Thoughts on One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

(Florence. April 11, 2001. Me in the first of a string of purple coats. Lynn and Ponte Vecchio.)
I sat with this exquisite book late at night, my husband snoring beside me, a dim light keeping watch. When I read a Beth Kephart book, I make sure the hours are there before me, uninterrupted. I knew, about thirty pages in, there would be no stopping mid-way. I had to get to some kind of end.
One Thing Stolen is about Nadia Cara, who, on a research trip with her mother, brother, and professor father in Florence, has begun to lose her ability to speak. She’s snatching pieces of memory, of her elusive now, searching for a boy who may or may not be real, stealing pieces of a city and weaving them into elaborate nests. 
She lives in a room once occupied by twins and she fixates on the might-be disappearance of one of them. We watch, as if on high or below or behind or across, the weave of two Nadias. One, through memory, as part of a plea for us to know her as she was in her home of West Philadelphia, the whip-smart planner, witnessing miracles, leading her best friend Maggie to hidden pockets of her city. A girl with a future. The other, a shadow of her former self, whose everything is uncertain.
I can’t tell you how much I love this book, how in awe I sat of this story, an elaborate nest of its own. I’d copy every beautiful sentence from this novel and leave it here for you, but that is the gift of Kephart’s book, sitting with its soft feathered pages. This book is not a tangle. It is an incredible, careful, deliberate weave. Ribbons and strands of story coming together to create something exquisite and beautiful. Like Nadia’s very first steal, which involves taking apart the words and language she is losing her grip on and braiding it back together in pieces, this book is a similar, spectacular creation.
The broken Nadia is what captured my heart as it pulsed and raced through these pages, what broke it and put it back together. I don’t, that I know, have a neurological disorder, but perhaps I understand what it is to mourn someone I used to be. To feel that I have unravelled, lost pieces of myself, chasing through the streets of a foreign city, desperate to find myself whole. 
There is time, in our lives, to seek out, to remember, and to hold tight to the people who remind us, every day, who we are and who we can be. In this book, that person is Nadia’s best friend, Maggie. We meet Maggie throughout the book but we know her and come to love her as she wrestles with Nadia’s story for us. She, like the Mud Angels who rescued the city of Florence after its 1966 flood, is steadfast, certain, hopeful, and loyal, willing to see past the muck and mire, to the rare relic of us all. She is someone we should all aspire to be. To one another. To ourselves.

I am lucky, so lucky, to have many Maggies in my life but I could not help but close the pages of this book and remember my own time in Florence with my very own Maggie, my friend Lynn. Lynn held tight to our Let’s Go Europe guide book and led us through cobblestone streets, teetering gelato cones, yanking my chin up to the Duomo, waiting with me in an endless line at the Uffizi, standing above and beside the almost-but-never-will-be (S)Arno river. I was reminded, as I looked at the photo above, that I was designated map girl. Me, hopeless with direction, a person who never knows where she’s going until she’s there, but, like Nadia, so certain, so sure, I had a future.

This book holds tight to hope and I held on with it. A really stunning, masterful work. 

A Trip to Philly to celebrate stories in a vending machine and do my first reading

UPDATE: Many of you asked how to purchase these stories. They are now available here for $3 (shipping included.)
I spent last evening in Philadelphia, dreaming words on the train, sitting on the benches in Rittenhouse Square, looking up, in the wet dark, at the twinkling Christmas lights. Then, I walked down a blue lit path on 22nd street and went to the Science Leadership Academy. It’s a school I’ve heard about and wondered about. I’ve seen the TED Talks and articles and the PBS stories about the work this school is doing and how it is inspiring others to relook at their own models of education and follow suit. 
I was there for the launch party of the 4th Floor Chapbook series, an awesome publishing venture from the Head and the Hand Press in collaboration with SLA’s students and staff. See that vending machine in the photo? It’s selling chapbooks. Snackable stories. My story, The Song Inside, sits alongside some amazing work and it was so cool to be a part of it. 
I wore flowered tights and, you guys, I did my first reading in front of a live audience over the age of six — feeling very grateful for my friend Tracy, who used to make me read my work aloud in her living room, but only after giving me liquid courage in the form of wine. Don’t worry, I was completely sober for this experience, unless you count the delicious potato chips I had beforehand. 
I was able to talk with Nic Esposito, who founded the Head and the Hand Press and told me stories of his son and his urban farm, which he wrote about in his collection of essays, Kensington Homestead. Linda Gallant, who might be the nicest person ever and it’s clear, took great care with our stories. The author Jennifer Hubbard, who read from her fantastic story In Memory of Lester, and advised me where to get middle-eastern food. And Robert Marx, a senior at SLA, who is waiting for his college acceptances, no doubt to do great things wherever he ends up. He blew me away with his story, Fade to Black, which I read on the train ride home. 
It meant a lot to me, to share my work in such a unique venue. My story sits next to great talent. To pop in a few dollars and watch books fall through the machine was a great thrill. If you can’t make it to the school itself, I hope to be able to point you toward the place to purchase these stories in a few weeks. 
Thank you to Beth Kephart, who told me about this series. If you haven’t noticed, she pretty much points me toward everything awesome.
Now, I must return to my regular scheduled programming in our Brooklyn apartment. Little O has found the recycling bin, its contents are in a pile at my feet as I write, and I think he just tried to bite into a metal can.

Subway Sketches and a Short Piece Published

I’ve written a lot, over the years, while riding on subway and train cars. It’s resulted in dozens upon dozens of sketches where I capture moments, real and imagined.

It’s no wonder, then, that in all the years sending work out into the world, only two small stories have ever been accepted for publication and they’ve both been part of what I shall now call the subway series (like baseball but more lyrical.)

So, I’m happy to share one of those stories, this flash piece in the latest issue of Cleaver Magazine. I hope you will check out this issue and all the wonderful work the magazine puts out. It’s cool to be a small part of it.

With thanks to the lovely Beth Kephart for pointing me towards the magazine, the way she points me in the direction of so many cool things.

What’s Up Wednesday #3

What I’m Reading

I just started Per Petterson‘s Out Stealing Horses, recommended by Beth Kephart, whose taste in books I trust implicitly. So far, and I am only a few chapters in, it’s beautiful. Already there is a scene that haunts me, involving a crushed birds nest. It’s one of those moments that is so richly drawn, I can see it, feel it, will always see it as if it happened to me. I’m hoping to learn a lot from this writer.

What I’m Writing

Finishing final revisions to RABBIT ISLAND and that’s it. I’ve decided to take a break from writing anything new for the month of June. Then July will be dedicated to research for The Oyster Book before I dive into a draft in August. There are some short stories and essays I’d like to polish up and send out into the world.

What Inspires Me Right Now

The written words of others. As always.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

I thought maybe an instagram collage would help explain the days.

Yesterday, before attending a wonderful event about writing history for children (more on this later) I stopped in Washington Square Park. The fountain looks a bit like it’s sprouting up into the sun.

Our summer CSA has begun, which means a summer full of fresh local greens and experimenting with unknown vegetables that over the years we’ve come to know a little better (kohlrabi, tatsoi, etc.)  These strawberries are actually from the farmer’s market but I thought they were really beautiful.

Last weekend I went to the Belmont Stakes for the first time in many years. I loved the beautiful clothes and hats. After watching a few races, we left early, and did what my family does best: eat pasta at one of the local Italian joints with the best bolognese I have ever tasted. It turned out to be a good day.

Beyond that, I’ve been struggling a bit at work. I hesitate to write about my job here because I realize it’s public but my boss and coworkers know my frustration and unhappiness. I’ve been working to change this part of my life, working very hard, and, while I sense a shift, I have yet to see a real change. Part of the hands-off approach I mentioned last week is letting go a bit, allowing the universe to decide what is best for me. I don’t see this as giving up. I’m hoping that two years of hard work and persistence to make a transition will open the doors I’ve been banging at. It’s summer. It’s time to reassess, to step back and just be  for a while.

For more What’s Up Wednesday, go here.

Thoughts on Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart

I always wait impatiently for my friend Beth Kephart‘s books. I’m lucky they appear on the shelves often. I’m never disappointed when I crack open their spines.  I read her latest, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, quickly and quietly because I don’t like fits and chokes and starts when I read a Kephart book. I prefer to chug it in its entirety. Then sit happy and full.

That is what I love, love, love about this book.  The fullness and richness of this writhing adventure. Each sentence swells with the endurance of characters that are, in many ways, running on empty, past empty, but with their hearts bursting full at their worn seams.

Fourteen year old William Quinn is a finder and fixer despite a life of tremendous loss (his father in jail, his brother, Francis, murdered, his mother slowly disappearing from a broken heart.) His best friend, Career, still stomps across the dust with a ripped sack jacket and a ‘too-big-for-him’ vest while he doggedly pursues even bigger dreams.  His mother, struggling every day to cope, still manages to rise from bed and stitch that sleeve. And I haven’t even got into blowzy Pearl and her boisterous kindness or the amazing, persistent, stubborn Molly whose yellow bow, against all odds, still clings to her hair. Even the empty promise of the magical sarsaparilla (it’s just root beer) doesn’t stop them (or me) from believing, hoping, knowing, that their strength is resolute.

I’m not smart enough to really know the time period (1871) or the place (Bush Hill, Philadelphia) but I’m lucky Beth fills the pages with the sound and spirit of the time so I can come to understand it (a most gorgeous review that goes into that here.) And, in collaboration with her husband, artist William Sulit, the beautiful illustrations reveal the scratch and charcoal and steam of those words.  

This winter, in freezing cold, I did visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where parts of the novel take place. As a symbol of atonement and redemption, the former prison (known as Cherry Hill) seems to stand at the center of the book, and the characters make their amazing rescues and deliverances around its imposing walls.

I’d pull every sentence from the book if I could, such is the care Beth puts into each one. But I’ll just excerpt one of my favorite moments:

William leans against the streetlamp, corner of Broad and Pennsylvania, the light an apron of yellow around his old, broke boots. Two brown moths lap at his head, fuzzy creatures with gigantic wings that make him think of the night he and Francis and Ma sat within the spectacle of the Phasmatrope. She’d caught her breath as soon as the first projected waltz had begun, and by the time the tumblers started galvanizing and leaping across the screen, Ma was pulled to the edge of her seat, her sons on either side each holding one hand. Ma’s fingers were white from the laundry bleach. Her nails were short and square. It was her gold ring that shone like a star that night, an infinity band. William remembers remembering Pa and what Pa’d been through and what he’d done and lost, and how the bearing of him had changed, but never his outright love for Ma.  

I love this moment for the wide-eyed, knowing, perhaps misunderstood kindness that brought them to the Phasmatrope, William’s memory of it, and the enduring love behind it, always at the center of Beth Kephart’s beautiful books. If I must wait for the next one at least I always, always, wait happy and full.

It’s Work-In-Progress Day, Share Your Words

The ever-lovely Beth Kephart has declared it Work-In-Progress day and she has encouraged writers to share small excerpts from things they’re writing or have written (and her own gorgeous words here.)

I’ve enjoyed reading through the beautiful words others have written or linked to on her Facebook page. How amazing to share our words and know we’re all working towards telling the world a story, whatever it may be.

So, will you join in?  Because I truly want to read what you’re writing, if you feel comfortable and want to share.  I hope you’ll post a snippet on your blog.  Or on Facebook (if we’re not friends, can we be?) Then let me know, if you do.  And spread the word!

And my own words from some kind of something, I don’t know yet:

“Ya see that white tip there?”  His gloved fingers stretch out like they are reaching for a slow dance.
            I hold the binoculars at my eyes and my eyelashes catch the reflection, prickly magnified spiders that graze the sky then butterfly kiss a brown tangle of branches. “Where?” 
            “Ya see the tallest tree?”
            I move the binoculars away. I look out. I have no idea which tree is tallest.  But I nod.
            “Two trees to the left.”  His fingers smudge across the frozen river. “That white spot.  You see it?”
            I want to see it, this thieving eagle. I want, desperately, to please him.  I steady the binoculars.  I search.  For one white, feathered space.  But winter is stained gray and brown and the sun film-flickers through the lens. The landscape rattles at my lashes.  I see nothing.
“Oh look,” I say, anyway. “I see it.” Stolen wonder streaks across my chest. My terrible heart, the yawning cavity of a tree.

YA: What’s Next, Thoughts on Publishing Conferences

Yesterday, in classic last-minute-Melissa fashion, I was really lucky to attend the YA: What’s Next — Children’s Publishing Conference hosted by Publishing Perspectives.

I felt so incredibly happy and proud to hear my friend Beth Kephart who delivered the keynote. Her beautiful words started the conversation and placed us all in this remarkable mind-space, capturing the beauty, the immediacy and the urgency of young adult literature, how it transcends any label. You can read the start of it: here. (UPDATE: Read the speech in it’s entirety here !!!)

When I attend publishing conferences, I love to learn from the people who call this industry their home.  Sometimes, I don’t love what I learn.  Sometimes, it sounds like a lot of very loud noise with unwavering definitions and slaps of labels.  Sometimes I see boxes and lines being drawn and I see a real danger in that way of thinking.

What, for example, would have happened if someone had followed the rules and drawn lines for a book like The Book Thief, one of my favorite books of all time?  What would have happened if someone said, this isn’t narrated by the voice of a 14-17 year old protagonist, and it doesn’t belong on any shelf, and it doesn’t fit in the six letter alphabet we’ve created for ourselves: YA, A, MG, PB?  What story would the world have lost because a set of words didn’t exactly fit into a planogram?

Sometimes, if I’m being honest (and I am), I start to see the publishing industry as a fortress, a military stronghold that nurtures certain big blockbuster books and doesn’t let anyone else in.

But, then, I remember that The Book Thief is a book.  And Beth Kephart’s books are books.  And all of the incredible and important books that aren’t conventional or aren’t blockbusters, books that challenge labels and yet are labelled in some way, some form, because someone allows them to fit somewhere, thus changing the very label they own (which, if you think about it, is amazing), are…

…tada…

BOOKS.

And then I feel really great about the publishing industry.

Have you been to a publishing conference?  Do you go through a similar (or different) wave of emotion?  Or am I just weird? (Don’t answer this last question.  Okay, fine. Answer it)

Thoughts on Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I had mentioned the other day about my train ride, how absorbed I was in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson upon the recommendation of Beth Kephart. When I sat down to write about the book, I didn’t know how to begin. The arc of Winterson’s tale and, by virtue of the fact that it is memoir, the arc of Winterson’s life, is, in a way, linear but, like any life, it meanders through back roads and tramples over thick brush.

It’s an easy book to read (I flew through it) but not an easy book to take apart.  So, if I were to give you directions to this book’s home, I would not be able to give you street names.  I would not be able to point you North, then West, because it’s not as simple as that.

And that’s what I loved about this book.  As Winterson reaches through memory to understand her ‘real’ mother, her adopted mother, her ‘real’ self, and the self she has assumed (in the way you might assume an identity) she doesn’t take a straight and narrow path.  But it reads as if she has.  She might look for answers. But she doesn’t claim to have them.  And all of this makes perfect sense while I’m making none.

What I mean to say is: read this book.    

My favorite moment:

A tough life needs a tough language — and that is what poetry is.  That is what literature offers — a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place.  It is a finding place.

I think, at the heart of it, this book is about navigating the story of our lives, as well as the stories we read or write, and seeing it all through.

A Stack to Read

This is the stack (well, one of many stacks) at my bedside table. My mind has been much clearer in recent weeks. So I’ve been reading a lot and I’m hungry for more books.  I’m excited to see what these bring.  
I took this photograph yesterday, so I’ve already finished David Levithan‘s Every Day.  It has such an incredible and inventive premise (From the cover: Every day a different body.  Every day a different life.  Every day in love with the same girl.)  A premise that, in my opinion, would send any imagination soaring.  I had to know where Levithan would take it.  This book requires a steadfast suspension of disbelief (admittedly, I wavered a bit) but it did absorb me.  It surprised me. It made me think.  
What are you reading?