You are a Marvel

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When will we teach our children in school what they are? We should say to each of them: do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel?

Pablo Casals

A Hard Way to Earn a Living

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Writing is a hard way to earn a living.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a privileged one, too.  More than thirty years ago I left a marriage of 28 years and began cobbling together a living from writing, teaching and lecturing.  I don’t know how I would have survived—emotionally as well as financially—if that cobbling hadn’t worked.  And I never forget how fortunate I am that it has.

I suspect, though, given the way I see publishing evolving, fewer and fewer writers are going to be able to do what I and many of my contemporaries have done.

That’s because of a number of factors.  The Authors Guild tells us, again and again, that electronic publishing—and the piracy that seems, inevitably, to accompany it—threatens writers’ livelihoods in profound ways.  (As it has long since gobbled up the livelihood of most professional musicians.)

Writers’ income across the board is down by well more than thirty percent.  Long-term writers, those of us accustomed to supporting ourselves with this good work, are down more than anyone.

But there is another factor, at least in the field of children’s and young-adult publishing.  I once ran the statistics about how many children’s books were being published in 1976, when I entered the field, and how many were being published in 2016, forty years later.  Removing young adult books from the mix since those didn’t exist in their present form forty years ago and not counting self-published books or considering publishers’ enormous backlists, six and a half times more books were being published in 2016 than when I entered the field.

It’s hard for us writers to complain about overpublishing.  Would we prefer not to be published at all rather than to have too much competition?

Not much of a choice.

At the same time, the budgets for public and school libraries, the institutional market that in 1976 accounted for 80% of juvenile book purchases, are growing smaller every year.  And the institutional budgets that remain must, of necessity, be divided between paper books and technology of all sorts.  In the last statistics I heard, institutional purchases account for only 20% of juvenile books sold.

I see truly fine books come out, again and again, get lovely reviews, and disappear, because they don’t garner enough attention to survive in that crowded market.

Children’s and young-adult writers, in all the years I’ve been in the field, have been blessed.  We have more opportunities to supplement our income through speaking in schools and at conferences than other writers.  In fact, I know many children’s writers who earn far more traveling and speaking than from royalties.  (Our version of the musicians’ dilemma that keeps them on the road giving concerts instead of staying home creating new music and selling recordings.)

For my part, I have loved what I have received from talking to children in schools, from encountering teachers in large gatherings, but I have run out of energy for such encounters.  Entirely.

So . . . where are we children’s book writers headed?

I think we’re headed for a place where fewer and fewer will be able to devote their lives, fulltime, to creating.  Especially in a world where it’s the unusual family that can live on one income, more writers of all stripes will be doing other work, fulltime, and doing their writing “on the side.”

Is “on the side” good enough for our literary heritage?  It will have to be.  Neither writers nor readers are going to have a choice.

But in these final days of my career, I get up in the morning and settle into whatever writing project is waiting for me with the deepest gratitude.  What a privileged way it has been to spend a life, this spinning out of words and ideas all day long!

What an uncertain, fraught, privileged life it has been!

To Live in This World

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal,

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.


Mary Oliver

Celebrating Banned Book Week

On My Honor

I’m reminded whenever Banned Book Week rolls around that I am the proud author of a much-banned book.

Probably more of my books have been banned than I will ever know, but the banning of On My Honor is the one I know most about.  In fact, for some time, it appeared every year on the American Library Association’s list of most banned books.

Why has this small novel, which was given the stamp of approval of a Newbery Honor Award, which has been constantly used in classrooms for more than thirty years, been so often banned?

I take my answer from one very public banning that occurred in San Antonio, Texas, one I know about because it was played out on the local television news.

The banners objected to these elements:

Profanity.  (There is a “hell” and a “damn” in the book.)

A teenage couple sit “too close” to one another in a car.

And besides all that, the story is a downer.

The mildness of the material that set off the banning made it more than obvious, at least to me, that the real objection was not being spoken.  I can name it, though.

The real objection must be to the discussion between my main character, Joel, and his father at the very end of the story after Joel’s friend, Tony, has died.

“Do you believe in heaven?” Joel asks.  “Do you believe Tony’s gone there?”

And the objection must come from the fact that Joel’s father doesn’t produce the “right” answer.  Not right for my banners, not right for Joel, either.

His father says, “If there is a heaven, I’m sure Tony’s gone there.  I can’t imagine a heaven that could be closed to charming, reckless boys.”  He also says, “I believe there is something about life that goes on.  It seems too good to end in a river.”

The point of that moment isn’t whether or not Joel’s father believes in heaven.  It is that, in Joel’s eyes, his father has failed him again.  Joel wants what my banners want, a simple, concrete answer.  Yes, there is a heaven.  Certainly Tony is there now.  (If he believes in Jesus, of course, the banners would have wanted to add.)

On My Honor, however, isn’t about the religious implications of Joel’s question.  It’s about Joel’s relationship with his father.  It’s about Joel’s wanting his father to be different than he is, less ready to see every side of every question whether it’s a request to bike out to the state park—something Joel asked for, wanting to be refused—or the certainty of his friend’s arrival in heaven.

And because Joel doesn’t get what he wants, he is furious.

But then he asks another question, one that gets down to bedrock between him and his dad.  “‘Will you stay?’ he asked, reaching a hand out tentatively to touch his father’s knee.  ‘Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?’”

And his father, his very reliable father, says, “Of course.”

There my story ends.  There are no easy answers.  There isn’t even the promised comfort of heaven.  But Joel’s father is solid.  He is there.

And that matters.

What did I learn from On My Honor’s being banned again and again?

If possible, I avoid the easy touchstones that set off book banning, the “damn” and the “hell.”  Not because such words are really offensive and certainly not because it’s important that my books not be banned.  After all, banned books are in such great company!  But if those who believe that books should be banned don’t have such convenient things to point to, they will be forced to talk about the truth of their objections, the ideas I’m writing about that they consider dangerous, not an offensive word or a dark mood.

But I’ve learned something else along the way.  Times change.  Some years later in San Antonio, On My Honor was voted the single book for the entire city to read!

I laughed out loud when I heard.

And when I was through with my delight, I returned to writing something else that someone is going to object to.  Not because I enjoy stirring dissent—though I’ll admit that kind of stirring can be rather fun sometimes—but because I have no choice but to write my heart.

And my heart has a way of refusing to say what those who believe in banning books want to hear.

#BannedBooksWeek @BannedBooksWeek @simonteen @simonkids @SSEdLib

To Fix The Entire World

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale…

Clarissa Pinkola Estes