You’re Grounded!

I don’t write about my day job on this blog too often, because my day job doesn’t have much to do with writing for children.

On rare occasions, however, I get lucky.

GroundingI draw my salary from The Lawrenceville School, editing and writing for The Lawrentian, the School’s alumni magazine. Not too long ago, I learned that Julian Thompson, the author of 20 YA books, was an alumnus, and, well, I just had to interview the guy.

I read Thompson’s young adult novel, The Grounding of Group 6, when I was an actual young adult. I remembered loving it, but, after 30 years, I couldn’t remember much else. All I could recall was a couple of basic plot points. I also recalled that the book had some dirty parts – which might have been why the 12-year-old me thought the book was so dang wonderful.

I gave Thompson a call and he could not have been more gracious. He happily agreed to sit for an interview. In preparation, I reread Grounding and found it to be every bit as good as I had remembered. And yes, the dirty parts are still a little dirty – but not nearly as dirty as my memory had led me to believe, which is kind of a relief, really.

Whew! I thought. Thompson is not the Henry Miller of middle school lit!

For those of you who might be interested, I am posting a PDF of the story below. I don’t think the finished article is a great piece of magazine writing by any stretch, but I do think it is as good a way as any to remember a fine writer and a generous human being.

Julian Thompson: Grounded by Experience

 

A Mouse Divided

Hiya!

How can you not love me?

I’ve written a great deal on this blog about how much I like cute little rodents. Over the course of my life, I’ve owned three gerbils, one fancy rat, one sewer rat, and an adorably blorpy guinea pig named Pig.

I also sometimes run a mouse hotel.

This has led Jilanne Hoffmann – one of my more smart-alecky blog followers – to suggest that my pro rodent (“prodent”) views must be the result of some sort childhood trauma.

Well, Jilanne, you’re right. Thanks so much for forcing me to dredge up my past. I hope you’re happy!

Sigh. Well, I might as well tell all of you what happened.

***

My story takes place in the summer of 1979. I was eight.

When I was young, I loved to sleep over at my maternal grandparents’ house. In retrospect this is kind of strange thing for me to love. Yes, both Grandma and Grandpa were very nice to me (and neither thought twice about plying me with ice cream) but there was also a lot of tension in that house. My grandparents didn’t have a marriage that one would describe as “happy.”

Actual dialogue between my grandparents:

Grandpa
(Entering the kitchen:)
So! What’s for dinner?

Grandma
Poison.

I usually stayed overnight at their house by myself, but on this occasion, my six-year-old cousin, Jason, was there, too. This was great, for it was the middle of summer and my grandparents’ pool was always more fun when there was someone else to swim with.

Shortly after my Mom dropped me off, Jason and I were taking turns doing cannonballs off the diving board when I came up with my brilliant idea: I had noticed that the pool’s water level was about ten inches below the topmost edge. To my eight-year-old brain this was kind of a bummer.

“I got an idea!” I shouted to Jason. “Let’s fill up the pool to the very, very top!”

My plan was simple. We would get some buckets and go into the house. We would fill the buckets up in the bathroom sink, go back outside, and dump the water into the pool. We would then repeat these actions until the pool was completely full. Easy peasy mac ‘n’ cheesy.

There were a couple of problems with the plan, of course – the first of which is that all pools have pumps to regulate water levels. But even if that machinery didn’t exist, it would have still taken a few thousand gallons to raise a pool’s water level 10 inches. That’s a lot of trips to Grandma’s bathroom.

I had no grasp of these problems. The only problem I could discern was that there was only one bucket in the dilapidated shed that held the pool toys. But this didn’t faze me. I handed my cousin a toy tugboat. It had small holes in the top which allowed it to be filled with water. It was no bucket, but it would still help the pool-filling cause.

Happily wielding our water receptacles, we went into the house, leaving wet footprints in our wake. I filled up my bucket and turned to leave, expecting Jason to be a few steps behind me. Instead, he screamed like a banshee.

This was not part of the plan.

Little did either of us know, a mouse was living inside of the toy tugboat – and this mouse didn’t take too kindly to drowning. So, once water started gushing in it’s home, it leapt onto Jason’s shoulder just long enough to give a kid a coronary. Then the mouse scrambled into the kitchen and under the refrigerator.

Grandma was on the scene in an instant. She spotted me first. When she was agitated, she would mix up her grandchildren’s names. Without fail, she would start to call me Jason before switching gears in mid-word.

“Ja-Michael! What happened?”

But all I could do was shrug. I hadn’t seen the drama unfold.

She ran into the bathroom. I followed. There we found a paralyzed Jason – who was not quite paralyzed enough to not rat me out.

Grandma learned of my pool-filling idea. More importantly, she learned that because of my pool filling idea there was now a mouse hiding in her spotless kitchen.

To my surprise, she took the news in stride. Then she did something that was even more surprising, something I had never seen her do before or since: she sought out Grandpa.

As I mentioned earlier, Grandma and Grandpa did not get along. I learned just about every  curse word on the planet from Grandma; she used those words to describe Grandpa. I had grown up believing that those two old people had absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing in common.

But I was wrong. When it came to rodents, my grandparents were of one mind: the deader the better.

Grandpa, normally a pretty excitable fellow, was also shockingly sanguine upon hearing the news. He just nodded, hopped into his livingroom-on-wheels of a car, and glided down the street.

Ten minutes later he was back bearing mousetraps. I had never seen traps like these before. The traps my father used in our house were called “Hav-a-Hearts.” They kept the mice secure in a cage until they could be released into the wild.

My dad had this! This is a good trap.

My dad had this. This is a good trap.

Grandpa’s trap didn’t have a cage.

Grandpa gathered Jason and me to his side. “Let me show you boys how these work.” He was in Mr. Wizard mode.

With some effort he pulled back the metal bar and clicked it into place. He laid the trap flat on the kitchen table. Then he handed me a wooden spoon.

“See that spot?” he said, pointing to the trigger.

I nodded.

“I’m gonna put peanut butter there for our little friend. Now touch that with the spoon.”

I did.

And THWACK! The bar slammed down with such force it left a dent in the spoon. Grandpa smiled, I suppose he was expecting me to be delighted.

Grandpa had this. This is a bad trap.

Grandpa had this. This is a bad trap.

But I wasn’t delighted. I was shocked. Then I was furious.

“You’re not using that,” I said.

“Of course I’m using that,” he replied, a little bewildered. “You let a mouse into the house and we have to get rid of it.”

It was at about that point I became unglued. “No, no, no!”

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Settle down.”

“You can’t use that trap! You gotta use the other kind! The kind with the cage! The kind daddy uses!”

Then Grandma joined the conversation. “Knock it off, Ja-Michael! We’re not going to keep that thing in a cage!”

I could not believe my ears. Grandma was taking Grandpa’s side? Grandma never took Grandpa’s side! How could she take his side when less than an hour before she called him s***head? Had the world gone topsy turvy?

I was dumbstruck. My grandparents had joined forces to oppose me and I was powerless to stop them.

And it was all my fault! If it wasn’t for my stupid pool filling idea, that mouse would’ve lived his entire cute little life in a cute little toy tugboat. My God, he was like the main character in a picture book and my grandparents wanted to snap his spine in two!

So I did the only thing I could do under these terrible circumstances: I waved an accusing finger at them both. “If you use that, I’m going home!”

“Oh, stop it,” said Grandma. “Get an ice cream.”

“I mean it!” I screamed.

And I did mean it. I carried on like this until Grandma called Mom and told her to pick me up. My overnight trip to Grandma’s was no longer than two hours.

I didn’t say much on the car ride home. I was sick to my stomach; I was afraid of what Mom was going to do to me. Mom was the one who laid down the law in our house. I had stupidly brought a mouse into her parents’ house and then, when they attempted to deal with the problem, I screamed at them like a maniac. Maybe I had the math wrong, but I was pretty sure that was grounds for justifiable homicide.

I sat in the shadowy-est corner of the backseat. I tried to become invisible. Mom and I were quiet for a very, very long time.

She spoke first.

“What you did,” Mom said finally, “was very principled.”

That was it. As far as Mom was concerned, nothing more needed to be said. She knew how much I loved my pet gerbils. She got it.

My grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t get it. She never really got over it, either. For the rest of her life, she told that mouse story to anyone who would listen. The takeaway of the story was, “My grandson is nuts.”

But I never minded. In fact, when Grandma told the story, it filled me with a weird sense of pride. No, I wasn’t able to save that mouse. But that little guy didn’t die in vain. He radicalized my prodent beliefs — and I am grateful.

It’s PiBoIdMo Time!

Yay! Woo!

I do love PiBoIdMo (which, by the way, is pronounced Pie Bow Id Moe — I don’t care what anyone else says) and I recommend It to everyone!

Except for me, that is. This year I decided to (unofficially) give the NaNoWriMo thing a go. I gotta middle grade novel in me that’s just bustin’ to get out. I know Tara will be so disappointed. Or, more likely, she won’t notice or care; this is a busy month for her!

But to show my love — and to give myself  a little extra time to focus on said novel. I’m recycling the PiBoIdMo post I wrote for Tara last year. Recycling is good for the environment.

Enjoy!

Erector!!

THE PLAY’S THE THING

My mom has a habit of mixing bad news with the good.

“Happy anniversary!” she joyously sang into the phone. “Ten years! Congratulations!”

Before I could thank her, Mom followed up her salutation with words that were far less joyous:

“I think it’s high time you got your crap out of my house.”

Ugh. In an instant, my plan to use my parents’ home as a storage locker for the rest of my life was dashed to bits.

It was under these circumstances I found myself alone in my old room facing my childhood closet, mustering up the strength to take a reluctant trip down memory lane.

Inside were stacks of sketch pads filled with primitive drawings; old machines I, once upon a time, had a penchant for hoarding; and lousy souvenirs from equally lousy vacations. Then there were the toys – lots of them.

There was so much stuff to sift through, I was confident the job was gonna be a complete nightmare.

But it wasn’t. Quite the opposite, really.

I both smiled and winced at my homemade comic books. After reading a few, I decided that, with a little bit of tweaking (OK, maybe quite a lot to tweaking), the storylines weren’t a bad jumping off point for a new story.

I marveled at the bigger-than-a-bread-basket adding machine I got from my Great Uncle Bill. By force of habit, I removed the machine’s olive green Bakelite cover to reveal its steampunky guts. It was almost comical just how many moving parts it had. I punched a few numbers and watched the thing spring to life. In that moment, my mind filled with ideas about a kid inventor.

Then I spied my Erector set.

Shortly after this discovery, Mom strolled into the room to check on my progress. What she found was her 30-something-year-old son lying on the floor constructing a racecar of his own design.

She didn’t even blink.

“Good,” Mom said with a sharp nod. “You’re taking that home.”

Indeed I was. The Erector set, the other toys, the machines, and my primitive doodles. I was taking all of it. I had barely begun working on my closet and my brain was already swimming with new ideas.

Toys facilitate play. Play is an essential component of the creative process. There is a reason why social scientists say that The Creative Spirit flourishes in kindergarteners and begins to sputter once those same children head off to middle school. As we grow up, we voluntarily – eagerly – purge the fun stuff from our lives.

That was certainly the case with me. I still remember being a 12-year-old who desperately wanted to be an adult. I gave away most of the stuff that had once given me pleasure and shoved the rest into the far corner of my closet. I thought these actions would speed the growing up process; instead, they just made me a sullen teen with an un-fun room.

With age comes a sort of wisdom, however. Almost in tandem with the launch of my professional writing career, I began to rekindle my interest in toys. I soon noticed that my best ideas occurred when I was horsing around with a hand puppet or had a box of 64 Crayolas within arm’s reach.

I even had a Bert puppet! I was the cool kid.

I even had a Bert puppet when I was a kid! I was so cool.

Unrestrained, unselfconscious play moves my mind in new directions; moving my mind in new directions helps me to discover new ideas.

I am well aware that a lot of grownups don’t feel comfortable playing with an erector set without a grownup reason for doing so. Fortunately, many of us have children – or if we don’t, we can easily borrow some. Kids need Quality Time, and Quality Times gives us the justification we need to build with Legos, squish Play-Doh, and color Snoopy green.

You couldn’t ask for a better situation. You’re being a good parent and you’re mining for inspiration. You’re multitasking! Well done.

That kind of multitasking was exactly what I had in mind when I loaded up the trunk of my car outside of Mom’s house. I’ll bring this stuff home to my young son, I thought. We’ll play with it together. We’ll pretend together. And, in so doing, my little guy will become my unwitting picture book collaborator.

It doesn’t get more inspiring – or wonderful – than that.

Boo.

it's the great pumpkin charlie brown 18 - I got a rock #1

I have never liked Halloween. Even as a kid, I found the act of going door to door begging for candy to be unseemly.

I disliked the itchy discomfort of the costume. I disliked being stared at. (When you wear a costume, you are, pretty much, giving people permission to stare.) I disliked running all over the neighborhood like a dodo when, at home, a perfectly good TV was going unwatched.

And, at the end of the evening, all I had to show for my efforts was a sack full of itty bitty candy bars that I would’ve never picked out for myself at a store. (Seriously, is Krackle anyone’s favorite candy bar? Answer: No.)

Long story short, I gave up on Halloween as soon as it was socially acceptable. The ominous power of peer pressure kept me going until the fourth grade (and, yes, I’m still holding that grudge, Carl Johnson).

But Halloween isn’t all bad. It is also when Susanna Leonard Hill’s kicks off her Halloweensie Contest!

Now that’s a Halloween tradition I can get behind. Woo!

Here are the rules: Entrants have to write a Halloween-themed story no longer than 100 words. (In Halloween parlance that means the story is “Fun Size.”) This story also must contain the words “broomstick,” “creak,” and “pumpkin.”

So here is my humble submission. Enjoy!

***

SNACK-O’-LANTERN

“Nibbles,” sighed Chester Cat. “You’re supposed to carve a pumpkin.”

“They’re too big,” the guinea pig replied. “So I am carving a Halloween-o Jalapeño. Scary, huh? Does it make you want to run away?”

“No,” Chester sniffed. “That wouldn’t make anyone run away.”

They heard the creak of floorboards and the clatter of the broomstick Buster used for fetch.

“I bet it’ll make Buster run.”

“No way.”

“Let’s see,” Nibbles challenged. Then he shouted. “BUSTER! SNAAACK!”

Buster galloped in. He gobbled the jalapeño.

His eyes sprang open.

Yelping, he dashed to his water dish.

“Told you he’d run,” Nibbles giggled.

 

A Blog Break

Last year I took a summer vacation from the blog. As much as I missed the activity – and I missed it a lot – the break did allow me to recharge my batteries and redouble my other writing efforts.

I think I need to do it again.

I’ll be back in September. In gratitude for your understanding, I present you with a doodle of a Film Noir duck detective.

Duckie PI!

Duckie PI!

And Here is the Winning Doodle!

Last week, the lovely and talented Kid Lit Reviews won my second Win a Doodle Contest. So she gets a doodle on the subject of her choice.

Kid Lit, who, it turns out, is a devoted animal rights activist, gave me her request:

How about a Great Dane standing guard over a few dogs that are behind him? The Dane is the rescuer and has rescued these other dogs from the mean streets and bad homes and now refuses to let anyone else harm them.

Okee doke, Kid Lit; your wish is my command.

great dane the protector