The list of frequently banned or challenged books for a particular year or decade typically looks like a list of the best in young adult literature, with a few gay penguins thrown in to shake things up. Something about teenagers thinking that really freaks out the squares. If you're a teenager, I hope that makes you feel powerful.

One of the most frequently banned and challenged books of the last several years is Sherman Alexie's YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about a teenager who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to go to a better, wealthier, mostly white high school. There's a lot in this book about growing up in poverty, a lot about discovering who you are and how your past will inform and challenge who you become. Because the narrator is a 14-year-old boy, there's a fair amount of thinking about sex, though not a lot of action. Because he's growing up in poverty, there's a fair amount of substance abuse and death. Neil Gaiman sums it up in his blurb on the dust jacket when he says it's "funny and heartwarming and honest and wise and smart" and also likely to be "winning awards and being banned."

I read this book as an adult, but I saw a lot of my teenaged self in Junior. He is a smart poor kid. He loves where he comes from, but he has to leave home in order to survive. He feels guilty for leaving. We belong to some of the same tribes, Junior and me.

Like so many banned books, it's sadly ironic that this book gets banned. It's banned because someone wants to protect teenagers from all the scary, bad stuff this book talks about, but it's exactly the kind of book that might save them from it. If you're a bookish person, you can probably remember a book that blew your mind at 14 or so, a book that helped you to know yourself, a book you read at just the right time. This is that book for someone. I hope it's on the shelf when they need it.

Diary has been banned or challenged due to "offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group."
Alice, reading. Photo by Melissa J. Wilkerson.
At bedtime, I read Alice a story. This has been our nightly ritual since before she was born, but now, after we read together, she reads on her own. She's always loved stories, but more and more she's caught up in words. Almost nightly now she pops out to read her dad and me a short passage: beautiful descriptions, scenes that seem especially funny or apt to her.

Right now she's reading Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker's Daughter. It's a silly book in a lot of ways, but she likes the main characters, Philippa Fisher and her spunky friend, a fairy named Daisy. She also likes the descriptions of Philippa's funny, hippie-dippy, vegan parents. She popped out one night to laugh and read, "Well, I always had Mom and Dad, I reminded myself. They might be the ditziest dingbats on the planet, but at least they hadn't deserted me."

"Does that remind you of your parents?" I asked.

She laughed again. "You guys aren't dingbats," she said, "but you are a little wacky."

A few nights later, she bursts out of her room with such intensity that, for a minute, I think something's wrong. "Listen to this," she says. "Her family is just like our family! It's hilarious. They're just like us!" She reads:

"Just as well I hadn't said anything, then. Heaven. Normal stuff! The kind of 'up there' people were officially allowed to believe in! Except Mom and Dad had never been big on things like heaven, so I'd never really believed in it, either."

Her excitement is palpable. She's had a revelation. She has seen herself mirrored in this story, put into words and reflected back to herself. Here is another imaginative only child of wacky, atheist, vegetarian, artist parents! Here is proof that she isn't alone.

One of the beautiful things reading gives us, of course, is empathy. Reading lets us imagine what it's like to be someone else, to see the world through different eyes. But it also comforts us by showing us ourselves, by reminding us that others have been where we are, have felt what we feel. It helps us understand our selves.

I remember feeling that sense of self-recognition intensely when I read The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt as an adolescent and when I read Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth in college. I saw myself more clearly when I read those books, and that was comforting to me. I think it helped me to be a little kinder to myself.

Was there a book like that for you?

So, I fired my dragon pieces and here they are mounted on a crazy bright panel. It's not what I imagined when I sculpted the dragon, but it's something and I kinda love it. I had some other broken pieces and made another, smaller painting with those. It might become a whole series of mixed media pieces based on failures in ceramic. Lord knows I have enough of those. :)
I've been sculpting dragons in clay. They're cartoonish, primitive, wonky. They're also pretty thick-bodied, which I know is a bit dangerous in ceramics. More clay means more chance of air bubbles and other flaws that might cause a break in the high temperatures of the kiln.

Last night, we did a bisque fire of several pots and four dragon sculptures. This morning, the kiln is full of half-baked pots and shards that were my dragons. There must have been an air pocket in the largest sculpture. I think its shattering caused the one beside it to break along some internal fault line into the four pieces you see above.

I've fired enough ceramic not to cry about this. You don't count your ceramic dragons before they've hatched (if that's not an old potter's saying, it should be). Of course, I'm disappointed. I spent hours carving these, finding their personalities, imagining what they would be when they were fired and glazed. No matter how much I tell myself not to get attached to things, I do.

At my parents' house in Frostproof, where we raku, there is a pile of red brick against the pasture fence left over from building the house I grew up in. It's covered in weeds and spiders, and when we break a piece in a raku firing, we take out our frustration by hurling the fragments against the brick pile, shouting for the necessary catharsis. This morning, unable to hurl and shout in the early Sunday quiet of the apartment complex, I unpack the kiln carefully. Half-fired ceramic is brittle and easily shattered. I burn my fingers on the hot clay as I examine each piece, analyze this failure, look for where I went wrong. I find things I can salvage.

These pieces are broken cleanly. I'm going to fire them as they are. If they survive, I will glaze and raku them. I will imagine a new life for them, a new personality. Maybe a mixed media piece called "Deconstructed Dragon." I will make something of my failures. I will call it art.
Canaveral National Seashore
I recently finished/abandoned the longest poem I've ever written. It feels like the only poem I've ever written or the poem I'm always writing. I don't know. I can't really talk about it yet. It's about the things I love most--family, art, the idea of home, this place--and I've been writing and revising it for a long time, scribbling lines here and there, adding and taking away, looking for the thread that might tie it all together.

What's been great about writing this long poem is having a focus. It's not really true that "the hardest part is getting started"--I think we all know that the hardest part of any creative endeavor is finishing--but starting is one of the intimidating parts of writing, and it's been nice not to have to face a blank page for a while. Now that this long poem and the bigger chapbook project that's gone with it are finished, the new page seems especially blank.

I'm not sure that I want to write another long poem, at least not right away, but I do want to get started on another specific project in order to maintain the focus I've had over the past few months. I think this blog might be a good tool for that eventually, but for now I'm casting about among infinite possibilities, looking for the idea that will grab me next. I expect my creativity will be fairly random for a little while.

After you finish a creative project, how do you find the next big thing? How do you know when you've found an idea worth your energy and focus?