When the director of Hollins University’s graduate program in children’s literature asked me to teach a critical class on the history of children’s book illustrators, I said no. Even with an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College, an MA in children’s literature from Hollins, scores of published books, and years of teaching graduate-level creative classes, I still felt like a fraud.… more
It was the early eighties and I was grappling with my first middle grade novel, a pitiful imitation of Daniel Pinkwater’s Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. The boy in my aptly-titled “The Doomsday Kid” played Dungeons and Dragons and attended a rock concert that ended in a bottle-and-can riot. For “research,” I tried to teach myself D&D and dragged my husband to a Bad Company concert that ended in his temporary deafness.… more
A few weeks ago, I stood at the corner of 37th and Madison Avenue in New York City and gazed longingly at the elegant pink marble building that housed J.P. Morgan’s library, now the Morgan Library and Museum. In late January 2019, the Morgan will host the “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibit. I’m too early.… more
… when dead leaves fly like witches on switches across the sky …
In the center of our Wegman’s is all the stuff that is not food. Of course, I head there first. Browsing tea towels and sunflower coasters is my reward from having to shop in the too-big grocery store.
Recently I found a plate among the Halloween décor.… more
In the fifth grade, my best friend and I discovered a tangle of honeysuckle in the scrubby woods bordering our school playground. It would make the perfect recess refuge. All we had to do was pull the honeysuckle from inside the circle of saplings it was twined around, leaving a curtain of vines.
The next day, we sprinted into the thicket and began ripping out vines.… more
In my next life, I’m coming back either as a cat living in our house (think Canyon Ranch for cats), or Melissa Sweet. I’ve followed her career since she illustrated James Howe’s Pinky and Rex (1990). I love this book for its atypical characters (Pinky is a boy who loves pink and stuffed animals, and Rex, his girl friend, is into dinosaurs), but also for Melissa’s fresh-faced characters and bright watercolors.… more
In 1961, when I was nine, I fell under the spell of a crumbling stone tower. It stood on the weed-choked property of the Portner Manor in Manassas, Virginia, catty-corner from my cousin’s house. As a devotee of Trixie Belden books, I craved mysteries the way other kids longed for ponies. Here was a mystery within spitting distance!… more
Last September, we drove to an empty lake deep in the Appalachians for a short vacation, a much-needed chance to relax. I longed to escape writing and house chores and cats and reconnect with nature.
When we arrived, clouds draped over the peaks and our room was gloomy. I missed civilization instantly and forced my husband to drive the seven crooked miles back down the mountain to the nearest hamlet so I could hit the Dollar store (the biggest concern).… more
I came down with the flu. After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick. One afternoon I pulled out my old journals. I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days. My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences.… more
Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating. … more
Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.
At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty.… more
Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”
I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either).… more
For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer. Naturally, I did the assignment myself. Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter. When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets.… more
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