired out, but in the very best way, having given and received in equal measure. The next day, I’m ready to dive back into my work, renewed and inspired.
Here’s the fountain of happiness one school made to celebrate the visit:
(Kids wrote things that made them happy on those beautiful strips of paper.)
And here’s a portrait of me done by a kindergartner:
(I didn’t really step on her, I promise!)
And here’s me, enormous talking head, during one of the many terrific Skype visits I’ve gotten to do this month:
(It was as cozy as it looks.) (I’ve been everywhere from Alberta, Canada to the Bahamas, all in my PJ bottoms.)
Lots more visits to come! I won’t be lacking for inspiration any time soon, thank goodness.