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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Scrabble and Scratch of It All

A lot of writers I know bounce between two worlds.  I’m no different.
Most writers are introverts by nature, wouldn’t you say?  We make forays into the real world, look around with delight and excitement, but then retreat to our hidey-holes to work. 
It’s in our writing spaces that we spend huge amounts of time dreaming, digesting and then translating.  We change ideas into symbols.  Then we undo, destroy and rework lots of what we just did.  Scratch, scrabble, gnaw, pause, erase, pause, write, pause, erase again; we are creatures who dig into and chew our way through life.  We stop answering the phone.  We do everything but disappear into our pages.
For me at least, that’s one side of how I live.  The other side loves to be out there in the world and has lots to say about it.  The other side gets inspired by my contact with kids, by the way they see, and by hearing from readers of all ages.  And now that I’ve just finished my sixth mystery, I am traveling and talking quite a bit.  In order to do this right, I sharpen my thinking in various directions, shaping it to fit the audience.  If talking with kids only, I try to reveal how I made these books and to share the mess, worry and thrill of it all.  If speaking at a convention or book festival, I may also be focusing on common core issues, fiction versus nonfiction in our schools, literacy, libraries, and the balance between electronic media and books. 
Django hopes to go along
This process of gathering my thoughts for a talk is always both centering and energizing.  It forces me to roll the cat hair off my clothes, shove whatever I’ve been working on to one side and come up for fresh air, and I always enjoy my interaction with the professionals and kids that I meet.  Always.  I wonder, at these times, why I don’t say Yes to more.
And then suddenly I’m back home, jiggety-jig, and as soon as my suitcase is unpacked, zing!  I’m like a magnet in front of steel.  I’m back glued to my chair in the laundry room, typing or scribbling away.  And as I’m one who clearly loves to make books, almost everything I do in my workspace centers on that.  It’s as if the everyday world fades and vanishes when I step into my hidey-hole. 
It’s a bit rubber-band-like, this stretch-snap-stretch that defines my real world vs. my writing world. 
I think I like this blog business – I’m in the laundry room, but also here with you.  I’ll have to remember that this is possible.  But wait – hold on a moment while I scribble down an idea that just occurred, one to go in the next book!  Just a moment…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pieces and Players

I’m thrilled to report I’ve been deep in criminal activity.
Remember Calder, Petra and Tommy – my characters in Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game?  Well, they’re ba-a-a-ack!  (Tommy insists on an ominous ta-TAH flourish here.)  And this time, they’re together in the same book with Zoomy, from The Danger Box, and Early, from Hold Fast.  They’re all in my new mystery, Pieces and Players, which will be out April 1, 2015.
It might be more accurate to say I’m in their mystery.  Everyone hears writers talk about characters ‘coming alive’ in the writing process, surprising them with rogue actions or unexpected acts of kindness.  Well.  Ever since the whisper of this five-some idea entered my head several years ago, these five voices have grown slowly louder and louder.  They got older, stronger and bossier – until they finally managed to take over. 
Help!  I muttered to myself as I began to scribble notes.  Can I keep up with these guys? 
Soon my laundry room, where I write, was a swirl of activity, and dangerously crowded; five thirteen year-olds jostled for position, surrounded by thirteen stolen works of art, a handful of suspicious adults, a sudden death, skin issues and body odor… and this is a small room.  I stopped turning on the washing machine and dryer while working; it was already far too noisy in there.  What was happening?  Yikes!  At times I felt I might fall to the floor, panting for breath, and my characters might run right over me, leaving a sneaker print on my nose and a Post-It next to it. 
Brett Helquist's illustration of Tommy, Zoomy, Early, Calder, and Petra

And then one morning I sat down with my coffee, pushed shut the laundry room door, and the five looked calmly at me.  It was clear that I was no longer in charge.  Someone had lost and someone had won.  These kids had made their unwieldy group match an unwieldy crime – a heartbreakingly true art crime that really does need to be solved – and even left some room for Mother Goose, dilly beans, and a hairy cat whose name is Rat-a-tat.  After circling around each other and me for months, the five started on a dangerous adventure. Soon my characters and I were listening to the stolen art, and -- was the art also listening?  And could that have been a ghost? 
Ms. Hussey and Mrs. Sharpe are back, along with a number of rich folks with wrinkly skin and a gorgeous old museum.  And although the action happens all over the city of Chicago in this story, my laundry room, in fact, still feels crowded. 
I’ve handed in my final copy edit, guys, and Brett Helquist has done the artwork, so quiet down!  Huh?  What are you saying? 
Oh, that!  Okay, I’ll share.  Here’s what I believe:  If anyone can get to the bottom of the biggest art heist in United States history, the one at the heart of this mystery, it’s Tommy, Calder, Petra, Early and Zoomy. 
Thirteen pieces.  Thirteen players.  And yes, a writer who feels lucky she was along for the ride.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Clicks from the Hold Fast Train

I began speaking and traveling, talking about Hold Fast, in January of 2013.  Events were added to events as the months rolled on.   By June, the Hold Fast train -- as everyone at Scholastic began to call it -- had chugged into over seventeen cities;  I'd been from Chicago to Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Nashville and a number of cities closer to home, like Naperville and Woodstock and Kankakee and North Utica.

This blur of planes, cars and hotels came together into an amazing experience, as I was able to see Hold Fast welcomed by thousands of kids of many backgrounds and ages, libraries, social service agencies, urban planners, teachers, and teachers of teachers.  I'd never expected such a wild reception for this unusual story.  Hold Fast even hit the New York Times bestseller list in May.

Here are some clicks:

A cake in Houston

Wonderful St. Louis

Hold Fast meets Chasing Vermeer tattoos, New York.

Sizzling day at LA Times Festival of Books

Colorful Palo Alto, California

Closing Keynote, American Planning Association
National Planning Conference, Chicago

Room full of urban and regional planners


Django is not pleased that I'm on the road

"Don't you dare pick up this pen!" 

Visiting Hicklebee's Books, San Jose

Signing books at Hicklebee's . . .

and then the wall

Hold Fast and I have had a winter and spring to remember.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Three Cheers for E.L.K. (1930 - 2013)


E. L. Konigsburg was a very special person in my life.  Sadly, I never met her, but it feels as though I’d known her forever.  I was twelve years old when my mother gave me The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for my birthday.  Quite honestly, it blew my mind: it took place in a museum I knew, not too far from where I was growing up in New York City; it had big, exciting ideas about real art; it had independent characters who were treated as though they knew how to think, and think they did.  I read that book again.  And later, as a parent and a teacher, again.  And again.
I do think that book changed my life.   It changed how I thought about the world around me.
I might not have gotten an art history degree if not for The Mixed-Up Files; I might never have written Chasing Vermeer.  Ever since my first mystery came out in 2004, I’ve talked about how much Konigsburg’s work has meant to me, and about how instrumental what you read as a kid can be in determining who you become.  I do believe that the words and stories absorbed early in life can matter deeply.  
Yesterday Hold Fast, my fifth mystery, hit the New York Times bestseller list.  Would it be there without E. L. Konigsburg?  Would I be writing today if not for The Mixed-Up Files?  A great many things might not have happened.
Thank you, Mrs. Konigsburg, for all you’ve given me and generations of other devoted fans.  A book that gives you yourself, no matter who you are, is truly something.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Angels and Heroes in Plain Sight

       This is a shout-out for the angels and heroes of the book world.  All who publish books know who these bigger-than-life folks are.  They know who they are.  But can the reading public identify these Clark Kents?  (Excuse the retro reference, but I always liked his glasses and the nonchalant way he whipped them off.  I think his specs may be back in style.)

       Just in case, here goes:  these heroes and angels are the people in the independent bookstores around the U.S., and the librarians in our public libraries and schools.  They are angels because they are champions of the art of reading; they recommend, they guide, they educate without demanding.  Most do a heroic amount of heavy lifting.  Witness the owners of independent bookstores, who always have strong backs.  They lug books into schools while ferrying the visiting author, they even lug books to libraries, through many a dark and stormy night, or at the very least through dinnertime…  they don’t complain.  They often supply delicious cookies.  


Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes, 
Woodstock, Illinois.  (photo by Jack Bechaud)
   
       The librarians read tirelessly.  They sift and sort.  They answer questions from all ages and with great patience.  They take care of authors and make libraries the hands-down heart of a school or a community.  Like the indie booksellers, they work overtime. They change lives by supplying the just-right book at the just-right time; they bear witness to the power of the written word. 
       Angels.  Heroes.  I am currently doing a great deal of travel for Hold Fast, and am reminded, just about daily, of how great these people really are.  They have wings and super-powers. 
       Don’t be fooled – they’re hiding in plain sight. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Holding on for Hold Fast


These days, I’m holding on for Hold Fast; it’s a traveling spring.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited many schools in many places and will continue to travel through April.  I am at my most relaxed when with kids, and I have been hearing many surprising, excellent and touching questions.  In addition, I’ve heard or read heart-warming, startlingly wonderful comments from sources of all ages, and at all times of day -- in schools, bookstores and library talks, in a flow of reviews, in outspoken and beautifully-written online blogs. 
I’m not good at taking pictures at each school I visit – I wish I were.  I’m all in the moment, the moment is over, I’m back in a car, and whoosh!  Life goes on.   However, last week I was in a public school near downtown St. Louis that was so unusual that I need to share some of what I saw.  There is much in the news these days about public schools and what’s wrong with them.  Sometimes there is lots right.

I walked into the Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary School, in Richmond Heights, Missouri, and stopped.  What – a Banksy-inspired painting?  A close-to-Lichtenstein?  An unusual piece of art designed to honor and support a center for homeless boys?


This is a school with social justice overtones that structures projects around a theme each year, supporting their budget with grants and the input of local artists.  This year, the theme was exploring the idea and metaphor of ‘School as Museum’, and the kids had painted, built, researched and designed some amazing exhibits.  The topics were issues they felt needed some museum attention, like bullying; the environment; drug use in neighborhoods; poverty in the world around us. Kids were obviously building and documenting knowledge using real-world issues and problems, and I could see that Ms. Hussey and I, if we’d been invited to teach there, could have jumped right in. 
In this photo, a group of sixth graders pose in front of an exhibit which studies both interrelated facts and some proposed solutions to poverty and homelessness. 
I was on a schedule and couldn’t stay long, but the whiff of powerful yet heartfelt critical thinking that I witnessed there is still with me.  After my talk, I grabbed my phone and took these pictures.  For anyone wanting to get a close look at an awesome constructivist curriculum in a public school setting, I say, Go to St. Louis!  Visit the MRH kids, as they call themselves.  Hold fast for some powerful learning. 
And, by the way, the kids seemed pretty excited about Hold Fast, which makes me happy.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ouch, Oof: the Battle of Fiction vs. Nonfiction


     I’ve just returned from the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, one with strands reaching into the lives of teachers, librarians, academics, university students and lifelong learners.  It’s a fabulous gathering of thinkers and word-lovers, and again and again I heard the tension in conversation about the looming public school Core demands, and the place–if any–of fiction in the structure of that upcoming Core curriculum.
     Ouch!  Oof!  Fiction and nonfiction are slugging it out behind closed doors.  I’ve just read a marvelous New York Times article called, What Should Children Read? http://nyti.ms/RXKCQi  It inspired me.  As it isn’t fiction, is there irony here?  Nah, behind all inviting nonfiction lies a story.
     These are odd times.  It used to be that fiction and nonfiction carried equal weight as complimentary ingredients in a school curriculum; they were also the salt and pepper, or maybe the oil and vinegar, that seasoned lots of less intriguing but healthy stuff, at least for those students who weren’t math and science stars.  Both fiction and nonfiction shared stories that gave you a reason to gather necessary skills and tools -- tools that would send you out into the world one day as a capable communicator and wage-earner yourself. 
     Not to overdo the cooking metaphor, but everyone likes to taste and eat, and…  well, I see my job as a fiction writer, one whose work often appears in schools, as this:  I’m a maker of good smells in the learning kitchen. I try to leave readers of any age hungry.  To make anyone who reads my mysteries want to dig and explore further, and to ask more questions.  (I should also mention that my books don’t fit neatly into the category of either ‘mysteries’ or ‘fiction’ as they always seem to be packed with facts and real-world ideas.  Facts, after all, are the best teasers in our puzzling times.)   I wish I heard the messy word ‘inspiration’ being mentioned in talk of school reform as much other multisyllabic terms like ‘data-driven instruction’ and ‘high-stakes assessment.’ I feel this is a mistake, simplistic as it sounds.
     I believe the job of fiction in our schools should be to make readers curious about non-fiction, to make them love the process of following words and ideas, and to make the world at large feel more relevant.  Fiction has the power, ironically, to make nonfiction come alive. 
     There.  I’ve thumped the podium.  And waved my spoon.