Literary Lights

I’ve just returned from a week in Massachusetts, where I spent three days at South High School in Worcester, for the fifth year in a row–great school, wonderful principal, (Maureen Binienda) and excellent teachers and students.

Then I spent the weekend in Boston, where I received a “Literary Lights for Children” award from the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

Here is what I said when I received the award, after being introduced by Kajayla Boyd, a poised and beautiful 8th grader from Beacon Academy:

Literary Lights for Children

September 29, 2013, Boston Public Library

Thank you, Kajayla, for that thoughtful and beautiful introduction, and thanks to everyone who has made this day possible.

When Kajayla wrote to me, her questions were interesting and perceptive, and I found myself thinking about them even after I’d answered her.

For example: “Does your past,” she asked, “strongly influence your current writing? If so how?”

That question led me back to my earliest influences, the voices of my parents.

My father was a great story-teller. I was one of ten children, and almost every day, usually late afternoon while my mother was making supper, my father would sit in his big green chair and we would all clamber onto his lap or lean against the arms and back of his chair, or maybe peek around a doorway so he didn’t know we were listening—because if you were in the room, he would name a character after you, and often those character descriptions were not exactly flattering.

I might be hiding behind the door, and he would catch a glimpse of an elbow sticking out, and I would hear, “Then who do you suppose came clomping down the road? A big old clumsy mule named…HELEN.” I would come running out from behind the door, and punch my dad in the arm, and then—I’d settle in with my sisters to listen to the rest of the story. I acted mad, but here’s a secret—it meant something to me to know that my father knew I was there, knew I was listening. I was included.

And my mother—when she was not busy in the kitchen, and sometimes when she was—had a head full of poems that she often recited for us. We might be walking to the mailbox together, our shadows dancing along in front of us, and she would begin, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” It wasn’t long before we could say the entire poem along with her.

I look back at those years, and I see the roots of many aspects of my writing: the rhythms and rhymes of language as my mother spoke out loud the poems she knew by heart, the intricacies of plot as the stories rolled out of my father’s mind, a new story every day.

Now I trust that stories will come to me, and I write them down with special attention to the sound and shape of the language.

I know everyone does not grow up in the same kind of home I did. I imagine my young readers from their different homes and backgrounds, and I drop little hints to let them know I see them, even if they are hiding behind the door, so to speak. There’s no need to hide, I suggest, come on in. You are included.

This afternoon, I love to look out and see that so many of you have come in close. I catch a glimpse of stories and poems that are beginning in you now, and look forward with great joy to seeing how they will find their full expression.

September 9, 2013

This is the time of year that the story in SALT took place, and as I’ve been spending a lot of time preserving the apples from our tree–a huge harvest this year–I’ve been thinking a lot about what it must have meant for people to have worked so hard to put up a winter’s supply of food, only to see it destroyed.

Here is an interesting blog entry describing another aspect of this time of year in the Myaamia community,

the Grass-burning moon.”

July 5, 2013

Summer is a time for new life, and each year I learn to see more and more of it as it emerges all around me.

A few weeks ago, I was clipping dill from my garden into a salad, and I saw a “bug”–because I’d seen a swallowtail laying eggs on queen anne’s lace a few years ago, and observed it through all the stages from egg to butterfly, I recognized this little bug as a tiny swallowtail caterpillar. I fed it more dill, and some fennel and queen anne’s lace, and the day before yesterday, it emergd from its chrysalis as a beautiful black swallowtail!

I’ve put up a wren house for several years now, and this year, for the first time, a pair of wrens made a nest in it and raised babies. I never saw them, but I often heard them peeping inside the birdhouse. I’ve enjoyed watching the parents’ frequent comings and goings, and then today, noting the absence of such activity (and no peeping), I looked inside and saw an empty nest. Those birds know what they’re doing–how to keep attention away from the fledglings as they first learn to fly!

May 17, 2013

These past three months have been very full–new friends and old, and new book ideas simmering as I talk with readers about earlier books.

SALT is almost ready–I’ve seen the jacket and will have a “hold-in-my-hands” copy in about two weeks. Then, the best part, when it finds its way into the hands of readers.

My travels have taken me to quite a variety of places:

After my trip to China, I went to Sault Ste. Marie, where I spoke to college students and adult writers, as well as children. It was cold and snowy, as were Boston and Alaska, my next two trips!

Alaska was as I remember it from when I lived there in the 80’s, only, if anything, moreso. I spoke at the Alaska Library Association Conference in Valdez, and it snowed heavily the entire time we were there. Moving so many people, into, out of, and around a small town as so much snow accumulated was both exciting and a little overwhelming.

While in Alaska, I saw many of my friends from the years I taught in Telida, and the warmth and friendship was still there, immediate, even after so many years. Wonderful to meet the children and babies of the children I taught back then, and wonderful to see those former students grown into adults I love.

I had a good trip to Minnesota, visiting my sister, seeing other relatives, and speaking at an elementary school in Chanhassen about DIAMOND WILLOW. I also met with the book group of an old friend, who had figured out that another member of the book group knew my family and grew up playing with my sisters and cousins. So many connections.

Then:a few days in New York City, meeting with editors and others who support me in my writing, followed by a long weekend at the Highlights Foundation,, where I co-taught a workshop on novels-in-poems with Kelly Bingham.

Winding up this year’s travel, I had a lovely week in Texas, where I saw my son and sister and niece, and spoke at six middle schools, mostly about HIDDEN. Happily, I was home in time to enjoy our flowering crabapple, in all it’s Maytime glory. I love the smell of apple blossoms, and they bloom at the same time as lilacs, which I also love.

What I learned from making 8 out-of-town trips in five months is–not to do this again. Wonderful as each trip was, altogether, it was too much travel. I’m enjoying being home now, with the summer stretching ahead of me, and the luxury of deciding which of several writing projects I will bring from the back burner(s) to the front.

One last note: we have wrens nesting in one birdhouse and bluebirds exploring another (though the house sparrows are not as welcoming of the bluebirds as we are. We’ll see.)

February 7, 2013

In January, I spent two weeks visiting my son, Glen, who is teaching English in Huzhou, China, this year. What an amazing experience.

The first week, we stayed in Huzhou, and Glen showed me the places he loves there. We walked a lot: climbed Ren Huang Shan (Humane Emporor Mountain), strolled in several beautiful parks, dodged traffic in the city center, and went up the steep stairs of Feiying Pagoda. We ate in little street-side cafes, in lovely restaurants, and at a Chinese Pizza Hut.

I learned to count to 100 in Chinese, though I never quite mastered the tones, which are important, so I’m not really sure what words I was saying when I thought I was saying numbers! Glen, having been there for five months, was able to understand quite a lot, and make himself understood in many situations. (I learned that gestures are not necessarily the same in all languages, so you have to be a little careful with that.)

And I learned that when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, it’s important to have written directions, in the local language, not in English, to give to a taxi driver (wouldn’t you think I would have figured that out long ago, and not needed to learn it now?). Though knowing how to say numbers was very helpful in such situations. And, as I find everywhere I’ve ever been, people are willing to help, and interested in communicating, and it can be fun to converse across languages.

A few things I loved right away:

People in many different public places, drawing, singing, dancing, teaching and learning different kinds of movement. All ages and body shapes. Dance seemed to be for good health and pleasure, not for performance, a sense of community about it. (We also saw several dance performances, but I loved the feeling of joy and dailiness of this.)

Tea–the way it is served in glass glasses sometimes, the green tea leaves floating on the top at first, then slowly sinking. Like drinking a garden. And it comes with a thermos of hot water that seems to say, “You can stay here and enjoy your tea in this beautiful place for as long as you like. Just keep pouring hot water over the tea leaves and your tea will last forever.” Not quite forever, of course, but a good long while.

Chinese breakfasts–rice porridge with pickles; hard boiled eggs with soy sauce in the water (shells cracked just enough to let the soy sauce flavor the egg); dumplings with a variety of fillings.

Noodle shops–quick, delicious, inexpensive, meals.

After a few days in Huzhou, we were in Hangzhou for one day, most of which we spent walking around West Lake, famous for Longjing “Dragon Well” tea. Beautiful lake, and as Glen remarked, “Everyone here seems happy.” Sort of a vacation place–that might have been part of it, but also a certain joy in the landscape that people were part of, or became part of as they (we) walked there.

Then we went to Guilin for four days. An elegant city, surrounded by beautiful karst mountains. The city planning has been such that no tall buildings obstruct the view of the mountains, so everywhere you look, there is beauty. We went on a river boat ride at night, through the city, and another, longer one during the day, out into the countryside. Each time, we saw cormorant fishermen, reminding me of “The Story of Ping.”

We also went on a road trip out into the mountains, up into a village surrounded by terraced rice fields. It was not growing season, or harvest season, so the fields were brown, but still, I found them beautiful. We had lunch in the village, delicious and plentiful, again accompanied by green tea.

I’ve only touched on this whole experience. I did not experience any jet lag at all when I arrived in China (a 13 hour time difference), but since I’ve been home, I’ve found that I get sleepy at odd times, intense and sudden. And now I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open…

oh one other thing–the day I returned home, the bluebirds were here, as if to welcome me. Travel is good, and home is wonderful.

December 27, 2012

Today I’m looking out at a beautiful new snowfall, and at the birds that find their way to the feeders in such weather–this morning there were finches, sparrows, starlings, a woodpecker, a nuthatch, a pair of cardinals and a tufted titmouse, all within ten or fifteen minutes of each other.

And just a week ago, we were walking through the ruins of ancient Mayan communities, admiring the craftsmanship of walls, temples, and large (ten-foot tall) masks, as well as that of contemporary artists (woodwork, embroidery, painting, and musical instruments).

We were in Mexico and Belize around the time that the end of the Mayan calendar had been predicted, though when we learned more about it, we realized the 5,125-year calendar would have turned to a new cycle on August 11, last summer, rather than the December 21 date so many people were talking about.

The possibilities of such travel in the world we share are amazing and wonderful, though I am increasingly aware that my enjoyment of such travel is a big part of my contribution to climate change, and I am thinking about what adjustments I need to make.

In book news: STEP GENTLY OUT is stepping beautifully into the world, with many people of all ages expressing appreciation for it. Rick and I have recently learned that our next collaboration, SWEEP UP THE SUN (a book about birds), will be published by Candlewick in 2014. It is exciting to see it take shape.

The new paperback edition of KEESHA’S HOUSE is now on the shelves, and response to the new cover appears to be enthusiastic.

And I now have Advance Readers’ Copies of SALT. I love this moment when I first see a book “on the page” and can imagine the finished book. It will be here before we know it!

Thank you for finding your way to my website. I wish you all the best for 2013!

October 4, 2012

It is a beautiful time of year. As I write this, the late afternoon light is filtering through just-turning leaves onto a palette of reds, oranges, and yellows (butterfly bush, zinnias, tomatoes, and a bright red miniature eggplant that looks more enticing than it tastes). I’m treasuring these last few days before the temperature falls below 32 degrees–the colors will fade, the tomatoes will freeze, and the goldfinches will lose their remaining gold feathers. Already, the monarchs have all begun their journey to Mexico, and I believe we have seen the last of the hummingbirds this year. I wonder if the sandhill cranes have started coming back yet–I’m listening for their distinctive call.

Twice, in recent weeks, I’ve received letters from young readers who have almost finished HIDDEN and want me to write a sequel. I remember that feeling, when I was a child, caught up in a story, wanting to know how it ended and wanting it to go on forever, all at the same time. I’m touched at the thought that a child would stop reading and take the time to write to me, to let me know about that feeling.

Wherever you are, whatever the season, I hope you are taking time to see and hear whatever is around you.

June 5, 2012

Garden planted, space for vegetables and flowers.

Time for reading AND writing this summer.

May 31, 2012

As news of Peter Sieruta’s sudden passing has spread across the internet, I have been struck by how much pure love is being shared–love for Peter, love for children’s books, and, in a way that Peter would have found delightful and perhaps surprising, love for one another.

Several people who never met Peter in person, upon learning that I had the privilege of meeting him at a recent book event, have asked me what he looked like. Others have commented on the fact that there are no photographs of him online (or maybe there is one from his early childhood), and asked his brother if he might post a picture. It’s an interesting question for his family to answer. I can see good arguments on either side.

As for what Peter might have wanted, I’ll share a brief moment: As he was leaving the bookstore that evening, I asked if he’d like to be in a picture (with me and several other authors). His response was an emphatic NO!!! (I heard it as, “I got myself here. I had a good time. Don’t push your luck.”) We laughed a bit about the intensity of his reply, and I teased him just a little, and wondered later if I shouldn’t have–it was clearly personal to him.

He described himself as very shy, but there’s something about that word that isn’t quite right. There was a deep and conscious choice, partly based on the difficulty (pain) he experienced in social interactions, but more to it than that–a positive side of keeping a social distance, protecting something of great value, and knowing you are doing that.

It’s clear that his qualities of intelligence, kindness, humor, caring, and thoughtfulness came through loud and clear in all his online interactions. We all have a lot to learn from him about expressing questions about a book, or anything else, with a dose of humility so genuine that the questions generate further conversation, and are not hurtful.

I will say a bit about what he looks like: someone you might pass in the aisles of a bookstore or sit beside on an airplane and never know how enriching a conversation with him might be. Brown hair, average height, above average weight, and–I think but I’m not sure–brown eyes. I’m not sure because it’s not the color I recall. It’s the dazzle of knowledge behind them, the quick decisions about how much of that knowledge to share, the delight in learning something new.

I wonder if he knew how beloved he was (and is). I think he probably did, but maybe he didn’t want us to know he knew.

Because then we might have been scared of him, and that would not have served him, or us, well.

May 30, 2012

It has been a long time since I’ve written anything here–busy spring with lots of travel, launching STEP GENTLY OUT, and finishing a novel, SALT: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War–to be published by Frances Foster Books/ FSG next spring, probably May, maybe a little earlier. I love this feeling of anticipation when my part in the book is mostly finished, and now I get to wait to see what the jacket artist and book designer will do to bring it to life.

Time to plant vegetables and flowers and slow down a bit for a month or so.