The most exciting part of 2019, writing wise, was the sale of two new middle grade books (one written, one not yet) to Alexandra Cooper at Harper Collins. It really doesn’t get more exciting than that! The book I’ve already written is called Sardines and it follows 11-year-old Lucas and a group of four other kids from disparate social and economic circles as they are forced together each afternoon by the middle school’s aftercare program. As the group bonds, they create a game in which the group works together to grant each kid a wish. That’s the blurb from the publishers weekly rights report. But the book is about a lot more than that. Here are a few things I hope kids and grown ups will take away from the book.
- Everyone is carrying around hard things in their emotional backpacks.
- Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.
- You are stronger than you think.
- It’s okay if you’re not.
- Mental health is as real and important as other kinds of health.
Speaking of mental health, one of the best books I read this year was The Year We Fell From Space by A.S. King. I’m an A.S. King fan from way back. She is hands down one of my favorite writers for young people and for all people. The Year We Fell From Space takes everything I love about her YA books and puts it in a format for middle grade readers. When I was a kid my mom used to say to me, “Everyone has crazy thoughts; that doesn’t make you crazy.” This book follows 7th grader Liberty Johansen as she navigates her family’s divorce and her father’s struggle with depression. Liberty is afraid if her father has depression she might have it too. She’s also dealing with unkindness from peers and the part of growing up where you learn that your parents aren’t perfect and neither are you. What I love about A.S. King is that she does things in middle grade fiction that are usually reserved for YA. She lets the characters’ freak flags fly and doesn’t need to explain everything. She puts faith in younger readers to understand that life is weird and complicated and sometimes defies simple explanations.
This year marks my 33rd first day of school. This year I had a new student in tears come in to my classroom a few minutes before the bell. She was accompanied by one of our guidance counselors. We exchanged a knowing glance. Anxiety is a real bitch. I smiled sympathetically and told her that even after 32 more or less successful first days of school, I still get nervous. I still have dreams where I don’t know my schedule or I can’t get the combination on my locker to work, or I’m paging through the course catalog trying to sign up for classes at the last minute. Ugh, that course catalog -it plagues me still. I told her about the dream I have where I’m all prepared for the first day except I’m wearing a towel instead of pants. She cringed. No one wants to hear about their teacher in a towel. Good, let her transform some of that anxiety into thinking I’m a totally inappropriate wingnut. Let her smile for a second and feel that pit in her stomach, that churning in her chest, ease a little bit. I know them both well and have for most of my life.
This year I posted a giant sticky for the kids to add their fears about the worst possible thing that could happen on the first day of 7th grade. They could be as realistic (my pants fall down) or unrealistic (zombie apocalypse) as they chose.
The Alanna of Trebond series by Tamora Pierce were without a doubt my favorite books pre middle school. I’m not sure if I actually read in middle school -it might not have been cool. (I totally read in middle school -I just don’t remember because my mind was eclipsed by the fog of puberty). There were a lot of books I loved in elementary school but these stand out to me because the Alanna series is a fantasy series. And although my love of reading has continued unabated into adulthood, I’m not much of a fantasy reader any longer. If I do read fantasy it’s never high fantasy and it’s always kid-lit.
However, in the last two books I’ve written, reading (and specifically reading fantasy) plays an important role in the lives of the characters. In WIRED MAN AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE the main character reads aloud from the Lord of the Rings series with the girl he doesn’t know he has a crush on. His relationship with his best male friend parallels the relationship between Sam and Frodo. Instead of a ring of power, Ben and Tyler are carrying the secrets of their past. In Tolkien’s world there was a place for platonic love so strong that the character’s would sacrifice themselves to save each other and/or accomplish the quest. I wrote WIRED MAN as an attempt to understand love and friendship between high school boys but it’s funny to me, that the model I chose was from a fantasy novel. How does fantasy free us to experiment with relationships in ways that might be too risky in real life?
In the book I’m currently working on the main character reads and rereads the Harry Potter series as a way to make him feel safe. When a (well intentioned) teacher suggests that he takes more risks as a reader he stares through her as if to say, “Look lady, everything in my life is a risk right now, so don’t deprive me of the one landscape in which I feel secure -even if it’s full of death-eaters and dementors.”
I don’t want to trivialize other people’s connection to reading fantasy as pure escapism, although I think the best reading has at least a little bit of that no matter the genre. Who doesn’t want to get lost in a story, regardless of the genre? My daughter loves fantasy but I’m starting to realize that it’s adventure that she really loves and that’s what’s allowed her to transition to reading Bridge to Terabithia and The Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Could it all really be as simple as the hero’s journey? That what moves us as readers, is not the setting, but the epic importance of a quest ventured and a quest fulfilled? Is that why I love road trip novels and survival stories despite the fact that they take place in the “real world”?
Possibly. Or possibly, the importance of fantasy is that it gives us permission to imagine things we are afraid of but disguise them as orcs, or dementors. We can follow along with a character disguising their gender to learn sword craft even as the drama of middle school forces us to grapple with or disguise our own identities. And of course there’s the importance of the quest; the desire to be a part of something greater than oneself. So read some fantasy, it’s a cheaper than therapy way you can find out what’s really going on in your life!
Normally I’m not a New Years goal/resolution type person. If you’re sifting through this blog you can totally call bullshit on that -I’m pretty sure I say that every year and then post some anyway. So I guess I’m a New Years goal and resolution person who doesn’t like to admit it? Or maybe I just like a little year’s end reflection. Last week I was hanging out with my brother and describing my TMJ issues which tend to get worse with stress.
“What are you stressed about?” he said. And he didn’t mean it in a snarky way.
I laughed. “Nothing, everything. The state of our country, the changing climate, whether or not I got my kids the right gifts for a holiday I don’t even really believe in. Whether or not my purchasing of the right gifts will result in them living happy and fulfilling lives.” So you know, the usual.
But his comment stuck with me because truthfully, most everyday type stress is a direct result of our own reactions to the events of our lives. I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning which is part of the Holocaust literature canon written by psychologist and death camp survivor Victor Frankl. The book is unique because it’s not a traditional narrative but rather delves into the psychology of suffering using the concentration camps as background. Light stuff, I know. His main point about suffering is that there will be suffering, and while we cannot often control the source of that suffering, we do have some say in our own reaction to it. I couldn’t go too far with this theory. I’m not someone who would try to put a smiley face on painful experience, but it does help with smaller daily life type stressors. Do they need to be stressors? Do I need to react to them in a stressful way? I’m talking to you TMJ!
So beyond my personal goal to use less plastic in 2019, I’m also setting a goal around awareness. Awareness of the way I’m thinking and the patterns I can get into -just awareness. My goal isn’t to change, change will come or it won’t. I think change implies judgment and I’m not trying to judge myself. I’d like to be more kind to myself. So, awareness, presence and kindness. Bring it on.
On my summer vacation I read two books that turned out to be related for unforeseen reasons. The first is Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. The second was Roxane Gay’s Hunger. The two books strike remarkably different tones. Amy Schumer, as you might imagine, goes for hilarity in her essays, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much substance was mixed in with the laughs. Her words and life decry the rigid standards of beauty and “acceptable behavior” for women. Her writing is a celebration of her body; the pleasure and comedy it brings her through food, sex, and other random awkwardness.
Hunger; A Memoir of my Body by Roxane Gay is about a woman who is very much a prisoner of her body. It’s a beautifully written and deeply painful history of a body violated and then protected in flesh. Both authors write about the connections and interactions between our self perception, our corporeal selves, and society.
If you follow me on social media you might remember that as I was reading my second-hand copy of Schumer’s book I got a surprise bookmark. The previous owner had left her detailed and full color colonoscopy report in the back of the book- though I wouldn’t put it past Schumer to include one of these in each copy.
As I pored over this random woman’s report (and come on, who wouldn’t? ) I approached these pictures with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. So that’s what a colon looks like. It’s kind of a weird mix of reds, pinks and fleshy yellows. It reminded me of the Sarlacc pit in Star Wars where the characters are trying to avoid being sucked in and digested for all eternity. (Yes, I had to look up what it was called, and yes it gave me nightmares as a kid.)
The colonoscopy report made me think about Gwyneth Paltrow, because, yes I read that looong New York times magazine article about her health and beauty empire devoted to things like 5,000 dollar yoga retreats, vaginal steaming and anal bleaching. The thing is her colon looks like a Sarlacc pit just as much as mine, or Roxane Gay’s or Amy Schumer’s. It also got me thinking about our bodies and how they are more similar than different and how a hole in your body is ultimately just that. All the other stuff we attach to it is mostly just a bunch of socially constructed hoo ha. So go ahead, cancel that anal bleaching you had planned and the next time you find yourself staring at someone and judging them for the size or attractiveness of their body, remember that your colon looks like a Sarlacc pit too.
Actually, I’m a rather accomplished driver when it comes to stick shift. I had the advantage of learning (out of necessity) on a dark Ohio road in the wee hours of the morning when the two other drivers were out of commission. Too drunk to drive, they were still excellent at hollering directions from the back seat.
But it’s not driving I’ve revived the blog to discuss. It’s the many gears and speeds involved in writing a book I’ve come to discuss. The first two thirds of any novel I’ve written have been the easy part. And by easy I mean some days the words flow and other days I’m lucky to get a sentence. The last third is always a challenge. This is when I’m required to pull together all the various plot threads and character arcs I’ve been developing without more than a loose idea of where it might end up.
My most recent draft is YA science fiction about a girl on Earth who dreams of being a Mars colonist. I’m still unsure about the last third but I’ve recently sent a draft to my agent to peruse. So now I’m idling in neutral with a couple weeks off from that fictional world. I know that my brain needs the break even if it feels weird not to be making progress.But making progress doesn’t always mean moving forward, at least not in the writing world. Sometimes it means being still and allowing your brain to percolate.
The other day I was on my way from a summer teaching gig to pick up my daughter at camp and I had a half hour to kill. Luckily, I was 5 minutes away from the beach. I fashioned a pillow from a few choice items in the back of my car, lay back in the sand and closed my eyes for a few minutes. It was one of those rare times when my over-active monkey mind was still. I was tired, drained from teaching all day, nursing a head cold. The warm sand felt delightful pressing into the backs of my legs and arms.
I found myself rolling the final chapters of my recent work in progress around in my mind like marbles in a glass jar.
And then, “Pop!”
What if you did it this way?
I can’t lie. It’s like freakin’ magic sometimes. It might be my favorite part of writing; the part that feels so much like me and yet totally out of my control. And I know this can only happen when I let go, of the plot, the writing, the long drawn out driving metaphor. I don’t know if the idea is good yet, if it is the answer I’ve been looking for, but it’s appearance gives me the excitement, energy, and faith to get back on the road even if I still don’t know how I’ll reach my destination.
And just like that, the number 69 is funny.
For the past 12 years I’ve been teaching 7th and 8th grade. This year I am teaching 6th graders. 6th graders (on the whole) are a lot more kid-like than young adult-like. 6th graders like to get up and dance when I have random disco dance breaks in the middle of class. 6th graders REALLY like to talk. They talk when I ask questions, and often when I don’t. 6th graders will tell you when it’s their dog’s birthday.
With 8th graders you’re lucky if you register a pulse before 11 am.
6th graders don’t think the number 69 is funny. At least until about 3 weeks ago. I can’t tell you how it happened but all of a sudden there’s a lot of whispering about locker 69, about page 69 in a book. And lots and lots of giggling. I’m fairly certain there’s no detailed understanding here, but they know they’ve stumbled upon something. Puberty. It’s got to start somewhere.
Back in September, I thought I had taken a job teaching fetuses. They were so small, and so incapable of punctuation. But the other day a few 8th graders wandered down to our wing and my jaw dropped. “Are you guys from the high school?” I stammered.
“No. We go to school here,” they said. (While undoubtedly rolling their eyes and thinking, whatever, weird lady.)
They looked like adults to me.
I shut my classroom door and retreated back amongst my small people. “Who wants to tell me about their pet? Anyone have a good Halloween costume this year?” 6th grade conversation starters that can keep a class going for hours. At least until someone’s voice cracks.