After the Election: On Widening the Circle of Light

This morning, I am angry. Angry, frustrated, sick, with an outright fire burning inside of me. This morning I have to explain to my daughter that the bright hopes for the future she went to sleep with last night are now gone. I try not to write about politics—this a blog about children’s books after all—but the politics are personal now. Because how do I explain that the person who will take over the reigns of this country in January is someone I would not allow her in the same room with? Someone who talks gleefully about deporting her friends who came here from other countries, and mocks the ones with disabilities. Someone who thinks our LGBTQ friends and family should be stripped of their rights. Someone who believes that anyone who doesn’t share his skin color or a single religion is beneath him. Someone who thinks she and I are both lesser because we are female.

For her sake, I will bury the fire inside me for a little while. I’ll be calm and talk to her about the election results so as not to panic her. And I’ll tell her—and genuinely believe—that the lessons I’ve always gleaned from my personal Good Book, Middlemarch, are truer and more necessary now than ever. Like that book’s estimable Miss Brooke, we will work to widen the circle of light. We’ll strive to be among the many people who work to make the world better by living our lives faithfully. And we’ll look out for the people around us—the ones we know and the ones we’ve never met before.

Then today and in the days that follow, I’ll work to keep editing and writing books for young people. I’ll know deep in my heart that creating literature for kids will be its own means of widening that circle of light. And I’ll take comfort in that.

But I don’t want to lose the fire and the anger and the frustration I feel right now. I don’t want to grow complacent and have the outrageous become the everyday. Months ago, when my daughter asked if we’d move to Canada if the election didn’t go the way we’d hoped, I told her calmly but firmly that no, we’d stay and we’d fight for what’s right.

Here’s hoping that this is something we can all that do in our own ways, large and small. The next few years are going to be a bumpy ride. But I’ve got my seatbelt fastened. And I’m ready to face whatever comes.

Movie Love: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

An official movie poster for what’s a fairly astounding film.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am a big Richard Linklater fan. I still think Dazed and Confused is Matthew McConnaghey’s best work. I came of age with Céline and Jess in what’s now called the “Before” trilogy. So I went into Boyhood with a predisposition to be pleased with it.

Pleased doesn’t quite cover it, though. Without giving anything away, it’s fair to state the obvious—the movie covers the life of one family, in particular as one boy experiences it—over the course of twelve years. And just as the aforementioned trilogy captures single, seminal days and nights in the lives of Céline and Jess separated by years of living in between, this one captures a series of moments over a large swatch of time, year by year. Some of these are life-changing, some of them aren’t necessarily so. But they all become seminal because they are the small moments that make up a life. Not a life that’s being lived in some overtly extraordinary way—one that’s extraordinary simply because it’s a life.

If you were a passerby observing the characters from Boyhood you would think their existences were totally ordinary. Sad sometimes, sure. But mostly pretty average. Peel back the surface and it’s anything but, though. Filmed over the course of twelve actual years, Boyhood does the seemingly impossible (and in my opinion rare and beautiful): it gives the viewer the gift of sight into someone else’s world. That it’s a fictional world doesn’t matter in the least.

Some of the best storytellers and some of their best stories—from George Elliot’s Middlemarch to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and many in between—do on the page what Richard Linklater tries to do on the screen. They peel back that surface and expose the epic struggles, the tragedies, the joys, the hard work, and the play that is day-to-day life of a single human being (or in the case of Middlemarch, of many). Because every life has these stories, and if you look deeply enough—closely enough—you can catch a glimpse of the wonder and struggle that exists just underneath the veneer that most of the world sees. It’s a gift to read such a story, and it’s a gift to see one on the screen.

Boyhood is likely not for everyone. It’s nearly three hours long, and if you’re looking for something plot or action-driven, then you are very much barking up the wrong tree. It’s also utterly lacking in cynicism. But it’s intriguing and it’s ambitious and it’s beautiful—and for me, personally, it’s yet another reason to love Richard Linklater and wonder at his ability to show moviegoers an inside look at what George Elliot described as the many who “live faithfully their hidden lives.” And for that reason alone, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Literary Lists…or, How Do You Know What Will Make Me a Better Person?

A fresh page upon which to create today’s list! I’ve been with this planner longer than I’ve been with my husband.

It is an undeniable fact: I am a list-maker. From what to buy at the supermarket, to what to pack for a trip, to what I need to do each and every day, there is a list. Indeed, I’ve had the same Franklin Planner since approximately 1997, for which I dutifully buy new, blank pages upon which to list-make at the start of every year.

For me, this is a sanity preservation device: I know my own tendency to become wildly stressed out if I don’t feel like I’m on top of things, so I try to keep on top of things. I am not a procrastinator—doing stuff at the last minute tends to eat away at my mental well-being. So, each day, I make a list of the things I need to accomplish. On paper, in pencil, with a system to mark off what I’ve done, what’s only partially done, and what’s going to have to wait a day or two. If this sounds like madness to you, fair enough. But it works for me and they’re not created for the benefit of anybody but me.

The long and the short of it is, I understand the urge to list things off and make sense of them.

What I guess I don’t understand is making lists of books based on things like Flavorwire’s “50 Novels Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person.”  Okay, so there are some good books on there, and there are worse ways to spend your day than putting together a list of good books. And, okay, so there’s research out in the ether that says that reading novels is good for you—can even make you more empathetic. As a life-long reader, I didn’t really need any scientific research to tell me this, of course. I know it from experience. I also know from experience that one woman’s life-changing read is another terrible bore. Because what changes you is as individual and subjective as being you is. I often joke, but truly believe, that while some people turn to religious texts in their times of need, I turn to Middlemarch. For me, that’s what’s life affirming and life changing. So to create a list of books that will help someone else be a better person seems like an exercise in futility.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like a good book list. I like Goodreads for that very reason—readers putting together lists of books that they’ve enjoyed, usually by some sort of categorization. But creating such a list—one that says, hey these were great books that I liked!—and saying hey, these books will make you a better person, are two very different things. By all means, share what you love with me. Maybe I’ll love it, too. But don’t presume to dictate what might do something as enormous as improve a person on a fundamental level. Because my George Elliot might be your Jonathan Franzen. Maybe Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books opened up a world of possibilities for you as a kid. Who knows?

On my desk at all times is a little bookmark that contains a snippet of text from Little Women in a glass tube. I keep this on whatever desk I use as an editor—and it’s traveled with me from one location to another for many years—as a physical reminder as I read submissions and edit stories that everyone has their own special, life-changing books. Little Women turned me into a serious reader. Any other book might do that for any other reader.

So, at the risk of sounding cranky—and oh, I fear that I do sound cranky!—telling people that this book or that one will make them better or change their lives (and why it will) is kind of hooey. Tell me what you love, but then let me sit back and discover what I can in a book—and let it change me or not as it will!

The Recipe for the Perfect Romantic Hero

Every good baker knows that a recipe is really just a jumping off point. You might like nutmeg, while I prefer cinnamon. You’re all about cocoa powder, while I favor melted dark chocolate in my brownie. It’s all a matter of taste.

The same holds true for literary romantic heroes. You might like them dark and brooding, I’m all about funny and charming. But as I write and rewrite not one but two different YA stories, I’m thinking about what ingredients make up my idea of a romantic hero—and how best to create a fella that appeals not just to me, but to (hopefully) a larger audience at some point.

So what makes a good romantic hero in my book? It takes equal parts of the ingredients below

Humor

When it comes to creating a hero with humor, Jane Austen might have fashioned something akin to perfection in Northanger Abbey’s Henry Tilney. He’s got a great sense of humor—so much so that occasionally it’s hard to get him to be serious. But when the going gets tough, Mr. Tilney rises to the occasion. Even if he might joke around as he’s doing it. Never was there a more delightful literary clergyman, or one with whom the reader can more readily share the heroine’s completely obvious affection.

 

Passion

And not just of the romantic variety (though clearly that’s a must as well). The ideal in this category for me is George Elliot’s Will Ladislaw, the young man who ultimately captures the heart of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Even when Will is idling his time away on his cousin’s dime, he’s passionate about art, beauty—and his cousin’s wife Dorothea. Ah, youthful enthusiasm. But even Will settles down to a real pursuit and career at last, and he’s got politics and reform on his mind. His zest for the downtrodden and ignored—as well as for the best heroine in all of literature (yep, I said it and I meant it)—make him pure romantic hero gold.

Intelligence

On a certain level, rare book seller George Friedman in Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector seems completely wrong for Jessamine Bach. He’s too old, too set in his ways, too cultured, and too much of a carnivore for the twenty-something tree-hugger. But theirs is a love affair born of books. And any man who goes about wooing with a perfectly ripe peach and a T.S. Elliot reference is a man worth keeping. Never has eating a piece of fruit been laden with so much sexual and intellectual tension.

 

The Ability to Change and Grow

When Brigan meets the titular character in Kristin Cashore’s Fire, he’s not able to like or even remotely trust her. And when you have ugly family history of epic proportions between his father and hers, who can blame him? Unlike some folks, though, he’s open to seeing who she is as a person (or in this case, a human-monster hybrid) and eventually to trust her. That he falls so deeply in love with the one person he most despised speaks not to some weird “opposites attract” plot device, but rather to depth of his character. Which makes Brigan something of a dream come true, romantic hero-wise, and Kristin Cashore downright brilliant for creating him.

So does identifying all of this make it so much easier to write a wonderful romantic hero (or two, as is the case right now)? Alas, no. But it does give me some key ingredients off of which to base my recipe. And take it from George Friedman: it’s fun to experiment in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

Steering Out to Mid-sea

page from original manuscript of George Eliot's Middlemarch
A page from George Eliot’s original manuscript for Middlemarch.

Anyone who knows me also knows that George Eliot’s Middlemarch is my touchtone, my Good Book. Some people turn to religious texts in times of trouble or even great joy. I turn to Middlemarch. This is not for inspiration as writer or even in an attempt to emulate her craft or techniques—it is a singular work, not to be imitated.

A friend and colleague who knows me far too well gave me an amazing gift for Christmas this year: a silver bracelet with this epigram from Middlemarch inscribed on it: I would not creep along the coast but steer out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars.

I wear this bracelet everyday. It’s small, simple, completely unobtrusive, and goes with whatever I happen to wearing (and since most of my wardrobe is also simple and completely unobtrusive, it works out nicely). Yet it allows me to carry a piece of this book with me everywhere I go, and there’s something deeply comforting about that.

I would not creep along the coast but steer out to mid-sea by guidance of the stars

This year, as I’ve thrown myself headlong into a world in which I’m a part-time editor, a full-time MFA student, and an all-the-time mother, somehow having these words about me all the time has meant more than just comfort.

I’ve never wanted to creep along the coast, to take the road that’s been appointed to me and stay safely on it. I guess that’s why I’m putting myself and my husband into debt right now on a degree—and a dream—that might not ever come to the fruition I hope it will. But to not try, to not keep pushing myself, is unthinkable.

Though unlike Tennyson’s Ulysses (or Homer’s, for that matter) in almost every way, I want to “drink Life to the lees.” I want to “follow knowledge like a sinking star.” For some, this would mean a life of exploration and adventure. For me personally, at home with a family I adore, the adventure is the writing.

So, I’m trying to steer out to mid-sea, and if the stars can guide me in any way, let the heavens bring it on.