Regarding BONE GAP

Last night I blurted out a series of tweets on this topic – a typically shrewd move, Tweeting on a late Saturday night – but I felt like, oh, I don’t know, expounding a bit, so here we are. Here I am, at any rate. It’s uncertain how much of a WE is happening here, but anyway.

I am so envious of Laura Ruby right now.

“But why?” you might say. “Upon what base was fixt the envy wherein, Mike?” My first answer would be “Please don’t use poetry as the basis of a question, it’ll reveal my ignorance about poetry.” My second answer would be BECAUSE I JUST READ BONE GAP, DUH.

Have you read Bone Gap yet? It just hit the shelves, with what seems to me like something less than the global fireworks display of acclaim and excitement it deserves. Holy flying spaghetti monster, it’s good. It’s one of those books that makes me think AW GEE WHIZ, I WILL NEVER WRITE A BOOK THIS GOOD AND THAT’S IT, GAME OVER. Thick, soupy, ocean-size envy is what I’m wading through right now, and I’m glad.

I might not have been glad about this 10 years ago, and in truth, I might not be glad about this with every author’s work even now, because I was not and am not something more (or less) than human. I didn’t use to accept envy as a normal, understandably human experience – I used to think it was bad, bad, bad, ba-a-a-a-ad and damn, now I have that stupid song from the horrible movie version of the Lorax in my head, GAH.

Point being, I used to think envy was a negative experience, but I no longer do. I think it’s still hard, complicated, even painful, but I don’t equate those qualities with negative or bad anymore. I have separated my experience of envy from my capacity for judgment, huzzah! Please join me in humbly celebrating the majestically enlightened state of myself!

Er, anyway, this still fairly recent benign view of envy has been very helpful while reading Bone Gap, because it truly is one of those books that make me fervently wish I had written it, or could write something like it. It is astonishing. The quality of the prose is delectable and lush; the characters are shot through with beauty and complexity; and the way the story spills over from one world to the next and back again is dizzying in its mystery and dexterity. Best of all, reading Bone Gap proved to be an emotional experience of such power that I was knocked absolutely ass over teakettle. I felt, as they say, all the feels.

Because I’m a writer, and every bit as human as the next writer, my thoughts in the moment were akin to “oh well, I could never write a book like this. Laura Ruby’s magical cabinet of writing skills has the goods, and mine has an open bag of stale potato chips and a three year old can of off-brand cream soda. She’s awesome and I suck.”

I know, it’s quite the silly-ass line of thinking, albeit a forgivably human one. I’m not Laura Ruby, and Laura Ruby’s not me. We’re different people and different writers, and trying to make an apples-to-apples comparison between my books and hers is an exercise in absurdity. Why, it’d be like arguing about which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek! (We’ll talk about that later, when I have 48 consecutive free hours to set aside – I have many thoughts.)

But, BUT, I am now this stunningly evolved specimen of humanity who experiences a genuinely unhealthy or destructive reaction to envy no more than 78% of the time, which has allowed me to understand my envy of Laura Ruby’s new book for what it truly is: admiration; respect; wonder.

I would not feel so envious of Laura if I didn’t at least partly comprehend the spectacular degree of difficulty she confronted in writing this book. I would not feel this much envy if I didn’t understand how much discipline, skill, focus, and sheer force of will it takes to create art of this magnitude. I would not be managing this much envy if it wasn’t clear to me that some of us are farther along on the path to creative greatness than others, and that while I feel pretty good about the way my skills are developing, Laura is on an altogether different playing field. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to Laura Ruby and the magnificence of her accomplishment in writing Bone Gap, I feel envy because I know I’m seeing someone do the calamitously hard work of giving concrete shape to her creativity at something like peak capacity.

It helps that I already had so much respect for the way Laura conducts herself in the public arena. She’s obviously intelligent as hell, and stands up and uses her voice in ways I admire and feel inspired by. I have many heroes in the world of children’s publishing, and she’s one of them.

it’s good to feel this okay with envy, you know? I’m not saying I enjoy it. It’s not exactly fun. But it’s not a negative thing, because it stems from something good. From something great, in fact. Experiencing the greatness of a book like Bone Gap and being able to support someone I admire in exchange for coping with some envy? I’ll make that trade every time.



I’m writing at the public library – okay, at this very moment I’m actually posting on Facebook at the public library – and there’s a student and his tutor two tables over, discussing what sounds like a paper he’s written. They’re working hard, it’s clearly an interaction with meaning and value, and it’s good to see young people actively engaged in scholarship.

That said, these two people, who I have no reason to think ill of, and whose pursuit of scholarly betterment is worthy of support, are VERY LOUD, and that’s one of my beefs with the current dialogue around the future of libraries. There’s so much talk about libraries evolving to become more visibly dynamic centers of group collaboration, focused on lively, unfettered conversation and a 180 degree change from the old, hidebound perception of libraries as places to speak in whispers or risk being shushed. That’s all well and good – I understand the value of those things – but I worry that the value of quiet contemplation and internal focus is being publicly dismantled, one smartboard or piece of modular furniture at a time.

The library’s the only public place I rely on to consistently provide a haven from the world’s relentless barrage of external noise; I don’t have that at home, and I rarely find it at places like coffeeshops. Some of us place enormous value on the quiet we find at the public library; some of us badly need it. I hope that emphasis on quiet doesn’t get completely obliterated in the process of redefining the role of libraries in our society.

It Is Once Again Time to Unleash the Winged Pigs of Joy

I think luck plays a role in the publication process – a limited role, but a real one. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve invested massive amounts of time, money, thought, and energy into developing my craft and learning about the industry, and I know we can’t take advantage of opportunities that come along if we don’t make ourselves ready for them. I’ve done that. Doing the work is far and away the most important thing; the importance of luck doesn’t come close to equaling the importance of hard work, IMHO. I do think luck plays a role in terms of timing, however, and in that regard I’ve experienced my fair share. For example, I got acquainted with Arthur A. Levine on Facebook, met him in person at LA10SCBWI, struck up a genuine friendship with him right away, and gladly accepted his offer to publish GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES, all in the course of a whirligig eight-month period.

It was a heady time, and I felt like the stars were grinning cheerfully down at me for every moment of it. Arthur’s accomplishments as an editor and publisher are the stuff of industry legend, of course, but I was immediately struck by the impression that he’s also a warm, generous, vulnerable human being, and one of those rare people with whom I experience a nearly instant bond of fellowship. Time has borne out that initial impression; Arthur has proven to be the most trustworthy and steadfast of friends, one whose presence in my life I cherish to the point of thinking of him more like a brother than a friend.

My affection for Arthur shouldn’t obscure my appreciation of his professional brilliance, because again, industry legend, monumental legacy, continuing record of published brilliance – pick whichever career accolade floats your rowboat. There’s no doubt that his editorial acumen made my book worlds better than it would have otherwise been, and it’s more obvious to me than ever why he’s in the midst of a career for the ages. Arthur’s ability to help his authors define and give life to a story’s emotional center borders on the supernatural. and it’s one reason why I’ll always look back on my first book with an abundance of satisfaction and pride.

I couldn’t have asked for a better author/editor experience than I had with my debut, and the stars are apparently still yukking it up in my honor, because there will be an encore. I feel grateful, thrilled, and yes, exceedingly lucky to announce that I’ve accepted an offer of publication from Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, for my second middle-grade novel, Unidentified Suburban Object. Cue celebratory hooting, Muppetesque arm-flailing, grossly excessive doughnut consumption, etc.

Pico Ayer, Paddington, and me

Hooray, Arthur’s blogging again! And expressing valuable points about the importance of diverse books to ALL readers.

I so enjoyed reading Pico Ayer’s “Critic’s Take” column in The New York Times’ Book Review, titled PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR.

(Here’s the link:

In it, Mr. Ayer expresses the response to a beloved book that is remarkably congruent with my publishing philosophy. I’ve always said that what I want to publish are books that readers don’t just like, but that are deeply meaningful to them; books that they love so much that they would say, when asked “Oh that was my FAVORITE book as a child” and they would keep those books throughout their lives. In talking about PADDINGTON BEAR, Mr. Ayer says, “On the single shelf for books I have in my two-room apartment in Japan, Paddington sits next to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene.” Exactly!

I too loved PADDINGTON BEAR, laughing appreciatively at what Mr. Ayer describes as Paddington’s attempts to “master…

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Hiking Shoes

I, er, haven’t actually read the Marie Kondo book about how decluttering your home leads to magic carpets, pet dragons, and the ability to transmogrify lima beans into doughnuts, but my half-assed, not even semi-informed attempt at following its approach is definitely a good thing, even if it’s causing 35% more damage to my already messed-up rotator cuff. Today I finally dug deep and got rid of a pair of hiking shoes I’ve had sitting in my closet for over a decade without ever having worn them, not even once.

They’re perfectly good, high-quality hiking shoes that I probably spent $100 on back in the day, but I somehow didn’t like them – something about the way the laces tied. I later bought a pair of hiking shoes that I like much better, and even wear once every 36 months or so, but I hung on to the other pair. Every so often I’d look at them and think GAH THIS IS STUPID, JUST GET RID OF THEM, but then I’d think about how sorry I’d be if I ever needed a spare pair of hiking shoes, or if I were to go hiking with someone who’d forgotten to bring their own shoes and needed to borrow a pair, and I’d throw them back in the closet where they’d been hunkered down for 2, 5, 10 years.

The problem with that line of reasoning is that I’m just not the kind of person who’s likely to ever be in a situation where pulling an emergency pair of hiking shoes out of the closet at the last second. Self-understanding has come slowly to me, however, and on more than one occasion I’ve wished to be that kind of person – carelessly fit, radiating physicality, possessing an inner glow born of a deep love for life in the outdoors. I’m not, though. I’m the most indoorsy person that’s ever walked the face of this planet. I can barely justify owning ONE pair of hiking shoes – nearly all of my favorite activities involve sitting in a chair somewhere inside.

I donated the shoes to Goodwill, and I think that’s a good thing. Someone who’d probably struggle to pay the current retail price for hiking shoes of that quality will get a really good deal on my old, unused pair, and it underscored my own level of comfort and good fortune in being able to just give away a brand-new pair of shoes. In a way it felt like admitting defeat, I have to say, as if I was giving up on a long-held (if completely unrealistic) fantasy-based concept of the person I could be if I was, you know, a completely different person from who I actually am. Decluttering. It’s not as complicated as writing a book, but it IS complicated.

The New Year

Years and years ago I spent a late December night with a couple of friends, having a few beers and watching TV or some such thing, and at some point in the evening one of them made a pretty caustic and disillusioned comment about the approaching new year, something to the effect of how we’ll wake up on New Year’s Day and not actually start anything fresh or do anything new, that it’s a day like any other day.

There is truth to that, of course – as human beings we assign significance and meaning to certain days and times as we see fit – but I remember feeling diminished and saddened by the remark back then, because I’d just been thinking about my hopes for the new year. Those hopes weren’t realized then or anytime soon, but still, I’d been feeling them in that moment, and artificially constructed or not, the concept of starting anew with the turn of the calendar helped me experience that feeling. I need that kind of help sometimes, you know what I mean? I suspect most (if not all) of us do.

New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, birthdays, solstices, and so on and so forth – it’s entirely possible to strip the symbolism and deliberately constructed meaning from these events and treat them like any other day. I myself am cynicism personified when it comes to Valentine’s Day, for example. I think there’s value in these days of celebration and reflection, though. Sometimes we need help remembering how to be grateful, expressing love and affection, reflecting on the joys and hardships of the past, and declaring our hopes for the future. Sometimes we need to be reminded why and how important those acts are.

2014 was a fully-lived year for me. I had moments of terrible fear, and moments of incandescent joy. I witnessed things that made me despair for the future of humanity, and other things that made me so fiercely proud of the people in my life that I could have burst. I had to cope with discouraging setbacks, and I made more than one quantum leap forward. I continued to have the stunning experience of meeting new people who’ve become cherished, beloved presences in my life. Happy New Year, my friends. You mean so much to me. Let’s see what 2015 holds for us. Let’s move forward into the new year, together.

A Complicated Conversation About Neurodiversity

Yesterday Corinne Duyvis (author of OTHERBOUND) tweeted about an interview with the author of a book featuring an autistic protagonist. Corinne had a powerful and clearly painful reaction to the following statement (among others):

“High-functioning autistics and Aspergers also interest me, because they challenge our definitions of what constitutes a human being…”

It seems pretty clear why Corinne responded to that quote with such force. The idea that people with autism spectrum disorder don’t automatically qualify as human beings is repellent. I read Corinne’s tweets, which expressed her usual depth of emotional self-knowledge and intellectual clarity, and saw that she was having a contentious exchange with someone I don’t know. Her combatant was responding to Corinne’s tweets with statements like “this is how it works,” “you can’t expect people to be telepathic,” and “…their interpretation of (blogs, memoirs, and non-book writings) aren’t always going to go the way you want.” She was responding to Corinne in very contradictory fashion, and I decided to engage with her as well.

We had a fairly animated exchange, which I tried to engage in as I usually do – try to acknowledge what the other person is saying, keep focus on the topic at hand, and make pointed, direct comments about the actual verbiage being used. And partway through the conversation this person revealed that she has Asperger’s syndrome. It wasn’t a complete surprise – she’d hinted at it earlier in the exchange – but it nevertheless caused me to abruptly skid to a halt and entertain a flurry of questions. How does this change the conversation? Does it change my understanding of her comments? Should I just stop talking altogether? Does this automatically mean her comments have more validity than mine? What’s the right thing to do here??

(A note: I’m going to stop using the term “Asperger’s” and rely solely on “autism spectrum disorder” from here on, only because its elimination from the DSM-V has informed so many of the in-person conversations I’ve been having about it.)

I’ve been involved with We Need Diverse Books since its inception, and during the organization’s incredibly eventful first year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage in the complex discussions about diversity, and my slowly-evolving philosophy was and remains built on the idea that imperfection is no more avoidable in the arena of diversity than it is in life as a whole, and that mistakes, which will inevitably be made, are avenues to engage in dialogue, practice accountability, and provoke change. So I chose to continue debating the interview in question, despite the fact that doing so with a person who has autism spectrum disorder felt like a potentially huge mistake.

We exchanged more remarks, and I experienced a familiar kind of exasperation: I felt that my debate partner was being evasive with her comments, leaving herself room to question my thoughts without articulating her own in a committed way. She was saying things about her experience as a person with autism spectrum disorder that I hadn’t directly discussed with anyone before, including what seemed like genuinely vulnerable statements about her struggle to understand perceptions of her, both her own and those of others – it seemed like a clear learning opportunity for me. At the same time, I grew increasingly convinced that she was presenting difficult, painful experiences of her own as reasons to invalidate the difficult, painful experience Corinne was communicating about, and I said so. In the process of saying so I gave her my interpretation of her comments and asked her to clarify them.

At that point my debate partner grew agitated and angry. She accused me of putting words in her mouth; she became very, very sarcastic; and she told me I should go ahead and make something up to explain her statements, since I was doing so already. I confess that I didn’t find it terribly enjoyable, and it was perplexing that the openness of interpretation she defended in dehumanizing statements about autistic people was not applied to my statements, but I also found myself wondering if she was right. Was I actually doing those things?

I partly continued this really quite uncomfortable debate because she talked about not knowing if and when outside perceptions that contradicted her self-perception might be true. That really struck a chord with me, and when she started leveling these accusations at me, I went to that place with no effort at all. Is she right? Am I exercising a kind of unearned privilege that I’m not even aware of? Am I SILENCING her?

I felt and still feel pretty sure that I wasn’t. I’ve reached a point where I think I’m able to engage in debate in a relatively nuanced and balanced way, and I think she was resorting to tactics aimed at ending the conversation on terms defined by her, at the expense of actual dialogue. But what if I was wrong? What if I was shirking some kind of responsibility that I didn’t even know existed? I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to do that, and it occurred to me that ending the conversation on that note would not result in any more insight or understanding on my part.

So, I told myself that I had a choice. I could provide a rebuttal to her aggression, protect myself, and hear no more from her, or I could take a step back, silently deflect her aggression within the space of my own mind, and ask to hear more, despite my conviction that she was mischaracterizing my statements.

I chose the latter. I asked her if she’d read the review Corinne was referencing, and if so, what her reaction to it was. She was unconvinced of my sincerity, so I promised not to respond to any further explanations she might give, other than to say “thank you for sharing your thoughts” (which I did say). I wasn’t terribly optimistic that answers with more clarity were forthcoming, and when my debate partner did respond, she didn’t provide direct answers to my questions. She did respond, however, with two tweets, and the first one did indeed refer to the interview in a way that communicated new information to me.

She said “I know that as an Aspie I have in the past given people a reason to wonder about my humanity.”

I can’t lie, I’d been feeling very irritated by this person, but this statement struck another, entirely different chord in me. Not “In the past people have wondered about my humanity,” or “I have in the past been told there are reasons to wonder about my humanity.” No, she unambiguously took full responsibility for the perceptions of others. “I have in the past given people a reason to wonder about my humanity.” This woman actually believes there’s legitimate reason to question the humanity of people with autism spectrum disorder, and the moment when I realized that was what she’d said was a moment of ineffable sadness.

The degree of fully internalized self-loathing in her statement is shattering, and I felt more compassion for her than I expected. What had this person experienced that would provoke her to hold such a self-hating, self-diminishing belief? The obvious answer is that she lives in a society which communicates that message to her on an endless, unavoidable loop. She’s wrong, of course – the presence of autism spectrum disorder simply is not a reason to question anyone’s humanity. Not only is her lack of complete belief in her own humanity wrong, I also think it’s more than a little dangerous, because I have no doubt that such a belief, publicly stated, could serve as an arrow in the quiver of disability rights opponents out in the world.

Her belief that it sometimes might be valid to question the humanity of people on the spectrum isn’t one that I can ever stand behind, in any way. Nevertheless, I felt compassion, and also a kind of understanding. I’ve never been screened for or diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but self-loathing rooted in issues of self-perception is not unfamiliar to me. I’ve written at some length about my struggles with racial and ethnic identity, and I know what it’s like to question my own value as a person.

I’m thoroughly unschooled in the politics of neurodiversity. I’m trying to find my footing in that realm, partly because I strongly suspect that I’m neurodivergent myself, but I’ve never engaged in this kind of public discourse before. I don’t know how wrong or right any of what I said to this person might have been, and I don’t know what factors I could or should have taken into account. I know that my debate partner was having a strongly negative reaction to my words, but I don’t know who else might have had strong reactions, negative or positive, and what the emotional and intellectual underpinnings of those reactions might have been.

I didn’t lend a huge amount of credence to my debate partner’s accusations that I was simply fabricating opinions on her behalf, but another philosophical touchstone that I’ve been holding on to is the idea that we all need to take accusations of bias, privilege, and silencing behavior with as much seriousness as possible. I tried to do that; it was hard, and I don’t know if I succeeded. I don’t know what kinds of bias and privilege I brought to the table in this situation; I suspect there was more than one. I couldn’t help wondering if anything I said was at the expense of somebody with a stake in the overall dialogue. I want to continue talking, though. I want to keep learning. There is so, so much to learn.