The first weekend of winter arrives early and has nothing to do with snow.

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I am a winter kind of person. I don’t ski, I don’t snowboard, and I fail every year to get my snow tires applied before the snow falls, but still–winter is grand. I love the whole being indoors thing. I love the need for sweaters and wool socks and fires in the fireplace. I love when shit gets cancelled.

I’m one of the lucky ones. When we get that early morning phone call that sends our kids into spasms of no-school joy, my first thought isn’t, “Where are they going to go while I go to work?” Nope. My first thought is, “Ooooh, pancakes.” My job is one that can be easily done from home, and I have understanding bosses, and after years of freelancing while babies hung about underfoot, I’ve become remarkably efficient and two-brained when it comes to working at the kitchen table. Hey, that’s where I am right now! So yes, cancellations are almost always a reason to celebrate.

This weekend is the first to feel like winter. It’s not snowing out, though it did earlier in the week, and it isn’t as cold as it will be. But I’m tucked in a chair at the kitchen table wearing a hand-me-down sweatshirt that’s such a bizarre blue I’d never wear it out of the house, and there are cats anchoring my stacks of paper, and the boys are arguing in a way that lets me know they’re healthy but isn’t quite annoying. And though I’m feeling like the pressure of the work week has spilled over into the weekend (there are so many things to do [weeps quietly]), I’m also feeling that sense of snug capability I only seem to access in winter.

Oh. The boys have erupted.

But still! Cozy!

And the youngest boy just requested, not quite with a whine, that we watch the rest of Harry Potter 6. “No!” I cry. With conviction. “Work! Working! Later! Promise!” So now he’s exploring the food cabinets. Which are fairly empty. I mean, there’s plenty of food, but it’s all the kind of food out of which you make other food. None of it is superficial enough to satisfy his current desire.

I know I only have a limited number of minutes with which to feel accomplished. It isn’t even accomplished I’m feeling, it’s more like the potential for accomplishment. This is the thing about parenthood that I keep having to relearn, even after nearly 15 years of this gig–whatever you are doing, whatever is important to you in the moment, a boy will interrupt. It’s what they do.

I mean, they do other stuff. They play soccer in the freezing rain, they dress up as Navy men when their girlfriends want them to, they do a million back flips until they get it right. But mostly, they interrupt.

Like right now. One boy is telling me he’s heading out to the trampoline in shorts and T-shirt, even in this freezing rain, and the other is delivering the mail to my side and flipping through catalogues with a commentary on my wardrobe in general, my current weird blue sweatshirt in particular. And all the while, I’m typing.

And I wonder if they’ll read this someday. Probably not today, or tomorrow, or anytime soon, because while they know I’m a writer and they know I have a blog, it wouldn’t occur to them to read the blog. But maybe when they’re ancient and parents themselves, they’ll stumble across my work and recognize themselves inside of it. I hope they know I’m not complaining. At least not in a serious way.

I hope they know I love them best, even over writing.

Shakespeare’s Skull: A Historical Whodunit

I might have mentioned, I’m writing a book on Shakespeare and his plays and how they influence today’s world.

Weirdly enough, it’s called Shakespeare: Investigate the Bard’s Influence on Today’s World. 

This is the third (published) book I’ve written, and it’s my favorite. My research process is reading great books and watching great movies, so despite being haunted by a perpetual feeling of inadequacy (it is Shakespeare, after all) I’m having a great time.

And much of the world is interested in Shakespeare right now, because he died just about 400 years ago and that is a good enough reason for a party.

One way archeologists like to party is by scanning Shakespeare’s grave with radar imaging. It’s how they’re getting around the curse:

“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 

These words, chiseled into Shakespeare’s gravestone, order the the world to leave him be. And the world, well, most of it, has complied.

Except…

Kevin Colls and his team of scientists from the Center of Archeology at Staffordshire University discovered that Shakespeare’s grave has been disturbed since he was buried there, and that Shakespeare’s skull is missing.

I know! I’m excited too! I wrote a blog post for Nomad Press about what they discovered (or, rather, didn’t discover).

I want to add here that I know, I know, there’s so much heartbreaking stuff happening this week, but also, lots of people are talking about Shakespeare, and that’s a great thing. The work I do doesn’t accomplish anything in terms of beating terrorism, here or abroad, but I do believe in the balance of good and evil in the universe and Shakespeare is firmly on the side of the good, and I’m happy to be a (tiny) part of his conversation.

Rock on, Shakespeare. Skull or no skull.

My kid hates to read and the world isn’t ending.

My middle son hates to read. He’s 11. He likes playing guitar, listening to music, skateboarding, building stuff, and being with friends. He’s not the kind of kid who sits quietly for extending periods of time. He gets decent grades and we never get notes home from teachers with any kind of warnings. He’s a caring kid who will jump out of a plane for you, or even just for fun, and when his younger brother’s hamster died he showed the kind of deep compassion every parent hopes to see in their kids.

He’s a good kid.

But he hates to read. I know! My child! You probably haven’t been inside my house, but there are more books here than spiderwebs and that’s saying something. This child has been surrounding by books since his time in the womb. He sees his parents and two brothers read often. We talk about books (and current events) at the dinner table. I get his opinion on covers we’re considering for books at Nomad, since he’s smack in our usual audience age group. This kid can’t bounce a basketball in the kitchen without a stack of books falling over, and yet…he hates to read. He tells me every night when I remind him it’s time for screens off and books open.

This year, it’s the worse it’s been. His teacher, like all teachers, is a fan of reading. She has her students set a goal of reading 40 books during the school year. When my older son had this teacher two years ago, he blew the goal out of the water without trying. I don’t think he even recorded half the books he read, just enough to get the grade. Luca is a different story. Luca not only hates to read, he’s a slow reader. He agonizes over this goal. Last week, the school hit the halfway through mark and students were required to take stock of their progress toward their reading goals: Luca has read eight books.

My poor kid. I hate that he hates books more than ever now. I don’t see a way back from this. Maybe, I hope, he’ll discover books that he can’t help but read in great big gulps, all day spent sprawled on the couch with a book to his face. But honestly, if that never happens, I don’t really care. He’s got great stuff in his life. The things he loves don’t have to be the things I love. We have plenty of other stuff to talk about.

Like teaching practices and how they can both help and harm a student’s progress.

I am tempted to write his teacher an email letting her know that my son won’t be reaching his reading goal this year and that’s just fine. I’d like to point out to her the damage this unobtainable reading goal has done to his relationship with books. I am a pro-teacher kind of person. I am almost always on the teacher’s side, because they’re the ones who’ve studied how kids learn, right? But this… My husband and I have already told our son that we don’t care if he doesn’t reach the goal, we don’t care if he fails reading because he didn’t read enough books. I’m thinking she needs to know, too.

I suppose there’s a request for advice in here. Do I tell this teacher we’re adjusting his goal to a more reasonable number? That he will read 20 minutes a night and if that means he finishes four more books by June, so be it? Or do I admit to my kid that sometimes teachers don’t know best and that it’s okay to be pleased by progress she doesn’t appreciate? Maybe there’s a valuable lesson in that very approach.

I think I need to read on it.

How to blame suckyness on others

 

Does reading bad writing make you a bad writer?

I remember an advisor from grad school wrinkling her nose and looking dismissive when asked this question. “How could it?” she said. “If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer. Reading bad writing can’t make you a bad writer, unless you were a bad writer to start with.” Or something like that.

And for years I adopted this as one of my (many) mantras. A good writer writes good stuff! Reading bad writing don’t make writers bad!

Apparently, I’m a highly suggestible person, because if I’m reading a bad book (and I read plenty of bad books. I’m a book reviewer. There are a lot of bad books out there.) then I definitely tap out some pretty lame paragraphs of my own when that bad writing is freshest in my mind. I write awful, terrible sentences until I digest the antidote: a really good book.

Like most creative weirdnesses, I don’t know why this is so. My job is not to question. My job is to make use of insight earned through years of trial and error and error and error and to change my mantra. Good reading breeds good writing.

So, how do I handle this as a book reviewer who reads bad books as part of her bid for supplemental income? I read more, and I read faster, and I make sure to read more amazing books than not amazing books. And that’s actually really easy. Except, of course, when I manage to rent the entire last season of Downton Abbey and have to, well, turn my attention away from the written word in favor of the digitized spoken word.

But actually, maybe this counts. There are movies that stand out as having taught me how to be a better writer: Four Weddings and a Funeral (thanks to Doug Glover at VCFA); 500 Days of Summer; Sliding Doors; even the TV series New Girl with it’s phenomenal bar scene dialogue. And podcasts are great, too. Stories are stories, and if you work at it you can twist the spoken word around in a certain way so it looks like the written word and then you can figure out how it clicks together to make something pretty great.

So don’t read too much bad writing. There’s a lot of it out there to avoid, but luckily, there’s a lot of good writing, too. It’s like light matter and dark matter–they can’t exist without each other.

(Full disclosure: I’m not a scientists. I have no idea the roles of light and dark matter or their rules for existence. The simile might not work at all. Sorry.)

 

 

In the beginning, there was market research…

We’re thinking hard about starting a new series at Nomad Press. We’re pondering, we’re testing the water, we’re gathering evidence of future success or failure. We’re nervous. We’re hesitant. Until we’re not, and then we’re boisterous and foolhardy. Of course we can launch a new series in the space of six months! Of course everyone will love it! Of course it will makes lots of money! Of course it will get kids to read more!

But who knows? Publishing a book is jumping off a roof, but starting a new series is jumping off a cliff into the stormy ocean below. Where the sharks are swimming. In -18 degree weather. It’s scary and not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

And it’s weird to try and guess what a series of books should look like before they even exist. It’s like inviting ten strangers to dinner and trying to plan a menu that will please everyone without knowing who’s a vegetarian, who’s gluten free, and who hates Brussels sprouts (these people who hate Brussels sprouts, they sound like a myth, but they do exist; I gave birth to some of them). It’s very, very hard. Add to that already high level of difficulty a team of seven people, each of whom has strong, very different opinions. Piece of cake… right?

But that’s also part of why we do it. Hard stuff is fun.

And I have high hopes that the finished product, the first book in the series, will be a gorgeous book that kids will flock to. It will be one of those books that kids will turn the last page of and look up and ask, “Is there more?”

Part of why I have this job is because I loved to read as a kid and those books that left me physically craving more (A Wrinkle in Time, Night Swimmers, The Children of Green Knowe) taught me lessons I didn’t know I needed that have resonated beyond fifth grade into the rest of my life. Lessons that include how powerful a story can be, the reasons we have relationships, and the often untapped potential of dead things.

And it feels amazing to be a part of the mechanism that might, if we’re lucky, create a new book that teaches these lessons to some kid that’s out there now, probably playing a video game and snacking on pretzels.

So, like I said, piece of cake.

Wish us luck.

Granny! Except, maybe not.

I adore Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, and Sarah’s mother, Barb, who keeps me company on the frigid playground while we wait for the school buses to arrive. And I can’t wait to be an old woman with long, grey, wild hair and strong opinions. I’ve never used any kind of age-hiding beauty treatment – mainly because I don’t know how. But all of this is to say, I think old women rock.

So it worries me that I rejected an illustrator’s rendition of an archeologist because…she was too old. She looked like a grandmother. And without thinking too much about it, I fired off an email requesting someone different. Someone younger. Someone that would appeal to the 12- to 15-year-olds that we’re hoping will read this book.

Four days later, I’m still worried.

It’s too late. The illustrator is off and running, pages and pages of comic book style drawings are coming my way via dropbox. And they’re fantastic. They’re funny, and engaging, and the characters are multicultural and cute. And the archeologist, the adult, isn’t too adult. She’s youngish with red hair. Not a grandmotherly wisp around her.

I am one of those people who feel righteously appalled when I hear about an older woman who’s been fired, asked to step down, called out for her age, made fun of, dismissed, excused, or belittled. I love older women. I think they’re smarter than me and have better ideas. I even think they’re cool. And I look forward to being one, if I’m lucky. So why did I reject the grandmotherly archeologist? Me, who has been taught very specific lessons about fairness by my three young sons (because kids are the experts in fair)?

Should I let it go?

Like I said, it’s too late for this particular Granny. She’s gone, her brief life as a sketch over. The redhead who took her place is vibrant and fun and readers will want to follow her all over the world.

But I think it’s important to keep the grannies in mind. To remember that not only do we have an obligation to learn from our elders, but also to teach the younger generations of their enduring importance. Maybe the next book will have a granny.

The Day After the Day After Christmas

The year is dwindling.

These days are my favorite days, and they’re also the most depressive. I don’t know about you, but every day or so, usually when I’m driving or folding laundry, I glance back on the divided hours of the past year and discover a pie chart I don’t much admire. Quite a large slice is devoted to Making Meals No One Ate, another big one contains Explaining the Thought Process Behind My Actions, and the third major player happens to be Driving Children To Activities They Used To Be Excited About. The smallest piece of pie is Writing a Novel, and the second to smallest is Thinking Unique Thoughts, and the third smallest is Reflecting in Healthy Ways.

You can see why this might be depressing.

What makes it worse is the ratio of treats to real food currently residing in our house.

And of course! This is all fixable! With relative ease! I could, for example, go for a walk and I’d feel about a thousand percent better. I could play a card game with my youngest son and therefore avoid the suspicion that I’ve neglected him far more than parenting articles suggest is necessary. I could kiss my husband and tell him I love him. All these things would make me feel better.

But I’m not sure the feeling better feel would last longer than three in the afternoon.

What I really need is a systemic sea change. A sustainable habit of living healthfully. A way of preventing quite so many interruptions.

Ah. That might fix everything. Fewer interruptions.

But I have three children. And a husband who enjoys my company. Is asking for fewer interruptions truly an option?

Oh, I have to go. The seven-year-old just returned and needs me to make him a Meal He Won’t Eat.

 

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

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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.

Lazy Saturdays look great on paper.

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Yesterday I realized that, despite a broken dryer, several blank tax forms, and three music lessons, our Saturday was basically empty. One long stretch of nothing lay ahead for us to fill however we wanted. This hasn’t been the case in a very long time. Usually there are birthday parties, concerts, visitors, previous engagements–all of which are fabulous and delightful, but I am an introvert (I know, hard to tell) and I do like my quiet days.

Except… well. The children’s version of a lazy Saturday is quite different than my own. I don’t understand their need to provide chaos and they don’t get my love for stillness. They look at me perplexed when I glare from behind my book, and I shake my head as they dash by in search of items to chuck from the balcony.

Remember the days before children when it was all dozy and napping and reading as many words as you could stuff yourself with and then venturing out into the gloom for a walk, a bite to eat, a marveling at the accommodating character of the world? Gone, I tell you. All gone.

Now there are piercing shouts and demands. There are thumps and rattles. I’m pretty sure someone just tumbled down the stairs and broke their arms, because what else would warrant that level of hysterical shrieking?

But no, it subsides, without a trip to the emergency room. I didn’t even have to get out of bed.

In a way, of course, this is an improvement on how it used to be when they need more-or-less constant tending. They are all independent enough to recover on their own from things like tumbling down stairs and breaking arms, apparently. They even got their own lunch today–cookies! Clever boys.

And I know it will keep on improving. Someday, one of them will get his driver’s license and we will all taste the freedom.

I watched Olive Kitteredge this week and oh, Ms. McDormand, you are amazing. You were so old! After being so young! And it was this exquisite pain to watch and to know I’ll get old, too, and maybe lose a husband to stroke and a son to bitterness, but still, I welcome it. Life going on and on and on, and hurting so much and then not so much. Like my friend R’s post about clearing away artifacts from her daughter’s childhood. It hurts, but the alternative–to have never had what we have had–are worse. And so there is joy in the hurt.

Gack. I did not mean to get philosophical. I meant to complain a bit about my children and then go back to my book. 

Happy lazy, or busy, Saturdays, my dears.