Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

I'm making lentil soup and baking sweet potatoes today. There's a fabulous crisp in the air that says 'fall,' even here in Atlanta. Leaves are turning, finally, despite the lack of rain we had this summer.

Happy Halloween, my favorite holiday, especially the Halloweens I celebrated as a kid in Camp Springs, Maryland, and as a mom with kids in Frederick, Maryland, where for so many years we'd build a fire at the end of the driveway and sit in lawn chairs with hot cider and hot dogs, gossiping and welcoming trick-or-treaters all evening, greeting the bees and ghosts and fairies and lions and witches that shuffled through the leaves to where we sat and helped themselves to the candy in the big straw basket while we made a big fuss over their costumes.

Friends came and sat with us, and soon it was a Halloween tradition. My kids added scary music, dead guys hanging from the basketball hoop and buried in the leaves, and tombstones handmade from found materials. Everything was handmade, rough around the edges, simple... but it all looked great in the sifty dark. That was part of the charm of the Halloween I loved.

Today I'll carve the pumpkin I bought from Sherry at Sherry's Produce on the corner of Brockett and Lawrenceville Hwy, and I'll roast the seeds -- another long-standing tradition in my house, and one I first discovered in Marguerite Kelly's book THE MOTHER'S ALMANAC over 25 years ago. I'll put a votive in the pumpkin, light it, and put it on the new porch at dusk where I'll wait for the three trick-or-treaters I'll have in this tiny neighborhood in the Tucker, Georgia woods. I've filled the candy basket, too, even though it won't be emptied tonight.

Hannah's at school and Jim has a gig, playing a Halloween party with his band. I'll have the house to myself. I need to pack and be ready to leave tomorrow afternoon for Austin and the Texas Book Festival, where I'm working in schools on Friday and speaking on a panel called "A Sense of Place" on Saturday morning at 10:30 with Michael Hoeye, Kimberly Willis Holt, and Adam Rex (come see us and say hello!), but I think I'll take this Halloween night to write something spooky.

The book you see here is from a not-so-spooky collection of stories edited by the wonderful Lois Metzger, published by Scholastic, and available in schools through Scholastic Book Clubs -- BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR (this link is a pdf to the book club flyer, just so's you know) is the title. I have a story in this collection called "Star Light, Star Bright." I bring up the rear, tie us all up together, after Gail Carson Levine starts us off. There are ten of us in this collection, ten writers telling ten different stories, and I am in such great company.

I love the challenge of the short story. It's an exhilarating roller coaster of a ride, compared to the longer Sunday drive of a novel. I loved writing my first story that takes place in Georgia, my newly-adopted state. I loved writing about friendship, school, class, and wishing hard for a friend.

I just received my author copies in the mail... I may have to sit down and read the book from cover to cover tonight, while I wait for my trick-or-treaters. I wish for a Happy Halloween for everyone who celebrates this holiday full of wishes and mysteries and secrets and possibilities.

Fiction is full of wishes and mysteries and secrets and possibilities. That's one reason I love it. I didn't think I'd be a fiction writer. I was going to write essays -- and did, for many, many years. When I was young, I wished for so many things. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to belong. I wanted to matter. And I wished for words. I wished for a way to discover what I had to say -- I knew it was in me somewhere, I just didn't know how to access my story. And as I got older, somehow those personal essays found their way to fiction... and for that I am profoundly grateful.

I am not careful with wishes. I wish with abandon. My most fervent wish is for peace. Peace within and peace without. Peace. What do you wish for?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Good Work, Good Friends in Dallas

This is a long post, but there is so much to share; it was such a rich week.

I left friends last Sunday afternoon -- here is my husband Jim, Atlanta poet and friend Lynn Erlicher (Alexander), and the amazing Dan Retoff, yoga instructor and yogi in his own right (from Chicago now), standing in my Atlanta driveway, about to wave me off to the airport.

I flew to Dallas where I worked in Dallas schools all week, doing assembly programs with grades 3 through 6 and writing workshops with grade 4.
I've been teaching writing across grades and curriculums for close to 20 years. I've changed my methods and practices as I have learned more and better, and yet I come back to some basics that I believe in, which one day I want to write about, and which I will probably share here at some point.

This must be my Statue-of-Liberty pose. I'm standing in front of a slide of the cover of FREEDOM SUMMER and I've got a bunch of books -- children's literature -- in front of me, some of the books I use in the classroom when I teach. I teach personal narrative writing and maintain that all stories start that way, with personal narratives. Sometimes they turn into fiction. The better we know our own stories, the better fiction we write. Wherever I teach, even when it's within the same school district or school, each school population is different, of course, and each classroom of learners is different. Teachers are different. Needs are different from hour to hour sometimes... or so it can seem.

It can be an inner-city school or a rural one, a private school or a public one, a wealthy school or a poor one, or any of the shades inbetween: I can tell within minutes of being in a classroom if it is one in which writing is valued, reading is second-nature, and mutual respect is a given. I can pinpoint my challenges within minutes -- and sometimes those challenges include the teachers. Sometimes I feel like I'm preaching to the choir, and sometimes I feel as if my every teaching sinew is being stretched to the max. Sometimes both those experiences come in the same day. And it is all good work. It teaches me.
Here's a photo from the staff development time after school on Tuesday. Teachers have so much to carry on their shoulders in a classroom. How well we educate teachers before they even reach the classroom -- and how much they want to be educated -- is crucial to how well teachers educate our children. Teaching is tied to parenting and vice versa. How well we raise up our future teachers -- how well they learn as ten-year-olds -- and how well they grow into human beings... all of this starts at such an early age, and I Have Opinions.

I'm a foundations person... show me where the beginning is, show me how it works, show me why, so I can build on that foundation. Right now I'm focusing on how we each need to tell our stories. It's one of our deepest human needs, to tell stories. They define for us how we are loved, how we belong, how we find compassion for one another, how we make ourselves safe, and more.
Melinda Hawkins, teacher extraordinaire, brought her middle school students to the McCullough assembly fully prepared after reading LITTLE BIRD together carefully, critically, and enthusiastically.

This is Stephanie Noack, who bought a class set of LITTLE BIRD for her Armstrong Elementary 3rd-grade students. She says she wants to teach them about descriptive language, among other things. And she wants to read them a story. So much of what we absorb as learners is what comes to us intrinsically through good models, good literature, good teachers.
When I teach, I have students bring their writer's notebooks to the assemblies and we begin the workshopping in assembly -- here are students scribbling in their notebooks as they make connections from my stories to theirs -- then continue in classrooms. I lug a ton of children's picture books with me from class to class, as I use them to help me teach. I think I'm reading Jane Yolen's OWL MOON to the students in the workshop photo (way) above. One Clear Moment in Time, that's what I strive for, both in what I'm reading and in what I ask students to write -- one clear moment in time.

Here is Kate, from Hyer Elementary School, where I worked on Wednesday. Kate and her mom, April Callahan, stayed up until 11pm finishing EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS the night before my visit -- I was so touched. "Are you awake?" I asked Kate. "Oh, yeah!" she said.

"Put your hands in the yoga of writing..."

And here is Natalie, from McCullough Intermediate School. Natalie dressed up like Comfort Snowberger. It was too cold to wear her lime green shorts, but she did manage a baseball cap and shirt and a Snowberger's handkerchief!

Here's a shout-out to the Uber-Librarians in the Highland Park School District who planned for a year for this week and who made it all happen: Ultra-organizer (and good driver - haha!) Leesa Cole at McCullough Intermediate School (and thanks to Teresa Morris for the applesauce cake and MORE), Laurie McKay at University Park Elementary (we didn't let rain deter us!), Janet Peters at Hyer Elementary (snappy dresser, too), Dana Phillips (who knows what is important) at Bradfield Elementary School, and Lori Riley at Armstrong Elementary, who understands how to make each child, each teacher feel important. Thanks to all these librarians and their capable and enthusiastic assistants as well -- we couldn't have done it without you.

Thanks also to HP Arts, MIS PTA, and PC Tag, teachers who gave up instructional time, and all the generous parents who made our week together possible. You help make a difference in more ways than you know.

Had dinner one night in Dallas with high school friend Sandy Thomas Telzrow. We met in the Philippines, where our dads were stationed at Clark Air Force Base and we graduated high school together at Wagner High School.

Sandy was the Homecoming Queen our senior year. I was the Christmas Queen. Two queens had dinner and were joined by a prince -- Sandy's son Eric, who teaches third grade in Dallas.

Stay awake, I'm almost done!

One more shout-out, and this goes back to Southern Festival of Books and the previous post. If you scroll down to the photo with the baseball players in the audience at Southern Festival of Books, you'll see Kerry Madden at the end of the front row. Squint. Kerry came to my session -- we'd never met and I recognized her from her website photos. We fell into each other's arms like old friends when the session was over, blathering our admiration for one another, hahaha -- writers do this, eh? Kerry writes such lovely novels about family and kinship. Her setting is Maggie Valley in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Her new book is LOUISIANA'S SONG, the second in a trilogy.

I came home from Dallas on Friday night. The Atlanta airport was hopping, as it always is, with people of all ages, races, colors, persuasions, languages riding the steep, four-across escalators up the long ride to baggage claim and loved ones. Someday I'll think to take a picture of the organized bedlam of dashikis, turbans, hip-hop jeans and baseball caps, business suits, spiked heels, shawls (mine!), flannel shirts, Braves' jackets, and more that dot the landscape in the Atlanta-Hartsfield-Jackson airport. I'm beginning to love my adopted city. Thank goodness.

We need water, here in Atlanta. I'm hoping for good rains this fall. I spent the weekend with family and have three business days ahead of me before leaving for eight days in two states: Texas again (Texas Book Festival in Austin) and Iowa City, for a week in schools.

As good as this work is, as much as it fills my soul and teaches me so much, as wonderful as are the people I meet and the geography I get to experience, I'm missing home, family, and writing so much. I'm missing my BODY -- I've gained over forty pounds on the road in the past three years. That's ridiculous! The above photo was taken at our high school reunion two years ago; can you even pick me out? I'm standing next to Sandy. I'm wearing purple. I've had some health issues this past year that seem to be solved now, so I'm going to try to shed this 40 pounds. Want to lose with me? Say yes. I need the company. I may need to be off the road.

But it's hard to stay off the road, and there are gifts held in the travel, of course. I promised many posts ago to write about making a living as a writer, and I'm going to do that, I am. I'm looking at next year's schedule and at how much more air there is around it, and I'm wondering if I can keep it that way in order to give myself more writing time. I'm going to need it, as I've got deadlines looming for the Sixties trilogy I'm writing for Harcourt, and I've got a home and family that misses me (and that I miss!) when I travel so much.

Lots of decisions to make ahead of me. I'll do some ruminating on these pages, I'm sure.

Still awake? Long post! Now I need a nap. I'm sure you do, too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Catching Up

First of all, thanks so much for your mail. My email inbox overfloweth... thanks for the votes of confidence about this blog, about continuing it, and thanks for all the kind words about all kinds of things. I wish I were better at responding to every note. I have taken to saying that I correspond with my heart. I do. Hope you can feel it.

I want to catch you up on many things, but before I do, I want to give a shout-out to my friends in Southern California, who are battling fires everywhere. I was just in Southern California on tour and saw how beautiful was that land -- scroll down to see some photos. Now I'm concerned about my Harcourt friends, my Writers House friends, and my bookseller, teacher, student, reader, and librarian friends... heck, I'm concerned about everyone in Southern California. I'm sending hope, strength, and love.

This week I'm teaching (and learning) personal narrative writing -- to 4th-graders and their teachers -- in the Highland Park area of Dallas, in public schools. Here's an article by Jonathan Kozol that echoes so much about what I believe and teach... Kozol gives the Opening Gala speech on Thursday, November 15 at NCTE in NYC. Oh, how I'd love to hear him speak. I am working at NCTE, but I don't arrive until Friday. Maybe I'll see some of you on Saturday... (Kathleen?).

Peg Bracken died today. She wrote the I HATE TO COOK BOOK in 1960, when I was 7 years old. My mother was nothing like Peg Bracken, who was three years ahead of the curve started by Betty Friedan when she wrote THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE. My mother was not impressed by Betty Friedan or those who came along with her, but I remember reading Peg Bracken's book as a young mother in 1975 and laughing at her way of debunking the '50s ideal of womanhood:

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the noodle water. Brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

I also loved at that time Phyllis Theroux, Patricia Leimbach, Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr, all of whom idealized living at home with children and loving the pitfalls of motherhood. I aspired to that life -- longed for it. I especially loved Kerr's PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES. She made me laugh. I had never heard of Joan Didion or Ellen Goodman, but I would know them soon enough, and I would be heavily influenced by them as well.

But at the time, it was 1975, I was only 22-years-old and I already had two kids, was working full time as a single parent, and believed -- still! -- in the romantic notion of being able to stay home and be a full-time mom (was also influenced by Betty MacDonald's THE EGG AND I -- she of the MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE FAME!) and be totally fulfilled by this herculean calling, was convinced it was the only life I wanted, at 22... and didn't yet know that I would be granted this life only at a great cost... but more on this later -- because I also want to say that, that life, once I got it, was also so very satisfying to me.

I admire those women who, in a time in which many women believed they needed to follow the status quo of being "only good housewives" and no more, told us that there was depth and breadth to that choice, and that there was also depth and breadth and meaning in incorporating and moving beyond that choice.

Judy Blume was one of those pioneers. How exciting that she declares herself re-energized at age 70 and is publishing new work! I hope to be publishing good work at age 70. I came late to the idea that I could be a good mother and good writer, both.

I don't think I told you that I got sick at Southern Festival of Books. (Here's part of the group that came to hear me read on Saturday, Oct. 13 -- I was thrilled to see baseball players!) It was a great festival, as always, and I got to present this year in the Old Senate Chambers at the War Memorial Plaza, which was a great venue full of character.

Here are some folks from Vanderbilt University in my session... I was so pleased to see them! I have a special place in my heart for Vanderbilt. They know how to admit it when they've been short-sighted. They expelled one of their students, James Lawson, in 1960 -- he was teaching peaceful, non-violent resistance techniques to Diane Nash, James Bevel and more, he was advocating the integration of lunch counters and more -- and came back to right that wrong. Lawson became a minister, a lightening rod, and a peacemaker for civil rights, and he was instrumentally important in keeping the peace during the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Lawson is one of my heroes, and a hero of Vanderbilt's as well... they recently hosted James Lawson as a visiting professor -- more of one of my heroes later. He is one of the peaceful revolutionaries who raised his voice -- and continues to raise his voice -- in a time of great change.

My host at Southern Festival was Gail Vinett, who works for Ingram Book Distributors. Gail and I met at Southern Festival 2 years ago and feel instantly in like during the LITTLE BIRD tour at Southern Festival. When Gail heard I was going to introduce ALL-STARS at Southern Festival, she brought this photograph of her grandfather (he's on the right with the bat) and his All-Star team of only 9 players, to show all of us that it's perfectly possible (or was) to have an All-Stars team made up of 8 players as happens in THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS.

Gail was great, the crowd was great, and if I hadn't been sick the day before, I would have been much more animated.

I did well on Friday at Central Middle School in Murfreesboro with Helen Hemphill (new book: RUNAROUND) and D. Ann Love (new book: PICTURE PERFECT), but knew I was getting sick on the way back to Nashville. Exhaustion. Too much touring and traveling was catching up with me.

It was the seeing-stars, tossing-lunch exhaustion. I excused myself from the evening activities and slept, and I was okay, although more subdued than usual, for my Saturday session in the Old Senate Chambers, which went well.

Here's David Gibson, "an old Winona boy" (Mississippi), who gifted me with speeches (on CD) by Willie Morris. Thanks, David. And thanks so much, Gail, thank you to Emily Masters who organizes the children's programming for Southern Festival, and a big thank-you to Humanties Tennessee, who manages to find the funding each year (thank you, funders!) to pull together this fabulous festival.

I came home from Southern Festival with just a couple of days before going to the Georgia COMO conference on beautiful Jekyll Island, where the trees all look like this:

I spent a day here, right on the beach -- here's librarian Trish Vlastnik (left) and Lea Ann Kelly (right), chairperson of this year's conference for Georgia school, public, and institutional librarians. What a great conference -- over 900 librarians! (Do you like my new red glasses? I do -- I can see!)

I returned home to pumpkins and candlesticks ($2.00!) I bought at Value Village...

...and to three days of eating miso soup and spinach salad and sleeping well in my own bed with my own husband.

And now, here I am in Dallas, having left my new husband behind yet one more time, having a blast in Dallas schools, and yet longing for the routines of fall and family. I'll be home on Friday night. Out again the following Thursday, to Austin. This is fall travel. Somehow, on this trip, I'm actually putting words to paper as well, writing the next story. More on this later, too.

I'm going to be keeping a close eye on the Southern California fires while waiting for friends to continue to check in, and I'll share with you my week in Dallas schools as well. I've been hired to teach writing workshops -- how does that work and what does that mean? Go back and read the Jonathan Kozol article. I want to be part of the revolution in education. At least I will raise my voice. I am in good company.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Did You Get the Number of that Truck?

Flat as a piece of shirt cardboard, that's how I've been, but I'm recovering -- have recovered -- and I'm on the way to Dallas, Texas this afternoon, where I'll work in Dallas schools all week. Yesterday Jim and I bought local honey, pumpkins, apples, tomatoes, and boiled peanuts (and that beautiful pink pitcher in the background) at a street fair in Loganville, where we stopped on the way home from a signing at the brand-new indie, The Man in the Moon Bookshoppe in Monroe, Georgia.
I'd driven to Monroe by myself, had a fabulous time with owner Vicki Worsham (who used to work for B&N and then Chapter 11 Bookstores in Atlanta) and her able assistant Allison (left), who teaches at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Customers drifted in and out of the downtown shop while I was there, but we had only one customer looking for a Deborah Wiles book, and that was at the end of our hour together. "Our downtown is being revitalized," said Vicki. "I wish you could have been here last week when 2500 people were here for Monroe Days." I was in Nashville last weekend. And I have learned that a booksigning is not about the number of people who show up the day of the signing. It's about creating a relationship with a bookseller, which is something I dearly love to do. I especially love to support brand-new independent bookstores. Man in the Moon opened its doors eight months ago.

It did my heart good to see members of the Wright Family asking for THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS specifically because they'd loved LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER so much, and because a friend loved ALL-STARS so much she'd given Mrs. Wright a copy of Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS. Connection, connection, connection. I'm so glad I went to Man in the Moon.

It was such a beautiful fall day -- a wondrously beautiful day -- and I loved being out in it. I took my time driving home (Monroe is about an hour east of where I live in Atlanta) and stopped in Between, Georgia, ha!, at the Between Nursery, where I bought rosemary and creeping fig for the house. I kill houseplants, but I'm determined to try again. Then I stopped at a flea market, where I found this chair (Cleebo has found the chair, too). I've been slowly renovating my house, corner by corner, and finding a treasure or two to put in the new rooms.

I couldn't fit the chair in my car, so I called Jim to see if he might be able to come get it this week while I'm in Dallas. "I can come right now!" he said. And did. What a sweetheart.

My $45 fan-back chair has found a home, and Jim and I found a street fair on the way home, where we bought Nu-Grape and walked in the sunshine for an hour.

We went to supper with friends, then friends came over to make music. Here's Dan on trombone and Jerry on trumpet.

Laurie on washboard:

Jim on tambourine:

The big finale:

Then we all collapsed in laughter. What a cacaphony of sound! What music! I'm grateful for good friends.

Over the past ten days I've also been to Nashville for Southern Festival of Books and to Jekyll Island, Georgia to speak at the COMO conference. I met up with old friends, made new friends, found good books, good food, good times, and I'll share it with you -- I took lots of photos. But let me finish with home, since that seems to be so on my mind right now, as it always is when I'm about to leave it. I'll start another post about travels.

Here's a picture of the far end of the kitchen, where the washer and dryer used to be. We moved them downstairs and have created a pantry here (or Jim Williams has).
You can see the creeping fig here -- hope I don't kill it -- and the yellow boots I bought in Maine years ago when I waded in Rachel Carson's salt pond.

One day I want to write about Rachel Carson. She believed so deeply in the interconnectedness of all things. She wrote: "If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is the Tour Over?

Good question from a California reader.
Answer: yes and no.

The official, Harcourt-sponsored, three-week scamper through the Carolinas, Mississippi, and up/down the west coast is done. Now we're finishing up with some conferences -- Southern Festival of Books tomorrow and Texas Book Festival in November. THEN the tour is completely over.

Then I need to decide if I'm going to keep blogging. I'm ambivalent about it. I had intended to blog only the tour, as I did in 2005 when I kept a tour journal that so many of you read during the LITTLE BIRD tour, and I have to admit to a certain fascination with being able to share stories in this way. I also have to admit that I've had my moments, sitting in a hotel room at 4am, trying to upload photos and talk about the day before, when I've thought "who cares?" and "what difference does it make?" and "it's so nekkid-making!" and more... so I want to hear from you. Please.

What do you think? My biggest concern, when Harcourt approached me about blogging this AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS tour was that it would seem self-serving -- so I wanted to make sure I wrote about what really interested me, which is... you. I have come to love gathering your stories (I often say I'm a story-junkie) and finding ways to write about them and share them visually... and now that it doesn't take me two hours to put together a blog entry, I'm feeling more kindly toward blogging. Still, I hesitate.

I've had lots of mail, lots of opinionated responses to my posts (most of them directly to my email inbox that's listed on my website... hmmmm....), so I ask you: do you have opinions about this blogging phenomenon in general? In particular? What do you think? I'm torn.

While I'm mulling this over, here are some photos from Tuesday's school visit in Oregon, Wisconsin -- Rome Corners Intermediate School. We had such a good day together. Librarian Chris Antonuzzo and I had been planning this day for over a year.

Chris wanted to keep her groups small so we'd have an intimate sharing time, and she wanted to target the fifth grade, so we did. I saw all fifth graders on Tuesday. Here is Chris, teacher Sindhu Thoppil, and her student Ed, who wanted to know "what's with the names in your books?" I answered by singing "God Rest Ye MERRY, Gentlemen, let nothing you DISMAY... oh, TIDINGS of COMFORT and JOY!"

Here are (not in order) Hunter, Collin, McKenzie, Alex, Sean, Wilhelm, and Claire, students in Mrs. Duvick's study hall who came to see me again at the end of the day. Speaking of names, I have a story to tell you about Wilhelm, who is second to last on the right. Doesn't his face tell you everything about what a together guy he is? I was so taken with his use of language and his presence when I spoke with him. When I signed his book, he told me he prefered "Wilhelm," not "Wil," and he told me something that, if I put it in a book, folks would say I was over the top with my names (as they have said before), but here is a true story:

Wilhelm's name is Wilhelm Rhinehard. One of his two brothers is Rhinehard Kaiser. The other is Kaiser Wilhelm. I am not making this up. "My mother said that, once she came full circle with our names, she stopped having children!" I am stealing this concept immediately. I loved meeting you, Wilhelm... loved meeting all students and teachers at Rome Corners. Thanks, Chris, for coordinating a great day.
Here's the library staff: Heather ("I'm the IT nerd!") with the beautiful braids (her nickname is "Alice" and you can see why), moi (Staff for a Day!), Kathy Piper, and Chris.

Sheri Sinykin was my ride to the airport Tuesday. Sheri is a fellow author and Vermont College alum whose new book, GIVING UP THE GHOST is just published by Peachtree. Yay, Sheri! Sheri and I were in the same Jan.2003 graduating class. Hello, Voice!

We had a good catch-up at the Madison airport, just before I got on a plane and sat there for three hours. On the runway. Ground stop at O'Hare, dontcha know. I missed my connecting flight (of course) and managed by a hair to catch the last flight to Atlanta that evening. The last leg was actually lovely -- no one next to me in a three-seat row, and soft darkness everywhere. Too bad I don't sleep on planes. But I did manage to shut my eyes and stop thinking for a while... I was going home.

Thinking, thinking, thinking... always thinking, on the road, always "on" -- even when eating lunch, as you're conversing with strangers who are quickly becoming friends, etc -- and always organizing the mind, the suitcase, and the energy for the next-thing, the next-thing... next-thing. This is the craziness of fall and spring travel to schools, conferences, libraries, etc... but all part of the making-a-living package for this writer, and it's all good work. If you've had me visit your school or conference, you'll know that I love being there. I love the partnership we form, I love the teaching, I love the sharing, and I love the people I meet -- it's such a privilege to spend time with readers in a school setting, at a conference, in a library... it enriches my life and my writing.

But I also love being home. Sometime I'd like to write about this balance (or lack thereof) and this way of making a living and hear some discussion... it's a perennial topic for writers when we get together.

Another perennial topic: How do we do this good work and also write the next book? How do we balance it all? Dunno, I'm still trying to do that. I've come up with various solutions through the years, but still haven't hit on what's ideal.

At home, I've structured a simple life, and I especially miss it this time of year. I love the way the light slants in autumn, I love the crisp in the air. My garden is weedy, and my office is dusty. My bed misses me. So does my husband. He takes good care of me when I arrive home yet-again.

I spent yesterday running errands, answering mail, and recovering, and today I fly to Nashville. Dinner with friends tonight -- and more Vermont connections. School visit tomorrow. Southern Festival of Books on Saturday. Then home again. And it will all be good. But as my friend Jane Kurtz has said to me many times, "the good is the enemy of the best." Hmmm.... must think more on that one. Don't you have that good/best conundrum to contend with in some part of your life? In many parts of your life? I know you do.

Here we go -- next-thing, next-thing, next-thing.... I hope one of those next things is writing the next book. I'm sure my editor hopes so, too.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Community that is Belleville, Wisconsin

I want to say something important and erudite and meaningful about schools who bring authors in for a day to work with students, about students who respond to the call to tell their stories, about the good questions that students ask, about the teachers who prepare those students for an author's visit... but my brain won't function that well this evening, so I'm going to let these fabulous photos tell the story for me tonight, and then I'm going to get some sleep.

I'm in Belleville, Wisconsin. At lunch, students and teachers told me Wisconsin meant beer and brats, polka, dairy farms, 4-H, the North Woods, corn. Librarian Linda Schmitt obliged me and pulled off the country road several times for me to get these shots -- this countryside reminds me so much of Frederick County, Maryland, where I lived and raised a family for 25 years. I'm washed in nostalgia.

Linda is the only librarian for this K-12 school district -- I am stunned to learn this. There are three school buildings: a K-1 school, a 2-6 school, and a 7-8/9-12 building. The junior/senior high buildings share a library.

Kim and Diane meet me in the office -- what smiles! I'll be presenting all day in the high school auditorium. The 5/6 students and the 3/4s will walk over to see me.

I'll do three very different presentations today as I navigate a grade 3 through 8 spread. I love this sort of challenge. I love getting to know my audience in those first minutes, determining who they are, and bringing them along with me. I love the challenge of holding their interest, of asking them to think about their own stories, and the delight of telling them my story and laughing with them.

I look cadaver-like in the pose above! I think I am singing. Let's try again. Here I am holding my writer's notebook in my hands (squint and you can see it -- it's green).

Here are teacher Theresa, students Matt and Emma, moi, librarian Linda and public librarian Katie Aupperly. Matt is a fan who likes to cook; he entered some of his creations in the fair this year and got merit mentions! Emma is a quilter and has read LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER eight times. That's not a typo. I was so humbled... she said, "Every time I read it I find something in it I didn't see before." That's the mark of a discerning reader, I tell her. It's like listening to music and hearing the deeper layers... it takes paying attention. So much of the wonder of life is held in paying attention...

After a day at school, we headed to the public library, two blocks away, for an after-school event with THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS. "Don't expect a huge crowd," said children's librarian Katie Aupperly. But she's wrong -- we have a classy, cozy crowd of dedicated library patrons -- kids from school, some with their parents, all of us sitting around a table with cake and punch and Katie's special coffee.
"This is how small Belleville is," says Alex, seated at the end of the table. "We don't have a stoplight, either, just like Halleluia, Mississippi." The kids talk about how Belleville is like Aurora County and I can see they've made great connections with their own stories today.

Belleville may not have a Sunshine Laundry ("Send us your sheets!") like Halleluia, Mississippi, they may not have a birthday pageant ballgame like the one in ALL-STARS, but they have a UFO Day, complete with parade, and it's coming up on October 26.

They also have my heart. Community is what ALL-STARS is all about, of course, and it's what Belleville is about, too.

School librarian Linda and children's librarian Katie.

Look at the Banned Books Week display in this little library!

Close up of just a section:

Here's Chelsey, a senior at Belleville High, who volunteers at the library and is a fashion plate.

Here's the ALL-STARS cake that Katie had made for our ALL-STARS celebration. Isn't it gorgeous?

Enthusiastic readers and library patrons:

And here are two tired women at the end of a long day of work. When Linda brought me back to my hotel, Robin Hoffman of Scholastic Book Fairs arrived to take me to dinner. Robin lives in Milwaukee and works magic for Scholastic Book Fairs, connecting authors to teachers and readers to books everywhere. She drove all the way from her work day in Milwaukee to see me, and I was so glad for the dinner companionship and a catch up. Thank you, Robin.

More on Scholastic Book Fairs soon, but right now, my eyes are closing. Tomorrow is an early call: 6:45am. That's when librarian Chris picks me up for a day at Rome Corners Intermediate School -- all fifth graders tomorrow, and a very different day. I'm looking forward to it. And to some shut eye, right this very minute. I didn't say what I wanted to say about teaching and school visits and community and more, but I will. Maybe I'll have to do it from home... once I land for good. Thank you Linda Schmitt and everyone in Belleville for making this a wonderful story-filled, community-built day.