Archive for November, 2009


Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Inspired by the rarely-dull-or-dumb Sara Zarr, I’m taking a break from online social networking (Twitter, FB, etc).  From tomorrow (the first Sunday of Advent) through January 6 (Epiphany).

(Despite being Jewish and therefore not celebrating Advent in any other way)

I’ll still be online, for emailing and a blog-post now and then, and maybe even the occasional Etsy holiday purchase.  And I’ll be reachable by phone or carrier pigeon (as usual).  I just won’t be on Twitter or FB.

Don’t worry.  This isn’t like last time. I’m not shaking and sweating in my bed. Nobody had to tie me up. I just have a lot to do, and I’ve been too busy lately. Not enough space inside my head for all the things I’m putting in there.  In fact, this isn’t just a web-hiatus. I’m  pulling back on my offline (which is to say, physical) social life too.

And hopefully, I’ll write this book and clean my house and come back a saner version of myself!

There is a squirrel…

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Inside our walls.

We can hear him snoring at night.

No kidding!

What I think…

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Fear is a useful emotion.  Fear of judgment is a HUGE waste of emotional energy.

Must remember. Must remember. Must remember…

The Penny Dreadful Book Club!!!!

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

And now… for my next nutty idea…

In 2010, I’m trying out a crazy new scheme, a book club.

Essentially, it works like this– you and your group of kids (class, library book club, bookstore regulars, homeschool community, etc) pick any five of Penny Dreadful’s 20 favorite books from a list I’ll provide (Penny is a BIG reader).

Contact me and tell me which books you’ve chosen, and I’ll supply my own special study guides for each of them (along with a stack of bookmarks for the kids and a poster for your library/store/classroom, listing all the titles).

You simply read and discuss the books you’ve chosen as a group, and then I’ll come and join you for your discussion of the sixth book– Penny Dreadful!

I will do this FREE OF CHARGE for groups of ten or more kids within driving distance, or for just the cost of transportation/hotel if I must travel.  I’m doing this–waiving my fee–because the books on the list are books I love personally, and the idea of kids reading them makes me so happy!  Of course, the idea of kids reading PENNY makes me dance around in circles too, but really, the idea of this club is to get kids reading awesome  books and talking about them in the context of each other– older books and younger books, magic books and non-magic, etc.

So that’s it!  You just hang up the poster, sign up the kids, host a monthly conversation using the study guides, and let me know how it goes. Then I’ll arrive, with my ukelele and silliness, and hang out with you for an afternoon!

Sound fun?  I sure think so!  Details (and downloadable posters) to come.

Also– I should add here that you don’t have to have 10 kids. Adults are allowed to read kidlit too, of course.  And if you have an adult group interested, I’ll bring a bottle of wine!  I would, myself, happily join a middle grade reading group…. especially if there was wine.


Surrender: to be consumed…

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

I’ve been mulling, mulling, mulling… over the conversation between Rachel and Sarah. I’ve gone back and forth about posting here.    But here it is, what I feel. Limited though it may be.

As a writer, my poetry/prose have mattered to me. Language has been a huge part of my life.  I have made sacrifices/compromises/choices to be able to write. I have defined myself by my writing.

But writing has never been WHO I AM. Writing is not more important than me. I am what matters in that relationship.  My writing has never eclipsed me. I don’t think it could.  Maybe it just  isn’t good enough, but I don’t think that’s it. My place in the world as a human has always felt bigger than my place in the world as a writer.  Writing is part of me.

If I could pick to have an extra year to live, or my writing would all be erased from the world, I’d have a hell of a year.

Well, guess what?  My children aren’t part of me.  I’m part of them. If I could choose one extra year, or magically make it as though the kids had never been born…

No contest.

Being a mother is bigger than being a person. For me. Just for me.  I cannot speak to what others feel as moms or writers or people.  I don’t judge them, really I don’t.  But for me… this is it. What life is.  Because this is the life I’ve lived.

I have some sense that when I had kids, I became diminished as a person myself, but that in shrinking, I also became far more than I ever had been before.

That is exactly what I was afraid of, before I had kids– being diminished, changing.  And it is the greatest transformation/gift/blessing of my life.  The alchemy of motherhood has been, for me, that what I feared most turned out to be the greatest boon.  The surrender and loss of self have been my single greatest joy.

If I knew then, as a non-mom, what it would be like to become a mom? If I could have seen a video of the inside of my head today? If the me-that-I-was could have glimpsed the nights of sleeping in vomit, the months of no-sleep and the lack of writing time and the lack of libido and the lack of time alone and the lack of showers and the weight gain and the chicken nuggets and the playdates and all of it…  I honestly don’t think I’d have had kids.

There. I said it. It’s true.

Because it was too big a sacrifice to make without knowing what it would be like to actually have the kids, emotionally.  The kid-having-joy was a currency I didn’t understand yet.

Parenting has been, for me, a surrender.  I’m glad I did it.  But it is a surrender, a consumption.

And this change is a hard one, because it leads to a supercession of identity.  That self feels less real/mature/vital than this self to me today.  Which (I think) makes moms sometimes feel like non-moms are somehow younger, less experienced. And that makes it really really really really hard to speak about honestly, from a position of equality.

I think that’s part of what troubles people about the conversation between Sarah and Rachel.  It’s like  a Jew and an evangelical Christian in interfaith dialogue.  In order for the Christian to be honest, they have to say, “You just haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You don’t know all I know.”  Even if they approach with sympathy/love, they approach in a condescending way, a postion of having gone beyond…

Meanwhile the Jew is going, “Rapture? You seem NUTS to me, wingnut. If that’s beyond, you can keep it!”

I’m glad Rachel and Sarah are talking about all of this. I’m saddened that people are hurt by their words.  But  this is my place in the conversation.  And for some reason I feel the need to claim it.

Also– I want to add that being a mom isn’t, for me, about biology.  It’s about surrender.  Adopted or biological.  For me the transformation is about surrender.  And if you’ve surrendered to something else– maybe to writing, or to your partner, or to a pet, or to a friendship so big it consumes you…  you may know what I’m saying…  If you, without having kids, would give up your life for someone else, you may have just gotten there another way.  I wish I could have ever been a friend/partner like that. I’m not.  That’s my limitation.

I was a VERY self involved person.  I still am.  But now I’m not the MOST important person in my universe.

I’m the third.  For better and for worse.

(and now I’m cringing as I hit send)

Hanukkah is coming!!!

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

When I was a kid, Hanukkah meant that:

1. I’d be peeling a lot of potatoes
2. I’d be forced to share the chocolate coins I won at dreidel
3. I’d have to sing a non-religious Xmas song at school
4. I’d  be getting a BOOK giftwrapped in last year’s Jewish calendar

Sigh… I’ll never forget the wonder of unwrapping my very own copy of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. Running my hand over the somber cover. Cracking the spine.  Reading.

Then…. shivering… in my bed… alone… all night… with a newfound fear of man’s capacity to do evil.

Okay, so maybe YOU don’t give your kids horrifying nonfiction at the holidays, but if you’re Jewish you probably DO give your kids a book at some point in December.


And if that’s the case, I have a special offer for you!  From now until the end of Hanukkah, if you order a copy of one of my books from Little Shop of Stories (may I suggest Any Which Wall, which centers on Susan and Roy LEVY…) I will personally drive over to the store, and sign the book with a special holiday message, and include a handmade Hanukkah card!

You can call the store, and order any of my books ((404) 373-6300 ) , and they’ll call me up and I’ll go over and sign.  Then they’ll pop it into the mail to you.

Easy as…. latkes?

From a mix!

The most honest interview ever…

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Are you a mother? A nonmother?

Would you trade places?  Do it again differently?

How does this role/identity affect your life as a person?  Limit your life as a person? Make you feel judged by the eyes of the world? Affect your process and your art/writing?

Rachel Zucker and Sarah Manguso have published a painfully honest/critical/revealing conversation about their choices/lives in relation to being/not-being an “egg-box.” I think it’s an important document.  I think everyone, especially women– and especially anyone interested in feminism–should read it.

I suggest you go read it right now.

No, really.

“Poetry is…”

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

I’m up in the middle of the night, in Savannah (For the Children’s Book Festival), after a really interesting conversation about slam poetry, novels-in-verse, and what kids get from language…

And I want to say this: Poetry challenges words to communicate MORE than their meanings.

IMHO, poetry has to do this, or it isn’t poetry.  Breaking  prose into funny line breaks doesn’t turn a book into “verse” and tossing out an occasional rhyme or alliteration doesn’t mean you’ve made a poem.   It only means you’ve made something that “looks like” a poem.

For me, poetry isn’t a format. It is BOTH a format and a standard of quality–you can write an essay and it can be bad, and still be technically an essay. It has the formal elements.  But poetry that’s bad isn’t “bad poetry.” It just isn’t anything at all.

Poetry. You know it when you see/hear it.  Poetry is everywhere. It happens in prose, in conversation, in song lyrics.  It doesn’t have to be PROFOUND or DIFFICULT but it has to be, well, more than what it means.

Poetry is what calls you back to something, for another listen or read. Sound or subtext or song. Poetry is why you linger or return. To get more from the words.  Because you can tell there’s more in there. Often poetry sticks in your brain.

At the same time, having a reader (or listener) enjoy (or remember) your work doesn’t always mean it’s good.  My son is 4, and if you say the word “poop” to him he’ll laugh and laugh and repeat what you say.  This is the road to popularity, but I don’t think “poop” makes a poem.

This is why, I think, the conversation gets tricky. Because it’s subjective, but it’s not THAT subjective.

Peep. Pop. Poop.

HAHAHAHAHAHA!  Say it again, Mommy.

People linger over really bad/dumb language sometimes.  They do.

I’ve read a few novels-in-verse, and I need to read more, clearly, because the ones I’ve read have not impressed me.  I find slam poetry compelling and interesting out loud, but often thin when it’s transferred to the page.  I am usually far more impressed with the “poetry” in a picture book or a song than in a “poem for kids.”  Often, “poetry for kids” is either doggerel:

In Savannah, early morning,
In a friendly Hampton Inn
Kinda nice to blog and write,
Even nicer? Sleeping in!


Or just a very soundy list:



There’s just not enough there. Nothing much to it. Nothing. beneath the surface. Nothing else to get.

And  these things have their place, but when I read  poetry I’m holding out for more. When I use the word “poem” I mean more than linebreaks and rhyme.  I mean “amazing” and “layered” and “complex.” I mean it is doing far more than communicating a story or describing a scene.

I mean that the words are working hard.  I mean that I’ll read it again.

Once and for all… with a tone of unearned authority… the difference between YA and MG…

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Those of us who geek out over books for young readers fixate on this issue. It’s true.  And usually, when I’m writing, which I am right now, I ignore anything anyone but ME says on the topic, because, for the most part, I just write things, and then figure out what they are…

A poem is a poem because it sounds like one.  A MG book is a MG book because middle-graders will be likeliest to read it. A picture book is a picture book because, well, it has to have these PICTURES in it or it won’t make sense.

Categories are for sales and marketing people to sort out.  If I think about such things, I get distracted.

But today, via Elizabeth Dulemba, I stumbled on an explanation that bugged me, over here.

MG plots tend to center on the protagonist’s internal world, whereas YA plots are more complex and are more concerned with the protagonist’s effect on his or her external world.

Um… NO! No and no and no!

In fact, the EXACT opposite is true.  Middle grade books are usually outward looking.  Kids, little kids, are trying to figure out the rules of the world in such books. They are bewildered by EVERYDAMNTHING and as they wander through a book, kids learn stuff about the universe. About unicorns and physics and their parents and other kids and hurting feelings and poptarts and poverty and whatever else they see. They are, perhaps, becoming actual human in reaction to such logic/information, but it’s not about them.  It’s about the world.

Hang out with a kid sometime, and see if I’m not right.  Pick up a middle grade book, and think about it.  Charlie (of Chocolate factory fame)? Ramona? Harry Potter?  All of them are stumbling through the world, being idiots, and learning stuff. Openmouthed and confused and hungry.

Now, teenagers… teenagers are another ball of wax.  Teenagers are obsessed with themselves.  When they look up from their own navels, it is usually to figure out how to use another person/thing/idea to define their navels.

Teenagers lock themselves in their rooms for a reason. They hate family vacations for a reason.  Because they have recently discovered themselves, or are in the process of doing so… they are obsessed with themselves.

This isn’t a bad thing. Some of my favorite people were once (or will grow into) teenagers.  I was one too!  We all go through it, but it is a very very inward-looking time in life. In order to build the strong sense of self one needs to get through the world as an adult, one almost HAS to fixate on the self, build the self, in those years.

YA books, to the degree that they concern themselves with the universe, do so in the surface of the self.  The world-building is largely internal.

MG books are about the world.  The world-building is largely external.  To the degree that the little idiots at their centers are aware of themselves at all, it is in the service of exploring the world.

Harry Potter is a good example of both MG and YA, actually.  Read the first and last books, and see how wide-eyed he is in the beginning, and how  much he cares about himself, as an idea and a character, at the end.

In summary:

MG: Look, I have hands! Look, a tree!  I think I’ll use these hands to climb that tree!  Look, I can see lots of crap from atop this tree!  Let’s go check out all that fun/scary/off-limits crap!

YA: Look at my hands.  My hands are too small.  Or are they too big? Why can’t I make up my mind? What does that say about me?  Look, a tree.  Its old. It might be dying.  I wonder if I’m dying too…

Now, I know the minute I hit SEND someone will nail me to the wall for writing this. Of COURSE there are exceptions.  Nancy Drew?  Probably, as a mystery, she fits better into the MG model.

And there are all kinds of books that straddle these definitions.  Hybrids, and I LOVE them. I wish there were more. I’m a fool for hybrids.

But I bet those are the books people have trouble shelving…


I think, sometimes…

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

It’s true, I do!

Tonight  I’m thinking about how a person will often say  they like books that  “make me laugh, and cry.”

I’m pondering that… and realizing that I think it is far easier to write a sad book that chuckles/giggles/guffaws…

Than it is to write a funny book that wimpers/moans/sobs.

I have not, thus far, really accomplished either.  But I think it would be far easier to successfully insert or layer humor into a book with dramatic characters/plot, than to create a sad moment in an otherwise funny book.

The level of ongoing investment it takes to get a single tear from a reader is far greater than the work required to get a smile.

A single out-of-place joke (or a few) can work. It doesn’t require the same level of commitment from the reader.  You really have to CARE about someone to cry for them. You don’t have to care at all to laugh.

Think about it like this…

Even after the death of a loved one, a funeral can be a wonderful place for a really good joke.  It somehow contrasts/underlines the seriousness of the day.  It reminds a mourner of light/life/the next morning.

But a really somber and tragic story, told at a child’s birthday-at-the-circus-party?

Not so much.

Unless you’re a Tom Waits song or something…

(Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be a Tom Waits song… but that’s another project entirely)