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Transformations in Writing

My New January

January in my Kitchen
January and February are my most important months for composing new work. The holidays recede and life grows quiet on the family front and the cold and stillness of lower Michigan keep me indoors and introspective. It is a good time for memory work and a good time to experiment. I work in my kitchen because my office gets too cold and I really like working in my kitchen from where I can see snow, wind, deer, squirrels and early darkness, stars, sometimes the moon. In the past few years, I have gotten more comfortable with working late at night--something I never did when I was younger. For decades it was always morning, morning, morning. Now I sometimes feel the most alive in my writing after dark, including the last few hours of my day. A good lesson--all habits can change and change can be liberating. This particular January, I caught the winter flu from my granddaughter during the holidays. Beatrice was sick for 3 days, Grandmother was sick for 3 weeks. Bronchitis and a relentless cough. All schedules and routines set aside. Insomnia from cold medicine and coughing. Except that I was never too sick to write and I wrote all the time because there was little else to do. An occasional streamed movie or series to break up the days, but mostly I was in the inner world of my story. I am working on a new novel, maybe middle-grade, not sure, about a quintet of mermaid sisters. Somehow the combination of minor illness and total seclusion created a great outpouring of new pages. In the stillness, I heard the voices of the mermaid sisters very clearly. My health issues made it possible for me to say no to everything but these female voices. A strange and beautiful January so far. Time re-invented. The drama of my own imagination. Health returns, I feel better and oddly grateful for these past weeks and all that they brought me.  Read More 
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Wonderful Honor for Beetle Boy

This month, I was invited to an awards banquet in Chicago hosted by the Society of Midland Authors, where my novel Beetle Boy was honored as a finalist for the SMA award in Children's Fiction. It was a wonderful night and very meaningful, because I was born in Chicago, travel there often to see my daughter Chloe and her family. There are other ties--the location of the banquet was the Cliff Dwellers Club on Michigan Avenue, overlooking Lake Michigan and the Chicago Art Institute, where my father was a student in the 1940s on the GI Bill. My parents met at the Art Institute, married, had three children and then moved to Michigan. My husband Richard Joanisse was educated at the University of Chicago, taught briefly at DePaul University, and then came to Michigan to help found William James College on the campus of Grand Valley State University. And one more tie--my granddaughter Beatrice was born in Chicago, same as her grandmother Margaret. It was my great joy to bring Chloe as my guest to the awards banquet. A great honor for Beetle Boy and also a beautiful convergence of my many ties with the Windy City. Read More 
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from a Meditation on Living in the Present Moment in January

January dawn
Isn’t there something about our climate here in West Michigan, its extremes and intemperance, that makes it harder to live fully in the now? Aren’t we always waiting for a thaw or a storm, watching the sky for signs of rain, or a break in the heat, or a perfect beach day, or the brief spectacle of the leaves turning?
And isn’t there something about the persistence of memory, our unique paths, our most secret struggles, our regrets, our wounds from another time that makes it hard to stay grounded in the present moment and not journey back?
And isn’t there something about the January requisite to plan and organize, to clean out drawers, to budget and keep up with old and new bills, to catalogue the main events of the coming year—birthdays, holidays, surgeries, pregnancies, taxes, visitors, travel, loved ones who may need us—that makes it hard to feel that our most crucial appointment is with the present moment?
January, month of dichotomies—month of both rebirth and hibernation, both stillness and projection, both reclamation of the inner life and commitment to others, both treacherous highways and joyful sledding hills. The hardness of ice and the softness of new snow.  Read More 
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Deep January

My view--icy silence
January comes after a scattered and distracted December during which I wrote little and basically let go of my writing life, sending it away. Now I reel it back in, post holiday, post family gatherings and it returns easily, without urgency, more like a patient friend. I feel like I always post a love song to January, my time of reclamation and solitude and cold mornings and a clean focus. I will finish my essays now. I will work on a new novel. I will help my husband with his wonderful project. Perhaps I will write a few winter poems. There is time, there is anonymity, there is silence. All is well. Happy New Year.  Read More 
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My Essay in The Horn Book about Madeline L'Engle's Early Novel CAMILLA

From the Horn Book, Fall 2014, an essay about CAMILLA and the long view of writing for teenagers. Read it here

"CAMILLA is narrated by a princess, one who lives with her parents in a New York City penthouse. The novel was published long before there was a young adult genre as we know it today, but it contains all the elements of the classic YAs of the late twentieth century — a journey out of childhood, a hypersensitive girl, a pace providing ample time for deep reflection. The reader participates in a clean, well-documented metamorphosis, wisely told by a girl who embodies the most cherished aspects of twentieth-century female adolescence — at least in literature: hope, compassion, and a fearless, unflinching honesty."  Read More 
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Perceptive, Provocative and Starred, BCCB Review

end paper
R* Gr. 8-12

"The strata of Charlie’s trauma peel back gradually through dreams and flashbacks to reveal a highly sensitive boy who was badly used and then abandoned by his opportunistic father; readers will feel the ache screaming from his dreams into his waking responses, which would otherwise seem inexplicably harsh. His debt to Martha threatens to go sadly unpaid until he confronts his own sense of guilt and responsibility for his brother and his mother, making for a subtle yet psychologically resonant conclusion."  Read More 
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Why Mrs. M.? Responding to questions from readers about this snide and cantankerous character.

She looked away from me and said to no one in particular, “What a miserable profession
this has become. Broken, broken people.”
“Excuse me,” I objected. “I am not broken. I’ve sold eighteen books today, and my dad said
I only had to sell fifteen.”
“Well, at least your pimp is having a good day. Go back to your table. You’re not supposed
to talk to me, remember?”
“They’re her stories,” I blurted. “They’re the stories my mom used to tell us at bedtime. To
help us get to sleep.”
Mrs. M. sighed. “The pimping deepens. Oh, we’re all pimps, Charlie. Pretending to care
about our sad little readers. Pretending our silly stories help them.”
“I don’t think they help,” I said, another huge confession. “They sure aren’t helping me...
Okay, gotta go. Good luck with your writing, Mrs. M.”
As I hurried away she called, “Good luck with your childhood.”

First of all, let me say how much I love Mrs. M. and how much I loved creating her, giving her a voice, making her say all those cryptic things about children and books and what she calls the “strip shows” of children’s literature conferences. If you have been in the business ofwriting books for children as long as I have, you have endured many Mrs. M. moments. It was very cathartic to create her, to make her cynical and suspicious of false sentiment and also unsure of the worth of her own contributions to her genre. She knows that much of it is contrived and weightless.
The real joy of creating a character like her became clearer to me when I shared bits of scenes in Beetle Boy as a novel-in-progress with writer friends. My writer’s support group howled in recognition at the darkness I was conveying about our chosen professions. They loved it. They told me to keep going. They thanked me for creating Mrs. M. She is, as I suspected, at the bloody heart of our efforts to reach children and yet remain the jaded, critical-eyed adults we really are.
I have always hated seeing children used and exploited by their parents for money and attention. I have seen it both in and outside my profession and I have been unable to rescue the children involved as Mrs. M. rescues poor Charlie Porter. What joy to create a character who can create a place of safety for a child in so much need. If we are serious in our work for children, then we all have a bit of Mrs. M. in us, snorting in derision at the ways we hide behind sentimentality and superficiality, wishing we truly had more to offer the children who need us most.  Read More 
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Beetle Boy Reception making me VERY BUSY

Beetle Boy, coming on strong
I am so easily distracted by news about my novel, this Beetle nightmare novel that dropped on Sept. 1. This novel I expected to be ignored (no false modesty here. Very proud of the novel, but it doesn't fit into any neat or currently popular categories). I have had so many wonderful things happen already, among them the starred reviews (see my home page), the book's appearance on several "recommended" lists, the Publishers Weekly pick of the week mention and several thoughtful blog reviews. And so I have been scattered and unfocused by all of this positive reception and unable to settle back into my two current projects--my essay collection about the fairy tales of my childhood and my husband's unfolding memoir of growing up in Canada with Quebecois parents and grandparents (which I am happily ghostwriting).
But I have all day today! And I have all day tomorrow! I have two more essay that are near-completion. That will be my goal for the weekend--finish! And move on. And stay away from the social media roller coaster and get back in the cave and come out only to eat.  Read More 
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Such A Beautifully Designed Book!

Everyone I show Beetle Boy to remarks on the book's design. Everyone! I am so proud of how it looks and so grateful to the design team at Carolrhoda Lab. The cover is stunning with its raised purple on the beetle and the shiny white of the background. It is without a doubt the most artfully designed book of my entire career. Read More 
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From the Blog of Andrew Karre, Editor for Beetle Boy!

My editor at Carolrhoda Lab posted a wonderful blog last week about the special gifts of what he called "the long view," a nice way of commending older writers who continue bringing unique visions to their sometimes formulaic genres. He also commends The Horn Book Magazine for its historic reach and appreciation for good literature regardless of trends. The blog is here.

Thank you to Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda Lab Books. Read More 
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