Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pumpkin has cancer

For months, my deep orange tabby, Pumpkin (the one on your left, the lighter one on your right is Bitty), has had this THING dangling from the armpit of his right front leg. When it looked like a blister, I ignored it. As it grew, I scraped together the money to have it removed. By the time I had $600 that didn't have to pay tuition or the mortgage, the tumor was the size of a ping-pong ball, suspended from a 1/4 inch stretch of weary, over-taxed skin.

The biopsy came back, and it was cancer. He's 11-years old and hates going to the doctor. So even if there were chemo treatments available, I wouldn't put him through that. This is the kitten my kids bottle fed from it's third day outside the womb. The neighbor took his mother away, left he and his brothers to die in a flower bed, in spite of my begging them to let me take care of her AFTER the kittens were ready to give away.

The neighbors didn't seem to car, so we took the little things in -- two for us, two for the letter carrier's family. Their little ears went flat and wobbled as they drank from the doll bottles -- the two we had looked like tiny Yoda hybrids. Every two hours at first, then every four. It was a long, hard summer, but it taught my kids love and compassion.

Pumpkin was the kitten we kept. We moved him from Colorado to Washington with three other cats, two dogs, a ferret and a hampster -- along with my two daughters and me -- in a four door Dodge Neon ten years ago when he was barely a year old. Six months after we moved to Spokane, some little a**h*** shot him with a B-B gun. He jumped up through my screenless bedroom window and slowly padded into the living room where I saw his side drenched in crimson. He survived.

Now he has cancer.

Some people think it's crazy for a single mom with two girls in college (two tuitions to pay each quarter) to spend $600 to save a dying cat. And maybe they're right. But he didn't ask me to rescue him from that flowerbed. He didn't ask me to stop the bleeding or seek medical care when he was shot. I literally took his life in my hands when I scooped him out of the mulch that kept him alive for two days, eyes sealed shut, without his mother. And I felt like I owed him something -- like an unspoken promise.

So, we'll do without a few things like food without "ramen" printed on the package for a few weeks. And we'll keep our Punkin-rubby as comfortable as we can until he can't live a life worth living. Then I'll pay another couple of hundred bucks to release him from a body that turned against him, and I'll cry for two days and wait for his ashes to rest on my fireplace mantle.

Love, even for an animal, carries with it responsibility and cost. But when he's gone, I'll know I kept my promise to him. When he's gone, he won't be forgotten.

Love ya, Punky. Love ya, fierce.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Boys DO read...and buy books, given the chance.

I've had this conversation with Chris Crutcher, Bruce Coville, Jon Scieszka and -- of late -- my old friend Andy, ah, Andrew Smith, but now that Billy Bones has jumped into the ring, seems like a good time to bring it up again.

Boys DO read.

For the past ten years, I've written my heart's desire -- books of appeal to reluctant boy readers. That's my heart's desire because when I was a kid, I was a reluctant boy reader -- except I was a girl.

I grew up as a boy would because my sister and Lori Johnson were the only girls in my neighborhood. I played at Lori's once in a while, often to listen to RUBY TUESDAY (Lori had the 45...I did not). I played Barbie's with my sister when she let a lizard or toad stand in as Barbie's giant pet. But 90% of my time was spent outside with my rowdy guy friends. I grew up as if I was a boy. My interests were identical to those of a boy. So the books I wanted didn't exist, at least not at the time.

The only books I loved were Abe Lincoln biographies, reptile and amphibian books and books about vampires. I ran out of those pretty darn quick.

When I started to write books rather than articles for kids, I made an active choice to write the books I would have wanted when I was little --and boy-like. So in a sense, I have a better idea of what boys want than most women. I lived, almost all my life, among them.

Boys want books that appeal to their sensibilities. They want action and danger and daring and honesty. They want gross and scary and unbelievable and real. They don't want sweet daydreams and optimism, necessarily. They want stories -- fiction and nonfiction -- they can sink their teeth into. And I've worked hard to give them those nonfiction stories.

Billy Bones apparently agrees, that given the write material, boys WILL read. And his poster is so fun and compelling, I stole it from his Facebook page and posted it here. I hope he won't mind. Maybe it'll be cool since I'm a fan, and since I've been known to write about a bone or two myself. But check out his Facebook if you can. He's earned praise and traffic, and I'm the first one to say so.

Boys DO read. So let's wake up and help them find the books they're longing to find.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Festival Fun

My blogging has been sketchy at best, and I apologize. But I've done two literature festivals, one young author conference, three school visits and three articles since I last posted and, to be honest, I was (am) a little tired.

Now that I'm catching up a little, I want to say how much I LOVED being in Kentucky and Missouri for those to WONDERFUL festivals.

In Kentucky, I joined Chris Crutcher, Gary B. Schmidt and E.B. Lewis as speakers, and what a THRILL that was. It's always fun to hang out with Chris, obviously. But signing next to Gary and having dinner across from E.B. -- it doesn't get any better than that. It was just a joy. Thanks, Stephanie, for inviting me.

In Missouri, I joined about 30 other writers and illustrators at the Univesity of Central Missouri, as bus loads of kids buzzed the hallways in search of our presentation rooms. What a rush it was to not only meet with the kids each day, but to hang out with so many people in the industry after hours at the hotel and other social settings our host Naomi and her volunteers made possible. It's a yearly event, so I hope I did well enough to be invited back.

The school visits I did were, as always, WONDERFUL. I love school visits. And the Young Authors Conference yesterday was so much fun. All of those kids -- nearly 500 of them -- dug in deep and wrote their little hearts out for me. And it was fantastic.

Now I'm home and I don't have another event until April 6 (Holmes Elementary, I'm coming). So I get to do a little more writing for a while. But I wanted to say thanks to all the people who have been so kind to me the past few weeks. I am so grateful, you may never know.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I love and respect teacher, especially the really good ones. And even the bad ones are better teachers than I would ever be. After a "writer-in-residence" experience last year, I decided the only thing I could teach kids would be how to play and get off track. Since they already know how to play, I'm not much good as a "real" educator.

But why do some teachers wield control like a battle axe? Even on my time as an author visitor?

Not long ago, I did a school visit, and it was wonderful. They almost always are. My book topics are just weird enough to capture most kids imaginations, and I can be funny and educationally fun. There are sometimes kids that need a little convincing. But I've never met a kid I couldn't recruit -- not so far. I haven't been so lucky with every teacher -- especially not the other day.

Teacher A didn't come into the library with her class, so it was up to me and the librarian to wrangle the rowdy pair. A little laughter did the trick, and they were on my side ten minutes into the hour. Then the teacher decided to show up -- AFTER I'd managed the wise guys.

Teacher A zeroed in on a girl in the back row and began to scold her. I couldn't hear voices, but the girl's body language said it all. She went from relaxed and curious to stiff and shame-filled. Her face was etched with that stress only a disapproving authority figure can inspire.

All the other kids stopped listening to me -- of course --and focused on the teacher and the target. I was silent, watching too. Teacher A looked up.

"I'll just wait until you're done," I said.

"I'd rather you didn't," Teacher A said. "I'd rather you just went on."

I tried to ignore her and do just that, but it was no use. Kids can't resist watching the sacrifice of a classmate.

Then Teacher A proceeded to take four other kids out of the group -- including the two I'd already made a deal with -- and moved them to chairs in the back row. Again, too much commotion to over come, and by now another five of my 45 minutes have been squandered.

Teacher A looked up at me.

"You about done?" I asked.

"I had to get this under control," Teacher A said.

"I had it under control," I said, by now more than a little annoyed. Sorry, but Teacher A's behavior was nothing less than RUDE.

"You should have seen them this morning," Teacher A said.

"Could be," I said, "But this hour was MINE."


All I could do was try to recover a little of the energy the kids had shared with me before Teacher A decided to bust in. And I managed a little. But all the interaction was now stilted. Every kid was a little bit afraid of getting the axe.

I did the best I could, but Teacher A's agenda didn't educate the students. It cheated them of an enrichment their school had paid to have them experience. Teacher A had cheated me of the chance to share my craft with those kids.

Teacher A left the room very upset with me. I called that teacher out, in front of the kids. I regret that. But when I'm doing a presentation, that time IS mine. No, that's not right. When I do a resentation, the time belongs to the KIDS. My ego and that teacher's ego should take a backseat to serving the kids. Disruption like that was disrespectful to me AND to the kids.

It doesn't happen every day, thank god. But when it does happen, I can't help but wonder, WHY?

Why come in the first place if you're feeling stressed and uneasy? Wouldn't it have been better to use that 45 minutes to unwind and center? To put a little distance between what must have been a rough morning and the afternoon? If Teacher A had never joined the students, I wouldn't have skipped a beat or made a single judgment. In fact, I think it's smart. Teachers don't get enough planning time. Why not use the visiting author time to get a few things done?

And why wasn't my frustration enough to put Teacher A on a more constructive path?

Why use my time to flex narcicistic muscle? I don't have a clue. I only know it made me feel diminished and under occupation. Imagine how Teacher A's kids must feel, day after day.

Let's just hope it was an exception. I sure wouldn't want to live under Teacher A rule.

Monday, March 2, 2009

More on Lexington

Here's the press release about the conference I helped staff this past weekend. The picture is one a librarian took of Chris at his breakout after his luncheon presentation. He did great, but he always does.

McConnell Conference for Youth Literature is Feb. 27-28

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 11, 2009) − The University of Kentucky’s School of Library and Information Science (UK SLIS) announces its 41st annual McConnell Youth Literature Conference to be held Feb. 27-28 at the Griffin Gate Marriott on Newtown Pike in Lexington.

The deadline to register for the conference is Feb. 20.The conference events will begin at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon.
The highlight of the first evening will be a banquet and keynote address by award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt.
Schmidt is a two-time recipient of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Newbery Honor for his novels "The Wednesday Wars" and "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy", which was also a Printz Honor Book for Young Adults. Schmidt is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. where he teaches courses in children's literature, medieval literature, and creative writing.

Saturday’s events begin with a presentation by E.B. Lewis, award-winning picture book author and illustrator whose honors include a 2003 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for his "Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman" and a 2005 Caldecott Honor for "Coming on Home Soon".

The luncheon speaker on Saturday is critically-acclaimed young-adult author Chris Crutcher, the 2000 recipient of ALA’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution to young-adult literature.

Also presenting during the weekend will be the author of nonfiction children’s books, Kelly Milner Halls. The conference also will feature several concurrent sessions on topics ranging from how to reach reluctant male readers to the art and creation behind every child’s favorite story-time attraction, the pop-up book. Finally, graduate students from UK SLIS will offer sessions on the 2009 medal winners and honor books for the Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz Awards, presented each year by the American Library Association.

Register online or call (859) 257-8876.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

McConnell Center for Children's Literature Conference

I just got back from Lexington and the University of Kentucky's McConnell Center for Children’s Literature Conference. And I had so much fun. My fellow speakers were Gary Schmidt, E.B. Lewis and my friend and boss, Chris Crutcher. It was such a fantastic gathering of librarians and library students. Dr. Stephanie Reynolds is a remarkable expert and she ran a brilliant event. I am so proud to have been included.
Gary Schmidt was the dinner banquet speaker and his comments were so moving and so wise. He teaches at a University in Grand Rapids, Michigan in addtion to being a Newbery and Prince Honor winning author. And I feel honored to have spent time with him.

Illustrator and fine artist E.B. Lewis was the breakfast speaker and he was so amazing. I have loved his work for years and years, and I even got to him dinner with him (and Stephanie and Chris) after the conference concluded. He's funny, compassionate and thoughtful, in addition to being a gifted painter. I hope to write about him soon.

Chris was the luncheon keynote, but just barely. He had to be in Missouri Friday, then fly to Kentucky Saturday morning for his presentation at noon. It was hit or miss, but he made it. And he was sensational. He always is.

Beyond my fellow speakers, there were such wonderful librarians -- working professionals and students. So many attended my workshops, and they seemed to share my passion for helping kids find just the books they need to grow confident in their reading and writing. What a treat it was to be part of this conference.

Thanks, Stephanie, for including me. Thanks Lexington librarians for making me feel so welcome.