My father loved California and the Heat. He’d do cannonballs Into the neighbors swimming pool And float with only his nose, His belly, and his toes Above the water.
My mother sat in the shade. With the other wives. They drank martinis, Painted their toenails, And talked about womanly things.
My brother was as pale and thin As a wisp of smoke But he could run like the wind. He found three boys his age In our new neighborhood And played basketball and baseball, Or just ran, fast as he could, Animated by youth and happiness And friends.
I was the oldest girl By far In the neighborhood, A block full of babies and Boys.
I’d swim 100 laps because I could And because it pleased my father And then escape inside, Put lotion on my sunburned nose, And read.
I was more lonely than I knew. The loneliness came in flashes And I swallowed it inside. I was out of place, not good enough, Strange and foreign, Marked like the laundry my Irish mother Didn’t get clean enough, Like I, too, should be hanging on the attic, God’s attic.
My uncle Stooge’s pigeons could go far away and still find their way home But not me.
So I read. And I wrote. I wondered and remembered, Told myself stories I needed to hear, Stories where I was the hero, the star, The popular girl, the tap dancer Or the opera singer. Stories where I wore tight skirts and black flats Like the other girls Instead of brown oxfords and Puffed sleeves.
I learned the joy of making things up.
I wrote about outsiders, Like Santa Claus going down the wrong chimney On Christmas Eve And finding himself in a Jewish home. I wrote about the handsomest boy in school Falling in love with the shy, bookish girl. And I wrote about masks, And painted faces, And swallowing feelings.
Writing was a place to put my sadness And my joys, My fears And tenuous hopes.
I loved receiving this review for the new middle-grade anthology, Totally Middle School (Delacorte, ed. by Betsy Groban). I hope you’ll discover the wide variety of stories within this book, many of them the right length for a classroom read-aloud, and all of them engrossing for reading on your own.
“Featuring an eclectic mix of short stories from a number of beloved authors, this collection explores three topics—“Family,” “Friends and Fitting In,” and “Finding Yourself”—in a variety of formats, from poems to comic panels. Margarita Engle takes on the “dreaded/ dreadful/ deadline-looming/ first-in-my-lifetime/ Middle School/ Mixer,” while Katherine Paterson and granddaughter Jordan offer advice-laden Facetime and text exchanges between two cousins (“organize, organize, organize”). A David Wiesner comic visualizes finding one’s place in an intimidating new setting, and Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin’s story, told in part from a dog’s perspective, considers cross-species family life. The stories look at eras and cultural differences, as well, from Gary Schmidt’s searing story about a boy’s neighbor heading off to the Vietnam War, to Hena Khan’s present-day tale of a Pakistani immigrant connecting with her new classmates. The collection, “dedicated to middle schoolers everywhere” (“This, too, shall pass”), deals honestly and sensitively with this volatile time.” (Publishers Weekly)
What do you do when you’re stuck on a writing project?
I don’t sit at my desk and try to push mashed potatoes through a keyhole. I do something else. Walk, putter in the garden, play computer solitaire, eat an orange, do the laundry, nap, or work on a different project. My subconscious seems to work on the problem without me, and eventually I find a way back in.
Do you remember your first exposure to medieval history? What clicked with you about that time?
In 1965 and many years after, I attended Renaissance Faires and was enchanted by the color, the music, the people, the language and food and life. I transported the fair in my mind to the middle ages and held the memory tightly for 25 years until it blossomed in Catherine Called Birdy.
Do you recall a particular book that your family enjoyed reading out loud when your daughter was young?
Yes! The brilliant, subversive How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban, with fabulous illustrations by Quentin Blake, in which Tom teaches the Captain and his sportsmen about the value of fooling around. My husband could, and probably still can, do all the voices. His Captain Najork was splendid, though he excelled at Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong. For years “Fool around, Tom!” was a watchword around our house.
Have a listen to Quentin Blake, the illustrator, about why he enjoys this book so much
I’d like to add that Fungus the Bogeyman and Leo the Late Bloomer tie for second.
This month, I’m answering frequently asked questions.
Here’s the first:
What’s the one book that pops into your mind first when you think of books you read when you were young? What do you remember most about that book?
One book? No way. It has to be a three-way tie: Blue Willow, by Doris Gates, the story of a migrant girl who longs for a permanent home; Cotton in My Sack, Lois Lenski, about migrant pickers in the cotton fields; and Strawberry Girl, also by Lois Lenski, wherein a family moves to Florida to start a strawberry farm
I remember these books to this day. They opened my eyes to another world: other times, other places, and other lives. I could see beyond the boundaries of my own experiences and relate to characters much different from me. Apparently my family, my neighborhood, my problems, were not the only way of life. At ten, that blew me away! And each book is a coming of age story concerned with the search for home, topics that I seem to write about over and over myself.
The following is an interview with author Karen Cushman about the 1999 movie-making experience of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, starring Glenn Close, Robert Pastorelli, and Meat Loaf, as well as Jena Malone, who played California “Lucy” Whipple.
Be sure to view the photos at the end of this interview.
We recently watched The Ballad of Lucy Whipple on The Hallmark Channel. Having read the book, this felt like a fairly faithful retelling of the movie. We feel very lucky that you’ve agreed to let us ask you about your part in the making of this made-for-television movie.
Q: Glenn Close and Craig Anderson are the executive producers of this movie. You are listed as co- producer. How did you get that title?
A: It was in the contract. I assume my agent handled that. A few years ago, I saw a movie whose title I forget staring Tim Robbins , I think, about making a movie. The one scene I remember, for obvious reasons, was something about defining an assistant or co-producer as a title the producer gives to his girlfriend to keep her happy and out of the way. So that was my job—be happy and out of the way.
Q: What is the job description of a co-producer?
A: I read that associate producer or co-producer credits often go to someone who performs a key function in getting the movie made, but who doesn’t have the power or clout of a producer or executive producer. In my case, it was writing the book. After that, nothing.
Q: Who approached you about making a movie from your book?
A: Glenn Close’s people contacted my people—i.e., the film and TV agent at Curtis Brown.
Q: Did you hesitate before agreeing to have a movie made about Lucy and her family?
A: Not a bit. I admired Glenn Close and trusted her to do a good job. And I was excited to see the story played out on the screen.
Q: Did you play a part in writing the script for the movie? You are given a writing credit for the novel. Christopher Lofton is listed as the writer of the teleplay. (You may remember Christopher Lofton as the original Dr. Jeff Martin on All My Children. He is also listed as a producer of The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Mr. Lofton passed away in 2002.)
A: No. I was asked if I wanted to write the script but I knew (and still know) nothing about writing screen plays and didn’t want to stop writing and learn. I didn’t know enough about writing novels yet. Still don’t.
Q: Did you have approval on the script?
A: I had script approval but never saw a script. I never asked for it or pushed for it. I was busy writing another book probably.
Q: Did you have any say in the casting of the movie?
A: No, but I was pleasantly surprised with the casting. I recognized many of the names, and I loved Glenn Close as Arvella Whipple. She had the strength and determination and stubbornness the character called for.
Q: Did you visit the set while they were filming the movie?
A: I did. They called and said We’re in Park City, Utah, in our last week of filming, and thought you’d like to see Lucky Diggins before we burn it down. I sure did. Unfortunately I had recently had surgery on my face (another story) and I was uncomfortable with the scars and how I looked. Phil and I went anyway, and it was great. People were very warm and friendly. I saw many, many takes of each scene—movie making is incredibly boring. What I loved most was the set decoration—the town, the boarding tent, the donkeys. The general store was amazing. Even the shelves and drawers were filled with appropriate objects. We didn’t stay to see it all burned down, but I was told later that everyone cried.
Q: Did you meet any of the actors in the movie?
A: Before filming started, I was flown to Los Angeles to meet Glenn Close. She’s a lovely, down to earth woman, and I liked her immediately. In Utah, I met them all, hung around with some, and hated leaving them when my time was up.
Q: Was there a special celebration when the movie was finished or when the movie was premiered? Did you attend?
A: It was a CBS movie of the week on television so there was no premiere. I can’t remember if Philip and I saw it on TV or on the videotape they sent me. We definitely celebrated.
Q: Were there differences between your book and the script?
A: There were some. They added the lawyer who commits suicide at the beginning, the intimations of sexual abuse, the woman miner disguised as a man, and Lucy’s judicial prowess. I would have argued against those decisions if I had known (and if I had any power).
Q: Were you pleased with the finished movie?
A: On the whole, yes, The actors were good, the sets were fabulous, and it was pretty true to Lucy’s story. I got to have dinner with Glenn Close and sit in Meat Loaf’s chair! What’s not to like?
A 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.
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.
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