Sunday, December 29, 2013


One of the best parts of the holiday season is spending time with friends. (I'm lucky––I consider my family members to be friends.) We exchange gifts. We share delicious food. We do our best to light up the long evenings.

I have other friends who have done a great deal to keep the darkness at bay. They've been such an important part of my life. I love them dearly––but sometimes I ignore them for years. They don't mind. They wait patiently on the shelf. Then my daughter needs something to read, and I run to the bookcase, eager to introduce her to one of my literary friends.

 My publisher has a motto.

I love that sentiment. I'm so proud that they considered Zeno & Alya to be that kind of book.

Lately I’ve been thinking about all the books who have given me wonderful companions.

Wilbur the pig.  I know, Charlotte the spider gets that lovely bit of praise at the end. But  Wilbur is the one with enthusiasms. You have to love a pig who tries to spin a web!

Mary Lennox.  She’s so disagreeable, I had to love her. She works so hard to bring the garden back to life.

Jo March. I suppose I identified most strongly with her – but not because she wanted to be a writer. I was every bit as clumsy as she was. And my older sister was as perfect as Meg.
My list could go on and on. But I think I'll go spend some time with dear old friends.

I hope that you all found time this holiday season to spend time with yours – and make new ones.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Just Name It

My nephew Alex recently started a job with a company called Catchword. It's a naming agency. Their clients are corporations who are launching new products or rethinking their existence, but I think they could start a whole division to help people like me. 

Writers have to name things all the time. Characters, cities, streets, pets, just to mention a few. In historical fiction, names must be changed to protect the innocent. If you’re writing a book that involves any world building, you’ll have to name all the creatures, the clothing, the food, the transportation, and whatever screen device they watch or watches them. No wonder I stick to my version of realistic fiction. I know I could never come up with all those names!
I haven’t even mentioned the most important thing that needs a name––the book itself . 

I don’t remember having a Eureka moment when I thought of this title. It seems pretty straightforward. Half of it is comprised of the names of the two main characters––Zeno (the African grey parrot) and Alya (the girl). The squiggle of an ampersand that links them promises a closer connection than an ordinary "and."

 I’ve already blogged about how the parrot was named after the Greek philosopher Zeno who was one of the early Stoics. The parrot Zeno is a curmudgeon, so it makes sense that his name ends in “no.” 
The girl's name had to start with the letter A. I liked how "Alya" sounds strong, without being harsh. The syllable at the end is kind of like a cheer or the noise tennis players make when they smash the ball cross-court. “Yah!” Sounds in words are like a little bit of hidden music.
But what about the rest? What about Desperate Adventures? Why not reckless quests? Serious escapades? Overwhelming exploits?   

Desperate has despair. Overcoming despair is often what I write about––even though most of my readers are years from being adults. If you want to observe true courage, watch a kid walk down the hall of her middle school. 

Adventure has advent––the start, the beginning, the arrival of something important, like a brand new story.

Aren’t words wonderful? 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why did I write about an African grey parrot?

Last week I participated in an event called "The Inside Story." It was sponsored by the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Bank Street Bookstore. 
It's one of the best children's bookstores in New York City.

Eleven middle-grade authors were each given the chance to share a story about their story.  I decided to answer a question that many have wondered about. 

Why did I write a book about an African grey parrot?

The answer is simple. I had to. I was obsessed.

I’m fascinated by how brains work. Several years ago, I read about Dr. Pepperberg’s intelligence studies with her African grey parrot, Alex.

Before she did her research, many people believed that parrots were only good at, well, parroting. Dr. Pepperberg proved that Alex knew what he was saying. He could correctly identify shapes, colors, and quantities. He wasn’t just good at recognition, he also invented words. He called an apple a “banerry” – a banana cherry.

Dr. Pepperberg used Alex’s emotions to keep him on task. If he got bored, she praised her assistant for learning so quickly. Alex always got back to work––he had to be the smartest one in the room.

After reading about Alex, I really wanted my own parrot. I knew that our cat Blackberry would never allow that. Luckily I had another option. If I couldn’t own an African grey, I could write about one.

Obsessions are useful. Writing a novel is a long process. Being passionate about something––anything––can help you keep going. I had a lot of fun imagining what a parrot would do after he lost his owner and flew out into the great wild world of Brooklyn. The first thing he wants is food, of course. That’s why he flies to Alya’s bedroom window. She’s a girl who’s having treatments for leukemia. She’s gotten so weak that she’s lost her sense of self.

When I envisioned the novel, I didn’t expect that the parrot and the girl would have much in common. But I learned that when parrots are bored, they pluck their own feathers. Zeno imprisoned in the pet store loses his identity in much the same way that Alya has. What a triumph for them both at the end when his feathers and her hair grow back.

My obsession with parrots enabled me to explore many of the ideas I wanted to write about. There was another benefit. When I spoke for Zeno and other parrots – I could definitively answer the age-old question. Polly does NOT want a cracker.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

With Ghouls and Gourds at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

These birds reminded me of Zeno.

Last Saturday, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden had a big party in the Cherry Esplanade. They invited musicians, circus performers, stilt walkers, pumpkin carvers, and a group of word-wizards also known as children’s book writers.
The writers were each given a table, a chair––and a pumpkin.

There was a special place where we read from our books.

But what I really love about these festivals is that I meet so many more kids than can fit inside a classroom or a bookstore. Talking with readers is always fun. (It's even more entertaining when they're super heroes, woodland creatures, Ninja girls and kitty cats.) They passed by my table and looked at my book. They read the jacket flap. They admired the cover.  Amazingly, their adult companions all wanted to buy their kids a book. After they did, from a temporary bookstore, the kids came back to ask, somewhat shyly, Would you sign?  

WOULD I SIGN?  Of course! The kids patiently spelled their names.  They probably wondered why I wrote so slowly, but I’m always a bit nervous that I’ll misspell a name and ruin someone’s book. Then I signed mine with the date.  Unfortunately there’s never enough time for me to write everything that I wish I could to these young readers. So I thought I would put that message here.

Dear Reader,
         Thank you for joining my characters in this journey. I hope they take you someplace you never thought you’d go. I hope you find them to be good company. I hope they brought the kinds of snacks you like!  And thank you for being a reader of books – any books, not just mine. Because readers are wonderful people.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friend Friday with Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson invited me to do a guest post on her blog. She's the author of many books, including the Newbery Honor winner Hattie Big Sky and Hattie Ever After.  Hattie is an amazing and inspiring character. I encourage you all to get to know her.

I was delighted to have the chance to explain how Zeno got his name. What started as a random choice turned out to be an important theme for the book. 

To visit Kirby Larson's blog

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Inspired By Park Slope

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya will be in bookstores in less than two weeks, and hopefully in your hands soon after that. If you look at the cover, you’ll see that Eliza Wheeler drew a Brooklyn brownstone that could be on my street. 

Certain parts of the book are straight from my imagination, but the setting is very specific to Park Slope, my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I thought it would be fun to share some pictures of the places and the birds that inspired me.

Pigeons are pretty much everywhere in New York City. Only a very few people like them. I took it as a tremendous compliment when my editor Liz Szabla told me that she’ll never think of pigeons the same way again after she read about Bunny, the noble pigeon who teaches Zeno the meaning of the word “home.”

Monk parrots are becoming more common too. Flocks have nested in many places all across the country, but mine have chosen to live in Green-Wood Cemetery, which is located about a mile from my apartment.
If you look closely, you can  see two green Monk parrots perched at the top of a pine tree. They were chattering away to their offspring who were safe inside the large nest that surrounds the tallest spire at the grand entrance to the cemetery.
This is where Zeno hoped to reside. He thought it would be fitting for such a “booful, briyant” bird like him.

 And here is where the Monk parrots forced him to take refuge––on top of this statue of an angel. The arrogant Zeno believes it is a “parrot man.”

And here is the most important location of all. This bakery is the source of the banana nut muffins. A muffin is what first lures Zeno to Alya’s window. Over the course of the novel, the muffins become much more than a delicious treat. They are—like all the favorite foods we share with friends—a little piece of home.

Friday, September 6, 2013


Dear Two-legged One,

I just finished reading your new novel.

Do you realize that there is not one single cat in the book? In fact, it’s full of birds! Parrots, pigeons, cardinals and even sparrows.  As you know, I love to watch birds from the window. But I never expected to care about what happens to them. They’re birds!

And yet, I was enthralled by the adventures of Zeno the parrot. Would he ever find a banana-nut muffin? Would he really become friends with a pigeon? Would he learn the meaning of "home"? 

Would he teach the girl Alya how to try? Or would she slide into the gray corner?

They both came so close to forgetting who they were. When Zeno suffered in the cage, you described it so well. You must know the pain  of being unable to do what makes you who you are.

So why do you scold me for clawing the furniture? Cats scratch to make our mark. Cats hunt for food—even if the tuna we find is in your sandwich. We must be true to ourselves.

 I think you understand that. You showed such sympathy for the animals––for a human.

Like that other review in Publishers Weekly said, you do know something about cross-species friendship. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Becoming a writer

I just celebrated my birthday. Since I happened to be spending some time in my childhood home, I started thinking about how Jane the writer came to be.

I grew up in a place called Fairy Chasm. Over a hundred years ago, one of the residents thought the children resembled fairies as they skipped along the paths. 

Chasm is another name for ravine, but it sounds much darker, more mysterious, like these woods right behind my house.

My bedroom was in the attic. This is a picture of the desk my dad built for me, tucked under the eaves. 

The most import part of the room were two large bookshelves, full of old books that had been treasured by generations of children. Mary Poppins, Wizard of Oz, Ivanhoe, Wuthering Heights.

But the real reason I became a writer is because of what was at the end of the lane. 

This path led to other paths. Some were only in my mind. But all eventually emerged at the shore of Lake Michigan, where there were no boundaries except some place way off in the distance, where water met sky.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Good-bye, Columbus!

Alas, I'm not that writer-in-residence at Thurber House anymore. 
It's wonderful to be back with my family and friends in Brooklyn, 
but I miss a lot about Columbus, Ohio. 

I learned so much from teaching the young writers.  

The teenage writers were so articulate and passionate about their work. 
They made me feel smarter just by talking with them.

The younger writers were so enthusiastic and creative
--even on days when they weren't wearing costumes!

I felt part of a great community of writers who had spent time in Columbus. 
I was honored to autograph the wall after my appearance 
at Cover to Cover, an amazing independent bookstore. 

The city itself was so beautiful. 
I loved being able to walk or ride my bike along the Scioto River. 

This Topiary Park was just a few blocks from Thurber's House. 
Seeing the familiar from a new perspective inspired me 
whenever I walked among these figures based on 
Seurat's painting of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

I'm grateful to everyone at Thurber House 
for making me feel so welcome
 and always being willing to laugh with me. 
I miss everything about my month in Columbus.  

Did I mention the ice cream?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Looking for the ghost

Staying at the Thurber House has been very inspirational. Some of the stories James Thurber wrote were based on things that actually happened in this house—including “The Night The Ghost Got In.”  Many people who have worked here have had their own ghost encounter. Since my second novel is about a haunted house, I expected that I would too.

But I didn’t. I slept undisturbed. I heard no thumps. I felt no brush of cobwebs. Now as a writer I've learned that you can’t always wait for inspiration to pay you a visit. Sometimes you must be brave and go look for it. Especially if it is something disturbing.

So one night, that’s what I did.

I waited until dark. I turned off all the lights. With only the faint glow of my cell phone, I crept down the same stairs where James Thurber had heard the thumps almost a hundred years ago. All my senses were alert. But I didn’t see or feel anything. And then, as I turned the corner and stood upon the bottom step, I saw something glowing beneath the dining room floorboards.

I gasped and grabbed the newel post. I seemed to see the light pulse. Or maybe I was the one who was trembling.

When I leaned closer to take this photograph, I realized what it was. Someone had left the light on in the basement.

There was a logical explanation. And yet nothing could have persuaded me to go down there to turn off that light.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast"

I’m staying in James Thurber’s house in Columbus, Ohio.  I’m honored to be this year’s Thurber House Children’s Writer in Residence. I can’t believe a week has already passed since I arrived. Everyone here is so welcoming, and rightfully proud of how much their city has to offer. I’ve only started to go exploring, because I've been busy writing my new novel.

I’ve already done some great work here – how could I help it with this as a writing space?
Okay, I’m kidding. That’s the desk in James Thurber’s bedroom.

This is a picture of my own. Even if I'm not actually able to sit at his desk, it’s so inspiring to be here.  I feel connected not just to Thurber, but to all the dozens of other writers who have stayed in the attic. Who've heard the ghostly creak of the stairs. Who've watched the storm clouds cross the Ohio sky from the garret window. Who've left a bit of themselves behind on the bookshelf. Thank you all for keeping me company!

This past week, I’ve given workshops to five different groups and met nearly one hundred young writers. I envy their imaginations and I'm impressed by how bravely they worked. Some had never written a story before. I'm sure some others have already written more books than I have.

After giving a workshop at the Worthington Library, I got the chance to share some tea in the children's section with another favorite literary figure of mine. 

That reminded me of something the Queen tells Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. "Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Staying here in James Thurber's house makes it easy to believe impossible things!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

After The Storm

I'm standing in "Sandy Remix"
(photo by Katherine Koch)

I wasn’t in New York City when Hurricane Sandy hit last October. But when I returned to my park soon after, I was shocked to see how many trees had fallen. There were mountains of broken branches and trunks. Eventually most were chipped into mulch and so returned to the earth. But a few lucky bits of wood were used by the tree-house architect, Roderick Wolgamott Romero, to build "Sandy Remix."

You can go in it, as I did the other day, when you visit the Brooklyn Botanic garden. It’s amazing. Who could resist climbing up to stand in what feels like a giant bird’s nest?  Especially on a beautiful spring day, when flowers are unfolding everywhere.

One tree house can’t compensate for all the destruction, but it’s important to find what good we can in any disaster. When I was a kid, somehow I figured out that almost any ordeal could be easier to endure by thinking what a great story it would make afterwards.

In that way, my bout with cancer became part of my new novel about a parrot and a girl who’s forgotten how to try.

Life goes on. And trees toppled by a hurricane become a new vantage point from which to appreciate nature.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Sit down.

Get up to go get coffee.

Sit down.

Try to move the cat. Fail. Turn on the computer anyway.

Start typing (which isn’t the same as writing but sometimes occurs before the coffee has taken effect).

Notice the battery is getting low.

Get up to find computer cord.

Plug in cord. Realize that computer isn’t charging. Jiggle cord. Replug cord. Notice that computer STILL isn’t charging. Get incredibly frustrated because without computer there can't even be typing.

Somewhere power is being created by coal and water and wind. Power surges through cables and is tamed by transformers. Power enters my apartment and waits in an outlet, ready to be used. After I plug the cord into the outlet, I can see the green light glowing at the end of the cord. Power is there! However my computer rejects the power. For reasons of its own (which I have given up trying to understand), it prefers to use its battery. Even though it knows and is telling me that the battery has only 11 minutes left, no, 10, now 9, 8 . . .

Realize that this is a metaphor for a human condition. Denying the good. The Greeks probably had a better name for it, which I don't know.

So I repeat what E.M. Forster said:  “Only Connect.”

Connect to the world. Don’t be isolated. You can't make it on your own. Why would you even want to when it's infinitely better to connect?

Saturday, March 30, 2013


For the past few months, I’ve been doing workshops at Writopia Lab. As a published author, I’m supposed to be the leader. But I learn as much as I teach.
One young writer wrote a piece in which a woman fell in love with a passionate composer. The woman was supposed to marry another man who was more practical. I assumed the young writer wouldn’t care much about the boring guy. I was wrong. The young writer said that she actually liked that character. She could see the good in him. I was the one who had succumbed to a preconceived notion.
Any piece of writing is much more interesting if the characters are a mix of likeable and disagreeable traits. Then something surprising can happen. Those unexpected twists are what readers crave.
In my first novel, Nature Girl, I wrote about a girl who was mad at her family. That provided a lot of the humor, but some readers wondered if she had to be quite so angry. Maybe she didn't have to fight with her family all the time?
When I started writing my new book, The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, I fell into a similar trap. My amazing editor Liz Szabla helped me find ways to enrich the relationships. The novel is much stronger because there's real affection between Dr. Agard and his parrot Zeno, even though Zeno still believes his owner is his servant.
I can’t help but think that I need to apply this lesson to people I meet. I live in New York City--I’m going to get annoyed. (Don’t get me started on the people who throw trash on the subway tracks!) But wouldn’t we all be better off, as writers and readers and children and parents, if we treated everybody as well-rounded characters?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What's in a Name?


The girl spoke angrily to me. “Don’t change my name!”

Luckily it was only a dream. But when I woke up the next morning, I felt so badly. Maybe I shouldn't have changed that character's name after all. 

It seemed so simple - just do a global. (Don’t forget to proofread. That new name will pop into other words by mistake. If you just change every Tom to a Ben, you’d get an aBenic bomb.)

But let's face it. Names are important. A rose called “yuck” would NOT smell as sweet. Names evoke in so many ways. Lots of consonants can sound harsh. Lots of vowels can be musical. The name can remind you of something -- like a hurricane. Or a kid who picked on you in high school. Or another character created by another author. Which was the reason I decided to make the change. I didn’t want my girl to be compared to the other one.

Sometimes people ask me where I find the names for my characters. There are so many things to consider that I postpone the decision as long as I can.

I usually write an entire first draft without names. In The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya (my novel that’s coming out on October 15th), the names of the main characters started as the initials Z and A. Eventually the African gray parrot Zeno was named after a Greek philosopher because his “servant” (as Zeno prefers to think of his owner) was a professor of Greek literature. That choice inspired me in other ways. Zeno the man had lots of great quotes, like - “Two ears, one mouth!”  Which means, humans should listen more than they talk. So many of my favorite parts wouldn’t have been in the book at all if I had named Zeno something like Adam.

Switching names is very hard. Even when the characters don’t complain. However I did it. But first I rather superstitiously consulted my oracle. I offered Blackberry two pieces of food - having predetermined that one would be linked to the old name and the other to the new. She chose the new name. Two times in a row!

And so Lanora is now Lanora. Whether she likes it or not.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dogs v. Cats?

Stormy, photo by Hope Weber

Dear Two-legged One,

You recently wrote about someone who said he was a dog man. I think his name was James Thurber?

Obviously I don’t know this person. Anyone who knew me would not prefer dogs to cats.

I believe you also mentioned this person was a writer? He must have been a rare genius who could arrange words properly on the page the very first time. His ideas must have been so amazing that he deserved to have his dog look at him in this adoring fashion.

You, however, are not a genius. You feed me and your lap is warm-–at least warmer than the sofa. But you are not nearly as clever as I am. It’s only because you are mine that I bother to tell you the truth.

You're lucky to have a cat like me because you need to rewrite. Many times, in fact. You must dig deeper, delete those second rate sentiments, and above all never be satisfied with your first thought. Lucky for you, I'm here to tell you that whatever you've written today isn’t quite good enough. You can do better. If you ever forget that, my stare will remind you.

Go on. Get back to work. After you’ve given me my dinner.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Children's Writer in Residence at Thurber House

Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio
I have the honor of being chosen as the Thurber House Children’s Writer in Residence for 2013. For one month, I will stay in this amazing house in Columbus, Ohio, where James Thurber used to live with his family. Some of his most famous stories were inspired by events that took place in that house. The ghost walked up those steps. The bed fell on his father - in the attic where I will be sleeping. The house has been preserved as a living museum where, as Thurber House says, “laughter, learning and literature meet.”

Naturally I can’t wait to be inspired by the setting, but I also look forward to teaching the students who come to study writing at Thurber House. I know I’ll learn as much if not more from them. That has been my experience as an instructor at Writopia Lab.

Kids’ minds are so fertile. There are no limits to what they can imagine. That ability reminds me of something Thurber wrote. (He had suffered an eye injury when his brother shot him with an arrow while they were playing William Tell.)

“With perfect vision, one is inextricably trapped in the workaday world... For the hawk-eyed person, life has none of those soft edges which for me blur into fantasy; for such a person an electric welder is merely an electric welder, not a radiant fool setting off a sky-rocket by day. The kingdom of the partly blind is a little like Oz....  Anything you can think of, and a lot you never would think of, can happen there.”

That is exactly what I hope happens whenever I sit at my desk. I try to remember what it’s like to be a kid where anything is possible. I try to escape the workaday world and look for radiant fools. I know I'll find something equally amazing at Thurber House!

It’s hard to stop quoting Thurber, but I will -- after sharing one last thought from him.

“I am not a cat man, but a dog man, and all felines can tell this at a glance - a sharp, vindictive glance.”

He must have met the one with whom I share my writing space. I’ll give my cat Blackberry a chance to respond soon.