Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter!

Today is Beatrix Potter’s birthday, and that means it’s time to break out her books and celebrate—at least in my world! Beatrix Potter has long (and I do mean long) held a special place in my heart.

Strangely enough, this place was not reserved when I was four or five. My love for her came just a hair later, in second or third grade I think, when I read a short biography of her in my reading textbook at school. I was fascinated. I was hooked. But up until then, I only knew The Tale of Peter Rabbit. And I wanted more.

Enter my mother, the person who single-handedly fed my obsession with literature as a child and encouraged my love of reading at every possible turn. She bought me copies of Beatrix’s little gems of books. Single copies, small collections of them—one by one, they made their way into my collection. Then came the tiny porcelain figurines of Peter and Benjamin Bunny, Hunca Munca rocking her babies in a tiny, stolen cradle, and musical Mr. Jeremy Fisher who held his fishing rod in front of an open book and played “Getting to Know You” in perfect music box notes.

I loved her artwork, and loved that such dainty little watercolors could dare to exist side-by-side with such stories of mayhem. My favorite was always The Tale of Two Bad Mice, but right behind that were Peter and Benjamin, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin. To this day, the literary pilgrimage I’d most like to take is to Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lakes District.

Throughout my entire life I’ve had literally obsessions large and small, but Beatrix Potter was my first and my most enduring. Which means that today, I’ll read through her books again, perhaps with a cup of tea in hand, and enjoy all the goodness (and madness) of them.

Happy birthday, Beatrix Potter!

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Show Me the (Jane Austen) Money

Bank of England

So, there’s this little bit of good news this week: Jane Austen is going to be the new face of the Bank of England’s £10 note. There are many wonderful things about this, the most obvious is—hello—it’s Jane Austen. Who doesn’t love Jane Austen? And, honestly, if you are one of the holdouts or haven’t read her yet, perhaps you need to rethink your stance.

But I digress. There’s more wonderfulness than there mere fact of her being chosen. Digging deeper, there’s the fact that the Bank of England was concerned that there weren’t enough women on their bank notes. This concern was certainly aided by the fact that people protested the lack of a female presence on their money. There was an online campaign. There was a petition. And it worked.

This left me thunderstruck, as it’s certainly not a concern here in the U.S. The Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea dollar coins went quickly by the wayside to be replaced with…more dead presidents. It’s not that I have a beef with some dead presidents. But seriously: you’re going to choose Andrew Johnson over Susan B. Anthony?

The other part of this that I love is simply the fact that the Bank of England chooses to celebrate writers and artists and thinkers and scientists on their money. Jane Austen is going to replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note.  They’ve had the likes of Shakespeare, Sir Christopher Wren, Charles Dickens, and Florence Nightingale. And why not? Why not celebrate the people who’ve shaped the culture of your nation?

Is it time to start a campaign here in the states? Anyone for Mark Twain or Emily Dickinson? Georgia O’Keefe or John Singer Sargent?

Science, Gender Stereotypes…and Kids’ Clothing

Closing in on Saturn (click to enlarge)
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft closing on on Saturn. (Courtesy of NASA)

Before I tell you this story, there are few things you should know about me:

  1. I am a feminist.
  2. I have a fancy seven-year-old daughter who loves science and math.
  3. I edit children’s nonfiction for a living.
  4. I’m the pesky type of person who actually writes to my elected officials and others when I feel that something needs to be addressed.

I don’t talk about any of these very often on this blog mostly because none of them are really what the blog is about (though anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I can talk about any and all of these things endlessly).

Last week, I got an email that raised the hackles of the feminist, mother, nonfiction editor, and overall citizen in me. Surprisingly, this email was Lands End.

It featured an awesome long-sleeve t-shirt with Saturn on it. Since I’ve got an astronomy-type kid, I clicked through to look at the t-shirts. There animals, planets—all kinds of cool, scienc-y stuff on them. Then I realized that I was in the boys’ section of the website. I went to check out the girls section, just to see what they had there, and an unpleasant surprise awaited me. There was no science to be found. No planets, no sharks—nothing.

Or, rather, I shouldn’t say nothing. There were plenty of hearts, flowers, and ponies. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like hearts, flowers, and ponies as much as the next gal. But I also have a daughter who, while she likes sparkly clothes, also really likes Saturn.

I thought about buying her one of the boys’s shirts, and then I just got mad. Why can’t the girls shirts have cool science on them? What kind of message is Lands End sending by featuring science only on the boys clothing?

So, I wrote and asked them these very questions. I got a quick response from a customer service rep who said she was passing on my concerns because, she wrote, “You have a very valid point.”

Then I got the official response from the higher ups: “I’m sorry that we disappointed you with the design of our Boy’s and Girl’s Graphic Tees.” But that was about it—a couple of paragraphs repeating the same thing: that essentially there’s nothing wrong with their product—it’s just that I’m personally disappointed in it. In the same way, say that I might be disappointed that the color faded after a couple of washes or something.

To say that I was hoping for more from a company I frequently buy stuff from is an understatement. So, I wrote back and told them that. It will come as no surprise that I got no further response.

The thing is, I know this isn’t some earth-shattering problem. But it’s part of a real problem in our society—we allow these sneaky gender stereotypes to creep unnoticed into our world and they only help reinforce wrong ideas that are already there.

Girls aren’t going into the sciences at the rate we’d like them to. Could it be, in part, because we tell them in big and little ways that science isn’t for them? And don’t get me started on the muddy, ugly colors that the boys’ shirts come in and all the bad gender issues involved in that.

We can do better. We have to do better. We want our kids to live in a world where they can wear bright purple no matter what their gender. Where they can love science and still wear sparkles. We want our kids to be able to just be themselves, without the weight of societal gender expectations weighing them down.

In the meantime, I bought my daughter a great Saturn t-shirt from Zazzle in a color that she likes.  And, yeah, I got into a little bit of fight with Lands End. But it’s fight I’m willing to engage in for my kid—and for all the kids who I hope are reading the nonfiction books that I help guide into the world.

Science rocks—whether you’re a boy or a girl.

In Which I Channel Björk

It’s probably become clear by now that music plays a fairly large role in my life. I’ll listen to almost anything, and take a lot of enjoyment—sometimes even inspiration—from doing so.

Lately my writing life—and who are we kidding? my life in general—has felt an awful lot like this Björk song. I have my quiet lulls, but they don’t last long. Then a burst of energy takes over and I feel like I’m soaring.

There are worse ways to be.

Part of why I love this song is the juxtaposition of the quiet and the burst. Part of it is the video, which is pure joy. The dancing in the tire store! The jaunty mailbox! The Singing in the Rain homage!

Learning to embrace both the exuberant highs and quieter lulls (not lows, just lulls) isn’t always easy for someone like me, who tends to be on “go” most of the times. But the lulls have their beauties.

And give you some time to rev up to do flips in the street again.

For now, I’m just enjoying the ride!

 

Literary Summer Camp

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is, quite frequently, on my mind. So, when I saw this “diary” in the Paris Review—a diary of Ted Scheinman’s time at “Jane Austen camp” (aka the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Jane Austen Summer Program—it sounded, well, pretty awesome.

After all, who wouldn’t want to go to lectures, drink tea, and attend the Meryton Assembly all in one fell swoop?

I certainly would.

The whole thing also got me thinking about other possible “camps” surrounding the work of other classic authors.

Dickens Camp: Everyone begins their time at camp in debtors’ prison, where they’re made to do hard labor in order to pay back their camp fees. If you’re lucky, a newly wealthy (former) convict will thrust you out of poverty and into a more respectable “sphere.” Moldy wedding cake is served each night.

Edith Wharton Camp: They say that the heart of fools resides in the house of mirth, but at this camp, parties abound and there’s an enviable amount of time spent at the opera. The downside? The camp rules are restrictive to the point of despair. Not for the faint at heart or determined nonconformists.

Tolkien Camp: All campers are divided up in groups of men, dwarves, elves, and hobbits—the last of which is clearly preferable due the leisurely lifestyle and plentiful grub. Beware of anyone offering to play at riddles, and know that the theory of “finders, keepers”—especially when it comes to jewelry—is a dangerous one here.

E.M. Forster Camp: Country house or journey to Italy? Bohemian or aristocrat? The choices for campers are endless, but if any of the counselors offers you a tour of a cave—or indeed a delightful trip to India—do yourself a favor and politely decline.

Okay, so maybe these don’t sound incredibly appealing. But I’d still like to go to Jane Austen summer camp. Maybe—just maybe—my family will send me next year.

And now, inquiring minds want to know: what literary camps (classic, contemporary, or anything in between) would you love—or loathe—to be a part of?

Giant Colin Firth Haunts My Dreams (Not in a Good Way)

London's Hyde Park
Flickr/TaylorHerring

Now don’t get me wrong: I love Colin Firth as much as the next lady (perhaps even more). And his performance as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice has made all other Mr. Darcys pale in comparison. But this statue is just…well…frightening.

It just sort of smacks of Godzilla, or similar monsters, rising up somehow in Hyde Park to swallow London whole. A regular-sized Colin Firth is delightful. A twelve-foot-tall Colin Firth is something only the swans in the lake could love (and according to The Guardian, the local swans are quite fond of it). And it’s apparently going to tour around England, so it can swallow up other whole towns and villages on its way.

Yikes.

On top of its monstrous appearance, you’ll forgive me if I get all Jane Austen on you for a moment: this moment isn’t even in the book. It’s a creation of the movie. And, honestly, it’s not one of my favorite creations of the movie. Who would choose the Mr. Darcy wet tee-shirt contest over him gazing at Elizabeth with intense love in his eyes at Pemberley? Or them dancing together for the first time?

All I’m saying is, badly done, folks. Badly done indeed. (And special Jane Austen points to anyone who recognizes the reference in that last line.)

On Hallowed Ground: Louisa May Alcott’s House

Louisa May Alcott's houseThere are two things that this blog makes clear that I love: Star Wars (original trilogy only, thank you very much) and Louisa May Alcott. Today, I’ll spare you my thoughts on the former and focus instead on the latter. This blog got its name from Jo March’s description of her writing in Little Women, after all.

So it was a special treat to recently visit Orchard House, the Alcott family’s home for many years, and where Louisa wrote Little Women—with a group of fellow writers and dear friends.

SAM_0608
My fellow literary pilgrims: Samantha, Karyn, Susanna, and Kerri.

Alas, the good folks at Orchard House won’t let you take pictures inside the house, or else I’d flood this blog with pictures of her writing desk or the drawings that her youngest sister May (who was the inspiration for Amy March in the book) created on the walls of her bedroom.

But I can tell you this: being in this house and stepping through the rooms where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote is, for me, treading on hallowed ground. I realize that for most people the idea of a pilgrimage involves a journey that’s religious in nature. For me, it’s always literary.

Louisa May Alcott's house
Bronson Alcott’s small school house is on the same property on which the family lived.

Whether it’s sitting in Edith Wharton’s garden, pretending to be Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, exploring my first moor (HEATHCLIFF!), or walking down the very street in Bath upon which Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth finally, irrevocably, pledged themselves to each other in Persuasion, my idea of sacred ground is almost always tied to the books I love.

And Orchard House is no exception. So, I want to share these pictures of this lovely place—and the ladies with whom I got to share the experience—with you. I hope you enjoy them…and maybe even share some memories of your own favorite literary pilgrimages!

Louisa May Alcott's house
Did Louisa May Alcott once sit in this very spot? One can only dream….

 

What Would Judy Blume Do?

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret: How Have I Not Written About This Book Yet?A long time ago, in a galaxy that feels far, far away, I met Judy Blume. I went with a good friend (and fellow Judy Blume fan) to a Barnes and Noble in Boston for a signing—I think for the book Summer Sisters. I didn’t buy the book. Instead, I stood in a very long line with my beaten-up old copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. This book meant a lot to me growing up. It felt like the only book I read as a kid that spoke—quite directly—to what I was feeling at the time. So, I blubbered shamelessly to Judy Blume about how much I love her work, and she very kindly signed my old book.

I was thinking the other day about how gracious she was—and by all accounts, still is—and what an amazing group of books she’s written. In particular, I’ve thinking about her as I’ve been diving back into writing and hitting some snags. Tough times for characters always turn out to be tough times for me on a certain level. And as I pondered how to write about these difficult things, I wondered: When faced with hard topics, what would Judy Blume do?

Treat the reader with respect.

This is something Judy Blume positively excels at. Whether she’s writing chapter books, young adult novels, or books for grown-ups, she has an uncanny (and completely enviable) knack for knowing where her readers are at emotionally—and going there with them completely.

Be honest.

This one is not easy to carry off (speaking from experience!). But if Judy Blume has taught me one thing—and let’s be serious: she’s really taught me a lot of things—it’s that there’s no beating around the bush. Sometimes your little brother kind of stinks. Sometimes your body isn’t perfect. Sometimes your parents make you move, or make other life-altering decisions over which you have no control. Sometimes things are great. Sometimes they’re positively awful.

 Know that there are no easy answers.

Love doesn’t always last, even when you think it’s forever. God can feel really far away—and the path to finding him can be damned near impossible to make out. Part of being honest is admitting that life, in all of its complexities, is messy. Kids can not only handle this fact—I think they yearn to have it acknowledged. Just because the answers aren’t easy, doesn’t mean kids can’t take the truth.

Despite this, keep your sense of humor.

Okay, so your brother not only stinks, but he ate your pet turtle. And maybe, just maybe, chanting, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” will somehow make those mammary glands grow. Or maybe not. But at least we can laugh as we give it a try.

There are so many more lessons to glean from the books of Judy Blume, but these are the ones that I’m going to carry with me during these days and weeks when bad things will happen to perfectly good (at least my opinion!) characters. And while I could never dream of writing with as much honesty and humor as Judy Blume, I can still ask: What would Judy Blume do? And I can be inspired by the answers.