What Have I Been Doing?



(Above: books by VCFA faculty advisors.)

My poor blog. How I have neglected you! I am whipping through my last two weeks of ‘summer vacation,’ though it’s an atypical vacation because it started in March and ends on July 7 (which happens to be my husband’s and my first anniversary. I’ll be on the other side of America. I’m sad about that part of my new adventure).

What has gobbled my hours so much that I haven’t found time to blog? The answer lurks in many of my posts: I’ve been reading. But not just any books. I’ve been reading books by my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I want to read at least one book by each faculty member. That’s a total of 21 books.

Here are the ones I’ve read so far:

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher

Hanging on to Max by Margaret Bechard

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (one of my two first workshop leaders)

And I’m almost done with Tyrell by Coe Booth

Each is splendid in its own wildly different way. These writers, these advisors, stun me with their talent, and I am honored to have the opportunity to work with them these next two years. I purchased another Martine Leavitt book, as well as another Susan Fletcher book, and another A.S. King book and another Kathi Appelt book because I couldn’t find them at the library and I just HAVE to read more of what they’ve written. Today I’m going to the library to get the sequel to One Crazy Summer and a handful of books by other faculty members whose works I have yet to enjoy.

Does reading this many books count as being too busy to write? For me, yes. I’ve also been doing regular-life things, like spend time with my husband, clean the house, play with Bella, cook, exercise, have an awesome graduation weekend with family and friends, and more. And in all this reading and cleaning and laughing, I’ve been taking notes on the two different stories my imagination works on every day, because writing does not take place merely on a word processor: it takes place in the mind first. I thought about And the Blackbirds Mock for a year before I wrote it this past winter. Every writer is different, but that’s how writing works for me.

I urge you to read the books listed above. If you’ve never read Young Adult or Middle Grade books, start with these. They suck you in and amaze you with their talent and creativity and humanity. I’d also love to hear from you–what are you reading? I’m always looking for more books to add to my endless to-read list.


Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not (So) Small Stories. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/06/24/small-stories-fourteenth-edition/


The Grapes of Wrath and Little House


I strutted into my dad’s elementary school classroom in my blue calico Laura Ingalls Wilder dress with its matching red calico bonnet and apron with a Boxcar Children book clutched in my hand.

“How cute!” said a girl who looked a year or two older than I was.

“Is this your daughter, Mr. O?” another asked.

“Look at her clothes!”

I grinned, unable to keep my outgoing nature tucked behind my lips.

“Yes, this is my daughter, Laura. She’s here to read you part of a Boxcar Children book. Ready, Laura?” my Dad showed me to a plastic chair and I smoothed my petticoats and dress and sat.

“How old are you?” someone asked.

“Five…or six…or seven,” I answered. (Actually, I don’t remember which of the three ages is correct.) I opened the book to the first page and began to read aloud the Aldens’ latest mystery adventure.


I have loved to read ever since I learned how at four or five years old, and though the Boxcar Children books were high on my list of favorites, the dress I wore that day told the world what books had lodged themselves in the top spot of my soul: all nine Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I told people I was named for Laura. I wore that dress as much as I could—to church, to birthday parties, to my dad’s school, to my ‘log cabin’ (the underneath area of a bush-like tree in the backyard).

Though I have long outgrown the dress, which my mom sewed for me as a Christmas gift, those books are still my favorites, ever. I re-read them every year, from Little House in the Big Woods to The First Four Years, and my favorite book within this favorite series changes with my age. As a child, the first three books inspired me the most. As an older girl, On The Banks of Plum Creek. As a teenager, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie. As a young adult, These Happy Golden Years.

I picked up The Grapes of Wrath almost a month ago and trudged through the first fifty pages with low spirits. The book did not grip me immediately as East of Eden did, and I was worried that I would take forever to read it. But once Tom Joad found his family and discovered they wanted to leave Oklahoma and head to paradise California, where they could live in a white house with plenty of land and fruit trees in the yard, my mind became glued to the narrative. As the Joads purchased a jalopy and loaded it with all their belongings, much like the Ingalls family does with a covered wagon throughout the Little House series, I was hopeful for them, hopeful that they’d find something good in California, even if it wasn’t a white house.

But I didn’t know the extent to which they would suffer until I started down Route 66 with them and ached for each one of their losses and deflated dreams. The Ingalls children faced teasing for being ‘country people,’ and so did the Joads—but they were more than country people. They were Okies. Completely unwanted people not only in the land that held their blood and sweat in its red dirt but also in the land where they sought freedom from the tractors and corporate farmers and the poverty that gnawed the flesh from their children’s bones.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was that, once I got used to reading the Oklahoma dialect, I connected with the Joads and the other migrant people, and though much of their story is sad, the people find comfort in one another, “And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country” (203). The humanity that comes from the migrants’ realized fears and minuscule joys is the most powerful aspect of this book.

It was my first time reading The Grapes of Wraththough I stared at the original cover as framed in my local Barnes & Noble store each time I went to read books there as a kid. The image of the man looking out over a line of loaded jalopies, his wife and child by his side, stayed with me and contributed to my interest in this book.

And I loved it the entire time I was reading it (aside from the slow first fifty pages). I love it more than East of Eden. I am not sure why that is, but it is. I’ve heard people say they hate it, or were bored by it, but it pulled me to its people the way Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books did when I was young and still do today. I even think the book’s ending is hugely powerful, if strange. Those who read the book before me might understand that, might understand what the ending says about Rose of Sharon and about the Joads as a family.

I could have a discussion on this book all day long, but I’ll stop here and let you read it for yourself, maybe for the first time, maybe to see if it’s any good since you detested your first reading of it. Let me know what you think, even if you don’t agree with me.



I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not So (Small) Stories this week. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/12/small-stories-eighth-edition/ I still haven’t figured out the pretty button picture…oh well.

Songs and Stories and Scary Futures


When I sat down to write the first chapter of “And the Blackbirds Mock,” the entire story had already come together on a thirty page outline (though, of course, I discovered new and different things about the story and characters as I wrote chapters and deviated a few times from the outline). Sometimes I like to write with music in the background to get me in the story’s mood, and sometimes I need absolute silence.

That morning, I craved music. There was something meaningful in what I was about to do, I thought, and I wanted a fitting song to which to listen as I penned the story’s first words. I combed my iTunes music library for an appropriate song, and an album of Celtic hymns snagged my hungry gaze. I had not listened to most of the songs in the album, and I don’t even know when I acquired it, but one song in it had always taken a churn to my emotions and knocked them around (in a good way). The song, “Morning Has Broken,” had no words on the Celtic album, but I considered that, as it was a hymn, it likely had words. 

I did a Google search on the song and found not only the lyrics but a moving ‘music video’ of Cat Stevens (that WAS his name–he changed it to something else now), whom I’d never heard of, singing the hymn. Stevens did not write the song, but he made it popular. Here are the lyrics:

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

These lyrics carried me to the manuscript’s first sentences and broke the barrier between the story in my mind and its physical existence on paper as I listened to the song over and over (I can do that without getting sick of songs—it drives my family members nuts). Finally it became part of the delicious absorption that I love most about writing, the state of mind where nothing exists but the story and the characters and I am wholly where they are and not at all tired, stressed, and dreading a frightfully busy day. I am somewhere else. 

But I still used the song in the story. I felt that Okalee, one of the crucial characters, would adore a song about spring, and first mornings, and blackbirds speaking. And so in the first chapter, Polly (Okalee’s older sister) smiles and tries not to grimace at Okalee’s off-tune rendition of “Morning Has Broken” as they prepare for River Day. I’ll let you find out what River Day is if I ever get this manuscript published. 😉 

For my next project, which is still just a shimmery, nascent idea in my head, the song that plunges me into the story’s feeling is Nickel Creek’s “Elsie” (not an original song of theirs) from the band’s new album, A Dotted Line. I really shouldn’t start talking about Nickel Creek, because they are my favorite band and I have the delightful opportunity of seeing them in concert in May, and I could write about how wonderful their songs are forever…they’re considered a bluegrass band, but not pure bluegrass, and I’ve loved them since I was eleven.

Though “Elsie” really clicks with the new story idea, I can’t start writing the story yet because right now I am waiting on a few life-changing decisions to be made, both by me and by those whose minds I can’t control. Life is pretending it’s calm and sweet. I do, after all, get to spend all of my time reading and cooking right now (just look at the picture at the top of the post…lie on the towel and read every evening these days). But when I think of June, which is when Louis and I must leave our cottage and find somewhere else to live, I start to fight panic. I do not like not knowing what is going to happen to my family of two in the increasingly near future, and it makes me feel frozen and unable to create new stories. But that’s another day’s post. For now, I just let the idea cook as I read book after book after book.



I might write a post later about books I’ve either finished recently or am reading, and here they are if you want to try them for yourself:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult (finished)

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (finished)

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (currently reading)

Rekindled by Tamera Alexander (currently reading)