Every time I hit the library, I try to bring home a stack of picture books. I have probably reached my 10,000 hours of reading kids’ novels, but I don’t think I’m there yet on the picture book. Plus, hey, I love them.

Yesterday, in my stack was a copy of Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.


Let’s put aside my awe (and jealousy) of people who can both write and draw, and let me just tell you one of my favorite things that this book does. Or, rather, that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t explain.

Here’s the first sentence: “Julia’s house came to town and settled by the sea.”

What? Huh? A house that actively comes on its own? How? And why the sea?

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

Granted, the art adds to the words. We do see the actual arrival of the house (Note: Don’t skip the inside title page, or you’ll miss a lovely piece of the story.) But even the art will, if you let it, just open up more questions. Why is the house transported the way it is? Why did the house (or Julia) pick the sea? Why does Julia have to plant her mailbox?

Again…doesn’t matter.

Because all these whys and wheres, and the hows and whos and whats in the rest of the book, are part of the story world. The house transports the way it does (no, I’m not telling you!), because in this world it can. Julia has to plant the mailbox, because houses have mailboxes, and–duh–you can’t plant your mailbox until your house arrives and settled.

Within the context of the world, the details make sense, and–flip the coin–the details create a world that makes its own sense.

I know there are readers who will certainly ask these kinds of questions. They’ll ask why Julia’s house has a workshop. They’ll ask why Patched Up Kitty is actually made of patchwork cloth. They’ll ask why, if Julia is lonely, she makes a sign advertising for lost creatures.

But I would take just about any wager that the readers who ask these questions won’t be kids. Because kids work within the world they’re reading. And even if they have a question, they’ll feel in their own answers–they’ll add their own layers to the words they’re hearing and the pictures they’re seeing.

They’ll use their imaginations.

I think I have possibly gotten a little preachy here. (Who, me?!) But this is one of my favorite things about good picture books–that they create an entire world in so few words, so few pages of art. (If you want to see one that does a lovely job with pictures only, I also brought home a copy of Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle-gorgeous and sweet.) And that world may have its own rules, it may have elements that would–in our world–make no sense. But how many things in our world actually make total sense when we’re young. Plus there are other “worlds” out there, other worlds that we’ll grow up to learn about and that are outside our daily experience, and they are open to exploration and experimentation and adventuring.

Possibly books like this help kids get ready for worlds like that.


Even to me, that looks intimidating, when I just type it out there and leave it surrounded by white space. But I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think it’s all a matter of font. I’m not thinking “more” like this:


I’m thinking “more” like this:


Or at least that’s the best I can do, in terms of comparison, with my simple font choices here.

Here’s the thing. For some reason, I’ve been itching to figure out something new and different I can add to my life this next year. I’m sure this is in part the empty-nest syndrome, feeling like there is a gap to be filled and a freedom to be utilized. Plus, I’m a couple of steps into a new decade of my age, and I typically do add something new each decade. So I’ve been looking around and thinking about what this new thing could be and how I could fit it in with working full-time and all the writing I want to do and keeping up with my yoga and getting more knitting done…

Major forehead slap.

See, I don’t actually need anything new and different. I actually have a plenty long list of things I already want to be doing and, if I’m going to be a little self-judgmental here, on which I am already not spending enough time. One of the things I haven’t figured out yet, with going back to work, is how best to use my evenings. I’m not a late nighter, and all too often by the time I get home and “settled,” the only thing that really sounds appealing is reading a good book. Which, yay, but…that’s not getting the pages written or the rows knitted. And then the life-things I also don’t get done on the weekdays start to take over the weekends…ick. It’s not really time management, I don’t think, as much as Introvert Management. I love my job and I love the people I’m talking to and seeing all the time, but I’m allowing myself so many recovery hours that I’m not getting to the things I actually value and need to prioritize.

So nothing new. Nothing different. Just more time and more commitment.


Do you have a word or a theme for this coming year? Share it in the comments so we can all be inspired, and feel free to link to any post you’ve written about it. And a Happy New Year to you all.

Writing was always the one thing of which I wasn’t afraid.

Okay, no. Not true. I wasn’t afraid of stuffed toys, or live animals (although horses are REALLY BIG, you know?). I wasn’t afraid of going to the doctor (once those shots were out of the way) or the dark or most bugs (don’t talk to me about fuzzy black caterpillars). But I was, let’s admit it, a cautious, shy, anxious child. And teenager. And young adult. I’m actually pretty proud of how, in the past years, I’ve done a pretty good turn-about on fear and anxiety, to the point where I can almost welcome change and where I’ll purposely try something new, even with a risk of failure.

So there’s some not-so-delicious irony that after decades of writing without fear, life has decided to flip things around and dish up a plateful of writing fear for me to deal with.

I can trace it back to plenty of stuff–to actually getting some pieces of writing to a submittable place and then not getting accepted. To getting tangled in a book I really wanted to write and having to put it away unfinished. To, possibly, even getting so many other ducks in a nice, calm row that there was finally room for writing to be something other than an escape? Maybe?

Whatever, can I just say that the writing fear is not welcome? Did I need another test for my mindfulness attempts? Did I need to be told, okay, here’s one of the most important things in your life, and you’re going to have to experience all the thoughts about where you haven’t “succeeded” in the past and also (in case you thought you were going to get off easy) those thoughts about where you might very well not “succeed” in the future? And you’re going to need to let those worries flow into you for a bit and then let them flow out again, and in the midst of all that in and out actually get some writing done?

Personally, I’d vote for: No, I didn’t need this. But apparently, life is not a democracy. Or, even a dictatorship with me at the head of my own personal mental state. Life is, darn it, just life…and things come up when they come up, right? Sometimes I wish I could believe that they come up with a purpose, or because they’re what I do need at the moment, but that’s not how I see it. Steps I’ve taken and choices I’ve made have lead me here, and now I get to deal with it. My challenge and quest for right now is to be mindful of the fear, but to not let it control me. To remember that what I’m doing at any given time is what I’m doing and to do it the best and most focused that I can. In other words, to keep writing.

So that’s where I’ll be.

Lately, I had a flash of concern that I seemed to be forgetting a few more things than usual. Nothing big and nothing critical–I don’t have a To-do List app on my phone for nothing, you know! But just enough for me to sit up and take notice, figure out why, and reassure myself that it wasn’t that whole not-so-young-as-I-used-to-be thing.

Here’s how it went.

I had to schedule one of those no-biggie, routine medical procedures that ARE a piece of that whole not-so-young thing. (Just to jump ahead so you don’t worry–all done, and all’s well!) It was one of those things that comes with 24 hours of semi-fasting and a week or so of not taking meds like aspirin or ibuprofen and not eating certain foods. The doctor and staff went over it all with me ahead of time, they gave me a list, and I knew what was up. A no-brainer, right? Except…


Okay, let’s back up. First, I forgot about the week without the meds, and I had to call in and check whether six days off, instead of seven, was acceptable. Yes, it was. (Okay, I’ll admit to a smidgeon of disappointment that I didn’t have to reschedule, because, hey, it wasn’t exactly a procedure we all put on our Super Fun Things To Do bucket list.) Luckily, also okay were the certain “banned” foods I’d happened to munch on that day.

All good. I move along and get on with my week.

A couple of days later, I’m reaching for a food item to snack on, when I remember that 1) I’m not supposed to eat this and 2) I JUST ATE SOME OF IT THE DAY BEFORE!

To shorten what’s getting to be a long story, it was all good. I was okay, I had the procedure, everything’s cool, and all I have to do is put the next one on my calendar for a few more years down the line. (Whee!)

Even better, I figured out what was going on with my memory. I realized that my forgetting was about transitions and about mindfulness and about how time changes for us during different phases of our life.

When i went back to work full-time, about six months ago, I knew it would bring big changes. Not only would I be in someone else’s office 4-5 times a week (I often get to work at home on Fridays), but I’d be adding a commute to my days on top of the hours actually at work. I’d have to figure out how to shift all those things I used to get done during the weekdays, to evenings and weekends. Yes, I knew I used to do that all the time, but it had been a while, and I’m a very different person than I was back then.

Overall, it’s been working well. I’m not being as writing-productive in the evenings as I’d like, but I’m still making significant forward movement on my WIPS, and that’s huge. I’m not seeing friends as often as I want, but I’m working on it, and I’m making sure it does happen. I’m keeping the things that matter, and I’m trying to let go the things that don’t.

I’ve also been keeping down the stress levels, and that’s something I’m very proud of. That person I used to be, back when I did this last time, would have spent evenings (and middles of the night) looping about the job-work that had to be done the next day and the next week and the next month. She would have spent equal time berating herself about the life-things she hadn’t got done the day before and the week before and the month before. She would have been a lot less happy, and she would have made others around her much more unhappy, too.

See, I’m very clear that, with this transition to a different, more full schedule, I’ve been taking each day as it comes. (Cue theme song from One Day at a Time.) I’ve worked with that To-Do List app so that the things I have to do are out of my head and on the list, ready for me when and if I need to look at them, not zipping around in my head shouting at me when I don’t need them. I’ve focused on one or three tasks at a time while I’m at work–prioritizing, and putting tasks back in their folders while I wait for someone to get me the info I need, picking up another folder and working on that. And I’m writing when I write and getting life tasks done when I’m doing life.

What I’m not doing, apparently, is thinking multiple days ahead! I’m not remembering to check that list from the doctor eight days before my appointment so that I’d know to stop taking ibuprofen. I’m not spending time focused on or worrying about that procedure that’s still four days off, so that I’d know I shouldn’t eat that food.

Welcome to the downside of mindfulness, folks. Welcome to the risks of living in the moment.

I’m kidding. When I realized what was going on, I was actually pretty proud of myself. I still felt like an idiot, sure, but like an idiot I was proud to be. I know that this “downside” is part of my transition back to work and that, as I get more and more settled into my new patterns, my memory will be just as strong as I need it to be. But this has been a long time coming for me, this pushing away of the anxiety, this putting the future into its place…into the box labeled NOT TODAY. And as sure as I am that my memory is fine, I’m also that sure that I will not step back onto the path of worry and fretting. Oh, for pete’s sake, on random days when life is crazy, sure? Of course I’ll go back there. But the next day and the next, I’ll pace myself and live with a balance and happiness I never even hoped for when I was younger.

So am I grateful? Oh, you bet. Because along with these lovely routine medical procedures that come with getting older, so does a peace and ease that makes them–and so many other things–no big deal. In a very, very good way.

Happy Thanksgiving, all! I hope your holiday is filled with love and friendship and a few moments of quiet solitude between the turkey and the pies. And don’t beat yourself up if you forget to buy the whipped cream!

I finally started reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which is–as I knew it would be–wonderful. I’m part way through her essay, “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life”–also wonderful.

When I read the part about the difference between carrying a story idea around in your head and trying to put it on the page, I almost shouted out loud, “YES!!!” Instead, I just nodded my head. A lot. Hard.

Here’s the idea part:

The book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame…a think of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.

And here’s the part about trying to write all that down.

…when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing–all the color, the light and movement–is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

Yesterday, I started reading the fast first draft I wrote over the summer, the MG WIP. Unlike what I feared, it didn’t send me into despair at how bad it was. There were a few smiles–I even let myself put a few smiley faces into the margin for myself. And there were lots of ideas–some in the form of Aha! moments that made me grateful, but many others in the form of big, big questions.

I think this reading, and these ideas–not the first draft–are my attempts to catch the butterfly.

I had the feeling–to continue with Patchett’s metaphor–that I wanted to use the gentlest net possible–something made out of fine, gossamer threads of cashmere, maybe–something that would barely brush against the butterfly’s wings. A net that would more encourage than force, that would just create a gentle breeze to nudge the butterfly to land for me.

But maybe I need to just steal Patchett’s SUV and press that gas pedal to the floor.

Either way, this morning, I’m carrying around that feeling of: if ANN PATCHETT feels this way when she writes…then, yes, I can and had better keep moving forward, net in hand.

So… PiBoIdMo has started, and I’ve recorded my first idea. (Insert art note re crowds of people cheering, confetti being thrown, maybe a few sparkly fireworks.) I went with my plan for this year and found a quiet, cat-accompanied place to sit and think, then pushed my mind out of the immediate surroundings and into memory and imagination. (Art note of more cheering.) And I pushed myself to think of the actual problem, a set of threes, multiple possibilities for turning points, and some layers to the ending. (Art note of people shaking their heads at hero’s hope this could work for all 30 days.)

Anyway, all that thoughtfulness led me to a bigger thought, which I want to share and about which I’m hoping you’ll chime in with some comments.

The story idea I got today came with an image of the hero as an animal. A non-human animal. A particular non-human animal with a particular problem. A problem that many real, human children experience. I could write this story with the animal or I could write it with a human child. Either will work. My gut tells me that I will write it with the choice that brings the story to me, that helps me see it best, that helps me get it on the page. So I’m not really looking for writing advice or encouragement here.

What I’m looking for are your thoughts on how this choice (not just my choice, but this choice every time it’s made by any author, illustrator, or publisher) impacts the child reader (or listener) of a book.

I recently attended KidLitCon, at which one of the big themes was the need for more diverse books, with which I totally agree. And one of the conversations was about how diversity isn’t just about racial or ethnic differences, but how it’s about everything–sexual preference, socio-economic differences, physical and mental disabilities or challenges. Everything. And one of the biggest layers in the push for these diverse books is the critical need for children in all these worlds to see themselves in stories. Again, a need I totally believe in.

More than one person said that seeing an animal in a story is not seeing oneself.

I don’t know. I totally see the point–the idea that you’re distancing the problem from the actual child, maybe padding it in a bad way with fantasy. That you’re denying the reality of the scenario in the real world and that–the bottom line–you’re not recognizing the child.

But…I’m trying to see from a child’s eyes and mind. Children have powerful imaginations. Children extrapolate. Children see the universal in the specific. Right? So if a child sees an animal with a problem, challenge, or just a situation that she or he has experienced, does the child automatically think, “Not me,” or does the child possibly think, “Hey, me, too!”?

What do you think? Animals or real kids? Sometimes one, sometimes the other? When and why? Thanks for joining the conversation.

I saw a reference to Rebecca Mead’s post, “The Percy  Jackson Problem,” a while ago, skimmed the article, thought oh, that’s ridiculous, and then moved on because how many times can we argue with these people. But then I started working on a post about just my reading habits and…yep, I started veering right off into a justification of reading for entertainment and escape, and I knew that it was in part because my brain has been simmering (possibly even steaming) about this post.

Plus, Kurtis Scaletta reminded me about it in this post on his blog.

Let’s just take a moment and try to get past sentences like this, “Riordan has come up with a clever conceit, which is amusingly sustained” and “That slangy, casual style is a hallmark of the Percy Jackson books, which often read like a faithful transcription of teen uptalk,” the condescending reductionism of which make me want to ask Mead if she even read the same books I did and to, perhaps a bit immaturely, double-dare her to try to achieve anything close to what Riordan has.

So let’s look at the main problem here. Mead talks about the debate between the any-reading-is-good-reading camp and the “those”-books-will-keep-our-kids-away-from-the-“better”-books camp. I haven’t read the Gaiman piece she quotes from, but as far as I can tell, Gaiman is truly saying that reading is about reading, different books for different kids, while she seems to hear him saying that it’s okay for kids to read anything because “those” books will ultimately lead kids to the “better” books. She worries that Gaiman is wrong to view any kind of book as a gateway to some kind of higher reading, while I don’t think Gaiman–from the bits in here–is actually worried about there being or not being any gateway.

Neither am I.

I was an English major in college, and I loved most of the books that my professors deemed worthy of teaching in their classes. I loved, until I hit grad school, hashing out the meanings of those books and writing essays about them. I see huge value in those books, although I would argue that that value lies primarily in the entertainment of their stories, the escape which their wonderful writing provides us, and their power to create and sustain the reader in all of us. I’d say Rick Riordan’s books pretty much hit the bullseye on all those targets.

I do not agree that those “better” books have some intrinsically greater value for whatever reason. The best and most important purpose of a book, any book is to be something someone wants to read. The most amazing power of a book for children is to not only be that book but to turn the child reading it into someone who wants to read more…and more…and more…and more. And the most evil thing for which a book can be used is to try to make that same child read “up.”

A small selection of our population need to be able to competently and comprehensively analyze literature. Those people will become teachers and professors. And, yes, much gratitude and appreciation to those who choose that path and share their selection of books with their students. But…I truly believe that the most important thing we can give all the other kids, to carry them through life, is a love of reading. And, yes, any reading. Kids who love books will experiment. They’ll try something new, even if only occasionally, because–hey, it’s a book. That new book doesn’t have to be something defined (by whoever) as a classic–it can be a comic book, it can be a mystery instead of a fantasy, it can be a book with a male versus female protagonist, it can be a diverse book, it can be poetry, it can be a joke book, it can be a movie review, it can be an article in the Smithsonian or in Mad Magazine. A kid who is forced into groove after groove carved out by someone else…um, yeah, that’s not going to work. If your goal is to turn kids off books, yeah, sure. But not if your goal is to keep kids reading.

This is getting a little long, as rants do, but one more thing. I keep thinking about the reader I looked like in high school and college, the reader my teachers probably thought I was. And I think about the person I am now, and how many people assume that I am up on all the latest literary fiction, or that I go back all the time to reread Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (I had a real Russian-Lit binge going for a few years). And when I tell them what I do read–at least 90% kids’ fiction–they  just don’t get it. Like Mead.

So here’s the reader I really was, as a kid, the one that did take the path through classic novels for a while, and then through mystery novels, and always in and out through my childhood favorites, and ultimately–at least for now–to the kids’ books being published today.

I was the kid who:

  • Read and loved classics like The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables
  • Brought 10 books home from the library and then often read/reread only the comfortable favorites and took back all the “unknowns” without even getting to page 1.
  • Fell in love with Shakespeare because, yes, reading Polonius’ lines (NOT Ophelia’s) in Hamlet was so much fun, but also because–let’s face it–I had a total teen crush on actor Byron Jennings who played both Richard II and Richard III at PCPA.
  • Was told by my father that he wasn’t going to pay for any more Harlequin Romances. (He did not, because he’s an awesome dad, tell me to stop reading them, and of course I didn’t, not for a while.)
  • Went to college as an English major because, yes, I wanted to read Victorian Novels for four years.
  • Got completely burnt out on reading those Victorian novels and others, because of the seemingly inseparable task of writing literary analysis that justified these novels as “better books.” For almost a year after I got out of grad school, I would go into a bookstore and not find a single book to read. Scariest. Time. Of. My. Life.
  • Still has her collection of this series by Phyllis A. Whitney and will rank them right up there with her beloved Dickens, Austen, and Brontës any day of the week, for the brilliant genius of their rightness. As I do Rick Riordan.

WhitneyWhat I read as a kid was a mix of “those” books and “better” books. The only time I ever risked becoming not a reader was when I lost the balance of that mix for too long, when I put myself in a position where choice was completely taken away from me for too many years. And, yes, giving kids insufficient time to read assigned books and other books is taking away their choice. These days I read kids’ books, I read memoirs, I read mysteries and fantasies, and–when the craving hits me–I dip into Austen or Dickens or one of the Brontës. And I am happy.

Let’s just let our kids read.


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