Last Chores

Since we moved here, nearly exactly 16 years ago, we’ve always had Last Chores. Dogs to be walked, horses to be fed. Chickens to count and close in. Stars to marvel at, comets to spot, an unfamiliar sound to pause against. An open-air bracket at the end of the day, before we climbed stairs and shoved children to where they needed to be. Before we slept.

(Our first night here, we must have walked dogs down our new dirt road and remarked that just two nights ago we were walking under Georgian skies and now, here, we had New Hampshire skies, and weren’t we lucky. We must have, though I don’t remember it.)

And no, this is not always what we want to do at 10 in the evening after a long day of child-minding and fiddling with computers or manuscripts. There were nights, I won’t lie, when M and I looked at each other with deliberate exhaustion, both of us pleading with our eyes: “Will you do it?”

Last chores. I have walked dogs while feverish, in labor, during marital skirmishes, while babies wailed for me at the top of the stairs. There have always been dogs who needed walks.

And during those couple months after Tupelo died and before the greyhounds came to stay, eight years ago when we were briefly dogless, there were horses, which brought me out just as regular in the late evening hours to check their water, feed them hay, watch the sky for a moment, and listen to their industrious breath.

(The first night we had horses here, Carly and Bay, we were woken by worry for them as if they were newborns, and were treated to a meteor shower for our middle-of-the-night pains. If I believed in signs, I’d believe that was a sign, that animals would bring us good things, even when they were work.)

The horses are gone. Carly, our last, died one year ago today. The day before L’s birthday. Poor L. He is such a sunny kid and yet, twice now, we’ve been brought to grief right before we try to celebrate his arrival.

Our last dog, Pope, died today.He was just too old and this was the best thing we could do. Tomorrow I’ll make a cake that is both chocolate and vanilla and we’ll have choose-your-own-burritos for dinner because that’s L’s choice, and we’ll toss bits of bread and meat to the floor with the expectation that a Pope will arrive and lap them up, because that was his job. Except… later, I’ll have to sweep.

And there will be no last chores. No last walk. We’ll be tired, yes, but we’ll be sad that nothing needs us to guide them outside one last time.

The soul of our house is a dog’s soul. We’ll miss you, Pope. Traveling mercies.

Trying to Inspire

_MG_6072

Does Soot the Cat look inspired?

I write and edit children’s nonfiction books and I’ve been wondering lately–am I, are we, so focused on functionality that we’re missing the chance to inspire?

Most of the conversations around the office have to do with how to make our books easy for teachers to use “right out of the box.” We provide essential questions, common core correlations, glossaries, primary sources, a whole platter of design elements that make it easy for them to tick the standards boxes while still providing their students with a comprehensive education. That’s our goal. And I think it’s a good goal.

We have experts read our books before we publish them, not just to score a few lines of endorsement to print on the back cover, but to make sure our books are appealing, to make sure people will enjoy reading them, to make sure we succeeded in providing a useful commodity.

But all of our endorsers are grownups. They’re teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, professors, experts of industry. Know what they’re not? Kids. None of them are under the age of 25.

And this is starting to worry me. Do adults really know what kids are going to find inspiring? Do I?

My best ideas for kids’ books come from my kids. Yeah, I’m lucky to have them. When we binge watch whole seasons of Doctor Who (as a family so it counts as family time!) and then spend hours discussing the possibilities of time travel, alien life forms, morality in the face of alien invasion, I wonder if maybe a book about the science of science fiction might be in my future. When the yearly poetry unit roles around again and my kids starting spouting metaphors, it occurs to me that a book teaching kids to read poetry might have some worth.

But, again, these books are functional. They are written for adults to use with kids, not for kids to pick up spontaneously whenever they are struck with the urge to fritter away an hour on the page. What makes kids reach for one book and not another? What makes a book attractive to kids? Am I serving kid readers as well as I could be?

Fiction is a whole different world. One I’m actually more comfortable in. I can pick up a middle grade or young adult novel and I can get a pretty good idea if kids are going to like it. It’s a gut thing, but it’s also a character thing and a tone thing.

The nonfiction books I write and edit have no characters. They definitely have tones, ones that I work hard to get exactly right. They don’t have plots, but they are organized against a specific framework. The best part of my books are the sidebars. This is where I get to be as inspiring as possible. I inject tiny biographies of amazing people, quotes from persistent people, weird (and gross!) factoids about the topic. The sidebar material is almost always my favorite part of the book. Is this enough? To kids come away with enough inspiration?

I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know I need to ask the question. And I think finding the answer is going to take a while. And a lot of books.