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Saturday, December 23, 2006


This is the final day of the mj holiday workshop, and this is also the day I announce the second winner of the GIRL AT SEA HOLIDAY CONTEST. But before I do, I just want you to know . . . this is only the beginning of the Cheer! I will still be here, writing away. And I am cooking up more things to give away in the New Year. So this is by no means the end of all that . . . it’s just the last day I am sending out cards.

So, I would like to introduce the newest member of the GIRL AT SEA PIRATE DANCE CAMP SOCIETY, an organization that will only expand in 2007. When I reached into my holiday hat this morning, I pulled out the name of Courtney B. Courtney, I welcome you on board.

I had so many good questions to answer. I am still looking them over. Here are some I was able to tackle for today. They are exceptional.

Q: Dear purveyor of Christmas wisdom,

Miss Manners tells us that it is not polite to give charitable donations as
presents. I like buying donations for people who already have lots of stuff
and don't want more. Am I being rude?

Miss mj’s reply: If Miss Manners actually does say this, then my words to her would be: “#$^*#&^$&* &#&^#$^&.” It’s this sort of behavior that will forever keep me from getting her job.

I can sort of see what she’s saying—she wants to spread Cheer though gracious behavior toward other humans. We should be recognizing each other, and a thoughtful gift is one way of doing this. And I love a gift as much as the next person. You should see the way I look at Lil’ Poxy, the first gift I received this year. True love is in my eyes.

But you know what? It’s becoming more and more clear that we have to rethink the way we are doing some things (like how we take care of our environment, and that includes how much stuff we accumulate). Many people with a lot of stuff are wise to this—and so are many people who have less stuff. Many people get their Cheer on by contributing to causes they love. I think as long as the Cheer-recipient knows your intention, that they know you were thinking of them and what they would want . . . you should donate away.

(Just as a little bonus, I have decided to take a photo of my desk at this moment, showing Lil’ Poxy in action.)

From left to right: this website, Lil' Poxy holding my pink signing Sharpie, my Empire State Building ornament, my phrenology head (holding my headphones and my fingerless writing gloves), and the notebook containing notes on the MAJOR PROJECT OF 2007! Bet you never thought syphilis could be so useful, or so cute.

Q: At Christmas, is it fun to shop in NYC or is it just a pain?

A: I am very serious in my love and admiration for my city. I will defend New York to the death. Christmas shopping in NYC brings up a wild mix of emotions, which ping pong through my system.

On the whole, I think there is no better place to be during the holidays. I love it all. I love the shiny decoration (of course), I love the windows, the Rockefeller Center tree, the opening of the ice rink. I even love the arrival of the holiday crowds, who often come in large white buses, seeking Cheer.

As I walk along, say, in midtown (as I did yesterday), my thoughts develop a bit. They usually go something like this:

Block one: So many people have come to visit! This is great. This is exactly how the city should be—bustling. It’s like being in Silver Bells!

Block two: God, there really are a lot of people. Why has everyone stopped here? Oh. To look at a window display. That’s nice.

Block three: Everyone is stopped again. They’re waiting for cabs. Better go around.

Across the street: Same over here. What are they . . . oh. They’re watching the police direct traffic. That’s kind of weird. I’d better try to get across.

Five steps down: Have to stop. Someone is taking a picture of the police.

Crossing the intersection: Whew! Glad to be through that. Now I just have to get down to 54th, and . . . AH! That woman just clocked me with her bag. What? Is she blind?

On the other side: That’s okay. These things happen. Just three more blocks, and . . . another picture to stop for. Someone is posing in front of a store.

In the same spot, twenty seconds later: Okay, if you didn’t know how to use your camera, maybe you should have picked a better place than the middle of the most crowded street in the most crowded city to figure out all of the controls. Just a suggestion.

A few paces on: You did not just give me a dirty look for stepping into your picture. No you did not. I gave you plenty of time, Mr. Photography 101.

Stuck behind the one person, halfway down the block: Look, I love the fact that you are taking this city in at your own pace, which is glacial. That’s nice. We rush too much in this world. But could you just let me by instead of walking in your maddening zig-zag fashion?

Still stuck behind that same person, at the corner: Let me explain something to you, Ziggy. This style of walking, the zig-zag, has only one function: escaping from crocodiles. Perhaps you think I am a crocodile, and that you are evading me. You are wrong on both counts. Pick a side and stick with it.

Just after clipping the zig-zagger with a shopping bag in a desperate leap past: I’m sorry, but that’s going to happen if you persist with your insane snakewalking. You got off easy with me. I know people who would knock you down. I tapped you with a sweater in a plastic bag. You can save the look.

On seeing a small child looking at a display of toys: Now, you see, that’s Cheer. I was getting so grouchy back there. What I need to do is . . .

And then walking directly into a throng of people taking pictures: HAVE YOU NEVER SEEN ICE BEFORE? NOT EVEN IN CUBE FORM? And yes, you can SKATE on it. It’s a miracle of science! I know! Let’s all stop and stare at it!

On catching a glimpse of the ice rink, and stopping: You know. It really is pretty. Relax back there, pushy! It’s the ice rink!

The main point of this is: CHEER always wins. And New York is the best. And everyone should come! (But pick a side to walk on and don’t set up tripods in the middle of the sidewalk.)

Q: Okay, so in "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" there's a line that says something about FIGGY PUDDING. What in the world IS that? Is it like fruit cake?

A: Figgy pudding seems to be a relative of fruitcakes and plum puddings, but is made with (you guessed it), figs. It’s another one of these rich, sticky binding substances to hold in dried fruit. I tend to think of these things in the same way I think of the carbonite that binds Han Solo: a generally evil use of otherwise innocent materials to imprison things that are likeable.

Q: What exactly IS a Yule Log?

A: The Yule log was part of the celebration of Yule—Yule being the winter solstice celebration that predates Christmas, and the holiday from which some of our Christmas traditions are taken. The log itself was a symbol of productivity and good fortune. There were many traditions surrounding the cutting and burning of the log. Sometimes the logs were decorated, or carried around the house multiple times. The log was kept burning anywhere between 12 hours and 12 days.

Today, you can still enjoy Yule loggy goodness, either online or on televised Yule log burnings. What could be more enjoyable than watching a log burn on tv for 12 hours? The answer: nothing.

Yule logs can also be had in delicious chocolate and cheese forms. If these options do not suit you, might I refer you back to my cheesy-clawed friend? Maybe he can grace your table this year!

Let me entertain you. I have crackers.

Q: Who ever thought of kissing under a parasite plant? What is the point of it? To get infected with it's parasitey-ness and develop an uncomfortable rash? (I'm talking about mistletoe xD)

A: Mistletoe is, in fact, a parasitic plant: meaning, it needs to leech nutrients from another living organism in order to survive. For this reason, it is sometimes known as a “vampire plant.”

Naturally, when one thinks of vampires, one images two fangs in the neck, a long sucking noise, and then a rapid indoctrination into the army of the undead. Which, if you think about it long enough, is not unlike kissing.

In kissing, adorable nibbling can quickly become uncontrollable chopping and sucking (hence, the hickey). If you are exposed to enough of the biting and suction, you may well find yourself in the middle of that group we all know so well: THE OBSESSED DATING. These are the people who can’t go five minutes without signaling to their SO in some way, and who start talking about the prom in September, or those people who are already angling to go to the same college as their SO is going to. And they only wear the clothes their SO likes. And they have filled their iPods with playlists that relate to every single event that they have ever lived through with the SO.

And at first your mind reels as you look around. “Who are these strange creatures?” you say. But then you look at your own iPod and notice a “our first trip to the Olive Garden” playlist, and you realize it has been a FULL THREE MINUTES since you last texted your SO. You will seek out the company of similarly hickeyed, glazed-eyed people. You will want to increase the tribe.

I am not saying that dating will bring about the rise of Our Future Undead Overlords, but it is something to think about. Oh, but to answer your question as to who thought of it . . . I have no idea. Therefore, it must have been Jamie Oliver. After all, he was the Naked Chef and he does smack his lips a lot.

You knew it was coming.

Friday, December 22, 2006


I’m just jumping in to say that there are FOUR HOURS LEFT to get in your holiday card requests and your Cheer-related questions. At midnight, the mj workshop will spring to life in one final, insane burst of activity.

Tomorrow, there will be answers and a WINNER of the GIRL AT SEA galley!

Right now, I am enjoying my first holiday gift. My agent gave me the pox! I am in love. Now I want them all: mange, flu, typhoid, black death . . . Little Poxy is currently holding my pink signing Sharpie. He will be sitting here with me as I make the last cards! Remember that!

Until then, I leave you with these two Cheer-Filled images. The first is a picture I took last year, in Switzerland. I was lucky enough to spend New Year’s in the Alps. Later, I will tell you the exciting story of How I Learned To Ski With Alpine Downhill Racer Jean-Claude.

Oh, little tree.

And this one is simply the best picture ever taken. I include it for no good reason at all, except to spread Cheer.

Happy Hoffidays!

Monday, December 18, 2006


Friends! I explode with Cheer! You should see the mj signing workshop. Cards everywhere. You have until the end of Thursday to get in all of your questions and signing requests.

But let’s get right to the questions! There are many to answer. I can only do a handful at a time, but know that I have read and pondered them all, and that I will continue to do so.

I received several versions of this first question, and it is a critical one.

Q: Where did the Christmas tree tradition come from? I've always wondered about that.

A: Tree-putting-up is a very old tradition that can be traced back many thousands of years. In pagan times, the evergreen tree served as a symbol that life goes on, even though it was very, very cold and it seemed like all other plant life had given up. The earliest tree ornaments included things like human and animal sacrifices, decorations usually frowned upon now, even in the most traditional of households. The time around the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) has long been associated with candle-burning, merry-making, and gift-giving. This was long before the era of reliable central heating, 24-hour grocery stores, and television. There was really nothing else to do on those long, dark days but have a party, burn things, and look at the pretty green tree.

The Christmas tree as we know it originated in Germany. The dead bodies were replaced with things like candles, cheese, fruit, and shiny baubles. (If you learn only one thing from me, make it this: human beings cannot resist the shiny. That right there is history in a nutshell.) People from around Europe saw this and they knew at once they had a hot new trend on their hands. Tree-putting-upping spread all over. It arrived in England in 1700s, but wasn’t really entrenched until the time of Queen Victoria. It appeared in the United States around the same time, with first sightings ranging from 1770 to 1820, usually linked to towns with many German settlers.

The popularity of the decorated tree can be explained by another human truth: human beings cannot resist putting things on top of other things. This explains old phenomena, such as pyramids and hats, as well as more recent developments, such as stuff on my cat and everything ever developed by Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

A Taco Bell on top of a Pizza Hut.

At Chez Johnson, the tree decorations tend to get a little out of control. I have already explained my mother’s penchant for collecting and her 25 boxes of Dickens Village materials. The only rule in our house is, “No balls left behind.” And we have hundreds of balls. They all have to go on. Then the poor, overloaded tree is coated in tinsel. Even my mother admits that she likes the tinsel heavy. And by heavy, I mean that we usually use about six to eight boxes, until every branch is covered and our tree is a blinding, bulging, gleaming silver spike. There could be dead bodies hanging on it, and no one would know.

A related question:

Q: Isn’t it kind of ironic that Urban Outfitters offers a “Charlie Brown Pathetic Tree” (a sad little tree on a wooden base with one lonely red ornament) for $24? Wouldn’t it be more in the spirit of Charlie Brown's message to go out and find your own pathetic little tree that someone was going to throw away and save that, rather than spend money on mass-produced garbage that anyone can buy?

A: It is indeed ironic, but then, Urban Outfitters is the Wal-Mart of irony.

It would be more in the spirit of Charlie Brown to find something unloved and take it in. That is spreading Cheer! I heartily recommend this approach.

Q: Dear Fantastic Maureen Johnson,

Do you think eating reindeer jerky will get me automatically shunted
onto the "stocking full of coal" list? Or are reindeer so full of the holiday Spirit of Giving that they'll be willing to overlook my consumption of their delicious, delicious brethren?

A: Thank you for researching my full first name! I don’t know where you found it. Is it on Wikipedia?

I am afraid the answer is yes, you will automatically be put on the Coal List, because reindeer are very, very grouchy. They live in the freezing cold. It’s either dark all the time or light all the time. They do nothing all year, but then get dragged out of their stupor to fly around the world in one night. People are always poking them in the nose and asking them if they are Rudolph. Or, even worse, people sing that “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” song at them, which would definitely put me in a bad mood.

Nothing takes away my Cheer faster than a chorus of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” My mother still thinks this song is very, very funny and turns it up when it comes on the radio and sings it to me. It should be noted that my mother has only recently noticed the songs “Celebrate” and “YMCA” at weddings, and comes home talking about them and showing me the dances that go with them. I can only wait until she picks up on the Electric Slide. Then my life will be complete.

But it’s not her fault that this infernal song persists. Actually, I haven’t heard it yet this year, and I choose (because I am so full of Cheer) to believe that this means it is dying out. If a humorous Christmas song is required, we have all we need in the Waitress’s Christmas Wrapping, a song I cherish.

Oh, but back to the question. Reindeer are basically looking for any excuse they can get to head butt someone into next week, and making jerky out of them would probably fit the bill. I suggest enjoying some cheese and crackers until the 25th.

Q: Would you say the Waitresses Holiday Wrapping song is a Christmas song or a New Year's tune?

A: Thank you for asking! I am happy to hear this song on either day, but it is a Christmas song. It’s actually called Christmas Wrapping, and it tells a little story that ends with the girl meeting her elusive guy in the line of the A&P on Christmas Eve. They bond over the fact that they have both forgotten cranberries.

I like this song so much that I have just put it on now, mostly to wash “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” out of my head.

Q: In the Christmas song, Home for the holidays, they say 'Gee, the traffic is terrific'. I never understood. Why they just don't say Horrific instead of being sarcastic by saying terrific. Do you agree?

A: This is an excellent question. Terrific is one of those funny words like stupendous or tremendous that means very good, as well as generally meaning anything that can fill you with a sense of awe at their size or scope. The primary definition of terrific, in many sources, is actually “very bad”—as in, something that inspires terror.

Having said that, I think there is something to be said for terrific traffic. I got stuck in some on Thanksgiving, when I offered (insisted) on driving my good friend J.W. Krimble home. We had taken a train to Philadelphia, where I picked up a car. Despite his polite protests (pleas), I shoved him inside of it and headed for the highway instead of just taking him to the other station where he could get a connecting train.

“It’s not much longer to drive,” I said, locking him in.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It is the most traveled day of the entire year.”

But I was too busy being Cheerful to listen to his protests. About fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves trapped in the worst gridlock I have ever seen. It was not only Thanksgiving, but there was major construction on I-95, and there was a massive, blinding storm. We didn’t move at all for over an hour—a long hour, with rain pounding at the windows, traffic crushed all around us, and my cell phone ringing ever fifteen minutes with people calling and asking where I was. When I told them, they all said, “Why did you do that? There’s construction on 95, it’s raining, and it is the most traveled day of the entire year.”

J.W. looked over at me wearily as I sang a few holiday tunes to him.

“The traffic isn’t so bad, right?” I said. “At least we’re together!”

Though he did look mildly suicidal, and though it did take us almost five hours to make a two hour trip . . . I know that deep down, he agreed. Traffic can be terrific if you have enough Cheer!

Q: Here's my question: why do the British say "Happy Christmas" while the Americans say "Merry Christmas"?

A: I just asked Oscar Gingersnort this question.

“We do say Merry Christmas,” he answered.

“Yes,” I said. “But you also say Happy Christmas. Like the John Lennon song ‘Happy Christmas.’ And apparently the Queen prefers saying ‘Happy Christmas.’ We never say ‘Happy Christmas.’ How do you explain that?”

“Well,” he said. “We also say Happy Birthday. And Christmas is supposed to be a birthday, right?”

“But that doesn’t explain why you do it and Americans don’t.”

“We do lots of things you don’t,” he said. “Like watch the Queen give a speech on TV on Christmas day. You don’t have to pay attention, but everyone turns it on in the background. And we have Christmas crackers. You don’t have those.”

“You don’t know,” I said. “You have no answer. I have readers who need answers, and you are not helpful.”

“No,” he admitted. But he didn’t seem overly bothered by the fact. I think he was working.

It seems pretty clear that this is yet another case of the British being difficult. I will put the question to Trevor and Grace Dangerous, but all UK persons are cordially invited to answer, either on e-mail or in the comments. In the meantime, I have to conclude what I concluded about the fruitcake. The blame can be placed on Jamie Oliver.


Keep them coming! There is only more Cheer on the way!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I have several exciting announcements today. The first is that there is a winner in the GIRL AT SEA HOLIDAY CONTEST. Marrisa B. won the very first copy of Girl At Sea, which will be out in stores in June. Congratulations to Marrisa!

But wait!

The holiday season is full of unexpected cheer. I received some of this cheer in the form of another spare copy of GIRL AT SEA. I have decided to pass it along, and am hereby extending the contest for another week. If you have already entered, your name is still in! If you have not, you have until midnight on Thursday the 21st to get in a holiday question. I will draw the name of the second winner on Friday the 22nd.

That is also the deadline to get in requests for signed cards from the mj holiday workshop. The workshop will be going into overdrive this weekend, so get your requests in now!

And now, I will answer the very first of your holiday questions!

Q: Who ever decided fruitcake was good?!? Maureen Johnson, I doubt I will ever find the answer to this enigma of holiday gift-giving spirit.

A: I appreciate the direct challenge in this question, and I accept it. To answer this riddle, we must go back to the origins of fruitcake as we know it.

The fruitcake story begins, in most tellings, in the colonization of America. We produced a lot of cheap sugar, which made the inhabitants of Europe a little sugar-crazy. They went on wild sugar binges. Someone discovered that if you stuck fruit in a truly disgusting amount of sugar, you could preserve it. In an unexpected bonus, it also gave the fruit a nuclear-reactor-mishap glow.

Because human beings can never resist the shiny, people tried to eat the candied fruit. I have reconstructed this historical event below.

Look. I poured a bunch of sugar on this fruit and now it’s all chewy and shrunken and it glows.

OTHER GUY: Good one, genius. That should be really useful. Fruit is already pretty sweet, don’t you think?

FRUIT GUY: I don’t need your sarcasm. At least try some.

Well, it is kind of shiny . . .

OTHER GUY tastes the fruit.

OTHER GUY: ^#&*#^&*^@#&*^@#!

FRUIT GUY: Yeah. Sucks, huh?

OTHER GUY: #@^&*$# ^&$^&!

FRUIT GUY: I know. And I made about a thousand pounds of this stuff. What am I going to do with it?

OTHER GUY: $^#&*^$ #&$*(&#*(& @^#*(^@&(*#&(*@&# &@*(#&!

FRUIT GUY: Okay, there’s no need for that, plus that is anatomically impossible. Maybe I can hide it somewhere, make it look like something you’d want to eat. I know . . .

And so, a cake was developed, a cake with a batter so dense that it could imprison the horrendous glowing devil fruit. As a preservative measure, fruitcakes are often soaked in rum or brandy. If properly stored, they can be consumed years after their baking. They are basically fruit mummies. This process has two side benefits. One, it counteracts the overt sweetness of the candied fruit. Two, it lures unsuspecting eaters in with the stench of delicious booze.

FRUIT GUY: Look, I’m sorry about the other day.

OTHER GUY: You should be.

FRUIT GUY: To make it up to you, I baked you a cake.

FRUIT GUY passes over the fruitcake. OTHER GUY eyes it warily, then picks it up.

OTHER GUY: What is this? It weighs as much as a baby.

FRUIT GUY: It is a delicious cake full of rum.

OTHER GUY: Rum, huh? Well, I’ll take it home and think about it.

Two days later . . .

OTHER GUY storms in.

OTHER GUY: You @#($(#&$&(*&$#(*&$!

FRUIT GUY: Sucker.

Two months later . . .

OTHER GUY: What have you done to me? Normal cake goes bad. This never does! It won’t die!

FRUIT GUY: I know. Cool, huh?

OTHER GUY: No, it’s not cool. I can’t get rid of it. It sits there, mocking me.

FRUIT GUY: Look, it’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you just give it to someone as a gift? Then it won’t be your problem anymore.

Now, to get to the question itself, who decided the fruitcake was good? I am going to blame the English. It is very easy to blame the English for things, and this is no exception. The English not only eat fruitcake (or Christmas cake), but they cover it with a hard, white frosting that can only be broken by a chisel. Once you get this off, the cake tends to taste a little better than the American version. However, they also eat plum pudding, an abomination far exceeding the horrors of the fruitcake. Plum pudding is usually a mix of fruit, nuts, booze, and suet (raw beef or mutton fat). This terror is boiled and then hung and dried. The result tastes like how the breaking of a small bone feels . . . a shock, dismay, and a lingering pain.

A plum pudding in captivity.

The English have also given us many bizarre songs about Christmas and figgy puddings, and they have infused our Christmasy visions with their Cockney voiceovers. Taking all of this into account, I have realized that the person responsible is Jamie Oliver. I actually like Jamie Oliver, but it is his fault.

My friend Trevor Dangerous is deeply distrustful of Jamie Oliver. He explains that Jamie is from Essex, which is where Trevor is from. People in Essex do not have that kind of accent, making Jamie Oliver a “Mockney.” Clearly, this man has something to hide.


I should also point out that in the interest of national security, fruitcakes have been banned on Canadian airplanes.

I will continue to study your questions. More answers are on the way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Merry merry, dear readers! My BLOG OF CHEER rolls on!

First, a reminder about the Girl At Sea holiday contest. If you want a shot at winning a copy of the book a full SIX MONTHS before it comes out, get your questions in now! The deadline is midnight tomorrow! The winner will be chosen on Wednesday morning.

Second, I have just gotten in a whole new batch of supplies for my holiday signing cards, which I continue to hand-craft for you. Each one is a little bit different, like Cabbage Patch dolls. The workshop will remain open until December 22nd, so you still have plenty of time to get your requests in.

The questions I have gotten so far have been absolutely top-notch, and I am working up some answers in my holiday workshop right now. Today, though, I am going to tell you a wonderful story about how I met Santa, and how it was all because of my nose.

It may surprise you to hear this, but when I was a little kid, I was not a genius.

“No!” you say. “Stop it, Maureen.”

No. It’s true. My parents got a number of signs that they didn’t have a little Mozart on their hands. Like my predilection for chewing things. My absolute favorite thing to chew was the footboard of my bed. I did this almost every night, as soon as the lights were out. I would climb down and just take a quick nibble off the back, just enough to leave a tooth mark. Then, satisfied that my work for the night was done, I would go to sleep.

I also once ate the face off of my Sigmund the Sea Monster bath sponge, including one of its eyes. My mother, an extremely competent nurse, had absolutely no idea what effect this would have on me. This eventuality had never been covered in any of her extensive training. She had to the call the doctor, who was equally puzzled for a moment.

“I guess she’ll be fine?” he finally said.

A face good enough to eat.

One cold night, just a few days before Christmas, there was a terrible snowstorm. I was three at the time, and I had just been to the Christmas version of the infamous Halloween party that my father’s company threw for its employees’ children. I loved this Christmas party because they always gave us a box of Lifesavers in the form of a little book. (These Lifesavers caused trouble again in my life when I very nearly choked to death on one the following year. To this day, they scare me a little.)

Anyway, I must have gotten bored with eating things. This night, I decided to shake it up a little. I tore off some of the cardboard that formed this paper book and decided to shove it right up my nose.

The nose, I should point out, is an important part of the holiday tradition. Santa himself has a “nose like a cherry.” Rudolph has a red nose. Frosty has a button nose. So in my confused little mind, I was actually being very season-appropriate.

The result of this experiment wasn’t good, though. I had shoved the paper so far up my nose that it wouldn’t come out, and I didn’t like it. I ran to my mom and explained what I had done.

“You did what?” she said.

The good thing about having a nurse for a mom is that they have already seen much, much worse things than anything you can possibly come up with. My mom had dealt with accidentally shootings and dismemberments, and she once had to chase an actual axe murderer across the grounds of a mental institution . . . so she was pretty much primed and ready for anything. She got out a flashlight and looked up my nose. She could see the paper. She tried several nursey tricks to try to extract the paper, but all were unsuccessful.

“She stuck paper up her nose,” she said to my dad, as he came in from the storm. “I’m afraid it’s going to do into her sinus. We have to take her to the hospital.”

This was no night for driving around. The snow was falling hard and fast, making for some dangerous driving conditions. The car turned sideways when we tried to crest the hill at the end of our street, and my father almost wasn’t able to turn it around. We skidded and slid the whole treacherous ride. It should have taken about 15 minutes to get there, but even with my father’s somewhat aggressive driving, it took a nerve-jangling hour.

Just as we pulled into the parking lot, I sneezed. Out came the paper. My mother was stunned.

“Oh no,” she said. “We just drove you here. You are getting checked out in case there’s any more.”

The emergency room was deserted. No one was sick enough to venture out on this scary night. The staff was actually a little bored, and so was the volunteer who had dressed up as Santa. He had obviously come to the hospital to spread a little holiday cheer, only to find himself sitting around with a bag of toys and nothing to do.

Enter me: age three. Not bleeding. Just having sneezed out the paper I shoved up my own nose. The staff fawned all over me, checking me over carefully. They gave me candy. Then I got to sit on Santa’s knee, and he gave me a doll. The nurses waved goodbye to me as I left.

I was, my mother reported, extremely pleased with the entire afternoon. I was full of cheer.

“This isn’t good,” my mother said. “She’s going to think this is always what happens when you go to the hospital.”

My parents faced an even more dangerous ride home as I happily played with my new doll. They eventually made it, but the dinner that had been cooking was now ruined.

A month later, while we were walking through a store, I told my mother that I had just found a piece of Styrofoam and shoved it up my nose. Apparently, she had guessed correctly that I now associated sticking things up my nose with seeing Santa. She extracted it, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever did that again, she would glue my nostrils shut. And you know what? I haven’t.

But still, everyone . . . if you want to see the big red fella, you can always give it a try.

Let the nose guide you!

Thursday, December 07, 2006


As promised, friends! Welcome to the first day of MJ’S BLOG OF FESTITUDE.

I love the holiday season, so I have decided that from this point through to the end of the year, I will completely turn this blog over to all things festive. This is your one-stop shop for CHEER. No matter what holiday you celebrate, CHEER is for all.

My very first act of CHEER was the establishment of the mj holiday signing workshop, which is in full swing! If you would like to give one of my books as a gift this holiday season (or just keep one for yourself), the mj holiday workshop elves (me) will hand-make you a signed card to go in it. All of the details are here. And if you’ve requested a card, don’t worry! Another batch is on its way out the door!

And now, I present to you my second act of CHEER. I am giving away one (1) galley copy of my new book, Girl At Sea. This is a rare item! Daphne Unfeasible just got her copy! I can only give one, as I don’t have many.

How do you win? It’s absurdly simple. For the mj blog of festitude, I am going to answer your holiday cheer-related questions. Ask me anything! Are you confused by a holiday tradition? Are you baffled by the lyrics to a holiday carol? Send me a question at my e-mail address using the contact button below (maureen@maureenjohnsonbooks.com).

I will take the names of everyone who sends me a question and I will put those names in my holiday hat and choose one at random. That person gets the signed copy of Girl At Sea. Keep it for yourself! Give it as a gift! Put it on your head! I don’t care! It will be yours!

The cutoff for the contest is midnight, December 12th. I will pick the name on Wednesday morning and announce the winner.

As many of you have noticed, the Girl At Sea cover looks a lot like the 13 Little Blue Envelopes cover. What does this mean, this similar cover?

Girl At Sea is not a sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes. It does not have the same characters or storyline. However, it is a kind of companion. I like to think of Girl At Sea as 13 Little Blue Envelope’s sister. Two different beings, but in the same family. Here’s what it’s about . . .

Once upon a time, 11 year-old Clio Ford had a happy family, including a dad that was almost her best friend. On rainy summer week at the beach, they decided to make a game to play. They called it Dive! Clio, an artist, drew the board and the cards.

It was a good game. So good, in fact, that Clio’s father managed to sell it to a major New York game company. Suddenly, the Fords were rich, and even somewhat famous. Unfortunately, the wealth and popularity brought out the worst in Clio’s dad. They had fun for a year or two, and then both the money and the enjoyment went away. Clio’s family split up, and nothing has ever been the same. Clio even has a physical mark on her body from where it all went awry . . .

Flash forward to the present. Seventeen year-old Clio is just trying to get on with her life, and that includes finally making a move on Ollie, the guy from the art store she has been staking out for most of the year. Out of the blue, she gets some news that changes everything. Her mother has to go away for the summer, and her dad is exercising his visitation rights. Or rather, he’s making her come and visit him in Italy.

Clio finds herself in Sorrento, on the Italian coast, meeting her father’s new “team.” They include: a British professor of archeology (a.k.a., his new girlfriend), her English-Swedish daughter Elsa (the dairy goddess), and arrogant Yale-transplant Aidan (the brain).

Also, her father has somehow purchased a yacht, which he sails off in the middle of the night with Clio and the team on board. She is literally stuck at sea. And no one will tell her what they are supposed to be doing out there, though there is clearly something going on.

Clio doesn’t know that she is now continuing a search that began in London over a hundred years ago, for something that will redefine history itself. She’ll also get a job, get trapped in a love triangle, have an unfortunate encounter with sealife, and learn why you should always be careful of shiny red buttons.

That’s the story. That’s the contest. All right . . . get cracking!

It’s CHEER time!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I am feeling the season today! Maybe this is because I have something very exciting to share with you! News, and a chance for you to win the BEST GIFT OF 2006!

Also, I just had such a festive night reading with Coe Booth, E. Lockhart, John Green, and David Levithan. Well, until the fight broke out, that is.

It really did start out well. We were at Books of Wonder, New York’s premier children’s bookstore (in fact, the one on which the bookstore in You’ve Got Mail is based). The five of us were sitting behind our tables, answering some questions. Then, one of the audience members made a little joke about John Green.

You see, his new book, An Abundance of Katherines, is about a boy who gets dumped by 19 girls named Katherine. This audience member was making light of the fact that John Green had so much experience being dumped. John was smiling at first, but then, his expression changed. Something inside of him seemed to break.

“You people,” he growled. “You think it’s easy to write a book? We’ll take all of you on! Authors against the audience! I’ve wanted to do this for years!”

David, Coe and I stared at him. But E. Lockhart got this gleam in her eye.

“I’m up for it,” she said. “Come on!”

And before any of us knew what was happening, she started lobbing copies of The Boy Book into the audience like Chinese stars. She took down three readers in the front row.

Much to my surprise, the audience seemed just as ready for this. A fourth reader managed to defend herself with a paperback copy of The Boyfriend List, which deflected its sequel easily.

“Drat!” she yelled. “They’re using our own words against us!”

David Levithan was looking around in disbelief when a copy of Boy Meets Boy got him in the shoulder. In one graceful motion, he stood and flipped over the table to give us some protection. Coe Booth wisely dropped at once. I was the only one who hadn’t moved. I still sat in my chair, until a copy of Devilish got me in the head and knocked me out of it.

“Author down!” E. Lockhart yelled.

“I’m fine,” I mumbled. “It wasn’t my longest book. It they had got me with The Bermudez Triangle, I’d have been a goner.”

“You’ll pay for that!” John Green screamed. He ripped off his shirt and started making some kind of literary war whoop*. He grabbed for the stack of An Abundance of Katherines that had been piled in front of him and started winging them in all directions.

“I won the Printz, you #%$^#%$&^#%^&s!” he screamed.

David Levithan was quickly drawing up a map of the room with his signing Sharpie.

“They’ve got us backed in to a corner,” he said. “We need to clear a path over to the paperback classics. From there, we can cut through picture books and get to the Cupcake Café. Then we’ll have them right where we want them.”

Just then, a copy of Looking for Alaska caught John Green unawares, knocking off his glasses.

“They’ve blinded me!” he said. “The @^&#*$^%&*#^$&*^#&s!”

Coe caught him as he fell. He curled into a fetal position.

At this point, books of all shapes, genres, and bindings were flying in our direction. David stood to fight, but was pummeled with copies of the countless anthologies he’s worked on, his co-written books, and his novels. He dropped to the ground, struck down by a copy of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.

“Leave me,” he said weakly. “Save yourselves.”

“Never!” E. Lockhart said. “No one gets left behind!”

And with that, she was taken down with a copy of Fly on the Wall.


This is when I really got into it. I clawed for some 13 Little Blue Envelopes paperbacks and started hurling them back as best I could. I tried my best, but my efforts were producing no effect. The paperbacks, even though they contained 12 pages of extras, were too light to cause any real damage. Some of the audience members had broken into the storeroom, and they were coming at us with all of our backlist titles. I dove to the ground as a flurry of Key to the Golden Firebird hardbacks came my way.

“We can’t win,” I said. “They’ve got us.”

“My glasses!” John cried.

“Go!” David said again, his voice fading. “You can still get out. You can write another book.”

E. Lockhart was unmoving.

“Oh, they’ve made me mad now,” Coe said. “They can’t get me. Tyrell is my first book!”

She stood tall and started driving them back with every copy of Tyrell she had. The audience had nothing to fight back with. Slowly, book by book, Coe drove them back, punctuating each throw with a word.

“That. Is. What. You. Get! I. Didn’t. Get. Published. To. Deal. With. This!”

“We’re winning,” I said, as they retreated back into middle grade fiction. “We’re winning!”

E. Lockhart moaned and pulled herself upright.

“Get them, Coe!” she said.

John had found his glasses. They were broken, and they sat lopsided on his face.

“My glasses,” he said.

“Wait!” a voice came from the other side. “Wait! I’m just a fan! I just wanted you to sign my book! I’m a fan!”

John peered over the top of the table.

“Really?” he said. “Oh. No problem!”

And it was over as soon as it started. We all signed, except for David, who was unconscious. We propped him up in his chair and put a copy of Wide Awake in his hands.

. . .

Okay. Fine. None of that happened. I was just shamelessly plugging all of those books.

We read, and then we did a mash-up of all five our books, and then we answered questions and signed. But it could have. The potential was there.

This was really just a ruse to get you all hot and bothered for the amazing thing I am about to lay on you now. Here it is, the cover of GIRL AT SEA!


You can’t get your hands on this until June 7th . . . unless you win my holiday contest. Oh yes. You could win a RARE GALLEY of the book, signed by me, to put under your Christmas tree/Hanukah bush/rubber plant of joy. NO ONE ELSE WILL HAVE THIS! YOU WILL BE THE BEST GIFT-GIVER!

Check back here tomorrow for details. TOMORROW! That’s when the festivities begin!

* a noise somewhere between the grinding of a crayon in an electric pencil sharpener and the manly smack of a New York Review of Books being slapped down on a table. not overly loud. it is a brainy noise.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Before I tell you my tale for today, I have important news! I’m going to be at Books of Wonder in New York tomorrow, with a lineup of authors so stellar . . . I can barely speak. They include: David Levithan, Coe Booth, John Green, and E. Lockhart. Obviously, this event cannot be missed. When was the last time you got that much entertainment for free? That’s right. Never. We’ll be there from 5-7 PM. Get there early.

Now I have to tell you about my trip to IKEA.

IKEA is just like that other famous Swedish export, Abba . . . deliciously accessible. When I first moved to New York City, I was a very, very poor graduate student, hustling in restaurants and taking strange jobs that really did involve working with live tigers. IKEA was my lifeline to any semblance of normal life. I could just about afford the furniture there, and their brightly colored, happy knickknacks were perfect for my student digs.

I should be over it by now. I should have moved on. But I never do. They send me their catalog, and I react in the same way I did when I got my hands on the Sears toy catalog when I will little. I become entranced by the world it presents . . . the bright colors, the shag carpets, the walls of round mirrors, the beds covered in multicolored throw pillows. I know it is cheap and that it may break. I know those fabrics are scratchy.

But I just can’t help myself. I’d even forgiven them for the fact that the last time I bought something there, they forgot to put in a bolt, and because their bolts are weird, my purchased sat, unassembled, on my floor for six weeks. I still go whenever I have an excuse.

And I just got one. My agent, Daphne Unfeasible, is moving. Daphne has the same IKEA weakness.

“When you move,” I said, “we’ll drive down and go shopping.”

(NOTE: Most authors do not go IKEA shopping with their agents. I have known Daphne for a very long time and we are good friends. So, if you get an agent, don’t say that you read here that they were supposed to hang out with you in IKEA, because it is just not true.)

So, Daphne called the other day and said the time had come for our trip. We are usually scrupulous planners (though, this point will be disputed later in this story), but this time, we just said we would go on Sunday.

On Sunday morning, I woke to the sound of my phone ringing. I slammed around until I found it.

“You wanna still go?” Daphne said groggily.

“Yeah,” I croaked back. “It’s IKEA. We have to.”

“You’re right,” she said, yawning. “It’ll be fun.”

Like I said before, I don’t own a car. But I belong to a car sharing service, so that I can access one on no notice. Except that by the time I checked, all the cars I wanted were gone for the weekend.

“Forget that,” I said, calling back. “Let’s just take the shuttle there and back.”

IKEA knows that New Yorkers hate bothering with cars, so they thoughtfully provide a free shuttle that goes back and forth all day on the weekends. Getting on the shuttle is like boarding the field trip bus in grade school. Everyone is excited. There is a happy air. You can hear catalogs being flipped through.

“This was so much easier,” I said to Daphne, as we rode along. “It would have been a pain to drive here today.”

“You’re right,” she said, snatching away my catalog.

Daphne needed a bookcase, and I needed a lamp. Neither one of us was stupid enough to think that was all we would walk away with, because that’s the whole point of IKEA! It’s so magical and so wonderful, you can’t help but buy lots of things. It’s like going to Candy Mountain. You are going to overconsume, but it will be worth it.

Daphne and I worked our way around the store. Daphne was entranced by a fake coffee shop they’d built to show off their products, and she got behind the counter and pretended to serve me coffee. Not all agents are as happy-go-lucky as Daphne.

Unfortunately, I had trouble finding what I wanted. They were out of the things I was looking for, or the parts were in different areas of the store, which is very large. But I was going to make the best of it. I would get SOMETHING.

At the end of the day, I had gotten my lamp, plus some long fabric panels to craft wallhangings. We had both loaded up on wrapping paper and bows. I also bought a little table. Daphne had filled a cart with all sorts of things she needed for her move. The very last thing we needed to get was her bookcase, which was in the big warehouse-like section near the cashiers. We found Daphne’s bookcase. The box was much longer and much heavier than we had anticipated.

“That’s not going to fit in a cab when we get back to the city,” she said sadly.

We gazed around, as if an answer might present itself to us. Amazingly, one did. Daphne pointed to a sign on the far wall.

“Look!” Daphne said. “Car rental! We can rent a car for a few hours and drive our stuff up to the city tonight! I really need my bookcase. I don’t want to wait.”

I went over to the desk while Daphne hauled her bookcase from the rack. There was a man in front of me getting a car. The woman behind the counter kept talking about his timing, because all of the cars were gone, except for one. I could have that one, but I had to hold firm in line.

The longer I stood there, the more it became clear that there was only ONE MORE VEHICLE, the more anxious I became. I started calling Daphne, reporting the entire conversation to her as she stood with our carts.

“Get it!” she said, picking up on the mania. “We need it!”

When the woman behind the counter got to me, I practically jumped on her.

“I have a cargo van,” she said. “Will that be okay?”

I clearly wasn’t listening carefully. I was just ready to agree to whatever she had to rent to me. I nodded away, senseless as a bobblehead, and signed all the documents shoved in front of me.

“You can’t miss it,” she said, passing me a key. “It’s right outside. We close at 6:00.”

“That’s okay!” I said. “We have to get back here by six anyway for the last coach.”

We happily grabbed our things, wished her well, and walked out the door. Waiting for us by the curb was a large white van. If it hadn’t had Enterprise Rent-a-Car painted on the side, I would have said it looked like something you would hear described in a police report as having been “slowly circling around the area several days before the disappearance.”

“It’s big,” I said. “Big and white.”

Daphne wasn’t interested in the evocative word-drawings I was conjuring. She was already shoveling our goods into the back. They took up about 2% of the space. This was a truck for hauling sofas, or even smaller cars, certainly not the tiny lamp, the fabric, the two flat boxes, or the wrapping paper we had purchased.

“It’s big,” I said again.

“Let’s go!” she answered, shoving her long, packed–up bookcase into the back. I got behind the wheel of the van and started testing out the controls. They felt loose and weird. I looked over my shoulder to back up, and was astonished by the view. There was an entire ROOM behind me. It seemed endless to me, like the dining hall in Hogwarts. This was the vehicle I was about to drive through insane New Jersey turnpike traffic, through New York, with drivers speeding around me and cutting me off and merging.

There was a lot of room behind me.

I started to put the van into reverse. It lurched gracelessly. I had only the remotest sense of what was behind me. I put it back into drive and inched it back into its space.

“What?” Daphne said.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t drive this thing into New York. It’s too big.”

I admit that that may sound a little weak-willed, but New York traffic is serious, and it’s best to know your limits. I would have been willing to drive the van down a highway, but not into my neighborhood, where cabs like to race you and people drive backwards down one way streets without so much as glancing over their shoulder.

Daphne looked desperate.

“Okay,” she said. “Maybe you can go back in and see if you can switch.”

I’d heard the whole “no more vehicles” conversation, so I thought there was no chance of this, but amazingly enough, when I went back in, the woman said I could switch with someone who had just been given a minivan.

“The thing is,” she said, “it has no gas in it at all. It’s about to die. I’ll have to lead you over to the gas station.”

It was already 4:00, and we had to have our car back by 6:00, when the rental area closed and the last coach went back to Manhattan. Our chances of making this trip were already slim. But I still agreed, because we were in it now.

I couldn’t get the minivan out of the parking lot for ten minutes, because someone had decided to bring a horse trailer to IKEA, and they had decided that the very best place to plant it was behind MY NEW MINIVAN. I offered a bit of color commentary on the wisdom of bringing horses to IKEA, but they could not hear me. Then I realized that the emergency brake was on, and I had no idea how it disengage it, as the minivan makers had cleverly decided to hide the release. Daphne had to get out the manual.

“Page 81,” she mumbled. “Emergency brake . . . push over and to the right, like it says here.”

I did that, further engaging the brake. This car could not be more stopped.

“Wait, wait . . . hit the button on the . . . page 96 . . .”

Once the horses moved and I got the brake off, we followed the rental car woman to a quaint little gas station about three towns over.

“We are so not going to make this,” I said.

“Of course we are!” Daphne replied.

This may be a good time to note that Daphne and I lived in London together right after we graduated from college. We decided to take a “quick and cheap!” trip to Paris one weekend—because Paris was so close, and we were such savvy student traveler types. In the end, instead of making a brisk midnight crossing, we: drank warm wine in Trafalgar Square at 3 AM, lied to the police in order to gain illegal entrance to Victoria Station in order to rest on the floor and throw change at pigeons with tramps, rode on what I think was a refrigerated train car to Dover to take a 5 AM ferry to France, paid more than our monthly rent to get on the TGV train to Paris . . . where we appeared, quite literally, in the middle of gay pride parade in the middle of the day. We were there for about 18 hours, but were so sleep deprived that we couldn’t even go anywhere. So, this may cause you to revise your opinion of our (otherwise flawless) planning skills.

We filled the minivan’s bottomless tank, which took another ten minutes. Then, and only then, did we hit the road. The ride was insane. The radio station we tuned to was playing a disturbing mix of Van Halen and Christmas Carols, which toyed with my frayed nerves.

“Why did we come on this stupid, doomed trip?” I said, yanking the minivan out of an easypass lane.

“Because IKEA is fun,” Daphne said grimly. She handed me more money for tolls. The tolls and bridges alone had cost as much as my lamp by this point.

“*#^%*&#^%$ IKEA,” I said.

At 5:05, I pulled to a screeching halt in front of Daphne’s new building. We unloaded the minivan in ten minutes, and then got back in it and started the trip back.

“We aren’t going to make it,” I said. I had gotten a bit happier. Doom sometimes does this to me. I relax a little. I started to drive with a focus so total that I astounded myself.

“You will make it by six,” I told myself. “You just will.”

“I guess if we miss the coach back,” Daphne was musing, “we can try to get over to the airport . . .”

[IKEA is directly across the turnpike from the airport, which means that as you drive there it looks like planes are about to land on you, which adds to the fun].

“ . . . or we can stand by the door with a sign and hope that someone takes us home.”

“Or we’ll just get stuck in IKEA and have to sleep in one of the fake bedrooms,” I said.

“It’s be just like the From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!” she said.

But we were making time. In fact, we pulled off at the IKEA exit with five minutes to spare. IKEA Boulevard was right in front of us. But the sign was a bit confusing.

“Which way?” I said, slowing down. “Right?”

“No,” Daphne said. “I think . . . I think straight.”

I went straight, but it became immediately clear that we had just made a fatal error. Daphne started screaming at herself as we barreled toward the airport, where we would be stuck for at least fifteen minutes.

“I’m so STUPID!” she said. “SO STUPID!”

“Stop blaming yourself,” I said, my eyes madly fixed on the road. “It’s NOT YOUR FAULT!”

I was tuned into the road now.

“You know the way,” my Zen inner voice said. “Just go to IKEA.”

I cut abruptly through a diner parking lot, and magically got the car back on to IKEA Boulevard.

“Oh my God!” Daphne said. “We may make it!”

The minivan pulled up to IKEA just as the clock ticked over to 6:01. I yanked out the key and ran inside.

The woman was gone. The desk was empty. My heart was pounding.

“Where is she?” I said to a stranger standing by the desk. “WHERE IS THE WOMAN?”

“I’ve been here for ten minutes and no one’s been here,” he said.


He smiled and backed away toward the Swedish food emporium.

Daphne was already calling me.

“I found the coach driver!” she said. “They’re still here! They’re still here!”

“But the woman is GONE!” I said.

Daphne ran over and looked at the scene for herself. The empty desk. The lack of any note or sign or instruction.

“What in the #^$%#$^&% am I going to do with this minivan?” I said, wandering around in circles.

“There’s a little hole here,” Daphne said, looking into an opening on the desk. “Maybe you should drop the key in here?”

We wandered around until we found someone who showed us where the lock box for the keys was located, and then we ran over and leapt on to the waiting coach. We hadn’t eaten all day. Our nerves were shot. We looked like two hostages who had just been released from a bank robbery.

I arrived home later, exhausted. As I looked around, I realized there were one or two things I should have gotten when I was there. And I honestly thought to myself . . .

“Maybe I’ll go back next week.”

I mean, come on. They really are like Abba. You can’t hate IKEA for long.