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Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Cool is Aunt Tillie?

This is my Aunt Tillie. I think this photo was taken a year or so ago, and she probably wouldn't love my posting it here because since then she has gotten a new haircut that is more glamorous and hip, and gotten into even better shape.

Aunt Tillie is 96 and a half.

I talked with her on the phone today and heard all about why she is moving to a different retirement community this New Year's Eve.

For one thing, she has really been needing a more competitive card game to play in. Also some more lively, intellectual, fun friends. She already has a bunch of them in the new place, not to mention a top-floor apartment with a view of the pool and pond from her deck. She is so psyched for the move, she says, that she finds herself singing in her sleep... though I think that might also be a little extra practice for her upcoming audition for the chorale at the new place.

Also, she is thinking maybe she'll learn to play blackjack. "Why not?" she says, with her inimitable Aunt Tillie laugh. There will be book groups and exercise classes and the chef is a buddy of hers from a few years ago, so she was delighted to catch up with him and find out how his 2 sons are doing. She remembers everything about everybody and is so positive and charming, her new friends have already been inviting her to sit with them at dinner, and join all their various clubs and committees.

She is particularly looking forward to the cocktail parties, when hired gentlemen come to dance with the ladies.

How awesome is she? It is really beyond expressing. I want to be her when I grow up.

How about you? Who do you want to be?

Rachel Vail

Friday, December 18, 2009

For Rising Star Writers of Kid/Teen Books!

Here's your chance to win a wonderful grant and foot-in-the door, with thanks to my friend Fran Manushkin for the heads-up...

The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000 is offered annually to an author of children's or young-adult fiction, who has written two books of high literary caliber but who has not yet attracted a broad readership. The Fellowship is designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career, when monetary support is particularly needed to complete a book-length work-in-progress.

Note the change in the entry rules: There is no longer an upper limit to the number of novels that entrants have written, or a time limit on when they were published. Letters of nomination must be received before January 14, 2010. For detailed information on how to apply, please go to:

http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/281 Thanks!

Fran Manushkin and Susanna Reich,

Co-Chairs, PEN's Children's/Young Adult Writers Committee

Let me know if you're entering, so I can cross my fingers for you!

Rachel Vail

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Death of a Pet

A few days ago, my bird died. His name was Taylor. He was old, just turned 16. It's not a total shock, I guess -- he was a cockatiel, and the average life expectancy of pet cockatiels is 5 years. They told us when we bought him that, with good care and luck, he could live 12-15 years. So he lived a long time, all things considered. It would be selfish, in a way, for me to wish he'd lived longer.

Sometimes it is hard for me to resist selfishness.

Taylor was a sweet bird. Often I asked his advice on a plot twist I was considering and he'd cock his head sideways, skeptically. He was right, always. I'll miss his help.

Also his noisy chirping. (My neighbors might not miss this.)

It's hard, losing a pet. You know that chances are, if you are a lucky person, you will outlive most of your pets. Those of us who are not very young children understand when we get our pets that we are basically signing up to have our hearts broken, somewhere not even all that far down the road. Why do we do such a foolish thing?

I remember one dark time in college I got to thinking the same kind of thing about friendship. Why would you choose to make yourself vulnerable to somebody? Why voluntarily hand over the key to your own heartbreak? Here's my heart. I give it to you, knowing you could really break it and that, chances are, someday you will.

How stupid a deal is that?

Not stupid at all, is the answer I come back to. Not stupid to love a pet you know will die in a few years (if all things go well enough to give you that long). Not stupid to trust a friend. Not stupid to love, or to fall in love, full out and with all your heart, even if that means your heart is a good bet for breaking. It's hard between the tears to remember, but so important nevertheless: it's not stupid to love today even though you know it will hurt like hell someday. There's a reason we do it again and again, and it's not amnesia. It's not even that it feels so flat out good to love. It's that living a rich and full life pretty much requires loving -- the deep kind of loving, the kind that knows loss is not just probable but likely. It is uniquely human to comprehend that in choosing love we are guaranteeing ourselves future pain -- and to choose love nevertheless.

In honor of my bird Taylor, who, despite being just a little bird in a cage, seemed to have terrific heart and humor, I am posting something originally published in the anthology 13, edited by the great James Howe. It is my short story THIRTEEN AND A HALF, which is about the death of a bird and maybe about some other stuff as well.

Happy Holidays.

Rachel Vail

Thirteen and a Half

All I knew about Ashley before I went over there yesterday was that until this year she went to private school and now she sits next to me in math. But she asked me over and since I couldn't think of a good no, I said OK.

Ashley lives near school, so we walked. We didn't have a lot to talk about on the way, but she didn't seem to mind. She was telling me that when she grows up she wants to be a veterinarian and a movie star, and travel all over the world very glamorously and live life to the hilt. She asked if I like to live life to the hilt.

“I mostly just hang around,” I admitted.

“But when you get older, and you can do anything,” she whispered, as we began climbing the steep steps up to her huge stone house. “What do you like to imagine?”

I was a little winded from the steps, so I just shrugged.

“Like, I am constantly imagining I can fly,” said Ashley, spreading her arms wide. “Do you ever imagine you're flying?”

I stopped for breath. “I sometimes imagine I'm in a bakery.”

“Today is my half-birthday,” she said, pulling a key out of her shirt. It had been hanging from a shoelace around her neck. She bent close to the lock, to use it. “Are you thirteen and a half yet?”

I shook my head. My birthday was just last month.

“It feels, you just feel… older, at thirteen and a half,” she said. “Things shift, subtly. You'll see.”

I followed her in. I think her house might actually be a mansion. The ceiling is very, very far from the floor in the room where you walk in. In my house we have a front hall. Ashley's you'd have to call a lobby. On the left there was a huge square room that I think was a library. Anyway there were tons of books in there, on dark shelves all the way up to the ceiling. At the far end of the library two huge doors opened into some other room. I don't know what room it was or if that one would open to another huge room. I decided to stay close to Ashley to avoid getting lost.

Ashley unzipped her jacket and dropped it on the floor, with her backpack still hooked through the sleeves. I took off my jacket and backpack too, put them next to Ashley's, then followed Ashley past a dining room that had paintings of annoyed-looking people hanging on the greenish walls, down a long hallway, into the kitchen.

“What do you want for a snack?” asked Ashley.

I didn't know.

Ashley climbed up onto one of the counters and opened a cabinet. “Let's have Mallomars,” she said. “I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way she eats Mallomars, don't you?”

She brought down the box, and held it open for me to choose one. I picked one in the center of the back row, wondering what that revealed about me. She took one from the far right front and said, “Come on and meet my bird, Sweet Pea. Did I tell you I've had him since I turned three?”

My Mallomar was melting a little on my fingers as I hurried to keep up with Ashley, around corners and then up, up, up a steep flight of stairs with dark red carpeting worn out in the center of each step. My house is just regular.

“Sweet Pea is a budgie,” Ashley was explaining. “People think that's the same as a parakeet, but it's not. Budgies are slightly larger and much more exotic. Do you like exotic animals?”

“Um,” I said.

“I got Sweet Pea when I was three years old and though tragically he never learned to talk people-language, he is still able to communicate, at least to me. I can tell his chirps apart. You'll see. This is my brother's room – don't go there,” she warned, indicating a closed door. “This is the bathroom – do you have to go?”


“OK. Tell me when you do.”

I took a bite of my Mallomar, maybe revealing that I was a hungry type of person.

Ashley gripped a doorknob on a tall white door. “And this – this is my room.”

She swung the door open. Everything inside was pink. Pink carpeting, pink walls, pink bed piled high with pink pillows. “Sweet Pea?” she called, heading across the thick rug toward an empty birdcage. “Sweet Pea? Ahhh!!!!”

I got there as she began screaming, and saw a dead bird, lying on its side in the bottom of the cage.

She was still screaming when a woman raced into the room, across the acres of pink rug, and grabbed Ashley, demanding, “What happened?”

Ashley stopped screaming, said, “Sweet Pea…died!” and started to sob. The woman, who, now that I got a better look, was an older version of Ashley – big brown eyes, freckled nose, black hair pulled back in a ponytail – anyway, the woman gathered Ashley into her arms and sat down on the rug, hugging her.

I was still standing there, holding my half-eaten Mallomar, feeling a little weird. I don't think the woman, who I had to figure was Ashley's mom, even noticed I was there.

Ashley's crying turned from shrieks to gasps to, finally, just little burbles that sounded like she was saying, “Haboo.”

Her mom was stroking her hair whispering “OK,” and occasionally checking her watch.

I ate the rest of my Mallomar and tried not to look at the dead bird or Ashley and her mom, who seemed to be having some private time, just with me happening to be standing three feet away. I would've gone to the bathroom but Ashley had said to tell her before I went there, so I thought maybe their family had a rule of some sort about that. They seemed like they might.

Ashley sniffled, then said, “I've had him since I was three.” She whimpered a little, then dried her face on the bottom of her t-shirt. “It feels, it just feels like, like the death of my childhood.”

“Oh, Sweetheart,” said the mom.

Ashley started sobbing again.

“Maybe I should call my mom,” I whispered.

“Don't leave!” screamed Ashley.

So I didn't.

“I feel like,” she started again. “I feel like maybe Sweet Pea felt like, like I had grown up, now that I turned thirteen and a half, and like, after all this time, this lifetime together…” She was too breathy to continue.

“Ashley,” said the mother. “There's something I have to tell you.”

Ashley sat up straight, slid off her mother's lap, and sat cross-legged on the carpeting facing her mom. She swallowed hard and then nodded. “OK.”

“Sweet Pea,” started the mom. “Sweet Pea wasn't actually, well, what you think he is. Or was.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ashley.

“You didn't get this bird on you third birthday.”

“Yes, I did,” Ashley protested. “I remember. I went to the pet store with Grammy and Papa, and picked him out.”

“Well,” said the mom, tilting her head sideways. “You picked out a bird. He looked something like Sweet Pea, and his name was Sweet Pea, too…”

“You mean…”

The mom scrunched her face apologetically. “You were so excited, but then the darn bird died a few weeks after we got him, and, well, I didn't want to start explaining death to a three-year-old so I just went back to the pet store and got a new one.”

“I can't believe you.”

“Well,” said the mom. “I didn't want you to be sad. And when that second one died you were five, and just starting kindergarten, so that seemed like a bad time to deal with death, too. So I just bought a new parakeet.”


“Isn't that the same as a parakeet?”

Ashley stared at her mother. “Budgies are more… Sweet Pea was a budgie.”

“Not recently.”

“There was more than one replacement?”

The mom smiled awkwardly. “Sweet Pea was sort of a series of birds.”


“Honey,” said the mom, leaning toward Ashley. “Some of them were green, some were blue…”

“You said he was molting!” shrieked Ashley. “Get out! Get out of my room! I want to be alone with Sweet Pea, or whoever this is! Get out!”

I wasn't sure if I was supposed to stay or go, but I followed the mom out just in case. Ashley didn't yell at me to stay, so I figured I'd made the right choice.

The mom closed the door behind us and said, “Do you want a snack? I am studying for the Bar.”

I had no idea what that meant. I just shook my head.

“You can wait in the kitchen,” she said, moving fast toward the stairs. I could see where Ashley gets her speed. “I'm sure Ashley will be down soon.”

When we got down to the kitchen, the mom took out two glasses and a pitcher of water. She poured us each some, gulped hers down, then looked at me for the first time, really. “It's nice for Ashley that you are here. She was bound to discover death eventually, and it's nice she has a friend to lean on.”

“I'm not really… we're not that close,” I explained. “I just sit next to her in math.”

“Well,” said the mom, pouring herself more water. “I wish I could chat, but as I said I really have to study. Call me if you and Ashley need anything.”

And then she left. I sat alone in the kitchen listening to the clock tick, wondering if I should call my mom and ask her to pick me up early on account of the death of the bird and also since it was getting a little creepy there in Ashley's humongous kitchen all alone.

Just as I was starting to wander around to look for a phone, though, Ashley appeared in the doorway. She had a jewelry box in her hands. It was the kind where, when you open it, tinkly music played and a ballerina spun on her toe. I had one of those when I was little.

“Want to do a funeral?” Ashley asked.

“Is he in there?” I asked.

Ashley nodded.

I followed her through the kitchen out into the back yard.

Across a big green lawn, up a hill toward some evergreen trees, we came to a shed. “Hold this,” said Ashley, and handed me the jewelry box/coffin. I waited outside the shed while she went in. I tried to be very still so I wouldn't drop it. She came out wearing big denim gloves and holding a small spade. “I don't have any experience with death,” I told her.

“I didn't think I did, either,” said Ashley. “I guess you never know.”

I followed her to the evergreen trees. She knelt down beside one and started digging. I just stood there holding the jewelry box/coffin. When she was done, she said, “You can put him in.”

“Do you – maybe you should,” I suggested. “You're the one, you know…”

“That's OK,” she said.

So I placed the box into the hole.

“Kneel down with me,” she whispered. “Please? I'll be quick.”

“OK.” I knelt in the soft dirt. Usually at a friend's house we play ping-pong or something.

“I'm going to say some stuff, OK?”

I nodded.

Ashley took a deep breath. “Goodbye, Sweet Pea. I'm sorry I didn't realize you were actually a series of birds. I'm sorry if I wasn't a good enough bird-owner, and you never learned to talk and you never flew anyplace interesting. I guess you probably had a pretty boring life. I'm sorry.” She sniffled.

I was thinking she might start really crying again, and if she did, where would I find her mother? But she cleared her throat and turned to me. “Do you want to say anything?”


“You can. Just say whatever comes to mind.”

“I'm not that good at saying things,” I whispered.

“That's OK,” whispered Ashley. “He can't really hear you anyway.”

I turned and looked at her. She was sort of smiling at me. I sort of smiled back. Ashley closed her eyes and lowered her head again.

I took a deep breath and said, “OK. Sweet Pea? Um, I never knew you, you know, alive, but, and I don't really know Ashley that well either – I can't figure out if she is severely weird or like, the opposite, but, um, I think she really, kind of, loved you.”

“I did,” mumbled Ashley with her eyes closed. “I did.”

“So,” I continued, making it up as I went. “I was thinking maybe it would be nice, if you could, like, maybe show up in her dream some night, and fly with her. Because Ashley likes to imagine she's flying. Anyway, um, that's all.”

Ashley stayed still with her eyes closed, so I didn't get up either. Sometime after my feet fell asleep, Ashley shoveled the dirt onto the top of the box and patted it down hard. Without saying anything, she got up and went back to the shed. I waited outside it again, stamping my pin-cushiony feet, until she came back out without the gloves and shovel.

“Thanks,” she said, as we headed back toward her house. “That was really beautiful, what you said.”

I shrugged.

She held the back door open for me. “Is this the worst playdate of your life?”

“It's up there,” I admitted.

We waited out front for my mom to pick me up. I sat between my stuff and Ashley. We both tilted our faces up toward the sun. When my mother's car pulled up and she beeped, I turned to Ashley. “Happy half-birthday,” I said.

“Thanks,” she answered. “Thanks for, you know, being here today.”

I grabbed my stuff and ran down the steps to my mom. I slipped into the car, buckled my seat belt, and leaned over to get my kiss.

“Did you have a good time?” Mom asked.

I shrugged. I looked out the window. Up the hill, on the front lawn, Ashley was running around in big, loose circles, her arms spread straight out.

The end.

© Rachel Vail

April 18, 2002

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Books

I have two new books coming out this spring.

One is BRILLIANT, the third and final book in my Avery sisters trilogy.

The other is JUSTIN CASE: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters. I can't wait to show you some of the art for that -- I just saw it Monday and it blew me away. I actually started crying, right there in the middle of my meeting. I couldn't help it. Matthew Cordell, the artist who did the drawings in the book, is a genius -- his work is so full of humor and heart. I feel so lucky to have his art in my book!

And - he promised me I could choose one of the finished pieces. To have. To frame on my wall. How cool? Except I don't know which piece to choose -- the one of Justin's little sister presenting her haiku to the whole school (the word POOP is hovering above her adorable head)? The one with the dad gardening/cursing? One of the many of flummoxed, anxious, adorable Justin himself??? It will be a tough and wonderful choice...

So now, here I sit, all excited for those two books, but trying to write the next one.

A written book is so much easier to deal with than the one that, like a stubborn, over-tired, hungry toddler, refuses to come out from the corner it is tantrumming in and just present itself to me already.

Do you prefer reading or writing?

For me, there's no contest. Reading wins absolutely.

The problem? That feeling I get, when I'm writing and I get it. When the story clicks and I can speak true and clear in a voice that's not mine but the character's -- when a good sentence appears on my screen and it could only have come from the mouth or mind of my character...

It's an addiction.

My only addiction, other than the Visine problem, which I fight valiently, nerdily, all the time...

But it keeps me in the chair.

How about you? What keeps you going through the rough spots?

Rachel Vail

Monday, December 7, 2009

What I liked at my reading yesterday

Yesterday I did a book signing/reading at West Side Montessori. It was in a big, bright, cold room, filled with enthusiastic kids and their grownups.

I loved reading Sometimes I'm Bombaloo and its sequel, Jibberwillies at Night, and also Righty & Lefty (A Tale of Two Feet) -- and answering all the questions the kids could come up with.

But my favorite moments were, as always, the conversations with the kids while I was signing their books. One kid and his mom talked about how Bombaloo had helped him get his melt-downs under control. That was pretty awesome. A lot of kids talked about how they feel when they are Bombaloo, or when they have Jibberwillies and can't fall asleep until those perky Jibberwillies are taken care of (and they had some creative suggestions for Katie!) A few mentioned that they'd gone to my website and downloaded their own Jibberwillies (you can too, right here: http://www.rachelvail.com/pages/jibberwilliesatnight.htm). And of course they wanted to talk, after the book, to my Righty and especially my cranky old Lefty!

Then a four-year-old girl, dressed head to toe in purple, asked as she watched me sign her book with my favorite signing pen, "Why is that pen purple?"

It was the first question that stumped me all day. Why is that pen purple?

Have I mentioned that I love kids' questions? They are so often unintentionally philosophical.

Since I couldn't really answer better, I said, "I wanted to sign your book today in purple, because I love the color purple. Do you like purple?"

Her eyes widened under the purple bow and she whispered, "Yes, I do like purple."

"Is it your favorite color?" I asked her, confident in my guess.

She shook her head. "I like all the colors."

"All?" I asked.

"Yes," she said seriously. "But Christopher just likes red, all day long."

That is my favorite sentence of the week. "Christopher just likes red, all day long." I love that little girl, and Christopher, wherever he is, just liking red all day long -- I love him. You go, Christopher.

Maybe tomorrow what I will do is just like red all day long, too.

Rachel Vail

Friday, December 4, 2009


What do you do when you're nervous?

Right now I am waiting for two different phone calls -- one professional, one personal, and I am nervous about both. So what I am doing (in addition to typing, very loudly, as is my bad habit) is:

I am staring at the phone.

This, I know, is unproductive.

A watched phone never boils.

I know, I know.

I have a ton of work to do and wet hair that could use some drying. Or I could play brickbreaker, which I am less olympically bad at than I was when I got sucked into this latest, most useless obsession a few days ago. Or I could prepare for the professional phone call, at least -- make a list, organize my thoughts into questions and goals...

But no, I am just going to sit here with my heart thumping, watching the phone.

Please tell me you have a healthier method of dealing with waiting-for-a-call tension! And tell it to me soon... because this is not a good way.

Rachel Vail