Monthly Archives: August 2014

Pocketful of Pluck

Below is a post I recently did for the blog From the Mixed Up Files. It kind of expands on some things I said here last time. Think of it as   “A Ninny Contemplates Courage”.

Last week at graduation ceremonies for our daughter, who received her physician assistant degree, one of the speakers gave a piece of advice that made it hard for me to listen to what anyone else said.

“Keep your courage in an accessible place,” she told these future healers.  Immediately I had visions:  a capacious side pocket made for sliding in a hand and pulling out a fistful of pluck;  a small pouch concealing a shining dauntless stone;  a backpack bulging with fortitude.  I could use one of those things, I thought.

So often we talk about finding courage, as if it’s something that wanders off at the first opportunity. I was struck by the idea of keeping it with us, carrying it around, knowing just where to find it at all times.

The young people graduating that day are already far braver than a ninny like me will ever be. Their life’s work will be taking on the sickness and pain of others, of doing everything they can to ease and relieve suffering. They’d already shown their mettle,  learning about the endless complexities of the human body, and if you asked any one of them, she’d say she’d only begun.  A lifetime of learning lies ahead. The room brimmed with excitement and yes, a tinge of fear over what they’d taken on. The speaker’s advice was going to come in handy.

I found myself  thinking how the youngest children have no  concept of courage. They know go and see and touch, and the drive to do all those things propels them forward on those first juddering steps into the unknown. Toddlers never know where they’re going till they get there–and there often  lasts only a few moments before it’s on to the next discovery. Yet it takes bravery to leave the safety of a parent’s arms–just watch how often a little guy looks around to make sure Mom or Dad is still nearby.

As kids get older, the need for courage becomes conscious. Some risks are physical, like learning to ride a two-wheeler,  step onto a diving board, or pet that very large dog. Some are social–nerving up to make a new friend, audition for a part in the play, or  go to a very first sleep-over.

The situations that call for moral courage are the ones that the writer (and reader) in me finds most moving and powerful. From early on, even before they can talk, children have a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice and fairness. When my kids played make-believe, the stories they made up were always about good vs. evil, about the kind-hearted and true winning out over the greedy and dishonest. Real life, they discovered, was a good deal more complicated. And the older they got, the truer that became.

In the middle grade novel I’m working on now, my main character hates making choices. She’s slipped through life, getting away with things, not taking responsibility if she can help it–she’s so much like me at age twelve. In my story, she will, at last, face a decision she can’t escape.  She’ll have to find her courage, something she’s not used to keeping in a pocket or other accessible place. She’ll have to hunt and dig and probably ask for some help.

One reason I’m loving writing this book–why I always love writing for middle graders –is how central and powerful questions of right and wrong are to these readers. To be worthy of my audience, I have to think hard and deep, not just about how things should be, but how they are, and what we each, with our one wild, precious life, can do. Writing for middle graders forces a ninny like me to be brave, and for that I am very grateful.


One other line from that very wise and compassionate speaker, “The sun shines and shines yet never says to the earth, You owe me.”  

Summer, cont’d

Last week we drove through the Berkshires, where we lived once upon a time. Along the way, we stopped in Williamstown and went to the Clark Museum, a place that blissfully combines two of the things that make me happiest in this world–art and being outside. To get to one of the buildings, you climb up through a wood limned with white birch, and afterwards you stroll back down through a pasture (be sure to close the gate behind you).  From up there– views of mountains as far as you can see, as well as sculptures like this one:


We drove on to Boston, where our oldest girl received her Physician Assistant degree. My favorite speech offered this advice: “Keep your courage in an accessible place.”  A pocket crammed with courage, a backpack brimming with fortitude–these young, compassionate, dedicated healers need just that.  Here we are with our own brave Zoe. 

No words for the love and pride!

And still some summer left!

Brava, Blogs!

As a public service, I’m passing along this link to a post by uber-librarian Betsy Bird (also author, with Julie Danielson, of “Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature”).  There are so many wonderful kidlit blogs out there, serving readers, teachers, parents, and librarians. Here’s an overview of some of the best and most fun.

A warning: resist clicking unless you have a couple of hours to spare!

Our house is getting painted. Like too many of life’s ventures, we set off on this one with glee, only to  quickly thunk to earth. Who knew color was so crazy complicated? There is no such thing as yellow or green or even gray, and don’t get me started on white. (The names don’t help the confusion–who wouldn’t want a house painted Dragon’s Breath rather than Knapsack?) Our house is tall and pointy and surrounded by old trees, which means that the light up top doesn’t match the light on the bottom, and when it comes to color, light makes all the difference (If in my next life I’m lucky enough to come back as an artist who intuits all this, I’ll be an en plein air painter, lugging my easel across poppy-bright meadows, flicking my brush as the lark sings overhead).  

Anyway. No sooner did we choose colors (out of bewildered exhaustion more than certainty) than it began to rain. What a bizarre July–so wet and so cool, for a few days I padded around in wool socks. 
But the clouds have parted and the painters are here! Hooray! Only they listen to talk radio! (Were there a paint crew that pledged to listen to Diane Rehm, I’d hire them sight unseen). And remember  about the house being tall and pointy? The screech of extension ladders? Ee-yoo!
(Speaking of ee-yoo: All this makes me sound like an entitled and obnoxious suburbanite, I know! Really, we are flabbergasted and grateful to be able to afford to hire painters. The house was last painted twenty years ago, and it was Paul climbing those awful, scary ladders. So we feel very privileged–and old–to be paying others this time around).  
All this tests my concentration and so far my grade is C-.  But lucky for me, I’m working on Book 3 in the CODY series. Cody is not a girl who gives up. She stands  ever-ready to help. The sight of someone in trouble twangs her heart. Right now, she’s having a bit of trouble herself. The new book is about rules, not high on her list of favorite things. Also, confusing. For example, everyone and his uncle knows that stealing is wrong wrong wrong. But is it stealing if you’re taking back  something that belongs to you?  Cody is keeping me thinking (and laughing).
Revising the first draft of my new middle grade novel is up next. This book’s form is different from anything I’ve tried before. Remember these puzzles?
(Hey, just realized this: the way we used to work these, with our thumbs, was  great practice for texting. ) That’s how the book’s elements feel to me right now. I’m sliding them this way and that, hoping to make a whole, but not right away, and not in a predictable sequence.  Tricky fun. (For a  book that  does this masterfully, see Emily Jenkins’s “We Were Liars”, which I read in one sitting on a recent plane trip).
By the way, the house paint we picked is Hinoki. Can you guess what color that is?