The Double Bind
Water for Elephants
The Weather Makers
I know there have been other signs of spring…. Robins and purple crocus flowers and even a few warm days here and there. But this is the real deal.
Rasputin the evil groundhog showed up on my deck today. He burrows underneath (and in fact lives down there all winter, I think) until he decides I’ve probably started planting in my garden. Then he pokes up that pointy little nose and sniffs out whatever succulent shoots can can scarf up while no one is watching. He’s early this time; nothing is in the ground yet. Last year he nipped off every single broccoli plant except one. There was just that single lonely head of broccoli when the plant grew up, staring around wondering why none of its friends made it to adulthood.
I just finished Cynthia Lord’s book Rules (
) , and I can’t say I’ve read too many books that are more deserving of the Newberry Honor. What a beautifully crafted book. It’s amazing and fresh to read an author whose voice is so honest and just plain real.
Rules is about a girl whose eight-year-old brother is autistic. He runs the family, in a sense — something that parents and siblings of autistic children understand all too well. My niece Emily wrote an essay about her autistic younger brother Danny recently. “Welcome to the Jungle” was her theme, and she, too, understood that her family was subject to a certain set of rules due to Danny’s disability. In Cynthia Lord’s story, the main character, Catherine, makes rules to help her brother through life. “No taking off your pants in public” may sound strange to those of us who have never lived with an autistic child, but I know that Emily would nod her head knowingly at this one.
At the same time Catherine (Cat) is dealing with the struggles of babysitting her brother, she gets to know another boy who attends the same clinic for therapy. Jason is in a wheelchair and can’t speak, but the two develop a relationship through the communication cards to which he points to express his thoughts. Cat ends up crafting more cards for him — brighter ones with pictures and snazzier language.
Beyond the issue of autism, Cat has to deal with the same feelings and angst that all middle school kids face: Am I going to make friends? Do I fit in? This book is sweet and funny and clever (I love the references to Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad). As a teacher, I kept imagining all the great activities that kids would enjoy to go along with the text. I’m dying to make communication cards of my own and try talking without my voice for a day. What an interesting concept. And what a great book. Thanks, Cynthia!
My Writer’s Notebook is none of those things — except important — and even that adjective is shaky because it’s only important to me. Anyone else who opened it up would probably think, “What is this woman trying to say? These thoughts are all jumbled and disjointed. And she’s an ENGLISH teacher??”
That’s the beauty of a Writer’s Notebook. It’s your private territory, like those corners of your brain where you think all the thoughts you never say out loud.
Anyway, my Notebook measures about six and a half by nine and a half inches. It has a sturdy plastic cover, big rings, and college-ruled pages. I say Notebook, but really I should say Notebooks because I have a whole shelf of them. Color doesn’t matter, but they do have to be this same design and feel the same in my hand. And they have to have pockets in the dividers inside (not pictured – sorry). That’s because sometimes I go places without my Notebook, and inevitably, something happens or I see something or think of something that wants to be written down and used some day. When that happens, I use Post-It Notes, hall passes, index cards, napkins, my hand, or corners that I rip off of other papers when I think no one will notice. Then I tuck those things with the notes into the pockets in my Writer’s Notebook (except my hand, which doesn’t fit in there and is attached to me). I stick other things in there, too — pictures that I want to write about, little notes and funny things that I find.
The other day, I sat down at my computer at school and found a Post-It stuck to my computer that said 5 50 on it. 5 50??? What’s that supposed to mean. It was in my handwriting, too. I put that note there because darn it, it was important. 5 50. Don’t forget. I have no idea what it means. Was I supposed to have been someplace at 5:50? A 5:50 train or bus? (If so, I didn’t make it. Sorry.) Do I owe someone $5.50? (If it’s you, please let me know.) If nothing else, there’s a story in that little pink Post-It Note someplace, so I tucked that in my Notebook, too. At least I can write about it, even if I never remember what it meant.
Now that my contract for Spitfire is signed, sealed, and delivered (it should be there by tomorrow, I think), I decided I wanted to share the news with my 7th grade students at SMS. Here’s how it went:
Me: (holding up the cd with the digital version of my manuscript on it) Before we start class, I have some really exciting news. Guess what’s on this disk?
Student A: An ultrasound?
Student B: You’re pregnant?
Student C: She’s pregnant?
Student D: Whoa! She doesn’t even look fat yet.
Me: No, No, NOOOOOOO!!
Student A: It’s not an ultrasound?
Student C (ready to try a new idea): Did you star in a music video?
Student B: Cool!
Student C: Wicked!
Student D: Awesome!
Me: No. No video.
Students A-D: Oh.
Student B: Did you write a book or something?
At this point, my students were friendly and kind enough to express various levels of joy at my news (even though it wasn’t a music video). A couple classes clapped. (Yay!) In every class, someone asked if I was going to make a lot of money. (Well, no…) And in every class, at least one person wanted to know if they could come back next year to have their copy signed (Absolutely.)
Aside from being a lifelong personal joy, writing has been great for me as a teacher. I know how mad and lazy we can all feel when we have to revise something (“But I want to be DONE….), so I understand how my students feel on draft six. I understand how much more fun it is to slog along through the revision bog when you’re not slogging alone (thanks to my online critique group and two local writer friends), and so my students often collaborate in class or through online forums to revise their writing as well. We get by with a little help from our friends….
It’s been a week and a day since I got the news that Spitfire, my first middle grades novel, is going to be published by North Country Books. Spitfire is a historical novel set on Lake Champlain during the Battle of Valcour Island in the American Revolution. It’s told in alternating chapters through the voices of 12-year-old boy whose stepfather brought him along to fight and a fictional young girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the fleet on the eve of the battle. This battle on Lake Champlain is an incredible story, and I can’t get past the feeling of being overwhelmed that I’m the writer who will be sharing that story with kids.
This is the painting that my amazingly talented artist/mom did for a possible cover illustration.
It’s funny — I’ve heard published authors say countless times that being published for the first time is just surreal, and now I understand what they meant. I keep waiting for someone to show up and tell me it was all a misunderstanding, or a joke, or maybe one of those reality tv shows. Even as I sat in my lawyer’s office today going over the contract, I kept waiting for the guy with the camera to appear from behind a piece of furniture and announce the hoax (CJ was probably wondering why I kept glancing under the table while he was going through all those clauses).
I have hamster brain now. Hamsters on one of those noisy exercise wheels. When I was eight years old, I had a gerbil that lived in a cage in my room (until my brother pulled its tail off, but that’s another story), and every night after I went to sleep, it would hop onto its little yellow plastic exercise wheel and start the thing spinning and clickety-whirring for half the night. I swear the tailless gerbil is back to haunt me now because every morning at about three, that wheel in my head starts spinning and I’m up for the night. At least I’ve discovered the pleasures of writing in a quiet house at 3am.