14 February 2018

Natural Disasters

I wrote this poem last fall. It's been ringing in my ears all day. 

Natural Disasters

In how to handle tornadoes, we have been well trained: we kneel
against lockers, foreheads touching cool metal, thin arms
awkwardly crossed above our heads and exposed necks,
teachers strolling inspection, scolding our stifled giggles. It’s just
a drill. Repeat anything enough and it becomes routine, and dull.

When I’m eleven, the playground skies turn yellow green, and sirens
outside trigger our training. In orderly rows we walk the halls to claim
our places against the lockers. We curl like caterpillars against the sounds
of sirens still wailing, now muffled by cinderblock walls and howling
winds. We wait for the all-clear. We trust it will come. It always does.

Years later, sirens sound in the city and now in my twenties
I, well-trained, travel dutifully down four flights to the basement. In the dark,
my neighbors sit with necessities: a flashlight, a radio, a case of cheap beer.
They have found folding chairs, metal, church basement style, and set them
in a circle. Grandly, they offer me a seat and a beer. I take both.

We trade tornado stories and track the storm. Midwesterners all, we laugh
about drills in elementary school—different schools, different cities,
same curled-up crouches, same whispering rows. And look: it worked.
Here we are, in the basement, in our twenties, waiting for the sirens
to stop. Say what you will about school drills. We are all well-trained.

In my thirties, we don’t have basements but we do have drills. Familiar
in ways, though I am now the teacher. Here, we have no sirens. Here,
a voice comes on the intercom to begin the drill. I turn off the lights. I shush
my students. I train them to crouch on the floor. Make yourself small. Cover
your heads. In hushed anticipatory silence, we wait for the all-clear.

Unlike me, my students are not well-trained. They haven’t spent childhood
marching into place, don’t know how to stay silent and still, don’t
automatically drop into rounded lumps like rows of toadstools. They
tangle themselves in clusters of teenaged limbs. They whisper. They giggle.
I hush. They fidget and fuss. They wonder and worry. Shhh, I shush. It’s just a drill.

But the shock, when it comes, does not feel like a drill. Our dusky
quiet is suddenly interrupted. My startled students bolt straight.

The banging like gunshots on the classroom door.
The shouting voice, full of rage. LET ME IN. I HAVE A GUN.

My students scream, loud as sirens. I scream too.

The banging stops. The voice comes again, but now it is familiar; it belongs
to the principal. This is a drill. Are you okay? he asks. Everyone okay?
We giggle in giddy relief, my students and I. Sorry! I call. We’re okay!
We have failed the drill. I let the principal in, and he lectures us all. Next time,
it might be real. We nod solemnly. Next time, we’ll do better, we swear.

After a year, we are all well-trained. We know how to hide
under desks and tables. We stay silent when the shooter slams his fists
against the classroom door. Eyes wide, we watch each other in darkness
while the shooter shouts threats in the hallway. Shhhh, our eyes say. It’s
only a drill. Repeated enough, it has become routine, almost dull.

I wonder where my students will be when their training kicks in
again. In their teens? Twenties? Well-trained, crouched quiet
in a dark room, sharing eyes with strangers who’ve been well-trained too—
will they be at school? an airport? a church? the mall? a classroom
of their own, teaching children

how to hide under desks and tables,
how to stay silent and still, crouched in quiet,
how not to cry when the banging comes—

When it comes
they will be well-trained in how to survive
the disasters we have agreed we are powerless
to prevent. Repeated enough, it has become routine, almost


21 October 2017

What Women Mean When We Say #MeToo

Some men on my Facebook timeline have complained that #metoo is unfair to men because it implies that they're all catcalling losers, but they themselves have never catcalled a lady once. Unfair!

But here's the thing, pals. It's not just catcalling.

It's when nine out of ten cab drivers ask you if you're single, and you have them drop you a block from your house because you don't want them to know where you live.

It's when you're leaning over a coworker's desk to look at a document and another coworker walks by and says you're begging for a spanking.

It's when a man on the train demands that you smile at him, yells at you when you try to ignore him, and everyone else is silent.

It's when a man you just met physically blocks the door and won't let you leave until you give him your number. It's when the other teachers in your department make sexual comments about your 8th grade students, and when you call them on it they say the girls are asking for it by dressing that way.

It's when your coworkers complain that your boss must be on her period because she's given you a tough deadline.

It's when a man literally grabs you by the pussy and insists that he's allowed to/it's funny because he's gay.

It's when your eye doctor smashes his erection against you during your eye exam and you don't speak out because you're too young to know what an erection even is.

It's when your boss loves to make boob jokes and everyone defends him because "he's harmless."

It's when your much older manager tells you to quit your job so you can date him, and when you try to laugh it off he reminds you that he could fire you if you'd rather.

It's when a man on public transportation leers at you and opens his legs to reveal his gross old dick flopping out of his shorts.

It's when a man won't leave you alone until you utter the magic words "boyfriend" or "husband."

It's when a man you thought was your friend sticks his stupid penis in your face while you're trying to watch a movie and then yells at you and calls you a tease when you refuse to give him a blow job.

It's when one of your students threatens to rape a girl in your class and the vice principal doesn't want to call his parents because "he was only joking."

It's when a man gets mad at you for crossing the street and screams, "I'm not going to rape you, you fat bitch!"

It's when a man warns you about other men, or makes threats about his teenaged daughter and boys, because he "knows how men are" or "used to be a teenaged boy" and knows how they are too.

It's when this same man gets mad at you for making generalizations about men.

It's the million times you have to smile, or laugh, or ignore something in order to de-escalate a situation where you don't feel safe. It's the ways you learn to pacify men, to soothe their egos and avoid their anger. It's the way those strategies become second nature. It's the way you walk through the world every day. It's the way you learn to watch your words and your body language and your outfit and your back so no one can accuse you of leading him on or sending the wrong message or asking for it. It's the way you know that no amount of vigilance is enough to keep you safe.

So yeah, dudes. We're not just talking about catcalling.

01 July 2017

Covered in Bees!

When I was six years old, I stepped on a nest of yellow jackets. We had stopped on the side of the road to pee off the side of the car, par for the course on family roadtrips, and then my dad, little sister, and I wandered a little ways into the woods where we found an abandoned train track and decided to explore it. I was first. I remember the before and the after: first the woods, hazy and green, dappled light filtered through leaves, and then the pain.

We were somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains. Beautiful and remote. I stepped on the nest and suddenly I was surrounded by angry wasps. They were ferocious and unrelenting. I remember my dad yelling for me to run, but his voice came through a veil that panic had thrown between me and the rest of the world. On the other side of the veil, my dad yelled "Run! Run!" On my side, the wasps buzzed in my ears and my feet stayed frozen in place.

What a surprise it was to discover that the world can change in a second. That the ground can spin itself into a swarm and surround you faster than you can process it. I'm not sure if I knew before that moment. I'm not sure I know now. Maybe it's something we have to discover again and again. Maybe it's something we're better off forgetting.

Eventually my dad caught up to me and grabbed me under his arm, a frozen girl statue, and carried me out of the woods back to our little blue super beetle. I had been stung 13 or 14 times. My dad had 8 stings and my little sister had 3 or 4. My parents had no idea whether my sister and I might be allergic to stings. Our first aid kit was what we had in the car: I held cold cans of beer from the cooler against my hot skin as my parents frantically tried to find a Ranger's Station.

That's all I remember. I remember the woods, the buzzing, the fear, the freezing, and finally the cold aluminum cans against my baby skin. I have no memory of what happened next. I have no memory of how long the stings hurt.

Anyway, last night I startled a bunch of yellow jackets while I was cutting down burdock growing against the fence. One of them stung me, fast and hard, right on the wrist bone. There was no buzzing, no veil, no moment where time turned to honey, viscous and glowing. There was just this tiny F16 on a mission and a sudden shock of pain. And then there was me, yelling expletives at yellow jackets until it occurred to me to rescue myself. I went inside, washed my whole arm and hand with soap, took an antihistamine, and kept it on ice for the rest of the night.

There is something I appreciate about physical ailments: I like how they bring me back to my body. I like how they put my brain in its place. They remind me that no matter how smart I think I am, I am not in control of the universe, because I live inside a body that is subject to illness and injury. It keeps me humble.

But I don't appreciate this one. You guys, it HURT. It ached like muscles do after you get a shot. Last time I got a TDAP booster, my arm ached for two days. This was worse. I spent half the night googling additional remedies, but came up empty handed. Today, the ache has lessened, but the area around the sting is swollen and itchy and hot. I'm grumpy about it. I just want to complain.

Finally I texted my mom for advice. "This one sting hurts so much! How did I not die when I was little?"

She wrote back, "I gave you Benadryl and Advil right away and put a cold can immediately on the sting sites. Then I cuddled you until you felt better."

Ah, the missing ingredient: cuddles. No wonder I'm so grumpy today.

I think of the little girl who was me, sitting in the back of a hot car, scared, surprised, holding cold beer cans to her 13 stings. Another girl might never have gone back to the woods. Another girl might have developed a lifelong phobia of bees. But the little girl who was me didn't let the possibility of getting hurt again keep her away from the world. She went on exploring. She kept loving the woods. She stayed brave and curious. She stayed open to a world that could hurt her at any moment. 

The world hurts a lot these days. Some days it's the gathering swarm, coming from all sides. Other days it's the stealth bomber, unexpected and sharp. Some days it feels impossible to keep going.

But I am still that girl. I go on loving the world. 

16 March 2017

Ferdinand the Bull and the Power of Stories

In the picture book class I'm teaching, I asked my students to bring in books to share so that we could get a broader range of texts to discuss. One woman brought in The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. My students are all much older than me (you have to be at least 50 to take the class, and a few of them are in their 80s), but we all had good memories of reading this simple story about a little bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight.
The Story of Ferdinand was published by Viking in September, 1936, to little fanfare. Early in 1937, though, sales began to grow weekly, and by 1938 this little book for children was outselling the enormously popular Gone With the Wind. The book's message of individuality, independence, and peace resonated with people across the globe. 
Not everyone loved it, however. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was so threatened by its peaceful message that he banned it in Spain as long as he held power. After his death in 1975, copies of the book were seen as symbols that Spain was finally free.
Adolf Hitler also felt threatened by the little bull. He called the book "degenerate democratic propaganda" and ordered that all copies be destroyed. At the end of WWII, 30,000 copies of the book were printed and freely distributed among German children as a message of peace.
The women in my class are writing all kinds of stories for children. Today I heard stories about mysterious noises, first bus rides, learning the constellations, the National Parks, houses for mouses, baobab trees, new friends, and the food web. I loved them all.
At the end of class, we got into a discussion of current events. Many of the women are retired teachers or librarians, and like me, they are worried, upset, angry, disgusted, depressed, and overwhelmed by recent attacks on education, health care, the environment, the arts, science, immigrants, Muslims, and free speech (and that's just the list of things we talked about), both here in Iowa and on the national level. Some of them told me that they feel helpless and hopeless. Some of them told me they want to fight. Others said they wanted to help, but they didn't know how.
Ladies, I can relate.
I told them that these days I end my college classes by reminding my undergrads to be kind to each other. I told them that the drafts they shared in class today inspired and cheered me. I thanked them for sharing, and told them that this class is the highlight of my week. And then I reminded them that something as simple as a children's picture book about a funny little bull could be powerful enough to threaten dictators. 
Stories matter. Art matters. Your voice matters. 
Keep creating, my friends, and remember to be kind to each other.

04 November 2015

Tips for Teens from Christopher Pike

If you keep breaking the handles on your hairbrushes, you’re probably the girl next door.

If you're the new girl, wait a semester before you join drama club, because you might unknowingly be cast in a murder revenge play.

If you get murdered at a party it will suck, but on the upside you might fall in ghost love with the cute motorcycle ghost from homeroom.

If you find yourself on trial for your BFF's murder, it's probably because she totes hated you & you didn't even realize it, you dummy.

If your BFF is a cranky goddess, you should probably avoid hooking up with her boyf, but if you must, definitely do not eat any hamburgers she cooks, because they WILL be full of ground-up glass. For, like, eternity. Just never eat a hamburger again.

If you have diabetes, NEVER let your evil girlfriend give you your insulin, because she will definitely put an air bubble in your heart.

If your boyfriend wants to bite you, it might be because he’s totes kinky or it might be that he’s still hungry after eating your grandfather.

If you discover that your VCR can tape the news of the future, make as much money as you can because YOLO girl. You’re definitely not a robot in love with your own grandfather. Live it up.

Never go to a sleepover party with the same girls who accidentally set your friend and her little sister on fire, because you never know when they’ll try to repay the favor.

Never pick the hot guy over the computer loser who loves you because the hot guy will probably grow up to be an evil general who starts WWIII.

Never trust a hot girl, because she will either try to cocaine you to death or turn out to be an Evil Ancient Lizard & try to eat you.

Never meditate with your twin because you will for sure turn into Ancient Lizard People & eat all your friends.

Never get two girls pregnant in the same month, because they will both die & then come back to murder you repeatedly with forks.

And never, ever go out into the desert with the super hot brother/sister pair who keep making out with each other, because anyone that hot is definitely part of an ancient dinosaur race who survived the dinosaur holocaust and now gets their kicks from pushing kids and dogs into acid pits and reanimating corpses and eating ice cream and making out with each other. Avoid at all costs. 

When in doubt, wear a nice pair of slacks.

14 August 2014

And The Winner Is...

...Danielle Duerr! Congrats!

You guys, thank you so much for your huge and overwhelming response to this giveaway! I am honored and grateful. Double thanks to everyone who left comments -- I loved hearing from you! 

If you happen to be in or around the Twin Cities, you should come hang out with me next month, when I'll be reading with Julie Schumacher as part of the Second Story series at The Loft Literary Center on Sunday, September 28.

If you've always wondered about The Princesses of Iowa's gorgeous cover, you can get the scoop on Melissa Walker's Cover Stories blog

And if you've never heard me tell the story of how I once caught a squirrel, my sneaky friend Claire tricked me into telling it on her blog Zulkey.com

05 August 2014

Happy Paperback Launch Day, Princesses of Iowa!

Trumpets! Fireworks! A whole mountain made of cookies! The Princesses of Iowa is out in paperback today! YAYYY!
Isn't it pretty?

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I am giving away an ANNOTATED COPY of The Princesses of Iowa to one lucky winner. Or maybe two. Depending on how saucy I'm feeling.

You have until 11:59 pm on Tuesday, August 12, to enter! Entry form is at the bottom of this post.

It's been a long, crazy ride since The Princesses of Iowa first came out in hardcover, and I owe it all to you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for coming out to readings, for bringing me to your libraries and schools and bookstores, for showing up in a million wonderful ways. Thank you for the emails and cards and tweets. Thank you for coming up after readings and asking me to sign your book and apologizing for fangirling and a special thanks to the 8th graders who told me I looked like Emma Stone. :-) Thank you for for supporting independent bookstores! Thank you for writing. Thank you for all of it.


PS. In case you missed it, this is the single greatest gift the internet has ever given me. I adore these girls! 

Contest is over! Thanks for entering.

18 June 2014

Just Hit the Rabbit

It’s late, and everyone is having fun except me. There are five of us: my housemates Ali, Jamie, and Nancy, our friend Mary, and me. They’re all giggling and trading insults and doing all kinds of obnoxious rumpus as if they haven’t even noticed how thick the fog has gotten, how invisible the road is before us. Meanwhile, I’m hunched over the steering wheel, fingers clenched, eyes straining to see more than a few feet through the darkness ahead of us.

It’s the August before our senior year in college and we’ve spent the whole summer in Grinnell, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, and by this point we’re so restless that tonight we decided to make the hundred mile round trip to Iowa City to see a shitty movie—America’s Sweethearts, totally not worth the trip—but of course the movie wasn’t the point, the point was the novelty of getting out of town and sitting in a real theater and eating buttery popcorn and not spending yet another night at the dingy college pub we’ve basically lived in all summer.

But now it’s late and we’re driving on a dark two lane country road and I can’t see anything and I’m doing my best to keep everyone alive, because at the beginning of the summer I almost killed us all.

Two months earlier, same car, same group of friends. I was driving and they were doing rumpus and we were going to Des Moines for some reason, probably the same reason: that we were bored, that it seemed like a good way to pass a summer afternoon. That time, we were on I-80, going fast—75 or 80, probably—when something ran out in front of me. A rabbit, maybe. Or a fox. It all happened so fast. I swerved to avoid hitting it and lost control of the car and we went swinging wildly, sickeningly, across the lane and off the road, down into the weeds and wildflowers on the side of the highway, and finally came to a stop inches from a telephone pole.

Two inches more, and I would have killed everyone in my house.

We fell out of the car in dazed relief, stumbling through the goldenrod and phlox, milkweed and blackeyed susans, clutching at their stems to reassure ourselves that we were still here.

A state trooper had been behind me and caught the whole thing on his car camera. “Next time?” he told me. “Just hit the rabbit.”

“Just hit the rabbit,” I repeated. I could see myself in his aviator glasses. I looked like a ghost.

He smiled at me. “Just hit the rabbit.”

I understood. Except… I didn’t want to hit the rabbit.

My parents are both very nature-oriented, and they taught me from an early age to look out the windows, to pay attention, to see nature. That’s a red winged blackbird, see the red on its wings? Those are sandhill cranes; they often fly in pairs. Come to the window; there’s a fox in the yard. My mom taught me to scan the treeline at dusk for deer; they like to hang out on the edges of cornfields. My dad taught me to see red tail hawks along the highway and told me that when you see a hawk, it’s a sign that everything is going to be okay.

Now, I see wildlife everywhere, even in the city. There are woodpeckers and cardinals and peregrine falcons and great blue herons and turtles and muskrats and coyotes and opossums and raccoons and rabbits. My friends tease me that spotting wildlife is one of my super powers. Sometimes it feels like a different way of being in the world entirely. Other people don’t see what I see.

A few months ago, I drove to Iowa and saw vultures the whole way. Three hundred miles from Madison to Des Moines, through the road cuts in southern Wisconsin, above the Mississippi River bluffs, over the modest curves of central Iowa. In groups of three and five, fingered wings outspread, circling circling against the bright spring sky. They were there as my friend Cam and I drove to dinner one night. “It’s a big weekend for vultures, huh?” I joked.

“What do you mean?”

I looked at him. “Are you kidding me? We’ve seen probably fifteen vultures in the last ten minutes.”

“I didn’t see any,” he said.

“What? How is that even possible? They’re everywhere.”

He shrugged. “I was looking at the road.”

I look at the road, too. And the treeline, and the telephone poles, and the sky, and the river. Last summer I saw a young buck wading across a stream at twilight and it felt like a gift. And every time I see a red tailed hawk, it feels like a message from the world that things will be okay.

“Just hit the rabbit,” the state trooper told me, and my friends picked it up, half joke, half not-joke. I understood it intellectually: that the lives of your best friends are not worth sacrificing for the life of one wild rabbit. I came from a place where that was never a question. Where I come from, parents are at least as worried about their teens hitting deer as they are about drinking and driving. Country roads are strewn with roadkill: farm cats and coyotes and deer. When people tell stories about hitting deer with their cars, they focus on the damage to their cars, how lucky they were to walk away relatively unscathed. No one ever feels sorry for the deer.

The first time I ever hit anything with my car was freshman year of college. Ali was with me that time, too. She had come home with me for Thanksgiving and we were on a dark country road outside of my small Wisconsin town, and something – an opossum I think – ran in front of my car and then it was under my car and we both felt it hit the undercarriage, bump bump, and it was awful and it made my heart hurt and there was nothing to do but drive on so that’s what I did. Because sometimes you hit things with your car. That’s life, right?

Sometimes when I’m in a bad place, rawer than usual, depressed, sad, I drive past roadkill and think about the moments right before they died: the hard asphalt under their feet, bright headlights rushing at them, the crush of metal against feathers and bone.

When I told Cam this, he was horrified. “You have to stop doing that.”

“I don’t know how,” I said.

Sometimes it seems like we don’t have a choice in this world: that harming the earth is part of the bargain we’ve struck and it’s best not to think about it too much. When you go to the grocery store and you forget your cloth tote bags, you can’t let yourself think about how sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them and die. When you’re filling your car up with gas, you can’t get too fixated on the number of otters and seals and seabirds who have died in oil spills. You can’t hold it all in your heart and make it through the day alive.

Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit.

For the rest of that summer, I practiced every time I drove. I would go around a curve in the road and think, “Ok, pretend there’s a rabbit. Keep going straight. Don’t swerve. Don’t jerk the steering wheel.” I imagined that I could be a different kind of person, the kind who asks about damage to the car first and the deer later, the kind who drives straight and true, the kind who keeps her eyes on the road and doesn’t get sentimental about the casualties of the modern world. A pragmatist. A realist. I tried to adopt a little bit of macho swagger. Yeah, I could hit the rabbit if I had to. So what?

And maybe it was even true. Maybe I could. I do have a streak of Midwestern pragmatism in me. Given the choice between the lives of my friends and the life of one wild rabbit, I knew I should sacrifice the rabbit. But I resented the hell out of that choice.

I wanted to find another way of living in the world. One where I didn’t have to choose between humans and animals. I wanted to believe we all have an equal right to be here. I wanted to choose both. I wanted to protect us all.

It’s late August and it’s after midnight and it’s foggy as hell and I am peering through the darkness so hard my eyes are starting to hurt. And then it happens, as I knew it would: a blue flash in the darkness.

I hit the brakes.

My friends stop laughing. “What? What is it?”

“I thought I saw something.”

As if it’s scripted, they all yell together. “JUST HIT THE RABBIT!”

And it’s a joke and it’s not a joke and it’s the state trooper and a summer of practicing for this moment and a lifetime of pragmatic country people and I get it. I know. All my friends are in the car and it’s my job to protect them and I should just hit the goddamn rabbit.

But I don’t.

I slow the car to a crawl and we creep through the darkness and then the fog parts and there it is: a cat. It’s a cat, and it’s sitting in the middle of the country highway, motionless, staring at us.

“I knew I saw something,” I say, vindicated, and my friends say, “A CAT? GODDDDD” and the cat watches us as we inch past it, and my friends wait for me to speed up again but I don’t because I’m still nervous about the cat, the way it sat in the road, the way it watched us, the way its eyes caught our light and bounced it back at us like two small moons.

We creep around the curve and the thick summer fog swirls like something living. The road is full of shadows and the fog twists and rolls and lifts and I stomp on the brakes once more.

“What now?” my friends ask, but I don’t answer because they’re right there, five feet in front of us: an entire herd of deer. They’re perfectly still, silent, each over 100 pounds, standing like dark ghosts in the middle of the highway. An entire herd of deer.

Five feet more, and I would have killed everyone in my house. Not to mention the deer.

That cat saved our lives.

Not hitting the rabbit saved our lives.

So. Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit, it’s true.

But sometimes you just have to see the rabbit. See it soon enough and you don’t have to hit it at all. You see it and you slow down in time and that night you both get home safely.

It’s another way of being in the world.

06 May 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Harry Potter

"The novel is dead," announces a Great Man of Literature.

"Well, the Serious Literary Novel is," he amends. "The 'kidult boywizardsroman' is doing just fine." He mentions this as if it supports his original contention, as if the massive popularity of a series of books written for children is proof of the downfall of global literary culture.


I am so dreadfully bored of hearing Serious Literary Writers complain about Harry Potter (and children's literature in general, but for some reason Harry Potter seems to irk them in particular).

For one thing, it is boring to hear people who only sell some novels complain about people who sell many novels. As Roxane Gay says, James Franco did not get your book deal. J.K. Rowling did not steal your readers. Another writer's success is not your failure.

In fact, Great Man of Literature, another writer's success might actually be your success. To grow a lifelong reader, you need literature for a reader's entire life, which generally looks something like this: picture books to early readers to chapter books to middle grade novels to young adult literature to literary fiction. Baby's First Kafka aside, most of us don't graduate directly from picture books to Great Works of Literary Note. Middle grade and young adult literature -- and yes, that would include Harry Potter -- is the bridge that helps readers travel from The Cat in the Hat to Mrs. Dalloway.

And there is truly great children's literature out there, GMoL. Wait, remind me of your definition of Serious & Worthy Literature?
The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
So basically, Serious Literature uses words to help readers get inside the minds and hearts of fictional characters, to explore the ways those characters interact with each other, to describe settings that seem realistic and familiar or to create new worlds entirely, and occasionally goes all meta and comments on itself as an artform and/or describes other types of art.

Dude. Children's and young adult literature totally does that.

Beyond the astonishing fact that kidlit can indeed use words -- arranged sequentially, even -- to create characters who think and move and talk and feel and interact just like humans, so much so that readers grow to love them and celebrate their successes and suffer their losses (I myself am still in therapy over the devastating deaths of Old Dan & Little Ann, and my eighth graders wanted to sue Harper Lee for letting Tom Robinson die), children's literature can also -- and I know this is going to sound crazy -- use words to invent new worlds, like, oh... pick one at random... a magical world where wizards get to go to boarding school.

(And for the record, children's literature can also enact self-analysis.)

You want "difficult"? (We're not even going to unpack the idea that "difficult" is the same as "worthwhile.") Read Code Name Verity. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. When You Reach Me, for heaven's sake.

But look, even if you're staunchly opposed to the idea that books written for children could possibly qualify as Serious Literature, even if you cannot let go of the (imaginary) link between popularity and garbage (though ironically you seem to be arguing that the Serious Literary Novel is dead because not enough people read? But if more people read it, it wouldn't be Serious or Literary anymore? And also possibly no one has published a Real Serious Literary Novel since Finnegan's Wake in 1939 and every novel published in the last 75 years has been a "zombie novel" seriously, sir, WTF), even if you insist on mourning the Good Old Days when the Serious Literary Novel was at the center of the cultural consciousness, aka the twenty minutes between the rise of literacy rates due to increasingly widespread public secondary education in the early twentieth century and, you know, the apparent death of the novel in 1939 -- even given all that -- SO WHAT?

So what if people are reading about boy wizards? Or vampires? Or whatever popular thing is the current symbol of the downfall of literary culture? So what?

Readers are readers. Most folks who truly love reading will dive into all kinds of books, as long as they offer vivid, complex, interesting characters and a richly-drawn world and a compelling story. People read for all kinds of reasons -- to lose themselves, to explore other worlds, to amuse themselves on airplanes, to see what the fuss is all about, to fall in love, to study the craft of fiction. What do their reasons matter to you? That they're reading Gone Girl and not Ulysses on the train home says absolutely nothing about their worth or value as readers, thinkers, members of the culture, or humans.

So please stop complaining about Harry Potter.

07 April 2014

I Said a Blog Hop, the Bloggy to the Bloggy to the Blog Blog Hop (& etc)

My good friend (& owner of Zia's brother-from-another-mother twin greyhound Briscoe) Claire Zulkey has passed me the Blog Hop Baton, which means I'm answering the same questions Claire answered last Monday and her friend Annie Logue answered two weeks ago & so forth back into the darkest days of last month or whatever.

Claire pitched it as "a great way to generate content for your blog!" and not "Jesus Backes, you haven't updated since Christmas," which was awfully kind of her. She's a good friend.

What are you working on?
I'm in the early stages of a brand-new YA project, which is very exciting because it's the first true first draft I've had on my desk in years. It's still at the pure potential stage. It's also exciting because last year was not a big writing year for me, so to be back in the groove & actually be making progress on something feels pretty great. Last week I had coffee with my old friend & mentor Mark Baechtel, and he asked, "Are you writing?" and I said, "YES!" and he reached across the table and high-fived me, and I've been smiling about that moment ever since.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I'm not totally sure how to answer this, other than to say that no one else has ever lived this life of mine, and so no one but me can write about the world as I know it. One of my goals in this current project is to get as close to capturing communication and dialogue between friends and family as I actually experience it rather than as it seems to happen in popular literature -- that is, I'm trying to write people who sound less like characters and more like people I actually know. It's been a fun challenge.

Why do you write what you do?
I find the teenage experience to be so compelling -- teens have many of the same experiences and emotions as adults, but because they're experiencing it for the first time, they have a much smaller life context or framework through which to view that experience, and less of an emotional certainty that they'll survive whatever they're going through. I love being able to re-visit that immediacy and rawness of going through things for the first time. It makes for fun fiction.

How does your writing process work? 
It keeps changing. These days, I try to write a little bit every day, because I find that by touching base with my story every day -- if only for 15 minutes -- my brain stays focused on questions of character and plot, and in my freetime it dreams about what should happen next. When I go a few days without writing, however, my brain starts asking much more destructive questions -- instead of "what happens next?" it starts asking "what's the point?"

For me, the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down to do it. By writing every day, I keep the path back to the page well-traveled, and it's easier to get there again the next day.

 Next week, authors Christa DesirHeather Demetrios will pick up the baton & tackle the same questions on their own blogs. Bookmark their pages now!

06 December 2013

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck (Part II)

Hey friends! Thanks for the great music suggestions you gave me in comments & on Twitter. As always, you are the best.

Here's the other Christmas music mix I made last year. This one is more low-tempo, perfect for curling up in front of the fire (or the "fire") with a Tom & Jerry and your favorite two- and four-legged critters.

Note: you may want to avoid this mix if you're having a rough year. It definitely skews a little sad. (On the other hand, you may want to wallow in holiday sadness, in which case just put Tom McRae's Wonderful Christmastime on repeat & weep your way through the next few weeks.)

Holiday Chill (2012 Mix) 

White Christmas | Otis Redding

Christmas Time is Here | Diana Krall

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel | Punch Brothers

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day | The Civil Wars

Beth/Rest (Solo Piano Version) | Bon Iver
* not technically a Christmas song, but it sounds like it should be

The Hounds of Winter | Sting

Baby Come Find Me at Christmas | Rachael Yamagata

Holiday Road | Matt Pond PA
* one of those instances where the cover is far superior to the original (which, let's face it, is kind of terrible)

The Bells of St. Mary's | Sheryl Crow

Colder Weather | Zac Brown Band
* also not technically Christmas, just cold & sad

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas | James Taylor

Wonderful Christmastime | Tom McRae
* from now on, this is the only version of this song I will accept. Sorry, Sir Paul.

Joy is Within Reach | Adrienne Pierce

Hymn for a Winter's Night | Sarah McLachlan

The Heartache Can Wait | Brandi Carlile

Some Children See Him | Lisbeth Scott

Wexford Carol | Moira Smiley

Amazing Grace | Cat Power
* "Amazing Grace... you know the rest" kills me. Every time.

(See Part I for a more cheerful mix!)