Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Things I Learned on My Summer Vacation

The air in the southwest is nowhere near as humid as it is in central Ohio (and as a person with normally out-of-control/mad woman in the forest curly-hair, I appreciate that).

The Grand Canyon is a must-see in real life. (Pictures do not even begin to capture the view). But here's one anyway:

I like the contrast of red rock against bright blue sky. Georgia O'Keeffe knew what she was doing, living out in New Mexico, painting red rock formations and bleached animal bones and skies so blue they make your eyes burn.

She also painted churches.

There are tons of old churches in the southwest and one of them, the Santuario de Chimayo, has a special room tucked away behind the altar where you are invited to scoop out sacred dirt.

Which I did. Into an empty pill bottle.

Because you never know when you are going to need some sacred dirt.

And speaking of old churches, they are not nearly as old as the Native American towns you will pass through. Pueblos carved in mountains. Multi-storied adobes. Mud-brick foundations dating back to the 1000s, some still occupied by nations you've never heard of, and you think as you wander through some of these places how ignorant you were,

thinking that old places like these exist only in other parts of the world. Europe, for example, where you've see the foundations of Roman walls and all of those ancient churches, the bones of saints behind glass or buried under the slate floors.

Ignorant, because you didn't remember the civilizations here, in America. Ignorant, because you thought most of these people were gone. But here you are at one place where the people still live, their homes situated around buildings their ancestors made one thousand years ago.

You haven't read or looked at the news all week, but somehow it leaks in anyway. Another mass shooting in a school. More corruption in the administration. Something about yanni and laurel. Oh, and the president of the United States of America called immigrants animals.

The sky is so blue and the landscape is so red and you know the terrible things that have been done here to other human beings, that are still being done, this moment, and how very lucky you are to have passed through this world mostly unscathed,

to be on vacation.


when you are walking by what looks like a bookstore/barbershop in Durango, Colorado, and the bearded clerk asks you what book you are looking for and you start to walk away because the place looks super sketchy, with its two barber chairs and only one bookcase filled with dusty books,

but your husband walks closer and says, "Young Adult novels?" and the clerk says, "We have that for you right here," and then he opens the bookcase...

and there's a room glowing on the other side.

Go in.

You'll be glad you did.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Favorite Children's Books This Week

(in no particular order) 

Brand new by Mac Barnett: Square

It's hard to create something perfect but Square is determined to try! This is a fun read-aloud with a lovely message about friendship and creativity. 

(side note: Mac Barnett visited Cover to Cover, the bookstore where I work, and we all adored him. Somehow 100+ people packed themselves into our very small store and Mac read stories and held babies and was an all around awesome author guest.) 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. 

Twelve year-old Amal dreams of being a teacher, but when she accidentally insults a powerful man in her Pakistani village, she's sent away as punishment. Basically, she's given to the wealthy family to pay off the debt and expected to serve in their household forever. But Amal is resourceful and figures a way out. 

Riveting and inspiring story of a young girl finding her voice and fighting back against injustice. 

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 

This book won the Newbery Honor a few years ago but came on my radar because the sequel is now out and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. 

Ten-year old Ada is neglected and abused by her cruel mother and hidden away in an apartment in 1940's London. When war is imminent and transports of kids are sent to the countryside, Ada sees her chance to escape. Taken in by a crochety older woman, Ada finds happiness--  making friends, learning to ride a horse, and experiencing real nurturing for the first time in her life. 

But will it last... or will she be sent home when the war is over? 

The sequel, The War I Finally Won, is up next on my TBR list.

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

High school junior Jade knows she lucky. The honor roll student and artist has a scholarship to attend an elite private school in the suburbs of Portland. But it's not always easy navigating her different worlds.  

Watson does a masterful job exploring class, race, and sex in 2018 America. What does it feel like to be a black girl in a mostly white school? To be the smart girl in the neighborhood? To be an artist?

This book blew me away. A must-read. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Assisting the Re-Sisters

I am not entirely clear what this get-together actually is, but when I hear the name Re-Sisters, I am intrigued enough by the invite from a friend of a friend to quit my revision work for the day and venture out of my comfort zone to attend.

The group's already assembled when I arrive, late, and peek through the doorway, a group meeting in a private room in a bar. They're talking loudly, laughing, drinking wine and writing... postcards?

They look up and I have to laugh. I know half the people in the room.

They're teachers at my kids' schools, writers in my SCBWI writer group, regular customers at the bookstore where I work. I have a weird thought that here I've been interacting with these people all along and had no idea what their political opinions were, that they even knew each other, never mind that they've been meeting up regularly since the Women's March in DC. Actively resisting. Making phone calls for candidates, raising money for progressive causes, working on schedules to drive voters to the polls.

An agenda on the table shows that they'll be "decompressing and venting" for 20 minutes and then, a visit from Rick Neal, a Democratic candidate for Congress hoping to win the primary next Tuesday so he can run against incumbent Steve Stivers in November.

I am All In with this group already (not with the venting part. I am tired of venting) but with the ordering a glass of wine and grabbing a stack of postcards to fill out part. The gist of the postcard (which I copy out multiple times) is a reminder to vote on May 8 in the primary election because the Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted likes to remove people from the roll if they don't vote in every election. (Not cool,  Jon Husted!)

I drink my wine. I write my postcards. I chat with the women around me while they decompress and vent. Did you hear what [fill in the blank with the name of a corrupt Administration member] did today?!

Yeah, oh yeah. I heard.

And then Rick Neal strides into the room. He tells his story. How he's never run for office before because he's been busy being in the Peace Corps and fighting humanitarian crises overseas and standing up for marriage equality in Ohio and raising his two adopted little girls with his husband. How angry he was at the tone of the new administration, their attack on healthcare and their huge tax break for the wealthy that will widen the income inequality gap even more.

And how ticked off he is at our congressperson, Steve Stivers, who's not only standing by while Ohioans are hurting, but who is refusing even to meet with his constituents. I squirm a little in my seat because I voted for Mr. Stivers, one of the dumber things I've ever done in my life-- throwing away a precious vote on a guy who later called me a paid agitator.

Okay, he didn't say that to my face. (Because he doesn't meet with his constituents, unless they also happen to be big donors.) But he did say it in the Columbus Dispatch. 

I could vent more about this, but, noooooo, I am past the venting stage. I am in the Action stage. The stage where I drink wine and write postcards and attend meetings and make plans to campaign for the guy who --even if he can't take Steve Stivers down-- can at least give him a solid run for his money.

The guy, Rick Neal, has a plan to make healthcare affordable for all, ideas on how to combat the opioid crisis, (Ohio is currently ranked number three in opioid deaths out of all states), how to improve education, and how to make pancakes.

Just checking to see if you are still reading. Yes, Rick Neal can make pancakes.

I'm voting for him on May 8th so the Secretary of State Jon Husted won't remove my name from the voting roll. If you happen to live in Ohio, I highly recommend that you do so too.

But first, watch Rick Neal make pancakes.

And if you live in the Columbus area, come visit the next ReSisters meeting. We'll drink wine and write postcards and decompress together.

Monday, April 30, 2018

May sneaked up on me

today when I was walking the dog and noticed that many of the trees on my street have those yellow buds, the ones that usually last only a few days before unfurling into full-blown green leaves. Most years I miss noticing the yellow bud stage.

Writers are supposed to be more aware of what's going on around them. I am not that kind of writer. I am the kind that takes a walk with my dog and makes up stories in my head and the next thing I know I am rounding the corner toward home. Sometimes I stumble over a bumped up sidewalk square or get yanked off my feet when my dog darts unexpectedly after a squirrel. Life can be dangerous for the live-inside-your-head writer. 

Today I liked looking at the yellow buds for thirty seconds and then I thought of the line from Robert Frost's poem where he says "nature's first green is gold," and that got me trying to remember the rest of the lines of the poem, ("her hardest hue to hold, her early leaf's a flower, but only so an hour")

which, naturally, I heard in Ralph Macchio's voice, because he was the actor in the movie The Outsiders who read the poem out loud before he got third degrees burns trying to save the kids in the fire, which reminded me how I used to teach that book to my tenth grade students and then we would watch the movie in class and the boys would snicker when the poor kids roamed the street at the end, punching their fists into their hands and vowing that they would Do it for Johnny. 

Do it, meant "go beat the crap out of the rich kids," I guess. Not that that would make any difference. The poor kids would still be the poor kids and the rich kids would still have everything even if they did lose a fight in a playground one night, and that is the saddest line in the book, I think. Sadder, even than the part where Ralph Macchio dies from his burn injuries after reciting the Robert Frost poem about how nothing gold can stay.

I need to do a better job staying in the yellow bud stage. Do what the poet I heard yesterday at the library say about capturing the moment. Slow down, he said. 

Look hard.

Look slowly. 

This weekend my daughter is coming home for a few weeks before heading off on another adventure and I am busy dusting her room and making up her bed. Only a few moments ago, it seemed, she was packing up for her first year of college.

Today she is finishing her junior year. 

I turn the corner down on her bedspread. Fluff her pillow. Fill a vase beside her bed with yellow flowers. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Natalie Richards is in my head

okay, not literally, but it feels like that this week as I delve back into the revision I've been working on since last summer.  Natalie, for the record, is my critique partner, and how critique partners work, for those of you not blessed to have one, is they read your manuscript and offer suggestions for how you can improve it.

Natalie knows that I am a big baby when it comes to taking criticism, so before she sends me her notes, she calls me. You've totally got this, she says. Don't get nervous when you see the number of comments.

Um, how many comments are we talking? 

Pause. Maybe 400?


But most of them are tiny things. And the rest sort of boil down to three slightly bigger issues. But you're totally going to be able to whip it into shape. It will probably take you two, three weeks at the most...

And then she launches into the slightly bigger issues, which honestly sound a tad bigger than she is suggesting. For a few days I am afraid to peek, (also, in my defense, I was out of town. See: Adventures Getting Coffee in Connecticut) but Monday, I take a breath and scroll through.

I have a five stages of death and dying thing going on with my approach to revision. First stage, I deny I have to do anything. The book is good! Exactly how I wrote it! I'm sending it to my agent today!


Third stage: Okay, what if I just take care of the tiny things she was talking about first?

Fourth stage: This whole book sucks.

I call Natalie. I explain to her that I think my whole book sucks.

Stop being a baby, she tells me, and go back in there.

So I do. Which leads to where I am now with it. After a few days of timid fiddling, I am moving right along. This is the thing about a good critique partner: when they know what they are doing, their comments and suggestions are a guide.

Natalie asks me questions in her comments.

Why would the character do this here?
Wait, who is that person again? You haven't mentioned her in like, fifty pages.
Would the mom really say something like that? It doesn't sound like her.

She leaves smiley faces when she likes something. Adds an occasional LOL. Whenever I read one of these comments, I smile and lol myself.

Moving through the story with these notes scrolling along on the side, something weird begins to happen. I am not alone in my book. I am having a conversation. I argue with some of the points. I give up on others easily. How did I not SEE that? She's exactly right!

I call her and thank her profusely. Oh, shut up, she says, laughing. You do the exact same thing for me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Riding in Cars for Coffee: (A pathetic comedy in four parts)

Part One

I am visiting my brother for the week,

and this morning as my niece and nephew head off to school and my brother heads off to work, I prepare to make coffee in his lovely newly renovated kitchen... and find, to my horror, that while my brother owns many small appliances, including a Crème brûlée maker and not one, but two juicers, he does not own a coffee maker.

On the plus side, there are approximately 543 Dunkin' Donuts in the area, and before my brother leaves for work, he throws me a set of car keys.

These do not look like any car keys I have ever seen. As in, they do not include keys.

Part Two

I go out into his massive three car garage and sit inside a massive red car with the keys on my lap,  knowing that I am supposed to push a button?

I push many buttons. Nothing happens. I consider going back into the house. But, no. I need coffee. I can figure this out!

I push more buttons. I wave the key-less key around. Nothing.

I call my husband. I send him multiple pictures of the steering wheel and dashboard. He offers advice. None of which works. But, one clue. I thought you said the car is a Range Rover, my husband texts me.

Yeah, so?

Well, the picture you sent me shows Ford Explorer written on the steering wheel. 

Part Three

My brother has two red cars!! The other red car is a Range Rover or Land Rover or some kind of Rover? It is tucked behind a wall on the other side of the garage!

I sit inside it. I push buttons. Nothing happens. I text my husband. I send him more pictures of the steering wheel and the dashboard. He offers helpful advice. None of which works. I text Natalie, my critique partner, mostly to joke to her that I am an idiot sitting inside a car with no idea how to start it. Also, I NEED MY COFFEE!!

Part Four

Natalie sends me a youtube video entitled "How to Use the Land Rover Ranger Rover Keyless Engine Start."

I watch the video three times.

And wah lah! The car starts!

Now, all I have to do is figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers.

The End.

(*note how many doofballs had to watch this video.)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The World's Gone Mad but--

I am not thinking about it. Instead, I spend my days chatting with my critique partner about the notes she's given me on my manuscript --the muddied up character arc and the inevitable info-dump in the first few chapters,-- and working in the bookstore -- the story-times with toddlers, the unpacking of boxes of new book--

my mind mulling over pressing issues, like, what if I can't figure out this revision, and how do I keep my dog from letting herself outside and getting stuck in the muddy backyard while I'm at work, and what should I make for dinner tonight?

Meanwhile, there was a nerve gas attack in Syria and entire families died in a stairwell, men and women clinging to their babies, their eyes glazed over, their ashen faces, and how terrified it must've been for them in those final moments.

I can't make sense of it.

Last year I read the book A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, because I am fascinated by how people grapple with the world during dark times. Lindgren, who wrote the Pippi Longstocking books, kept a diary detailing her experiences living in Sweden during World War II.

Most of the diary is day to day stuff like what she's making for dinner.

Which surprised me because when I think about people living back then, I imagine the war as being more present and all-encompassing.

Okay, Astrid Lindgren was lucky --and she knew it-- living in Sweden, a neutral country during the war, and therefore, mostly unscathed by the events. Sure, she read the newspapers and listened to the radio and was appalled, of course, by the atrocities, but for the most part, she was writing her Pippi Longstocking story and taking care of her kids and mulling over the food selection at the market, which wasn't bad, considering. She had a hard time making sense of it.

Yesterday I unpacked a box at the bookstore, a stack of new books, Indestructibles, they call them. A new invention to me. Books that your baby can crumple and chew. They're non-toxic! You can throw them in the dishwasher!

I marvel at these features, remembering my own babies chewing the corners of their books and there I was, clueless, allowing it, not worrying that the paper they were ingesting might be poisonous. Who knew this was even a pressing issue.

I wish I could ask Astrid Lindgren.

How is it that we live in a world that for some people ends with them clinging to their gasping terrified children in a stairwell, and for other people, the largest worry is the drooly bitten corners of a book?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

This week is the week I'm supposed to plant my garden

but I haven't even thought about it until today.

Other years, by this time, I would've been deep in my planning. Poring over garden design books, drawing grids on graph paper. Where to put the rows. How to arrange the pots and planters.

Not this year.

This year I haven't even been outside to pick up the broken branches or rake the blown leaves. The yard is a minefield of monkey balls and dog poop, mucky puddles and Dr. Seuss-looking weeds. It's the weird winter weather we've had. That creepy week back in February when the temperature hit the high 70's. Then the plunge back into the 20's. The mornings I woke up to snow I hadn't known was in the forecast. Watching flowers that shouldn't have bloomed, crushed.

Also, I've been busy. Working at the bookstore, my first job outside the home in ten years. And writing another book. It's done. Sort of. The draft in the hands of my critique partner.

Maybe it's the depletion that comes from finishing up a book, and balancing that with working, but lately, I'm not feeling very hopeful about my garden.

The reality is it doesn't get enough sun. Every year the trees in our yard stretch out farther, letting less light through. My husband says we should cut a few down, or at least trim them, but I have a thing about cutting down trees. The thing is called I Don't Want to Cut Down Trees.

Even if it means I can't grow as many tomato plants. Or any.

Today I went to a story-time at the bookstore. The author/illustrator Aiko Ikegami read from her new book Seed Man. The story is about a man who comes to town and plants a magical tree. Gifts grow on the tree instead of fruit. Books and toys and pets. There's a moment of potentially heartbreaking drama where one of the characters rejects the gift he's been given. But then he realizes his mistake and everything works out.

The story-time was very interactive. Aiko Ikegami played the cello while her friend played the violin. She brought a basket of seed packets to hand out as gifts.

I sat on the floor, cross-legged with the kids who came to listen. I got teary-eyed waiting for the story to turn hopeful. I'm not usually one to get teary-eyed. It might be a side-effect of "finishing" a book, a book that in all likelihood will go the way of the last four books I've written.

By which I mean, Nowhere.

After the story-time, I snagged a seed packet. I was as delighted as the kids to find that the packet contained smaller packets, each carefully labeled.

Seeds to plant if wanted to.

I know I know. I don't have to plant a garden. I don't have to write another book.

But on this rare sunny day, I know that I will.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Eight books I love this week

(In no particular order)

1. This Book Just Ate My Dog! by Richard Byrne

Bella takes her dog for a walk and it disappears into the crease of the book. On each page, more characters disappear as they search for the missing dog, culminating in a literal shaking of the book to release them.

(I have tested this one out on kids who have visited the bookstore, and they like shaking the book almost as much as I like shaking the book.)

2. Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence,‎ illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic

Eight-year-old Jasmine is tired of her older sister Sophie doing everything first. When it’s time to celebrate the New Year by rolling mochi balls, a tradition in their Japanese American family, Jasmine has the perfect plan to help—and to do something even Sophie has never been allowed to do.

(I love little Jasmine's voice. Kind of a cross between Ramona and Junie B. Jones. Plus, there's a recipe for Mochi included at the back of the book, which I appreciate.)

3. El Deafo by CeCe Bell

CeCe is starting a new school, trying to make new friends (and avoid a couple of not-so-good friends) and at the same time, she's learning how to be a deaf girl in a mostly hearing world. This is a graphic novel with a perfect melding of text and pictures (the book was a runner up for the Newbery Medal).

(It's geared toward 8-12, but it can be read as an adult memoir-- the author based the story on her own experiences. Also, I got a kick out of all of the 80's pop culture references--  Partridge Family, The Waltons, The Beatles.)

4. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Will’s older brother was shot and now Will has stepped into an elevator in his building, prepared to shoot the boy he assumes is the shooter. Over the next 60 seconds as Will wrestles with his trauma, grief and need for revenge, the elevator stops, floor by floor, letting on the ghosts of Will’s community, others who have been destroyed by gun violence.

When the elevator doors open at the end of the book, readers are left to come to their own conclusion about what happens next. A gut-punch of a read.

(I read this in 45 minutes-- it's told in verse, so it's "easy" to read-- but oh my God, here I am three weeks later still stressing about this kid.)

5. Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins

Bruce is a crotchety bear who just wants to be left alone to make his gourmet egg recipes, when one day, the free-range, organic goose eggs he's purchased (the pics show him shopping with a shopping cart in the forest) hatch. Fun fact about goslings? They imprint on the face they see first.

And that, unfortunately, for Bruce,

is Bruce.

(This is a picture book that adults may enjoy more than kids, although the pictures of the baby geese are darling.)

6. Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

I love this picture book so much I want to give it to every newly expecting parent I know. Jeffers wrote the book for his own two month old baby, as basically a Welcome to the World introductory love letter.

Gorgeous pictures of space and earth and water, people and animals, accompanied by a loving and humorous voice explaining everything you need to know as a new inhabitant of our planet.

(This first time I read this book to a child, he was mesmerized and I burst into tears.)

7. The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas by Tony Wilson, illustrated by Sue deGennaro

An update on an old classic. Our prince is skeptical that having a prospective marriage partner sleep on a bed of twelve mattresses with a pea hidden underneath is the best way to choose a mate. In fact, it's how his brother chose his bride and that princess is just a little too finicky.

Maybe the answer is one mattress and a bag of frozen peas?

(Laughed out loud reading this one. And glad to see that it broke gender stereotypes. Spoiler alert: the princess had a rough day playing hockey and appreciated the bag of frozen peas.)

8. This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki, Illustrated by Mariko Tamaki

Story of two girls who've been friends at the same lake every summer, but now one is growing up a little faster than the other and struggling with some family dysfunction. I picked this one up on the advice of an editor and guessed (wrongly) by the picture on the cover and by flipping through it (it's a graphic novel, so it has a comic-book look to it) that it's a book for younger kids.

It is not. It's a complicated, moving, heartbreaking story about girl friendship, puberty, the growing awareness of how girls are perceived by men and how they often internalize that.. and hurt each other.

This one blew me away. A winner of the Printz Honor for the writing and a Caldecott for the illustrations. Give it to your older than 14 year old daughter. But first, read it yourself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

There is nothing funny about a car show and yet

I can't stop laughing.

Maybe it's because I didn't really want to go to this car show, but now that I am here, I am enjoying myself, inspecting every car, outside and in, the tires, the backs of mirrors, the dashboards, the leather seats, and the parts of cars I don't know the names of

the grill? the rim?

Whatever. I am not really interested in parts of cars. Or, to be honest, in cars. I am here, at this car show, with my husband, a man who is interested in cars.

He may be annoyed with me for telling you this, but for the past several years, he has been making plans to buy his dream car (as soon as we pay the last of our daughter's college tuition). When I say making plans, I mean he has created an excel spreadsheet, a detailed analysis of potential dream cars with their various attributes -- something something about the power of the engine? and...

I can't remember the other attributes,

although I should, because he's shown the excel spreadsheet to me. Multiple times. Last I've heard, he's narrowed it down to one dream car. I'm embarrassed to admit that I do not know what this car is. I am not a person who likes cars.

I am not a person who sees cars.

Okay, I see cars. If they are big or small and what color they are, if they have heated seats (I like those) and if they are reliable. But that's the extent of it.

Side note: when I was in college, a boy I didn't know well (and who obviously did not know me well) borrowed a Porsche to take me out on a date.

The gesture, needless to say, did not impress me, but I tried to act impressed, which was difficult because I didn't know what a Porsche was or why it should impress me. Also, I felt bad for the boy because he was clearly anxious driving this borrowed car, and the date went from bad to worse, when the boy got us lost on the way to the restaurant where he had made dinner reservations, and he was freaking out about losing our table, and I suggested he turn into a gas station and ask for directions, and he did, and then when he was pulling out of the gas station, he hit another car, and the back end of the Porsche fell off.

My husband, thank God, is not buying a Porsche.

We do, however, look at Porsches (Porsch-i?) at this car show. The outsides. The insides. The tires. The backs of the mirrors.

Did I mention that we are doing a scavenger hunt? When we walked into the enormous exhibit hall where they are holding this car show, the ticket takers gave us a sheet with items to find and if you find them all, you can be entered into a raffle where you might win a car!!

(I'm lying. You might win a large screen TV.)

I don't really care about winning a large screen TV, and I didn't think I would care about this silly scavenger hunt, but two minutes into this snooze-inducing car show, I discover a whatchamacallit on a random car that matches an item on the scavenger hunt sheet, and suddenly, I am obsessed with finding every single item.

I am so obsessed that at one point I wander away from my husband and get lost without even knowing I am lost. Until my husband calls me on my cell phone. And something about him calling me on my cell phone and asking where I am, and me, realizing I have no idea because all of these cars, truthfully, look the same, strikes me as hysterical,

and I can't stop laughing, even as my husband is telling me to stay where I am, and even as I don't stay where I am, because I want to check out the back of one more mirror and scour the rims? of one more tire.

We have to go! because the damn car show is closing! And I am still short two items on my scavenger sheet! But I spy a little boy scribbling on his own sheet and it turns out we are missing different items and the two of us agree to trade information, which leaves me with one item left.

The ticket takers will only take a totally completed sheet for the raffle to win the TV. So that's a big giant bummer.

Don't worry. I tell my husband. We are coming back here next year.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Someone pulled the fire alarm every day

when I was teaching in a high school, and everyone would groan because we knew it was a false alarm,

except for that one time when it wasn't, (a chemistry experiment gone wrong) and we all had to stand outside in the cold rain. And that other time, when there was a tornado drill, only weeks after a tornado blew the roof off the high school two miles away, and even the cool kids were freaked out, the alarm blaring,

they crouched, shivering, against the interior wall, their arms over the heads, one of the football players shouting at me, Ms Casella, why are you standing there? Get down!

I could handle the tornado drills and the fire drills, but my old childhood terror of fire, long buried, resurfaced when we had to practice the Lockdown Drills, because they were more likely to happen than a fire or tornado.

We all knew that any whack job with a gun could come strolling into the school. The administrators told the teachers lock your doors, huddle the kids into a corner. And in the unfortunate situation of a Lockdown happening during a class change -- grab whatever kids you could, pull them into a room, lock the door.

Whoever was left outside with the gunman would have to fend for themselves.

I could imagine terrified kids scurrying in the halls, searching for hiding places, and oh my God, what if it was your little boy or your little girl caught outside the locked door? Think of the nightmares you could have practicing that, the trauma of a drill, never mind the trauma of the real thing.

So, I've been going to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America meetings, even though my kids are long grown and I am no longer teaching. I'm like a lot of people, apparently, past the point of being horrified by gun violence and looking for a way to make it stop.

Things I didn't know: the group was started by a mother of five, Shannon Watts, after a 20 year old man shot 20 first graders and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and has grown to four million members. Things I wish I didn't know: there have been 1607 mass shootings in America since Sandy Hook-- 239 school shootings .

The only goal of Moms Demand Action is to end gun violence in America.

The group works to reach that goal by advocating for universal background checks and by opposing any legislation that puts Americans at greater risk of gun violence. They support the Second Amendment and actively recruit responsible gun owners into the group. They are not affiliated with a political party.

You don't have to be a mom to join.

Also, you don't really have to do anything to join, except show up. And speak out against gun violence in America.

For example, writing this blog post might make you remember the terror you felt when you were six years old, the first time you watched a fire safety film in school,

how scary it was to see the students in the film running instead of walking, the ones falling and being trampled, the ones trapped inside in the blazing building, and every time the fire drill rang, you were freaked out and you confessed your fears to the adults in your life, adults who weren't always so With It when it came to listening, but in this case, they did listen.

In this case they said, don't be afraid. We're taking care of this problem for you. You don't have to worry about dying inside your school.

Moms Demand Action can't say this yet to our scared children.

The kids who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have taken it upon themselves. On March 24 in 659 places worldwide, they will march to raise their voices against gun violence in schools.

The Moms will be there too. It is the very least we can do.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Nearing the end of a book

makes you believe in magic

how everything falls into place, all of those seemingly unrelated plot strands that meandered off in different directions, now twisting together, tightening, building toward the climax

somehow making sense.

The months of writing-- day after day after day--  the slow starts and gray mornings, the blank computer screen, the blinking cursor, the pathetic daily word counts, the sentences written and the sentences deleted,

now everything gathering speed, words spilling out almost faster than you can catch them, flashes of dialogue in the shower, an answer to a plot hole as you round the corner on a walk with the dog, and how perfectly serendipitous it is when you remember

that time when you were twelve, and you and your best friend made up a silly song and it had multiple verses and a chorus and hand motions and an accompanying dance, and you haven't thought of that song or that friend in years, but it turns out that how you felt that day when you sang it with her

is exactly the feeling you are trying to capture in the scene you are writing now.

And how weirdly serendipitous it is, when you switch on the radio and there's an old interview with Mr. Rogers playing (yes, Mr. Rogers of all people, who isn't even alive anymore) but here he is talking about childhood worries, and something he says makes you say Aha!

because basically it sums up your entire book, and now you remember why you wanted to write the book in the first place, something you forgot over the last six months when you were deep in the weeds of the thing and didn't know if you'd ever find your way out,

but you should've known you would, because you always do, when you're nearing the end of a book, wherever the book may go later, sold or unsold, read or unread,

you always do,

and that is why nearing the end of a book is magic.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

We didn't know about the shooting

because we were out eating an early dinner.

The owner of the bookstore and the events coordinator and the two visiting authors and the lovely librarian who'd set up the visit, tucked away in a corner booth, sipping our waters and making small talk, at first, but then slipping into a potentially stressful dinner conversation.

The week had been a bad one in the children's book industry

because several prominent male authors had been accused of sexual harassment and people were yelling at each other in the online comment sections, naming names and defending names and meanwhile, I was feeling physically sick, reliving my own crap and also, I knew some of the men, sort of, -- in the way that everyone does in the very small children's book community,

and I had been arguing in real life too, ranting at my best friend, trying to make sense of what I think about women speaking out and the men they are speaking out about and the growing feeling of hysteria, where it seems like no one is really listening to anyone anymore but only yelling at each other,

and the worst thing, for me, is the fear that in the end, after all of the yelling, nothing will really have changed.

But anyway, we were eating dinner.

The authors were Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, in town for a school visit, and readying, after dinner, to sign books at the bookstore where I work now. The topic came up about sexual assault and harassment and MeToo and the men being named (without naming them) and I could feel myself getting sick, how I tend to, when this topic comes up,

especially because Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds didn't agree with each other.

But they talked and listened and came to some kind of understanding of the other's point of view and we finished eating dinner.

At the signing they talked about the book they wrote together called All American Boys, which is about a police shooting, told from the points of view of a black teen and a white teen. Jason Reynolds, who is black, and Brendan Kiely, who is white, described how the book came to be,

how they were on the road together promoting their books, strangers essentially, traveling and trying not to talk about the things you know you're not supposed to talk about with strangers. Politics. Religion. Race. But there they were, on the road, and the verdict had come down in Ferguson about the police shooting Michael Brown and the riots and protests, and eventually

they ended up talking about it, the black writer and the white writer, talking and listening and trying to understand each other, and eventually, doing the only thing they knew how to do, which was to write.

So they wrote the book together and somewhere along the way, they became friends.

We took pictures and they signed more books and there was something about the conversation that made the world feel more hopeful, to think about the power of reaching out, one person to another, about friendship and disagreement and allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable and being okay with uncomfortableness because that's the only way to listen, really,

but I lost the hopeful feeling that night, hearing the news about the mass shooting in Florida and then watching all of the yelling commence.

This morning I read Jason Reynolds' book Long Way Down.

It's a brilliant beautiful heartbreaking story about a traumatized boy, with an ending that pretty much killed me because it leaves the reader on a precipice with the boy, holding your breath with him, about to watch him do something terrible--

But now I've decided, after some thinking, that the ending is not what I thought. It's the opposite, in fact,

and I think the boy is going to do the right thing. He's going to be okay. 

Maybe we all will.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Writing Wizards

They are better writers than I was at their age. They come into class with entire worlds in their heads, casts of characters, sequels.

Some of them already know about story arcs, three-act structure, internal vs external conflicts. Did I tell you they are in middle school? I'm not sure what I can teach them. I stand at the head of the room, looking out at the expectant faces and fiddling with my powerpoint, wondering if I'll have to adjust this lesson.

Write Your Book!

The exclamation point makes it seem more exciting than the reality.

The reality is it's just you and the page, day after day, one word following another, nevermind the deleting, the two steps backwards for every one small step forward, the slow slog weeks that seem to add up to nothing,

and most disheartening, the finished pieces that may float forever in virtual file folders on your old computer.

But I won't tell them any of this. I'm supposed to inspire them! Share my secrets! Impart wisdom!

The funny thing is that I do feel somewhat inspiring and wise as the class goes on. I show them pictures of writer work spaces, snapshots of author writing processes. The post-it notes and index cards and scrawled papers tacked above laptops. I tell them how William Faulkner wrote out the outline of one of his novels on his bedroom wall. I mean, how else do you keep all of the movable parts of a book straight?

What I want them to know, what I wish I'd known, is that there is no one way to Do this. And if a particular method worked for you before and doesn't seem to work anymore, it's okay to try something else.

Look at me. Over the years, I've set word count goals. Scene goals. Time goals. I've written straight through fast, sprinting through a draft without revising, and later sifting through that mess, pulling out the few decent pieces and starting all over again from page one.

I've revised as I wrote, battling each sentence into perfect submission before allowing myself to move on, and later deleting pages and pages of pristine prose.

I once wrote an entire book in pencil. I've outlined beforehand and outlined after-hand.

This year the book I'm writing is happening in 120 minute-per day increments. For some reason I've been lighting a candle before beginning. Now, the strike of the match means it's time to write. I burned through a cranberry-scented candle before Christmas and moved on to other flavors-- rose, cinnamon, vanilla, throwing the discarded matches into the empty containers.

As the class goes on many of the students admit that they have never finished writing a book. They work out their stories in their heads. They type out big chunks and then lose interest as newer, shinier ideas take hold.

What's the secret, they want to know.

And I wish I could explain it. There is no secret. Just, a few minutes a day. One word tapped out after another. A match burning and tossed into a spent container.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Close Encounters of the Human Kind

I like it when the little kids toddle in, their snowy boots, their hats slipping over their eyes as they peel off their mittens.

I remember those snowy days with my own kids, how hard it was to get them coated up and out the door and car-seated into the minivan. All the stuff you had to carry. Diaper bags and wipe-ys and tissues for runny noses. The dolly toy my daughter sucked on so fiercely she lost her face. The dolly. Not my daughter.

The kids kneel down in front of the mice holes first and I kneel with them because I like to point out the teeny blue paint brush the mouse is holding and the paintings he's been working on and the mess he's made, but that's okay. He's an artist. Sometimes the mouse is a she. 

Is she real, they ask me. 

And when I tell them, yes, they believe me. 

Outside the bookstore the world is awful and growing awful-er or maybe it's always been like this and I only know it more now because the news scrolls out of my phone endlessly. 

Did you know a man hated his ex-wife so much he killed their two children when he was on the phone with her? They executed that man last week and his wife watched him die and I wish I didn't know this and I am sorry I shared it with you. 

My favorite book in the bookstore this week is a book called Ball. It's the story of the most darling adorable dog and how he keeps trying to get someone to throw him his ball. This favorite book is tied with the books How to Put Your Parents to Bed (hilarious) and After the Fall (the story of what happens after Humpty Dumpty fell and how he conquered his fear of heights. It's an inspirational tearjerker. I'm not lying) 

(And don't miss the sequel: Treat)

The other day two pre-schoolers gathered up every stuffed animal on the book shelves and lined them up on the couch and read books to them while their harried, apologetic mother nursed a baby sibling. 

Eh, whatever, I told her. Don't worry. I've been there. 

All those days nursing my daughter, her three year old brother dropping books on her head or legoes or matchbox cars. He wasn't used to sharing me with someone else and my heart broke for him at the same time I was saying, Just a minute. Give me a minute. The TV was on and the news broke in: 

A shooting at a school. 

I watched a stream of teenagers fleeing a school called Columbine with their hands up and I turned off the TV fast and burped my baby and played legoes with my three year old, freaked out, thinking about my own teaching days (only a few months before quitting to stay home with my new baby) and never ever ever did I worry about a student shooting up the school.

Did you know that there were "11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq"?  

I don't want to know this and I am sorry I told you. 

A boy reads a book curled up on the couch. A father teaches his daughter how to play chess. A grandmother comes into the store with her grandchild and I show her the book How to Babysit Your Grandma and she reads it with her grandchild on her lap. A mom comes in with her son and I point out the book Dragons Love Tacos. Later I hear the little boy giggling as she reads it to him. 

Last week a father in Kansas, a professor, a respected man in the community for over 30 years was picked up by ICE as he was taking his young child to school. He's going to be deported back to Bangladesh as an example to other immigrants. (If the first thing that crosses your mind when I tell you this story is that the man should've taken care of his paperwork, please don't tell me. I don't want to know this cold-hearted thing about you.) 

Last week we hosted a bookclub at the bookstore and a dozen kids read from A Wrinkle in Time. It was my favorite book as a kid and I still remember the story. How it was a dark and stormy night and Meg's father had been taken away and she flew off to rescue him with her younger brother Charles Wallace. 

It was really bad where their father was being held. A dark place where evil had taken over and even good people had been sucked into it, and to make matters worse, It took Charles Wallace. In the showdown the once darling brilliant beautiful boy tells Meg he hates her, and she is horrified and enraged, thinking

there is nothing you can do to fight hate like that.

Oh my God so many girls took the stand last week and told the world how their gymnastics doctor hurt them, one girl after another, telling her story, shaking and crying, and even now there are men and women closing their eyes to it and saying it didn't happen or it wasn't that bad or why did they wait so long to tell or maybe they are lying and 

I could hate these people. 

Did I tell you about the teeny mouse painting a picture in the bookstore where I work? Did I tell you that the artist who created it is named Sharon Dorsey? She works at a place called Open Door Studio where she helps artists with disabilities create and sell their art. 

Did I tell you that the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time I cried? Not in sadness, but from relief and joy. 

It turns out there is a way to triumph over darkness:


and I am happy to share it with you.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The last time I worked at a bookstore

I shelved the books in the Romance section, which was the easiest section to maintain because there was only one way to organize those books-- alphabetically by author -- and I was a part-time bookstore worker. They were never going to give me one of the big, complex, multiply-segmented sections like History or Religion

or even Poetry, even though I was working on my MFA in poetry at the time. Everyone at that bookstore was an expert in something, and people all over the city would call our Information Desk line to ask questions about Whatever. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1936 or How many years did the Mexican American War last, and one of us would know the answer or we'd know where to find it.

We were basically the Siri of the early 1990's, when there was no such thing as the internet or Google and cellphones were as big as your forearm and only really wealthy and/or obnoxious people carried them around.

I wasn't always the best bookstore worker. I snootily looked down on the Romance novels I shelved and I secretly rolled my eyes at the people who came in looking for a book but couldn't remember the title or the author or really anything about it, except that it had a white and black cover.

(for the record, they wanted Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein)

Something people are often surprised to learn about bookstore clerks is that we were not allowed to read the books-- at least while we were on the clock.

I wanted to read everything.

But once I got over that rule, I loved working at the bookstore. I loved unpacking the new arrivals. I loved the smell of the storeroom, the wooden shelves, the rows and rows of backstock. I loved reorganizing books in the bookcases. I loved talking to people about books and asking them what they were reading and learning what was new in the book world and getting to meet authors at book-signings and fulfilling my mission

which was always to put a book into the customer's hands.

Turns out that nearly thirty years later I still love doing all of these things. The bookstore where I have been working for the past few weeks is called Cover to Cover.  It's the reconfiguration of the original Cover to Cover (my favorite bookstore of all time, which closed a few months ago when the darling owner Sally Oddi retired), now reopened in a new space by the lovely Melia Wolf, a former art teacher, which is very apparent the moment you walk through the door. 

(LOOK!! a teeny mouse nook under the counter, designed by
artist Sharon Dorsey of Open Door Studio)

(The original Cover to Cover had a wall of visiting author
and illustrator signatures. The wall went with Sally but Melia
took photos and recreated it as tissue paper!)

I am having a blast unpacking boxes and moving the books around on the shelves. Struggling, a little, to learn the ordering and computer cash register system (yes, THIS has changed mightily over the last thirty years), but the smell of the books is the same, and I will never tire of talking about books with people.

(One of my first customers, Sally! at the grand opening.)

And my new favorite thing?

Kneeling down to put a book into a child's hands.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Something of a Radical

Last week someone called me a radical.

Okay, it was my husband, and I think he meant it in a nice way?

Because I march in the women's marches and make calls to my representatives? Because I've been to ACLU meetings at stranger's houses and talked to the person who is running for Congress in my district and met face to face with a representative at the Ohio Statehouse and told him my story about how Planned Parenthood saved my life? Because I parked myself at the Farmer's Market with a petition to end gerrymandering in Ohio and persuaded random people to sign it?

My husband may have a point.

The funny thing is I wasn't always a radical. When I was in college, I barely read the news. I didn't vote. When I saw kids protesting on campus, a small gathering of the fringiest of the fringe carrying signs against Apartheid, I hustled by fast, averting my eyes, thinking, What a buncha weirdos.

and then off I went to a frat party. Once, when I was home for the summer and working at a law office downtown, President Reagan came to speak in the town square. I hadn't known he was coming. My mother was dropping me off at the law office, and she had to let me out blocks away because the entire downtown was cordoned off.

I was annoyed, and then afraid, when I had to explain to the Secret Service that I was trying to get to work, and then having my purse searched and wanded with a metal detector. At lunchtime, in the law office, one of the attorneys said, Let's go hear Ronald Reagan, and I shrugged, but went. There was a huge crowd and I stood there bored, not listening to the speech,

and then I was mortified when the attorney, a young woman only a few years older than me but light years ahead in maturity and education, began to boo loudly. The people around us threw us both dirty looks and shifted away, and I shifted away too because that attorney was the radical.

Not me.

Except okay,  I did write a letter to the editor of the newspaper when I was fifteen in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, and another person wrote back and called me out by name, basically saying I was an idiot for wanting women's rights. It turned out that the person was my history teacher,

a nun at my school, and she berated me in class and said in so many words

I was a radical. So, maybe there is some truth to the label?

Yesterday I rode with a friend downtown and marched on the snowy wet sidewalk, carrying my NO! sign, shuffling along with hundreds of other people, old women and men, younger women and men, some of them pushing babies in strollers, the babies wearing adorable pink pussy hats -- and I still CANNOT BELIEVE I AM WRITING THAT WORD, or saying the word SHITHOLE, but here we are,

our country,

being led by a sick man, an emperor with no clothes, and who knew there were so many people too cowardly to confront him?--

But yesterday, at least, there were some of us marching to the Ohio statehouse --where our leaders have recently been passing laws that seem like a page out of the Handmaid's Tale--

all of us shouting and waving our signs, chanting my favorite chant, which seems like a radical statement these days, but that's okay because


I am a radical.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Random thoughts on January 15

When I was a kid, I always knew when it was Martin Luther King Day because it was the same day as my brother's birthday. In the 1970's in Connecticut, January 15th was a state holiday, so we always had off from school.

I liked Martin Luther King Jr. because he was the man who had a dream that black kids and white kids could someday be friends, and if you'd asked 8 or 9 or 10 year old me, I would've told you that it was a dream I fully agreed with. 

I'd seen the film Roots at the library in weekly installments. It was clear to me that slavery was evil and all of the white people who'd owned slaves were bad. But that was all in the past. And in the South. We, in the North, were completely blameless. When I was a kid in Connecticut we didn't talk about race. 

And it was really easy not to talk about race because the town I lived in was nearly all white.

It was an old factory town, mostly second or third generation immigrants from Poland and Italy, and with a sizable group of people from Puerto Rico. Many kids I knew spoke another language with their parents at home. The Catholic churches in town still held masses in the language of the people in the neighborhoods. Polish, Italian, Spanish. 

Not that we were always nice to each other. I heard people openly talk about Puerto Rican people using derogatory language, and everyone said you should steer clear of their neighborhoods. But no one thought of themselves as racist. That was something that only happened in the South. (See Roots, above.) 

When I was thirteen, I met a woman from the South and I eyed her suspiciously for signs of racism, but the woman seemed really nice and we all thought her Southern accent was darling. Okay, there was one incident when we were walking in the park, and she suddenly whisked her young daughter away and made the remark that maybe all of us were used to seeing "that kind of thing" but where she was from they weren't used to it. 

I had no idea what she was talking about, but later my mother told me that what upset the woman was a couple holding hands, a black person and a white person. 

This was a confusing moment because the woman seemed so lovely, and I didn't know what to make of it, so I filed it under: Weird Stuff People from the South Say, and forgot about it

until I went to college in the South. 

My college roommate first semester was black, and I was eager to show her that I was Not a Racist by never having a conversation with her about race, and by acting as if I didn't notice that I was white and she was black, hoping that she could see how Progressive and Open-Minded I was. Anyway, this was the 1980's, and even though we were going to school in the Deep South, racism was a Thing of the Past,

especially at our forward-thinking liberal arts college,

which, okay, true, like my Connecticut town, this college was mostly white. 

Also, most of the female students joined sororities, and it was an unspoken fact that black girls didn't belong to any of the sororities because it was against the sorority rules, 

although the story was that one sorority had pledged several black girls a few years before, but half of the white girls dropped out that year, which killed their membership numbers, and now that was sort of the meh sorority on campus. Anyway, the very few black girls at the college didn't bother going through Rush after that, including my roommate.

I did though, and my roommate and I pretended to each other that she just didn't want to Go Greek. She dropped out of school at the end of the year and I never saw her again.

Here's something I understand now that I didn't when I was growing up: lovely people can be racist. Some of them can even be from Connecticut.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Goal Setting at the Edge of the Earth

It's January, a new year, my usual time for looking ahead, making resolutions, setting my writing goals and other goals-- projects to tackle around the house and in the garden, resolving to eat better and exercise more and volunteer and contribute to the community in a positive way, reading my poem a day and reading more, in general, and in a variety of genres.

I can go on and on with these goals, because I am a big believer in setting them, making lists, and tracking progress, all of which, I realize, lately, relies entirely on my faith in the future,

that I will be there, in the future

that there will be a future.

It's a scary realization, one that I haven't felt in a long time, but lately it's come back to me, how nothing is certain, how my fate-- how all of our fates-- are dependent on forces beyond our control, a feeling I understood instinctively when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old.

Back then I didn't have much faith in the future. I wasn't a big-time follower of the news, but a lot of it filtered into my head anyway, news about the arms race between our country and the Soviet Union, the Cold War amping up.

I watched the movies about nuclear war, The Day After and War Games, listened to music where rock stars wondered if the Russians loved their children too, read about downed airlines and uprisings in Eastern European countries, heard stories about nuns chaining themselves to fences outside nuclear weapons plants.

In the 1980's we were wise enough to know that if there was a nuclear war, no one was going to stumble out of it alive, and we mocked the deluded people of the 1950's who had disaster drills in schools, the kids told to hide under desks, as if cowering under a desk would save them.

I'm not saying I thought about potential total annihilation every moment, but it was hovering in the back of my mind, the near certainty that something really bad could happen at any moment-- on purpose or by accident--

and we would all be done for.

So, why bother studying for the SATs or doing your homework or making any plans, really?

But the thing is I did study for my SATs (not that it helped all that much since I was pretty dingy when it came to taking standardized tests). And I always did my homework. I applied for part-time jobs and filled out college applications. I moved forward as if the future would be there for me,

and, what do you know? it was.

Which I guess is my long way of saying that I did set my goals for the year 2018, because while I know there is no certainty that we'll all make it to the end of it, I am going to move forward as if we will.

For the record, my goals:

1. finish the revision of my middle grade novel
2. jump back into the adult novel I set aside last spring
3. write four blogs a month, plus one over at YA Outside the Lines
4. read a poem a day; read more, in general, in a variety of genres
5. eat better and exercise more (10,000 steps per day according to my Fitbit!)
6. paint the exterior of the house
7. expand my herb garden
8. volunteer and contribute to the community in a positive way (in Real Life as opposed to on social media)
9. take monthly dates with my husband
10. remember to live in the moment, which is all we truly have.