From Where Shall My Help Come?

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I spent yesterday with a very religious Jewish women. A newly single mother of 7 children, she is also a musician heavy on Beastie Boys influences, a producer, a camp counselor, a laundress, a sister and an aunt. But mostly, she is a believer.

And she wears a head scarf to prove it. And she says a bracha before eating a handful of cashews. She gives thanks to God regularly. The same God, presumably, to whom I give thanks when I make Shabbat dinner for my kids and we bicker over who will say motzi—the blessing over the challah—that evening. And then my husband blesses my children—a tidy two of them—and we give silent thanks again, for their health and goodness. And then we return to our secular lives. There is a Yankees game to watch, laundry to fold.

But for two days there has been this cricket trapped in a wood beam in my living room. All day he is quiet, and all night long he chirps with such sharpness and echo that I have to retreat to my bed and close the two doors in between us to escape. Ordinarily I love crickets, love the sound of them in symphony—outside of the screened windows. Outside.

I tried setting a trap (hoping he would hop out the way he hopped in)—a trap of apples and watermelon—wikihow suggested a drizzle of molasses, but that seemed excessive. Nothing. The chirping persisted. And again he was quiet during the day. But when he started up last night, my religious friend was here and she suggested we consult Perek Shira, a text that praises each and every creature on earth. She’s a hippie, my friend. We were going to praise the cricket to let him know he has been heard and understood and blessed, maybe? I was skeptical, but such is desperation. It makes us suddenly and deeply pious.

Unable to find a recitation specific to the cricket, we combined the locust and the grasshopper and we really did dwell on the simple invocation from Psalms, in hopes of quieting him but also saving him and ourselves from calamity. Calamity. And the thing is, all of the sudden the chirping stopped. Just like that. At just the right moment—the same way the red sea parted just when it was supposed to, just in time. And it took my breath away for a while. We said our goodbyes, my friend and I, and I didn’t tell my kids what we had done because I was afraid. Of what? That they would believe in God and prayer. Yes.

Because here is the thing. A little girl died last week, a nine-year-old girl. On the last night of sleep-away camp. And I am only connected to her the way people are sometimes connected—through grandparents who attend the same synagogue, friends who grew up with the parents, 9-year-old daughters born the very same year, one on the west side and one on the east. And both girls went off to camp for the first time, and only one of them came back. Thousands came back really. But one did not. Calamity. And it is just so very hard to believe in God this week. Because a nine-year-old girl is gone from this earth for no good reason—is there ever any good reason? Nothing happened in the nick of time the way it was supposed to, the way the red sea parted, saving all those people and gobbling up all of the evil. And I don’t believe for one second that God saved the cricket. But maybe we gave him some peace and he let go. And the grasshopper says, “I lift my eyes to the mountains from where shall my help come?” (Psalms, 121:1)

I do believe in a lot of things—in Mother Nature and modern medicine and Bob Dylan and yes, the Beastie Boys. So, I’m saying a prayer. Because such is desperation. May this little girl find her way to the angels and be given the wings she deserves, and may she be cared for and may she be praised. And please, may her family find some peace on this earth.

Maybe the cricket stopped chirping right then because he felt heard, cared for, praised. And that was all I could do for him, in the end.

And all I can do today is give, in Riley Sandler’s memory and in her honor.

God Bless.

http://www.youcaring.com/memorial-fundraiser/the-riley-sandler-memorial-foundation-inc/221100

An Open Letter to Governor Jan Brewer:

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BootsWhile we road-tripped through your great Grand Canyon State last week, I worked with my daughter on her rocks project for school. With all that red rock and limestone all around us, she and I were charged with delving into the architecture of the Jefferson Memorial—a grand and important monument made solidly of Georgia marble and limestone and built in the image of the Pantheon of Rome. Things a third grader knows.

We also learned about the words inscribed in the dome and on the walls of this wide, open-to-the-public structure. And so very much was evident. Self-evident if you will. And yes, I know. We all know that Jefferson wrote those gorgeous words, but perhaps didn’t mean them just that way. But, to my nearly 9-year-old daughter, there is no context for their meaning. They mean what they mean.

Things like:

“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man…”

So, what is tyranny? A question easy to answer with examples from other perilous times—The Holocaust, Slavery, etc. But I didn’t use those examples. I used the current one. Yours. Your state. A state my mother lived in for a long while, attracted to its ambiance, its seeming closeness to God. It does really feel spiritual there.

And the thing is, I so wanted to post pictures of our trip to your state the minute I returned home. I wanted to show my friends and family my kids smiling faces and their fake-falling-into the-Grand-Canyon poses.  I wanted to advertise the exceptional Pink Jeep Tour we took in Sedona at sunset. It was so mind-blowingly beautiful. It raised my depressed, wintered-out Northeastern spirits right up to the pink and purple sky, I swear. And every last person we met, well they were so kind, so open, their skin glowing with all that Southwestern sun you’ve been hoarding down there.

But now I’m wondering, would they have smiled so broadly, given my kids one more loop around the rocky road on that Jeep tour if they had known that the proud grandfather of my children is also a proud gay man?

Would they have been so kind and loving toward my son when he left his baby blanket behind, sending it free of charge to our deep blue state? I’ll never know. I only know that the one teensy downside of our entire trip was this bill that’s on the table. Your table, Governor. A bill so horrid from its very design, from the very tiny seedling planted in some hateful person’s mind, that I’m not sure I can forgive your legislature for even trying.

That said, I would. I forgave you for allowing a man with a not-so-concealed weapon to shop for cowboy boots right along side my young children. And I’m a Northeast liberal, so that’s saying something.

I would forgive you and your state if you veto, Governor Brewer. And I would post those pictures, and I would even come flying back to suck in some of that fresh, desert air and Southwest cooking. Or else, maybe I’ll go to California. There’s plenty to do elsewhere. From sea to shining sea.

Things a third grader knows.

Thank you for your consideration,

Beth Ain

“I cried so much, I’m washed enough.” (or, The Genius of Kevin Henkes)

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I spend a lot of time with a 6 year old boy, which is to say that I spend a lot of time tripping over forts improbably made out of board game boxes and empty toilet paper rolls. I don’t ever get used to it either. I’ve written about the tiny little pieces of things that send me over the edge sometimes, and I picture myself making good on all those promises to throw it all away or better yet, give it all away to a deserving, imaginary child who will take good care of these things, sorting it all into tidy boxes at the end of each day.

And I notice right away when a space is absent of boys. I might walk into the home of a person who has two girls or even four girls (four!), and maybe there is noise, maybe there is a karaoke microphone set up and Taylor Swift songs screeching into the quiet, and maybe it smells a little like cheap nail polish and the inside of crayon box. But I never trip over anything. I don’t step on a stray lego piece on my way to the kitchen. I don’t sit down on the sofa and, like the princess and the pea, feel the need to dig my hand into the crevices and pull out a matchbox car or a flashlight.  There are no ottomans turned over, no shoe boxes with holes ripped out of them so that the poor stuffed animal inside can breathe.

Six year old boys are special—maddeningly creative, smart, intuitive. They are builders and designers, ball throwers and questions askers.  And sometimes they read, but mostly they need to be read to. Sometimes zombie stories and the diaries of forlorn little brothers. But most times, Frog and Toad and Stuart Little and a little Amelia Bedelia just so they can feel especially in the know before they fall asleep at night.

But what has become of books for this age group, for this type of enterprising, wheels-churning kid? Where to go after Encyclopedia Brown and the Boxcar Children have solved their last case?

I know.

Read The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Read it every night, with the lights low and while your little boy, who is maybe emotional but definitely not dramatic listens to every single word of a book so quiet and so memorable, your voice cracks when you read it out loud.

Billy is the rarest of characters. He is a very real reflection of the kind of boy I live with—the one with all the fort ideas. The one who pays very close attention when I explain something. The one whose fears are quiet and small, and hidden easily behind little shrugs and deep breaths.

Billy is scared the way kids this age are scared—not of monsters and lightning, but of not being smart enough, of not being able to handle second grade or the sassy girl at his table. Scared of hurting someone else’s feelings, too. And the kicker here is that he summons the courage to do some very challenging things all by himself in that internal way that boys do things, even as he challenges others—to a stay-up-all-night sleepover or to a new way of looking at art.

And then—ahem—there is chapter three in the section called Mother. And I can’t write about it or even think about it without feeling so grateful for it, for the portrayal of a mother so complicated and capable and a boy so very interested in her. To find the courage as a writer to tell the real story of how little boys and their mothers share moments, private and important and damp with night air but no tears. Well, this chapter is what makes this writer so special to me. This book is what makes him great.

What Henkes is so brilliant at here is showing how eventually those tiny little pieces of boyhood get picked up and clicked back together and they become the building blocks of little men. Little men who use big voices and who want to do well every day, and who—in between building volcanoes and making mudballs—are mindful of others. Little men whose bravery reduces the voices of the mothers who read to them in the low lights at night to small, cracking whispers.

Ultimately, The Year of Billy Miller is a family portrait. A smart and funny and charming look at the average American family. But if you look closely, you will also see what you look like on a bad day, and later on in the best possible light. And you will see your children dragging sacks of weird things down the stairs and making each other laugh. And you will see the disappointments and the triumphs of each day you spend trying to do better. You will see yourself in here and I suspect you will return to it time and again because it feels good and because you love it, and the best part is that your kids will love it to. Because it is a portrait of them and when you get down to it, what kid doesn’t like to stare at themselves making faces in the mirror?

New Year, Newish Me*

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*(Nothing to do with kids’ books, everything to do with #jewishgirls twitter prompts…)

I sometimes read Goop—Gwyneth Paltrow’s aspirational online lifestyle magazine–browsing the recipes and clothes that might change my life if I could just…would just…shop for the ingredients, do the gritty work celebrity fitness addicts do in their kitchens all afternoon, soaking beans, sautéing greens, developing new ways to keep quinoa at center stage–brush my teeth with it? Does it do anything for teeth? And I would track down those dance pants—the cool ones no one knows about yet, the ones from the real deal dance studio in LA, the ones that would make me return to a dance class ruled by Lululemon and girls who elbow each other for the front row to a round of applause for being the coolest.

The freaking coolest.

But I don’t do any of those things ever. I read Goop for fantasy. Because I already buy organic enough, sauté enough, eat quinoa enough (or at least from time to time), having sworn off gluten and its devilish ways years ago. And because those girls in my dance class will always look better—and dance better, let’s face it–in their lulu than I would ever look in anything, even underground dance pants from LA.fresh start

But a few weeks ago, I read in Goop a fine piece of writing by Jill Kargman (http://www.goop.com/journal/make/240/back-to-school-mag) that had nothing to do with any of these things. It had to do with Fall and the Jewish New Year and hitting a reset button after a long, sticky summer of routine-less days. And I felt her in that piece—her dismay at the lazy haze of a summer spent, in my case, nursing an injury that precluded my usual exercise routine, a summer spent staring at a blinking cursor on a laptop I practically had to dust-off for all the breaks I took in between writing.

I too, love fall, and partly because of Rosh Hashanah and the apples and the changing trees, and partly because of the changing me. I don’t make resolutions so much, but I do clean out my kids’ rooms for a new school year, shed my bulletin board of last year’s announcements, entering picture day and parents’ night into my calendar with double reminders.

And I do kiss my kids faces hard on the first day of school and tell them to be their best selves, to be curious, to be good to their friends and their teachers. Some of this I do to be organized and less of a yeller, but some of it—that last stuff for sure I do, because I pounded on my chest in a synagogue while my kids played tag in the lobby. Berating myself for things I could have done better or could have done without. And how is it going, you #jewishgirls asked in your prompt for this week? (http://www.thestatenislandfamily.com/jewish-women-unite-join-us-let-voice-heard-jewishgirls/)

So far my kids are still smiling on their way out of the car, I haven’t yelled (so much), and I even combed their hair for picture day. Also, and this one’s important—like high holy days important—when my daughter asked me what to say when her friend asked her with some disdain why she was wearing a certain plaid, button down shirt (too preppy, prehaps?), I didn’t tell her to do any of the chest-pounding-worthy things I would have said pre-fast.

I said, “tell her you love her shoes.”

So far, so good.

“After Miranda was done saving her own life, she called someone who could commiserate…”

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I was at the movies this weekend and it was crowded, so crowded I had to sit in one row with my first-born while my husband sat a few rows up with our second child. It was a funny movie and I found myself glancing behind me and up, trying to catch my husband’s eye—searching, I guess, for a shared moment.
 
Afterward, he said, “didn’t you love the Isaac reference?” We had seen Despicable Me 2 and it was loaded with in-jokes for the parents. Brilliant, really. “I did,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I had tried to get his attention and not just because of the Love Boat thing, but others, too. I didn’t tell him this, because what a luxurious life I lead. And I don’t mean physical luxury like a house and car and a being able to afford to take our children to the movies on a Saturday night.
 
The luxury for me, is having a partner in these things. Someone who will continue with the math lesson when I have to leave and throw something against a wall, someone who will figure out if we should re-finance our house, someone who will run to my child when they fall off a swingset because I am too chicken to look. Someone who will find ways to keep me writing and thinking when I can’t see the story through all the backpack flyers and dishes to do. Someone who will call 911 if I can’t get to a phone.
 
There is a scene in an old Sex and the City episode where Miranda almost chokes to death by herself in her apartment, triggering a big worry over whether or not anyone would have known. My mother always references this when she tries to explain what it feels like to live her home life all alone. We laugh at this because it’s funny in an absurd way.  It could happen to any of us when we are home alone—it doesn’t really mean anything except to the person who is actually alone. The person who has to do most things by themselves.
 
We tell a funny story in my family about the time my mom took my brother and me to see Scarface in a movie theater when we shouldn’t have been allowed past the ticket counter. She loves Al Pacino, my mother—then and now. What I think is that she did not have a sitter, did not have a date either, and decided to take us along for the ride. A ride that ended not so far into the movie with my mom yanking us out of the theater all at once, and coping with the new middle of the night concerns of her children. Concerns like how to get blood off of a shower curtain.
 
And by and large this is how we lived, with one parent trying to do the emotional and physical work of two. One parent, trying to make it to carpool pickup on time in the wake of starting her own business, finding some semblance of a social life, and also knitting herself into the fabric of a community that was built on the backs of couples and families with long legacies, and not single mothers.
 
She has never had another person with whom to exchange knowing glances, to talk about what’s going on at work, what’s going on with the kids. She has had people, but not one person and it’s different. And lately I’ve been thinking more about this. Every night, when the lights are off and the kids are asleep and the dishwasher is running (having fought about who should load it, run it, unload it again in the morning) my husband and I talk in the dark, sometimes very late into the night—what starts out as a grocery list might turn into a list of where we want to go on vacation, where we want to go in life. It’s all a big gossip really, but when we fall asleep, him deeply, me less so–angsty about mysterious noises and potentially waking children–what luxury to have him to call on, just in case.
 
You are not alone, I always tell my mom. Because you carpooled us and took us places and showed us new things (the plantations of the South! the Freedom Trail! Andre Agassi! Gary Hart! Israel! Bloomingdales! Scarface!), and picked us up when we were belly-flopped on beds (me, sobbing through most of my teenage years) and found ways to build us up without someone else to help with the heavy lifting–to consult with, fight with, laugh with, sit on a sofa and breathe with. Because of all that, you have us.
 
I seek you out every day, and today especially because it is my birthday and because every ounce of who I am has to do with the things you did and the things you still do on my behalf. Sadly, I have to do more than glance a couple of rows back—I have to dial my phone, or find a facetime opportunity, or book a flight, but when I do and when our minds meet, or our eyes meet, I know that because of the balls life threw in your direction—the ones you caught and the ones you missed—in many ways we have always been partners, always will be–always finding ways to sort it out all together when the movie ends.
 
Luxury indeed.
 

Is it more interesting to be gay or a Kardashian?

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A friend recently asked me how she should go about writing a children’s book that Imagerepresents her family’s life.  I admit that on any given day, I might find this question aggravating. While some of the people who solicit writing advice are indeed writers, many of the people interested in writing books for kids are not. And sometimes that matters to me and sometimes it doesn’t. On this day, it didn’t aggravate me one bit–it got me thinking.

The person who asked me this particular question on this particular day is not a writer. She is a mother and a teacher and a lesbian, and she and her partner have several children together along with a golden retriever. This part is not that interesting to me—they are a regular family, dodging a lot of shoes and toys on their way to do a lot of homework. And they are schlepping kids, one parent throwing car keys across the kitchen at the other in haste when she realizes she is late for the next activity, or has forgotten about it entirely.  And there are dishes in the sink and kids in need of dinner and mothers in need of some wine and a deep breath.

So to me, their household looks a whole lot like my household. But to my children, it does not. My children, who have two grandfathers the very same way Heather Has Two Mommies, had a harder time processing this family picture than their own, extended family picture. “How are two women married?” my son asked. I honestly couldn’t believe my ears given that he has never asked this about my father, not once. “The same way Papa is married  to a man, (well not yet, but when they do it will be fierce)” I say.  My daughter, always involved with herself first and foremost responded, “They are not married. I would know, I would have been in the pictures!” She’s not wrong about that.

Forget that my own upbringing was fraught with all kinds of fallout from this very information. Forget that when I was the age my children are now I did not yet know any of this was coming or that it was even possible. Forget that over the years I have watched as Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and loads of activists and other brave souls (some of them even politicians!) somehow helped pushed through an agenda that makes my family’s story (which I have tried endlessly to novelize) read like historical fiction—a very special episode of Little House on the Prairie. (Trust me, I have to re-write it again. It’s just not that shocking anymore. I’m thinking of maybe throwing in a vampire or a Kardashian.)

But forget all that. This is now. This is a time when my friend’s family ought be represented well, and not by a didactic book explaining how all those children found their way into one mother or the other’s uterus and how they now ended up wrestling each other and the dog on the living room floor of their colonial-style house. The story has to be about their lives as they are and not so much how they got here. This is what I told my friend. Write it! Write a whole series about a family like yours, but don’t make a point of writing the what and the how and the why. Just write a story that hangs on your life like a shirt—so, your children have two (wonderful) mothers and a biological father and they have cousins, too, and friends with whom they swing on monkey bars and build forts—just like other children’s book characters.

And this isn’t to say that there shouldn’t or won’t always be stories of how and what and why—the stories that explain what it feels like to be something else, to be the other thing. I need for those stories to exist and lots of them as much as anyone else. And I want them to be told over and over so that all kinds of kids and teenagers and adults, frankly, can find themselves inside of someone else’s story when they really need to. But that is not what this friend was asking me. She wasn’t asking me how to tell her story. She was asking me how to do her family experience justice.

And I say If there’s always room for novels or chapter books or picture books with vibrant and interesting characters who have a little something going on or a little something to say, then she ought to find a way to build that kind of story around her kind of family. Maybe it’s time for a book about kids who get into all kinds of trouble in their daily lives, or who travel to magical places via unicorn, or who have a secret spy lair in the attic, but when they get home at the end of the day, having been sent to the principal’s office, or to another planet and back, back from where the wild things were, it is their mothers–two of them–who wash up their faces, feed them a snack, tuck them in, and make them feel safe. But the mothers aren’t the story, the story is the story.

Is that interesting enough?
She asked me. I don’t know what to say. Maybe it is maybe it isn’t. Like any other book it will have to be a combination of things—well written and compelling, it will have to resonate and connect and have a good marketing strategy to boot. Maybe she’ll write it and no one will buy it, or maybe she’ll sell the manuscript and she’ll get lukewarm reviews and it will end up on a remainders table somewhere on the Lower East Side. This could happen to her the same way it could happen to me or anyone. That’s the point, I realize.

I look at my friends—two women, partners in everything they do, working hard and raising children in a small town filled mostly with people who are rooting for them and likely with some who are not.

“Even if it isn’t,” I say, “at least we will have gotten somewhere.”

Until such a series exists, we have these! (Please share your faves in comments!)
Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle by Pija Lindenbaum (translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard)
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen
Jack And Jim by Kitty Crowther
Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman
Papa, Daddy, and Me by Leslea Newman
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco
A Tale of Two Daddies by Vanita Oelschlager
A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager

20 Seconds of Courage (over and over again)

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broadway_signThanks to Cameron Crowe, we have a new parenting philosophy around our house. Recently, as a family, we watched We Bought a Zoo, where Matt Damon’s character, Benjamin Mee, invokes 20 seconds of courage as a lifestyle mantra. We don’t learn about it until late in the movie when Mee’s mopey son has something to do requiring bravery. He has to tell a girl how is feeling, he has to tell her that he loves her. And he has to do it in the rain because it’s a Cameron Crowe movie, so of course there is rain and kissing and maybe some Bob Dylan.

  “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” –Benjamin Mee

We come to learn that this 20 seconds of bravery thing has informed a whole lot of Benjamin’s life, enabling him at first to make a writing career of the risk-taking antics he reports on for his local paper. And later, in the wake of his young wife’s death and as a way of setting about saving of his family, he presumably invokes these words again in the purchasing of said zoo.

Later that night, when my own child was scared to go back into the dark kitchen on her own to retrieve something she had forgotten, I gave it a try. It didn’t work, of course, this 20 seconds of courage argument. Because my children can go careening down driveways on skateboards they have no mastery of, but they cannot–will not–walk into a dark room in our own house on their own. Not ever.

That said, I started thinking about all the books for kids about bravery and how they are trying so hard to teach something—as if telling someone over and over to be brave is enough. I realized, watching that movie, and then reading the exhilarating and somehow new Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle—that in order to be brave, you must have something big to be brave for—something that means more to you than protecting yourself. Something worth taking risks for.  Riding a skateboard in the case of my children, riding a bus from Jankburg, PA to midtown Manhattan in the case of Nate Foster—my new hero.

There is something to be said for a 13-year-old boy who by school-day is lost in a sea of middle of Pennsylvania athletes but who finds himself—loves himself even—belting out show tunes in the dark and running improv scenes with his best friend, Libby. She is his lifeline this Libby, and if we are lucky, we’ve all had one. If we’re really lucky, we still do.

But Nate Foster—he is unlike today’s middle grade heroes. He does not battle dragons or wayward wizards, he doesn’t even go up against his larger-than-life bully of a big brother (but nor does begrudge him his athletic prowess). He simply knows his place, knows how to hide his Christian-boot-camp bruises to protect himself from the more stinging hatred of the brother who would only ever act the part by way of blackmail.

All of this is to say that it takes a whole lot of something for a kid to get on a bus at night and head to the big city, where his uniqueness, his resourcefulness will be put to some use. Where his commitment to getting the hell out of a place that would surely suck it all out of him eventually and land him a job in the family floral business, 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh will pay off. Where the rest of his life awaits him. It takes something indeed.

As it turns out, we’re talking about roughly 20 seconds of courage.

Again and again, he takes the city by storm in small ways, in 20 second bursts of funny, of courage and gumption, and again, commitment. Because he believes in himself, wants something so bad he’s willing to risk it all, to be truly brave, to get it. Even his father—the least brave character in the book–thinks so.

There is so much to love about this book—it’s a journey book, really. It’s about destiny, but it’s funny (so crazy funny and weird) and heartbreaking all the while. And there are no wizards or lightning bolts here. But Nate Foster might as well have been living under the stairs, he might as well have been given an acceptance letter to a school for people just like him.

And Libby and Aunt Heidi and Freckles—all people so well drawn you will wish they were yours—might as well have stood on a street corner deciding the best way to rescue this hero out of a small and dark place and into the big, bright something else (grown-ups in Halloween costumes! Well-lit drug stores! boys kissing boys!).

Nate Foster has a wizardry in this place called Manhattan (he has it in Queens even), but no wand–proving you don’t need actual sorcery to succeed in middle grade fiction. You just need to be fighting for something.

I left Pennsylvania once, too–and I knocked the mirror off the city bus with my u-haul the minute I arrived in midtown Manhattan. And yes, I think it took about 20 seconds to hit the gas pedal again and carry on—knees shaking—toward the rest of my life.