Monthly Archives: April 2015

Mixed Up Files

This little essay ran earlier in the week at a blog I contribute to, From the Mixed Up Files,  You can  read it (and lots of other good stuff) over there or below.

The Trouble With Happiness

Every story needs A Problem. All writers know that.

So many wonderful middle grade novels re-enforce the lesson. Just recently, I’ve read and relished The War That Saved My LifeStella by StarlightEcho and Rain Reign, books that deal with abuse, deformity, war, racism, poverty, autism—problems with enormous consequences for the main characters. Their suffering leads to new, often hard-won knowledge about themselves and their world, and, of course, to change.

Something I’ve learned working in the children’s room of a public library is that plenty of kids love sad books. I’ve been asked, “Where are the books that make you cry?”  Any time I teach a writing workshop, there’s always one wrenching story about a parent, grandparent or pet dying. Grief, plain and unadorned, is what those stories are about.

So I felt myself going a bit against the grain when I set out to write my new book, Cody and the Fountain of Happiness (first in a series for younger MG readers). The title alone promises that everything will be all right in the end. Better than all right. Happiness will bubble up and overflow!

Joy is less compelling than sorrow. It’s nowhere near as dramatic. When we’re in the midst of joy, we take it for granted, something that does not happen with problems. Problems we want to solve, to conquer and eradicate, but good fortune? Being loved, being secure? We bask in the light, forgetting how lucky we are.

Cody doesn’t forget.  She’s the kid who finds delight in the ants in her front yard, or the grumpy new boy who moves in around the corner, or a brand new pair of shoes .  For Cody, many things are beautiful, from marshmallows to turtles with their thumb-shaped heads. I think of her as the optimistic part of me, times a zillion.

So what about the big problem? Well, a beloved cat gets lost. Her mother has a hard day at work. Her friend accuses her of tricking him. Cody has her troubles, and to her they are plenty big. She makes mistakes, feels guilty, puzzles over the right thing to do. Yet her whole world, like so many children’s, is her family and neighborhood, literally the (ant-inhabited) ground beneath her feet. The trick of writing her story was to handle her small yet no less real concerns with a light but empathetic hand. To respect her worries and struggles while also keeping the tone reassuring. Writing Cody was as challenging as writing a book with much more serious issues at its center.  Kids are figuring out their world every day, every moment. Giving the ordinary its due requires a different, tender kind of attention. For examples of a writer who is a true master at this, see Junoniaand The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes.

I confess: this is the kind of book I loved when I was in the middle grades. I hated to be (too) frightened or (too) sad. Surprised was good, but above all I wanted to recognize myself in the story. I’m hoping the same kind of readers will find themselves in the unsinkable Cody.

(I’m giving away two signed copies over there at Mixed Up–you have till Sunday night, 4/19, to enter!)


This is going to be a busy spring. To keep myself organized, I made a list of places I’ve said I’ll be.  If you’re in the vicinity, please stop and say hello. It can get lonely sitting at those tables, and I’d love to see you!

April 11, 1 PM

Teacher Appreciation Event—Fun activities open to ALL!

Barnes and Noble

28801 Chagrin Blvd

Woodmere OH 44122   216-765-7520

April 18, 1 PM

Celebrate the launch of Cody and the Fountain of Happiness and the opening of the Coventry Library’s super new kids’ room with readings, crafts, refreshments and more

Coventry Library

1925 Coventry Road

Cleveland Hts 44118  216-321-3400

April 21-22, All day

Visiting writer at Gesu Parish School

University Hts OH

April 25, 10—4:30

Ohioana Book Festival—more than 100 authors, with readings, panels, kid activities, you name it

Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square

75 East State St.

Columbus OH 43215

May 1—12-2

Joseph-Beth Gifts and Books, the Cleveland Clinic

9500 Euclid Avenue

Cleveland OH 44195     216-444-1700

May 2

The Learned Owl

204 North Main Street

Hudson, OH 44236    330-653-2252

May 5

Grindstone Elementary School

Berea OH 44017

May 9,   3—5

Barnes and Noble, Youngstown OH, with Rebecca Barnhouse, Cinda Williams Chima, Shelley Pearsall and Megan Whalen Turner-wow

381 Boardman Poland Road

Youngstown OH 44512    330-629-9436

May 13-15

Visits to Toledo area schools

May 16

Claire’s Day Festival—full day of family book fun

Maumee Branch Library

501 River Road

Maumee OH 43537

May 30, 5:30-?

Kids Author Carnival—20+middle grade authors—more fun than a barrel of monkeys!

Jefferson Market Library

425 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10011    212-243-4334

Whew. More events coming this summer (including Colby Sharp’s infamous NERD CAMP!)


Kids still do write REAL letters. Recently I got one from a girl who wrote, “I have a brother named William. But don’t worry. I’m gonna change the subject.”

So many of the letters come illustrated. A few I’ve gotten in the last weeks:

Spring is coming. No, this time it really is! Along with flowers and birdsong, hope these make you smile.