Filling the well — taking breaks from writing for other activities that surreptitiously somehow feed the writing — is essential to me as a writer. I need to read outside of books that necessarily inform my work or my practice of writing. I need to legitimately get outside, away from it all. (Easier said that done in this evil, evil Boston winter.) I need to hang out with friends, watch movies, listen to This American Life, cook, travel to France at the last minute, etc. For the past week, I’ve been reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, a little bit at a time before bed every night. This morning I finished it (because it is due at the library and I already have enough fines).
There is this passage in the chapter, “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” that completely resonated with me when I read it last night. It so nailed what I think people in many creative careers (like comedy, but also writing) struggle with, which is separating the joy of the process and the work itself, from how the work is perceived by the public (sales, critics, “success,” etc.). Her answer: ambivalence.
“I will say it again. Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look. I realize this is extremely difficult. I am not saying I am particularly good at it. I’m like you. Or maybe you’re better at this than I am. You will never climb Career Mountain and get to the top and shout, “I made it!” You will rarely feel done or complete or successful. Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that likes to sit at the head of the table, and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone else’s. It doesn’t matter how much you get; you are left wanting more. Success is filled with MSG. Ambivalence can tame the beast” (p. 223-225).
One of the ARCs I most coveted at ALA Midwinter in Chicago was the latest installment of Jeanne Birdsall’s insta-classic Penderwicks series, so there was a lot of internal–okay, and maybe a little external–squealing when I managed to snag a copy at the Random House booth. This is the first Penderwicks book I’ve actually “read.” I listened to the rest of the series on audiobook, which means that my husband has been forced to listen to bits of the Penderwicks and also that we can do funny voices for “Batty.”
The Penderwicks in Spring is just as darling a book as the previous three Penderwicks books. Birdsall has such a knack for making the smaller, ordinary moment so deeply felt, and that was as true in this book as it was in the others, whether it’s Batty’s anxiety over asking her music teacher if she’d consider offering private singing lessons for her, or Ben playing action figures. The emotional center of this novel is Batty, now eleven, who is still struggling with the death of Hound. Everyone else has moved past their mourning, except Batty, who blames herself for Hound’s death. As always with the Penderwicks, there’s a flurry of activity with there being so many Penderwicks. Two-year-old Lydia is always getting into something, Skye and Rosalind have boy issues, and Nick Geiger is soon coming home from war. I so enjoyed watching Batty move past her grief and also learn to enjoy this unexpected gift: her beautiful singing voice. Birdsall has one more Penderwicks book planned, but honestly, I hope she reconsiders and keeps on writing them as long as she has more stories to tell. The Penderwicks are right up there with the Bravermans and the Gilmores as fictional families I’d love to be adopted into.
The Penderwicks In Spring releases on March 24, 2015.
As a child, the books that kept drawing me back were the ones in which a beloved character dies–Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, and countless others. I’m not entirely certain why I was drawn to these titles, as the juvenile me had, thankfully, very few direct encounters with death. And yet, I can so clearly remember visiting my school library and sneaking its copy of A Summer to Die off the shelf and reading just a bit, every time our class visited the library. Adult-me is still drawn to tearjerkers, though a bit more out in the open. I’ll never forget reading the entirety of The Fault in Our Stars in an airplane window seat, openly sobbing at the end. Or sniffling my way through Jo Knowles’s See You At Harry’s. You could say I’m a timeless fan of the tearjerker.
So I guess it’s not entirely surprising that as a writer, I’m drawn to certain themes, topics, and plot-lines that get the tears flowing in readers. (And okay, the writer too. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, right?) That said, it’s always a challenge every time I’m writing these sad scenes and moments. Am I evoking that emotion for the reader, or just me? I find myself wondering. It’s hard to tell until I share my work with other readers.
A week ago today, I said goodbye to the closest thing I had to a childhood pet: my parents’ cat Suki, acquired while I was away at college. In the days between the goodbye and the last trip to the vet, I was surprised by how completely overcome I was by grief. In the past few years, my family had been hit hard–I lost all three of my grandparents in a six month span–but I’d never experienced the death of an animal. Yet, in some ways, I felt like I had. My middle grade work-in-progress included a plot thread in which the main character’s beloved dog disappears right before a tornado and is assumed dead. I tried, as best as I could, to assume her mindset as I wrote and revised (and revised, and revised, and continued to revise), but it was only as I grieved the death of Suki that I discovered how much I got wrong, how much I underestimated the depth of grief that can come with a death of a pet. With that in mind, next week, I’m gearing up for another round of revisions starting next week, looking for ways to deepen my character’s experience, now that I’ve gone through it myself.
A brief memory of Suki, as previously posted on Facebook:
If it weren’t for Jessi, I’m sure my parents never would have had a cat. My mom didn’t want to get “attached,” she said, which explained why as kids we had pets with very short life cycles: fish, a bunny, gerbils, etc. But when my brother’s then-girlfriend needed to find a home for a cat they’d taken in that wasn’t meshing with their other cats, somehow my mom offered up to take her in. She so generously offered Suki (my brother’s name for the cat) the garage, the porch, and the basement, fearful that the cat would terrorize and destroy her house. Little did she know Suki’s true nature.
From a thousand miles away at college in Chicago, I followed the saga as Suki was slowly let into more and more of my parents’ home. It wasn’t long until everything became suited toward Suki, my parents’ unexpected third baby. Few cats are doted on to the extent that Suki has been, especially after my brother left for college. Suki was a constant companion for all of us, exceedingly soft (called by many “the softest cat in the world”, okay, called by my best friend), exceedingly sweet (will sit on your lap for several movies in a row if you let her), and exceedingly patient. I wasn’t sure Suki had a bigger fan on earth than my mother, until my nephew blasted into the world. It took a few years to figure out if he was intent on destroying Suki or loving her (so many ear pokes, admitting once that he wanted to “slice her” only to then beg through tears for forgiveness), but by kindergarten, there was no question. Suki was the love of his life. He in complete seriousness told me on several occasions that he wanted to marry her—the ultimate declaration of love from a seven year old.
Suki was a lover of many things in her life. Despite the terror my nephew inflicted on her in her earlier years, I do believe he was one of them. She loved nothing more than to scratch her chin along his Legos and Playmobil, or to curl up at the end of his bed while she slept. “The little guy,” my mom called him to Suki, in preparation for his visits. “The little guy is coming again, Suke.” She loved ribbon and string and plants, so much so that none could be kept in the house. She loved to watch all of the goings-on in the backyard—the birds, the deer, the squirrels and chipmunks—from her spot in the porch. Though not a cat you had to take the food away from (quite the opposite, I think she had feline bulimia), she always loved a good treat. A few licks of milk from your cereal bowl, whipped cream from off your finger, even a stray piece of Chex. She loved to greet you by the door with a little trill, and to sit in the window. She wanted to be near people always. Even when she was starting to not feel well around the holidays, she waded through the crowd on Christmas Eve, sneaking pets from everyone.
But I think what I am going to miss about her most are the things that mark her as different from my cat. (Because she is. She is nothing at all like my Lilly, though she is every reason I have a cat at all.) The way she would squeeze into my bedroom at my parents’ house and walk all over me in the middle of the night, whether I wanted it or not. The way she would hop up on my lap on the recliner, rub her face all over my book, and then sit on me for so long I’d almost pee the chair I kept putting off getting up from because it was so nice having this sweet cat on my lap. It was so hard to believe, after all, that she was an animal and not my sister. (And not just because I called her my sister and told my nephew she was my sister and insisted that she was my sister, just my “cat sister.”) The only wild thing I’d ever seen her do was, once or twice a day, absolutely tear around my parent’s house after using her litter box. Even as a more senior cat, she still tore through the place with abandon, mrowling the whole way around the joint and then galloping up the stairs. But then just so quickly, she would turn back into her normal, more docile self, smelling of my mom’s hand lotion, and cheerfully chirping.
As my parents prepared for the last trip to the vet on Monday, I’m left reeling from yet another death in our family. Because that is what Suki was. My sister. I’m sorry, but I’m attached.
When Penguin Random House puts out a monstrous heap of pretty galleys at ALA Midwinter, you know they’re not kidding around. One of the books I was most psyched to grab back in late January was Cassie Beasley’s debut. (Admission: Cassie graduated from VCFA the semester before me and I was completely blown away by her reading, so I had an inkling this book was going to be special.)
Circus Mirandus grabbed me from the very first page; Cassie Beasley has complete control over this story, which expertly unfolded from the very first instant. From his deathbed, Micah’s grandpa Ephraim makes a dying wish: for the Lightbender he’d met years ago at Circus Mirandus to return and grant him his wish. But what is his wish, readers will wonder, just as I had.
Moving effortlessly between past and present, we come to know Ephraim when he was a young boy like Micah, and how he stumbled upon Circus Mirandus with a fish providing him admission. In the present, we see Micah, struggling with a great-aunt who couldn’t care less about him as he beloved grandfather’s health fails, and finding a friend in his classmate Jenny, a well-meaning know-it-all, who struggles to believe in magic. That is, until Circus Mirandus comes to town, again, and both Micah and Jenny are drawn into its magic, intent on saving Ephraim.
Cassie Beasley’s story reads like an instant classic, which, trust me, is pretty rare these days. Circus Mirandus will leave you believing in magic, and in the power of family and love and friendship. I can’t wait for June, when this book will reach a much, much wider audience.
My ten favorite gals from across the span of children’s and YA literature, in no particular order, who are all invited to my imaginary literary Galentine’s Day brunch:
1. Ruby Oliver (from E. Lockhart’s fabulous Ruby Oliver quartet)
2. Alice McKinley from PRN’s (I am probably the only person who refers to Phyllis Reynolds Naylor as PRN, but I digress…) Alice series. Still can’t believe it’s over, so of course, Alice is invited to my Galentine’s Day brunch.
3. Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery’s classic series. (It is really hard to tell her she can’t bring Gilbert Blythe, but… this is Galentine’s Day. He can come over any other time.)
4. Calpurnia Tate. (Perhaps she will tell me about the new Calpurnia Tate book coming out in August because I cannot wait!!!!)
5. Mia Thermopolis. (If Mia doesn’t pay for the brunch, she will not be invited to the next one. And yeah, I said it, Mia.)
6. Frances the Badger. (Frances is sort of an outlier for this brunch, but whatevs. She offered to bring jam and swore on her life she wouldn’t sing the creepy egg song, so she can still come.)
7. Francie Nolan. (Note to self: do not wear your A Tree Grows in Brooklyn t-shirt to brunch with Francie. It’s like wearing a Sonic Youth shirt to a Sonic Youth concert, which, okay, Kim Gordon recently did, but you are not Kim Gordon and cannot pull it off.)
8. Hermione Granger. (No explanation needed!)
9. Jessica Darling from Megan McCafferty’s series. (It might get dicey if we talk recent 5k times and she is faster than me, so I guess that should not be on my table topics cards.)
10. Anastasia Krupnik. I cannot wait to tell her that Warby Parker is putting her glasses back in style.
***For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Galentine’s Day or need a refresher course:
What better time to recap a wonderful ALA Midwinter conference than while sitting in my hotel bed? Thanks to the latest blizzard, which librarians and publishing folks got to experience in Chicago before it traveled onward to Boston, I am spending an extra 36-ish hours in the Windy City. Better to be in a fancy old hotel than the airport, though, right?
Chicago definitely lived up to its nickname yesterday, as I trekked out in the 40 m.p.h. whiteout conditions in search of some Super Bowl snacks with my intrepid friends. (It turns out people who regularly visit the South Pole are just the teeniest bit better at managing inclement weather than wimpy writers named Jenn.) But while watching the flakes swirl around from the 14th floor was pretty awesome, I’m not sure it counts as a highlight of ALA.
Which brings us to… the actual highlights!
1. On Saturday afternoon, I met one of my all-time favorite YA authors, Meg Cabot. Now, the Princess Diaries books were a huge contributing factor to my love of YA, as they were some of the first modern-era YA books I read, via a junior high student I tutored while in college. I’m such a sucker for any book (or movie) featuring the awkward princess Mia Thermopolis, so meeting Meg Cabot was extremely high on my ALA to-do list. Luckily, even though the line was quite long by the time I got there, it only took half an hour until I got to meet her. She was every bit as delightful as one would expect, and I managed to not be totally flustered. I told her that Michael Moscowitz was my first and most enduring book boyfriend. (Completely true.) And I may or may not have worn the special Princess Diaries paper crown from the signing when I began reading my ARC of Royal Wedding, even though it was sized for a ten-year-old’s head.
2. When Charlesbridge invited me to appear on an ALA Buzz panel to discuss debut children’s books, I jumped at the chance. As a once-and-future debut author, I have so much love for debut books. Some of my favorites every year are debut titles. For 2014, Nest and The Meaning of Maggie were among my very favorite middle grade novels and both are by authors publishing for the very first time. Along with Charlesbridge editor Julie Bliven and the Boston Public Library’s Head of Children’s Laura Koenig, I really enjoyed discussing ways that librarians (and booksellers, and really anyone) can promote and discover debut voices. I left with a growing list of other debut titles to check out. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, I’m looking at you!
3. The surprise theme of every trip to Chicago (a place I called home for eight years) lately is reconnecting with old friends. Prior to ALA, I trekked out to the Homewood Public Library, where I began my library career. It was so wonderful to spend time chatting with my former coworkers, who were so supportive of my book and so eager to have me come to the library when it comes out. I was reminded by one of them that even Chris Pratt lived in a van in Hawaii before he made it, so if this is my “living in a van like Chris Pratt” moment, well, I’ll take it. At the conference itself, I caught up with a couple of fellow Best Fiction for Young Adults committee alums, and also kept just missing a few other friends.
4. How have I gotten this far without mentioning the books? Oh man, THE BOOKS. In total denial, before I left, I told my husband I would come home with a couple books. More like a couple bags of books. Oops. It’s a slippery slope at ALA. You start searching out a few specific titles, but then you talk to someone from sales and marketing who has all these suggestions (many of them debuts) and before you know it, you have forty pounds of ARCs and three tote bags and a page of Origami Yoda stickers and you remember your 7 year old nephew might like some books too, and, and, and… yeah. I’m a tidy person, but I think I am also technically a book hoarder.
5. Though I did not make it to the convention center for the ALA Youth Media Awards at 8 AM, I watched the pre-game show with Betsy Bird, and the awards, and the post-game breakdown. All I can say right now is WOW. Any surprises were surprises that made me just more psyched about ALA. All of the love for fantastic diverse titles was so well-deserved. I’ve been raving about The Crossover to anyone and everyone for the past month or so since I read it, but I never said out-loud how much I wanted it to win, out of fear that I’d jinx it. This book is going to be so beloved by kids. It has everything I love in a middle grade book: verse, heart, readability, voice, characters that feel achingly real, tears, sports, siblings… GAH! I could go on and on. Just–happy. So happy that this book got the recognition it did. And happy for all the other authors and books I love that were recognized, like El Deafo and Viva Frida and I’ll Give You The Sun. Now if I could actually read all the books I want to read!
In preparation for my trip to ALA Midwinter this weekend, and in the midst of a snow day in Boston, I’ve been thinking about my Newbery and Printz predictions (Caldecotts, too, although I’m not as obsessive on that end). Every year since my first as a children’s librarian in 2006, I’ve put together a list of the titles I think will get recognized.
Now, to be very clear, these are not necessarily the titles I want to win, so much as the titles I think will win. Over the years, I’ve noticed some trends in the lists, and I like to think I have some idea how libraries on a book committees tend to think, having served on several myself. The thing about awards committees is that they are always very contingent on the individual personalities involved. A committee with a different makeup will likely create a very different list. The general public consensus may gravitate towards one title but that does not mean it will win the biggest awards there are for children’s literature in America. (Remember, Charlotte’s Web failed to win the Newbery the year it came out.) At the end of the day, it all comes down to the vote! (And then, of course, the big reveal, at the ALA Youth Media Awards, which everyone can livestream here.
Right, right, right. . . the predictions!
The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
Draw by Raul Colon
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illus. Jon Klassen
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
The Riverman by Aaron Starmer
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
Poisoned Apples by Christine Hepperman
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn
(Also, a caveat: I have not necessarily read all of these titles. But I have read most of them!)
Can’t wait for Monday to find out who the real winners are. There are always some surprises that leave me scratching my head. . . and then immediately inter-library-loaning that book!
Every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve written down ten resolutions sometime during New Year’s Eve day. I don’t usually share or post them publicly. Instead, they live in my journals and planners. I’d be lying if they were something that I thought about consciously after the first couple days of the months; they’re usually the kinds of big picture things I’m always trying to improve about myself that I’m well aware I need to work on. (Yep, “floss more” is nearly always on the list.)
But every now and then, I get super specific. For example, last year I said I wanted to break 24 minutes in a 5k and sign up for a marathon. Those ones haunted me once I got past the winter months where how much I ran was dictated by how much snow and ice lurked on the sidewalks in my neighborhood. These resolutions seemed completely in my control and discrete. In March, I signed up for the Chicago Marathon lottery, and in April, I finally broke 24 minutes, on a nice flat 5k course. I wish I could say that the resolution alone was my motivation, but in the age of social media specific to everything, that wasn’t exactly the case. My husband and I have become obsessed with tracking our race times on Athlinks. So, just like I am obsessed with tracking everything I read on GoodReads, I am similarly obsessed with beating my personal records for various distances, proof that getting older does not mean getting slower.
Which brings me to GoodReads. Since 2010, I have tracked all of my reading using the popular social networking site. Since that year, though, my reading has continually declined from 311 books read (in 2010) down to a mere 111 in 2014.
I know, I know. The librarian in me still thinks:
But the writer in me is considering a different approach. Last year was the first year I was able to decide what I read in several years (2 years of service on the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults committee, plus 2 years of being a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts), and I so enjoyed being able to read what I wanted. That said, I found myself feeling a little burnt out on reading. Maybe it was the critical lens I’d picked up at school that I couldn’t quite let go, or maybe reading burn out is a real thing. All I know is this year, my reading resolution is to read for enjoyment and learning. To feel free to set a book aside if I’m not feeling it, instead of dragging myself through it just because I want to check of the “done” box on GoodReads.
My other reading resolution is to read more diverse books. I’ve been following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign since it began and full-heartedly support it. As a librarian, I worked in several communities with such a strong need for diverse books and not enough published books that really met that need. But I think it’s also fair to say that as an upper-middle-class white woman, I wasn’t doing my best job at reading diverse books. I could do better, and in 2015, I hope I will.
So there they are: my reading resolutions for 2015:
Though the year hasn’t come to a close, we’ve certainly reached that time of the year where EVERYONE HAS A LIST ABOUT SOMETHING! The best books of 2014, the best albums of 2014, best films, best actors, etc. etc. Well, as a nerdy librarian, I must admit I craft my own such list every year. Ever since my first year as a teen librarian (2009), I have kept track of everything I read, using everything from the back of my planner to LibraryThing to GoodReads, always organized by year.
When I was a member of the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Committee, I read an obscene amount of books. (Or an amazing amount of books, if you want to think of it that way.) For those two years, I read more than 250 books per year. Um, that is insane. I also did pretty much nothing else besides read. (That’s what happens when you read that many books and they are not picture books, but ever-growing-in-girth YA novels.)
Since my time on the BFYA committee, I’ve been trying to focus my reading more on quality than quantity. I still read over 100 books a year, but not as many over 100 (106 for this year, as of today), and definitely not more than 150. (For the record, I do not count picture books; that would be too time-consuming given how long it takes to read them.)
Okay, stop rambling, Jenn, get to that list….
Best plane read of the year:
Isla and the Happily Ever after by Stephanie Perkins
Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn
Best tug-at-your-heart-strings middle grade:
Nest by Esther Ehrlich
Most incredible voice in a novel:
I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson
Best read everybody already knows about:
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
Favorite graphic novel:
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Favorite middle grade (unqualified):
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Favorite oldie but goodie:
A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin
Favorite book I read aloud in the car to my nephew:
The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Favorite book that captured everything about being a teenager, by a brilliant voice lost too soon:
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Favorite adult fiction:
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Favorite early chapter book:
Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Only book I read this year that made the NYTimes top 100 (and top 10) books:
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Best book I read that isn’t coming out until 2015:
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Lists of favorite books are always so subjective, and every year I finish with a towering TBR stack, never mind an ever-growing TBR list. So, tell me, what did I miss?
Before I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts for my MFA, I didn’t have a writing community. I had friends who were willing to read my drafts, some of whom wrote, others that wanted to be helpful, but they didn’t exactly constitute a community. Or did they? What is a community, exactly?
When I ask Google (I mean, consult my handy dictionary) for a definition of “community,” this is what I get:
1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
That definition captures what I was looking for and what I had created by the time I left graduated from VCFA. The writers I met in Vermont didn’t exactly come from the same place. If anything, they came from ALL OVER THE PLACE. My classmates came from Hawaii, Connecticut, Utah, Arizona, and beyond–they were scattered across the country. But they did have a few characteristics in common: they loved children’s books and they wrote children’s books. They didn’t ask if someday I was going to write a “real book.” (Though, like me, they were asked that question by others!) Like me, they regularly read more children’s books than adult book every year. They cared about the Newbery awards as much–or more than–the Oscars. They read The Horn Book. They valued, deeply valued, the craft of writing for ages 0-18. Every bit as much as I did.
The sense of fellowship came naturally with this group, especially with my graduating class at VCFA. (VCFA is very class-centric. I graduated in January ’14 with the M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s. We’re also really into naming our classes; it’s one of our many traditions.) Those two years of graduate school bonded us as we further developed our interests. Whether we chose to focus on picture books or middle grade or young adult or poetry, we stayed close because we were all approaching these interests with the same level of intensity, the same seriousness of study.
Almost a year after graduation, I’ve found that the bonds only continue to grow. My graduating class from VCFA has vowed to organize annual retreats, the first of which led me to Park City, Utah, this past September. For five days, we talked craft, discussed books and movies, cooked dinner for each other, entertained guest writers, and oh yes–that other thing we do–we wrote. It was in Park City, at our very own writing retreat, that I had major breakthroughs about a new project, a YA novel, that I was just beginning. I left invigorated, refreshed, but most of all, happy and exhausted in a way I hadn’t quite felt since middle school sleepovers. Now, that’s community.
Hundreds to thousands of miles don’t stop us from being a community. Not at all. While there are days when I realize I have spent way too much time on Facebook or texting or Twitter, I realize that I have an legitimate excuse. I’m staying in touch with my writer friends.
VCFA probably won’t be my only writing community–I’m always interested in meeting writers that live nearby, and I’m starting to connect with other members of the Sweet Sixteens. But it’ll always be the first place I found my people, where I felt at home.