Tuesday, November 25, 2014

When bad things happen to good characters

Last week I got to visit a school in my neighborhood to talk about my book, The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya. The kids had excellent questions about parrots and muffins and writing. One boy wisely chose to email me. He knew that his question would spoil part of the story for others. And so, if you haven't read the book ...... please be advised.

SPOILER ALERT!    (I've always wanted to say that.)

With his permission, I'm going to share his emails to me and my answer.


My name is Johnny and I'm nine years old. 

I loved your book! I really loved the adventure Zeno was on and how he had to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. I also liked when Alya climbed the six steps. There was so much tension and excitement.

I was hoping Zeno and Bunny would stay friends. I know sometimes characters die in books, so I was just wondering why you chose him to die?

Thank you, 
Johnny C.
Hi Johnny,

I'm glad that you loved my book. But I'm really grateful that you asked me such an important question. I had to think a lot about why I chose to let Bunny die.

First, I wondered did any of the characters really have to die? I think the answer to that is yes. If a book is realistic, then the events that the author describes should have real consequences. I think that Zeno's dangerous journey over the ocean is more exciting because you knew that bad things really might happen. Without real risks and real dangers,  his accomplishment wouldn't mean as much.

Hawks do kill pigeons. They don't do it to be cruel. They do it because they need food. I think you can accept that the hawk would attack a bird. But you want to know why did that bird have to be Bunny?

I could have let the hawk attack a different pigeon. But Zeno is so selfish, he wouldn't have helped anyone except Bunny. All of Zeno's adventures teach him important lessons. First he learns that a friend needs to fight for a friend. But he won't really learn how important that friendship is until he loses Bunny. Zeno has to learn the hard way.

If Zeno hadn't learn those lessons, he wouldn't have been there to help Alya when she needed it. That would have been sad too.

Like you, I hoped that Zeno and Bunny would stay friends. I do know that Zeno remembers everything that Bunny taught him. And, in that way, Bunny lives on.

Thank you again for asking me such a great question.

Jane Kelley


Thank you for writing back to me. What you said made a lot of sense because Bunny was such a good friend and Zeno cared for Bunny and when Bunny died, it changed Zeno and made the story better. It was sad, but I realize why it had to happen.

I can't wait to read your other books.

Johnny C.

I am grateful to Johnny for letting me share his thoughts on my blog. I'm lucky to have a reader who is willing to journey with my characters, over the Atlantic Ocean or up the six steps to a Brooklyn brownstone. And willing to think about why those journeys are important.

I'm humbled to be reminded that my characters matter to my readers. Writing novels for kids is a privilege––and a responsibility. Sometimes bad things have to happen to good characters––but there better be a very, very, very good reason.

(Thank you, Eliza Wheeler, for your amazing drawing of Zeno and Alya.) 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Everyone is an artist!

RUM JUNGLE by Julia Coash
Last month I went to Open Studio exhibit in New Haven, Connecticut. My friend Julia Coash was showing her paintings. I knew Julie's work would be hauntingly beautiful. I didn't expect to be so inspired by  the entire event. 

Julie Coash talking to other artists.
In an open studio,  artists allow people into their workplaces. This was open in another way. Anyone could participate. In other words, anyone can be an artist. Without a judge or gatekeeper, anything can be art.

I saw:  traditional painting, photography, sculpture, graphic design, colorful circles on small paper flags, giant boulders made from paper mache, food, recorded voices, a woman with her leg in a box. Some of the work moved me more than others, but I admired everyone for participating––including the people like me who wandered from room to room looking at the art.

"Everyone is an artist," said Joseph Beuys, an artist and art theorist. He believed in art education for all. He wanted to encourage people to find ways to be creative in everyday life.

As a writer, I know that I only do part of the job. Nothing I create exists until someone reads my words and uses his or her own imagination to fill in the gaps. (And believe me, I know I leave a lot of gaps!)

Last month I also got to attend Ghouls and Gourds festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Many people come in costume, so you can see the creativity that might otherwise be hidden. 

Look! This picture proves it! Everyone is an artist!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"When we asked the students what they most wanted for the school, the answer was books."

Last year my good friends Tom and Julie Coash traveled in Laos. They found incredible scenery, amazing archeological sites, beautiful art––and the Lone Buffalo School. The school was founded in Phonsavan by Manophet, an inspirational man whose nickname was Lone Buffalo. He dedicated his life to helping others.

At the Lone Buffalo School, boys and girls study in English, play sports, and, sadly, take classes in Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) awareness. This is necessary because the United States dropped more ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War than it dropped during World War II. Eighty thousand unexploded bombs are still a threat to the population.*

Students at the Lone Buffalo School in Phonsavan, Laos
Tom and Julie taught classes to the students while they were there. But they wanted to continue to help the students.

"When we asked them what they most wanted for their school, the answer was books. There are no English language books...no library of any kind. No way to take books home to practice reading and learn more about the world."

Julie and Tom wondered how to get books to these eager students? They decided to start the non-profit organization CARRY A BOOK TO LAOS to encourage anyone traveling to that wonderful country to do just that. They arranged for drop-off locations in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. They started a Facebook page:  CARRY A BOOK TO LAOS If you visit that page, you will find out more about the organization.

We all know the power of social media. These links have connected us in new ways and made the world smaller. Please like the page! Help pass along the word! It's an easy way to do a lot of good.

And if you are lucky enough to be traveling to Laos, take a book for the school.

Julie and Tom recently mailed boxes of donated books to the school. I was very pleased and proud to send along a few copies of my own.

* For source of these facts and more information, click this link:  UXO bombs in Laos

Monday, September 22, 2014


The question is pretty simple. Does it matter what we do?

Some say no. The climate isn't changing. (Hey-–it wasn't that hot today.) Or they say, the climate is always changing. (Remember the ice age?) Or they say, other countries pollute more than we do. Why should our country be the only ones to take action? 

Some people say no, even though they believe that climate change is happening. They say, it's too late to stop the inevitable. They say, corporations are inherently evil. They say, I'm just one person out of seven billion. What can I do? I tried already. It didn't help.

The ice caps are melting. The sea level is rising. The change in the climate has already displaced species and destroyed the habitats of butterflies, bees, birds, bears––and yes, humans.

But luckily there are lots of people who don't say NO.

Who ride a bike to work. Who recycle. Who plant trees. Who live with a little less. Who turn off a light. Who conserve water. Who bring a canvas bag to the grocery store.

Who marched in New York City on September 21, 2014.

I'm proud to have marched with them.

It's always better to take a positive step. To do whatever you can. To believe that you can make a difference. To keep trying.

Because YES, it does matter what we do.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Learning from the French and Indian War

I'm writing a historical novel, so I've been spending a lot of time in the 18th century. Learning as I write is one of my great pleasures. I didn't know that nails were so valuable they were often used as currency. Or that corn was first cultivated by the Native Americans. Their annual Green Corn Festival probably took place right about now.

"The Adoption of Mary Jemison" by Robert Griffing

My book is based on the life of Mary Jemison who lived in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War. In those days, the British government, the French government, and certain Iroquois tribes all had claim to the same part of North America. So did German, Scotch, Dutch, and Irish immigrants, like Mary's family. When settlers crowded their hunting grounds, the Iroquois tried to scare them away by terrorizing them.

When Mary was thirteen, the Jemison family was captured by six Shawnee warriors and four Frenchmen. Most of the Jemisons were killed, but Mary was given to two Seneca women whose brother had been killed in George Washington's first battle in Pennsylvania. The Seneca women could have chosen vengeance by killing Mary however they pleased. Or they could have adopted her to take the place of the brother they lost. Mary was fortunate. Her new sisters treated her with such kindness, Mary chose to remain among the Seneca until she died at age 90.

Such adoptions seem unfathomable. How could anyone welcome their enemy into their family? Wouldn't it be dangerous? Perhaps. But if we can't adopt our enemies, maybe we can at least try to adopt a new point of view.

How can we do that? How can we ever understand each other when we take refuge behind our walls, whether real or metaphoric?

We can begin by reading about other people's lives. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why not just open the can?

Dear Two-Legged One,

I thought your book was finished. You know, the one that features an amazing cat who uses her wisdom and prowess to rescue two humans and catch several mice.

Why can't I sit on these pages?

What are copy edits? Those marks look as insignificant as small insects. Why are you bothering to study them? I know you have better things to do.

Isn't it time for my dinner? For goodness sake, just open the can!


Dear Blackberry,

You raise an interesting question. Why did the copy editor spend so much time putting commas  in the right places? Why am I making sure the copy editor understood what I intended to write so that the commas will be in the right places? Why not--as you say--just open the can?

Because it's good to pursue excellence. Books can be published without correct grammar or graceful language. Neither has much to do with plot or character. But all too often we choose what is cheap or easy. In a culture of short cuts, any well crafted thing should be treasured.

You are a cat. You leave no part of yourself un-groomed. So it is with prose. If hair is out of place, it will distract.

I'm grateful to the copy editor who worked so hard on this book. I applaud anyone who pursues excellence in anything.


PS --- You had your dinner. Now it's time for a nap.

Friday, May 30, 2014


Like most writers, I spend a lot of time thinking about my voice. I try to be uniquely clever or comical or poignant. I want to stand out from all the others with stories to tell.

Just some of the many members of the Brooklyn Community Chorus

But for a few hours every week, I focus on a different kind of voice. I'm a member of the Brooklyn Community Chorus. Tomorrow night is our spring concert. We'll dress in black clothing with a "pop" of color so we won't look too funereal. But the black is what's important. It erases the individual to help turn us into a chorus.

I love singing with a group. It's the only way I can. I never had the kind of voice that effortlessly soars along the notes. Mentally I know what I should do, but for whatever the reason, the shape of my nose or the density of my bones, I'll never sing a solo. At least, not intentionally. There's always a chance that I'll make a mistake and come in a beat before the rest of the altos. Or hang on to a note after everyone else observed the conductor's cut-off. Then the audience would hear MY voice in the wrong spot. This is why we always joke before each performance––DON'T SOLO!

Today's culture is all about soloing. It's hyper-competitive and short-sightedly greedy. Many of the institutions that used to bring us together have been diminished.

And so I would like to sing (ha ha) the praises of blending voices. Of listening to each other––because if you can't hear your neighbor's voice, then you're too loud. Of counterpoint phrases that allow each of the sections to have a turn at the melody. Of harmonies that resolve in a big lush wave of sound. Of music that can uplift not just those who are in the chorus, but those who come to hear a group of all ages and abilities and political beliefs make music.

Without (fingers crossed) a solo from me!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Love Lock on the Brooklyn Bridge

 Many years ago––31 to be exact––I was in New York City on Easter Sunday. My family in Wisconsin were celebrating the holiday with the traditions of my childhood:  church, egg hunt, chocolate rabbits, and roast lamb dinner. None of these options were available to me. And yet I didn't want the day to go by without some celebration.

I asked a friend of mine (yes at that point we were just friends) if he wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Lee said, "Sure." So we took the subway to the Brooklyn side and set out.

The distance is a mile. The views are spectacular. The traffic hums beneath those iconic cables. The vibrations feel like the electric charge of the entire city.

I can't recall what we talked about. But I do remember this. The walk felt so important that we agreed to repeat it every Easter for the rest of our lives. This promise was no more impractical than two people coming to New York City to try their luck at art's game of chance.

We neared the Manhattan side. We paused to savor one last moment suspended as we were between river and sky. We turned to smile at each other. Did our smiles inch closer?


A drop of water fell from one of those suspension cables and landed on Lee's head. We laughed and continued on our way. Neither one of us mentioned the moment when we almost kissed.

Until a few months later when we did kiss.

 Lee and I have kept that vow––among others. We have walked the bridge every Easter Sunday; sometimes in winter coats, sometimes with friends, eventually carrying our baby daughter.

As we walked this year, I noticed that hundreds of people had fastened padlocks at various points along the bridge. The locks were inscribed with two names and a date. I hope that the Brooklyn Bridge connects all those couples as it has connected Lee and me.

Monday, April 7, 2014

a poem


by Belinda Diepenheim

perched in splendour
in a Brooklyn oak
calling, Kathekon!
Liberated from one
servant, in that space
where "I"
does not include

Gray can be all corners
and mood,
it can be the lost spot
beneath unfinished blue
sky. Alya lies
in the path of gray,
betrayed by her own

Zeno, brilliant, beautiful
bird wisely self improves
as Alya tries after all trying
has furled inside her.

Who is "I" if it is alone?
A fragment of gray
to paint with the colour
and music of another
calling, you're the friend!
Yes, yes, yes.

Friday, March 7, 2014



As a writer, I travel to fascinating places. I've been on top of Mt. Greylock, in an attic full of bats, battling a storm over the Atlantic Ocean––in my imagination.

I also get to visit bookstores, classrooms and libraries all across the country. Last Sunday, I went someplace I have never been. Inside a yurt.

This yurt is the special place for the youth group at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Hartland, Vermont. I was fortunate enough to be invited inside to speak with them.

I read the section from The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya in which Zeno first meets the homing pigeons. Zeno knows 127 words, but he isn't quite clear on the meaning of  “friend” or “home.” He has heard that a friend is "another I," so he thinks his friends should also be African grey parrots.

The kids were much wiser. They knew the Golden Rule says we should treat our friends as if they were ourselves. They knew it would be boring if we were all the same. They knew that they can learn from having friends who are different. They knew the distinction between a house and a home.

It was fitting that we discussed those ideas in the yurt. The word "yurt" means "home" in  Mongolian. The kids were of different ages and had different experiences. Several had moved quite a lot. I could tell that belonging to this youth group means a great deal to them.

Nomadic people carry their homes with them. We may not have such beautiful portable structures or any camels to help lug them. But we can still bring our friends and families with us wherever we go. As well as a few books!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Snow hushes the city

Blackberry is wondering what happened to the world.

New York City has been transformed by snow.  This most recent precipitation clung to the branches. The snow turned everything it touched into a Winter Wonderland.
The change isn't just visual. All that white adds an abundance of light. It softens the harsh edges of the city. It hushes the sounds. The dogs are almost beside themselves with joy. The people smile.
It really is like magic.
Now I love to read books in which there are dragons and wizards. But the books I write aren't usually about creating brand new worlds. 
I like to find some kind of magic in this one.  Rainbows, meteors, people doing what they thought was impossible, birds finding their way home. 
 I like to make magic too. Storytelling can do that. 
So can listening to a friend or sharing a smile.

photo by L. M. Lucius

Friday, January 24, 2014


My husband Lee was just as crazy as I was!

I rarely blog about my non-writing life. Usually it doesn’t seem very exciting. But I make an exception for this entry.  Because, as the pictures prove, there I am running across the snow to jump in the Atlantic Ocean!


First, a little background. My mom Virginia Carson Kelley will be turning 90 in a month. Since her descendants live all over the country, we decided to gather on New Year’s weekend. We rented a house right on the shore in Stonington, Connecticut. We picked the house for its lovely views of the ocean. As we hoped, there were beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Watching the snowstorm from inside was wonderful. I felt as if I were sailing on a ship – only a lot warmer. But one of the main considerations in selecting this house would be that we could easily swim.

Why oh why oh why would anyone want to leave a warm house, dressed in only a swimming suit, and voluntarily jump in water so cold that chunks of ice are floating on its surface?

I had to. My brother did it first.  

In truth, the worst part was while I was still inside the house, looking out at the snow. As I ran across the snow, toward the water, I felt exhilarated. One thing about the cold, it doesn’t allow hesitation. As soon as I got near the water, I jumped in.

And out. I believe that I was so quick that the fibers of my swimming suit barely got wet.

But I did it. And I’m very glad I did.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Comments from my cat

Dear Two-Legged One---

There was a lot of commotion in my habitat.

Strangers came to visit. One used to live here permanently. Now she has been captured by something called "College." But why, after going to all the trouble of escaping, has she returned to it? Especially if, as she complains, there are no cats there. 

I haven’t written to you in a while. I’ve been hoping that some of the fuss about that parrot Zeno would die down. Alas, just the other day, a human named K T Horning wrote:

“Zeno is egotistical, entertaining, and poignant as he learns about the meaning of words he knew but never understood, like friend and home.”

I already know the meanings of those words. Home is where the cans are opened. Friends are those who pet me when I ask them. But only when I ask them.

I sense that you are beginning a brand new book. You have not been sitting at that contraption. You’ve been writing in a notebook. 

It's a time of great excitement. You have entered the woods. Your nose quivers. There are so many scents. Which trail should you pursue? Don't go after what others have discarded. Find your own prey. Remember to dig deep.

Happy hunting!