I have been asked to speak on Saturday, July 31 at the Norfolk Public Library’s 16th Annual Literature Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska. I will be giving a writing workshop for kids in the morning and will be speaking to teachers and librarians about books and writing in the afternoon.
I have never been to Nebraska, and am excited to fly into Omaha next week. My picture book That Book Woman is a 2011 Golden Sower Award nominee (which is the state Nebraska award). Other award nominees will be at the festival too, including Deborah Hopkinson and Tony Varrato.
If any of you live in Nebraska, or are interesting in attending the festival, please email Karen Drevo at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 402-844-2108.
The Norfolk Public Library is located at 308 W. Prospect Avenue in Norfolk, Nebraska. Hope to see you there!
I’ve been thinking about words a lot lately, not only because I’m trying to finish a new novel, but also because I’m still in my poetry reading phase, still feeling contemplative about life.
One of the reasons I’m a writer is because I love words. I just love the ways words go together. Love the way words sound when you read them out loud; love the way they look on the page.
So it was kind of perfect that while I was in the library with my kids this week I happened upon the newest book by one of my favorite authors: Patricia MacLachlan. The book is called Word After Word After Word and it’s so lovely, so warm, so…Patty MacLachlan. It’s all about truths and untruths, what is said and what is left unsaid, and above all, it’s about words.
The set-up: a famous writer named Ms. Mirabel has come to spend six weeks with a group of fourth graders. Of course the back story is that Ms. Mirabel is really a stand-in for Ms. MacLachlan herself, and sometimes she (the character in the book) reads to the kids from the classics of children’s literature, including books from her own cannon, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall and the book Baby (which if you have never read, please go get it now, and have a Kleenex box handy!).
Not much happens in Word After Word After Word, and yet everything happens. The kids in Ms. Mirabel’s class all have singular personalities, and singular stories to tell, although at first they’re not at all sure that what they have to write about will be terribly interesting. But of course as the book unfolds, we learn about private sorrows and small triumphs that make our characters unique and endearing and endearingly human, and when they all finally do write down their own stories, one by one, the book itself becomes a pretty powerful celebration of how important words can be.
What I love about Patty MachLachlan’s work is how beautiful her writing is. Each novel is like a poem, every word so very important. Many of the novels are short, spare, but they pack a wallop into a few, short pages. What I also love is how she makes her young characters so interesting. They’re funny and lovable, and they live completely in the world of children, watching grown-ups from a perplexed and ultimately forgiving distance.
One of my all time favorite books, of Patty MacLachlan’s, or of anyone else’s, for that matter, is The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt. I love Minna’s quest for truths and untruths (as well as a vibrato). I love her quirky writer mother who is so maddening and so familiar. (Oh, how many times have my own kids wondered why their mother can’t pull herself away from the computer screen long enough to focus completely on matching their socks?) One thing I always know when I begin a Patty MacLachlan book is that I will end up, by the time the novel is over, longing to live with the family she has created, a family that is usually creative and messy, and word by word true.
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry since my last post. Often poetry is what I go to when feeling contemplative about life and loss. I guess what I like about reading poetry is that moment of recognition, when all the emotions and images come together and suddenly everything is illuminated. I like how poets find the profound in the mundane, the sublime in the everyday.
James Still is one of my favorite writers. He was a novelist, a short story writer, a poet. He was a Kentuckian. In fact he was the first Kentucky Poet Laureate. I never got to meet James Still. But his work has had a huge influence on my own writing. He had a pitch perfect ear for how real people talk — especially people living in eastern Kentucky. His stories, often about boys growing wild on the mountainside or getting into trouble in coal towns, seem simple, but each one is so finely layered with meaning and truth, each one is a masterpiece.
I was recently reading through The New and Collected Poems by James Still, which was published in 2001, and came upon a poem that really spoke to me as a writer about how truly tenuous the act of writing can be, how fragile the moment of creation.
There was a poem here yesterday,
But not now.
It sat for many an hour
It went away for lack
Of ears to hear,
Eyes to see,
Hearts to open.
The poem went away
and did not look back.
I think the line I love the most is: hearts to open. Being a writer, or any kind of artist, means having to open yourself up. To possibilities, to risks, to hope, to failure.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
[from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself]
My husband’s best friend, David Campbell, died a few days ago in NYC. Dave was my friend too. He was there the night I met Tim in the middle of a crazy, crowded city; he was there the day I married Tim. He’s been there for 20 years. I can’t really imagine Dave not being there anymore. And so I’m trying to imagine him here, and everywhere. Everywhere he loved to be.
Here are the links to Tim’s piece remembering Dave and a Dave memoriam:
I’m going to be reading and talking about Dream of Night at the Boyle County Public Library on Thursday, May 20th at 7 pm. This event will be in the Teen Room — yes, there is a Teen Room! (That’s the question everyone asks when I tell them where it is.) No, there are no Teen Books in the Teen Room yet, but we (on the library board) are working on that. There is a Teen Room, though, and it is very, very cool. It is right at the top of the main stairs. It looks like a cafe, except without any food. There will be food there Thursday night. Free pizza! (Although Karl tells us it would be best to eat the pizza in the children’s library rather than the actual Teen Room :)) Wherever we actually eat the pizza, please come and check out the book and the new Teen nook in Danville. Books will be available through Centre College Bookstore for purchase and signing by yours truly.
I’ve been coming to the Danville-Boyle County Library since my mom carried me there on her hip. I may have learned to read there. I know I did lots of research on countless school reports over the years. When I moved back to Danville, it definitely was a highlight of my homecoming.
The library had gotten bigger, but it still looked and felt the same. Those in charge of expanding it over the years had kept the original lovely old building, kept much of the charm, just added more rooms of books. Another massive expansion was undertaken a few years ago, and finally after much anticipation, the new library opened in January. Again, the powers that be had the wisdom to keep the integrity of the place, keep the original parts, so when you walk into the new library, you still have a powerful sense of the old. I can still sit in the room where I poured over encyclopedias as a kid (can you imagine kids going to the library to look at an encyclopedia today?) but I can also walk into a huge new room of fiction and another gigantic nonfiction room, I can sit in a room with a giant map or a giant globe, I can bring my kids to an enormous new kids space with dinosaur bones hanging from the ceiling and more computers than they could ever use, I can stand on the glassed in second floor and gaze at a glass sculpture by a world-renowned glass artist, I can sit in the garden where my name and my husband’s name and my kids’ names are etched forever in one of the bricks for future Henson-Ungs to see. Danville isn’t a very big town, but we have an amazing library. How lucky is that?
As a freelancer, I’ve done a fair share of ghost writing over the years in order to make ends meet. Now, with Dream of Night, my new novel for young readers, I’ve turned to horse writing. In a way, it feels like I’ve come home.
I was born and raised in the Bluegrass, a part of Kentucky known for its rolling meadows and beautiful horses. They say what makes Kentucky Thoroughbreds the best in the world has to do with the rich limestone found in the soil. The horses here grow up strong, fast, and spirited. I think the people here grow up that way too.
Springtime in central Kentucky means that fields everywhere are dotted with mares and colts. (Most foals are born between January and April.) Springtime around here also means the Kentucky Derby and big silly hats and mint juleps.
I was not a particularly horsey girl growing up. I would ride occasionally, but not with the longing and the focus of some of my friends. In the middle of Kentucky farmland, unlikely as it sounds, I was into theater. My world revolved around acting and plays because that’s what my father did: he was an actor and producer of a summerstock theater. (I wrote about a childhood spent on stage in my novel Here’s How I See It/Here’s How It Is, 2009.) But horses were in my blood, at least on my mother’s side.
My maternal grandfather had been a horseman, a breeder and trainer of 3-5 gated saddlebred horses, one of the best trainers around. A man who knew a lot about horses. So I grew up hearing stories, seeing photos of my papa’s statuesque prize-winners. Photos and memories only. Because the stories always ended with a pounding at his front door in the middle of the night and the cry of “Fire! Fire!” Papa rushed out into the dark to find his main barn already engulfed in flames. (This was long before modern smoke detectors and sprinkler systems and telephones being commonplace in every home.) Papa – and his farmhands and neighbors – risked their lives to save the horses, but the fire was just too fast.
Papa kept a few pleasure horses after that, but he gave up breeding and training altogether. I think the horseman in him must have died along with those amazing creatures he had raised and trained and loved so dearly. He rebuilt the barn, but instead of stalls, there were open rafters for hanging tobacco while it cured. He turned his acres of grazing land into rows of crops.
I left Kentucky after high school, headed for the big city of New York. I went to college, became a writer, started a family, lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. And then, suddenly, I wanted to go home. Papa had died a while back, but his house was still empty. My husband and I decided to take the plunge, make a go of country living.
Moving back to the family farm I had a vague notion of wanting to own horses – for myself, for my son, for future kids. So I was happy to discover upon arrival that there were already horses on the farm. The neighbor down the lane was leasing the land around the house. So there was a herd of horses, about eight or so mares and one lone black stallion, the leader of the group. They were nearly wild because the neighbor didn’t have a lot of time to spend with them. The fields curved around in a horseshoe pattern, with the house in the middle. So most times of day I could look out any window, or stand in any part of the yard, and see the horses.
They were shy at first. They ignored our offerings of apples and peppermint. But slowly, when they realized we weren’t going anywhere, they got used to us. They would watch us across shorter and shorter distances. Finally they allowed us to give them treats, sniffing at us, still startling away if we made any sudden moves.
From my window on the second floor where I had set up my writing desk, I often just sat and stared out the window, watching the horses instead of working on the book I was trying to finish. The horses were all different colors. Their manes and tails were long and tangly. They seemed to move as one, stopping to graze together, drinking in one big group from the spring, bolting together in a heartbeat without any obvious (to me, anyway) signal. Many times a day this startling, graceful explosion into flight, and the gallop of so many big powerful bodies across the field would simply take my breath away.
After a while the lease came up on the land; the neighbor sold some of the horses, took the others back to his side of the lane. My husband, son and I would walk down the road to visit them. By this time they knew us. They’d sidle up to the fence when they saw us approaching, they’d take the apples we offered; they’d allow their faces and necks to be stroked.
We were settling into our new life on the farm with a big garden and chickens and cows – and skunks (uninvited but persistent guests). The barn was in disrepair. It would take a lot of money to make it a safe and comfortable place for horses. So we put off the dream of having horses of our own for a while and kept visiting the neighbor horses.
I went back to sitting at my desk while my son was at school, staring at my computer now, rather then staring out at the horses. Slowly though something started to happen, something started to click. It was true that I couldn’t actually see the horses anymore from my window. But I knew they were there. I could feel them. I could write about them, tell their story. And so that’s exactly what I started to do.
The Blue Marble Bookstore in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, is about fifteen minutes south of Cinci, OH. It’s the kind of place, tiny though it may seem at first, where you just might get lost. Lost in books — the very best kind of disorientation. From picture books to novels for young (and not so young) readers, from signed first editions to signed paperbacks, it’s the kind of bookstore that is becoming more and more rare in this day and age of everything-at-the-click-of-a-button.
First of all, it’s in a house, a lovely little old house on a bustling but quiet street in a friendly northern Kentucky neighborhood. The downstairs room is lined with shelves full of books. A door to the backyard leads into a Secret Garden. A staircase hidden behind the counter leads upstairs to the Great Green Room (yes, with everything from Goodnight Moon including the mouse). Upstairs is also where the kitchen is found. Because when you come to an event at the Blue Marble — a booksigning for a local or national author; a discussion of new books among librarians, teachers, children’s lit professors from local universities; a mock Newbery/Caldecott event — you will be fed. The whole staff, so knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world of children’s books, chips in and makes a dish, and everyone sits down together to good food and good talk about books and writers.
I wish the Blue Marble was just around the corner from me (instead of 3 hours away), because I would pop in all the time if I could. I would buy all my books from the Blue Marble. Because when you go to the Blue Marble to purchase a book, you’re not just getting that one book. You’re getting information about other books you might want for yourself or for your young reader or for your classroom or for your book club. You’re supporting the kind of community bookstore that is sadly slipping away. Because, yes, it’s easier to go on line and click a button, and often times it’s cheaper too. But you simply don’t get the kind of personal attention and knowledge and expertise that comes with stopping into a store like the Blue Marble, talking to teachers, librarians, writers — people who work part-time selling children’s books because children’s books isn’t just a job, it’s their passion.
Many, many thanks to Tina, Peter, Dave, and Tish for your hospitality, for your time and dedication and support! I appreciate all that you do!
Here are some pix from the Blue Marble signing and feast and from my school visit earlier in the day at St. Pius X….
Thanks to all the folks who showed up at Joseph-Beth Booksellers last night! And thanks to Brooke Raby, who always makes my visit there so special. It was a terrific event. I was so happy to see Keye’lle there. I’d met her earlier that day at Sandersville Elementary School in Lexington, where I talked to the 4th and 5th graders about Dream of Night and about what inspires me as a writer. Keye’lle brought her mom to the event at JB, and she had some really great questions to ask after my reading, like “How many books do you want to write before you die?” My answer: a hundred! Thanks for coming Keye’lle, and keep reading and asking questions!
Some of my good friends were there at the reading to support me. Here’s a picture of some of my crazy crew of gals…one of which is my oldest friend, Fe. We’ve known each other since second grade when I walked up to her at the playground and asked her to play. We’ve never lost touch through many moves and many different phases of life, and now we’re back in the same state, nearly the same town we grew up in.
Joseph-Beth has always been so supportive, and like I said, Brooke Raby is just the best. Thanks, Brooke for coming to the schools in Lex to sell books, and for making sure everything was just right at the reading!
Again, many many thanks to all of you who came to the reading, especially my friends, Keye’lle, and the woman who loves horses (I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of you!) and who said that she demanded that they sell my book to her the day before it came out! I hope you enjoy reading about Night, Shiloh, and Jess! And please keep in touch with me via my blog!
I come from a very artistic family. My oldest brother is an artist/graphic design artist; my other brother is a filmmaker, and my sister is a stand-up comedian. In our home town, people are always getting me and my sister confused. So we’re always trying to explain that I write books and she writes jokes. (Actually it’s pretty easy to tell the difference — I’m not the funny one! 🙂