Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 24, 2016


How does one know when a novel is done? There’s some sense that what began as a spark and murk in my mind is clear now, but that conviction is shaky. After months of adding to scenes and rearranging paragraphs, my revision of a novel for middle readers funneled down to deleting sentences and changing some words. This weekend I combed the manuscript for dropped punctuation or explanations. There’s never certainty of success, but I have a sense of being done deep down, close to where the knowledge that here’s- a –novel-I-must write began.

“I’m sad to see these characters go,” I told a friend.

“Can you write about them again?” she asked.

“I’m not that sad,” I replied.

Finishing one book makes an opening for a new one, and that’s always exciting. I have two manuscripts I’ve begun, and the research for one means looking at paintings and reading poetry. Still, there’s some sadness to coming to the end of this round of the first contemporary novel I’ve written, and the first that uses magic. Even when my books about girls or women in history were published, I love revisiting them in other books, museums, or historic sites. And while those books drew both from the past and my personal experience, THE LOST NAME feels true to me in a new way. None of the characters are much like me, and the plot depends more on a fairy tale than anything I’ve ever known. But there’s some knowledge of silence, differences, trust, and family that feels as if it comes from something in my bones.


And it is lovely to send off a manuscript toward the end of golden and green October days. My dog is enjoying his first fall, bouncing along a road he’s galloped and pranced along almost a hundred times already. I’m the one who walks. But yesterday in the woods, in the wind, I did a happy little spin for if not completely-finishing, then coming close.  Finishing is a word I’ve learned to use loosely. But also enjoy, like the leaves that change color one day, then drop the next, opening a wider view. We love what we write, when it’s not making us crazy, and we’re meant to let it go. And move on ourselves, at least until that manuscript returns with its tidings of joy or woe and, in ways we can’t expect now, we get back to work.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 13, 2016

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

When I opened Lab Girl, I expected to learn a thing or two about a woman who devoted herself to science, but was drawn in still more by the author’s tenderness and humor. Hope Jahren is extraordinary: she switched from an English major to science after her first year in college, and right after grad school began a career in geochemistry and geobiology that included setting up three laboratories and lots of inspired teaching. But some of what touched me were the lucid depictions of ordinary loneliness, setbacks, and small triumphs that many people might recognize. A friendship that’s both one of a kind and familiar is at the core of her life and the book. The course of a life and career are set within a lovely arbor of information about trees and plants, a frame of small chapters that give us a glimpse into her research and the green world.

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Hope Jahren begins the memoir with a depiction of her childhood that was marked not only by the long winters of Minnesota, but a family whose conversations are very limited. The chill is shown in contrast to feeling at home in the laboratory where her father teaches physics at a community college. Sometimes sitting under tables, sometimes arranging drawers, she was “transformed from a girl into a scientist.”

We learn that though in 1950 her mother had won honorable mention in a prestigious nationwide science search, she couldn’t babysit enough hours to pay her tuition as a chemistry major at the University of Minnesota, so returned to her hometown where she married, then gave birth to and raised four children. Hope mentions that growing up in the 1960’s she never heard of, met, or saw, even on television, another living woman scientist.

She writes: “I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. …I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. …I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. … Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.”

Still, she finds it hard to not be seen for who she is – which seems one motivation for writing this book showing some hardships she confronts – raising money for her work is a big one – and also the ways her persistence brings rewards. I recognized some themes of the scientists who lived more than a century ago that I wrote about in Finding Wonders: the importance of a father passing along knowledge, the sense of isolation – which Hope Jahren seems to suggest may be part of any creative work – and the joy. She makes us care as she does about her work exploring the complicated lives of plants. And agree that “Being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”



Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 3, 2016

Poetry Camp

I doubt there’s a poet for children alive who isn’t in awe of Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell, the creative team behind Pomelo Books and other wonders. Pair them with the also-dazzling Nancy Johnson and Sylvia Tag of Western Washington University, and you get a new phenomenon called Poetry Camp. In a grand library on a campus with sidewalks lined with blooming lavender and holly and a view of the bay, about three dozen poets who have work included in the Poetry Friday anthologies gave and attended workshops on writing, teaching, and performing a favorite genre. We learned about publishing and promoting, and led by Julie Larios, who challenged us with structures and some surrealist strategies, drafted some new poetry.


We also enjoyed freewheeling exchanges over breakfasts or dinners, in hallways and carpools. On Friday morning, I followed poet Eric Ode under a campfire-marshmallow arbor made by friendly WWU students to a room where we had a lively discussion about the different pleasures of poetry on the page or on the platform, to borrow Donald Hall’s phrasing. Should we ask all students to read their work aloud? Are we in danger of them limiting what they might say, taking away a safe space for silent thoughts, or empowering them, asking them not to hide? There was some debate between those who love the white space between lines on paper and those who crave the feel of well-chosen words in their mouths. We clapped or finger-tapped while discussing meter and the place for scanning in the classroom, which most agreed was when a student wants to know about it — when they ask – and that rhythmically tapping the table is more important than the Latin words naming the beats. We want a bit of song, but some also praised visual art and movement as inspiration, too.

Julie Larios (I think!) reminded us that Ezra Pound says a poem needs music, image, and intellect, and a loss of one may hurt the whole. Michael Salinger and Sara Holbrook added that teens may think poetry is all or primarily feeling, and they generously shared some techniques for how to encourage self-involved teens to expand their horizons, tell a story within a poem, and develop craft.


Here are some of the lovers of arcs and poetry in a longer form we generally call verse novels – though we had some discussion re that, too! Stephanie Hemphill, me, Lorie Ann Grover, Nikki Grimes, Kathi Appelt, and Holly Thompson.



I look forward to reading Nancy Bo Flood’s latest novel, Soldier Sister, Fly Home, and was happy to meet Kathi Appelt and tell her how much I admire her work in general and her newest novel in particular. Someone called Maybe a Fox sad, but I call it transcendent. Sorrow is there, but it’s part of the path to a wider world, which includes forging connections between beings who live in houses and those who live beneath trees.

While Friday was devoted to more to sharing ideas between ourselves, the public was invited to join us on Saturday, though the roles of poet, poetry-lover, and teacher often overlapped. After great workshops and lectures that included many poetic voices, camp moved toward its close with a lively and moving presentation by Jack Prelutsky, who made children giggle and warmed all our hearts – while performing poets took note of his exquisite sense of timing.

Back home now, I remain happy to have met people I knew before only online or through their work. And happy to have spent a bit of time with people I’ve met but rarely see. Here I’m with Doraine BennettApril Halprin Wayland, Robyn Hood Black, and Irene Latham.


I made my way back across the country with new friends, a heavier-with-books bag, and a list of more volumes to find and read. Who could ask for more?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 23, 2016

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Open this gorgeous book to meet scientists illustrated in mid-air, surrounded by signs of amazing discoveries. The 50 women are quite diverse in scientific fields, time periods, and cultural backgrounds, which adds to the energy and hope on paper that’s pink, purple, and various shades of blue and green. The illustrations are surrounded by smaller pictures labeled with impressive feats, with a quote from or about the scientist drifting like a cloud under her feet.


Rachel Ignostofsky’s joy in the accomplishments is contagious in her well chosen words and vibrant illustrations of Hypatia, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, Katherine Johnson, and other mathematicians, geologists, chemists, and more. Each section ends with an allusion to the scientist’s place within history. Illustrated lab equipment and a glossary, as well as recent statistics on women in STEM fields, rounds out the book, with an afterword urging girls to keep changing the world. Yes!


I’m also happy that Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science is now in stores. Many thanks to Tara Smith, who gives an overview of the book at A Teaching Life and to Steve Pfarrer for his review in Book Bag at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.  And it was fun to answer questions about metaphors and other important things from April Halprin Wayland in a Poet to Poet interview.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 12, 2016

Girls at Thirteen

Plenty of young girls enjoying looking under rocks and don’t mind getting muddy. The daughter of my friend Heather Richard could imagine a happy princess scientist.


But studies show that some girls learn to hide their curiosity, energy, and ambition by the time they turn thirteen or even younger. A new report says that age is seven. Yikes. Was this always so? For centuries, some girls pinned back their hair and lowered their skirts. Some of them simmered. In Finding Wonders, I write how Maria Merian, who grew up in Germany in the 1600’s, hates how “growing up means more rules instead of fewer./She’s supposed to walk slower instead of faster,/look around less instead of more.”

But even in the 1600s or 1800s, not all girls were kept out of science. The three girls in Finding Wonders were encouraged by their fathers to take up their professions, partly because they wanted to share their passion, and partly because they needed practical help that their daughters could provide. Before Darwin and Einstein, science was considered a somewhat suitable pursuit for girls who were good with details and found particular ways to glory in the Creation. But there were limits. Beatrix Potter could draw plants and animals as a girl, but when she wanted to publish scientific papers on mushrooms, doors were shut. As an adult she abandoned detailed drawings of fungi, mosses, and butterfly wings and took up writing and illustrating Peter Rabbit and other tales.



By age thirteen, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell were all engaged in work they’d pursue for their whole lives. At thirteen, Maria Merian painted the life cycle of a caterpillar, at a time when metamorphosis was just beginning to be understood. By thirteen, Mary Anning was the first person to discover an ichthyosaur fossil. And at thirteen, Maria Mitchell was accustomed to helping her father observe the night sky from their Nantucket roof and make sky charts. She also used her gift for mechanics to fix an intricate chronometer, which was used at sea to measure distances. On a recent list of “senior superlatives” for a just-for-fun yearbook at The Horn Book to mark back-to-school, these three girls were chosen for “best science projects.” Absolutely!

You can find out more in Finding Wonders. Many thanks to Irene Latham who quotes three poems at Live Your Poem and proclaims the book “Great for wonder-ers of all ages!” Here’s my carton of author copies, with a green cover peeking under the starry jacket. I hope to see some of you at my book launch at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I’ll talk with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger,  on September 27 at 6:30!


Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 8, 2016

Book Launch with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger!

I’m happy to be launching Finding Wonders at the Odyssey Bookshop on September 27 at 6:30 with my friends Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger, both of whom will be celebrating new books of their own. Jo just published Still a Work in Progress and Ellen’s latest novel is Local Girl Swept Away. We’ll all read a bit and talk about inspiration and what keeps us going. Spoiler. The answer to that last part is partly: each other. But we’ll give more details.


I met Jo about sixteen years ago at an SCBWI critique group generously led by Jane Yolen in the basement of the Hatfield, MA library. People took turns reading new work, taking a break in the middle of the evening to pull out a carton filled with boxes of various kinds of tea from a carton kept under the stairway. There were also celebrations with champagne when someone sold their first book.

I’d read Ellen’s YA novels before I ever met her, but we became friends when she moved to western Massachusetts. Over the years, Jo, Ellen, me, and other friends sometimes met at each other’s houses or in coffee shops to write, inspired by each other’s quiet company, and discuss events that are dramatic in a writer’s life, though from the outside they might not seem like so much. We cheer for each success and wince together when we hear about hurdles. We’re all lucky with our families, but writers understand writers. And that is something to celebrate, too.

I hope you’ll come hear us talk about some of this and read from our newest books. There will be hugs, laughs, and cookies. What more fun could you have on a Tuesday evening?


Here we are three years ago when Jo had just published See You at Harry’s.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 1, 2016

Maria Merian and Mary Anning in London

When my daughter and I vacationed last week in the UK, we visited Holyroodhouse Palace, where Mary, Queen of Scots stuck to the shadows as her husband murdered her private secretary, and toured Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.While looking at portraits in the old stone halls, Emily filled me in on royal shenanigans. We both like history, but she knows more about Tudor drama, while I prefer scientists who didn’t have to worry about their necks.

Maria Merian’s name is becoming better known, though she’s not yet as famous as she was in Germany and Holland in the late 1600’s, when her paintings first became prized.


During a period when metamorphosis was not commonly understood, her paintings showed how small animals transformed as well as the way plants and animals depend on each other.Some of her work was bought by George III to form part of his scientific library, and are currently handsomely displayed in the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace.




In one room, children can pretend they’re in a rain forest, such as one Maria Merian, at age fifty, explored in Suriname. Children can look up at paper butterflies dangling from the ceiling or try out magnifying glasses.


I wrote about Maria Merian in Girls Who Looked Under Rocks and another scientist in Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. Those extraordinary women have stayed with me, so I wrote longer verse histories in Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science. In a spirit of thanks for the good company, happy to visit two in one city, I headed to the Natural History Museum, London, where fossils that Mary Anning found almost two centuries ago still astonish.


I saw several skulls of ichthyosaurs, an extinct animal which she was first to discover and excavate when she was twelve. Some were embedded with ammonites, called snakestones when she first collected them as a young girl with her father.


The fossils are covered with glass, so my photo is riddled with reflections, but you can get a sense of the size – this reptile is about seventeen feet long. I loved seeing the engaged children and grownups posing for pictures with their arms outstretched and still covering only a portion of the creature.


Of course I needed a picture, too, holding Finding Wonderswhich puts together the stories of the German Maria Merian, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, England, as well as Maria Mitchell, the first American to discover a comet.




Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 30, 2016

Edinburgh Writing Tables, Scotland Views

I had a wonderful week with my daughter, starting in London where we visited sites for two days, the second less sleep-deprived than the first. At King’s Cross Station, where happy people imagined a brick wall opening for them, Emily and I boarded a train not to Hogwarts, but Scotland. Close enough.



Emily took some great pictures as we walked the stone streets of Edinburgh, where we often turned corners and spotted the astonishing castle on green cliffs, a glimpse of the sea, or signs of poetry and fiction love.


One morning I sipped tea and ate porridge in The Elephant House, watching fog rise over the same castle that J.K. Rowling saw when she hunkered in that still-welcoming café for hours, trying to stay warm while writing her first book about Harry Potter.


I looked past stacks of free curling magazines, spider plants with yellowing strands, and worked on a poem while hearing Paul McCartney’s Blackbird play, then Auld Lang Syne, one of Scotland’s most famous poems.

Some successful years later, when J.K. Rowling couldn’t write among the wobbly wood chairs and tables in peace, she left this college part of town – the café is down the block from the library –and hid out in a room of the elegant Balmoral Hotel to finish a sequel. That room is now named in her honor.


The city has the world’s tallest statue for a writer — Sir Walter Scott — and The Writer’s Museum, which celebrates him, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.


Here’s a first edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses, which hold some of the earliest poems I remember.


People walk on or past engraved stones outside the museum.


We visited the Edinburgh Book Festival where lovely lines of people waited to purchase  armfuls of books. Emily and I alternated two days in the city with two days of taking van or bus into the Highlands, where we saw more old abbeys, castles, and stunning views. Heather mixed with green grasses on the hillsides.



We gazed up at taller mountains and into deeper lakes, or lochs, than those I love in Massachusetts, where I sit now. But I close my eyes and remember views of Loch Ness and Glen Coe.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 5, 2016

Who is a Poet? Who Gets to Decide?

At the beginning of the class I taught on verse novels, a student told us she’d asked a prominent writer whether she might write a good one if she isn’t an experienced poet. He told her no. This story sort of hovered over us through the course. Even if no one had told us we shouldn’t attempt what we were attempting, our own minds supplied such a voice. We began reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, in which both Lonnie and Jack have teachers who see poets in their sensitive young students. But we also read essays from writers who insisted that not every child is or can be a poet. We’re grownups, but we have histories of encouragement and dismissals. Who is a poet and who gets to decide?


Through July, we read verse novels and composed parts of some, trying to blend poetry and stories. As we wrote, we didn’t murmur aloud, “Is this worthy of being called verse? Is it good enough?” But I could feel the breath of the effort to infuse narrative with lyric moments. And everyone wrote some brilliant pieces. We had much to celebrate in the last class as people read work aloud. It was a festive evening.

Then the next day I got an email from a student, who let me know that she wasn’t going to stalk me with her doubt, but what she’d read the night before sounded a little flat to her ears, maybe partly in comparison to other more brilliant work.

Her work wasn’t flat. But I understand that amidst the celebration, traces of doubt were rising. Second thoughts had appeared in apologies we quickly squashed.

Doubt is always with us, and I think can rear high right after a class. We’ve had deadlines, prompts, structure, and each other’s interest and applause, and now all that is gone. I told my student a bit of what I loved in her work and advised her to reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and read Art and Fear. She wrote back that she would and was going for a swim. A lake was another most excellent idea.

A writing class makes a sort of home, and it’s sad when that door closes. But there will be other homes, though we have to make them. Staying connected with people in the class, and/or finding others who will share work, deadlines, and cheers. Doubt is part of the process. It doesn’t mean one should stop work. Rather we should make a place where it can be swatted down and kept in its proper sleepy place.


In Hate That Cat, Jack gets another school year with Ms. Stretchberry, who encourages him to examine his antipathy to cats, move beyond grief, write about a new love, and experiment with more poetic forms. Locomotion has shown Lonnie mourning not a dog, but his parents. And in Jacqueline Woodson’s follow-up, Peace, Locomotion, Ms. Marcus, who called him a poet – “Not a whole lot of people be saying, ‘Good, Lonnie,’ to me.” — is gone, replaced by a teacher who says he’s not a poet as he isn’t published. He stops writing poems, and more of the book is made up of letters to his sister. Though the poetry shines through.

Not just in a class but in our whole lives as writers, we’ll meet those who nudge us forward and those who seem to hold us back. Sometimes they can be the same person. Sometimes they can be us. Perhaps the writer who was asked by my student if she might be up to this challenge thought that if she had to ask, she didn’t have the talent or fortitude. But he was wrong. A better answer might have been to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

None of us can see the future value of anyone’s work, including our own. When I’m asked about potential, I like to err on the side of “go for it.” Writers owe that to each other as much as we need to urge each other to go back for another draft, letting each revision teach us how to make the next better. Most of us who write remember both teachers who saw hope in our work and ones who were unmoved. Both nurturing and fearful voices remain in our heads. Our job becomes to feel prodded by both, raising our own standards, while being kind to ourselves.


Meanwhile, we try to be grateful for the process, as no one knows how what we write will be received. Finding Wonders will be published this September. Stone Mirrors will come out this coming January. I love having two books of historical verse, which represent perhaps ten years of work, moving into the world together. Sometimes we get such happy endings – before we begin again.

Please visit the ever-encouraging Tara at A Teaching Life to enjoy more Poetry Friday posts.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 29, 2016

More on Verse Novels

Writing verse novels means trying to keep people turning pages, while also deepening with what we call poetry. And what is that? Coleridge wrote that prose is words in the best order, while poetry gives us the best words in the best order. His friend Wordsworth tells us that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Both offer a good beginning, but we find something to argue about, too. Emily Dickinson wrote that she can recognize poetry if she feels as if the top of her head were taken off. And Mary Oliver wrote, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes led down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

“Poetry raises a high bar,” I tell my students. Poetry may be defined subjectively more often than novels are, and readers may have more expectations of something higher or deeper than they find in fiction.

“And there’s another bar,” a student pointed out. “Lots of people hate this hybrid form.”

Yes, there’s that. From time to time well-educated people think it’s a fine idea to tell me that they hate verse novels. Um, okay. You know I write them, right?


We do our best to put tension into narrative, which we can learn about from E. M. Forster, including his insight that plot asks for elements of mystery, which means that part of the mind must be left behind brooding, while the other part marches on. And then we try to tease forth lyrical moments.

At its best, a verse novel puts together poems in a way that makes each one mean more than it meant alone. And then I ask my students: Can every line both deepen and move the story forward? We wonder what makes a good verse novel, and why should or shouldn’t what we’re writing be in verse? We try to create a sense of moving forward, while leaving white space where we ask readers to pause to absorb or reflect.

We want something intimate, but we’re using conventions such as litany, alliteration, rhythm, and sometimes rhyme that aren’t part of everyday speech. John Stuart Mills wrote, “Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be. Call it formality, compression, originality, imagination – whatever it is, it is essential… the space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference – of intent and intensity.”

Aiming for what is personal and universal, we’re bound to fall short, while hoping our efforts leave something. My students are courageous.


For more on poetry and the inspiration of hollyhocks and Emily Dickinson, please visit Margaret who is hosting Poetry Friday.


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