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Mars, Stars, Curiosity

19 Aug

She didn’t want to go far, just out of the trees so that she could see the stars. They always eased her loneliness. She thought of them as beautiful creatures, burning and cold; each solitary, bleak, and silent like her.

–Kristin Cashore, FIRE

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Night sky by Michael McDonough

I’ve been thinking a lot about outerspace recently. You know, since the whole Mars thing and all. That quote from Fire is one that resonated with me right away, and that comes to mind a lot. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleak part isn’t really what I mean. Rather, what I always come back to is the idea of looking up at the stars to ease loneliness.

One of the things I miss most about living outside the city is being able to go outside most nights, and look up, and see right there how expansive the universe is. There’s so much out there. And we can see light from thousands–millions–of years from the past. It makes me feel small, but in a good way. Whatever is stressing me out, whatever’s making me anxious, whatever I might be angry about, it’s not the whole world. It’s one small piece of something so much bigger. And whatever is thrilling me, exciting me, that’s part of something bigger, too. Another line I love is “The universe is not made of atoms. It’s made of tiny stories.” (I don’t know who said it, which drives me crazy, so if you do, leave it in a comment!) It’s calming and centering for me to look up at the stars and think about all of the stories that are out there, happening alongside my own.

And now there’s a machine on Mars shooting lasers at rocks and sending us back photos. A whole new story beginning and one we know through a robot some scientists put on another planet with their minds. It’s incredible.

Think about how many stories are traveling through space together, sometimes intersecting with ours.

Since it’s rare to see a sky full of stars here in NYC, the Brooklyn Heights promenade’s become my go-to place to remind myself of the bigger picture and all the other stories happening around me. Watching the lights come on–bright and silent and beautiful, each its own galaxy–is almost as good.

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Photo by me

listen: there’s a hell

of a good universe next door; let’s go

–EE Cummings

My New Hero

3 May

Last night, I went to a Q&A with Joan Ganz Cooney. The name doesn’t ring a bell? Well, that’s okay, because I didn’t know it until fairly recently, either, but she is one of the people behind Children’s Television Workshop, and thus, Sesame Street. Yes, behind the scenes, which is part of why she’s one of my new heroes.

Also, look how awesome and stylish she is.

The other parts are that she’s whip smart, still incredibly sharp, and so dedicated to what she does. She was interviewed by Leslie Stahl (of 60 Minutes) at the Museum of the Moving Image. Admittedly, it can be hard for me to get excited about going to a museum in Queens after work, but this was one of the best events I’ve been to in ages. Ms. Cooney was inspiring and hearing about how Sesame Street began firsthand… I mean, how cool is that? And, friends, Bob and Susan were in the audience. They were only three rows in front of me.

There are a lot of reasons I found what Ms. Cooney had to say illuminating, both personally and professionally. What she and her team did back in the ’60s was create something that she referred to as “educating, edifying, and entertaining” using the newest medium of the time, and filling a huge gap in education and entertainment for children. It’s not entirely unlike the place where publishing for children is today. Our goal might be slightly different (story at the fore, rather than education), but not much so. And we’re at the edge of another new frontier, needing to figure out how to engage kids and fill the gaps.

But the personal part of what I learned tonight is just how effective Sesame Street has always been at achieving its goals and never, ever talking down to children and never misrepresenting life. Ms. Cooney referred to the episode in the ’80s that dealt with death, and as a kid who was watching during that time, I knew immediately, even though she never named the character, that she meant Mr. Hooper. She told us how their researchers and cognitive psychologists told them that, yes, kids could handle hearing about death, but that it had to be done directly, and the most important thing for young kids to understand about it is that the person is not coming back.

I don’t remember watching that episode when I was four, but I remember knowing that Mr. Hooper died. I very very vaguely remember talking about it with my mom. And as Ms. Cooney spoke about their work on that episode, I realized that it was most likely when I learned that death meant someone wasn’t coming back. My grandfather died rather suddenly not long before this episode would have aired, and I can only imagine how much it must have helped my parents talk to me and my younger brother about death. How powerful something that’s crafted with such care and so specifically to help teach children can be.

So, thanks, Ms. Cooney, and Jim Henson, and Bob and Susan and Big Bird and everyone for what you’ve given to all of us. I hope my friends and I can look back on the work we do with similar pride in 40 years.

Why I <3 A Wrinkle in Time

13 Feb

I’ve been thinking about this post for quite a long time. You see, A Wrinkle in Time was never one of the books I would have said was a favorite when I was a kid. And yet, the more I think about it, and when I’ve reread it, I realize that it’s one of the books that has most shaped my view of the world. While I hate the question “What book changed your life?” because I believe that every book changes my life, this is one of the answers. So it seems like it’s finally time to fiddle around with articulating why, on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication and at least 20 years since I first read it.

I clearly remember the day my mom picked it up from a bookstore shelf and handed it to me, saying we should get it because I would probably like it. We were somewhere that had a bigger bookstore than our own mall, which was always exciting for me. (Yes, nerd, I know.) My mom was big on the Newbery  stickers, and was a big reader herself. The cover was totally unappealing, it must be said. It was this one:

THAT IS NOT MRS. WHATSIT, and that’s all I have to say.

There was a terrific op-ed by Pamela Paul in the New York Times last week that sums up perfectly what this book and Meg Murry did. Meg is one of the ultimate heroines for bookish girls: “Meg harbors doubts about her own intellectual abilities, and her exacting expectations rub off on the reader. If anything, the book enchants readers who might not entirely grasp its concepts with the delight in not knowing; the realization that even the most know-it-all kids do not, in fact, have all the answers and that certain questions are worth asking.”

And that was one of the important things for me, for sure. But perhaps more what this book did for me was make real life–science–magical. I have always been a fantasy reader, and I read a lot of ghost stories in this era of my reading life, too. And suddenly, Madeleine L’Engle showed me tesseracts, and what existing in the second dimension might be like, and added onto it Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, plus the idea that a star might sacrifice itself to save us all from darkness. And the idea that like and equal are not the same thing.  In Anna Quindlen’s introduction to one of the newer editions, she mentions the “fiction of science.” Perhaps that’s what I truly responded to as a kid–and still do now–that fiction, science, and magic…they are all the same thing.

In this world that Madeleine L’Engle created, too, it’s okay to be bright; unapologetically, incredibly brilliant, regardless of your age, and the adults treat the children and teenagers as intellectual equals. The dangers and difficulties are brutal and harsh. Nothing is softened for anyone, no matter his or her age. Truths are told. And they must be faced. At the celebration of Wrinkle in Time‘s anniversary this weekend, one of the many pithy things said was that Madeleine L’Engle believed that we must dare to disturb the universe. A video interview of Ms. L’Engle was shown, and she also said in it, “A good story always teaches something, but not if you plan to. It has to happen.” She knew how to do that, because she gave us Meg, in all her faults, and in all her love for the other characters, and she gave us a journey to go on with Meg.

In her Newbery speech, Madeleine L’Engle says, “A book, too, can be star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”

Her book certainly expanded mine.

Remembering.

11 Sep

I have stayed away from most tv, radio, and internet news today, and I hesitated even to write a post. I have always been conflicted about how to pass this anniversary each year. Part of me feels that this day doesn’t belong to me–I’d only been a New Yorker for one week on 9/11/01, and I didn’t have any loved ones in or near the World Trade towers that day. But another part knows that this day belongs to all of us, because our view of the world as a city, a country, and as human beings changed ten years ago.

And one of the things that I learned on 9/11 was that it doesn’t matter if you’ve been in this city for your whole life, for months, or for only hours–if you are here in a moment in which we all need each other, you are a New Yorker, and every other New Yorker is a person you can lean on.

Today, instead of sitting in front of my tv, I lived. I had brunch with friends I’ve known since college. Two of whom have two-year-olds. I got a picture of my 7-week-old nephew in a Steelers jersey and showed him off to everyone. I watched the “Isaac & Ishmael” episode of The West Wing. I did a little work.

And what I keep coming back to is watching my friends’ kids, and my nephew, whose entire lives will be lived in a post-9/11 world, and what else they might see. This is, I imagine, something every generation feels as they watch a new one being born. And so I am glad that what I do is help to give these children stories. Because we need stories to survive. Stories about first days of school, and friends, and families, and losing a first tooth. Stories about fear and courage, loyalty, and discovering who we are. Stories that show us experiences different from our own and ideas that widen our perceptions. Stories that show us we aren’t alone.

As Josh said in the West Wing episode (and come on, who could say anything better than Josh Lyman/Aaron Sorkin?): “Learn things, be good to each other. Read the newspapers, go to the movies, go to a party, read a book. In the meantime, remember pluralism. You want to get these people? You really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting more than one idea.”

I think as long as we have stories and each other, we’re going to be okay.

 

When I say I’ve always loved to read . . .

23 Jan

I really do mean always.

Me (age a few months) & my dad

Around age 3ish, I think.

About age 4 or 5, maybe.

Reading with Dad & Nik

Age 11 on Dad's truck

So it might be no surprise that this discovery on Friday quickly became one of my favorite things on the internet: “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl.”

The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. . . . You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied.

Belief

25 Dec

I’m a believer. I know that there are things I cannot see, or prove, or taste, touch, hear, or smell that undeniably exist. And tonight is a night when you can sense those things perhaps a little more than any other night of the year. It’s important, I think, to believe in the magic of a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, and to listen for sleigh bells chiming or a hoof pawing on the roof. There is nothing like being a kid on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. And because we can believe in this myth, we can believe in so much else–like, say, a baby being born under a star in a manger.

As the famous letter says, how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. We have to believe in the intangibles.

I believe in light in darkness.

I believe in family.

I believe in friendship.

I believe in generosity.

I believe in God.

I believe in magic, science, creativity, and inspiration.

I believe in joy.

I believe in the power of stories.

I believe in understanding someone without words, in connection, in empathy and sympathy and support, in companionship.

I believe in dedication and in trust.

I believe in laughter.

I believe in knowledge.

I believe in love.

I believe in goodness.

I believe in people.

And I most definitely believe in Santa Claus. I always have and I always will.

Reverb10: Friendship

16 Dec

The inimitable Gwen Bell and two cohorts started a month-long initiative to reflect on 2010 called Reverb10. Each day one person contributed a prompt for bloggers to jump off from. And today was my prompt. So I thought maybe I should, you know, also reflect upon it. :)

December 16 – Friendship How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst?

Whenever I encounter the question “What couldn’t you live without?” my answer is my friends. And I’ve been very lucky in my friendships. I’m still friends with the girl who was my very first friend. (Our moms became friends when they were pregnant with us, and her birthday is almost exactly one month after mine, so we have known each other our whole lives.) I’m still friends with the girl who would come to my house after preschool till her mom got off work when we were three. (We also took ballet together until we were in middle school.) I’m still friends with my clan from high school. I’m still friends with my crew from college. And I have made so many friends in this New York part of my life, too, both within the publishing industry and outside of it. And when I say I’m friends with all of these people, I mean really friends, not just casual acquaintances who still keep in touch occasionally. They are my people; the ones who have been beside me in both the worst and best times of my life; the ones who I will stand beside through anything that happens to them. No matter what. Because once people matter to me, they matter forever. I get attached, and I’m incredibly loyal, and I can’t ever stop caring about people. So my friends are stuck with me. I think they’re okay with that.

But that’s not really what the prompt asks. It asks specifically about this year. And in this year, I have been constantly blown away by how we all can change and grow and yet stay connected and never lose ourselves.

Suddenly, I’ve hit the time in my life when my friends are getting married and having babies. Three of four of my high school girls have all had children in the past year and a half. How odd to be the parents when we all hang out rather than the kids! Everything has changed . . . and yet nothing has changed either. We’re all still the same girls we were at sixteen hanging out in our own parents’ basements, watching scary movies and over-analyzing the boys we had crushes on.

 

Sadly, I don't have any high school pictures of us scanned (yet), but this one's a few years old. It'll have to do.

And one of my best friends from college got married over the summer, which meant I got to see a big bunch of my college people all at once. Again, so much has changed, and yet, we’re all just as comfortable and ridiculous with each other as we always were. It was like no time at all had passed in the nine years since we all saw each other every day. And this new guy, whom my friend loves and who loves her just as much as we all do, was instantly part of the circle from the very first moment we all met him.

It makes me laugh every time.

These are just two call-outs of so many I could choose from. I hope that every single one of my friends knows how important they have been to me in 2010 and how much they make me look forward to 2011.

So. Now you know why I’m always saying that I love books with strong friendships in them, too.

Who knew I’d still be thinking about high school English?

13 Dec

In high school, I was in honors English. (Big surprise, right?) As part of the track, during my junior year, Essay Writing was a required elective. Junior year honors English was widely feared. I mean, junior year is already stressful, since everyone is always telling you that it’s the year your grades matter to colleges. And one of the toughest teachers taught the honors English class. Plus that whole Essay Writing thing. We had to read Classic Works of Literature, and then write five page papers on them.

Sure, now, that seems like a breeze, after having written a 50-page thesis in college and writing editorial letters that are sometimes more than five pages. But back then, it was an intimidating thought.

But want to know a secret? I loved every single minute of those classes. Both remain two of the most challenging classes I’ve ever taken, for the level I was at then. The best kind of challenging–the kind that made me realize I could think and talk about the books I read. Largely because I had two pretty amazing teachers.

I had a lot of great English and literature teachers all through grade school, high school, and college. All of them are part of the reason I discovered that being an editor of children’s books is what I love and helped me to get where I am now, actually doing it. Mrs. Deeter in eighth grade drilled correct grammar into us, and it’s still helping me every day. Mrs. Higgins in the seventh grade made sure we were all read at least one book of literary merit per marking period and wrote a report on it. (I read a lot more than that. But somehow eluded Up a Road Slowly, which every other girl in the class ended up reading at some point. Someday I’m going to sit down with that one.) In college, Judy Gill taught me how to talk to other people about their writing, and also made sure I wrote with confidence in my own opinions–no wishy-washy writing got past her. Carol Ann Johnston and Wendy Moffat taught me how to make a firm argument, and how to poke holes in one that was flabby.

But Mrs. Gridley (who taught me English both freshman and sophomore year, as well as Essay Writing) was the very first teacher who made me realize that this reading and writing stuff was something that I’m good at. The very first book we read in Essay Writing was The Great Gatsby. We spent a few weeks reading and talking about it, and then it was time to write our first essay. Mine was about the symbolism of the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. A few days after we handed them in, I was walking down the hall between classes with one of my friends, and I heard Mrs. Gridley say from right behind us, “Who knew Martha Mihalick had such a strong voice!” She’d read my essay, either the night before or earlier that day. (It’s probably key to know that I was very shy and quiet in high school.) And she thought it was good.

That moment has stuck with me ever since. I’d never had anyone tell me outright that my opinions about what I read were well-thought-out and that they mattered. In college, while I was writing a paper, I would hear her in my head, and sometimes I even still do.

And Miss Sarosi taught the dreaded honors English that year (and taught me for AP English the next year). What made that class (well, both that and AP) so hard was that junior year was the year we had to start thinking about literature for ourselves. Miss Sarosi didn’t spoon feed us what the symbolism, allusions, themes, etc, were. We had to use our brains and come up with them on our own. And I always felt that whatever it was we came up with, those interpretations were valid…as long as we could back them up. (You see why having Essay Writing in tandem with this class worked so well.) That class made me feel like I was an adult when it came to reading and writing. Miss Sarosi pushed me to be the best reader I could be.

I guess what all of this is to say, simply, is that a good teacher is invaluable, and can shape who you become. Having teachers who believed in me is something that I’m thankful for every day.

Cat Sitting

1 Aug

I have a friend’s cat at my apartment for two weeks. He likes to “help” me work.

Find me over here today.

24 Jun

For the Greenwillow Blog today, I wrote about how I got to Greenwillow.

You can find it over here.

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