‎"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
Steven Jobs, Stanford commencement address, 2005.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Evolving Libraries With STEAM: An Interview With Sarah Kepple

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many wonderful librarians throughout my journey to becoming a school librarian. Some of the most dynamic have been my colleagues in YALSA with whom I’ve had the honor of working with on committees. One of the most forward-thinking and passionate librarians is Sarah Kepple, a former Cuyahoga County Public Library youth services librarian who is now taking her talent and services on the road as an outsource programming specialist. Sarah has been at the forefront of the maker movement promoting robotics and STEAM programs in the library. In the year and a half that I’ve been working with her, we’ve had many discussions about the evolution of libraries and librarians and the potential for the library as a center for not only information and literacy skills, but creating and learning in a social setting. Sarah has just finished writing a book, Library Robotics: Technology and English Language Arts Activities for Ages 8-24, set for release in October 2015, that talks about her experiences implementing tech programs in public libraries and gives practical advice and guidelines for starting and developing programs. I recently asked Sarah a few questions to learn more about this exciting new resource for library professionals developing maker environments in their libraries.

SB: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book?

Sarah: Sure! I was inspired to write it because I started getting so many questions from library colleagues about what we had created at CCPL. Most of the folks who called were looking to justify for themselves or their stakeholders, why robots in libraries made sense. This is part of why I designed the activities in the book to align to not only the ISTE Standards for Students, but also the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner and the Common Core ELA Standards. Librarians develop both traditional literacy and technology literacy, so this book is designed to help them do both. The activities are all rooted in books, so that students are, for instance, reading about Alice’s adventures with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare while programming a robot to make tea. One of the school media specialists I interviewed for the book talked about how librarians are cross-curricular by nature, and I agree. Librarians could use the activities in the book in collaboration with a science, math or English teacher, an engineer from the community, or all by themselves!

SB: Why do you think libraries and schools have gone so crazy for the maker movement in the past few years?

Sarah: There are so many reasons. We’re responding to the cry from government and industry that we need more entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers. We’re participating in the push for locally and responsibly made goods, and we’re engaging folks by providing equipment that they may not be able to afford individually. Apart from all of these very valid reasons, though, I think we make and help others make because we are inspired by the process. The first time I saw students working with robotics, I was blown away. They were working in teams to solve challenges, such as programming the robots to move materials from one space into another, and they were so incredibly engaged and excited. They were independently investigating programming options, taking measurements, collaborating with each other, and discussing multiple creative solutions. The atmosphere was electric. All these years later, after leading hundreds of robotics classes, I still get energized by the students and the process. This is how we grow lifelong and connected learners. Creating is such a natural human urge, and creating together brings out the best in humanity.

SB: What do you see for the future of libraries 5, 10, and 15 years from now? What will they look like?

Sarah: Almost exactly five years ago, I went to a ground-breaking virtual conference put on by Library Journal and School Library Journal called eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point. At that time eBook sales and circulation was rising exponentially and there was a very strong feeling that libraries might be in trouble without some major overhaul, and not just in their collection development strategies. Though we’ve seen eBook sales and circ level off, the experience and subsequent cultural dialog has left us asking, “What is the point of a library? Why are we here? How should we move forward?” I’m encouraged by these questions. Libraries have always had to adapt to changing technology, but never before have we really looked so hard at our fundamental purpose. The past five years have seen a lot of experimenting, with makerspaces, business centers, media labs, writing centers and more. In the next five years, I would like to see us get focused on the science part of library science, and structure our experiments so that we can evaluate their effectiveness. Within ten years I expect most library systems to have moved fully into outcome-based planning. We’ll identify community needs, map out strategies to address those needs through classes, collections and services, and have ways to track our progress towards those goals. As we do this, I think we will be working toward codifying new best practices, and within fifteen years we’ll consider ourselves community learning centers rather than book repositories.

SB: There is still a huge stereotype out there of the shushing librarian and libraries as places of quiet solitude and stacks of dusty books. How can librarians squash the stereotype and create the image of libraries, and librarians, as leaders in emerging skills and technology?

Sarah: It’s true. Libraries need to do some major rebranding. ALA’s new Libraries Transform campaign emphasizes that libraries today are more about what we do for and with people, rather than what they have. I think this is the essential element on which we need to focus. It takes us back to the question, “What is the library’s purpose today?” or “What should we be doing for and with people?” To me, the overarching answer is we need to be community learning centers, and we need to behave and market accordingly. In both school and public libraries we need to think and speak in terms of learning objectives, think of ourselves as educators, adjust our language to “classes” instead of “programs”, and embed ourselves in our communities. Librarians have always been great at referring folks to the right resource at the right time. We need to recognize and celebrate that the right resources might sometimes be us and be bold enough to say so.

For the book I interviewed colleagues from school, public and academic libraries who are also using robotics with students, and all of them gave examples of how their experiences leading robotics has affected how they are perceived by others. After leading the school robotics team, one media specialist talked about how he is now in near constant communication with the physics teacher and practically co-teaches an English class. Fellow teachers see him as a vital resource, coming to him for tech help and to collaborate and his principal loves him. Another school librarian gave the phenomenal advice, “Don’t wait to be asked!” When it comes to emerging skills and technology, we need to just go ahead and lead. Recognition will follow.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Your Voice Matters in Advocating for Libraries

In our highly connected digital world, libraries are more important than ever. I can hear you saying, “Of course you say that! You’re a librarian and want to protect your job!” Yes, that’s true, but hear me out. Libraries have been a part of civilizations since the birth of writing itself as places to house, preserve, and disseminate information and as meeting grounds for information seekers. They have evolved continually over time to meet the changing needs of not just scholars, but all people seeking access to information. Libraries, in conjunction with widespread public education, have created a far more level playing field for modern societies. And as societies have grown and evolved, so too have libraries. With exponential increases in information available and developments in technology, they have continued to support access and opportunity for all citizens, arguably better and more efficiently than any other time period.  The Internet alone cannot provide such support; it only creates the connectivity. Libraries with space for collaboration, access to the most innovative technology, and yes, information, in all of its various formats, and staffed by people highly skilled in finding the right information for individual needs and teaching skills for finding, evaluating, and using information independently, are an essential need in today’s modern societies. Indeed without libraries and information professionals who can curate, cultivate, and make accessible quality information, the Internet and its connectivity become useless.

I can hear the naysayers; “Public education? What a broken mess! And my library has nothing for me!” While neither is perfect, they are shifting in the right direction. And I would argue that they should never truly be perfect. What we have now should be completely different 5, 10, 15, or 20 years from now. Both libraries and public education are in the business of creating and supporting life-long learners and should continually seek to evolve as society learns and grows. Neither profession should wake up one day and say “Well, we’re perfect now. Time to stop evolving and keep doing what we’re doing for the next 2 decades.” And I do believe that the vast majority of schools and libraries are not only doing good things, but amazing things today. But those darned naysayers are loud and squawky. They grab headlines – over and over and over again. It is libraries and educators, however, who have been the voice for open access to scholarly research and equal access to literature, technology, and the Internet. They have spoken up on behalf of all of us in the battle against censorship. They have been a voice arguing for privacy and individual rights in balance with societal needs. They have been the protectors and preservers of our cultural heritage and history – in all of its formats.  

So what can we do? Advocate to keep and expand libraries – and for finding ways to properly fund them. Who should speak up for libraries? Everyone, because that’s who they serve. There are few professions that truly speak for each and every one of us, even among the variety of public services.  The mission of libraries has always been to meet the needs of the communities they serve, whether school, public, academic, or specialty. They are driven by a sense of equal access. In recent surveys of public opinion, more than 80% of respondents place high value of the role of libraries – and yet they have been voraciously cut back and eliminated in schools and communities. In conversations with parents, teachers, and community members over the last few years, I regularly hear the lament, “They just don’t have the money for libraries anymore.” The blame is almost always on a nebulous “they” who are cutting the funding. Ultimately, we are our public servants, whether elected or hired. Advocating for improving and evolving public services, for finding and ensuring adequate funding, falls on the shoulders of each and every citizen. It is not “us” versus the nebulous “them” but rather a “we the people”. We all need to act to preserve libraries. Not doing so will just send us reeling back to the dark ages of vast inequity.

How and for what should we advocate? First, ask lawmakers and leaders to stop trying to find magical solutions in the for profit world for services that are public in nature. Keeping schools and libraries in the public non-profit sector does several things; it reduces the likelihood of individual gains taking precedence over public good and needs, it keeps hierarchy to a minimum allowing more collective (and patron driven) decision-making, it ensures that these institutions remain committed to equal access for all rather than shifting to a pay-for-play model that increases class inequity. If public services have to follow the mighty dollar, they cannot serve everyone equally. Rather than serving the public, they become servants to those that can pay the most. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be fiscally responsible with the funding they receive, just that the funding should not be tied to individual profit and gain.

Second, ask lawmakers and philanthropists to invest heavily in both libraries and education. Each and every school in America should have a school library with appropriately trained administrative assistance and a minimum of one full-time certified teacher librarian who collaboratively teaches information literacy with other teachers. Less than that and the school library is ineffective. Well-funded libraries deliver enormous value for each dollar spent. In schools, they not only prepare students with the skills for self-motivated independent learning, but connect each and every subject and discipline to encourage true interdisciplinary learning. They foster school cultures and environments where serendipitous discovery can happen naturally and in conjunction with the educative process.  They are a bridge between academic, archival, and public libraries and a link between each grade through elementary, middle, and high school. How do we know this? Solid data from two decades of more than 60 state studies show a definitive correlation between school libraries and student achievement. That kind of data is unequivocal. 

Finally, vote. Vote in every election. And understand that good politicians have to balance their decisions based upon not just your voice, but the voices of thousands of constituents, some of whom are very vocal and have substantial financial backing. Wealthy squeaky wheels, however, drown in a sea of less-well-off masses. You will never agree with every choice that elected official has to make, but if you are a passive grumbler who never votes and never communicates with elected officials, then your voice is merely static. Choose to be an educated, informed, part of “we the people.” And support widespread educated and informed citizenship through well-funded, accessible, professionally staffed, quality American libraries.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"While other things fade, stones and souls endure."

This has been a sad year. After having just lost my Mom to cancer 2 ½ short years ago, my Dad suddenly passed away last month. I’ve found myself thinking profoundly over the past few weeks about legacy, pondering deeply what my parents left me with, not so much physically as metaphorically. I am grateful for the solid foundation they gave me through encouragement, support, education, and sometimes a firm hand and boundaries that enabled me to become who I am today.  As a child, my parents fostered a love of reading, learning and books. They took our family to museums where we could steep ourselves in history, science, and art. They encouraged us to try our own hand at playing instruments and filled our house with music ranging from jazz to classical to the occasional foray into folk and pop music. They took us on vacations to beautiful national parks. They made sure we all learned to swim during summer vacations.  They gave me and my siblings the gift of college educations. We had regular family dinners, homemade and at the table together.  We discussed what we learned at school, politics, and the world. We watched the nightly news and the Muppet Show together in the evenings.  We laughed a lot and sometimes cried. I wonder often how children grow and prosper when they don’t have the luxury of being raised by parents like mine.

In the 2 ½ years since we lost my Mom, I began going to my Dad’s house to help with some chores and make dinner. We had some wonderful conversations over those dinners and I became much closer to my Dad. Frequently our conversations in that first year were on the topic of stones. The headstone on their grave was not a quick decision.  Dad mulled over multiple designs and types of stone for months, deliberating with all of us as to which one would best serve as not only a marker, but a memorial. We decided that a piece of poetry or writing would make it all the more special and Dad perused multiple possible excerpts before finally settling on a portion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Once the stone, design, and words were settled upon, drafts and revisions circulated among family members until, finally, many months after Mom was laid to rest, the perfect headstone was set in place at Lower Brandywine. 

Throughout those months and discussions about the headstone, Dad and I also talked about the predominantly Jewish custom of leaving stones when visiting graves of loved ones. There are multiple explanations for this custom in Jewish lore. The oldest historical connection actually comes from ancient times when people would mark graves with simple piles of stones. It was a practice that ultimately evolved into grave markers with inscriptions and was not solely a Jewish custom. Aside from the historical significance of piles of stones, there are multiple stories that emerge explaining the custom. The associations Dad and I talked about most were 1) the idea of stones symbolizing endurance 2) the leaving of stones as a sign that “I was here” visiting this memorial and 3) stones left as a tribute meaning “you were remembered”. Once the headstone was in place, Dad and I both began leaving stones when we paid a visit to the gravesite. Dad left a stone he collected at Trinity University in San Antonio as well as stones from family vacations to Graves Mountain and Lake George. I left stones from various places I visited as well as stones I just liked. 

Unfortunately, some well-meaning soul has cleared away all of our stones. Maybe someone who recalled Mom’s dislike of kitschy disorder left as memorials or maybe just someone trying to keep the cemetery clean and orderly. I feel certain Mom would be just fine with this custom of leaving stones, however, and I invite any and all of you to leave your own stones if you happen to visit. Both Mom and Dad were filled with fortitude and lived rich, full lives. The legacy they left is solid as stone; it endures and lives on in the memory of everyone their lives touched. 

Holy Sonnets:  Death Be Not Proud
By John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s deliovery,
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shallt die.

(Spellings in the original Donne poems are slightly different and the inscription on my parents’ gravestone uses the original Donne spellings.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

To 1to1, or not to 1to1? That is the question...

“Technology in Education” is definitely the hot buzz in K12 lately, but the challenge for districts trying to make solid decisions is ensuring that they are seeing a full picture and weighing all of the various factors affected by their choices.  It’s easy to get trapped in the buzz word rut, but at the end of the day, everyone involved is really trying to make choices that support student learning and overall excellence in the education we provide our students.   

Melvin Kranzberg, a former professor at Case Western Reserve and Georgia Tech is famous for coining what he called “The Six Laws of Technology”.  The first of these was that “Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral.”  I like this quote because it expresses a big picture sentiment that I think is often missing from technology implementation discussions: that technology is just a tool and it is what we do with it and the consequences -- good, bad and neutral -- that occur are a result of our use and choices.  Kranzberg’s 6th Law, that “technology is a very human activity - and so is the history of technology”, reaffirms the sentiment that it is about our involvement, our use, and sometimes, our misuse.  It’s critical that any technology initiative maintain a perspective for both long and short term goals, a solid understanding of functionality needs of end users, and a critical eye toward both intended and unintended consequences.  

My personal perspective on technology in our K12 schools stems from my experience as a librarian who has served as a substitute teacher in more than 10 districts throughout the Philadelphia region, accumulated more than 20 years of experience in desktop publishing and communications, parented my own children through the implementation of a school 1 to 1 device program, and a personal passion for technology and the power it has to interconnect our world.  The EdTech discussion is a vibrant and exciting.  As we continue pushing that discussion and it’s evolution, there are several recurring issues that I’d like to see technology committees exploring.

  1. Access to information isn’t guaranteed by access to technology. While there are definitely pluses to 1-to-1 device plans in ensuring that all students have access to devices of some sort and increased mobility during times of peak use, there are some issues.  Many districts implement 1-to-1 programs and eliminate libraries and library resources under the mistaken belief that technology alone means “access” to information.  The reality is that providing access to digital resources currently costs substantially more than equivalent paper resources.  In addition, not everything desirable for meeting student and staff needs is available in a digital format.  Information literacy skills as also tend to suffer substantially if libraries with adequate staffing are not boosted along with the technology implementation.  Plagiarism outside of the K12 environment is rising exponentially and the research skills the college freshman are frequently not adequate for academic work prompting many universities to add a required research/information literacy course for incoming students (see the Rutgers study published in Spring of 2014).

  1. Does one device really meet everyone’s needs? There is a significant difference in functionality and purpose for various devices which is often overlooked.  iPads are awesome, and my preferred device, for digital textbooks, ebooks, and basic browsing/curation of sources.  Heavy writing, however, is difficult on a tablet.  Laptops are great for mobility and allow more comfortable writing than tablets, but they are terrible ereaders and don’t have enough power for heavy duty creative software like the Adobe Creative Suite.  Labs configured for teacher instruction from a computer linked to a SMART Board or other large screen and which allow the teacher to control student computers via the teacher computer or an iPad are every bit as important in schools with 1to1 programs.  Giving students more technology actually increases the need for instruction in information literacies.  Students still need scaffolded instruction in researching, evaluating information, and behaving ethically and that instruction is best done as a collaborative effort between classroom teachers and teacher librarians while students are creating individual and group projects.  There is a time for each device in instruction and a time for varying degrees of freedom in using those devices dependent upon instructional goals.

  1. Some subjects don’t seem to be ready to embrace technology for everything they do.  For example, my son is doing algebra using iPads.  They are great for instructional lecture review, but they are using adobe PDFs as digital problem sheets.  Adobe just doesn’t have good functionality yet as a digital math worksheet.  It’s quirky and awkward when writing and has visibility problems (zooms in and out so that only part of the problem shows).  Inadvertent marks constantly occur and the writing feature is messy.  As a result, technology can become a distraction to the problem solving process.  We would be better meeting student needs if we would dig deeper into whether or not overuse -- or impractical use -- of technology is becoming a hindrance to learning.  

  1. Are there better solutions than 1 to 1 programs?  An alternative to 1 to 1 programs is to have laptop and iPad carts that are shared among students in each area of the school and increasing the number and quality of labs in both the library and other appropriate areas of the school.  Designing labs specifically to meet collaborative teacher instructional needs and solid tech support staff to ensure that technology is always working, updated, and functional is also key.  The number of needed per student software licenses is not as high with this route and allows more flexibility for additional high quality software in the lab environments (ex. Adobe Creative Suite, CAD, and other very pricy software).  In addition, the most cost effective plan that allows districts to keep up with the inevitable and rapid aging of current technology within schools may be to lease a variety of devices -- laptops, iPads, and desktops -- from an outside provider who will keep all devices current and upgraded.   

  1. Firewalls and restrictions… Schools have frequently been overly restrictive with access.  In order to implement a top notch tech program, the mindset has to shift from being overly restrictive to teaching proper use and using those moments of improper use as teachable moments.  Better for a student to mess up where the consequences are not as severe than to go out into the world after leaving our schools to make bigger mistakes with bigger consequences.  There is definitely a certain amount of data that needs to be restricted and protected, but it isn’t necessary to go overboard.

  1. And most important, solid contingency plans are essential. Contingency planning is often left out of K12 technology plans.  We expend a lot of time and energy planning for medical emergencies, fires, and intruders, but not much for the failure of technological tools.  A backup plan needs to be available for students to complete assignments if they forget their device at school or home, if their is a network or wifi failure, if there is a major power failure, or if a student (or teacher) device fails.  Businesses have instituted contingency planning since they began relying upon technology.  When businesses prepared for Y2K, most of them refined their plans with multiple redundancies in the event of a catastrophic technology failure.  Schools need to be similarly prepared.

Technology decisions are always challenging.  Technology is expensive and changes rapidly, but it's a necessary component of any quality educational program that truly prepares students for life outside of our educational institutions.  Finding the best way to use limited dollars is a huge task.  But at the end of the day, we want to be certain that we are not just teaching students to play with cool techy gadgets, but that we are teaching them to use technology as a tool.  Our primary goal is to teach them to think critically as they explore our interconnected world and seek balanced decisions and choices that have a positive impact on the future.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Printz Marcus -- An Interview with YA Royalty

With Marcus Sedgwick at ALA Annual 2014

Whenever I start talking books with English teachers, I inevitably find myself raving about Marcus Sedgwick. His books have huge potential for use in the classroom.  Marcus writes with elements of classic writers past.  He has a distinctive style that contains echoes of Poe, Steinbeck, Dickens and Hemingway, but with a relevancy for modern readers.  He brings to life old world monsters, haunting emotions, and characters caught in the complexities of life.  While his work is technically categorized as “YA” it could sit comfortably on the adult shelf.  Even though he tends to write about dark subjects and characters, there is a stark beauty to his writing.  It isn’t trendy or trite.   They are books that won’t grow outdated upon the shelf, that I can envision handing to my grandchildren one day and having them find just as much enjoyment in them as I do.  Marcus writes the sort of books that book lovers and collectors crave for their coveted hard copy collection.  I know about that feeling from personal experience -- my signed hardbound Marcus Sedgwick collection has grown to fill a fairly extensive section of shelf in my home.

One of the qualities I find admirable in many of the authors I meet is how humble most of them remain even after they gain awards and recognition.  Marcus is a perfect example.  Despite having won a multitude of awards over the past dozen or so years, he remains humble, kind, and very accessible.  Between the year 200 and 2014, he has been awarded the Branford Boase Award for Floodland, received an Independent Reading Association Award nomination and Portsmouth Book Award nomination for Witch Hill, been shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award for The Dark Horse, received a Guardian Prize nomination and been shortlisted for both the Sheffield Book Award and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Book of Dead Days, made the Booktrust Teenage Prize shortlist for The Foreshadowing, awarded the Booktrust Teenage Prize and nominated for the Calderdale Book of the Year Award for My Swordhand Is Singing, made the Costa Children's Book Award shortlist for Blood Red, Snow White, made the Carnegie Shorlist for The Dark Horse, My Swordhand Is Singing, Revolver, White Crow, and Midwinterblood, received a Michael L. Printz Honor for Revolver and Michael L. Printz Award for Midwinterblood.  Impressive by any account!  But despite the accolades, Marcus was more than willing to spend time talking with me about his work at conferences and to do not just one interview with me in 2011, but a second one a few weeks ago.  This is what we talked about…

Suburban Barnyard: 

Every author dreams of becoming the award-winning international superstar that you have become, but I’m sure fame has its downside.  How crazy has life become since winning not only repeated Printz recognition but multiple British book awards?   And how is it that you still seem to remain so humble and approachable with all of that attention being thrown at you?

Marcus Sedgwick:

Well at the risk of saying ‘yes, I’m so modest, aren’t I?’ I would just say that you do meet authors who have become too big for their boots (not often, but it happens) and I tend to think that they were probably already like that (or potentially like that) before people started telling them how great their books are. And to be honest, the thing that I care about more than anything else is the writing itself. By the time a book has come out and is being criticised, my imagination has (usually) moved on to something else - and that’s the thing I care about. Lot of my writer friends agree with this - it’s nice to hear nice things, but you must never let yourself forget that the most important thing is to stay connected to the writing itself. That really is all that matters.

Suburban Barnyard: 

We talk a lot in the library world about YA as a genre -- and one that really seems to foster strong camps of "love" and "hate" -- but so many of your stories, while marketed as YA, feel like they could be just as comfortable on other shelves to me.  I guess my question is, why YA?

Marcus Sedgwick:

It’s a big topic and a somewhat mystifying one too. The blunt answer is that it depends on who’s published the book. I started out as clearly a children’s author, but as my books slowly slid older and became more complex there have been times (as with Midwinterblood, Revolver and now The Ghosts of Heaven) where people have felt the books could just as well be on the adult shelves. And for me, they could be. I don’t mind WHO is reading my books, and I don’t mind that much about where they sit on the shelves. The only thing I hope is that someone understands what I’m trying to do. The film world has less trouble with these things - it’s a product of the unavoidable way we classify books, in order that people can find them, but it can feel a little limiting at times.

Suburban Barnyard: 

I recently read a reprint of a speech by John Green in the Horn Book Review where he said he and the staff at Booklist “used to joke about that old cliché that novels only have two plots: a stranger comes to town, and our hero goes on a journey.”  He went on to talk about novels begetting novels begetting novels.  On your blog, you write about old stories begetting new stories and the search for the original story.  I was able to read an ARC of The Ghosts of Heaven and loved the central theme of spirals and “the first story” evolving over time.  What do you think about the idea that there really are no new stories, just new ways of telling them?

Marcus Sedgwick:

Well I have sympathy with the idea that there are no new stories, that they are finite. But because there are always new ways of telling them, they are effectively infinite too. And that’s enormously exciting. I often look at the keyboard of 26 letters and a few dashes of punctuation and think ‘wow, I could do ANYTHING with that little lot. Anything at all, it’s just down to me to find it.’  There are, after all, only 8 whole notes in the musical scale, plus the semitones, and yet with that, you can create any music ever devised (within the Western canon at least). I’m sure composers sometimes think, well, what now? And yet, we keep trying and both writers and musicians keep coming up with new stuff. In The Ghosts of Heaven I very deliberately wanted to have an ‘old story’, and here I’m therefore riffing on the kind of tales that must have been the very first things that we told each other by the fireside. A cave has been found - it could represent shelter, but there may be a wild beast inside, a wolf, lion or bear. Someone must go inside, into the underworld, to find out what lies inside. They may die, or they may return a hero. This is my candidate for one of the oldest stories of all time - and we have seen variants of it told over the millennia - Orpheus in the Underworld, Theseus in the Labyrinth, etc. It’s wonderful to feel the weight of these kinds of tales under your fingertips as you type.

Suburban Barnyard: 

You tend toward the macabre in your writing.  Some of your characters are deeply disturbed and disturbing.  Why do you think human beings are so fascinated with dark, haunting stories?

Marcus Sedgwick:

That leads on from the above, I think. Who hasn’t felt the sense of threat that entering a dark space evokes in us? It’s a truly primal response and one that I guess we are a long way from evolving away from as yet. It’s inevitable that since life is rounded off by death that we view the two things as inextricable. We both fear, and are fascinated by, the darker side of life, and fiction is a safe and even entertaining way for your mind to consider such things without facing them for real. We cannot help but look into the dark, just as Orpheus couldn’t help looking back into the dark for Eurydice, even though it sealed her doom.

Suburban Barnyard: 

Despite the general trend toward dark stories, your stories themselves are really all over the place in regard to setting and character.  You’ve developed stories that are set in just about every time period from prehistory to the future.  How do you come up with your ideas for your stories?

Marcus Sedgwick:

Ideas evolve from anywhere, and I do mean anywhere: objects, dreams, conversations, and so on, but very often, as a novel is starting to form in my head, it will be a place that will bring it alive. I might have deliberately visited somewhere, or it might be by accident, or even just by reading about it (because sometimes these places do not actually exist anymore, they are from the past) but however it happens, I find place is a very strong catalyst for ideas to appear. I don’t exactly know why, but it works, time and again - I start seeing actions, hearing characters (not literally, you get locked away somewhere nice and safe for that) and I jot these things down into my notebook. Lots never gets used, some I keep, much of it is transformed by other ideas in my head, almost to have changed from what I originally saw, but place is very important to me and a resource I often turn to if I’m feeling stuck.

Suburban Barnyard: 

She Is Not Invisible doesn't have the same dark overtones found in many your novels, and yet I loved it all the same.  I absolutely fell in love with Laureth and her brother Benjamin.  You really captured the idea of blindness.  I particularly loved the interaction between Michael and Laureth.  How were you able to wrap your head around creating Laureth’s world so well?

Marcus Sedgwick:

This book is a little different from most of my others. It’s my ‘happy book’ though I use the term loosely. I couldn’t have created Laureth myself - to truly represent someone who’s blind, to even begin to do that subject justice, to do it authentically, I knew from the start that I would need the help of blind people themselves. So I spent a year or so going in and out of a blind school here in the UK - it’s a very special place - the only place of its exact kind in the country in fact. I made lots of friends there, I asked lots of stupid questions, the sort you think you should never ask (but I needed to know) and they students there, who ranged from 11-18 were all, and without exception, absolutely amazing. They were articulate and honest and so very generous. And I really could not have begun to write the book without them.

Suburban Barnyard: 

One of the greatest challenges I personally find when I write is parting with ideas, facts, and thoughts that I love, but that end up sounding contrived or awkward in whatever I’m writing.  My dad often laments over being “stuck in running down rabbit holes.”  While it’s great fun to explore ideas and information, sometimes those rabbit holes can really muck up a writing project.  They can become a distracting haze that clouds the point of a story.  How do you force yourself to cut extraneous juicy tidbits and do you ever save them for a different project?

Marcus Sedgwick:

You just have to be brutal. Do you want to show off your knowledge of 19th century French typewriters, or do you want to write a good book? You might be able to do both of course, but any ‘fact’ should only appear in your story if it deserves to be there, by which I mean it must serve the story, move it forward, have a concrete position and purpose. Readers are really good at spotting when a writer has decided to open the encyclopedia of their mind, and the result is usually off putting and dull. The frustration is of course that you might have found out all sorts of cool things in your research, but until you come to write the book you don’t actually know which bits you will need. As for the stuff left over (around 90% I usually think) you can’t use it unless you find a way to make it belong. And if not, cut it. You never know, you might find a way to use it another day.

Suburban Barnyard: 

When you set out to write, do you create an outline and notecards, or do you just write freely and let the story develop on the page?

Marcus Sedgwick:

If a book takes me two years to write, I will have spent one year and eleven months thinking about it. This is not to say that I plan what’s going to happen on every page, but I do have an outline in my mind, and an ending. I fill notebooks with thoughts and with research, I hate notecards but I do use large sheets of paper on which to scribble plans and maps and diagrams of the book’s structure and shape. This process varies with each book, you have to be flexible and work with the demands of the book in front of you. Only when I am desperate to start writing do I start, and then I write very fast indeed. If I’m working slowly, I know I didn’t do my preparation well enough, and the results are almost always bad, whereas, up to a point, the faster I am writing the better the quality is. That might sound contradictory but I promise it’s true. Midwinterblood, for example, I wrote in seven days. I’ve never had the intense experience of that book with any other. Although I’d seen the painting on which it’s based 5 years previously, the specific idea came to me after all that time never having thought about the painting again (consciously at least) once. Once I had that specific concept of seven interconnected stories, I spent the next 30 days thinking about it, and then 7 writing it. Then it was all over, much too soon actually, and I missed it. Because the very best bit of writing is when you are actually writing.

Suburban Barnyard: 

So much of the time, I find people are trying to pit film against book in a contest to see which is better.  Personally, I love both mediums and don’t see them at odds.  They are simply different ways of telling a story.  You have mentioned an interest in film multiple times in your blog, conversations, and speeches, so I am assuming you have a similar love of both mediums.  I recently read your review of a Kubrick exhibit – well done, by the way.  I’m ready to chase out to its next venue to check it out after reading your review.  Aside from the obvious brilliance of Kubrick as a filmmaker, what is it that you admire most about his films, and film in general?

Marcus Sedgwick:

Oh, nice question. I do love both mediums, very much, but they have differences and work in different ways. I love the things that film can do that the printed word can’t, and I love the things that the word can do that movies struggle with. I love and celebrate those differences. As for Kubrick, I’ll try and keep it short or I’ll end up writing a dissertation. Here’s one thing about Kubrick; he worked in so many different ways. He didn’t want to keep making the same kind of film, he wanted to explore and push and create new types of things every time. I respect that and respond to that very strongly. In doing so, he made some of the greatest examples of many different genre of film, not just one. Full Metal Jacket is one of the best war films ever made (though so is his earlier Paths of Glory). Spartacus, though not his project initially, is one of the best of the sixties historical epics. Dr. Strangelove is a great black comedy, The Shining a seriously symbol-laden piece of unsettling horror. 2001 is without question the greatest Sci-fi movie ever made (possibly the greatest film of any kind ever made - I know that some people will be screaming ‘Tarkovsky!' at me now, but I think 2001 shades it). Kubrick once said he felt limited by the form; he wanted to make films anew in some way. This was shortly before 2001 and many people agree that he broke new ground with that movie. To call it a movie sounds so light. It’s a work of art. But I understand what he meant by feeling limited. As I said above, we only have 26 letters to work with, and ink on paper, albeit virtual ink sometimes now. And yes, still, despite those limitations, the possibilities are endless…

Suburban Barnyard: 

Last time we talked, you mentioned a film project you and your brother were working on that digs into our attitudes toward death and the dangers of fundamentalism.  I’m suddenly having images from Six Feet Under pop into my head…  So what has happened with the project?

Marcus Sedgwick:

Still rolling along! It’s moved to Rome now, and we are hopeful of getting it filmed in 2015.

Suburban Barnyard: 

What do you think are the greatest differences between your British audiences and American audiences?

Marcus Sedgwick:

That’s a good question but I really don’t have the information to answer it fully. I’m guessing that there aren’t many differences between readers in the UK and the US. Publishers either side of the pond very much act as if there are, but I do question how they know these things. My experiences of speaking to readers on both sides of the Atlantic has led me to think we are much more similar than we are different. Everyone likes a good story, well told and original, right? I hope so. I very much value my American readers and am delighted to be published in the US.

More information about Marcus and his wonderful books can be found at:

Recently published in the UK and coming to the US in Winter 2015

Photos of The Suburban Barnyard


Me and some of the authors I've met...