Set in the 1960s, Barbara Bottner’s I Am Here Now is a beautiful novel in verse about one artist’s coming of age. It’s a heartbreaking, powerful and inspiring depiction of what it’s like to shatter your life—and piece it all back together.
You can’t trust Life to give you decent parents, or beautiful eyes, a fine French accent or an outstanding flair for fashion. No, Life does what it wants. It’s sneaky as a thief.
Maisie’s first day of High school should be exciting, but all she wants is to escape.
Her world is lonely and chaotic, with an abusive mother and a father who’s rarely there to help.
So when Maisie, who finds refuge in her art, meets the spirited Rachel and her mother, a painter, she catches a glimpse of a very different world—one full of life, creativity, and love—and latches on.
But as she discovers her strengths through Rachel’s family, Maisie, increasingly desperate, finds herself risking new friendships, and the very future she’s searching for.
The tiny fire escape is our private spot.
My dad says he’s sorry he’s gone so often.
Do I remember when I was six
and he took me into the city?
I wore a red coat, red shoes,
and perfect white leather gloves
embroidered with tiny blue buds.
I recall watching the road into New York:
billboards, telephone lines, bridges,
The parking garage man said,
“So you’re the boss man’s little lady
I’ve heard so much about?”
The elevator man, Jimmy,
knew my name!
My dad’s corner office had the most windows,
the biggest desk, too.
My father bragged, “Your daddy runs this joint!”
From his window, as it got dark,
we could see Manhattan laid out in front of us
like a glittering tablecloth.
How could I not remember?
It was a perfect day,
until he turned the key in our front door.
Mother was waiting.
We were in for it.
A breeze pushes the fumes against my face.
He snuffs out a butt, then lights another,
says, “Look, kid, smoking’s a dirty habit.
I’m going to quit soon.”
“Teach me to smoke!” I say.
His eyebrows meet above his nose,
and as the tip of the cigarette burns,
it sends smoke into the clear night
like a signal.
Maybe, across the Harlem River
someone will see it,
realize we are signaling: Help!
“Let me try it, please? I want to be like you!”
“No, you don’t! Not now, not ever.”
“But, Dad, at least I should know
what I’ll be missing for the rest of my life.”
He smiles so wide, I can see his molars.
“Well, you’ll never know about the future,”
he says, ominously.
I grab his arm.
“Tell me the truth.
Are you thinking of leaving?”
“Us! Please! Please don’t leave!
You can’t. I mean it!
She hates me.”
“Calm down, Maisie,” he says.
My voice crackles.
“I’m just telling you, if you go,
she’ll put me in the ground.”
He ruffles my hair
as if I am being amusing.
I want to scream.
“You think I’m a rotten kid, too?”
“You’re a great kid, Maisie.”
“I’m trying to reform, Dad.”
I like you exactly the way you are:
spirited, smart, your own person.”
“Being my own person
is treacherous,” I say.
He turns to me.
“Are you working me over?” he asks.
I know not to answer.
“Okay, you poor kid, one puff.
I’ll give you one shot at it
but you have to do exactly what I say.
You have to learn how to inhale, okay?”
I do have to learn how to inhale.
How to breathe,
as if I belong here on the earth.
I look at his face,
think how I’m glad that he breaks the rules.
He says we’re alike.
That must be why I’m the way I am,
as my grandma likes to say,
always flirting with disaster,
as if disaster were my middle name.
“When you smoke,
you take in the deepest breath
as if you have to last underwater
Then, you keep it in
as long as you possibly can.”
“But you don’t do that, Dad.”
“I’ve been smoking a long time, kid.
Ready?” he says, and lights a fresh one.
I sit up tall under the stars,
put my feet on the bench,
straighten my back
so I can always remember
this moment, me and my dad,
on the same wavelength.
Me, trying to figure out
if he wants to protect me
while he’s teaching me to smoke.
How about telling me about school?”
He sighs, offers the cigarette.
“It has its moments,” I say,
and close my lips around the tobacco,
inhale really, really deeply.
I am about to show him the bruises
I still have on my arm,
but then the smoke curls in my chest,
which immediately wants to explode.
“Hold it in,” he commands.
“Don’t let it out.”
Finally my mouth opens
because I’m coughing and gasping.
It feels like some kind of torture.
The taste is nasty.
“It’s awful!” I cough.
“It tastes horrible, feels horrible.”
I’m practically crying.
“So disgusting! How could you?!”
My dad laughs.
“Well, now you never have to do it again!”
I dash inside, refuse to speak to him
for the rest of the night.
“I’m done with you, Dad!”
Later he knocks on my door,
takes my hand.
“Between you and me,
if anything ever happened—
not that it will—in the leaving department,
wherever I’d go,
you’d be coming with me, kid.
I throw my arms around him.
Later I will drift off wondering
how much warning he’d give me.
And what about my brother?
Barbara Bottner has written about 50 books for children of all ages. In May, her first YA novel in free verse, I Am Here Now is coming out from Macmillan (Imprint) She’s written a NY Times Bestseller, as well as staffed prime time sit-com, sold screenplays, published essays and short stories in both national and literary magazines and reviewed children’s books for both the NY and LA Sunday Book Review. Many of her works have been multiply translated and animated, and adapted for short plays. When she was an animator, she won “Best Film For TV” from the Annecy International Animation Festival. When very young, she briefly appeared on stage and in Europe with La Mama Plexus and in television movies. She teaches writing for children privately but won The Distinguished University Teaching Award from The New School For Social Research. Her papers are collected in the Arne Nixon Center for Children’s Literature at Fresno State.
Former students include: Lane Smith, Robin Preiss Glaser, Peggy Rathmann, Bruce Degen, Barney Saltsburg and Antoinette Portis.
She feels blessed to have a passion that seems to stick with her no matter how the larger world goes out of control.