Tonight I’m going to Reading Camp. Not as a camper, obviously, but as a happy visitor who will talk about how, for me, being a reader came waaaaay before being a writer, but how, now, I can’t possibly separate these two essential parts of my life. I won’t talk too much though (I hope), as the main business will be helping kids create fictional characters and maybe even starting to write their stories.
I never went to camp as a kid. Also, I never met a real live writer. For a long time, I’m not sure I even knew there were such things as writers. For me, books were so real, so alive, I didn’t think of them as being made. They just were, the way the clouds and the ocean and my baby sister were.
Sometimes I wonder, if I’d met a writer when I was nine or ten, and if I’d realized she was just a regular person who drank chocolate milk and rode a bike and sometimes burned her toast–would I have realized that I could become one too? Would I have had that aha moment that came twenty years later, when I first tried to tell my own stories in my own words?
Who knows? What’s for sure is tonight I’ll be going to the camp I wish I’d had as a child, and I will try to make the experience as magical and generative as I can. I’m also, of course, hoping for s-mores!
I can see my grass for the first time in weeks! The snow is melting, the mud is oozing, the robins are singing, the dreaded standardized testing will soon be over–it must be time for spring school visits.
This year, for the first time in forever (my granddaughter’s favorite Frozen song), I’ll be visiting schools in person again. If anything fills me with hope and joy, this is it.
There’ll be actual real live people/ It’ll be totally strange/But wow am I so ready for this change!
No offense to Zoom, to whom (!) we all owe so much, but nothing compares with the chemistry of actually being together, sharing, brainstorming, laughing. Kids sidle up to me with secret confidences. I get to admire the hallway art. Something unplanned and unscripted always happens, and it’s often the most memorable (for better or worse) moment of the day.
For the first time in forever/There’ll be magic/There’ll be fun!
Bring on the snowdrops and daffodils! After way too long, bring on the real, live visits!
…knows that I am the sworn enemy of white tail deer. Each summer I spend crazy amounts of money for foul-smelling stuff that I spray on my lilies, hostas, roses, dahlias (actually I gave up on dahliahs) and increasingly on plants that used to make the deer turn up their little dark noses. Zinnias–if they begin to like zinnias, it’s all over.
But now that it’s January and the ground is buried beneath half a foot of snow, I see them in the yard and have to wonder what they are living on. I watch them paw up the snow and nibble, arc their necks and nibble, but can they possibly get enough? And aren’t they freezing? I read that they can slow their metabolisms, and that they have special muscles in their skin that let them angle their hair shafts to best advantage (say what??) But still. The other morning, before I’d had my coffee or found my glasses, I looked out and briefly wondered, How did that lovely big rock get in my garden? How sleek they make themselves, legs tucked under, heads resting on their backs. When they get up, they leave an oval hollow, just the right size for a grandchild to curl up in and pretend to be a sleeping bear.
I’ll resume my war come spring, but for now, the deer and I are both just doing our best to get through this cold, worrisome winter.
Helping me this week: the couch, the comforter, these books: Ain’t Burned All the Bright by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin; Lost & Found, by Kathryn Schulz; Amber and Clay, by Lauren Amy Schulz; Middlemarch, by George Eliot. A sip of red wine helps, too.
Yesterday I finished the copy edits and hit SEND on my new middle grade novel, coming this November with Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House. LOOKING FOR TRUE is my first book with a boy main character, and my first time writing from alternating points of view (I sort of did it in EVERY SINGLE SECOND, but one of the characters was a graveyard monument, so I’m not sure that counts).
Changes will still be made (I revise books up till the absolute last moment) but TRUE has its own autonomy now. It lives and breathes, a story that feels inevitable and whole. Gladys and Jude no longer live just inside my head or under my tapping fingers. They still need me, but they don’t act as if they do. Anyone who’s raised children and sent them out into the world will know how complicated my feelings are!
The world brims with sorrow and uncertainty. Our family is recovering from two members having Covid–relatively mild cases but serious enough. I’ve got three grandbabies too young to be vaccinated, and every day feels like taking a chance and hoping for the best.
Something New. What a privilege, what a necessity, to keep creating.
I’ve never been good at New year’s stuff. I hate all the looking back, the year in photographs or quotes or cartoons, the best-of-lists (except of course when one of my books is listed–can you say hypocrite?).
And it’s been several decades since I made resolutions, which have come to seem horribly self-conscious and even silly. When there’s something in my life I want or need to change, I already know it in my bones–there’s no need to commit the desire to paper.
Maybe I feel all this even more strongly than usual, since it has been such a shapeless, blighted, holey-old-sweater of a year, and since 2022 could easily be written ???? What can we predict? Next to nothing.
Except this—the world’s children will continue to grow and question, bloom and seek, cry and laugh, stumble yet scramble up again. And I will keep on writing for them, writing the best books I can summon up from all I’ve learned of life and all I hope will come. Some of my favorite lines in The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe come near the end, as Loah (oh how I love Loah!) drifts off to sleep listening to the northern mocking bird sing outsider her window. “Opening her eyes for a moment, she saw a single moonbeam, white as a snow goose feather, tumble over the lovely dark wall of trees. The world was big and the world was small and that was the mystery of it. The mystery and the wonder and …The mockingbird sang Loah off to sleep.”
Our new year is here– the reminiscing and resolving can giving way to the business of getting up, greeting the day, getting to the work. Wishing you a year full of mystery and wonder!
One of the (many many too many to name) pleasures of writing for younger readers is that they send you REAL mail! These are from a batch sent to me by some third graders. To give you an idea of how precocious and thoughtful (not to mention hilarious) they are, here are a few quotes:
“Hello! This is _______one of the lovely children you visited today.”
“I loved your book. There was so much figurative language. The lines flowed like a stream.”
“I like your choice of setting. If you wouldn’t of chosen that, I wouldn’t of known what a dead end is.”
“What Happened on Fox Street is so juicy!”
“Before you came I thought it took a week to make a book.”
“How do you think up all this stuff?”
“My mom thinks cats suck out your soul.”
(That last one is a response to me showing them photos of our cat Billy.)
I have missed these in-person visits and am so glad they are slowly, safely starting back up again. In the meantime, three cheers for penciled and crayoned letters!
In The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, nothing too awful happens. There are some scary parts, including ominous vultures and a possibly haunted turret, but they’re not too scary, and to soothe your nerves there’s also a baby goat, and a thoughtful if troubled best friend. And while I want readers to fly through the pages, anxious to find out what happens next, I also hope they’ll feel as if someone they trust is sitting close, whispering, It’s going to be okay.
I myself am a scaredy-cat. No horror movies, no roller coasters, no casseroles where I can’t identify every ingredient, thank you very much. When I was growing up, in the innocent fifties and early sixties, pretty much every book I read had a guaranteed happy ending. There were no such categories as tween or young adult. Books that dealt with darker themes were reserved for adults, and for years I lived on a diet of Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins, and Nancy Drew. When Beth died in Little Women, it came as a tremendous shock.
Yet little by little, I began to learn that reading was not just for escaping life–it could be for understanding life. One of the first books to help me see that was “A Girl of the Limberlost”, by Gene Stratton-Porter. Elnora has a mother who’s often cold and distant. Her own heart has been broken, and she visits her unhappiness on Elnora. I remember reading this book with a painful sense of wonder. I’d never seen a mother like mine in a book before. When her mother shows Elnora that she does, after all, love her deeply, my own heart swelled so that I thought it might actually be growing. And probably it was–that’s what seeing ourselves in a book, realizing we are not alone, does to us. Our hearts and minds expand. Being understood, we, in turn, can better understand others.
Thank goodness for the many brave, unflinching books young readers have today. I’m so so awed and moved, by novels like Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Fighting Words, Leslie Connor’s The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle, and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies. Books like these, which guide young readers through life’s darkest places and out into the light, were not around when I was growing up.
Yet much as I admire them, I’ll never write that kind of book. I think that, as writers, we discover what we can do, then do that thing as best we can. For me, that seems to be quiet books like The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, whose hero is timid, steadfast Loah Londonderry. While Loah is a homebody, her mother is an ornithologist who often goes off on distant expeditions. When Dr. Londonderry finds evidence that an Arctic bird believed to be extinct may still exist, she embarks on a perilous solo quest to save it. Loah is left alone with her elderly caretakers. When they fall ill, she finds herself truly alone, except for a troubled friend who wants help running away from home, and those ominous vultures.
Does her mother love her work more than she loves Loah? Can Loah be a friend to someone so different from her? Where does a homebody find the courage to do brave, undreamed of things?
Loah embarks on an expedition too. She doesn’t traverse the globe, like her mother or a migrating Arctic tern. Instead, like a Townsend solitaire, she sticks close to home. Yet for me, her expedition, a journey of the heart, is every bit as big and important.
A recurring theme of middle grade and young adult literature is becoming independent –learning to fly–while also craving security and safety–a nest. It’s a theme explored in countless ways, and in The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, I do it through the lens of the natural world. All living creatures depend on one another in ways large and small, a lesson Dr. Londonderry’s work has taught Loah. As she comes to feel her own quiet strength, she reaches out to help others, who in turn support her, setting up a human chain of inter-connectedness that echoes Nature’s own web.
The book’s title comes from naturalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wrote, “I think that, if required on pain of death to instantly name the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird’s egg.” A bird’s egg, with its sturdy yet porous shell, is perfectly engineered to protect the growing chick until the day that chick finds the egg too small and confining and begins pecking its way out. An egg is made to nurture and then to give way, and for me this is the perfect metaphor for childhood and growing up. Hatching isn’t easy for Loah, just as for so many kids. I hope readers see themselves in her struggles to find a place in the world. I hope they’ll be reassured that, even when they feel most alone, light and love are never far away.
We turn to books for different things. Some days we want to laugh, some days to weep, some days to shiver in horror and some days to be comforted. Linda Urban, Erin Entrada Kelly, Cynthia Lord, Renee Watson and Sarah Pennypacker are some of my favorite writers whose books can speak monumental truths in small-ish voices. I’m tucking The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe onto their shelf.
Shh. These are quiet books. They have lots to share, though. Lean close and listen.
…those may be a gardener’s favorite words! I planted these bluebells late last summer, when they looked pretty much like nothing at all–just a few tenacious leaves (in official gardener terms, bluebells are “ephemerals”). I had hopes they’d take, but with gardening–and yes, with writing–you never know!
Now here they are, all a-tremble in the April breeze, ready to burst forth. And The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe has gotten its first review, which I have to keep a secret for now but is as lovely and hopeful as these spring flowers!
(Pubbing on June 1 but available for pre-order now. And if you’d like a signed, personalized copy, order from this most-perfect indie bookstore, https://www.macsbacks.com/book/9780823447572
The title of my new middle grade novel comes from this quote from the noted nineteenth century naturalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson:
‘I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on _____________”
What did Higginson say? Of course you could look it up. OR you could finish the sentence with your own idea of universal perfection! This is a prompt I hope my readers and I will be having a lot of fun with once the book comes out–which is this June 1 (pre-order available now would be a very nice thing of you to do)!! I hope you’ll join in–after all, there can never be too much perfection.