Friday, October 19, 2012

searching for a great unexpected.

Listening To: Birmingham by Shovels and Rope. Seriously -- have you heard this band?! So good.
Line Obsession: "Is it possible for home to be a person and not a place?" - Stephanie Perkins, Anna and the French Kiss

Happy Friday, friends! :)

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently had a chance to attend The Southern Festival of Books in Nashvegas. I've pretty much been prancing about the house, making up showtunes about it ever since.

The whole event was positively magical, bringing in authors from all the different kingdoms of literary awesomeness. Some authors banded together and participated in panel discussions. Some authors utilized solo sessions to talk about their work; what inspired them, what challenged them, and their entire gritty process from spark-of-an-idea to wildfire-of-a-book.

It was inspirational and fun. Next year, I'm planning to rent an RV and park it beside the capitol building so that I can attend the whole thing. Or I might just get a hotel room. Whatever.

This area was full of university presses.
To the right, a tent was set up for people who wanted to share their poetry.
Lots of live music.
And food trucks.
Parnasus was set up just past the stairs,
selling copies of all the authors' books.
While I didn't get to take in quite as many sessions as I'd hoped, one session I was determined to attend was Sharon Creech's talk for her new novel The Great Unexpected.

I wish you could have all been there too (... were you there?!), because I know you would have loved it. And then we could have walked a few blocks to SATCO (through the Zombie Apocalypse!) and chatted over tacos.

These are my observations:

- Sharon Creech is inspired by her readers, and it shows. During her talk, she mentioned a bit about the various kinds of inspiration that kick-started her novels.

But she also said that, ultimately, she's "inspired by kids." This was obvious from the start. Before the session even began, while we were still waiting in the hallway, Sharon Creech was out there too, sitting against the wall and chatting with some of her young fans. And even though she was charming and articulate throughout her talk, she seemed to become particularly excited when she shared snippets of poems that her readers have sent over the years (most poems were churned up thanks to readings of Love That Dog).

Which brings me to ...

- She's great at connecting with her readers both on page and in person. Obviously, she's an extraordinary writer. And I'm pretty sure there wasn't an age group unrepresented in her chat. Her stories might technically be for middle grader readers, but the stories don't seem to know that. :) She's great at connecting to a reader's heart through her writing. But she's great at connecting with people one on one too. Before the event began, I watched one sweet dad walk over with his daughter to say hello. The Dad kept his hands on his daughter's shoulders. The daughter kept her CreechBooks hugged tightly over her heart. She smiled, shyly. I didn't eavesdrop on the conversation, but it looked like Sharon C. easily engaged her in conversation and, undoubtedly, made her feel like the coolest kid in the world for five minutes.

Any time I've ever met an author, or seen an author interacting with readers, I've never been let down by the kindness, warmth, and professionalism. Writers are (in my limited opinion) a savvy bunch.* But there's something about watching children's authors interact with young readers that I find particularly enchanting. I think it's because I know exactly how I would have felt if that had ever happened to me. Middle School was the era when I:

1.) wore lots of airbrushed unicorn sweatshirts and slap bracelets
2.) became a chronic, obsessive booknerd and 
3.) started sharing my writing with people besides my parents and grandparents. I still some have the poems I wrote back then. Most of them are covered with Popples stickers. My middle school poems were love-like-a-dove awesome. (By which I mean: mostly silly but still very fun.)

Even back in The Era of The Glittery Unicorn Shirts, I knew I wanted to be a writer. So meeting an actual *whispers* writer would have been more awesome than Fruit Roll-Ups and Fridays. I think I wrote at least fifteen fan letters to Ann M. Martin, but I was too shy to even mail a letter.

- Sharon Creech understands the weight of her words. I guess that's the best way to describe what I want to say. Explanation: I'm still thinking about that Arthur Levine quote that I shared on here a while back. Do you remember how he said that you never know when you're writing the book that might change someone's life? Obviously, no author can know if he or she is doing that. But Sharon Creech seems dedicated to portraying childhood in a true, sometimes heartbreaking, always wonder-filled kind of way. She said that she remembers that part of her life very vividly. I think it always shows in her books; in the humor, the relationships, and in the fears her characters face. Anybody can glue together the bones of a story, but she gives her stories a heartbeat. There's no way she can know how a book will connect with a reader, but I think she's intentional about giving her readers the absolute best and most beautiful story she can write every time. She clearly loves what she does, and finds lots of joy in the writing process. But there's a seriousness about what she does as well. I like that. 

Other Random Observations:

- She didn't know what the Newbery Medal was when she won for Walk Two Moons. She said that, of course, she'd seen the golden sticker on books that she read with her sons. But she thought it was a stamp of approval that a committee of parents awarded to a bunch of books. When her publisher called, flipping out (obviously), and explained that, in fact, there is only ONE Newbery Medal each year!!!, she said she was in a fog for weeks. She said that winning the Newbery Medal of Honor was her "great unexpected." So sweet. (And such a funny story.)

- This was one of my favorite quotes: "In my books I 'm trying to move from the chaos to calm ... to a place of understanding..."

- I also loved this quote: "I write to take things that were deeply troubling and change them, so I can deal with them." She shared this quote after reading an excerpt from The Great Unexpected. One of the scenes in the novel was inspired by a moment she shared with her brother when he was dying of cancer. It was sweet to hear her share about the actual conversation that happened, and then listen to the way she processed that conversation through her story. (And I love that she was so candid about such a touching, personal moment.) 

- She said that she came up with the idea for The Great Unexpected while doing a classroom talk about another novel. She asked the students how they would feel if they climbed a staircase into a tall tower and discovered something unexpected. And they all gasped and, essentially, said that they'd freak out. She realized they'd all assumed that "unexpected" was a negative thing, and she wondered what it would be like to create characters who discovered a GREAT unexpected, something positive.

- She said that she sometimes has a hard time with revisions. She enjoys drafting a story, because she's still surprised, still figuring out what happens next. But she said that somewhere around the 3rd or 4th revision, she always gets a little bit frustrated. This was all so encouraging to me. Sometimes I assume really truly great writers never have a moment of doubt, and never feel like they'll crackle apart under the self-doubt and fear and frustration. And revisions and re-writing ... oiy. Eventually, I really do enjoy that process. But figuring out where exactly to jump in and start untangling and reworking and reshaping ... I think that's very hard. Knowing that she'd felt that way too gave my heart a little jolt of hope.

- Someone in the audience thanked her for writing so many adult characters in her stories, and for making the adult relationships so real. Sharon C. said that she especially likes to write elderly people into her books. She said that she writes lots of orphans so she can remove the parent-factor and have kids interacting with an older generation. (I love grandparents in stories too.)

- In addition to talking about The Great Unexpected, she talked about some of her other books as well. She shared a bit of what she talks about when she does classroom visits. (She said that students love to see the foreign editions of her books.) She showed pictures - of her grandkids, of the gorgeous view out her office, of each of her books, and of sweet things kids have sent along. She mentioned that, at first, she didn't think she'd like blogging or twitter. But someone (...her editor or agent, maybe) encouraged her to try it, and now she loves both things.

You can find her website here.
Here she is on Le Twitter.
And here's her newest novel.

My favorite souvenir!
 That cover is beautiful.
So, at the risk of sounding like a cornball (as if I ever sound like anything else on this blog), having an opportunity to hear Sharon Creech speak felt like a gift. 

And all week long, I've been thinking about the concept of a "great unexpected." Even though I consider myself a mostly positive person when it comes to other people, I have a tendency to be a real Eeyore about personal issues. Admittedly, I don't like surprises because I assume the "unexpected" will probably be something bad. I don't know what (if anything) propelled that kind of thinking. I can't imagine my seasons of rejection have been any worse than anybody else's. But I do know that negativity is the kind of thing that can become so much a part of you that you don't realize how it effects every single thing you do. (Fact: I am in favor of being a realist; but pessimism and realism are not the same. I think there's such a thing as optimistic realism, don't you?) Life is too short and too sacred to wander around assuming the worst. One of my favorite mottos lately, via Joy's awesome blog, is ATB = Assume The Best. I don't want to face the day with an, "Ugh, what now...?" attitude. I'd rather choose to be positive, embrace the day with a hopeful "Yay! What next...". Because maybe the best day is today and the best days are still ahead. 

And maybe, when I least expected it, something wonderful will sneak in and surprise me. I don't want to miss that. Wearing your heart wide-open is a great way to get it broken, but how else will you catch your great unexpected, right? 

Thanks for being so awesome, Sharon Creech. Please write a thousand more books! :)

Random note: I think I might have recognized a few authors just roaming around. I'll write more about my almost-embarrassing-author-encounter later.

The Nashville Public Library is the most gorgeous library I've ever seen.
Here's my question for y'all (and I'm super excited to see your answers!), what was your favorite book, or who was your author, when you were in middle school? You don't just have to pick one favorite, btw. I'm going to answer in the comments too ... and I have a feeling I'll have a short list. :) Happy weekending to you! 

* Disclaimer: I interned at a small-ish, regional publishing company several years ago. One day, my job was (no joke) to scurry about town and find a place that could make a cardboard cutout of an author. The author wanted her cardboard likeness to prop up at her upcoming book signing, because she thought people might want to have their picture made with the cardboard cutout. Of course, my question was, "...They can't just have their picture made with ... her?" But that was a nonsensical intern question, apparently. Thus, I didn't voice my other suggestion, which was to utilize a Chewbacca cardboard cutout instead. But seriously. Why would you need a cardboard cutout of yourself available at your own singing?! I'm perplexed. So, 99.99% of the time ... authors are a savvy bunch. ;) 


  1. This was a fun post. You always seem to blog on my worse days, always when I need it most. I really want to go to the festival next year...sounds fun.
    I actually kind of hating reading when I was younger, (shocker!) the only series I adored was Trixie Belden. I still love them.

    1. I'm sorry your day was tough :( Glad this little post brought you some happy though. Trixie Beldon is awesome. I can see why you loved her. :) Weirdly, I started to hate reading when I was in college. I kept trying to read books that were classics; I tried to pick them apart and so on and such. And I didn't find much joy in that process at all. It took some time for me to detox from Lit-Major-Ness and realize it was okay to read for fun again.

  2. Sharon Creech sounds like such an awesome person! I really need to read all of her books that I haven't read yet.

    I like what you say about being positive. I don't think I'm negative, but I tend to be a fearful sort of person, a worrier. But I think what you said ties in with this C.S. Lewis quote I love: There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.

    Probably my favorite books in middle school were Gail Carson Levine's books. I fell in love with Ella Enchanted and The Two Princesses of Bamarre (they're still two of my favorites, actually!) and then went on to read her other stuff. I've always been a bit obsessed with fairy tales. :) I also loved some of Meg Cabot's books, particularly The Princess Diaries series. And The Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter, of course. Other than that, I always had a tendency to like the sort of historical fiction stuff we read in school. :)


    1. I totally agree! You probably articulated what I was trying to say way better than I did. I'm a worrier too. I panic and convince myself that if I plan for the worst, I'll be able to deal with it when it happens. (Even though, 1.) it's EXTREMELY rare that the worst ever happens and 2.) I think planning for that just makes you miss out on some joy in the moment. Love that Lewis quote.

      And OHMYWORD. I love every book you mentioned here. Ella Enchanted is a truly extraordinary novel. Did you enjoy the movie? (I'm not familiar with The Princesses of Bamarre ... will have to look this up pronto.) I'm a sucker for fairy-tales too :)

    2. Yes, I did enjoy the movie. There was a time when I was about 13 or 14 that I actually adored the movie (I really like Anne Hathaway...she seems very genuine for a famous actress). Later, when I compared it to the super-amazing book, it almost seemed a bit awful. But now I'm at the point where I can enjoy it again, on its own. :)

      You should definitely read The Two Princesses of Bamarre! I think it has really stuck with me because Addie, the shy princess, reminds me so much of myself...she's forced to get out of her comfort zone and be brave. Plus there are mentions of seven-league boots and other little obscure fairy tale things. And the ending is strange and lovely.

  3. Love, love, LOVE Ella Enchanted :) Such a beautiful story! Gail Carson Levine was my obsession for such a long time. And I'm actually pretty partial to the movie as well. Anne Hathaway is so great. This might sound weird, but I really admire how she can flat out snot cry when she needs to.
    And Walk Two Moons---so freaking good! And the Wanderer! The Book Thief! Stargirl!

    1. Oh gosh, I LOVE an actress who can ugly-cry!! The way she sings "I dreamed a dream" in the Les Mis preview is amazing. It's snot-crying too, in the best possible way. She's a wonderful actress. Ella Enchanted is the best Cinderella retelling I've read. Love all of these. I'm so happy you mentioned Stargirl!!! I adore that book. I want a porcupine necktie. And a uke. :)

  4. "Anybody can glue together the bones of a story, but she gives hers a heartbeat." Written like a true poet/writer! YOUR writing is always inspiring, lyrical and wonderful! I liked most of the books mentioned, as well as some of the required-reading classics. Baby Sitters Club books were the BEST! Thanks for your wonderful writing, blogging, music selections; all that makes you YOU!

    1. *hugs* Thanks so much for this. You are too kind. Thank YOU so much for reading. Blogging is so much more fun to me when it feels like an ongoing conversation. (And THE BSC!! I remember getting so excited about the super specials because they were HUGE! :)

  5. These were some of my favorite novels in middle school:
    - The Babysitters Club. Every single one. Super specials, as I mentioned to Grace, were extra-amazing b/c they were HUGE.
    - Bunnicula
    - The Westing Game
    - The Witches
    - Wayside School is Falling Down
    - The Fairy Rebel
    - The Chronicles of Narnia
    - I'm leaving so many out...

    Some of my favorite middle grade-ish books that I didn't read in middle school, but LOVE, are:
    - Harry Potter. Obvs.
    - everything by Kate DiCamillo
    - everything I've read by Sharon Creech
    - Holes (one of the BEST!!)
    - The Giver
    - Three Times Lucky (by Sheila Turnage)
    - Stargirl
    - Ella Enchanted
    - When You Reach Me (You've read this one, right? Because it has one of the best endings ever.)
    - Richard Peck's books. Grandma Dowdel is one of my favorite characters ever.
    - And loads of others I'm forgetting. It's so hard to pick favorites. It feels like choosing between friends ...

    1. I was also obsessed with BSC (but more in elementary school than middle), and I have all of my old paperbacks from Goodwill in boxes because I can't bear to part with them. :) I used to sometimes sign my name Kristy, because her name was closest to mine. But Mary-Anne was my favorite character, so sometimes I signed her name, too. I was a strange kid. :)

      I have The Westing Game on my to-read list, and though I'm a big Roald Dahl fan I've not yet read The Witches (hoping to get to that one before the end of the month). Oh, I forgot about Holes! I loved that one in middle school. It's funny because most of the ones you listed as ones you discovered later are ones that I've only read over the past couple of years, too! Kate Dicamillo, The Giver, Stargirl, When You Reach Me, A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder (just read those for the first time about two weeks ago, actually). And even though I was introduced to Narnia in 1st grade, I only fell in love with it and read the rest of the books as a teenager.

      Sorry for the (several) long comments. I get excited about books! Especially middle-grade books...there are so many treasures there and I don't know many fellow "grown-ups" who still read them. :) I'm currently reading Three Times Lucky.

  6. Like Kristen (and you!), I've been reading so many good middle school books in the past few years. It seems that there's so much more "story" in them than YA, yes? Recently read 3 Times Lucky (loved,loved it), reading The Incorrigible Children series, The Book Thief, School of Fear series (so funny). Love your blog, although I rarely comment!

    1. I'm with you, Wendy. I love to get lost in a good YA too, but there's so much wonder and whimsy in middle grade novels. And it seems like the writers can get a little more kicky with their prose, which I also love. Three Times Lucky - OHMYWORD. I agree. One of the best books I've read in years. My mom keeps telling me to read the first School of Fear - she would read parts of it out loud to me b/c they made her laugh so hard. I need to check that out pronto.

      I'm so happy to know you read along! :)

  7. Middle school. I read Harry Potter over and over. I loved Bunicula, Frindle, Wayside School is Falling Down, the BSC, and a series about twin sisters living in California called the Sweet Valley Twins. :) I read more middle grade books now, and I just the love the magic in them. When You Reach Me is a definite favorite. I love Rebecca Stead's writing. Also, Ellen Potter's books, Rick Riordan, and lots of others!

    1. The Sweet Valley Twins and I go way back. Did you hear that Diablo Cody was making a musical of that? Is that a true story or was that a joke? But YES. Those books were fab. I remember in fourth grade, people were passing around a "scary" book (that was probably Goosebumps or something ... ha :) and I was too afraid to read it. But I didn't want to look like a dork, so I pretended to read it but hid my Sweet Valley Twins book inside it.

      Agree on Rebecca Stead. Her writing is gorgeous. Her books feel like classics. Have you read Liar & Spy yet?

  8. I'm so glad you got to go to the festival! Maybe next year we can plan a meet-up? :)

    1. You know it!! I'm so excited about tomorrow!! :)

  9. My favorite books were probably Harry Potter and Narnia and Roald Dahl. This festival sounds like it would be amazing. :)

    1. Ditto. My favorite thing about Roald Dahl is that he never hesitated to write some truly creepy things. It's like he was saying that it's possible to face a monster head on and defeat it. That's why Coraline is one of my more recent favorite books -- because she outsmarts her worst fear. I think there's so much truth in what they say, without ever sound preachy. Plus Roald Dahl's novels are just full of whimsy. His work is so magical.

  10. I've been so overwhelmed lately by author responses to their readers, especially (okay, mostly) because of my phone call with Steve Chbosky. It is just a really wonderful thing when authors make an effort to have a relationship with their readers, or encourage them in some way.

    When I was in middle school, The Babysitters Club. Allll the way.

    1. Did you make a Babysitters Club kit? I totally made a kit, even though the only kid I ever "babysat" was my little brother. Those books were the best.

      And I agree that it's so sweet when authors take the time to get to know their readers - not in some, "I'M SO AWESOME" kind of way. But it's like they genuinely love the whole process of storytelling, like there's this greater conversation happening they love to be part of.

      And the fact that S. Chbosky took the time to call you up and tell you how talented you are has endeared me to the man for life. I could hug his neck for that. Yay for him. BIG HUGE YAY FOR YOU!!! *hugs* :)

  11. Wow. That sounds amazing - especially listening to Sharon Creech. She sounds like a truly generous, interesting, warm-harted person. And, yes, savvy. (And on the subject of savviness, your story about the cardboard cutout made me laugh. If it counts, though, I also rolled my eyes on your behalf. Sounds like such an exercise in frustration!)

    1. Warm hearted is a perfect description. She was so kind. In retrospect, I think the cardboard cut out was kind of funny in an eye-rolly way. I think most authors would absolutely cringe at the idea. But at the time, I was just flat out annoyed. :)

  12. I'm finding this blog post rather late (via John Schu's twitter referral) -- thank you for reminding me of my Nashville visit . . . and I'm so happy you are having your own Great Unexpected now with the beautiful Snicker of Magic. Thank you for this lovely post. xx

  13. I'm late to it too, so glad to find. But now I want to go to a conference with you!! So many of the wonderful books mentioned here I encountered when I became a library media specialist and started reading to know my students. In middle school I read so much! Harriet the Spy was favorite 5th grade book, and then I started getting into Steinbeck and the classics , and all the books my mother read as a girl. The Girl of the Limberlost, Daddy Longlegs, and also every mystery I could find. There wasn't much for kids beyond Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, which I devoured, so I also read grown up mysteries. I was allowed free rein of our bookshelves. But I remember our elderly librarian looking down her nose at me when I told her I had read the Agony and the Ecstasy and The Silver Chalice , asking if I'd really read them, and if I understood them. Well, yes. And yes. Profoundly shaped me, actually, and what a gift to intersperse with Frank and Joe and their exciting adventures!