Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Podcast Interview: Read-Aloud Revival

July 16, 2014 @ 7:05 am | Filed under: Author stuff, Books

Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things interviewed me about my family’s book-crazy lifestyle for her wonderful Read-Aloud Revival podcast.

Read-Aloud Revival podcast


The post includes links to the many books I gushed about (I swear, once you get me started on book recs there’s no stopping me) and a Prairie Thief giveaway. I had a great time chatting with Sarah about how read-alouds work in my family with our many ages of kids, how I do dialects, how we squeeze book time into the various parts of our day, etc. Basically: my favorite topic in the entire world.

While you’re checking out the podcast, you’ll want to bookmark the two Jim Weiss episodes! What a treasure.


Um, yes, I think I can manage that

July 16, 2014 @ 6:45 am | Filed under: Books, These People Crack Me Up

Huck: “You know those Inch and Roly books? Can you get them for me? ALL of them?”


July 9, 2014 @ 6:55 pm | Filed under: Assorted and Sundry, Books

HUCK’S FINGER IS SO MUCH BETTER. Yes, I’m shouting, because HURRAY.


Our attempt to bust the world record for Most Appointments in a Single Summer continues on track: so far this week: dentist (me), audiologist (WB), orthodontist (WB), haircut (me). Two more eye doctor appts next week but at least they’re at the same time. After that things should slow down a little, if by “slow down” you mean “continue at breakneck speed only in a different lane.” Because HOLY CATS IT’S ONLY TWO WEEKS TO COMIC-CON.


My list of things to get done before Comic-Con is ten miles long. Oh, July, you rapscallion, you. Every year you attempt to break me. Last year I went to Colorado and back TWICE in the three weeks before SDCC and I STILL found time to paint my toenails before the con. You think 4,000 medical/dental appointments are going to best me?

(July chortles, rubs hands together gleefully, whispers Just wait until you see what I’ve got in store for you next week, Wiley.)

dear-committee-membersANYHOO. (She says, whistling past the graveyard.) How’s your week been? Read any good books? I gulped down Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, an epistolary novel about an overworked writing professor in a deteriorating English Department at a second-tier college. Nothing cures a beleaguered feeling like reading about someone who’s even more so. This was excellent waiting-room entertainment. The story unfolds entirely through the prof’s letters, most of which are letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, and all of which reveal a great deal more about the letter-writer than the typical LOR. Having a number of friends in English departments similarly strapped and stripped of funds, I enjoyed the book’s pointed, funny, occasionally poignant skewering of the current state of academia and was engaged by Prof. Fitger’s crusty, dogged, oversharing, impertinent personality.

Leaving the Garden

June 30, 2014 @ 9:49 am | Filed under: Books



I read The Secret Garden to Rilla recently. She loved it beyond reckoning, same as I did at her age—same as I do now. During fraught passages, she couldn’t keep still: had to roll around on the bed, wave her legs in the air, hug herself, squeal, stand up and jump. All that emotion had to manifest in movement. It was fascinating to witness the way the book literally moved her. It brought a whole new dimension to my understanding of that expression.


Often, after I’ve read a book aloud to my kids, they take it away and immediately reread it. I thought Rilla might want to do that with Secret Garden but she looked almost shocked by the suggestion.

“No!” she exclaimed. “After you read me a book, I kinda treat it as an artifact too fragile to be touched.”

Well. I’m going to have to think about that. She probably won’t feel that way forever, and I imagine there will come a day when she does curl up with this tome for a delicious, private reread. Maybe around age ten or eleven—she’s only eight, after all. It’s interesting to contemplate, though. Was the experience of this book so fully engaging, such a complete kinesthetic, aural, visual, imaginative absorption that it feels enough? Have you ever experienced a book that way—a first encounter so complete that you never wanted to go back again?

summer: day 3

June 18, 2014 @ 4:03 pm | Filed under: Books, Family, Photos


I’m sitting here wondering if anyone turned off the soaker hose in the tomato garden. I’d like to call it the “vegetable garden” but all I’ve managed this year (so far) is tomatoes. Lots of ‘em, though: orange grape (which sounds oxymoronic but is delicious) and roma.

This morning during my blissful half hour of reading in bed, I decided I wanted to go back to Middlemarch—remember I started it (a beloved reread) months ago? And then got sidetracked? I opened it on my phone and found I had to go back fifty pages or so because I just had to read this one bit, no and that one, oh and that scene where…and eventually decided I wanted to read a hard copy instead; I’m wanting the tactile experience for this one—though you’d think an 800-page behemoth like Middlemarch is the exact kind of tome for which the Kindle was invented. Well, the only resolution I made this year was to indulge my reading whims, so mammoth codex it shall be.

I’d looked for my battered paperback copy back when the urge first struck and came up emptyhanded. We’ve been doing a lot of book purging (sob) to make space, and faded, ancient, cheap paperback copies of classics have been on the kiss-goodbye list (gulp). The reasoning here being that these are books we can read for free on our e-readers. I mean, certain treasured volumes full of margin notes are forever-keepers, but I’m talking some of these ratty, coverless copies that were decades old when we picked them up at used bookstores in the first place. When I couldn’t find Middlemarch I figured ruefully that it must have gone out in the Goodwill box.

So I stopped at the library on the way to piano, the big lovely fairly new main branch in our town. It wasn’t open yet. Later, WB and I walked back over, and I was surprised to discover they didn’t have a copy on the shelf. Must be the surge of renewed popularity thanks to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (which I’ve been in the queue for for ages). Amusingly, the only available copy in our system today is on the shelf at my local branch—the tiny little box of a building we swing by on Saturdays. I meant to drop by on the way home from piano, but I gave a ride to a friend’s daughter and wound up chatting in her front yard until lunchtime.

After lunch, I read a chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the trio and then we had our little bit of quiet reading time. Huck wanted Up Cat to go along with Up Dog. It was in his room, on the board-book shelf. Right next to Middlemarch.

Who knew?

photo (34)

Thick as a board, I guess?

The Writing Process Blog Tour

May 27, 2014 @ 5:29 pm | Filed under: Author stuff, Books, Work in progress, Writing

So, funny story. A few weeks ago my friend Sarah Tomp, whose upcoming YA novel My Best Everything I can’t wait to read, wrote to ask if she could tag me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. It sounded fun, but I was feeling pretty swamped that week, so I thanked her and declined. A day or two later, another local writer friend, Marcie Wessels, asked me the same question, and again I said I appreciated the nod but would have to pass. Well, about a week after that, my pal Edith Hope Fine issued the same invitation! And that very same day, my friend Tanita Davis did one better—she went ahead and tagged me. :)

SleepyTime Me by Edith Hope FineWell, okay, I can take a hint! And what do you know, a holiday weekend rolled around just in time for me to participate. So first: a big thank-you to all four of these generous friends, so eager to share the bloggity fun with me. Do click through on the links above to read their very interesting answers and find out more about their books. (Edith decided to sit out the hop herself, but you guys—I got a sneak preview of her new picture book, Sleepytime Me, illustrated by Christopher Denise, and it is a swooner. This year’s favorite bedtime reading, mark my words. It launches tomorrow! And I happen to know she’s got a companion workbook coming for her excellent Greek and Latin roots book, CryptoMania!, and it’s top-notch. Homeschoolers and teachers, you’re going to love it.)

Okay, so here are the questions, which I actually feel pretty shy about answering. I hardly ever talk about my process.

• What are you working on?

Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare by Melissa WileyGenerally, multiple things at once. The Main Project, always, and then two or three other works-in-various-stages-of-progress, and a scrawly list of ideas. Right now, the Main Project is the book I’ve been laboring over (very much in the childbirth-metaphor sense of the word) for a very. long. time: a historical fiction YA I’m writing for Knopf. It’s a project very close to my heart (involving a good bit of my own family history) and is probably the most challenging book I’ve written yet, in terms of research and subject matter. And I’ll want to talk lots more about it before too long.

So that’s the front-burner book. Then there are the things I work on when that one is being obstreperous: I’m playing with a new Inch and Roly idea, now that Sunny Day Scare has packed its knapsack and gone off into the world to seek its fortune. (They grow up so fast!) And there’s a fantasy novel I play with when historical fiction is besting my brain.

And! And! Very very slowly, very very occasionally, I add a little to a memoir of sorts I’m writing (or thinking of writing, is probably more accurate) about our years in Astoria, New York, when Jane was going through chemotherapy. I have a lot of stories piled up from those days.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

That is a really good, and really hard, question. I feel like in a way it’s a question best answered by readers, not by me about my own work. I like to work with characters who are grappling with ethical dilemmas—Louisa struggling to find a way to clear her father’s name without revealing Angus’s secret and therefore exposing him to probably dangerous public scrutiny (The Prairie Thief); Martha wrecking her dustgown and getting away with it, but fessing up after an internal struggle (Little House in the Highlands). Kids trying to sort out right and wrong when the lines seem fuzzier to them than adults give the impression they are. I think in terms of my style itself, I may work differently (but who knows?) in that I’m hearing the work read aloud as I write—probably in part because read-alouds are such an enormous part of my life. I mean, I’m reading aloud all morning long; I’ve spent nearly nineteen years this way, days full of the written word spoken. I think that gets into your fingers, as a writer: the cadence and lilt of a good read-aloud, the distinct character voices, the aural underscoring the visual images created by the text. I think, too, my having studied as a poet comes into play here. I entered my MFA program as a poet and emerged as a writer of prose fiction, but you can’t get poetry out of your blood.

• Why do you write what you do?

I put this question to Scott, adding lamely that I write the stories I’m burning to write. “I don’t know how to nail it down more accurately than that.” He chuckled. He knows me better than I know myself. “Well, first,” he said, “there’s the pioneer thing—” and he’s right; he doesn’t mean just Pioneers of the American West, though certainly that period is a lifelong fascination of mine and my original concept for Prairie Thief jumped right out of Edwardian England, where I’d envisioned it taking place, and emigrated happily to the Colorado prairie, circa 1880. Scott, who knows what ideas are crammed into my mental Possibilities drawer, was speaking also of my love of all kinds of frontier stories—the Pern books, the Darkover novels, any kind of pushing forward to unknown terrain and making terms with it.

The Prairie Thief by Melissa Wiley“But also,” he continued, “there’s your fascination with miscommunication and injustice. The injustice that arises when someone has been misunderstood. You’re always wanting to set that straight, in your work and in real life.”

As soon as he said it, I could see it: this thread woven through so much of my work. It’s the central conflict of Prairie Thief, of course: a man falsely accused, his daughter intent on clearing his name. And other misunderstandings nested inside that larger one. But also: there’s Martha’s first governess, who doesn’t like her and misreads all her errors as deliberate. I had to bring in Miss Crow, didn’t I, to understand her. :) Over and over in those books, there are miscommunications between family members that lead to conflict. Scott pointed out that Sunny Day Scare, too, plays with this theme: Inch and friends are interpreting a horror in the grass in different ways, and Roly simply has to figure out what the scary thing really is. Even Hanna’s Christmas, my little commercial tie-in from long ago, has Hanna’s parents incorrectly blaming her for all the acts of mischief around the house. This is kind of revelatory, actually, and you can bet I’m going to be pondering it further.

• How does your writing process work?

Ahh, a nuts-and-bolts question. Now I’m in my element. The way I work is married to time. When Jane was a baby and I was first starting out, I had to hurry and write during her naps, sometimes actually wearing her in the sling, though it was hard to type that way. After Rose was born and Scott left his job at DC Comics to stay home and write, I worked longer shifts, a couple of hours at a time. I had very tight deadlines in those deadlines, staggeringly tight as I look back, and had to work with furious efficiency in the spaces available to me. I probably work best that way.

Later still, after Beanie came along, Scott and I settled into a rhythm. My writing time was from 3-6 every day. So again, mega-focus required to stay on task. I started this blog as a way to help me do that: after a day with the kids, spending 20 minutes writing about them helped me transition from mom to writer, and then I could work on the book at hand.

We had a rough year after Wonderboy was born, but that same schedule allowed me to work. It was after Rilla came along that things changed dramatically: Scott took an editing job out here in San Diego, we moved, he was away long hours, I wrote on Saturdays. That’s why The Prairie Thief took so long: years of Saturday afternoons. In 2011, he came back home to freelance (hurrah!) and now I get the whole afternoon and evening to work—meaning both my fiction and my editorial gig at Damn Interesting.

I can’t stand writing by hand. I have complaining wrists. With the current novel, I began working in Scrivener and fell in love—it keeps all my notes, fragments, timelines, character sketches, and primary source material organized and accessible much more handily than any paper system I could contrive. I mean, I really think I’d be lost without it.

I’m a slow writer in that I self-edit ruthlessly, never having managed to do the sort of pour-it-out first drafts that the writing instruction books urge upon you. Dear Anne Lamott, I’ve tried, but I just can’t pull it off. And it’s too bad, because I always write way more than actually belongs in a book. I’ll labor over huge chunks of manuscript, polishing at the word-level, and then wind up ripping them out, a stitch at a time (agony) to hide in a file somewhere. If I were to gather up all my Martha fragments, I’d probably have enough for a whole nother book. (Sorry, it’s not in the cards.)

Every day, I dread starting. After I’ve made myself enter the cave, hours pass in a blink, like Narnia time.

I think I probably love the research stage best of all. I’m happiest with all my papers and books spread around me on the bed, and some old newspaper enlarged on my screen. An orchard robbery in 1817; the constable arrested “a man named Peter Twist and two well-dressed women.” What’s the story there? No one can tell me, so I’ll have to make it up.

Up next:

Now I’m supposed to tag some writer friends. Laurel Snyder (The Longest Night, Bigger than a Breadbox, Seven Stories Up) and Jennifer Ziegler (Sass and Serendipity, How Not to Be Popular, and the hot-off-the-presses Revenge of the Flower Girls—how’s that for a great title?? both said yes, so look for their replies in a week or so. I’m also tagging Chris Barton (Shark Vs. Train, The Day-Glo Brothers, Can I See Your ID?) and my dear friend Anne Marie Pace (Vampirina Ballerina, Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover, A Teacher for Bear), in case they’d like to play along. But no pressure, guys! (See paragraph 1, above.)

And Sarah, Marcie, Edith, Tanita: thanks for tagging me. I had fun!

Midweek reading notes

May 21, 2014 @ 8:01 pm | Filed under: Books, Picture Book Spotlight

It is Wednesday, isn’t it? I’m off kilter somehow.

My Name is ElizabethEvery now and then one of my littles will shout “ELIZABETH!”—I would say ‘for no apparent reason,’ because it’s always a non sequitur, but there is a reason and it’s very apparent: what they mean is “I want to read My Name Is Elizabeth! Elizabeth doesn’t like being called Lizzie, Liz, Beth, or Betsy, and although my two youngest children have short names that don’t lend themselves to nicknaming, they wholly sympathize with Elizabeth’s plight, and approve of her insistence on proper nomenclature.

(They also approve—heartily—of the exception she makes for her little brother.)

Whenever this book is rediscovered, I seem to be called upon to read it several times a day for a week or so. This has been one of those weeks. I’m not complaining. :)


Just finished e. lockhart’s We Were Liars. Utterly unsettling. I mean that in a good way. More on it later.


And a heads-up for you.

I got an email from FutureLearn about this upcoming course—Literature of the English Country House—and I honest-to-God squealed.

We’ll be using a wide range of texts spanning the history of literature from Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ to Oscar Wilde’s ‘Canterville Ghost’. Along the way we will examine sections from a play by Shakespeare, poetry by Margaret Cavendish, and brief passages from novels by Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens. We will even look at fiction by a country house resident Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Starts June 2. Thought you might like to know.

Poetry Friday: The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes

May 16, 2014 @ 7:41 pm | Filed under: Books, Poetry

The Dream Keeper by Langston HughesThe Dream Keeper
by Langston Hughes

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamer,
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

SUCH a great poetry class with my Journey North kids today. Iambic meter with lots of examples; personification & anthropomorphism; Langston Hughes. Lots of laughter as they thought up ending lines for an unfinished poem in iambic tetrameter. Only three more meetings to go in this short six-week session, before we break for the summer. It’s gone so fast! We’ll pick up again in a bit, though.

For the Hughes poems, I used this beautiful collection: The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, with absolutely gorgeous scratchboard illustrations by Brian Pinkney.

 This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is hosted by Elizabeth Steinglass.

Booknotes in early May

May 8, 2014 @ 4:16 pm | Filed under: Books, Commonplace Book


You know how you have that friend you used to talk to on the phone all the time, every day practically, so that even though you lived hundreds of miles apart, you were totally up on all the daily details of each other’s lives? And then along comes a busy week, maybe two, and you play a few rounds of phone tag, and suddenly there’s SO MUCH to catch up on that you know you’re going to need an hour, probably more, who are we kidding, and so you’re both waiting for a nice long chunk of time and meanwhile more life is happening and you’re never ever going to be able to catch each other up on all of it? Yeah, that’s how I’m feeling about my book log today. :)

For a few weeks there I was trotting along at such a nice clip, recording everything—not only books finished, which I’ve been faithfully logging since 2008, but fragments and sections of books, history and science chapters read to the kids, picture books, substantive internet articles, even individual poems. I’ve never kept track of my reading to such a granular degree before, and I was really enjoying it—both as a chronicle of the many branchings of my interests, and as a somewhat, for me, revelatory indication of the sheer amount of reading, challenging and otherwise, that I was doing all along but somehow not “counting.” Sigh, I only read two books this month, I might think, looking a year from now at my GoodReads tally for April 2014, forgetting the quantities of poetry I devoured that month (just no complete books of poetry, so they don’t qualify for a GR entry), the hundred-odd pages of mid-19th century American history and 17th-century science my girls and I tackled together, the Scientific American articles, the half a novel that didn’t hold me, the five or six opening chapters I sampled on Kindle, the dozens of picture books enjoyed with my younger three, the lecture transcripts, the Damn Interesting articles, the AV Club reviews. Of course it all counts. It all goes to the shaping of me, the stretching of me. My old book log, the finished-books-only kind, presents a comically, unrecognizably skewed picture. Presents this skewed picture to me, I mean—I’m not supposing that anyone else is troubling themselves about it ;) —but future me will be much hazier about what riches were crammed in between those gaps in the record, the blank spaces between The Tuesday Club Murders and The Wheel on the School.

I’ll want, you know, to remember how that April (this April) was the month of Donne and Herbert, and of The Secret Garden, and of The Little Fur Family and The Americans (the TV show, not the James novel) and Beginning Theory—how way led to way, and reading up on Donne turned into teaching a poetry class, and how things we were reading in The Story of Science kept cropping up on the new Cosmos the very next night, and vice versa.

Until I began the granular logging in March (was it March?), I hadn’t realized how much reading was happening in the margins. Then I missed a day, and the next day there was more to catch up on, and so on and so on, and there went April. All this to say I’m going to start over (again) and see how long I can keep it up this time—and if I miss a day, I’ll let it go, like a balloon floating away into the sky, and not lose hold of the next day’s balloon in an attempt to retrieve the first.

(But if I remember what color the lost balloons were, I can say so. I remember some of yesterday’s balloons.)

Yesterday I happened upon a long piece called “Selling Henry James,” a Northwestern University professor’s account (in 1990) of his experience teaching a James seminar to undergraduates one quarter. Very enjoyable read. I got there via a Jamesian rabbit trail, which branched off a Virginia Woolf rabbit trail, which started actually last fall (and now I can’t remember why; didn’t log it!) and was rediscovered—oh, gosh, I’m losing track of the meanderings. I’ve been watching these Milton lectures at Open Yale, and I think it may have been something the professor said in one of those that made me jump back to Woolf, and then to Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, which I’ve never read til now—it took me most of last week to get through the two introductions and the first chapter, but I don’t mean “get through” in a negative sense, it was fiercely interesting reading, and amusing in that I realized, a little way in, that this is the text which most deeply informed the women’s lit class I took in college, though Madwoman itself was never assigned. That was the fall of 1988, fourteen years after Madwoman was published, and our professor was in her first year of teaching. I’ve had fun fitting these pieces of the puzzle together.

Earlier this week, still on the Woolf trail, simultaneous with Madwoman, I landed on this site and read the “Women’s Images in Literature” lectures in their entirety. Mostly for review, but like everyone I have gaps. Came away with yet more books to cram into the impossible queue.

The picture book Huck keeps asking for this week, and which I don’t mind reading over and over—the art is so lush, the colors (deep blue and gold) unusual, and the story sweet—is The Bear’s Song, which I was so glad to see make it to our list of finalists in last year’s CYBILs contest.

Rilla and I are nearly finished with The Secret Garden. Mrs. Sowerby had to conspire to send the children more food today, they’re starving all the time. I don’t want it to end.

The girls and I are on to Robert Burns now, today was “To a Mouse.” I always do “To a Mouse.”

We’ve returned to our French songs—we forgot about them for a while—”Promenons Nous Dans le Bois” and “Les Éléphants” from the on the French for Kids: Cha Cha Cha CD, mostly. And a lot of Robert Burns songs on YouTube, and (for no particular reason) this rendition of Waltzing Matilda.

The Henry James article left me in a James mood (no, I suppose the mood was already creeping over me and that’s why I googled it?) so last night at bedtime I barraged my Kindle with his books, and this morning I fell into The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve never read (I’ve only read Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, and Washington Square) and can’t wait for bedtime tonight so I can (try to) return to it. The parentheses are because I’m still not managing nighttime reading, only crossword puzzles. Two nights ago I tried to read in bed. I remember nothing, but next morning when I opened the Kindle app on my phone, there was the E.M. Forster Collection open to his short story, “The Celestial Omnibus,” which I’d never read before. I fall asleep, and my finger hits the touchscreen, and the next day I find surprises, like this one. Forster was near the top of the library screen because of my binge in March. I read the Omnibus story and the next one, the one about the beech wood, “The Other Kingdom,” I think it’s called?, and then I had to go back and reread the last chapter of Howards End. (A part of me is always rereading the last chapter of Howards End.)

Before I end (with no conclusion), a James note and a James quote. The note is that, settling into (or being inexorably pulled into, I had no choice) Turn of the Screw and working, as one must, to keep up with the twistings of the sentences, I had this sudden rush of comfort—I don’t know how else to put it—of relief, really, in the realization that a thing about Henry James is that you can trust him to get you there in the end. To the end of the sentence, I mean. It’s going to have forty parts but in the end they will all hold together. I didn’t comprehend that the first time I read him, in my twenties. It’s like knowing a piece of music is going to resolve at the end of the phrase. The final chord will bring you back to the ground. Perhaps I’m a more patient reader now (now that I’m resigned to not getting through ALL THE BOOKS), or perhaps I’ve learned enough about craft over the years to know when a writer deserves my confidence. And I mean this observation only about syntax, about style—I don’t expect James to hand me the plot resolution I crave, he made that very clear at the start of our relationship (oh Isabel!)—but I find there’s an unlooked-for joy in trusting him on style.

And the quote: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”