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Voices Around the Table: Singing All the Stories

I love Thanksgiving, because it means wonderful people from many different parts of our life gathering joyfully around a single table.ThanksgivingSepia It also always means music, because the extended family is decidedly musical. An inventory of the instruments present in our house as we feasted on turkey, stuffing, and pies should give you an idea:

2 banjos
3 guitars
1 viola (but several violists)
0 mandolins, but that was only because the beloved mandolin player had to cancel at the last minute,
4 violins
1 cello
1 piano
1 lourka*

*The lourka was fictional.

*The lourka was fictional.

So this year, the day after Thanksgiving, we went over to San Francisco, to see some hundred-year-old paintings, to eat a large number of dumplings, and–because I nagged and nagged and nagged and insisted–to go hear music coming from a bunch of speakers in a huge room looking out over the Bay. !! But you see, I KNEW THESE SPEAKERS. Here’s how:

Once upon a time–in 2011, long ago–I turned a corner in the Arsenale, Venice’s enormous brick armory-turned-exhibition-hall, because I heard humming.

Around that corner, what did I find? An oval arrangement of speakers in an enormous room, with the pale October Venetian sun slipping in through windows and arched doorways. Venice2011SpemInAlium

The humming wasn’t just humming, as it turned out. It was made up of forty distinct voices singing from forty speakers: a sound installation by Janet Cardiff of Thomas Tallis’s “40-Part Motet,” Spem in alium.

I was completely moved and awed and flabbergasted. The music is beautiful, on its own. (The King’s Singers have recorded an absolutely gorgeous version of Spem in alium, which I heartily recommend.) But what Cardiff has done is to make it possible for us to inhabit that music. By walking around past the speakers, I soon figured the trick out: each singer had been separately miked, and each of those voices then had been linked to a separate speaker. Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 9.08.33 AMStanding close to any single speaker, you hear not just that particular line of the music, but everything that makes that singer a human individual: the throat-clearings, the notes that break a little in the middle, the entrances into the harmony and the silences when the other voices are singing. Before the voices start singing, Cardiff recorded the minutes when everyone is waiting for the session to begin–the children joking with each other, some of the adults testing their voices, people chatting and just generally being alive.

And then the music takes these very disparate voices, no one of them perfect, all of them so human, and weaves them into something tremendous.

You can walk into the center of the oval, and the music washes over you from one side, from the other side, sometimes from everywhere at once.

That is what I wanted to show these people I love so much, my favorite very human musicians. Eight of us went, ranging in age from eight to on-the-way-to-eighty. Outside the great Fort Mason windows, the sun melted into gold, sank toward the sea, slathered the world with one last intense distillation of light.SunsetGoldenGate The voices sang. The grandchildren snuggled in their grandfather’s arms. The rest of us, mothers and grandmother and cousins, wandered through the music, listened to all the different voices. Sometimes we shut our eyes and basked in the music. Sometimes we looked around to find the people we loved, to bask in their presence as well as the music.

It was like our table, the day before: all the different voices, each one so human, each one with his or her own story to tell, not always agreeing, sometimes in outright dissonance, but willing to sing our separate human parts together.

And that, for me, was and is Thanksgiving.CardiffFortMasonMotet

“Hold onto your hearts, and hold onto your stories”: Launching THE WRINKLED CROWN into our beautiful, heartbreaking world.

WrinkledCrownTitlePageMy book about a girl navigating her way through a divided imaginary world has launched–into a real world that is also divided, and also, as this week reminds us, under many shadows. What can a mere story do, in the face of all the trouble in the world? And yet, that’s ultimately WHY I write books for children: because life is so hard, and yet at the same time so amazing. The kids know this double truth; they experience it every day, in small and large ways. A story can reach out to them and say, “Yes. Yes. The world is great and terrible. You’re not imagining that! Hold onto your hearts and hold onto your stories, and we’ll walk together a while….

So here is an account of some of the small (and not-so-small) joys that came with the birthday of The Wrinkled Crown this week! WrinkledCrownCookieBakingCousins We had a lovely launch party at Books, Inc. in Berkeley. Because music is so important to the story, my daughter and her friend played duets, and because cookies are so important for any party, my friends Kathy and Isa (who is a cousin as well as a friend) helped design gorgeous and delicious–and thematically-appropriate!–treats. FutureHalfCatCookies On the right you can see some cookie-baking cousins in action. Soon there was flour on the floor and the lovely scent of cookies baking! Half-Cats emerged from the oven, all toasty and sweet.Then we dipped them into chocolate so that they would be properly HALF-Cats! This is Kathy’s batch here–they were amazingly yummy: WrinkledCrownHalfCatCookies

At the party that evening so many people turned up!WrinkledCrownLaunch I spoke about making up folklore from scratch and about stereoscopes, and I think everybody had quite a fine time (here’s part of the crowd–look at those smiles!):
I am so grateful to everyone for helping The Wrinkled Crown start its life in the world in such a tasty, music-wreathed, joyful way.

wrinkledCrown_cvrThe Wrinkled Crown
Up in the magical, wrinkled hills, Linny breaks an ancient law. No matter how musical a girl may be, she must not so much as touch a string of a lourka before she turns twelve, or she’ll be spirited off to Away. But Linny, born nimble-fingered and tune-filled, can’t resist: she makes a lourka of her very own. When the curse meant for her strikes her best friend instead, Linny must leave her home behind to try to set things right. With her father’s young apprentice, Elias, she travels down into the Plain, where science may have found a cure for magic. Linny and Elias soon find themselves caught up in the age-old battle between the wrinkled places and the Plain. Can Linny keep the fractured land from falling apart—and save her best friend?

“Nesbet’s writing is deft and unpredictable, with adventure following adventure, keeping readers hooked to the end” (School Library Journal, starred review); “Nesbet’s confident worldbuilding creates a fascinating picture of two diametrically opposed cultures . . . .a thought-provoking picture of the ways that misunderstandings and miscommunication can create animosity and how both the conflicts of those in power and the power of story can shape the lives of everyday citizens” (Kirkus); “It’s subtle and intelligent, making me think of such classics as Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth at one point and of the best of Diana Wynne Jones at another” (LOCUS); “Nesbet’s fable explores the relationship of science, logic, and imagination, forging ahead with eventfulness and visual richness” (Horn Book).

Happy Birthday, Dear Maya! (Or, What Halloween Means to Me)

Halloween is not just any day! Halloween is the birthday of one of my favorite people (because since when do fictional characters not count as people?): Maya Davidson, who tries so hard to keep her mother and brother–not to mention Paris and the world!–safe in The Cabinet of Earths and A Box of Gargoyles.

Poor Maya! Other people get to have birthday parties with delicious cake and innocent games and absolutely harmless music–but Maya getsGargoylesCh6TitleBirthday
Every October 30, while some people are out causing trouble as part of Mischief Night, Maya Davidson stays up late to welcome her birthday, as it comes rolling in:GargoylesMischiefNightText

Maya is a person very close to my heart. She is courageous, though courage doesn’t come easily to her. She worries about things, but finds a path to follow that leads right through all those worries. She cares deeply about people (not to mention certain gargoyles, a Bulgarian dragon, and the tiniest of bronze salamanders) and is willing to take on all sorts of risks and adventures to help those whom she loves. Happy birthday, Maya!

What kind of present would a fictional girl enjoy? I think, perhaps–to have us reading her stories! What would make that present sweet for all of us? Well, HarperCollins is sponsoring a temporary $1.99 e-book sale of THE CABINET OF EARTHS! If you haven’t read THE CABINET OF EARTHS yet, why not give it a try? It’s a little bit spooky, in a late-Octoberish sort of way! Available at all the e-book outlets: Amazon:, Barnes & Noble: , and Kobo:

(The story of Maya’s birthday is told in A BOX OF GARGOYLES, by the way. That’s available all sorts of places, as well!

HAPPY MAYA’S BIRTHDAY or HAPPY HALLOWEEN, whichever you celebrate!

Enter to win an advance copy of THE WRINKLED CROWN!

In less than two months, THE WRINKLED CROWN will be out in the world, and I am pretty thrilled about that! It has gotten some lovely reviews (“Nesbet’s writing is deft and unpredictable, with adventure following adventure, keeping readers hooked to the end” (School Library Journal, starred review); “Nesbet’s confident worldbuilding creates a fascinating picture of two diametrically opposed cultures . . . .a thought-provoking picture of the ways that misunderstandings and miscommunication can create animosity and how both the conflicts of those in power and the power of story can shape the lives of everyday citizens” (Kirkus)), and I can’t wait for people to be able to read the story of Linny . . . Elias . . . their friend Sayra . . . and the Half-Cat!


Yes! Here, by the way, is a picture of an actual half-cat spotted by a friend of mine in England eyeing its magical, fictional counterpart:

And here’s the link to the Goodreads giveaway:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet

The Wrinkled Crown

by Anne Nesbet

Giveaway ends September 20, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Shadows and Wonders: Or, Write Your Novel like an Eclipse

One day in April I showed my class this photograph and asked them what they thought they were seeing: LeafShadows1

“A sidewalk?” said almost everybody.

I think they were frankly surprised I would show them such a dull picture. What a waste of time! An ordinary, boring sidewalk, such as we see every day! What’s the point of that? We hurry along such sidewalks on our way somewhere else, and we don’t usually notice anything much about them, unless a tree root creates enough unevenness to catch our hurrying feet and trip us up.

Or unless the sun does something strange above our heads. Then everything changes!

Here’s a picture of some other shadows, this time from the partial solar eclipse of May 2012: PartialEclipseIt happened on a weekend when I had just been through quite a lot (and that’s another story, told here: “Out of the Blue: Embracing the Unexpected, in Writing and in Life”), but I staggered outside anyway to see what I could see. And I saw–not the usual leaf shadows cast against the neighbors’ garage, but instead a thousand crescent suns.

And suddenly the world was defamiliarized! Made strange!

These are terms coined about a hundred years ago by a Russian writer named Viktor Shklovsky. He was fretting about the way that modern people rush mindlessly from place to place, never really seeing the world it passes by. He diagnosed us as suffering from “automatization,” from the tendency to recognize things, without ever seeing them. His point was that when we fail to see, we short-circuit the glorious detour that is life: we live our lives as if we were already more than half dead, “as if this life had never been.”

(In Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, young Milo suffers from a similar problem:MiloBored “When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d even bothered.”)

This business of not seeing the world isn’t a small problem. This is an EMERGENCY! We are NOT FULLY ALIVE! What can be done? Well, Shklovsky had a thought about that, too: “And so [says Shklovsky, as translated by Benjamin Sher], in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of ART.”

Art can save us by helping us see. A painting, a poem, a novel can “make things strange,” and that strangeness slows us down, forces us to see the world in a new way, and saves us from our zombie-like rush toward death. Yay, art!

So here’s another picture:TanFearShadow
This one comes from Shaun Tan’s book, THE ARRIVAL,ArrivalShaunTan which tells, without words, the story of a man who travels from a shadowed homeland to a different place, a city where everything is unfamiliar, many things are beautiful, and some things very, very odd indeed. TanNewTeapot

The shadow of the dragon’s tail in the picture above is mysterious. We see that shadow, and we’re not sure whether it’s literal or a metaphor, whether there are actual dragons oppressing the people of his hometown, or whether his family is “living under the shadow” of political oppression, of want, of prejudice, and this shadowy dragon-tail staining the walls of the city is just there to give us a feeling for what it’s like, to live in fear. TanDragonsSpreadBut the very beauty of the picture slows us down. We don’t jump to an Answer (“oh, metaphor!”) and race on. We pause, linger, wonder. Tan’s pictures are art: they make us see, and in so doing, in some small way, they save us.

Art, like a solar eclipse or a run-in with cancer, can forever change the way we see the world. A novel like an eclipse! That’s a worthy goal.

Because I do perceive the shadows differently these days. Where once I might only have thought there was “nothing”–just that boring old sidewalk–I now can’t but help but notice, post-eclipse, the wonders hiding there: the bright, round traces of a thousand tiny suns.