The Joy of Question and Answer

From the moment we decided back in March or April that we were going to do school at home the next year, my kids and I have gotten into the habit of answering any and all inquiries with “We should learn about that for school.”

By “inquiries,” I mean the endless rounds of “Mom, why is _____ like that?” or “How come ________?” or “What’s the difference between __________ and __________?” that little kids manage to think of and to which parents usually respond, “I don’t know — it just is.”

So yeah, my clever we-should-learn-about-that answer was really just another way to put off their questions for later.

Suddenly later has arrived.

In some ways balancing school with a toddler, kindergartener and second grader has been a chaotic nightmare. All four of us have had moments crying in frustration. At least every other day I think this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever attempted and I should really just send the two older kids back to “real” school. If the kindergartener reads one ten-page book and writes one sentence, and the second grader reads for fifteen minutes and writes a one-page story, and they each recite ten math facts (addition for the younger and multiplication for the elder), some days we (sadly) call that good.

But it’s August, and I started in August on purpose, figuring it gives us a month to settle into a routine before we judge ourselves too harshly.

The part that is beautiful, though, is when little moments happen where they discover the answers to their own questions.

Today we went to the library to find nonfiction books at their reading levels about specific animals, after studying library books about mammals, reptiles, etc, last week. The kindergartener declared he wanted to learn about leopards, and the second grader decided on cheetahs, and then he stopped and asked, “Mom, what’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?”

“I don’t know,” I responded truthfully, “but maybe we’ll find a book that can tell us.”

“How could a book do that?”

I laughed a little, and it gave him a minute to think about his own question.

“Oh, like maybe it could say that cheetahs have gray spots and leopards have black spots?”

“Something like that.”

When we got through the chaos of the library (three children scattering in different directions as I tried to herd them toward juvenile nonfiction), the chaos of lunch back at home (three children asking for different things all at once), and the chaos of who would get to play educational apps on the iPhone first (two children doing rock-paper-scissors, the loser trickling tears), I finally got to sit down with my second grader as he read National Geographic Kids: Cheetahs.

And there, on the second page spread, was an awesome explanation of the difference between cheetahs and leopards.

It was one of those cool moments, sitting on the couch together and watching him get so excited to learn because it was something he’d wanted to know.

Isn’t that the secret to real learning? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as my own love of and cravings for nonfiction have increased in the last couple years. When I have a specific question I want to answer, whether about nutrition or herbs or gardening or the science of subtle energy, I get so freaking excited about every cool little answering fact I read that I can’t help telling everyone nearby, “Did you know that ________??”

Seeing it happen for my seven-year-old today with cheetahs vs. leopards made me remember why I’m keeping my kids home this year. It recalled the first-grade days of him returning from school declaring it was so hard and so much work and me wishing that I could help him find the joy of it. It reminded me of how much a comment from one of my fellow-mom friends last year had resonated with me:

“Isn’t the most important part of education for them to learn how to learn?”

We’ve got a long way to go to become good at this school-at-home business, but I think their enthusiasm for questions and answers is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.

Back in Time to Grab a Pencil

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

~Billy Collins, from “Marginalia”

This morning I’m groaning, wishing I could twist back time and tweak small things. I would buy my own copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Forever instead of waiting a month on the library’s hold list. Not because I minded the month. I had other things to read in the mean time. But I wish I had had my own copy on this first read so that I could mark it with a pencil as I went.

Maggie Stiefvater is an author I want to be friends with, because she’s a writer I want to write like. Not in subject matter — werewolves are not my thing, nor is paranormal romance in general — but because of the way she puts words together.

There were sentences that I had to stop and reread. Not because they were confusing or out of place, but because I wanted to savor them — because she had phrased a simple thing in a way that made it profound.

Instead I lazed in an armchair turning pages, too absorbed in the book to get up and copy the sentences down. The story had me by the hand, pulling urgently, and I couldn’t let go.

If only I could have pressed a thin line under the words with a pencil, I’d be happier now.

Ridiculous, I know, to wish for time travel for such a silly thing. But on Wednesday I read “Marginalia” with my students; I rallied them to read with pen or pencil in hand in order to glean the most from every book and article they devour and make it their own. And here I didn’t listen to my own advice.

Small things make me happy, like knowing my absolute favorite parts of some of my absolute favorite books on my shelves are underlined, like Life of Pi or The King of Attolia or Gilead. I can thumb through them any time and savor those words again.

In fact, with Gilead, I read the first 30 pages of a library copy and then forced myself to stop and buy my own before reading any further. Thirty pages in, I knew I had to mark that book and keep it.

So today when Amazon reminded me that another of my favorite authors has a book releasing in September, I didn’t hesitate to preorder it. Laini Taylor’s books have all wowed me, most of all her National Book Award finalist Lips Touch. So I’ll be reading my own copy of her next book, pencil in hand.

And I might just have to buy Forever and read it a second time.

Have you ever marked a novel? What books or authors have wowed you enough that you might consider rereading them just to underline your favorite passages?

Leave a comment!

[UPDATE 9/1/11: Maggie Stiefvater gives a great description of what you can learn from a single page of a novel here. I can totally relate to the part where she says the same page in her early days would have had nothing but dialogue. One of the things I’m always working on is adding the right blocking to a scene like that.]

In the Mood: Why Traveling Light Is Impossible When You Go with Your Gut

Last weekend I had the rare opportunity of going to the library with only one child. Instead of juggling three of them, preventing each from making another scream, I got to cater to just the three-year-old and myself, helping him choose a topic he wanted to read about (“ducks,” in this case, which meant we came home with three Jackie Urbanovic books), and having a minute to browse the sale shelves.

The thing about library sale shelves is that bibliophiles have to approach them with caution. Hardbound books for a dollar?? Paperbacks for fifty cents?? Yeah, it can be easy to get carried away — i.e. to carry away more books than your shelves at home can hold. So I have a self-enforced rule that I only buy the ones that speak to me, where something about the book beckons me to own and read it. Often that means I walk away without anything, but last Saturday I latched onto a title that just had to follow me home: Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling.

I mean, how often is a title that cool? You know you would have done the same thing: yanked your very last dollar (the one you’d been thinking of as “parking garage money,” not to be spent otherwise) out of your wallet and thrust it at the librarian (sitting behind the sign saying you could only use your credit card for $3 or more).

Or maybe I just happened to be in the mood for that sort of thing that day.

As I’ve opened the book and read pages from it off and on this week, I’ve thought about how mood-driven reading is for me, how often I abandon books a few pages in not because there’s anything wrong with them but simply because they’re not what I felt like reading at the time. A year ago I admitted on the blog ( that I’d even done that with Pride and Prejudice, which later, once I was in the right frame of mind, became one of my all-time favorite books (of course).

The curse of it is, though, that I end up with way “too many” (a loose term generally applied by non-bibliophilic outsiders). Not only are there bookshelves all over our house, but a precarious pile of them perches on my nightstand (see also my post about reading slumps because I need several books right there, totally accessible, to fulfill whatever reading craving I’m having on a given night, whether fiction or nonfiction, humorous or dramatic, etc.

It’s sort of the same problem I have getting dressed every day: I want to wear what I’m in the mood for, and who can predict that ahead of time?

No wonder I can never manage to pack light when I travel! Not only does my suitcase have to fit an outfit for each possible temperament, but it also needs a book for each one, too (which gets heavy).

This possibly means that it’s about time for me to get a Kindle.

With the holiday season and the travel it involves, how do you manage to have the books you want at hand? What books have you been in the mood for lately? Ducks? The history of spelling? Or something else altogether?

Leave a comment! –>(

p.s. WordPress is giving me trouble creating links right now, which is why they are stupidly clunky at the moment instead of streamlined into the text. Sorry for the clutter! I’m hoping they’ll get the glitch fixed soon.

Upside-down Books and Other Misadventures

Recently I checked out a copy of Beatrice and Virgil from the library, and in the quiet of a kids-in-bed evening I cracked open the hardcover . . . only to discover that the pages inside were upside down. 

The simple experience of having to turn the book around and start from what I’d originally thought was the back intrigued me so much that it had the effect of hooking me on the novel before I’d read a single word inside. It was alarming but in a cool way. 

I showed my husband. I tweeted about it the next day. I mentioned it to my students the next evening. And I read that first evening wanting to know why this book was upside down. 

Within a few pages, I thought I had the answer. The main character is a writer and has an idea to write a two-part book where the two parts meet in the middle — each upside down compared to the other — so that the reader would have to decide which part to read first and will never have a back cover to neatly close on it. He says, 

“Rather, the matter is never finished with; always the reader is brought to a central page where, because the text now appears upside down, the reader is made to understand that he or she has not understood, that he or she cannot fully understand, but must think again in a different way and start all over.” 

Because the book is also trying to look at the Holocaust in a new way, turning over our perceptions of how Holocaust stories “have” to be told, the upside-downness of it made perfect sense to me. 

The other thing I encountered on those early pages was an intense desire to deface my library book by underlining it. Constantly. It seemed every page had a sentence just begging to be marked. I settled for post-it notes for a while and then finally had to set the book aside and order myself a copy so that I could ink it up to my heart’s content. 

Yesterday, the ordered copy arrived, and I opened it with a smile, excited to encounter the upside-down pages once again. 

Except they weren’t upside down. They were disappointingly normal. 

I checked under the dust jacket. Still right-side up. I checked the copyright page in case maybe the upside-down feature was only for first editions and mine was a later edition. But no, mine’s a first edition. 

Puzzled, I retrieved the library copy. My library puts a plastic shield over the dust jacket of hardcovers and then glues the flaps to the insides so that the dust jacket is permanently affixed. I bent the covers back enough to push up the dust jacket and peek at the spine. 

Did you guess already? The only thing upside-down about my library copy was the dust jacket, which some librarian had permanently affixed upside down.

mystery solved, supervised by the hippo figurine

Maybe it was a strangely fitting accident. Or maybe that librarian had read the book and thought it would be appropriate. Maybe someone at the publisher turned the dust jacket of certain copies upside down, so the librarian thought it was meant to be that way. Maybe all the librarians got together and decided to do it because maybe the author wanted it printed upside down and the publisher wouldn’t do it because they thought people wouldn’t buy upside-down books and now it’s up to the librarians to right the wrongs of a capitalist society. Or maybe my library copy is really the only one of its kind and an evolutionary freak that happens to be perfect. 

I’m actually ridiculously excited to send it back into the system where another unsuspecting reader can have the same intriguing experience I did. And I might just turn my own dust jacket upside down, though if I do it myself it’s just not nearly as cool as finding it that way. 

I tried Googling the title and “upside down” to see if it happened to anyone else, but since the words “upside down” are actually in the book, I didn’t turn up much except reviews I don’t want to read yet in case they spoil it for me. 

I also tried thinking of other misadventures where I thought something was one way because it seemed so perfect that way, only to later find the truth less cool. But I’ve got extreme baby brain right now and I can barely remember the thing I meant to do that I was just thinking of five seconds ago. If I do recall an interesting case, though, I’ll add an update at the bottom of the post. 

In the mean time, I’d love to hear your misadventures instead! Ever come across something cool and told everyone how cool it was (hubby, Twitter, students) only to discover you’d gotten it wrong? 

Leave a comment!

Beware of Picture Books You Can’t Stop Reading

Yesterday I went to the library to write. Being the efficient person that I am, I also gathered whatever library books I could find around the house and returned them while I was there.

Then last night, as hubby was getting the boys ready for bed, I heard, “Go find Mrs. Collywobbles. Let’s read Mrs. Collywobbles.”

And then, “I can’t find it, Dad.”

“Keep looking. Maybe it’s behind the bed.”

I got that sinking feeling. You know, the one where you suddenly realize you did something wrong and now you have to admit it to everyone.

“Um, guys. Bad news. I returned it to the library. It was due.”

(Okay, the part about it being due was a half lie. I could have renewed it. But I just wanted to return as many books as I could find because we’re always close to the thirty-book limit. There are always twenty-something library books around our house, and I was trying to decrease that number.)

There was a collective moan of disappointment.

“That wasn’t our book?” hubby asked. “It was a library book?”

We’d been reading it so long, over and over, that it seemed like it belonged to us.

So today I bought it: Beware of the Frog by William Bee, starring Mrs. Collywobbles and her little pet frog, so that hubby can keep reading, night after night, in his best ogre voice, “Dum-dee-dum. Dum-dee-dummy. I’ve got a very, very hungry tummy.”

What books are essential at your house, whether for the kids or yourself, fiction or nonfiction?

Leave a comment!

Compiling a “Reference” Library, or Why Writers Should Read and Own Books

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

~Stephen King’s On Writing

Hooray! What could be a better New Year’s Day activity than book shopping? This morning I’m off for the New Year’s sale at my favorite independent bookstore, armed with a list of titles, two gift cards, and a little bit of budgeted spending money. New year, new books. Hip, hip, hooray!

For the curious, here’s what I’m hoping to bring home:

The first five I’ve already read and have been dying to own. The last three have been so highly recommended by so many people that I’m going to take a leap of faith.

See, my normal pattern is to put every book I hear about on hold at the library, read it, and then buy the ones I can hardly bear to return to the library. In other words, I feel like it’s mandatory to own every book that I love. So with the last three above, I’m just trusting that they’re going to be indispensible as well. And once in a while it’s nice to read my own brand new book on a first read rather than a library copy.

[UPDATE 1/2/10: Actual purchases ended up being If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Catching Fire, Shiver, The Dark Divine, Silksinger, and Skellig by David Almond, which was one that the bookseller recommended. They were out of a couple I wanted, but that was better for the budget, and my birthday’s coming up. I also came home with these other recommendations: Fat Cat by Robin Brande, Alanna by Tamora Pierce, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Hold Still by Nina LaCour. I love independent booksellers! My TBR pile will never run out.]

But that’s sort of a tangent. The real point of this post is this: it’s essential for writers to read and own books!

I almost feel like I’m writing this to my husband in defense of all the money and space I’ve used up on my fiction library, like this is my chance to justify all of that.

So here goes.

One Christmas a while ago, I gave a copy of Life of Pi to my sister-in-law. She’s not an avid reader, but I felt like she’d be somebody who could appreciate good writing when she met it. A little while later she told me this: “Wow. I just read the first few pages, and I feel like now I really get it, like I know what good writing is now.”

Exactly! You have to read good books to know what good books are. And even once you get a feel for what’s involved with good writing, you have to keep reading and keep learning and expanding that definition for yourself.

For example. This week I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I was spellbound. I’ve never been a short story reader, but these short stories had me mesmerized. Susanna Clarke has a gift for storytelling. Even the most minor characters are unique and flawed in interesting ways, and she employs subtleties and implications that make the experience of reading downright gleeful. I learned so much about the craft of writing just by reading it.

But why do I need to own it? Why do I need to take up more bookshelf space when I’m already running short? Isn’t reading it once enough?

Owning books is crucial because great examples from a writer’s genre become that writer’s “reference” library.

Actual reference books, like the kind that describe “how to write”? I own maybe four or five of those. Novels that demonstrate how to write? I own hundreds of those. Those are my “reference” library.

Here’s an example of why. A while ago on Twitter an author I know asked everybody for recommendations of books that alternate between two narrators because the manuscript she’s working on does that. She didn’t ask for books that give directions on how to alternate between two narrators. She asked for books that do it well so she could study and learn from examples.

My “reference” library is what I turn to any time I want ideas of how to manage something well. How do you write a killer first page? Go take your ten favorite books off the shelf and read their first pages. How do you make the voice of your novel come to life? Go pull out books whose voice resonated with you and study them. How do you write a prologue that is also the ending but with a twist that will blow readers away? Go take a look at Water for Elephants.

For me, even though my local library is AMAZING (so good about getting the latest titles right away!), it’s not close enough. When I’m in the middle of writing a scene and I think of something I want to check in a book I’ve read, I want that book to be on my shelf, ten steps away.

So that’s my advice for today: go buy some books!

Never feel ashamed that your house is crammed with them. Never apologize for the weight of them when the movers (or male relatives, or yourself if you’re independent like that) are carting fifty boxes of them to your new larger house once you become rich and famous (ha ha!). This is your job. You are a writer. If you were a chiropractor, you’d have that chiropractic table thing. Dentists have the chair and all the freaky sci-fi-looking equipment around it. You have your books, and they are the mark of your trade. (Plus a laptop or pens and notebooks, but that’s another discussion.)

Oh, and as long as I’m on a soapbox, buy as many books from independent booksellers as you can! Keep the book industry alive. Ask them for recommendations and be amazed at their hand selling prowess. These people know books and love books and deserve to be patronized (hmm, that sounds funny). Buy independent when you can!

And then, the bonus of owning books is that I get to loan them out to friends and spread the joy of reading around.

Why are books essential to you? Which ones have taught you the meaning of good writing? What would your ideal home library be like? Any books on your book-shopping list right now?

Leave a comment!