Monday, August 20, 2018

Filling my Writer’s Rolodex

I’m in Ireland with my husband and both children—so so happy to be traveling as a family of four once again. The first time we came to Ireland they were seven and four—our first overseas trip. We loved it then and we love it now.

On one of the first days of the trip, my husband was trying to remember the name of a minor ancient Egyptian god—not Anubis, but like Anubis—and couldn’t. “Never mind,” he said, “I’ll go through my mental Rolodex. It’ll pop up eventually.” Our daughter, a child of the 21st century, was bemused by the word Rolodex. “You know,” my husband said, flipping through an imaginary file with his fingers. “I’m in the section marked ‘dog’—flip, flip—Cava—flip, flip—there’s Under, Polly—flip—Funny Face—flip flip—Heidi—

“Heidi?” Our daughter asked.
“One of my childhood dogs,” I said.
My husband was still flipping. “Anubis—“ he said. “I’ll get there. Might take some time. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and there it is!”

For me that’s part of the fascination and necessity of traveling: I fill my writer’s Rolodex. Sometimes I’m traveling for specific purposes—I went to England with a list of stuff I needed to learn for The War That Saved My Life. But on that trip I also learned things I didn’t realize I needed to know. I got lost on country lanes and found myself at the top of a windswept hill with a far-ranging view of the sea. That became Ada’s lookout hill.

I remember on my honeymoon being fascinated by odd Parisian toilets. Now European toilets are just another Rolodex card. Odd skinnny European trucks—same. It’s pretty simple. If every dog you’d ever seen was a German Shepherd, a toy poodle would astonish you. The more things you see, the more your mental Rolodex files expand.

For example, I know I’ll write a book sometime about a fictional castle, so I’m always looking to add to my castle Rolodex. On this trip we went to Kylemore Abbey, a “modern” castle built by wealthy Victorians with a marvelous walled garden. We saw Blarney Castle, half-ruined with strange mazelike passageways. Dundrum castle—a mere ruin with a sweeping view of the sea. The Rock of Cashel—a city stronghold. Each one different. Each added features to what castles might possibly be.

I’m also intrigued by wooden sailing ships. Always have been. We visited one of Ireland’s “coffin ships,” used for mass emigration during the famine. Mmm. I could see possibilities there. (My husband thinks the Irish Famine too depressing of a subject for a children’s book. See also “you can’t set a book on the Appalachian Trail” and “no one wants to read about a kid with a club foot.”) (Which is not to say I’ll write the book. Ideas are everywhere. Good ideas are harder to come by, and you can’t always tell which is which.)

Tomorrow we head home and I put my head down for a final week on the current draft of my Egypt Book, which is starting to really need a name. I’ve worked hard this vacation. My Rolodex is bigger now.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Warning: You May Love Gay People

I've been sharing with you how tremendously excited I am about the Appalachian Literacy Initiative, my new non-profit that will be giving brand-new high-quality children's books to area students in need. I believe access to books is a social justice issue. It's a battle I'm pleased to fight.

Today I heard that I teacher in a very poor, rural area, when invited to enroll in our program, declined--not because her students don't need books. They do. It's because two of my novels have an adult character who is gay.

I so wish I were making that up.

Earlier in the summer, I was having a lovely conversation on my porch with friends visiting from Scotland. I don't remember how the subject of transgender people came up, but my friend Calum said, thoughtfully, "I've never met a transgender person." It wasn't an important part of our conversation, but I recalled him saying it later a few weeks later, when I was reading post on Facebook by a transgender friend of mine, because I realized, reading the Facebook post, that if you met my friend for the first time now, after her transition, you would never guess she was transgender. It would never even occur to you. So my Scottish friend--and, in fact, all of us--have almost certainly met people who are transgender. We just didn't know their backstory.

The teacher who doesn't approve of gay characters in books is teaching a classroom of students, at least one of which, statistically speaking, is gay. As prepubescent kids, they may have no idea. If they are aware of their sexuality, they probably aren't going to talk about it, at least not with their teacher. They're ten.

No one becomes gay by reading about gay people. No one is prevented from becoming gay by avoiding books featuring gay people. We are who we are.

Gay people might be your young children. They might be your neighbors. They might be your beloved grandchildren, or your child's fantastic best friend. The number of gay people in this world is not dependent on your approval of them.

Be careful who you decide to hate. It may be someone you already love.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Losing Alice

It's been a funny few days. Unrelated things keep popping up, reminding me of a specific time in my life, 13 years ago. It's when I fell to pieces. It's also when I was teaching middle-school drama.

Yesterday I learned that one of my drama kids has died.

I knew her when she was a little girl, riding ponies at the barn where I boarded my horse. I knew her as a 6th-grader in my drama class. I lost track of her after that--not surprising, as her family moved away. Reading the obituary last night I learned that she'd been a high-school athlete sidelined by a rare disease. She'd received a kidney transplant, graduated college, married young, and, last Friday, died.

I found out when a mutual friend posted on the internet a photo of her in pigtails on a pony. I recognized her immediately, but when I was thinking of her last night it was all in regards to our drama class. I had a class of about 20 middle-schoolers, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. We presented Barbara Robinson's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," and this girl, the one who died, played Alice. I remember that she was one of the students who really learned something over the semester. We had a few students who were naturally very talented, and a few who were never going to be strong actors, and then some in the middle, who by working hard became better than they or I expected.

The character Alice gives voice to the pivotal moment of the play, when nasty Imogene Herdman, the antagonist, transforms into the persona of Mary, the mother of God. The whole stageful of children goes completely silent until Alice says, gasping, "Mary's crying! Mrs. Bradley--Mary's crying."

I went to sleep with that phrase ringing in my head, "Mrs. Bradley--Mary's crying," remembering the pitch-perfect way this girl said it into that silence. I thought, though, that I must have been remembering it wrong. I'm Mrs. Bradley. It's what all the drama kids called me. But I looked up the script this morning, and the primary adult character is indeed Mrs. Bradley. I'd remember it correctly.

Oh, Alice. Mrs. Bradley's crying.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Appalachian Literacy Initiative

I'm at our mountain place with my daughter--we're having a few sweet days together before she leaves AGAIN, for fencing camp, tomorrow. But of course I'm up early (puppy!) and she's not, so I'm working on stuff for my new non-profit.

I'm so excited about it. It's called the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. My friend Tracy and I created it, and now we have a board, non-profit status, a bank account, and we've applied for tax-free status from the IRS (which was a huge boatload of paperwork). All that's left is to start to actually help people!

ALI began when I asked to give a talk on the subject of my choice last year at the Tennessee Association of School Librarians conference. I picked the need for diversity of all types in children's books, and, among other things, researched the number of Tennessee children actually non-white (I could only get Nashville stats--that would be 68%. The east side of TN is more white, the west side less than that, and Nashville's in the center). Then I looked at poverty. What I found there led me to look at national statistics, and here we are--these are from 2016--if you divide all fourth-graders between those that do and do not receive free or reduced-price school lunch (which usually indicates a family whose income is below twice the federal poverty line)--56% of the higher income kids read at "proficient" level, and only 22% of the lower-income kids do. 

Yep. Nationwide, you're 2 1/2 times more likely to read at proficient level if you're not poor. (In Tennessee gap is actually larger.)

So I went digging some more--Donalyn Miller's got a great piece about this--and decided that the best thing I could do to help was get books into children's hands. The best way to get children to read books is to let them chose the books, even among a limited number. So we're launching in fourth-grade classrooms throughout Appalachia this fall. Four times a year we'll send teachers a set of books--10 for the first set, probably 6 for the other three, though that's not set in stone. Then all of their students can chose which book they want to order. We'll ship the classroom the books, which are the students' to keep. 

We've got a lot of other ideas: supplying books for classroom lit circles, creating mobile book fairs, working with schools to improve their libraries. (You won't believe this--or maybe you will--but there are schools in these poor rural counties that don't have libraries. Period. And neither do the towns. And there are no bookstores. And people living in entrenched poverty don't have credit cards, so they aren't ordering off Amazon, not that they would anyway because they don't have money for extras like books.) Anyhow, that's my rant. We're very excited about this.

These are statistics from 2016, that I used in my 2017 talk at TASL.

Schoolchildren in Tennessee

48.9% receive free or reduced-price school lunch
32.3% live in families that receive SNAP (food stamps)
24.1% live in poverty
11% live in extreme poverty
5% live in foster care

48.4%  of 3rd-5th graders are reading at proficient level

Of 4th-graders eligible for free lunch, 22% are reading at proficient level.

This means  that 88% of 4th-grades NOT eligible for free lunch are reading at proficient level.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Now We Are Fifty-One

Today is my husband's fifty-first birthday; he's caught up to me once again. He's got a terrific cold and so is celebrating by canceling the late-afternoon golf game with friends and lovely dinner with me that he had planned, but he still woke at 5:30 and went off to give sight to the blind.

"Sight to the blind" sounds like hyperbole but it's really what he does. He's a cataract surgeon.

I thought of trying to write a post that was 51 things about him, but realized that I'd either have to get way too personal (Rule #1 of my blog: only tell my own story) or else I'd have to resort to stupid things like, "He hates coconut," which is true but tells you nothing important about him.

Our wedding anniversary is in four days. We were married when we were 22, in the summer between college graduation and the beginning of medical school. We didn't know anything; of course we didn't. No one does at 22.

For our honeymoon we went to Paris. We stayed in a very small hotel on the Left Bank where no one spoke English except the owner. Every morning as we set out, walking down the cobbled street to the Metro station, the owner would stick her head out the front door and yell, "Courage, children!"

We walked and walked. I had the most unsuitable shoes in the world. (They were cute, though.) A heat wave hit Paris that week; it was 104 degrees. Our hotel had no air-conditioning. Nothing had air-conditioning. When we were in Rome last week my husband said, "Have we ever been on vacation anywhere hotter?" and I reminded him of our honeymoon.

Sometimes I realize that I can describe in very few words something about my life right now that would make my former self, my 22-year-old newly-married self, giddy with joy. "You and Bart went to visit your daughter studying abroad in Rome," would be one such sentence. Or, "The sunrise on your farm this morning was beautiful." "The trees you planted have grown so tall." "Your husband turned fifty-one this morning. He loves you more than he did when he was sixteen."

Happy birthday, darling. For the record, I do too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Rome, and Back Again

I just got back from a short week/long weekend in Rome. Some people think my husband and I are nuts for doing this length of trip overseas, but it works really well with his schedule--he doesn't miss any operating time. We're both good at sleeping on the overnight flight to Europe, and that happens after he's put in at least a half day of work. With the Fourth of July holiday he only missed 2 1/2 days of work and we got five full days on the ground in the Eternal City.

We went there because our daughter is there, studying Latin amid the ancient ruins in stultifying heat. We are very impressed with her. We always have been, of course--she's our child, sheesh--but now we're impressed with her enthusiasm and the way she navigates a foreign city and a foreign culture, and the fact that she's sleeping in a tiny un-air-conditioned apartment whose windows don't open at all.

On our first night, we were having dinner just off the Piazza Popolo, which is both lovely and a magnet for touts selling crap to tourists. I had my back to the sidewalk, so when someone said, "Here you go, Ma'am," I thought it was our waiter, and I blindly reached out and took a handful of roses from a man selling them. This was a big mistake--in my defense, it was an accident, I do know better--but usually nothing on earth will make guys like this take the roses back, and if you don't pay them something you get into a big messy yelling fight on the street and they will let it escalate until you do pay them, however long that takes. In this case, our daughter frowned at him and said, "No, grazie," with such perfect Italian pronunciation that he mistakenly thought we were locals, nodded a quick apology, took back his flowers, and melted away.

Our daughter grinned. "I only know four words of Italian," she said, "but I say them really well."

Later in the trip, she repeated her, "No, grazie," to a man selling something outside the Vatican. He replied, "prego," an Italian word that can mean "sorry," "excuse me," "I'm fine," or "You're next." Then, realizing she was American, he said, "Hey--your grazie is really good!"

Recently at my annual physical my doctor exhorted the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Italy is of course surrounded by the Mediterranean--it's a boot in an azure sea--and so while in Rome I mostly confined myself to the major Italian food groups: cappucino, bread, pasta, cheese, gelato, and wine. And it worked: I lost a pound. Of course I also walked on average more than 22,000 steps per day. The only day I didn't hit 20,000 steps was the day my daughter was busy all day and so my husband I went to Pompeii. I confess to having been a little disappointed. When I was a child I read all about the amazing treasures unearthed at Pompeii--the jewelry, the statues, the household goods, not to mention all those macabre plaster casts of people who died during the volcanic eruption. What I didn't realize was that for 200 years people dug out the treasures and took them home with them, willy-nilly, so that they are everywhere except in Pompeii, which is now a very large rock village with no roofs, baking in the hot hot sun.

I'm still glad I saw it. I'm gladder still I then read a book about the excavation. I learned a lot of history combining those two, and it will inform my Egypt book, which I'm going back to, right now.

Prego.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Puppies for Everyone

I wasn't going to write a blog post today. I'd used up most of this week's allotment of rage, and I have things to do. I'm going to go to yoga and ride before it hits 90 degrees and write my Egypt book. In a perfect world I'll finish the wildly horrible, very long book whose review I have to write by this weekend (the rest of my rage can go right there).

OK I DIGRESS...I am DONE with the nasty brutish male character who roughly grabs the female character and is yelling nasty things and then suddenly kisses her, and she tries to resist but he persists, and then she melts in his arms because ohmygosh it's so sexy, the masculine virility...this in a YA book, this is what we are teaching our teens. It's sexy when someone grabs you and kisses you against your will.

Not.

Let's rewrite it. The nasty brutish male character roughly grabs the female character while yelling nasty things, and she blasts him with pepper spray, knees him in the gonads, and says, "That was almost felony assault, you jackass, don't you ever come near me again," and he learns his lesson the way a feral dog would do if you blasted it with pepper spray.

Yeah, ok, still got plenty of rage. It's been a tough week.

However, I have a puppy on my lap.

She weighs 10 pounds now. She weighed four when we got her. We have fallen into this little routine. She can make it through the night without peeing now, so I don't line her crate with puppy pads, but when she needs to go out it's sometimes a little earlier than I could wish, but at the same time it's really not negotiable. This morning it was still darkish when I went out, a week past the solstice. I've always loved early mornings. Good thing.

She goes out, then comes in and eats, then immediately goes out again. We walk down the hill to get the newspaper--it's like a puppy car wash, all the lush wet grass. I towel her off, which makes her growl tiny puppy protests. Then she goes into the breakfast nook--I've gated it--I make my breakfast and sit and eat it and read the paper. Usually my husband's eating breakfast too, though sometimes he's up a little earlier or later, depending on his schedule.

Then I carry the gate to my office and blockade my writing nook. I'm nearly past having to do this. She's quit using the backside of the loom as a toilet and has learned that books are not chew toys. Yesterday afternoon she had free range of the whole messy office for a few hours and did well. But for mornings I barricade the nook. She trots up to my feet, sits down, and makes a few tiny puppy barks. She can bark with the best of them when properly motivated, but in this case she's just talking to me, saying that she's ready for me to pick her up.

I put her on my lap. She sprawls out and takes a nap.

Really. This is what we do. I start my morning off with a puppy sleeping on my lap, and it's a great way to start the day.