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Today begins the Deep Valley Homecoming, a celebration of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books in her hometown of Mankato, Minnesota (the real Deep Valley). I won’t be joining the fun until tomorrow—can’t wait!
I have visited Mankato once before, after the 2010 Kidlitcon in Minneapolis. The awesome Kathy Baxter took my pal Margaret and me around town, showing us All the Important Places From the Books, and I just about died of excitement (as Margaret chronicled in her photos). The brass bowl! Winona’s wall! Carney’s sleeping porch! Lincoln Park!
THE BENCH, for heaven’s sake!
Betsy and Tacy’s bench on the hill. Photo by Margaret Berns.
Yes, I looked exactly that goofy the whole time. What can I say? I’m a fan.
My Deep Valley Homecoming schedule
Sunday, June 28th
12:15pm: Children’s literature panel discussion at the Book Festival
2:15pm: I will read from one of my books
Monday, June 29th
11:30am: Presentation at the Historical Society. Topic: the publishing history of the Betsy-Tacy series.
I hope to see you there!
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
The Betsy-Tacy Songbook
Interview with Mitali Perkins, Jennifer Hart, and me about Maud’s books
Betsy-Tacy booksigning at ALA Midwinter
Photos of my visit to the real Deep Valley, as chronicled by Margaret in Minnesota
Why I love Carney
Why I love Emily
A Reader’s Guide to Betsy-Tacy
I’ll be appearing at the San Diego County Fair on Thursday, June 18. Look for me at 1:30pm in the Children’s Garden and 4:30pm in the Creative Youth Tent. If you’re planning a visit to the Fair tomorrow, please come say hello!
Garth Williams illustration from Charlotte’s Web
Photo by Lori Mitchell and used with gratitude!
Yesterday I had the fun of attending an awards breakfast hosted by the Greater San Diego Reading Association, a branch of the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association). Along with fellow children’s authors Suzanne Santillan, Lori Mitchell, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Joy Raab, I received a Celebrate Literacy Award for my contributions to literacy in San Diego. Such an honor!
From left to right: Suzanne Santillan, me, Edith Hope Fine, Joy Raab, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Lori Mitchell at Pacific Beach Elementary, March 2014
The GSRDA are the folks who host the annual Authors Fair I have participated in these past two years—hands-down some of the best events I’ve ever attended. These were the schools (Pacific Beach Elementary in 2014 and Kimball Elementary in National City this year) where the teachers had spent weeks preparing their students for my visit—reading The Prairie Thief aloud (and saving the last chapter for me!) and doing some amazing writing and art projects. There is nothing, nothing like seeing kids’ art and poetry inspired by your books, let me tell you.
Student art and writing at Kimball Elementary
Prairie Thief project by 5th-grader Isabella D.
I was delighted to learn that The Prairie Thief is a nominee for the Washington Library Association‘s 2015-2016 Sasquatch Award, the chapter book award for grades 3-6 in Washington State. Here is the whole lineup—a fine batch of contenders, I must say!
How many have you read?
I’m midway through a long rhapsody about pens but I’ve scrapped it for today because of this excellent post by Danny Gregory. Danny, as you probably know, is an artist and writer whose books include Art Before Breakfast (a treasure) and the empowering, inspiring The Creative License. He is also a cofounder of Sketchbook Skool and teaches week-long lessons in most of the SBS courses. (He also interviewed me about keeping kids creative for SBS’s “Q and Art” video series.)
In today’s post, Danny writes candidly about a struggle that is not unfamiliar to many of us who make art for a living.
Inevitably, Sketchbook Skool was morphing from a pure passion project into a demanding business. We had to bring on a raft of advisors to cope with the ever-shifting matrix of requirements for operating a global online business. It became clear that if we didn’t want to raise prices, we had to increase sales — so we added a bunch of marketing consultants. In order to grow, we had to address the emerging limitations of our existing platform which just couldn’t handle so many students so next we brought in a team of developers. I was working for a company again. How the hell did that happen?
It’s funny—just last night I said to Scott: The thing about drawing is, I will never be good enough at it to do it for money. It will never be my job. That’s what’s so great about it. I think I would go mad without a creative outlet that is utterly unrelated to income—all the strings and catches that income involves.
I love writing so much, and I can’t not write, but it’s my job. And I’m lucky to have it, I wouldn’t change it, but there is no denying it altogether alters the experience of writing. I love making books, I love telling stories. Oh, how I love having written. But writing is what pays my bills. Writing for a living brings many layers to the experience of making up stories and writing them down. Deadlines, of course, but also—the whole business/marketing side of the job.
Nowadays more than ever. You have to promote your work, you have to get the word out. Everyone hates doing it. Every writer I know hates that part of the job. It’s embarrassing. It feels needy. But if you don’t do it, you watch books you spent years laboring over quietly disappear. (Years back, when I broke the news here that my Charlotte and Martha books were going out of print, dozens of readers left dismayed comments vowing to run out and buy them right away, while they still could. And I thought: Oh! If you guys hadn’t already bought them, then no wonder.)
I’ve made my peace with the business side of the business by drawing some firm boundaries. I accept and expect that certain administrative and promotional duties go along with publishing books—thus it is, and thus has it ever been. I allowed my career to slow down in order to write only books I’m burning to write, which has meant turning down projects and opportunities now and then. I accept very few speaking engagements that involve travel, because it’s important to me to spend most of my time at home with my family. That, too, is a decision that doesn’t always work to my books’ advantage. I’m okay with that. You have to find your balance.
Of course that means taking on other work in order to pay the bills—I do a lot of freelance work behind the scenes to support my fiction. Again, almost every working writer I know does. They teach, or they have a day job, or they spend a lot of time on the road doing school visits and conferences. For the past six months, I’ve been writing grants (and learning. so. much!—which you know charges my batteries) as well as editing for Damn Interesting and doing website maintenance for a local yoga studio. Oh, and teaching my writing class! Lots of busy, feeding the art.
One of the boundaries I drew eight or nine years ago had to do with blogging. I had the opportunity to take this blog in a direction that would have brought in decent money (for a while, at least; the days of monetized blogs do seem to be waning), but I passed on it. Didn’t feel right; I didn’t like the idea of turning my family life into a business. I know some folks have built beautiful blogs doing exactly that, but the idea has never sat right with me. Even my short stint as a ClubMom Blogger left me feeling uneasy—I was getting paid to blog about a topic (homeschooling) that inevitably crossed over into family stories. I love sharing about our learning experiences here—it’s one of the main reasons I still blog, the joy of sharing the adventure—but I didn’t like the blurring of the boundary I was trying to protect. I was glad to let that gig go, although of course I missed the paycheck. (Boy, don’t we all. They don’t make paychecks like that anymore. Nowadays, people want you to do it for ‘exposure’. Calls to mind the cartoon about the artist who died of exposure—couldn’t pay the rent, you know.)
Danny addresses a blogging conundrum in his post, too:
I’ve also been thinking about why I stopped blogging. Busyness isn’t the whole reason. I have written even at the busiest times over the years. I think the issue has been honesty, honestly.
I’ve always tried to be painfully straightforward when I write here. Similarly in my books and when I teach classes. I try to be myself, warts, carbuncles and all. As a writer, an artist and person, I can be flawed and vulnerable. This works less well as an entrepreneur. As person taking credit card payments, I need to project an unimpeachable face.
It’s interesting to hear his take on that. He’s in a different position as the face of Sketchbook Skool, and I think he’s right. If you’re going plunk down your money to take a class, you want to feel confident about the platform and the teacher. I can imagine that he has felt the need to project a positive image in order to reflect positively on the business. I so appreciate his honesty in this post (do read the whole thing, not just these excerpts).
It’s not a face I’m unfamiliar with. I wore it for years, in board meetings, client presentations, job interviews and staff briefings. The authority. The decider. 100% sure. But it’s just not me. And it’s just not my voice, especially not the one I use here, among friends. But increasingly, as the face of Sketchbook Skool, when I came to write here on my blog, I felt I had to be the shill, the Mad Man of Mad Ave, always upbeat, bringing the most awesome! things.
I used to have a thing in my sidebar about how this blog deliberately focused on the positive, the funny, the happy experiences in our family adventure. “The truth, and nothing but the truth—but not the whole truth,” I wrote (and yes, Prairie Thief readers will hear how that idea echoed its way into the novel, whose working title was in fact Not the Whole Truth), “because some parts of the truth are private.” That’s why, I explained, you hear a lot about all the fun we have together—every word of it true—but nothing about, say, tantrums or bad habits. Because ick, how awful must it be to have your mother writing about your worst moments on the internet? In another post, I discussed how I feel free to write about my own flaws and failings (and I do; you know all about my wretched closets and my chai tortilla soup), but I won’t discuss anyone else’s. Okay, maybe the grumpy anti-pinecone guy at the post office that one time. But you know I kind of loved him, too, for the way his grousing brought the rest of us together.
But Danny is talking about something a little different, not about the question of where to draw boundaries in blogging in order to protect other people’s privacy. He’s talking about feeling inhibited about expressing his personal state of mind, his candid take on things, while at the same time representing a business. And there is so much fodder for discussion in that quandary. I’ve thought a lot, these past few years, about the blurring of the boundaries between our public and private worlds. Facebook makes total hash of that boundary, for starters. Sometimes I’m mortified at the awkwardness that arises when one’s professional contacts and one’s most familiar friends co-mingle. Here on the blog, I’ve wondered, from time to time, whether my enthusiastic homeschooling posts might seem offputting to teachers and school parents, and might make them feel like my books aren’t good fits for their kids. I certainly hope not. There are other topics I keep a polite lid on because I find it too great a drain of time and energy to field vituperative comments. I used to get all het up, SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET, and dive into the fray, I’ve mellowed. (“Someone is wrong on the internet—possibly me” is the phrase you come to in your forties.)
And yet I admire it so much when people are fearlessly frank. Sometimes when I’m reading a book that annoys me, I’ll think: imagine if I blogged about things I didn’t like? It’s so much easier to be articulate when critiquing a book’s flaws than to praise it. The only way to praise without sounding saccharine or surface (“It was awesome! I loved it! Two thumbs up!) is to take the time to write thoughtful analysis of what’s working, what’s wonderful. Which takes longer…and can begin to feel perilously like work. Work, I have enough of. And yet I LOVE analysis—reading it and writing it. Some of my best writing on this blog is literary analysis. It just takes time.
Besides, the writer in me—tremblingly placing stories before the public—has too much sympathy for the writers of books I don’t like. They’ve got enough woes to contend with; they don’t need me to point out everything that’s wrong with their last year’s (or years’) labor. And anyway, their book is probably outselling mine. I always maintain that I’m not a reviewer; I’m a recommender. I want to spend my few snatched moments of blogging time writing about things I love.
And yet, there’s a part of me that would love to tackle fraught topics with gusto. If you know me in person, you know I’m like that; I love discourse; I get fired up; I like to scrutinize ideas and assumptions. My poor husband knows that best of all. I can be pretty snarky in person, too, but I deliberately avoid snark in public writing because I think it shuts down discourse. It’s so easy to crack out a witty one-liner—but it isn’t always respectful. To the topic, or the other voices in the conversation.
As with so much else, the key is balance…being candid without being cruel or glib, being frank without breaching privacy. And when it comes to personal doubts or worries or slumps (to get back to Danny’s topic, from which I’ve meandered far), I wonder if we are all learning how to recalibrate our expectations of writers and artists and actors and others whose work has a public aspect. The internet has decreased our degrees of separation. People want contact with artists they admire. The trouble is, then they want to like them. And let’s face it, we’re not all going to like each other. I’ve felt it myself, now and then—that pang of disappointment when someone whose work you admire has said something truly disheartening on Twitter. Can you keep the work separate? Do your feelings about the book change because you now suspect the writer is kind of a jerk?
I’m a wizard at compartmentalizing, but even so I sometimes have trouble separating the biography from the novel. There’s a thing or two I wish I could un-know. But there are so many books in the world; I don’t need to feel the same degree of rosy about them all as I did when I first read them. As for everyone else—the non-jerks; the anxious, the fumbling, the angry, the laying-it-bare—here again I come back to what I have learned from sketching, from my clumsy and dogged and rewarding attempts to make drawing a daily habit these past eight months (a journey inextricably and profoundly informed by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene and their Sketchbook Skool adventure)—that line that jumped out at me way back in college when I first read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (And why didn’t I listen to Betty and start drawing daily back then?) I’ve written about it here before in other contexts. One of Betty’s students, after spending some time drawing portraits, remarks that now every face she looks at seems beautiful to her.
I think about that all the time. It’s true about drawing; you do start to appreciate all the uniquenesses (advertising would have us believe they are flaws), the bumps, the lines, the crooked features. “Warts, carbuncles, and all” is how Danny put it, speaking of how he used to blog. And oddly, these ten years of immersion in blogs and social media have reinforced the lesson. That devastatingly handsome actor who smolders on my screen is actually kind of a nerd, and it’s endearing. That brilliant writer whose prose leaves me breathless…has a bad back, is inordinately proud of her ill-mannered dog, and her roof needs replacing. She’s a person now, not a name on a spine. And she seems beautiful to me.
Check out this fabulous lineup! I’ll be there June 18—look for me in the Children’s Garden at 1:30 and the Creative Youth tent at 4:30 for stories and fun.
The talented Roxyanne Young took these photos of my talk on Middle-Grade and Chapter Books at SCBWI-San Diego last weekend and kindly gave me permission to use them. My school visit/speaker page needs a massive updating and I’m so grateful to have some recent images to include.
Apparently I talk with my hands a lot? What’s funniest to me is that this Boston Bay slide was onscreen for barely a minute. That’s an awful lot of glasses-waving going on there.
The rest of my slides were all about other people’s books—my favorite things to talk about, as you know. Here’s a taste:
(Just a sampling from the Chapter Books part of the talk.)
Every year at this time, my blog stats show dozens of searches for the Christmas picture book I wrote long ago. It’s been out of print for ages and tends to be pricey on the resale market, especially this time of year. Last year I decided to read it aloud on video so folks who can’t find it can watch it with their kids.
And here’s my video introduction to the book.
Santa Lucia Day is December 13. Coming up fast!
I woke up this morning all kinds of excited because I knew the Cybils shortlist announcements would be live by the time I peeled my eyelids open here on the West Coast, and I’ve been bursting at the seams to share our YA Fiction finalists with you. These books, THESE BOOKS, you guys. So incredibly good. I am thrilled with our list, which we curated via exhaustive and exhausting reading and spirited debate these past two months. Here it is: CYBILs 2014 Finalists: Young Adult Fiction.
Now the funny part: I’d been squeeing about this list on Twitter for a good ten minutes before I settled down to check out the other categories. Imagine my surprise when I got to the Early Reader shortlist and saw Inch and Roly there!
2014 Finalists: Easy Readers & Early Chapter Books | Cybils Awards.
I’m beyond thrilled that Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare is an Easy Reader finalist. I mean, lookit that list! Mo Willems is there!* Among other fabulous folks. I’m so happy. Knowing the challenge of being on the other side of the list—the difficult and sometimes wrenching decisions you make as a Round 1 panelist, whittling hundreds of nominees down into a small number of finalists—I’m deeply honored and beyond excited. A hearty congratulations to all the finalists, all around! And thanks to all the panelists who poured weeks of labor into the curation process.
*At this time I would like to issue a formal apology to the post-NYE exhausted teens I may have awakened with my shrieking. Ahem.
The Easy Reader finalists:
Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken by Sarah Dillard
Okay, Andy! by Maxwell Eaton
Clara and Clem Under the Sea by Ethan Long
Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey by Alex Milway
The Ice Cream Shop: A Steve and Wessley Reader by Jennifer Morris
Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare by Melissa Wiley
My New Friend Is So Fun! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems
Book descriptions here.
The YA Fiction finalists:
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Girls Like Us by Gail Giles
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Book descriptions here.
To explore the shortlists in other categories, click here. You’ll probably want your library tab open before you begin.
Attention Betsy-Tacy fans!
A Celebration of Maud Hart Lovelace & the Betsy-Tacy books!
June 26 – 30, 2015
Make plans to attend this event. Fun for the entire family!
Activities include: Betsy & Tacy House Tours, Betsy-Tacy Neighborhood Tour, Narrated Horse-drawn Trolley Rides, Discover Deep Valley Bus Tours, Deep Valley Victorian Tea, Book Festival, Fashion Show, Play, Living History Actors, Programs, Speakers & Re-enactments, Gift Shop & Exhibits & Music, Vintage Car Show, food & crafts and more!
Registration form and schedule is in progress and will be posted very SOON!
We are excited to announce that Melissa Wiley will be the feature speaker at the Deep Valley Homecoming (DVH) this summer. Melissa Wiley is the author of The Prairie Thief, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, and the Inch and Roly series, as well as Little House in the Highlands and seven other novels about the ancestors of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Melissa wrote the forward to the HarperPerennial ModernClassics 2010 edition of Carney’s House Party and Winona’s Pony Cart by Maud Hart Lovelace.
Joining Melissa Wiley as featured speaker will be Nancy McCabe, author of From Little Houses to Little Women. Her book is a memoir about her return to the beloved books of her childhood and travel to places related to her favorite authors, including Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maud Hart Lovelace, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott.
Melissa and Nancy will participate in the Deep Valley Book Festival on Sunday, June 28 and will each speak during the DVH programs on Monday, June 29. We’ll have more details about what you can look forward to from these authors and all of our other speakers and presenters in the coming days.
For more information, visit the Betsy-Tacy Society website. Hope to see you there!
March 4 is World Read-Aloud Day
I’ll be celebrating with several special events in the San Diego area this month.
March 7, 2pm
Storytime at The New Children’s Museum to celebrate Reading Week. Join me for a read-aloud of Fox and Crow Are Not Friends!
March 13, all day
Greater San Diego Reading Association Author’s Fair, Kimball Elementary School, National City
March 14, 4pm
Learn2Earn Readathon Event at Carmel Valley Library
March 19, 5:30pm
Toler Literacy Night • featured speaker
Join me in Mankato, Minnesota this June for the
Deep Valley Homecoming
June 26-30, 2015
I will be a featured speaker at this very special Betsy-Tacy event. Hope to see you there!
I’ll be doing a Storytime event at 2pm tomorrow (Saturday, March 7). Hope to see you and your kids there!
Join Fox and Crow and me for Storytime at Carmel Library in North County Saturday, March 14 at 4pm!
Authors Virginia Loh and Sid Shapira will also be reading from their books tomorrow afternoon (check with the library for their event times).
Louisa by Isabelle, grade 5
• Melted at the artwork and poems created by the three classes of fifth- and sixth-graders who welcomed me to the Greater San Diego Reading Association’s annual Authors Fair.
• Read aloud the last chapter of The Prairie Thief to a roomful of eager fifth-graders. Such a delight. I so seldom get to read the end of the book to a school group—I don’t want to give anything away! Exceedingly fun to discover the teacher had been reading the book to the class and saved the finale for my visit.
• Had a marvelous time swapping book suggestions with the kids during the Q&A after my readings. Hot tip: they are loving The Unicorn Chronicles at the moment.
• Tried out a new voice for Fox in my Storytime at Carmel Valley Public Library on Saturday. Gotta keep it fresh, you know.
• Wrote my tail off all day yesterday.
• Rejoiced with the gang as our monarch butterfly emerged from its chrysalis this morning. We missed the big entrance but not by much. Later, when it was ready to fly, we took it out to the milkweed patch in the backyard, and it rested there long enough for Rilla and me to sketch it. I had just finished adding watercolor when it soared away to the cape honeysuckle, and from there out into the blue. Bon voyage, little dear.
Yes, aphids galore
I’m so looking forward to participating in this event tomorrow, March 14! I’ll be visiting with 4th and 5th graders at Pacific Beach Elementary in the Greater San Diego Reading Association’s 41st Annual Authors Fair, along with Patty Hall, Edith Hope Fine, Virginia Loh-Hagan, Lori Mitchell, Joy Raab, Suzanne Santillan and storyteller Marilyn McPhee. Can’t wait!
From left to right: Suzanne Santillan, me, Edith Hope Fine, Joy Raab, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Lori Mitchell at last week’s Greater San Diego Reading Association Authors’ Fair, held at Pacific Beach Elementary School. Photo shared by Lori Mitchell on Facebook. (Thanks, Lori!)
It was a pretty incredible day. I had sessions with two classes and then a booksigning. Both classes have been reading The Prairie Thief aloud, and it just so happened that the 5th-grade class was up to the Big Reveal chapter near the end of the book. I’ve never gotten to read this to a group of kids before! I usually read a section near the beginning, so as not to give away any of the book’s surprises, and when the class told me where they were in the book and asked me to read the next chapter, I was over the moon. Their reactions at the moment of the reveal were delightful and immensely gratifying. They jumped and and cried out in surprise. It was exactly the sort of reaction I hoped for when I wrote the book. What a treat for me to get to experience that moment with them! And then we had a nice long Q&A and they asked fantastic questions, really thoughtful stuff. Love love love.
The second class, a 4/5, blew me away with the papers they had written about Prairie Thief! And what timing, coming right after our conversation last week about how authors feel about critical approaches to their work. These kids did some serious analysis and I was very impressed by the quality of their writing. They, too, had a million questions for me about craft (seriously—they are studying it) and reading and lots of things.
Huge thanks to all the folks who helped put the fair together. A splendid day all around.
• Over at Waltzing Matilda, Charlotte shares the details of the Prairie Thief book club meeting she hosted. She is tremendously creative and I so enjoyed seeing the activities and treats she came up with to go along with the book. She had the fun idea of having me record a video greeting for the kids.
• At Everead, Alysa’s young son wrote a book report on Fox and Crow Are Not Friends and drew the absolute cutest illustration to accompany it. I melted. Several times.
• Kort, whose blog is quietly wonderful and gives me a little burst of happiness whenever it pops up in my reader, wrote a sweet note about Julie Bogart and me. Julie‘s one of my favorite people on the internet, too, so I was delighted to be in her company.
• Last Saturday, one of my books made an appearance at the Virginia Discovery Museum: children were invited to “join Kelly Sulick, principal flute of the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra, and Kate Tamarkin, CUSO’s music director, for a musical reading of Fox and Crow are Not Friends.” Now that’s a performance I wish I could have seen! Especially since there was an “instrument petting zoo” afterward.
I have been pretty low-profile about my work this past year, after a busy 2012 when I had three books launch in the same month. I do occasional local events but don’t undertake a lot of travel, not nearly as much as most of my kidlit author friends. I’m always reading (with pleasure) about the conferences they attend, the bookstore appearances, the school visits all over the country; and I enjoy their travels vicariously but know that I couldn’t maintain that kind of pace myself, not without giving up the learning-time with my kids that I treasure so much. (Not to mention without seriously impeding Scott’s ability to do his own work.) So while I do have several events planned for this summer, and a giveaway in the works for next week, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about not having lined up a full slate of events to usher Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare into the world. I’m fond of the childbirth metaphor for book publishing, but it falls apart the moment the book is ‘born’ into the world (generally about a year after delivery)—because by then, the moment of its appearance in the wide world, I’m already about fourteen months pregnant with the next one. So it is with this newest book-baby—actually in this case I’m about forty months along with the next one, who promises to be a twelve-pounder. (It’s possible the metaphor is getting away from me here.) At any rate, the point of all this musing is that in a season when I can’t do a lot of traveling to help my books meet new readers, it is deeply gratifying to see them land in the hands of kids who enjoy them.
So, funny story. A few weeks ago my friend Sarah Tomp, whose upcoming YA novel My Best Everything I can’t wait to read, wrote to ask if she could tag me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. It sounded fun, but I was feeling pretty swamped that week, so I thanked her and declined. A day or two later, another local writer friend, Marcie Wessels, asked me the same question, and again I said I appreciated the nod but would have to pass. Well, about a week after that, my pal Edith Hope Fine issued the same invitation! And that very same day, my friend Tanita Davis did one better—she went ahead and tagged me.
Well, okay, I can take a hint! And what do you know, a holiday weekend rolled around just in time for me to participate. So first: a big thank-you to all four of these generous friends, so eager to share the bloggity fun with me. Do click through on the links above to read their very interesting answers and find out more about their books. (Edith decided to sit out the hop herself, but you guys—I got a sneak preview of her new picture book, Sleepytime Me, illustrated by Christopher Denise, and it is a swooner. This year’s favorite bedtime reading, mark my words. It launches tomorrow! And I happen to know she’s got a companion workbook coming for her excellent Greek and Latin roots book, CryptoMania!, and it’s top-notch. Homeschoolers and teachers, you’re going to love it.)
Okay, so here are the questions, which I actually feel pretty shy about answering. I hardly ever talk about my process.
• What are you working on?
Generally, multiple things at once. The Main Project, always, and then two or three other works-in-various-stages-of-progress, and a scrawly list of ideas. Right now, the Main Project is the book I’ve been laboring over (very much in the childbirth-metaphor sense of the word) for a very. long. time: a historical fiction YA I’m writing for Knopf. It’s a project very close to my heart (involving a good bit of my own family history) and is probably the most challenging book I’ve written yet, in terms of research and subject matter. And I’ll want to talk lots more about it before too long.
So that’s the front-burner book. Then there are the things I work on when that one is being obstreperous: I’m playing with a new Inch and Roly idea, now that Sunny Day Scare has packed its knapsack and gone off into the world to seek its fortune. (They grow up so fast!) And there’s a fantasy novel I play with when historical fiction is besting my brain.
And! And! Very very slowly, very very occasionally, I add a little to a memoir of sorts I’m writing (or thinking of writing, is probably more accurate) about our years in Astoria, New York, when Jane was going through chemotherapy. I have a lot of stories piled up from those days.
• How does your work differ from others in its genre?
That is a really good, and really hard, question. I feel like in a way it’s a question best answered by readers, not by me about my own work. I like to work with characters who are grappling with ethical dilemmas—Louisa struggling to find a way to clear her father’s name without revealing Angus’s secret and therefore exposing him to probably dangerous public scrutiny (The Prairie Thief); Martha wrecking her dustgown and getting away with it, but fessing up after an internal struggle (Little House in the Highlands). Kids trying to sort out right and wrong when the lines seem fuzzier to them than adults give the impression they are. I think in terms of my style itself, I may work differently (but who knows?) in that I’m hearing the work read aloud as I write—probably in part because read-alouds are such an enormous part of my life. I mean, I’m reading aloud all morning long; I’ve spent nearly nineteen years this way, days full of the written word spoken. I think that gets into your fingers, as a writer: the cadence and lilt of a good read-aloud, the distinct character voices, the aural underscoring the visual images created by the text. I think, too, my having studied as a poet comes into play here, too. I entered my MFA program as a poet and emerged as a writer of prose fiction, but you can’t get poetry out of your blood.
• Why do you write what you do?
I put this question to Scott, adding lamely that I write the stories I’m burning to write. “I don’t know how to nail it down more accurately than that.” He chuckled. He knows me better than I know myself. “Well, first,” he said, “there’s the pioneer thing—” and he’s right; he doesn’t mean just Pioneers of the American West, though certainly that period is a lifelong fascination of mine and my original concept for Prairie Thief jumped right out of Edwardian England, where I’d envisioned it taking place, and emigrated happily to the Colorado prairie, circa 1880. Scott, who knows what ideas are crammed into my mental Possibilities drawer, was speaking also of my love of all kinds of frontier stories—the Pern books, the Darkover novels, any kind of pushing forward to unknown terrain and making terms with it.
“But also,” he continued, “there’s your fascination with miscommunication and injustice. The injustice that arises when someone has been misunderstood. You’re always wanting to set that straight, in your work and in real life.”
As soon as he said it, I could see it: this thread woven through so much of my work. It’s the central conflict of Prairie Thief, of course: a man falsely accused, his daughter intent on clearing his name. And other misunderstandings nested inside that larger one. But also: there’s Martha’s first governess, who doesn’t like her and misreads all her errors as deliberate. I had to bring in Miss Crow, didn’t I, to understand her. Over and over in those books, there are miscommunications between family members that lead to conflict. Scott pointed out that Sunny Day Scare, too, plays with this theme: Inch and friends are interpreting a horror in the grass in different ways, and Roly simply has to figure out what the scary thing really is. Even Hanna’s Christmas, my little commercial tie-in from long ago, has Hanna’s parents incorrectly blaming her for all the acts of mischief around the house. This is kind of revelatory, actually, and you can bet I’m going to be pondering it further.
• How does your writing process work?
Ahh, a nuts-and-bolts question. Now I’m in my element. The way I work is married to time. When Jane was a baby and I was first starting out, I had to hurry and write during her naps, sometimes actually wearing her in the sling, though it was hard to type that way. After Rose was born and Scott left his job at DC Comics to stay home and write, I worked longer shifts, a couple of hours at a time. I had very tight deadlines in those deadlines, staggeringly tight as I look back, and had to work with furious efficiency in the spaces available to me. I probably work best that way.
Later still, after Beanie came along, Scott and I settled into a rhythm. My writing time was from 3-6 every day. So again, mega-focus required to stay on task. I started this blog as a way to help me do that: after a day with the kids, spending 20 minutes writing about them helped me transition from mom to writer, and then I could work on the book at hand.
We had a rough year after Wonderboy was born, but that same schedule allowed me to work. It was after Rilla came along that things changed dramatically: Scott took an editing job out here in San Diego, we moved, he was away long hours, I wrote on Saturdays. That’s why The Prairie Thief took so long: years of Saturday afternoons. In 2011, he came back home to freelance (hurrah!) and now I get the whole afternoon and evening to work—meaning both my fiction and my editorial gig at Damn Interesting.
I can’t stand writing by hand. I have complaining wrists. With the current novel, I began working in Scrivener and fell in love—it keeps all my notes, fragments, timelines, character sketches, and primary source material organized and accessible much more handily than any paper system I could contrive. I mean, I really think I’d be lost without it.
I’m a slow writer in that I self-edit ruthlessly, never having managed to do the sort of pour-it-out first drafts that the writing instruction books urge upon you. Dear Anne Lamott, I’ve tried, but I just can’t pull it off. And it’s too bad, because I always write way more than actually belongs in a book. I’ll labor over huge chunks of manuscript, polishing at the word-level, and then wind up ripping them out, a stitch at a time (agony) to hide in a file somewhere. If I were to gather up all my Martha fragments, I’d probably have enough for a whole nother book. (Sorry, it’s not in the cards.)
Every day, I dread starting. After I’ve made myself enter the cave, hours pass in a blink, like Narnia time.
I think I probably love the research stage best of all. I’m happiest with all my papers and books spread around me on the bed, and some old newspaper enlarged on my screen. An orchard robbery in 1817; the constable arrested “a man named Peter Twist and two well-dressed women.” What’s the story there? No one can tell me, so I’ll have to make it up.
Now I’m supposed to tag some writer friends. Laurel Snyder (The Longest Night, Bigger than a Breadbox, Seven Stories Up) and Jennifer Ziegler (Sass and Serendipity, How Not to Be Popular, and the hot-off-the-presses Revenge of the Flower Girls—how’s that for a great title?? both said yes, so look for their replies in a week or so. I’m also tagging Chris Barton (Shark Vs. Train, The Day-Glo Brothers, Can I See Your ID?) and my dear friend Anne Marie Pace (Vampirina Ballerina, Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover, A Teacher for Bear), in case they’d like to play along. But no pressure, guys! (See paragraph 1, above.)
And Sarah, Marcie, Edith, Tanita: thanks for tagging me. I had fun!
Sunday, June 8
Reading in the Creative Youth Tent: 3-3:30pm
Come say hi!
The one I mentioned yesterday with Sarah Spear of The Parentalist—such a fun conversation we had.
And an upcoming one with Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things. She interviewed me last week for her delightful Read-Aloud Revival podcast (you know that’s a topic near and dear to my heart). It will air in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime don’t miss her chat with the wonderful Jim Weiss!
Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things interviewed me about my family’s book-crazy lifestyle for her wonderful Read-Aloud Revival podcast.
The post includes links to the many books I gushed about (I swear, once you get me started on book recs there’s no stopping me) and a Prairie Thief giveaway. I had a great time chatting with Sarah about how read-alouds work in my family with our many ages of kids, how I do dialects, how we squeeze book time into the various parts of our day, etc. Basically: my favorite topic in the entire world.
While you’re checking out the podcast, you’ll want to bookmark the two Jim Weiss episodes! What a treasure.
Oh sure, I can write the date, but that doesn’t mean I can believe it. I’d have laid money we weren’t past the 6th or 7th yet. Blink. WB goes back to school on Thursday (!) and Rose starts a Spanish class at the community college next week (!!). I will probably wake up tomorrow and discover that Huck has enrolled in graduate school.
On the forums for my Phone Photography class, someone (possibly my friend Stephanie Elms?) recommended an app called Timehop that, once connected to your various social media accounts, will compile for you each day a look back at what you posted on this date in years past. Thus it was that I discovered today is four years since we (sans Scott) visited Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote all her books.
In which we continue the family tradition of being unable to all smile for a photo simultaneously, unless Scott is standing behind the photographer working his magic.
It has been a BIG four years. Three of those girls are taller than I now, and that chubby little side of beef is a long, lean boy. There’s a lot less pink in the laundry these days (nearly all of it Rilla’s).
Here’s what we did this weekend: I was asked to be on a panel at WinkieCon, an annual celebration of the Oz books, which I grew up loving as wildly as I did Little House. You can imagine my delight, then, at encountering none other than Ozma herself.
Is that not the most incredible costume? She nailed it perfectly. In addition to being a talented costumer, Natalie makes wonderful jewelry and art.
And that’s not all. My young Polychrome was tickled to meet this fellow:
After the “Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox” panel there was a booksigning for the authors (Edward Einhorn, Caroline Spector, and me). Look who kept me company at the table!
The convention was a delight for me and my girls, especially Miss Rilla, who dove into a ribbon-hunting quest with considerable verve. She had to seek out attendees with Doctor Who “Companion” ribbons on their badges and ask them to pose for a quick photo; for every five Companion photos she brought back to the game table, she earned a new ribbon for her own badge—starting with Dalek and working her way up through several levels, past Time Lord to a Companion badge of her own. She made a lot of friends that day, let me tell you.
One of the highlights of the convention was—I can hardly tell you how fluttery I felt, walking into this room—a collection of Judy Garland’s costumes. Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade—so many treasures there. And we met Judy’s son. Such a nice man. It was quite a day.
If you ever get a chance to go to an Oz convention (especially Winkie Con, which is such a class act), I highly recommend it. Fascinating people, gorgeous books and costumes and handmade wares, really interesting panels—Jane particularly enjoyed “Oz and the American Musical,” which I wish I’d attended myself—and all in a venue MUCH less crowded and overwhelming than, say, Comic-Con. Many thanks to Eric Shanower for the invitation to speak on the panel.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Chris Barton, author of many excellent children’s books including that Peterson family favorite, Shark vs. Train, is celebrating the impending launch of his newest book, Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, by interviewing other authors about their relationship with video games. Today it’s my turn. I had a blast (Asteroids reference, get it?) answering his questions. You know how I love me my games.
CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?
MW: We got an Atari 2600 when I was around 8th or 9th grade. I. LOVED. THAT. THING. Fave game: Adventure. The way the dragons curled up when you stabbed them! I went through a whole blissful nostalgia-binge not long ago, revisiting Adventure on a desktop version. It’s amazing the wave of feelings it conjures up. That exhilaration of discovery; the happy state of tension I love in a game.
Naturally I had to give a big shoutout to Glitch, the best game of all time (sniff).
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Having newly tidied-up files is having a shiny-sink effect on me: I’m just about caught up on all forms of desk-work now, including answering reader mail. Speaking of, how sweet is this Prairie Thief-inspired drawing a young reader made for me? I melted utterly.
Awesome job, Mara!
Now only some personal correspondence to catch up on (hi Brigid!!!) and a short list of work-related tasks. And then, wonder of wonders, my desk will be clear. For a little while, at least. I seem to be a person who enjoys organization in fits and starts.
The new combination of gCal for household chores + Remember the Milk for other (family or clerical) tasks & errands is working really well for me. And since I’ve volunteered to handle the cooking for the next month, I created a Meal Planning gCal too. Dinner prep has gone smoothly three nights in a row, which has got to be a lifetime record for me. WHO IS THIS KITCHEN WIZARD OCCUPYING MY SHOES, YOU GUYS? And how can I keep her around?
(Prepare for the inevitable crash. It’ll be another chai tortilla soup-caliber disaster next week, you know it will.)
Meanwhile, work rolls on. Got another talk to write (this one on writing, happening in October); some books to review; some articles to edit; and oh yeah, a novel to polish. Especially the ending. But let’s not speak of that, shall we?
(The secret to my peace of mind: vicious compartmentalization.)