“Once long ago, there was a seal who loved the sea…”

Writing is a strange business sometimes. We think we’re writing for readers, and then it turns out we’re writing for ourselves. We think we’re writing for our present selves, and then it turns out we’re writing for the children-we-were or the adults-we-will be.

Or both. Today I came upon ”Seal Story,” a selkie short I wrote more than a decade ago. Selkie stories are by their nature about the pull between two worlds, and when I wrote this one, I was thinking about my fears around one day becoming a mother, about the tensions between the creative world I already inhabited and the world of parenting, which are often presented as two very different, irreconcilable things.

But when I reread the story today, I found myself thinking instead about losing my own mother, and my struggles with being her adult child—about reconciling her need to be so many things to so many people with figuring out my own place in her life.

I don’t know whether Mom and I ever got to the final version of this story. I do know there are things I need to think about here, though, and that this was a story I needed to reread today.

In case it’s a story you need—or even just want—right now as well, I’m sharing it below.


Seal Story

You know this story.

Once long ago, there was a seal who loved the sea. On bright days she swam through the warm water, while waves crested with foam and salt scented the air. Yet she also loved the land, so on dark nights she shed her skin, took on human form, and danced, not through waves, but on cool, wet sand.

One night a young man caught sight of her, and when he crouched behind the rocks to watch her dance, he also caught sight of her gray skin shining in the moonlight. The young man couldn’t believe his good fortune. He stole the skin, and he hid it like the treasure it was.

The seal woman had no choice. She could not turn back to a seal; she could not return to the ocean. Instead she made her way to the young man’s home, and if the road that led there cut her bare feet, this story does not tell of it. It tells only that the man and the seal woman were soon married, and that they lived together in his house near the sea. Whether she grew to love him or hated him all her days–the story does not tell that, either.

What it does tell is this: in time, the seal woman had children. Her love for them was as deep as the sea, the joy she found in them as true as the stones beneath it.

And yet.

The young man’s house faced the ocean, and through its windows the seal woman could see the changing tides. Walking its halls, she could hear the crashing waves. Restlessly she paced those halls, long after her children slept, until one night she found the skin the man had hidden. In the attic, in the cellar, beneath a stone–again the story is silent. It says only that the sea grew loud, so loud, as she held her skin once more.

She could not ignore that call. She kissed her children as they slept, and she crept quietly down to the sea. But her eldest daughter woke, and heard, and ran after her mother.

The girl wasn’t fast enough. As she reached the sand a flash of gray disappeared beneath the water, and then she saw only waves.

This girl was human-born; she could not follow her mother. She returned to her father’s home, and the stones did not cut her feet. But even as she walked, she knew she would never forget that while her mother loved her as deeply as the sea, the depths of the sea were nothing, beside her mother’s love for being a seal. She would never forget, and she would never forgive.

You do not want this story. You are a child; you are unkind. The seal woman’s happiness means less, to you, than the girl’s.

Very well.

Once long ago there lived a seal who loved the sea. When she sought to return to it, her daughter ran after her.

The girl was fast enough. She cried out, before the seal woman disappeared beneath the waves, “Do not leave me!”

The seal woman heard, and her daughter’s voice pulled on her, as strong as the tides. She could not ignore that call. She shed her skin once more, and she carried it back to the young man’s house, her daughter clutching her hand all the way.

She found joy in her children for many years more.

And yet.

In the end her children grew up and moved away, even the daughter who’d begged her to stay. The young man grew old and died. The seal woman also grew old, too old to return to the ocean. She lived, bitter and alone, in the house near the sea.

She did not forget, and she did not forgive–not the young man who stole her from the water, and not the daughter who stopped her when she sought to return.

You don’t want this story either. You want the seal woman to be happy, and her daughter as well. You are trying to be kind.

Try this, then: The girl ran to the edge of the sea, and her mother heard her cries and knew she could not go.

Not that night, and not for many nights after. But one night, when her daughter was nearly grown, the seal woman returned to the waves after all. She did not kiss her children goodbye this time. She did not want anyone calling her back.

Her daughter mourned, but in time she did forgive. She knew her mother had stayed as long as she could. Besides, the girl lived in another town by then, or perhaps even in the city. She had a young man of her own, and she did not wish to return to the house by the sea, for her mother or anyone else. Instead she married, and in time bore children who pulled on her, strong as the tides.

And yet.

The story does not say whether the daughter ever longed to escape her own young man, or even her own children. It says only that she knew she could not leave, not when her mother had left her.

You are still not satisfied. You will have a happy ending, or else none at all.

I cannot give it to you. I can only give you this: The girl was fast enough, and the seal woman heard her cries, even before she pulled her seal skin over her human one.

So she did not go, but neither did she promise to stay. She drew her human daughter close. “I was a seal before you were born,” she said. “I will be a seal after you leave. I am a seal now, and I am also your mother. I will not be only one thing or the other.”

The girl did not understand. She only cried louder, because she thought her mother was leaving her after all.

“Trust me,” the seal woman whispered. She pulled on her seal skin then, and she slid into the sea.

I do not know this story.

Perhaps the girl goes home to mourn her loss, only to have her mother return to her, hours past dark. Perhaps she waits by the water’s edge until the seal woman reappears, dripping and human, to take her daughter once more in her arms.

What I do know is this: as her children grow, the seal woman spends time on land and time at sea. Perhaps the girl rages at this, and perhaps she weeps, because she misses the seal woman, when she is away. Because she wants her mother to be one thing, for her and no one else. I do not know whether the girl will come to understand, in time. Perhaps she’ll forever fear the day the seal woman will leave her for good.

And the seal woman will leave in the end, though not for the sea. You are a child, but surely you know this.

Still, when that day comes there will be nothing to forgive and nothing to forget. By then the girl might have children of her own, in this town or another. I like to think one day she’ll turn to them and say, “Your grandmother, she lived on land, but she also lived in the water.”

I hope there’ll be more joy than sorrow in her voice when she says it, and when she takes her human children into her arms. “Once long ago,” she’ll whisper to them, “there was a seal who loved the sea.”

Then she’ll smile, because she knows this story.


Seal Story” first appeared in Merry Sisters of Fate on February 28, 2011. You can find a full list of my stories here.

Life isn’t a story. That’s probably a good thing.

Life isn’t a story.

This is, for the most part, a good thing. Stories need conflict. Stories need drama. Stories need, more often than not, for the worst possible thing to happen at the worst possible time.

No one wants to live in a well-written story.

The pandemic isn’t a story. But if it were, I think we’d be at the part where it looks like everything is about to wrap up and wind down at last — but it isn’t, quite.

Vaccines are here and widely available, even if not as many people as hoped for are taking them. Covid case numbers are down, at least in our country and at least in certain communities within our country. Some of the time, for some of the people, things are beginning to feel almost … normal.

Which is why this would be the part of the story where readers begin flipping through the pages (physical books) or checking out the status bar (ebooks) to see if we’re really as close to the ending as we think.

It would be the part of the story where we realize that there are so many more pages left to go than we expected — too many for the story to really be winding down, too many for the resolution to be as simple as it seemed.

It would be the part where at least one more unexpected-yet-somehow-inevitable thing needed to happen. One more threat, one more unexpected twist, one more call for our weary characters to find their strength and rise above their weaknesses, to endure the unendurable and overcome one last overwhelming obstacle.

It would be where we realize the pandemic and its consequences aren’t over yet, that we were in too much of a hurry to think they were, that we need to keep reading for a while yet before we reach the satisfying conclusion and cathartic sigh of relief we’re longing for.

I’m glad the pandemic isn’t a story.

I’m glad those of us who hear those pages flipping have as much chance as being wrong as of being right. Maybe the pandemic still is building up to a dramatically satisfying ending. There are certainly enough unresolved plot threads left for one. But maybe, if we’re lucky, it’s instead just staggering to an undramatic, unsatisfying, mostly meaningless, utterly weary end.

Stories need meaning. Life, thankfully, does not.

But life also doesn’t let us skip ahead, doesn’t let us read the ending ahead of time for reassurance before returning to our carefully bookmarked place.

I hope the pandemic isn’t a story.

But if it is a story, I hope it’s a standalone story.

Because as readers know, if the pandemic isn’t a standalone story, then the end of book one is just a lull. A chance for readers to catch their breath — right before all those unresolved plot threads come crashing down, with all the force of a world that extends far beyond our own borders and a tale that was always, always more complicated than it seemed.

Love and Perfection

“We love the things we love for what they are.”

That’s from Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook.”

Variations on the line had been bouncing around in my head for a while before my husband and fellow writer, Larry Hammer, reminded me where it came from.

I’d been thinking about Frost (without knowing it was Frost I was thinking about) because I’d been thinking about how once we reach a certain basic level of craft, writing is no longer about avoiding mistakes or carefully not doing anything wrong.

It’s about the things we do right.

No one ever loved a book, after all, simply for not making any mistakes, for all that there are (varied, individual) things that can throw each of us out of a story. But we don’t love a story just because we aren’t thrown out of it, either.

We love books for what they do, not for what they manage not to do. We love them for the thing or things that hit each of our particular story buttons, that reach out to bridge the gap between story and reader, that pull on us and make us want to or need to read on. A flawed book that does the things it does very right is far more powerful than an unflawed book that doesn’t.

None of my favorite books—the books I imprinted on as a child and teen, the books that have remained touchstones for me throughout my life—is perfect. I can see that clearly enough when I look at those books as a writer focused on craft—and that has never once stopped me from returning to those books, from treasuring them. 

We don’t love books for the things they aren’t, but for the things they are.

My bookshelves—filled with imperfect books that I adore.

But there’s more to it than that. A while back, in a stray moment when I thought I was thinking about a manuscript-in-progress, I found myself thinking instead: And the same thing is true for people.

On one level, I’d always known this. On another I hadn’t, or had forgotten, or needed to relearn it on that particular day in that particular way. People no more need to be perfect than stories do.

As writers who spend much of our time looking inward that we can become as critical of ourselves as of our stories, this is worth remembering, too. I doubt many people hold their friends and loved ones dear simply because they never make mistakes. Lack of mistakes is not the place love comes from.

We love one another for the same reason we love stories: not for what we aren’t, but for what we are.

As I dig deep to put words on the page, I find that a comforting thought.


Love and Perfection first appeared as a guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations. I find I return to it every year or two as a reminder to myself.

“Do you believe that spring will come?”

Bones of Faerie, the first book of my Bones of Faerie trilogy, is about uncontrolled growth: plants that bloom in every season, crops that fight their harvesters, trees that seek human blood and bone to root in.

[Faerie Winter Cover]

Faerie Winter, the second book of the trilogy, tells the opposite story. It’s about endless winter, failure to grow, and the fear that spring might never come.

During our current physical and psychological winter, Faerie Winter is the book I’ve been thinking about.

The story’s protagonist, Liza, is surrounded by adults who remember countless other winters, followed by countless other springs. Liza was born after the war between faeries and humans banished winter from her world, though. She’s never known anything but deadly, unbounded growth. When that growth stops at last, Liza’s first thought is about how much safer the forests have become. Later, when she realizes that those forests have also stopped producing the things humans need to survive, she has no mental roadmap for what might happen next.

When Jayce, a member of Liza’s town’s council, talks about preparing for spring planting, Liza wonders at the fact.

If he feared that the spring crops wouldn’t grow, he gave no sign. Adults believed, somewhere deep inside, that spring would come, for all that they were careful of our rations. Some part of them couldn’t imagine that green wouldn’t return to the world, as if green was something we were born to. I did not understand it. Deep inside I felt as if this gray had surely gone on forever and the forests I’d fought all my life had been merely illusions.

Not all the adults in Liza’s world share Jayce’s certainty, though. As the story progresses, Liza flees a danger that comes from beyond the dying forest with Karin, a fey survivor of the War. Karin is a plant mage, keenly aware of the changes winter has brought to the world, and she asks aloud the question that human adults have not.

The grasses sighed wearily and retreated back into the snow. “They’re not dead,” I said. “Not completely, not around you.”

“They are not dead.” Karin sounded as tired as the grasses had. “But they are dying. Tell me, Liza, do you believe that spring will come?”

Why ask me? I was no plant mage. “The adults in my town believe it.” They believed in spite of the gray trees and the gray skies, the failed crops and the too-long winter.

“So it is with the human adults in my town as well.” Karin held a hand out to the falling snow as we walked on. Snowflakes melted against her skin. “Yet I have never heard the trees so quiet. They yearn for darkness, and some have given way to it. Others slip into sleep, accepting that they may never wake. I am told this is the way of your world. It is not the way of mine. I have never known a forest that was not green. What do you believe?”

Do you believe that spring will come? It’s a question I’ve returned to many times since I wrote Faerie Winter. It’s a question I was asking before I wrote that book, too, before fiction led me, as it so often does, to put into words the things I was already saying.

Because Faerie Winter is fantasy, the question of spring’s return is not merely metaphoric. It turns out the danger of endless winter is real, and so Liza’s inner crisis is echoed by the world’s outer one. Fantasy does that, sometimes—lets us transform internal struggles into external realities so that we can face those struggles head on and in a more concrete way than other types of stories allow.

Do you believe that spring will come? Things have changed so much already—in Liza’s world, in our world. There’s no changing them back. Do we believe that forward change will continue instead, leading us on to someplace new, someplace viable, someplace where things can grow once more?

Do you believe that spring will come? There’s a strange comfort simply in putting the question into words.

On one level, I know the answer, always have known it. If I didn’t believe, deep down, that spring—that the future—would come, writing a book where spring was called into question would have been too much to bear.

On another level, I need, just as deeply, to hear the question asked, and I need to travel the hard path toward its answer, again and again, not just in the books that I’ve written but also in the countless books that I’ve read through the years, ever since I knew how to read. Stories were the thing, after all, that got me trough childhood and adolescence and all that came after. Every misunderstood kid who had adventures and saved the world and found their place in that world was, in their way, another needed answer.

An answer, and also a map—the map Liza lacks—for what the journey might look like. Spring comes. Not always easily, not always painlessly, not always as quickly as we want or as we need, but in the end and at the last. Spring comes. Deep down, I know that.

After all, I’ve taken this journey before.

Some less frequently quoted words from Reverend King

Because as powerful as the “I Have a Dream” speech is, many of Martin Luther King, Jr’s other words were powerful, too.

“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York

 “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
Sermon at St. Mary’s Church, East Berlin

“It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road … And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around … And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

“But there was never a conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same. The method of science is observation, that of religion contemplation. Science investigates. Religion interprets. One seeks causes, the other ends. Science thinks in terms of history, religion in terms of teleology. One is a survey, the other an outlook.”
“Science and Religion”

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
“Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York

 “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail”

“On some positions cowardice asks the question, ‘is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
“A Proper Sense of Priorities,” Washington, DC

Faerie Winter’s new edition

Faerie Winter

Faerie Winter has a new look—and new paperback and ebook editions! If you missed this sequel to Bones of Faerie the first time around, now is your chance to revisit Liza’s post-apocalyptic world and its treacherous, haunting magic.

Order the new Faerie Winter paperback online or from your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore (ISBN: 978-1798950708). Order the ebook edition from Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, or wherever ebooks are sold.

Missed the first book? You can still order the first edition of Bones of Faerie from your favorite offline or online bookseller, and you can still order the ebook wherever ebooks are sold.


More about Faerie Winter

Liza is a summoner. She can draw life to herself, even from beyond the grave. And because magic works both ways, she can also drive life away. Months ago, she used her powers to banish her dangerous father and rescue her mother, lost in dreams, from the ruined land of Faerie.

Born in the wake of the war between humanity and the fey, Liza lived in a world where green things never slept, where trees sought to root in living flesh and bone. But now the forests have fallen silent, and even Liza’s power can’t call them back. Winter crops won’t grow, and the threat of starvation looms.

And deep in the dying forest a dark, malevolent will is at work. To face it, Liza will have to find within herself something more powerful than magic alone.

This sequel to Bones of Faerie will thrill both new readers and fans eager to return to Janni Lee Simner’s unique vision of a postapocalyptic world infused with magic.

“Simner paints a hauntingly exquisite portrait of a postapocalyptic world. Fans of both fantasy and dystopian fiction will devour this one.” —School Library Journal


New in paperback: Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer

Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer coverTiernay West, Professional Adventurer is now in paperback!

Order a copy your favorite young adventurer online or from your favorite bricks-and mortar bookstore (ISBN 978-1719955553).

Originally published as Secret of the Three Treasures, this classic book about a would-be adventurer who isn’t about to let anything stop her has a new look and has been updated for a new generation of young readers.

Get one for the kid in your life today—and for yourself, too. For a limited time, when kindle users order the print book, they can add their own e-copy at no additional charge.

Do share with anyone in your life who might enjoy a bit of adventure this winter holiday season.

Thinking, processing, pondering, planning

“Nobody who says, ‘I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night

“And then.
“The great connective, the thread that binds the patchwork fabric of stories. And then this happen. And then that. One thing after another, until the end of the story. And then it stops. And then everything stays the same forever and ever, because a story once told is unchanging, everlasting. Imprisoned in amber.
“As if like was like that …”
― Richard Grant, Rumors of Spring

“What exactly are you here for?”
“To see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
― Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke

“Well, what is it?” I cried. “What is his crime?”
“Cruelty,” whispered Snout.
I felt my stomach tighten. “Cruelty?” I asked, wondering if I had heard right.
“In the civilized galaxy, cruelty is the greatest of all crimes,” said Madame Pong. “Of course, life always involves some suffering, and there are times when painful things must be done for life to continue. But an intelligent being who takes pleasure in causing pain to others–well, such an individual is considered dangerously bent.”
“You must understand,” said Tar Gibbons, “that empathy is the heart of civilization.”
“Empathy?”
“The ability to understand what another feels,” said Snout. “It is the trait that lifts us above the animals.”
― Bruce Coville, Aliens Ate My Homework