I gave a talk to a hall full of librarians organized by the School Library Journal last night (what do you call a group of librarians? A kindness?). Many of them asked me to post it afterwards–here it is. I try not to disobey librarians. They have great power.

One of the things you don’t think much about when you’re a baby author
just hoping the hand if god will descend out of new York and lift you
up into the promised land of publication ate interviews. You’re going
to have to do a lot of interviews. Professional ones for blogs and
magazines, sure, but also from readers, at signings and conventions.
No one will grill you like a 12 year old who wants ti know how
currency wirks in fairyland. And often, you’ll get asked the same
questions over and over, which I actually find exciting–what will be
The Question for any given book? One always emerges, the thing
everyone wants to know. So I thought tonight I’d tell you about
something I get asked a lot.

The most popular character in the Fairyland series, stalwart
protagonist aside, isn’t a person. It isnt the charismatic villain or
the trickster with the twinkle in his eye. He’s a big red fellow named
A-Through-L whose mother was a Wyvern and whose father was a library.
This makes him, to my knowledge, fairly unique in the annals of
literature. He is a Wyverary. When I began talking about the sequel to
the Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
online, the question I was asked most often by children and adults
alike was: will Ell be in it?

And yes, he is loved because he is gigantic and bright red and funny
and loyal and bashes into things quite a lot, he is popular because he
is a Wyvern, which is a fancy way of saying Dragon, and few enough of
us have hearts so hard we cannot love a dragon whose great passions in
life are books and very fresh radishes, but the thing that makes Ell
who he is, that makes him a character so loved that young girls bring
hand-knit and crocheted Wyveraries to my signings, is that he is part
library.

It’s universal and it’s instant–invoking a library makes people
happy, excited, curious. Because libraries are magical places. They
always have been, public or private. Books come from human minds and
when you gather that many of them in one space, the space becomes, if
you’ll forgive the word, holy. Books create their own space and
physics, their own psychic presence. For those of us who did not grow
up with wealth, libraries were the place you could go to stuff
yourself with stories and knowledge and pursue like a bloodhound every
little obsession.

Through most of my childhood, my mother was a student, getting her
master’s in 19th century drama and then her doctorate in political
science. That should probably tell you a lot about me as a person.
This meant a lot of time spent in university and city libraries,
wandering the stacks while my mother did “research,” a word which had
a glittering, talismanic quality to me when I was very young. It
sounded very grown up, and very interesting, something secret and
cabalistic, that smart and beautiful people like my mother and her
friends did.

My school friends did not think “research” was as fascinating a game
to play at recess as I did.

But in those libraries where my mother worked, I read just about
everything–and that is part of why libraries are still magical, why
Borges wrote about an infinite one and McKinley gave Beauty an
impossibly complete one and why I’m still making them in my own books.
Because there is an alchemy to libraries. Because you go in looking
for a book about the Bermuda Triangle and end up losing a whole day to
medieval heraldry. You find Hamlet which you have to read for school,
but what in a cosmic sense you went to the library that day to find
was a little book called Seaward which would become an intimate part
of the architecture of your brain. You can never tell. A library is an
infinite tangle of possible paths to the person you’ll be in a year,
two, three, thanks to the books you stumble over by utter, delightful
chance. And though there is also magic and wonder in our digital
world, that is a spell that cannot be wholly cast online.

We are, with all of our very shiny tools, still primates. We still
crave physical experience–and more than that, a physical experience
of story, of narrative, that thing which has grown up from a thing
done around the fire in exchange for meat and wine to a thing done on
a vast stage, with paper and ink and pixels and files, a thing done
around a table at a conference in a city of high towers. We still want
to use our hands and our bodies to do things. We still want to wander
and pick up and hold and flip through and wedge a thumb in. Libraries
are a great bastion of physical experience–a literal city of books,
with laws and codes and maps and roads through high paginated towers.
This is also a magical thing. Any city is. Any forest in which you
might get lost and meet a fairy or a monster or a companion.

And so A-Through-L, my eternally helpful and hopeful Wyverary, is a
literal version of what so many of us feel–that we were born out of
libraries. For latchkey kids like me, they were parents and friends.
They were where we found out who we were, by peering into book after
book like a mirror. They were safe places we could run to when the
horrors of school got to be too much, when we didn’t have anywhere
else to go, and they were places where a love of books would never be
mocked, only encouraged. That was where I learned all those fancy ways
of saying things, and the librarians who taught me were my Gandalfs,
my Dumbledores, my Athenas with clear eyes and, I suspected, pet owls
hiding behind the circulation desk. Without them, I only know small
and usual ways if saying things. We who were raised by libraries were
trained up by librarians, the wizards who seemed to know so much, and
steered us toward books we didn’t even know would change our lives.

A library is a place where “research” really is talismanic,
cabalistic, wonderful, mysterious, beautiful. Where it is a game we
can all play together. I’ve traveled to libraries all over the country
in the last year, reading to kids about all the places where I see and
catch magic, and every time I read in Ell’s big, booming voice under
the roof of a library, it seems so very right. Let me tell you why.
It’s kind of a secret, between the two hundred of us, so lean in.

We are all half beast and half library. We are half big, awkward,
occasionally fire breathing thing who want to be loved so terribly
much, who want to be useful and good, and half all the books that ever
stuck with us, changed the construction of our brains and the
architecture of our hearts. We are half creatures afraid of bumping
into the world the wrong way and roasting something accidentally and
half a jumble of instincts toward wonder and kindness borne to our
innermost selves on rafts of so many books and stories. We are all
wyveraries.

And that is why everyone asks me, with worry in their eyes, begging me
to say yes, if Ell will be in the next book. To make sure, to be
reassured, that this great and dear creature who stands in for
everyone who ever loved a library and wanted to make it proud, never
has to leave Fairyland. That he, and they, will always be in the
story.

And I tell them every time, with a twinkle in my eye: of course he will.

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Ten years ago, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh.

It wasn’t Platform 9 3/4, but it might as well have been. My life changed the moment that train pulled out of the brick archways and into the rolling green countryside beyond London–it was just beginning to be autumn then, and the trees were full of crows. I remember thinking about bird magic, auguries, every story I’d ever heard about England and Scotland. I was a tiny thing, a maiden in all but the technical sense. I knew, as the old novels say, nothing of the world. My EuroRail photo looked absurdly, hilariously, preposterously like an illustration of Snow White. I had a bacon sandwich. My mother was with me, a psychopomp in knock-off Prada sunglasses, bearing me across the wall and into the life I didn’t yet know I was in for. It was the first time I wanted something with that desperate, pure fire–and made it happen, by myself, with will and work. After all, if you grow up loving fairy tales and King Arthur and saints who battle monsters, you want the British Isles the way some kids want boyfriends. I lived there for something over a year. I came back to America for stupid reasons–but that’s what you do in your twenties. Make stupid decisions while meaning so earnestly well.

My interviewer in Finland asked me: you’ve written about everywhere you’ve lived but Edinburgh. Where is Scotland in your books?

I laughed a little, pressed my lips together as I always do when I’m thinking, looked out the window of our car at the swans nesting in the golden Nordic estuaries. This is what I told her:

A poetry professor once told me that you can never name the thing you’re writing about. If the poem is about death, you can’t say the word death. Poems about memory shouldn’t go on about the thing itself. If you’re writing about grief, you can’t actually say grief, or sadness, or even tears. If you want to talk about love, love is the one word you can’t use.

Edinburgh is the thing I am a poem about and do not name.

Today, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh. It was Platform 7. It’s just beginning to be summer now, and the fields are full of chartreuse flowers. The old churches spring up out of them like strange, huge blossoms. The train rushes over a stream so full of swans the current is pure white.

I think about bird magic again. Auguries.

I am no longer small. I know something of the world. Maybe not much of a something, but something. I have made things with my hands and heart. I look a bit pugnacious in my passport photo, like I still have something to prove. I had a bacon sandwich. My husband is with me and this time I am bearing him across the wall, to show him this object that sits at the bottom of my mind, a grey stone city with a castle and a mountain, a place that was once wholly full of fairy fruit and temptation and the rich mess of becoming bigger, becoming grown. That fairy fruit made everywhere else look dimmer for awhile. My goblin city, that swallowed me whole. I think it took falling in love with Maine to fix me–before then I always had the idea that of course I’d go back, that somehow, somehow, this was where I’d live when I could choose.

I’ve been near tears most of the morning, riding north through sheep and cattle and chapels and flowers. When you love a place, it’s hard to leave, and harder still to come back. You hope it will be proud of you, of all you became when you left to seek your fortune. You hope it will be as you remembered; you hope you are still as it knew you.
You hope it will forgive you long neglect, lines in your once-clear face, a hard blue edge of cynicism.

O goblin city, I hope you will forgive me for never writing a book about you.

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So this is one of those things where I’ve been quiet because there’s a lot going on. I’ve put off announcing this part of it, but for obvious reasons I can’t do that much longer. So here goes.

Night Shade Books and I have parted ways. They will not be publishing the third book in the Dirge for Prester John series, and rights for The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World have reverted to me.

I continue to think that Night Shade puts out wonderful books and I hope for their success. I did not take this step lightly. But their recent troubles have made our business relationship difficult, and I could not in good conscience proceed with a third book given the circumstances. Obviously I’m being a bit vague–there’s no point in airing laundry in public. This was a very hard decision, believe me. It is not about ill will or some juicy internal drama I’m keeping on the DL. Nothing juicy about it. It was a business issue that we could not, finally, resolve. It was ultimately an act of self-preservation, and I’ll leave it at that.

What this means is that at the moment, The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World are for the most part unavailable. Some copies will float around for awhile yet, but most of the eversions are gone. I hope to fix this in the next week–I have relicensed the covers from the excellent Rebecca Guay and Night Shade has been very kind and accommodating with regards to physical copies and digital files. Very shortly you will be able to buy ebooks again from Amazon, BN, Apple, etc, and order physical copies directly from me.

As for the third and final book in the series, The Spindle of Necessity, I am committed to finding a way to make sure you get to see it. I owe you a finish. Oddly enough, Prester John is my longest series to date, and I want to bring it all to a close the way I planned to from the beginning. For those of you who have stuck with the story, don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. Given the market realities, the most likely avenue for this is a Kickstarter campaign to fund a self-published version. Because the real costs of producing an ebook/limited print edition of a quality that matches the rest of the series are actually quite high, I will be using this opportunity to illustrate those costs, hiring the content editor, copy editor, and cover artist who worked on the previous books and paying them their market rates. This is a hefty undertaking, but one I believe will be valuable as part of the ongoing discussion surrounding epublishing.

I’ve been gathering details on that and doing research–as I leave for Finland tomorrow, it will not begin until I get back. If anyone has any Kickstarter advice or help they’d like to offer, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I ran Fairyland off of my own site quite apart from what is now becoming the “traditional” approach to self-publishing. I’m a bit at sea with the standard tools. The novel was not set to come out until February 2013, and I think we can stick to that timetable.

So that’s the situation. I’ll let you know as soon as the novels are available again. I’ll be heading once more into unknown waters and hoping it all comes out well in the end. I’m very sorry to have had to take this step, but I believe it was the right thing to do.

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Today, the paperback edition of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland comes out. It’s also very nearly exactly Fairyland’s birthday: the big red book is one year old.

So today I thought I would talk about the Thing. The Thing that gets criticized most often about Fairyland, the Thing I am called on to defend on panels and at conventions but have not written about online until now.

It’s the idea that Fairyland is somehow “too smart for kids”, the words are too big, the folkloric references only comprehensible to adults. That I did not, in fact, write a book for children at all.

Are there big words in Fairyland? Yes, there are. Are there references and jokes about fairy tales, folklore, classic children’s literature, politics, science, 20th century history? Yes, there are. Is Fairyland a simple, breezy story to be gobbled down without thinking, that will never challenge a child who reads it or stretch him or her beyond their comfort zones?

No, it is not.

Middle grade children actually rarely come across a book that doesn’t require learning new words and concepts. That’s kind of the whole point of being a kid. Everything’s new. Everything requires explanations. Certainly no child understands every math joke in Alice Through the Looking Glass, nor every dig at British Parliament in Peter Pan–and I rather think many kids have had to ask what the word “orgy” means when Barrie uses it. Many of us never even noticed the Christian allegory that lies at the heart of the Narnia books. If you watch the old Muppet Show, they make jokes about postmodern performance art, beat poetry, theater management, economics, and every kind of adult pop culture. The complex words they use sometimes surprise even me. There is always a balance in literature for the young–you write to teach and entertain the kids, to delight their older selves, and to amuse their parents while they read aloud or watch along. The best books, to my mind, accomplish all of these at the same time.

The thing is, young readers and viewers are pretty amazingly good at stitching together a story they love, skipping over the parts they don’t get or making up their own explanations. They like to learn new things, especially when they involve giant herds of living bicycles and stompy red dragon-type things. Nearly every “big” word I used in Fairyland can be found somewhere in the seven books of Harry Potter. Yes, kids will need to look some of them up, or ask their parents what they mean. This is part of the joy of reading as a child. Kids shouldn’t be surrounded by stories that only reflect back to them what they already know–and neither should adults.

And part of the pleasure of books like Alice, Peter Pan, Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Phantom Tollbooth–a novel that earned Norman Juster a heap of grief for being too smart for kids and way over the heads of any young readers, by the way–is rereading them as one grows up. Children’s novels can be like intricate puzzles, showing us more and more of themselves with every year we grow. I remember in college realizing that the famous Carroll line: the rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today was a fairly complex Latin pun–the word for “now” is “iam” (J and I were interchangeable in the Oxford classical system–as Indiana Jones teaches us, in the Latin alphabet Jehovah begins with an I), but “iam” is only used in the past tense and future tense–in the present tense, “now” is “nunc.” Therefore, jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

No child could possibly understand this without explanation, unless they were a linguistic genius or a scion of the Oxbridge system. But the joke works on the level of nonsense humor, which children tend to dig all the way. They don’t have to get every level of it to giggle at the idea or never getting to have jam today, to identify with it because of the injustice of parents always promising treats tomorrow. And maybe they grow up and major in Classics and one day they laugh for fifteen minutes because holy cats, that’s so clever! And it’s hardly the only massively obscure line in Alice–a book beloved of children in ever generation since it was published. I could only hope to be half as good and smart as that book that requires an annotated edition for an adult to understand everything in it. It’s always a balancing act, trying to write a book that plays to kids but appeals to their older selves, too. Do I always pull it off? Probably not. But I strive.

I want kids to be able to grow up with Fairyland. To giggle at the nonsense now and see the layers later.

That said, A lot of the complaints I’ve had come from people who give Fairyland to a reader who is just too young. I’ve known five and six year olds who love Fairyland, who ask for A-Through-L birthday cakes or listen to the audiobook while they play with their toys. Those children are exceptional. The recommended age on the cover is 10-14–and I do believe by that age many kids can “get” all the macro-level awesomeness of September’s adventures. Certainly by 12 or 13. The micro-level will come with time. Sometimes a kid, even an advanced reader, isn’t quite ready for one book or another. Sometimes an eight year old isn’t quite up to a middle grade book. That’s ok. Fairyland will be there for them in a couple of years.

And in the meantime, I want to make a promise to parents. Fairyland has many adult fans, of course, but this is for parents and teachers who might be concerned about giving the book to a child. Fairyland is going to be around for awhile–we’ve sold three more books in the series after the sequel that will be out in October, The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. This is a long-haul promise, a promise for as long as I’m writing for a young audience.

I will never talk down to your kids. I will never with my text treat them as anything less than the imaginative, capable, eager, excited creatures that they are. I will never give them less than my best work, because I understand that when you give your child one of my books, you are trusting me with a little piece of their development as humans, having faith in me to caretake their hearts and inner worlds. That is a breathtaking responsibility, and I will never take it for granted. I will tell them stories that will stretch their minds and challenge them, that will make them ask you a lot of questions. I will try to communicate to them what I believe is real and true about life in this world, I will not make it a parade of sunshine and daffodils–and I will not make it a grimdark cautionary tale about the essential terribleness of everything. I understand that even if I’m wrong, I owe you and your kids my total sincerity and honesty, my most hard-won wisdom–even about the nature of fairies and wyverns and families and time. I will try to make them laugh. Sometimes I may make them cry. But I will never hold something I think is beautiful and important back from them because it might require a trip to the dictionary. I don’t think dictionaries are scary. I think they’re magical. And I think kids are magical, too. I owe them all the magic I’ve got, because I know how books become part of you no less than DNA, how they change your brain and affect who you will become, and that’s magic, too. I promise to take that seriously, and try with each novel to live up to the wonder and power of that. I promise to use all the tools I have to create the kind of books I longed to read when I was young.

I promise, now and forever, to write stories that are smart enough for your kids.

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I am so excited that I can finally announce this!

We’ve sold two new novels to Tor!I will tell you about them!

One is a companion piece to Deathless, tentatively titled Matryoshka. This is not a sequel, but a side-by-side novel to complete what I’m calling the Leningrad Diptych. It is a retelling of Ivan and the Firebird set during the children’s evacuation of Leningrad. Some familiar faces will pop up, as in all Russian fairy tales, but it will be a story all its own. The gender-shifting trickster Grey Wolf, the Water of Life and Death, firebirds, valkyries, talking dolls and the return of Baba Yaga–Matryoshka is a dark mirror of the London evacuation and a journey into the heart of the war.

The other is my SF decopunk alt-history Hollywood pulp solar system space opera horror mystery! That’s right, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew is all grown up. (It will probably not be called anything like Radiant Car when it comes out.) A sprawling epic about love, fame, film-making, and the search for identity and authenticity in a densely populated solar system full of planets as seen through the lens of classic pulp SF: waterworlds, ice planets, and jungle moons. Imagine The Artist with giant Venusian tentacle whales.

Decopunk goodness will be out in 2014, Matryoshka in 2015.

Eeeee! New babies! I can’t wait!

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