Freedom

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We are resolved to protect individual freedom of belief. This freedom must include the child as well as the parent. The freedom for which we stand is not freedom of belief as we please, not freedom to evade responsibility, but freedom to be honest in speech and action, freedom to respect one’s own integrity of thought and feeling, freedom to question, to investigate, to try, to understand life and the universe in which life abounds, freedom to search anywhere and everywhere to find the meaning of Being, freedom to experiment with new ways of living that seem better than the old.

Sophia Lyon Fahs

Grooming Our Own Replacements

Norma Fox Mazer and I were good friends. We taught together at Vermont College of Fine Arts back when our MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA was very new, when it was the only program of its kind. And I still remember the time when Norma stopped me in the hall of our ancient stone dormitory and said, “You realize we’re grooming our own replacements.”

I laughed. We both laughed. But, of course, it was true. By passing on the skills we had gathered over so many years we were making certain that those coming up behind us would have the acuity required to step over us one day.

Now Norma who, along with her husband, Harry, practically created the young-adult field, is gone, but that truth she and I once laughed over continues to play out all around me every day.

I saw it again last month when I attended the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.

My verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck, was one of four books selected in the middle grade category.  I attended the ceremony with no expectation of my lucky little cat’s winning, and she didn’t.  However, the amazing non-fiction book I was certain would be chosen over mine, Sachiko by Caren Stelson, didn’t win, either. Instead, a beautifully written fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Curse by Brian Farrey took the award.

(If you want evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of any kind of awards selection process, you have only to note that the 2017 Newbery Award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is also by a Minnesota writer, Kelly Barnhill, and that book didn’t make the list of four. But that’s another topic entirely.)

I had gathered a group of friends to attend with me, not needing an expectation of winning to enjoy the elaborate evening orchestrated by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. I invited my friends and I showed up prepared for the great pleasure of spending an entire evening celebrating Minnesota writers. But when I got there something more awaited me.

I found to my delight that I was sitting at the autograph table next to Abby Cooper, a young woman with whom I have a unique connection. A couple of years ago Abby sent me an e-mail saying, “You may not remember me, but when I was in the fifth grade, you spoke at a young-authors’ conference that I attended.” And, I’ll admit it, I laughed. Not derisively, but quite spontaneously. There had been so many young-authors’ conferences, so many fifth graders. No, I did not remember Abby.

Credit: David Cooper

But then she went on to tell me that she had approached me at the end of my session to ask if she could send me a story she was working on. I gave her my address, received her story, and responded with a critique. For a time we wrote back and forth, discussing her work, and then she moved on as fifty graders inevitably do.

Over the years I have had a similar correspondence with quite a few young writers, all of them bright, enthusiastic, passionate. I’ve accompanied each of them for a short distance, and then they’ve moved on. So the truth was, even with this new information, my memory of Abby was vague at best. Still, I was delighted to find out that she was writing to say that her first novel, Sticks and Stones, had been accepted for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sticks and Stones received a starred review from Kirkus, and now it was one of the four finalists in the middle-grade category for a Minnesota Book Award.

I sat down at the autograph table next to the still very young Abby—she was nearly vibrating in her chair in her excitement—and said quietly, just to myself, “You realize, we’re grooming our own replacements.”

But being there with Abby made the evening for me. I’ve had enough books published, enough awards, enough opportunities to sit in a large, noisy room autographing. But I’ll never have enough of watching young people rise up behind me … even when their rise suggests it’s time for me to move on.

So congratulations, Abby Cooper. I wish you well. May you replace me with vigor and joy. And may you take this good work we love and make it new for a world that is now yours!

A Book Is …

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

Chinese proverb

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The Way I Breathe

When I was a child coming upon adolescence but not quite there yet—the tween years we call that time of life now, but there was no word for it then—I remember wanting more than I had ever wanted anything to have someone listen to me.  Not just any someone, but one of that pack of important people, the grownups.

I was keenly aware then, however, that I had no opinions, no information, nothing to say that might interest the folks who ran the world.  I knew nothing, and I knew I knew nothing, so before I wanted to speak, I wanted to know.  I wanted to have something to say worth listening to.

And that’s the force behind much of my life’s trajectory, the desire to learn, to know, to speak and to be heard.

I remembered that old desire once while giving a keynote before a large hall packed with strangers, adults all. Ah, I thought then. Some dreams do come true!

But from time to time I wonder, is that the force that makes a writer, any writer, every writer, the simple desire to be heard?

I was not particularly listened to when I was a child.  I was always too something to be taken seriously in my family.  Too young, too emotional, too fanciful, too intense.  And so, following my family’s unspoken but unmistakable rules, I emerged into the world as a respectably contained, utterly calm—at least on the surface—woman.

But I broke my family rules by becoming a writer.

It is a mostly innocuous habit, writing.  More than a habit, a compulsion.  It can be, I suppose, a compulsion that’s not easy for others to live with close up.  Not just the time spent off by ourselves tapping out words on a keyboard but the time spent off in our heads discovering more worlds to write or sorting the one we are currently engaged in.  (A former partner used to ask me sometimes when we were doing something together and I was more silent than she liked, “Are you writing?”)

From time to time I ask a serious question of myself.  Is this really living, this spilling of life onto the page, this sifting my days through words to discern their meaning?

“Yes!” I answer myself.  “Yes!”  Because surely meaning matters.  And not just to me but to those who read my discernments.

The truth, however, beneath that truth is that there is something in me still that wants attention from the grownups.  A curious admission since I write mostly for children, but it is the adult response that comes first and, if I’m honest, that’s the one I am primed to watch for.

But then there is another truth.  There must be something deeper behind this curious activity, because I know I would write even if no one ever read my words.

I write because that’s the way I breathe.

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Daydreamer?

As a young man, I was often told that I was a daydreamer, a rubbernecker, an exaggerator.  But in a fiction class all the things I had been criticized about came together to create something meaningful.  That was a very powerful feeling for me.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and short story writer. He won the Pulitzer for his 2012 novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. He is also a professor of English at Stanford University with a focus on creative writing.[1]