Newbery award winner and New York Times bestselling author

Archive for the ‘Random howls into the world’ Category

Going All Ninja

exerciseIt’s the start of a new year, so it’s time for a writing exercise plan to shake off the winter flab. I’m pushing out of my comfort zone by experimenting with new forms and voice. I’ve been reading a lot of early readers, for example, studying their length and style. (If you’re on GoodReads, you can catch up with what I’m reading.) My favorite so far has been Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, a little gem of a series that has all the seeds of a great literary piece for kids who are seven and eight. Nice trick, right? It won’t be long before I start trying my hand  there.


I’m also venturing into adult writing for a few precious weeks – which feels like sacrilege for someone who adores writing for kids as much as I do. But it’s true. Starting this Monday night, I’ll be joining my friend Valley Haggard as a student in her Creative Non Fiction class at the Black Swan bookstore.

This is a stretch for me. For starters, I have a really erratic memory. I can remember the exact pattern of the sofa in my mother’s living room when I was eight, but I can’t remember a name I’ve just learned. My husband claims that I’ve forgotten entire chapters of my life, like the Genesis in concert at Madison Square Garden, which I flatly deny attending, despite his very damning details about people, clothing, where we sat.

But the bigger problem is about courage. Unlike Valley who writes about her grit and failings with unflinching honesty…maybe even gusto… I’m sometimes a coward. I write fiction, after all, that wonderful land where we explore the truth through a handy veil of lies. When we’re writing non-fiction, on the other hand, we’re out in the open and we’re dragging our loved ones out there with us.  It’s a recipe for disaster, I tell you.

These aren’t state secrets, I’m keeping, of course. Just life, like anybody else’s. Well, maybe not. I live with my husband, my college-age kids, and three ailing women who are all over 80. Some days my life is about Depends Underwear and pureed vegetables. Some days, I’m a referee, a massage therapist, a translator, a courier, a short order cook, a lunatic. There are side-splitting moments and terribly sad ones, too. But this screwed up family story is really about forgiveness, about how we can sometimes offer it and how sometimes, we can’t. To tell this story of how we all got here, I’ll have to hold up to scrutiny this clan of quirky, troubled, and loving people. The thought of taking it on leaves me in knots.

My childhood friend Raquel (R.J. Palacio) said it best last week. She knew me when I was seven, back when most of the cast was already assembled but we were still early in the show. She knows what I’m up against. “I think you have an adult book in you, Meg. Take notes!”

So, I’m going to put myself in Valley’s hands and see what happens for a few weeks. Maybe it will remain nothing more than a personal journal. Maybe it will become the start of a comic memoir or an ongoing column somewhere. Maybe I’ll cannibalize parts and turn it into fiction after all.

It’s not important.

imagesWhat matters is that I’m working on craft by walking into scary personal terrain armed with only my writing to save me. All I can do now is channel my inner writing ninja,  the one who knows how to maneuver around Life’s sucker punches to let their weight tumble those troubles down.

I’ll keep you posted.



Where to find Meg next?  Check out the calendar page

Illustrators I Love: Ana Juan


from The Pet Shop Revolution by Ana Juan (Arthur Levine Books, 2011)


text by Monique De Varennes, illustrated Ana Juan
Schwartz and Wade, 2007

I couldn’t resist sharing Ana Juan’s work. She has several very successful works all over the globe, but in case you don’t know this wonderful Spanish illustrator,  here’s the link to her site. 

Also, I wanted to mention that this spring, Cristina Dominguez Ramirez of the Richmond Public Libraries and I will be collaborating to bring a children’s book illustration exhibit to Richmond in celebration of El Dia De Los Libros (the Day of Books)/ El Dia de los Niños in late April. Stay tuned for details of some of the incredible artists and activities we’re cooking up for you — and for how you can help.

Gracias Sandra Cisneros

So, I got home from the Nat’l Book Festival on Saturday. I had dusty toes and a tired back, but my head was swirling with gratitude for the way of the world.

True, the lines inside the Barnes & Noble tent were obnoxiously long, but it was a great event in every other way. My friend Katharine and I set out by train – a pleasant two-hour ride – and spent our day strolling the  grounds, eating Snicker bars in the sunshine, and generally marveling at the mass of people who came from all over the country to celebrate the best our country has to offer in terms of books and authors.  I got to meet illustrator Rafael López and his lovely wife, Candice, who chatted with us about their mural projects, their new Obama poster, and our shared friends, whose talents we both admire.

But in the afternoon, I received a gift I never expected from this festival. I’d managed to snag a chair inside the tent where Sandra Cisneros was speaking.  I read The House on Mango Street in the 1980s, of course, and I’ve been a fan ever since, devouring her short stories, picture books and novels as soon as they’re published. Her voice always rings fierce and true, and like so many other Latina authors, I can point to her work as an influence on why I like to capture Latino culture in fiction. She is, in my view, a literary madrina to our whole country. As soon as she took the stage, I was starstruck.

Her newest book is Have You Seen Marie?, an illustrated short story.”I wrote this when my mother died, and I was feeling like an orphan,” she told us.  She’d had a difficult relationship with her mother, and yet, when her mother died, Sandra felt completely lost.

I sat perfectly still.

Some of you already know that my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer last Christmas and that she decided against radiation or chemo. (“I’m too old to put myself through that,” she said.) Instead, we packed her things in Florida, and by February, she and my aunt (the famous tía Isa) moved in with us in Richmond. Suddenly I was in charge of caring for eccentric elderly women whose bodies were failing and whose habits were slipping into manias.

We go through our days peacefully enough, filling pill boxes, going to doctor appointments, dragging me (there is no other way to say it) through Walmart. There are occasional eye rolls and snappish answers when one of us is careless. Twice I have had full shouting melt-downs. I get endless advice (about cooking, folding laundry, parenting, yes, even writing) whether I want it or not. I get full daily reports on people’s body functions. And I get a lot of new responsibilities – scary ones – for the things that she is appalled to discover that she can no longer manage or remember how to do. Fighting with insurance companies, online banking, official letters in English that she wants carefully translated. Behind everything, though, I know that we are readying ourselves to say  goodbye with clear hearts, even if neither one of us dares to say so.

Our relationship was sometimes volatile, often distant, sprinkled with finger-pointing and criticisms. Maybe every mother-daughter relationship is this way. (This is what Sandra Cisneros thinks.) Maybe it’s especially acute when cultural divides come into play. There are times we lived through that I don’t like to remember, if only because I am ashamed of how one of us — or both — behaved. And yet, here we are, our days counting down, and the only thing we can grab on to is that we each did our best. When it’s all said and done, the thought of not having my imperfect and maddening mother  makes me feel like an orphan, too.

Sandra finished her reading, an ending filled with acceptance and hope. I was scarcely breathing. In taking questions, she offered this advice to the writers in the audience.

“Don’t write the stories about things you remember.  Write the ones about the things you wish you could forget.”

So, here is my first baby step.

When shoes meet arte:!

Okay, these are my friend Tanya’s feet. We were meeting yesterday at Pine Camp to discuss the Hope Tree Project at City Hall in September. Her shoes reminded me of Keith Haring and any number of other contemporary artists. She was wearing molas, i.e. shoes embroidered in the traditional Kuna nation style of Colombia. No two patterns are ever the same.

“They’re not cheap,” she confessed. “But I have a piece of art on my feet.”

I know. I want them, too.  Here’s where. 

How do Latina moms and teens talk about stuff that matters?

This came across my desk this morning, and I wanted to pass it along.You know that I’m big on strong girls, so this seems like a painless way for real people to add to the body of information we have about how we encourage Latina girls to have healthy relationships.

If you have a couple of hours to spare and you care about girls and Latino families, contact Carla (info at bottom). She’s the study coordinator and graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University who can answer your questions. Interviews can be conducted in English or Spanish. In addition, interviews can take place in the Richmond or DC metropolitan area.

Flyers in English and Spanish here.

  • Study Title: Talking with Adolescents About Healthy Behaviors   We are looking for Latina teenagers (14-17 years old) and their mothers to participate in individual interviews about healthy relationships and behaviors.
  • Who can participate in the study? – Latina adolescents who are 14-17 years old – Mothers of Latina adolescents who are 14-17 years old
  • What will I receive if I am in the study? – If you participate in the interview, moms and daughterw will each receive a $20 gift cerfificate to Walmart
  • What do you need to do? – Mothers will need to agree to participate in an interview – Latina adolescents will need to agree to particpate and they will need to get their parent’s permission to be interviewed – Particpate in an interview that will take about two hours – Share what you think about Latina teenagers’ dating, sexuality, and pregnancy, and ways we may help Latina adolescents make healthy relationship decisions
  • Who can I call if I have a question or if I want to participate? – Carla Shaffer, Study Coordinator, at (804) 827-4450

Me at age 10 with the important women in my life.
I am still waiting for The Talk.

Joys and Horrors of the Bookcase Purge

I got back from a much-needed family vacation this week. I should know by now that sunshine and sea breezes make me ridiculously optimistic. Maybe that’s why I decided to face the horror of my bookcases at last.

 The truth is that I form unnatural attachments to books. I like to think it’s a job hazard and not simply a mania. I still have my Pelican Shakespeare from college – covered in dust bunnies, but still.  I keep paperbacks until acid has yellowed their pages and the mold makes me sneeze. I pile books in every room of my house, thinking of them as comforting friends waiting for a chat. How could it be otherwise? My whole journey as a reader and a writer are in those pages. The high brow books and beach reads, the books I once read to my kids in the hopes they’d love stories as much as I do, the books that marked my own childhood (which I later bought for old time’s sake), the books written by dear and talented friends. For years I haven’t had the heart to toss a single one. Each volume celebrates so many wonderful moments for me that it seems an unthinkable crime to let them go.

But the world is a mysterious place, my friends, and sometimes it gives us exactly what we need. Just this week, WriterHouse  announced that it would begin accepting donations for its annual book sale. The idea of my books helping to raise money for a writers’ organization was just the encouragement I needed. Purge for a good cause, I told myself. Besides, wasn’t the 100-degree heat in Richmond a sign that it was okay to spend a day sneezing, hauling, and taking breaks to re-read parts of old favorites? I got to work, and when I was through many hours later, I stood blinking and enjoying a strange sense of calm that had eluded me for months.

Almost 70 books left my house this morning on their way to Charlottesville. My son came along with me. His college orientation was in the neighborhood, and he agreed to help me lug the boxes out of the car before heading on to campus. (A college kid with strong arms comes in handy at times like these. I’m no dope.)

Halfway through the job, he stopped.

“You’re giving away my Calvin and Hobbes collection?” he asked. As a nine-year-old he was insatiable for Calvin’s cranky antics. I remember buying him a new volume for his birthday and Christmas for three years straight. Of course, that was long ago. He’s six feet tall now. He has hairy legs, his own car, and, in the fall, an exciting life that will be largely unknown to me.

“You’re going to college,” I said. “These will just gather dust;  you don’t still read them.”

But Alex had stopped listening. He dug them out of the box, sweat dribbling down his neck in the parking lot. His name was still written on the inside covers in his old elementary school handwriting.

“But I could,” he said. He tucked them in the seat pouch of my van for safe keeping.

I’m still smiling.

Earlier this summer at the Science Museum of VA

Loving Walker Books: It’s the little things

It’s no secret that I love my publisher Candlewick Press and its parent company, Walker Books in the UK.  I thought I’d show you just one example of why.

This was in the mail from Walker. It’s publication day for The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind in the UK (and my birthday, as it happens). This little card made my day even better. What a lovely thing to do for a writer. Thanks for your thoughtfulness, Walker!

A Random Howl: Is writing for children “really writing?”

Okay, friends. Earthquakes, hurricanes, book deadlines, sending a kid off to college: It has all hit me in the last month. I  hope you’ll forgive my silence on this blog.

This morning, I’m just going to post a quick Random Howl. I do this kind of post from time to time when faced with inexplicably ludicrous moments that happen in every writer’s life.

Recently I was toying with the idea of applying for an Artist Fellowship Award in fiction. (That’s not the ludicrous part, although some could argue otherwise.) Only four fellowships of $5,000 are awarded in my state, so the chances were to be very slim. Virginia, I’m proud to say, has no lack of exceptional writers who live and work here. Still, according to the arts commission’s web site, the fellowship application process is “open to Virginia-based writers of fiction.” Why not try? I reasoned.

Turns out, I needn’t have bothered. When I called the commission to check on the grant details, they confirmed what I had already suspected. The award is geared for writers of adult work. Interestingly, I could find nothing in the application itself that would not apply to a children’s book writer, most certainly to anyone who writes YA. 

#12 on the Library Journal's Most Influential Books of the 20th Century

This is all especially disappointing as Virginia continues its Minds Wide Open celebration for 2012: Children and the Arts. 

I love our arts commission. They support lots of programs that would flounder without them, and they have to fight for survival in the General Assembly every year.

But still I have to ask:  What defines a writer’s work as worthy of support? Is the age of the reader the measure of  value? If so, what does that say about what we think is important? How “wide open” are our minds on this issue, after all? 

Are you howling with me?

Living la vida loca

I haven’t written in more than a week, but that’s because my life has sped up like a Toyota with a stuck gas pedal.

Kathy Erskine's Q & A will appear on Girls of Summer in early August.

It’s hard to complain, though. My days are crammed with things I love. The Girls of Summer Q & As are coming in. I hope you caught Cathryn Clinton this week — and Jacqueline Woodson before that. (Every Friday, a new author answers our questions, so stay tuned.)

I’ve been corresponding with students who are working with author (and professional gummie bear eater) Wendy Shang in northern Virginia, and my own summer residency with the Latino Education Advancement Program wrapped up. Here’s Freddie’s piece so you can see why I love this group.

ESL had just finished, and I jostled my way towards the lunch line. Passing by the fifth grade hallways, I was hoping to be as big and smart as they were one day. I got in the cafeteria line and as usual, the cafeteria cashier smiled and said, “Have a good lunch, my little tootsie roll.”

I went to the table where my class sat and talked to my friends: Tyler, Patterson, Michael, Michael, and Conner Lugio.  As we swapped our lunches, I had to crush my napkin because my mom left me a note saying she loved me. Although it was in Spanish and my friends could not read it, it was still embarrassing.  

It was halfway through lunch when I saw her: Alexa.  She had blonde hair and green eyes, and each time she came into the room with her smiling glow, I would get jittered up in my stomach.  Her best friend, Jackie, was sitting next to her; she also had blonde hair, but I didn’t really like her much, except that she had the chocolate that I liked: Snickers.  See? I have always been a true romantic.

Looking ahead to this week, I join Richmond Young Writers for a day of writing magical realism. I’ve been looking forward to this for several months. First of all, I adore magical realism. Second, kids never have to make much of a leap into magic. It’s still part of how they move through the world. All I have to do is give them a few reminders.

Here’s one story starter:  When the Moon first came to complain to Raul in his dreams, she was terribly rude.

Give it a try see what happens.

More soon.

Where do YOU come from?

Today I started my annual volunteer work at a place that I will never stop helping.

The Latino Education Advancement Program (LEAP) is housed at the Steward School, one of those blindingly beautiful independent schools here in Virigina. The program serves about fifty Latino middle and high school youth from all over the Richmond area. It’s free thanks to the dogged efforts of Program Director Melanie Rodriguez and Head Master Ken Seward, who cobble together deals with a whole range of small and large funders.  (I’m grateful to James River Writers for being among them.) The result is four weeks of classes that prepare Latino kids to take more challenging classes in their own high schools, which in turn, opens doors for them when it’s time to pick colleges and beyond.

None of that is why I show up every summer.

I go because I think that Latino kids need the tools to find and tell our story. For all the ways this country has embraced  JLo, Pitbull,


Vergara, and even zumba, you can’t get away from all the negative messages about Latinos in the media, images our youth soak up before they can even name their shame. Scan the newspaper and see what you find. “Illegal aliens” blamed for starting fires in Arizona. Graphic stories of drug wars in Mexico s[illing across our borders. Gang violence in DC. Drop out rates. Job stealing (whatever that means). The list goes on, ignoring, of course, the story of most Latinos in this country, which is, frankly, one of hard work and success.

So today, as I looked out at these juniors and seniors in high school, we started talking about reflection, the flat kind that anyone can see in the mirror, and the deep kind that happens behind your eyeballs. They’re about to write college essays, after all, and the stakes are high. They’ll need to grab their story now and reflect on themselves in a new way. They’ll need to have the words to say who they really are and what they dream for themselves. Owning their story and telling it in their own words will be their most powerful act so far.

“So, where do you come from?” I asked, pulling a prompt that one of my own daughters faced when applying for college. “Where do you originate?

What they had to say left me proud. Here is a list of first lines. To me, it’s a poem waiting to be written by and about them.

Where Do I Come From?

I come from a family of travelers.

I come from a speck of hope.

I come from a million places, some more obvious than others.

I come from healthy sibling rivalry.

I come from a family of courage.

I come from a home of respect, love, and culture.

I come from dreams and goals that my parents had for me from the moment I opened my eyes.

I come from Canada, the land of ice and hockey.

I come from Richmond —but not for long.