War Stories

My grandfather, after he retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, taught military history for a number of years, and by the time I was born he’d amassed a small library’s worth of books and then some. I was twelve when I pulled Bill Mauldin’s Up Front off the shelf. It’s a tidy volume bound in brown cloth, filled with single-panel cartoons depicting infantry life in World War II alongside Mauldin’s prose notes on the subject. It’s a funny, dark, straightforward book that’s frequently described as “grim” in reviews and commentary. I’ve loved it since I first read it through.

There are lots of topics that are off-limits when you’re writing for kids. Books, movies, music, whatever it is, there are things we’re comfortable with kids exploring and things we’re not. Sex, torture, gleeful violence, sexual violence–they’re all out-of-bounds up to the age of sixteen or so. Kids should learn about the world, we say, and about other people, but not too much. Not too fast. We introduce death slowly, and we argue when we do about whether we did the right thing.

Which is why I’m fascinated by our enthusiasm for kids playing at war.

Girls dress up as Katniss Everdeen for Halloween and parents are thrilled that they have such an empowering costume available to them. Since 1977, thousands of children have played Rebels and Empire in their backyards with cheerful abandon. Even that simplest of card games, the one you learn to while away a long wait at the doctor’s office, is called War.

We’re (thank goodness) no longer happy to have boys with BB guns running around the neighborhood shooting at each other with only a metal-bucket helmet for protection. Elementary school playgrounds ban sword fights with sticks. But once we take away the genuine danger of child-size weapons, we’ve decided that other parts of war–the maneuvering, the rhetoric, and yes, the fighting and the dying, if it’s clean enough or heroic enough–are all fair game.

What do we see in war that makes us say, yes, this is child’s play? It certainly isn’t the horrific bombings, casual murder, frequent boredom, civilian deaths, or exhausting uncertainty. It isn’t body parts hanging from shattered tree limbs or children, real children, reenacting the way their best friend died; we don’t give kids All Quiet on the Western Front or Syrian Dust and say, here, blueprints for your next game. But once you’ve taken the hard parts out, what exactly is it that we think is left?

You draw a card, and I draw a card. One of them is numerically superior to the other, and so the losing card is ceded and absorbed into the winner’s forces. We draw, and we come up even, and thus results not just a skirmish, but a battle, wherein we bet the fate of three cards on the power of one. I lose, and you absorb my losses into your deck.

It’s a pleasant game. Polite. Unambiguous. In each round there are winners and losers, and sometimes we are one and sometimes we are the other. Losses may well be won back again. The forces are interchangeable, and we almost never play to the drawn-out end. It’s all very civilized.

We play at war, kids and adults who have never in our lives seen a battlefield except when the cannons are plugged with cement. Assuming we have even an inkling of what we’re doing, it must take a special kind of mental gymnastics to focus on the parts we find interesting or exciting and box up the deaths and dismemberings on the shelf labeled non-threatening ideas for the moment. It’s a very particular kind of deception.

I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, as long as we know that we’re lying to ourselves.

War happens. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t or wish it away. At the same time, though, most of us don’t want to go looking for it, and we sure as hell don’t want to help it along. Our best bet, then, is to borrow from Sun Tzu: know your enemy. That means trying to understand war as best we can, even those of us who by accidents of time and place haven’t at this point in our lives heard our friends die beside us or seen the aftermath of a bombing up close.

What we have to go on is stories, the true and the fictional. We read histories, watch dramatizations, and listen to first-hand accounts, and yes, as kids we play these out with our toy soldiers the same way we play house or play funeral. Stories and games are ways we make sense of incomprehensible things like adulthood, like death, like thousands and sometimes millions of people killing each other as fast as energy and ingenuity will let them, like physics and astronomy and entropy.

It’s worth doing. We just have to remember that it’s an inexact attempt at best.

Lucky for us.

Up Front, in case this wasn’t clear, isn’t a book for kids. At all. But there are other books that are, some of them excellent. Nathan Hale’s Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood is a nonfiction graphic novel about World War I. Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is a picture book about Japanese-American families interned in Idaho during World War II. I’ve previously mentioned Number the Stars.

My grandfather, who spent twenty years in the Army, who never once spoke about his combat experiences in Vietnam when he knew I could hear him, kept his copy of Up Front when he and my grandmother moved to their retirement community and left most of their library with my parents. My grandmother gave it to me when he died.

Folded inside the book is a Life magazine article Mauldin wrote about the 1945 American Legion convention. I don’t know for sure that my grandfather was the person who clipped it; the book has a $1.00 price scribbled inside the cover in pencil, suggesting that it was purchased used, but the arrangement of staples on the article inside looks to me like Grandpa’s doing. He would have been eighteen at the time.

In any case, the article begins on page 38. Page 37, on the flip side, is a full-page black-and-white photograph: “U.S. BOMBERS THAT SCOURGED GERMANY ARE LINED UP FOR SCRAP PILE AT WALNUT RIDGE, ARK.” That war, at least, was over.

Canteen #5

LENA: But when I saw it today–hey, it’s Cap! Cap, over here!

CAP: Hey, guys.

ROB: Hey, friend!

LENA: Where have you been? Were you sick again?

CAP: Yeah, sick and then catching up on work. Sorry for not leaving a note.

LENA: You mean on the Bulletin Board of Bad Ideas?

ROB: Nobody calls it that except you.

LENA: It’s going to catch on.

CAP: Did something happen with the bulletin board while I was gone?

ROB: No more than usual.

CAP: Uh-oh.

LENA: You’ll notice that it’s not on the wall anymore.

CAP: Um…where is it?

LENA: The current theory is that it developed sentience and is holding our notes for ransom.

CAP: …Interesting theory.

ROB: I have pointed out that scribbled notes about bikes for sale and Have You Seen My Werewolf aren’t especially valuable–

LENA: But if it thinks they’re valuable–

ROB: In that case the larger problem is that it thinks.

LENA (to CAP): Things got really weird while you were gone. Never leave us again.

CAP (grinning): I’ll try. What were y’all talking about when I came in?

LENA: Oh! Rob had this fascinating theory–

ROB (modestly): It’s moderately interesting–

LENA: –that every time we have a conversation here, each of our stories–



SALAMANDER: Have you seen an invisible castle anywhere?

LENA: Is this a prank? The manager doesn’t really like those.

SALAMANDER: No, no! It shouldn’t be here, and I don’t think it is, but it isn’t where it belongs, either, so I wanted to ask just in case you’d seen it. Or run into it. You don’t look like you’ve run into it. None of you look concussed. (Pause.) Except maybe that one.

CAP: I’m not concussed, I’m just really tired.

ROB: I haven’t seen or run into anything like that.

LENA: Me either.

ROB: Maybe you should try the manager. An invisible castle seems like an actual problem if it’s here.

SALAMANDER: I will! Oh, but I wished to speak first with the permanent citizens.

CAP (side-eyeing ROB and LENA): Permanent citizens?

LENA: We haven’t seen an invisible castle.


ROB: Or run into one.

SALAMANDER: Alas. Thank you anyway and goodbye now.

LENA: You’re, um, you’re welcome.

CAP: Permanent citizens?

LENA: …Rob has this theory.

CAP: Uh huh.

LENA: We know that this place is outside of our stories, but maybe we bring back something, just a little bit of something, when we visit here.

CAP: What kind of something?

ROB: Like feelings, or new ideas. Not things, but…somethings.

CAP: Hmm. Interesting.

LENA: Stories always change over time.

ROB: Maybe this is part of why.

CAP: So things like jokes and idioms and whatever might make their way into the old stories when people tell them, because y’all are all swapping them here?

ROB: In theory it happens really, really slowly.

LENA: It could take generations.

ROB: It might not be that slow.

CAP: So what’s the thing you’re trying to make happen in your story?

ROB (guilty): Uh, what do you mean?

CAP: The salamander person said you’d been here a lot lately.

ROB: So has Lena!

LENA: I’m keeping you company.

ROB: Fine. Yes. I’m hoping to make things happen a little sooner than generations.

CAP: What kind of things?

ROB: …Someone introduced skinny jeans to my story.

CAP: Ooh. Ouch.

ROB: Yes. I’m not a fan. How do you wear those?

CAP: I guess I’m used to them.

ROB: Do you go running through the woods in them.

CAP: Rarely. I see your point.

ROB: Yes.

LENA: I’m not sure how we get you back in leggings, though.

ROB: I’d settle for trousers. Or sweatpants.

CAP: Can we make it happen?

ROB: I’m still not sure.

CAP: Hmm…how did skinny jeans make it into your story in the first place? Maybe we can trace it back from there.

(ROB and LENA turn on her slowly, without blinking.)

CAP: Hey.


CAP: Come on, someone had to be thinking of putting you in skinny jeans long before I was wearing them.

(One slow blink from each of them.)

CAP: Dammit.

ROB: Yes.

CAP: I don’t think it’s going to help you out at all for me to wear tights.

ROB: They’re more like leggings.

CAP: Or leggings.

LENA: He said he’d settle for sweatpants.

CAP: Sweatpants?

ROB: Sweatpants.

(Two days later, CAP comes back, this time in sweatpants.)

CAP: Hey guys.


ROB: …Hey.

CAP (to ROB): Whoa. You look miserable. What’s wrong?

(ROB lets out a dramatic wail and goes to get more coffee as CAP stares after him. LENA shrugs resignedly.)

LENA: Pumpkin pants.

CAP: Pumpkin pants? Like in Shakespeare?

LENA: Yup.


CAP: That one’s not my fault.

LENA: Yup.

Who Would You Want To Be?

Wolfie the Bunny coverIf you haven’t read Wolfie the Bunny, you’re in for a treat. It’s a bright yellow picture book about a family of rabbits that takes in a baby wolf they find in a basket on their front porch. The parents are immediately infatuated with baby Wolfie; the daughter, Dot, is much more suspicious. It’s a sweet book that includes, among other things, repeated threats of homicide.

It’s one of my favorite books to read aloud to a group. Older kids love it as much as younger ones. There’s humor, action, and a bold illustration style that plays well to a room.

And when the projector won’t start and you need to stall, it’s a tremendously fun book with which to ask a group of second graders: Which character would you want to be?

It’s always an interesting question to consider, in books for both kids and adults, because it can be a tricky one. Do you decide based on the character’s history? Their skills and interests? The people they surround themselves with? The place they live? And what about disqualifying factors? Maybe you really love a character and they’re good at something you’ve always wanted to try, but you can’t stomach the way they treat someone else. Or you share a character’s passion for music and get very excited about the way she talks about it, but you have to balance that with the fact that she spends much of the novel in the hospital, and you’re deathly afraid of needles. It’s a strange thing to think about, borrowing an entire existence in one go.

So I asked these kids about Wolfie the Bunny. The conversation went like this.

CAP: Which character would you want to be? Go ahead, shout it out. (They did. Some of them yelled “Wolfie!” and some of them yelled “Dot!”) Okay, show of hands, who would want to be Dot?

(All of the girls raised their hands.)

CAP: And who would want to be Wolfie?

(All of the boys raised their hands. I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was a little disappointed, so I nodded like that answered the question and switched topics entirely.)

CAP: Okay, shout it out, who do you think is the bravest character in the book?

KIDS (gleefully): Dot!!

CAP: What makes her brave?

(They raised their hands and gave me a bunch of really good answers here—she stood up to a bear even though he could eat her, she told her parents what she thought even though they didn’t agree, etc.)

CAP: Okay, wait, I’ve forgotten, who did you say you wanted to be? Shout it out.

And here this hilarious thing happened, where all of the girls—and some of the boys—shouted “Dot!” with great enthusiasm, and several of the boys shouted “Wolfie!” with equal enthusiasm, and about a dozen of the remaining boys sat there with their mouths half-open, unable to decide. You could watch the gears turning behind their eyes. Some of them mumbled “Wolfie” a beat behind everyone else, and some of them said “Dot,” and some of them didn’t say anything at all.

I asked a different question, and we moved right along, and eventually the projector was fixed and the presentation went on as scheduled.

Who would you want to be? It’s a game, an idle one with no winners or losers. Try these lives on for size and see if one of them fits. No winners and no losers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself unexpectedly discomfited when the person whose life intrigues you most doesn’t look, talk, think, or act like you. You like people across a range of genders and they only like girls, and you have to wrap your head around how that matters to you. They have all of the skills you covet, but they also have a terrible singing voice, and singing is the primary thing in your life after food and water. They have blond hair and you like your brown hair; is that a sticking point for you? Do you find yourself trying to squish and twist the text to accommodate the parts of yourself you can’t give up, or are you willing to stretch yourself instead?

Plenty of people have already talked about how good it is for us to get outside of ourselves like that sometimes, and how important it is to tell a broad swath of stories because of that. We repeat aphorisms on the subject from Atticus Finch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is my favorite examination of the subject; she’s compassionate and needle-sharp at once.

What’s interesting to me about the who-would-you-want-to-be game that’s a little different from the diversity, inclusivity, etc. discussion is the limited circumstances the game places in front of you. Who would you want to be in this story? You can be a sweet wolf or a brave bunny (or, I guess, a homicidal bear), but in Wolfie the Bunny you can’t decide to be a sweet bunny or a brave wolf, because we don’t meet anyone like that on the page. Sure, Dot has her moments of empathy, and Wolfie has his moments of determination, and we can go searching those out. We hope that characters show nuance even in picture books. Still, no matter how nuanced, each character is given a specific set of circumstances and actions, and nothing else; and we have to decide exactly how far we can see ourselves going along with them.

In a limited field of options, we may sometimes get lucky and find our dream selves exactly center on the page, but much more often, what we’re going to have to decide is, which of these lives fits well enough?

That question demands not only empathy but an active choice to reconcile ourselves to imperfection. Our answer requires us to ask, will I stand by this character’s decisions even if I don’t agree with them all the time? Even if I don’t love them, even if they’re someone I wouldn’t get along with in real life? Even if I wouldn’t really want to be this person if I could help it? In this specific context, we ask ourselves, can I understand them, and perhaps admire them, enough?

You’re a boy, and you identify with Wolfie in that regard; and you want to be brave, so you identify with Dot. Now choose between the two. It’s artificial. It’s mind-bending. It’s often uncomfortable. And then you reach the end of the book, and you’re back in your very own skin, in your very own life, and the choices in front of you still aren’t perfect. They never are. We tell our kids that you can grow up to be whatever you want to be with hard work, talent, determination, pick your poison, but we can recognize in our own lives that that’s simply not true. I will never have the lungs to run a marathon no matter how hard I train; I am not wired to teach in a public school classroom; I will never work in Mission Control on a NASA mission to the moon because we don’t do that these days, and so I made different choices in high school and then in college, and now I’m here instead of somewhere else. I’m as happy as anyone can be right now and wouldn’t trade my life for all the moon landings in the solar system, though that, too, is partly a matter of chance, and anything can change.

The choices in front of us aren’t perfect, and they’re limited in scope no matter who you are; but that’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It just is. (The fact that some people face more limits than others because of the way society is structured is, as always, a point worth taking note of, and it can absolutely be a bad thing.) Our lives are messier and more complicated than any book we’ll ever read—Wolfie the Bunny or War and Peace—and stories are both how we make sense of the chaos and how we practice the decisions we may need to make.

Who would you be in this story? It’s a game.

It doesn’t mean anything unless you want it to.

Spoiler Alert: I Like Young Adult Fiction

So I’m not really sure how it happened, but we seem to have decided as a society that young adult books aren’t real books.

That’s the conclusion I have to draw from two separate conversations I’ve overheard this week, one at the bookstore and one at one of my other jobs, which included variations on “I mean, it’s YA, but it’s not really YA, because it’s good.” One was at meeting of a book club, in reference to The Giver; I don’t know what the other comment was about.

I wasn’t technically part of either conversation–hazards of the service industry–so I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, which was to ask (politely) for the speakers to clarify what they meant by a book not really being YA if it was good. Can kids’ books be good under that definition? What qualifies as YA? And why on earth are we so squeamish, as adults, about admitting that we sometimes read books for which teenagers are the target audience?

Quite aside from our rather bizarre hypocrisy of collectively expecting adults in the entertainment industry (and elsewhere) to look like teenagers when we apparently otherwise hold said teenagers in some contempt, I’m curious about what it is we object to about YA. I mean, I’m assuming that a lot of you who have read this far don’t object to it at all, but we’re a self-selecting sample. A larger (though similarly self-selecting) sample of librarians, booksellers, and authors I’ve worked or spoken with have related frequent anecdotes about being taken less seriously when they discuss YA than when they talk about either children’s or adult books. I can certainly say that I’ve had very few adult customers show any compunctions about purchasing children’s books to read themselves, but even some of my regular customers remain embarrassed when they buy Shadowshaper or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong; when Twilight gets as much attention as it has, and when it then spawns not only a movie franchise but the surreal cultural phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Gray, I can understand that you might not have gotten the best first impression of young adult fiction. Maybe you’re also skeptical of the hoopla surrounding The Hunger Games and Harry Potter–I’d consider the last three books in that series to be YA–or have heard way too many people talking about love triangles and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in relation to stories for teenagers and are feeling a little burned out.

It’s curious to me, though, that the people I’ve overheard aren’t rejecting vampire books (the book club that appreciated The Giver is quite enthusiastic about non-Twilight vampires) or dystopias (witness the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984), or even genre fiction in general. They’re rejecting all literature written for young adults. Genre fiction, realistic fiction, humor, if it’s written with teenagers in mind, it’s out.

Notably, the three dystopian classics I just listed are all frequently read or taught in high school. We consider them eminently suitable for young adult audiences. But where I have no problems selling 1984 to a forty-five-year-old father of two, I find that the suggestion that they check out Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is met with blank stares, even though I would consider the two books to be comparably subtle (so, not especially, but there’s definitely a time and a place where that works well), and even though Little Brother is in fact free to read online if anyone’s interested.

Is it about the age of the main characters? But I’m not alone in loving To Kill a Mockingbird and City of Thieves, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is popular in multiple adaptations. And The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds is a solid example of a young adult novel in which the protagonist essentially functions as an adult, with jobs, grief, relationships, and looking after family the primary concerns.

Is it the lack of graphic sex and violence? I’d like to direct you here to the massive cultural obsession with Jane Austen, who relates very little sex or violence indeed, and the fact that I Am the Messenger and The Female of the Species are considered YA even with scenes of violence and sexual content that are as explicit as most literary fiction and sometimes more so.

I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know why some of us who work extensively with young adult fiction have run into skepticism, or why I keep hearing these kinds of comments, some of which customers say to my face as if I’ll undoubtedly agree. I don’t know why I’ve seen people who are clearly engrossed in March put it down when they find out it’s won YA honors. (We shelve it with adult books now and it does well.)

But I want to add on something that may or may not be a counterpoint to everything I’ve said so far: The Book Thief, which was originally published as an adult novel with a young narrator, is now frequently shelved in YA. I almost never have to hand-sell it; both adults and teenagers pick it up off the shelf without a word from me. Adults will sometimes ask where they can find it. The same is true of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: it’s shelved in both YA and adult, because that’s where people look for it, and adults are quite happy to pick it up from the YA shelves.

There’s nothing that makes The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street more or less literary than, say, The Hate U Give. All are beautifully-written stories of vital, deeply human characters with much to say about wider society. The difference is in how we talk about them. We talk about The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street as books worth reading on their own merits. We celebrate the act of reading them rather than shaming each other or ourselves for it.

We can do that with more books, if we choose to. I’m starting to see it already with The Hate U Give, for which probably half my customers have been adults buying for themselves.

The Hunger Games still doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. It really isn’t mine. But we get to decide whether we dislike something for what it is, or whether we dislike it because we hold people who like it in contempt. You might notice that I’m heavily biased towards the former.

We decide what we take seriously. We decide what we let ourselves explore and what we let ourselves delight in.

Lucky us.

Canteen #3

LENA: That can’t possibly be true.

ROB: It is! Honestly!

CAP: So what did you say to him?

ROB: “Excuse me, I believe that’s going to be my hat in a minute.”

LENA (as she and Cap both dissolve laughing): And he just gave it to you?

ROB: Wouldn’t you?…Oh no, what’s going on?

(They look. A small crowd is beginning to gather in the doorway.)

LENA: Uh-oh.

CAP (to Rob): Are you wanted for anything?

ROB (faintly miffed): Not here.

LENA: There’s nothing planned for today, right?

CAP: Not that I know of.

ROB: Maybe we should go.

CAP: There’s another crowd at the back door.

LENA: I don’t see any weapons.

CAP: And the manager hasn’t gotten out her sword…Wait a minute, are those kids?


ROB: Oh, we are definitely leaving.

LENA: You like children!

ROB: These aren’t children, they’re monsters.

CAP: I don’t see the problem.

ROB: You will in a minute. See the one in the big coat?

CAP: Yes?

ROB: Look familiar to you?

(Pause as they stare.)

LENA: …Oh.

CAP: Hm. Yeah. Gotcha.

LENA: I thought he wore a top hat, though.

ROB: Sometimes. It showed up in the illustrations and I guess most versions have kept it, but it’s not really his thing.

CAP: I would have thought you guys would get along nicely.

ROB: Dodger and I run in slightly different circles.

LENA: Well, they can’t thieve here. The manager wouldn’t stand for it, and she still doesn’t look too unhappy. It must be fine.

ROB: They don’t have to thieve to be monsters.

CAP: Okay, your cryptic comments are very interesting and all, but do you want to explain why you’re feuding with a twelve-year-old kid?

ROB: It’s not a feud.

CAP: Still asking.

ROB: Um…

LENA: We can start guessing if you’d rather.

ROB: Please don’t.

LENA: He once ate a honey cake you’d baked for your grandmother.

ROB: …No.

CAP: He painted your house blue, and you prefer green.

ROB: What? No.

LENA: You were both planning to steal the crown jewels and he got there first.

ROB: We don’t steal stuff like that!

CAP: He stole your wife’s wedding band and sold it before you could retrieve it.

ROB (with dignity): I am not married.

LENA: Is it something stupid? It’s going to be something stupid.

ROB: Can we drop this, please?

CAP: Did he pick your pocket? Is that all?

ROB: No.

LENA: Wait. I know that tone. Did you accuse him of picking your pocket?


ROB: Anybody want more coffee? Cap?

CAP: Have you ever seen me drink coffee?

ROB: You said you missed being able to drink it. I thought you might be ready to reintroduce it.

CAP (grinning): My, what impeccable timing you have, it’s like you’ve read my mind.

LENA: I can’t believe you’d go around accusing people at random.

ROB: It was hardly at random!

LENA: Poor kid. I bet you had your wallet with you all along.

ROB: It was my keys, and no, it turned out that a dragon had taken them for a chew toy.

CAP: A dragon?

ROB: Why do you think they have that sign now?


CAP: I thought that was because of the scorch marks.

ROB: Same incident. The dragon got mad when I tried to take the keys back. And then that kid starts roaring his head off about his injured dignity and how he’s going to get Parliament in on this, and everyone…Oh no.

CAP: What?

ROB: Hide me.

CAP: What??

ROB: He’s coming this way!

LENA: Rob. He has a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He’s getting a table. He’s not plotting your demise.

ROB: You don’t know that.

(Dodger passes by, his eyes on his newspaper.)

DODGER: Morning, Rob.

ROB: Morning, Jack.

(He continues on his way. Rob collapses back in his seat.)

LENA: You are ridiculous.

CAP (suddenly): What’s that on the floor?

LENA: Did he drop something?

CAP: Is that dragon dung? Because it looks like the kind that gives off that poisonous—


LENA: Excuse me, everyone, we need to evacuate, please move calmly to the exits—

(ONE WEEK LATER, a new sign:

Patrons are responsible for all damages caused by imitation bodily excretions”)

Story Time

We do story time on Saturday at the bookstore. A dozen-plus families pile into the space, and someone sings, plays instruments, and reads books.

That person is not me. After I sang “Row Row Row Your Boat” to two kids I babysat for some years ago, the three-year-old patted me gently on the knee and said, “Please don’t sing.” Mine is a specific kind of musical talent, which is to say, the missing kind. But someone comes in and does story time for us, and we get a lot of kids listening these days.

Story time is hectic, and there’s always plenty to watch out for—toddlers pulling on books as they cruise around the room; babies crawling underfoot; that one two-year-old who always tries to ramble right on out the front door—but it still makes Saturday my favorite day of the week. The little kids are fun. The parents, many of whom are regulars, are generally lovely. And best of all, older siblings frequently tag along with the tiny ones, and I get to do my favorite part of my job: talking about books with kids, not just for them.

It’s one thing to write about, and talk with other booksellers and parents and librarians about, which Jason Reynolds novel is our favorite or why the comic-book-panel setup works in Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. It’s another thing entirely to actually get to share the books we’re talking about with the kids they’re written for.

So much of what happens in stories is what plays out inside our own heads. That means that any discussion I have with other grown-ups about what a ten-year-old might think of Number the Stars is ultimately academic; what matters is the reaction that ten-year-old has to actually reading the book. It’s a privilege and a pleasure when kids are willing to open up about their experiences.

So here’s to the kids who told me this weekend about the puns they loved in A Series of Unfortunate Events and how excited they were that Crooked Kingdom was just as good as Six of Crows. Thanks for making my job well and truly worth the occasional customer who thinks I should be able to get him a paperback copy of a book that’s only been published in hardcover. You never fail to surprise me with the things you notice and discover.

And here’s to story time. Thirty people in a room listening to one book makes for a morning where it doesn’t matter if you’ve read Shh! We Have a Plan so often that you know it by heart; for a few minutes it’s a different story than you’ve ever read before, because someone there is hearing it for the very first time.

Green Glass and Grown-Ups


I’ve worked in bookstores off and on, mostly on, for a number of years, and, in case you hadn’t guessed, I gravitate towards the children’s section. The places I’ve worked haven’t gone in for the whole primary-colors-everywhere thing—or, worse, pastels—so it’s mostly just good books and enthusiastic people, and almost no one there who tries to tell me that I should be happy Hemingway wrote chauvinistic protagonists, because anything else would apparently misrepresent the period in which he was writing.

And we wouldn’t want that.


While I gravitate towards the children’s section, I’m still, as it turns out, a grown-up person, currently reading Vaclav Havel and holding two jobs.* Thus I found that many of my favorite kids’ books, in the present day and in my childhood, have one notable thing in common: the adult characters are people, too.

There are dozens of examples to choose from, but I’ll stick to a few. In The Circuit and Number the Stars, the protagonists’ parents make complex, weighty decisions on-page. They interact with both their kids and other adults. There are other adults, and they sweat, eat, doubt, laugh, and die like any other human. In Stone Soup, the adults themselves are the main characters, even though there are kids in the story. And there are plenty of other titles—Peter Spier’s picture book Father, May I Come?, for example, where two different generations of Dutch boys wish to join their fathers’ lifeboat crews, or Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons books, which I read in seventh grade, and in which the series doesn’t end when the protagonist grows up.

The primary joy of these books is in the stories, but as a kid who couldn’t see herself growing up to be much like the adults she knew, it was a really big deal for me to read books in which child characters I identified with grew up to be adults I liked. It meant, for lack of a less dramatic way to phrase it, that my friends and I might have futures. I don’t know why I thought for so long that people turned miserable and inflexible on their 21st birthdays the way that Cinderella’s carriage went back to being a pumpkin at midnight. It was a ludicrous idea, especially when so many of the adults around me were thoroughly interesting and lovely people in their own right. And yet that fear dogged me all the way through my teens.

So it was a big deal to read Number the Stars, where the adults risked their lives to help their friends, or Father, May I Come? where they held jobs like cobbler and appliance repairperson in addition to manning the lifeboat. These grown-ups weren’t antagonists, ineffective comic foils, or cardboard cutouts of family members. They had plans and dreams and people they cared about. The child characters were part of all of that.

Which meant that maybe my friends and I were also part of that, and maybe we could grow up to have a say in it, and maybe the plans we made would still matter when we were grown.

It was an even bigger deal for me to read Dealing with Dragons, where (minor spoiler, but hey, the fun part is how it all happens) a girl who’d made unconventional plans for her future didn’t get a tidy ending; even after she grew up she kept having adventures. And those adventures actually happened on the page, instead of just being implied by a cheery sentence in the last paragraph. I didn’t have to identify all that strongly with Cimorene to feel both surprised, delighted, and relieved at that.

It’s great (and important!) to see yourself and your peers reflected in what you read. It can be tough to see only that reflection, frozen static in time, with a clear past but no discernible future. It’s not just me. Kids at the bookstore sometimes voice disappointment about an otherwise good book where the grown-ups are boring. The teenagers in a book group I used to lead talked in the same vein.

Adults are people too, and we all benefit from that fact, in and out of fiction.

So for all of us who like our stories multi-generational, I present, at long last, the book whose cover graces the top of this post, Greenglass House: a cheery, welcoming story about an inn full of possible smugglers, thieves, and tabletop game enthusiasts.

Including a couple of kids.

The premise is entertaining all on its own. Milo, our protagonist, is twelve. His parents own Greenglass House, an inn that is rather popular with smugglers of some strange and fascinating varieties. At the moment, though, smugglers are far from Milo’s mind; he’s just finishing his homework on the first day of winter break (of his own volition, no less) and is looking forward to Christmas at the inn, when it’s just him and his folks. Unfortunately for this happy vision of peace and quiet, the bell rings to announce the arrival of a guest. Milo is thoroughly put out—but then a second guest arrives, and a third, fourth, and fifth, and he starts to figure out that there’s something very strange indeed going on in his house.

There are stories within stories. There’s hot chocolate I’d love to drink if I could only have milk. There’s intrigue and treachery and a somewhat alarming cake. There’s maybe a tiny, tiny hint of magic.

And there are grown-ups everywhere, of all ages and professions, if by “all professions” we’re mostly including the shadier ones. (Never fear, there’s also a cook.) They’re each after something that matters to them. Best of all, not a one of them is the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning.

Read it curled up under a blanket as the temperature drops again, and maybe try not to choose a future for yourself that involves aiding and abetting smugglers of illicit ballpoint pens.

*And yes, apparently my definition of adulthood is reading Vaclav Havel and holding two jobs. I was going to qualify that with some kind of caveat, but you know what? I actually think it stands. I mean, it’s not all-encompassing or anything, but it stands.

Canteen #2

CAP: So when does it open?

LENA: Saturday. It all went…really fast.

CAP: That’s so exciting!

LENA: Yeah, I can’t wait for people to hear it. Everyone sounds incredible.

CAP: How’s the plot go?

LENA: You mean, is it good?

CAP: I mean what happens?

LENA: It’s an opera. Everything happens.

CAP: Come on.

LENA: No, really. It’s pretty much all there.

CAP: Dancing, duels, arguments, unrequited love—

LENA: Okay, no duels this time. But all the rest of it.

CAP: No duels?

LENA: Don’t worry, there’s pretty much a murder.

CAP: Pretty much?

LENA: And some very operatic suicides. It’s a tragedy. It’s a very tragic tragedy. (Pause.) Why do you suppose that is?

CAP: What?

LENA: Why’s it have to be a tragedy? Why do we keep telling tragic love stories? I mean, would it kill us to let Romeo and Juliet wake up next to each other at the end?

CAP: I saw a version like that once. It was…really good, actually.

LENA: Yes! It can be! If the story’s good, there’s no need to twist it around to make you cry at the end. You can be afraid for someone and have them survive. It doesn’t make the fear any less real.

CAP: No. It doesn’t.

LENA: And you can have something that’s sad without making it a tragedy. My brother is both dead and alive, depending on which version you read, but neither one is a tragedy in the classic sense.

CAP: Yeah. And it’s not melodramatic, either. It’s something that happens that hurts.

LENA: Exactly. But it’s still not a tragedy. I mean I know a tragedy is more than sad, with the arc of fate and whatnot, but that’s still what the plot points boil down to. Something sad happens at the end, even if the rest of the story had its ups and downs.

CAP: But there are good stories that are tragedies and worth telling.

LENA: Sure. I love The Queen of Spades. I love hearing it every night. I’m just suddenly wondering what it is with tragedies.

CAP: People say happy endings are for kids.

LENA: Why?

CAP: I guess because they make the stories easier.

LENA: But they…don’t, so much of the time. A happy ending—or a joyous ending, anyway; I don’t feel like there’s any such thing as a happy ending—a joyous ending doesn’t change the horrible things that happened beforehand. I should know. Half the time, for me, Christmas comes, and against all odds most of the family is alive, and we’ve had time to grieve and now there’s love in the air. But my brother is still dead.

CAP: …Yeah.

LENA: And anyway, it’s not as if bad things don’t happen to both kids and adults. Why not let people see the fictional people they love get something good now and then, even if the real people can’t have it?

CAP: Why do you suppose we care so much about endings?

LENA: Why wouldn’t we?

CAP: Well…because like you said, they don’t change what happened beforehand. And presumably they don’t change what happens after.

LENA: True.

CAP: But I’ve still written like three separate posts already that mostly have to do with how a story ends. Why is that?

LENA: Lack of imagination on your part?

CAP: Thank you so much.

LENA: We have to stop a story somewhere. And the ending is the last thing we remember.

CAP: So if the ending leaves us feeling sad, or hopeful, or both…

LENA: That’s how we’ll frame the rest of the story.

CAP: So we tell tragedies because—hmm.

LENA: Because…because they feel true. Because they make you feel like you’re close to something big and real.

CAP: So happy endings are for kids because we don’t think they can handle something too big or too real?

LENA: Yeah, but maybe we’re oversimplifying. Like if it’s all about wherever you end a story, then

The Way Things End

My classmates and I grew up in the 1990s and came of age in the 2000s. We lived, we were told, in the era after history. The Cold War had ended; the first Gulf War had gone well; the stock market was exciting but benign. AIDS had been, if not tamed, then at least partially defanged, though I don’t recall my hometown paper covering that last point as assiduously as it did the first three.

The country was strong and prosperous. That message was everywhere, from our textbooks to our televisions. It was implicit in the prevalence of fast-fashion chains and in the chaotic flash of the consumer electronics boom: go ahead, spend that money! You won’t need it later. Tomorrow would be better than today, and if we were smart and did our homework and ate all our vegetables, we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be, because the dragons had all been slain. All that was left was spot cleanup and the glorious joy of the Future. We were growing up in a happily ever after.

You can guess where I’m going with this, because we’re all living through it. Surprise! Here we are, and the world holds neither the unquestioned joy of “happily,” nor the comfortable cosmic certainty of “ever after.”

This is not a woe-is-us post. We’re hardly the first people in history to confront a world that doesn’t match the rhetoric, and it’s not as if the rhetoric described everyone’s worlds in the first place.

No, this post, like pretty much all of the posts that will hopefully follow it, is about stories.

There was a small shelf of fairy tales at one of my favorite libraries when I was a teenager, and I liked to poke through them on occasion. Their plots honestly run together. The many ways to trick a troll or a witch or the tsar turn out to be remarkably similar, and the hero is almost always young and beautiful, or anyways young. I loved to read those stories. Some day I might talk about one or two of my favorites. Most of them, though, evaporated from my memory as soon as I turned the page.

What stuck with me were the endings. Every book had some happily-ever-afters, but there was a wide spectrum to visit beyond that. In a tall volume of Norwegian tales I found the equivocal “and if they’re not dead, they’re still alive.” In Russian stories there were mysterious instances in which the speaker, at the end, would announce that he was in fact witness to the close of this story—the wedding or the party or the execution, whatever it was—and that he had drunk soup there, and that, at least in the translation I remember best, “it ran down my mustache but didn’t go into my mouth.”

I say soup. Sometimes it’s soup, sometimes it’s beer. This is a blog about children’s books, but I’m not going to pretend it’s always soup.

I’m not going to pretend, either, that I understand the full significance of these endings in their original languages and contexts. But even in translation, there’s a kind of suspension that fills your heart to the brim in an ending where the characters’ fates are given in only the very broadest, very most factual terms: they’re either dead or alive, and that’s the truth. And there’s something better than closure when, at the finale of a tale told well, the formerly anonymous narrator announces that he and his mustache were in fact present at the events described. It brings the fantastical world of the story into our world after all, our world with pots and pans and soup and mustaches.

Happily ever after is good sometimes. I’m just noting that there are options.

Those options, for the record, are specific to fairy tales. We don’t get to pick and choose from them in our own lives. We don’t get to decide whether we end up with a mug and a mustache or an ever after. No matter how we want to tell our own stories, no matter how perfectly we set up our narrative arc, things will go wrong that we have little control over, or none at all. No one chooses an autoimmune disorder or a house fire. No one chooses a hurricane, a civil war, or the murder of a friend. Sometimes we lose. I hope when we do we can go back and try our hardest to pick up where we left off, or that we start again from where we are. Still, it’s a true thing: sometimes we lose. Sometimes the dragon swallows us whole.

No matter what we were told as children, and no matter what we may tell ourselves, we don’t live in the blank pages after the story ends, free to pen our own personal narrative from scratch. We live instead in a complex, sprawling, ungainly mass of words somewhere in the middle of a draft that several thousand people are editing simultaneously. We fight to make a story we want to live in, but a large part of what most of us strive for, regardless of whether we have kids or grandkids or simply people and institutions that we care about, is that the story keeps going after us. We strive to build a narrative where we don’t live to see the end.

In that narrative, we tell stories. We wash the dishes and turn down the lights and spin tales for one another. It’s the one time we get to make a unilateral decision on what happens next. It’s the one time we get to wrap everything up for ourselves. We decide, in our tellings, whether Cinderella marries the prince or instead goes into business with her fairy godmother making temporary carriages for local pubgoers. We decide whether only a royal family gets a happily-ever-after, or whether we can imagine what one might look like for a refugee. We decide what stories we’re willing to end with the admission that we were there, and we drank the soup: we saw what happened, and we celebrated, or we saw what happened, and we drank our soup anyway.

Stories by themselves don’t make us who we are, and they don’t make the world what it is. Even so, they’re how we make sense of ourselves and the people we see around us, and because of that they’re indispensable. The point of this blog is to talk about stories—specifically some of the stories we make for kids, which are frequently just as good for adults. Mostly it won’t be as philosophical as all of this. Definitely it won’t usually be this long.

Sometimes things will run this long because they need to be said all the way through.

Mostly it’s going to be stuff about books and pictures. There will be the occasional dragon, too. I think we can agree that they haven’t all been slain, and also that maybe that’s sometimes just as well, all things considered.

But that’s a conversation for another day. In the meantime, welcome. Glad you’re here.