One of my best friends is pixelcandy, who lives in Portland and is a programmer and a gamer and also does these things with three children under the age of 6 and therefore in my eyes some kind of magician.

Her oldest child is Serenity, who’s so tall and articulate I often forget that she just turned five and can’t quite read yet and is not, in fact, eight. Until I have my own, the three of them are the kids I have the most contact with, and Seren particularly, as she’s the oldest and the most outgoing and also loves Fairyland and listens to the audiobook in her room which is adorable.

So I crashed at their house the other night and the kids woke me up at 6:45 am, so I went out to sit with them and watch Shaun the Sheep and bat kid-duty for a bit since I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was sitting on the couch with Seren and she reached up and touched my necklace, saying she liked it. And the following dialogue occurred, which I reproduce for you because a bigger facepalm I can hardly imagine for myself, and those should always be shared with the internet.

Me: I got that in England, you know. Do you know what England is?

Serenity: Nope.

Me: It’s a country on the other side of the ocean you can see when you’re on the island with us. If you went all the way across that ocean, you’d find England. The people who settled this part of America came from England and another country called France.

Serenity: *not interested, watches Shaun the Sheep*

Me: *thinks of awesome thing to interest child in England* And also that’s where King Arthur lived! *does mental TA DA*

Serenity: Who’s King Arthur?

And three things happen. I make the shock-grin-gasp thing that I do whenever someone hasn’t heard of a thing I love. Almost simultaneously I remember that she’s five, and it’s not really surprising she doesn’t know who King Arthur is. And then my brain goes OMG I GOT THIS and gets all excited that I am literally the BEST PERSON EVER to explain King Arthur to a little girl for the first time. I wrote a book about it! I AM ON THIS.

But then…it happens. My entire knowledge of Arthuriana lurches forward into the talky part of my brain, every little thing I know about it from childhood obsession to grad school fights to come out first, and I start talking before the kid can get bored again but King Arthur is a huge story and SURPRISINGLY HARD to soundbite for a kindergartner. So this is what comes out:

Me: Well, a long time ago there lived a good king named Arthur who gathered all the greatest knights in the land and made them swear a vow to protect England. They were called the Knights of the Round Table. And they fought giants and dragons and monsters and went on a long quest for a cup that would make you live forever, but then King Arthur’s wife Queen Guenevere….er. Ran off? With the best knight who was named Lancelot and there was a terrible war and eventually the King died. But some people think King Arthur is just sleeping under the mountains, and he’ll come back if England needs him.

Serenity: Why did she run off with Lancelot? (Earlier in the morning, upon finding out that Dmitri and I had both been married to other people before each other, she responded with “Ew, why?” Quite so, kid. But still, not quite up to explaining the Most Famous Adulteress.)

Me: Um, she liked him a whole lot.

Serenity: *still not in any way interested, grabs a video game and tells me to play Alice so she can watch*

Me: *flails* But wait! But King Arthur had a wizard who was named Merlin and he was the greatest wizard who ever lived! And he lived backwards! *In my head, the tiny medievalists roar: THAT WAS T. H. WHITE IT IS NOT CANON DON’T SAY THAT TO THE CHILD!

Serenity: *dubiously* The greatest?

Me: Yes! Like Dumbledore and Gandalf combined!

Serenity: *is five, probably doesn’t know who Gandalf is*

And now I am desperate to communicate how awesome King Arthur is, and the kid doesn’t care, and I have had like three hours of sleep, and like, my brain is full of screaming tiny medievalists going YOU ARE RUINING IT.

Me: Ok, so one time one of the knights named Gawain fought a giant knight made all out of leaves and trees and branches!

Serenity: Like a pile of leaves?

Me: No, like a guy but his body is made of magical green branches and leaves and glowing berry-eyes. Oh, oh! And the knight was enchanted by Morgan le Fay, who was the most powerful witch ever, and when I was your brother’s age (Said brother is almost four, I was four when I first got obsessed with Arthur) she was my very favorite *considers explaining “clerk of necromancy” to the CHILD and the tiny medievalists in my head are like OH MY GOD SHE DOES NOT CARE THE WORLD IS LOST*

By the way, when I was four or five and learning about Arthur, the phrase “clerk of necromancy” was SUPER CONFUSING. First, I thought: whoa, she works at a magical grocery store bagging spells! AMAZING. Then, when I was a little older, and I understood that clerk was short for cleric, and because I grew up in Mad Men and both my father and grandfather had secretaries to do clerical work for them I was all HOLY CATS SHE IS A MAGICAL SECRETARY AND MAYBE SHE TYPES MONSTERS ALIVE OR SAYS HER SPELLS INTO THE PHONE BEST PERSON OF ALL TIME.

Anyway. I have completely bungled this. This kid had a fantasy author on her couch and yet got an utterly unsatisfactory Arthurian introduction. I forgot the WIZARD and the WITCH until she wandered off! I didn’t even say the word Camelot. What the crap. I used to tell kids stories for a living! (Not like I do now, meaning: I was a camp counselor for a summer camp and then a guide for American military kids going to museums in Tokyo and I used to tell them Greek myths and things like that. I once kept an entire school bus full of 6th graders entranced and off their teachers’ back by telling them the story of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and some of the Euripides post-facto stuff over the course of the three hour drive. I used to be able to do this on the fly, just to let some teachers I barely knew get a little peace.)

The tiny medievalists in my head were like THERE. YOU ARE FIRED. NOW THAT CHILD WILL NEVER GROW UP TO BE A MEDIEVALIST. GODDAMMIT.

I have bought her a book and The Sword in the Stone to make up for the total failure she doesn’t even know I committed. And I take this as a lesson for the possible future child of ours, that I should probably take a minute to get things straight in my head before tackling a five minute version of a massive mythology. And also that I will probably get more than one chance to tell a kid a story and not to panic. Perhaps I can think of a way to retell King Arthur via claymation sheep…

All was not completely lost. As she was getting ready for school, Serenity looked up from her snowboots and said:

Cat, were the knights like policemen? Are policemen knights?

And I smiled and said: I guess you could say that, sweetie. But only the really good policemen are knights.

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A young reader emailed me last week with a question about Fairyland. My answer grew a bit long, and I thought the exchange was interesting and fruitful, so I asked their permission to post it here. Religion is always a strange issue in my books, in that I find it fascinating and faith is something I find deeply valuable, even though my own journey has not mixed well with organized religion. I’m no longer Catholic or Christian Scientist nor a Pagan (but that’s the closest), on the other hand, I’m not a Reddit Atheist, either. I sometimes joke that I’m a non-practicing agnostic. When asked for a religion in forms, I usually put down “Lost.”

So I can’t bring myself to pin it down and say: in this universe, God means X. I can’t say: there’s no god. I can’t say: these gods are real. I can’t even say: Pookas believe in the Great Shapeless Puddle and Nalegoblins believe in the Prime Purler, because no one race believes one thing in the real world. Mythology, faith, and folklore are three fell sisters, and their ways are rich and strange.

So here’s my Yes, Virginia letter–only in this case it’s Cameron. Thanks for writing me, Cameron!

Dear Mrs. Valente,

First off, I just finished “Girl who” last night and loved it! I had a question about the mythology of it: is there a god figure? You mentioned Pan and the Dragon-but not-fish-but not, but you also mentioned evolution. It’s hard to wrap my 8th grade mind , that even with a blossoming love of mythology and is a bit rusty, around . Could you please explain this to me? Also, could you please come to Portland, Or someday or, if they have it again: BookFest in Seattle? Thank you very much and have a wonderful day!

Your fan,
Cameron

Hi Cameron!

I deliberately left the religion of Fairyland vague. Most countries have lots of religions and that’s how I figure it goes there–spriggans have different notions of how the universe works than fairies or wyverns. Swearing by Pan is kind of like how we say “oh my god” even if we’re not religious–Pan is the god of nature in Greek myth. It’s also a little bit of a reference to The Wind in the Willows, in which Pan features.

Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive, though. There is no reason a god or gods could not have created a universe that evolved–in fact, it would be stranger if he or she or they created a universe that never changed at all. If you boil evolution down to its simplest idea it’s that things change. What’s around you changes you mentally and emotionally: if you’re loved you behave differently than if you are hated, if you’re hungry you behave differently than if you never have to worry about where your next meal will come from. And a much bigger and longer scale, what’s around you changes, very slowly, the body, too. It doesn’t mean that you personally will develop wings if you live at a high altitude, but that your children’s children’s children might be able to process oxygen more efficiently, like the Sherpas of the Himalayas. That kind of change can be as divine as a resurrection or a moon goddess if you choose to see it that way.

The fairies in Fairyland take an aggressive approach to evolution, doing it quickly and consciously as a kind of hobby, which is not how it works in our world and September says so. But like many things in Fairyland, it’s just a speeded up, “on purpose” version of something in our world. Instead of it being a long, slow, unpredictable process, it’s something fairies do on purpose because it’s fun to change. For them, it doesn’t have anything to do with religion–and it doesn’t really have anything to do with religion here in our world either, no matter what you hear on the news. It’s something we observe happening in the world. If a god or gods can make the whole world and everything else we observe in it, he/she/they can allow that world to change when it needs to.

Same goes in Fairyland.

So I can’t answer what the religion of Fairyland is because there are many, just like in the real world. No one has a “right” religion over there, even if they swear by Pan sometimes. As I do in real life, I let the people of Fairyland have their beliefs and I don’t trouble them much about it.

I was in Portland, OR last year and I hope I’ll get to come back when the sequel comes out–and maybe BookFest, too, you never know! Seattle is my hometown, after all.

Cat

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I read Into Thin Air earlier this week–an account of the 1996 Mt Everest disaster in which eight climbers died. Written by the same guy who wrote Into the Wild–only this time Krakauer was actually there, one of the surviving climbers.

It’s fascinating–I love good narrative non-fiction and I don’t get to read enough of it. (Recs encouraged!) I’m aware it’s a controversial book–Anatoli Bourkeev, one of the mountain guides, co-wrote his own book contradicting Krakauer on basically all the point haivng to do with Bourkreev. But honestly, I found the evidence refuting that book in the postscript of ITA convincing, and I just didn’t think Krakauer really criticized Boukreev that much, certainly not enough to spark their epic bitchfest about it which only resolved when Bourkreev died on Annapurna. But then, I’m part of a small literary community too, I know people flip out over perceived slights that didn’t result in anyone dying.

Krakauer originally went to Everest to write an article on the commercialization of the mountain and the climbing of it. Bits of that make it into the book, but it’s understandably overshadowed by, you know, horrible death. However, I find this fascinating, and I wish I knew of another book that covered it more fully.

How can climbing Everest go in 60 years from an impossible feat that even the best of men failed at to something that, if you’re reasonably fit and understand the risk, you can pay someone to get you up and down the mountain with little climbing experience of any kind? Given that state, what is the point of corporate sponsorship of such expeditions? What can the companies get out of it when it’s not longer this humanity-elevating activity? There’s a huge trash problem, too, not just discarded gas canisters on the mountain (and bodies of the dead) but Base Camp has got to be just a wreck by now, given the book was written in 1996.

I’m fascinated by how Everest is climbed now–mostly white people pay Sherpas to climb it ahead of them and build camps for them. Sherpas do the crazy climbing (for relatively little pay compared to the white guides) just to set up ropes and support for the clients, who have a much easier time because of said ropes, oxygen, food, tea. The Sherpa who climbed with Hillary is famous among mountaineers, but Hillary is The Guy Who Climbed Everest in the West. It’s amazing to me. All these men standing on the shoulders of Sherpas to crow their victory over a mountain they could never have done had others not climbed it several times beforehand to turn down the beds. (Slightly snarky, it’s still hard, obviously, and the cold and altitude still kill people and munch off their fingers and toes with frostbite, but Krakauer makes the point that Everest is huge, but not technically nearly as difficult as nearby shorter peaks. It’s the altitude, not the climbing that’s a problem. But part of that lack of difficulty has to be that there’s a whole group of people smoothing the way for you!)

I’m not a climber and I never will be. I love mountains, but I love the feeling of being in them, surrounded by them. I don’t feel the need to stand on top, to measure myself against them because, well, the mountain wins. Every time. I have no desire to climb Everest or anything else. My fascination is akin to the one I have for polar exploration–the extremes are just so mind-boggling, the bizarre things that this planet can throw up in the face of humans poking their heads into remote and untouched places.

I would like to see Everest. To see the Himalayas with my own eyes. The one thing that really did spark my desire to strap on boots was the Khumpu Icefall, this crazy glacial labyrinth not very far up the mountain. That made my heart beat faster, the idea of mad ice seracs tottering everywhere. Like another world. But I don’t really think one can go to Base Camp to just hang out and talk to people, when you are not a climber and also a white American girl. I would feel very much like a poser and a douche. Also I hear the permits to enter Nepal are insane, price-wise. So I will probably never see them–but I have a longing, I do.

Have any of you read the book? Been to Nepal? Know any other books on the commercialization angle? (Or other good narrative non-ficiton?) I’m eager to discuss it, but have no one to talk about it with!

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YOU GUYS.

I just fell on my ass (and by ass I mean ass, hip, and back) THREE TIMES in the snow. I have not fallen in snow since Cleveland (in which I busted my tailbone during this California Girl’s first Actual Winter)! NOT SMOOTH. It was like a cartoon: foot slips, ass over teakettle, girl is looking at the sky.

My pride is bruised! The theme for Autoaudiography this week was going to be something else, but it is clear that the universe wants songs about SNOW and WINTER. Maybe if we sing about it, we will get more snow and less BS 50 degree days. Sympathetic magic for the win.

So: snow, winter, cold, ice, that sort of thing. Remember to keep all links free and legal so I don’t get it from the RIAA, and comb the comments for awesomeness.

I love this song by The Dismemberment Plan–I listened to it a lot when I was first moving to New England as it seemed to speak to my disillusionment with humans and myself and everything ever. (Maine saves!) I’ve always loved monologuey songs anyway.

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Autoaudiography keeps trucking along! Hope you guys are enjoying it as much as I am. (I need an Autoaudiography icon!) Slightly late this week as the Cold That Would Not Die showed up for a last hurrah.

This week, the theme is Covers. You know what a cover is: they didn’t write the song but they rocked the hell out of it, often completely changing the feel of the song in the process. Post your favorites in the comments and look through everyone else’s posts for new favorites. As always, please keep the links free and legal.

My new favorite cover is this Brandi Carlisle reimagining of Bryan Adams’ cheesefest song Heaven from the time known as the late 80s. I heard it during the finale of Friday Night Lights and downloaded it immediately. It is fantastic!

Let’s hear yours…

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