On Creativity: Karen Cushman

Karen CushmanA few months ago, I cried out for help. I was finding it profoundly difficult to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm were buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggled to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how might I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? How could I free myself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

In other words, I asked, as Anita Silvey did, “What difference does a children’s book make in the midst of all of this political calamity?” Feeling distraught and discouraged, I went where I so often go for guidance—to my fellow writers. And I received generous, loving, thoughtful, eloquent responses.

Will Alexander recommended music; Ginny Wolff, laughter; Susan Hill Long, imagination; and David LaRochelle, honesty and kindness. Susan Fletcher found “sideways wisdom” through her writing. Margi Preus reminded me just to put one word after another, and Anita Silvey, like the rest of us, does it for kids. Susan Cooper and Gennifer Choldenko wrote about hope and Marion Dane Bauer, wonder. Jen Bryant, Dorothy Love, Avi, Karen Blumenthal, and Nikki Grimes stressed the need for engagement and writing out of our struggles.

I now add them to my company of inspirations, people whose words keep me afloat, like Mary Oliver:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, in her “Speech to the Young”:

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Like Berthold Brecht, poet and playwright whose words found me in this dark time:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

Yes, there will be singing about the dark times. With our voices and our words. In this dark time, whatever we may write will come from that place. And as the 1st/2nd century Mishnah sage, Rabbi Tarfon, whose quote is calligraphed and hanging on my wall, said: You are not required to complete the task. Neither are you free to abstain from it.

You must stay drunk on writing, said Ray Bradbury, who has so often said what I need to hear, so reality cannot destroy you.

The upshot is my despair and anger have not passed. Until we live in a perfect world, I imagine it won’t pass. But thanks to all who offered wisdom, compassion, and inspiration, I can write despite such feelings. Or maybe because of them. And because of you.

Now excuse me, I have a book to finish.

On Creativity: Gennifer Choldenko

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.


Gennifer Choldenko writes:

Gennifer Choldenko

There’s no doubt we’re living in trying times. I’m still reeling from the shock of yesterday’s news, when a new affront, even more disastrous, pops up on my phone. If fiction writers concocted the events in today’s newspaper, the plot would be hair-brained, Gerry-rigged and completely unbelievable. The characters leading our country would be too simple, too clearly deranged. Readers would not suspend their disbelief.

But the question is … how do I write during these confusing and troubling times?

From an intellectual standpoint I could say we have to write because otherwise we’re allowing the evil to wrap its fingers around our hearts and our minds. The Boston Marathon has gone on every year since the bombing in 2013. Ariana Grande is planning a benefit concert for Manchester. Charlie Hebdo is publishing every Wednesday just as it did before 2015.

We have to write because otherwise we’re pushing the mute button on our muses. And it is our voices that will set us free. And though I believe this, that isn’t really why I’m writing well right now.

I’m writing well because the worse things get, the more important writing is for me. Writing is my refuge. It’s the place I go to hide from the world.

I write for years trying to deepen my understanding of the complex environment of my characters. And in the universe I create, my characters grapple with skewed or upside-down morality such as we are experiencing today.

But when I’ve gone through the rough and tumble, uncovered the secrets, fears, lies, and downright insanity of my stories at the end, there is hope. I write for that hope. I need it now more than ever.


Gennifer Choldenko is the author of the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts and the two books that continue Moose and Natalie Flanagan’s story. She writes novels and picture books, the most recent of which is Dad and the Dinosaur, illustrated by Dan Santat. Visit Gennifer Choldenko’s website.


Books set in California

Question: You grew up in California and two of your books are set there, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple and The Loud Silence of Francine Green. Do you have favorite books written about the state?

A Room Made of Windows, Eleanor Cameron—part of a series about Julia Redfern who lives in Berkeley in the 1920s.

We Were Here, Matt de la Pena—YA that “follows a journey of self-discovery by a boy who is trying to forgive himself in an unforgiving world.”

The Al Capone books by Gennifer Choldenko

Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell


Thoughtful Nerds

Catherine, Called BirdyI hope you’ll share my delight at the gift of words from librarians, authors, and poets who are helping me celebrate the 20th anniversary of Catherine, Called Birdy. Thanks to everyone who contributed (librarians Edie Ching and Peggy Jackson, poet Julie Larios, authors Gennifer Choldenko, Barbara O’Connor, Augusta Scattergood, and Caroline Starr Rose), to the Nerdy Book Club, and to Kirby Larson who rallied them all together.