Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day! Let's Discuss Sexual Harrassment

Well, I spent last Sunday in a state of tension that melted into near-despair, from a situation I didn't anticipate. I'd been following some web reports of sexual harassment within the field of children's book publishing, and in the comments section of a School Library Journal people started naming their harassers. Who include some very big names in children's literature, one of whom, Matt de la Pena, I not only considered a friend, but vouched for to another author, who'd had bad experiences in the past. "He's one of the good guys," I said, based solely on my own experiences, which, according to several other women, were not the whole story, nor even close.

My friend--the woman in question--I'm so sorry.

Here's a good recap if you want to read further.

Publishing is like acting; it's very hard to break into the field, and lots of talented people want to. There's an innate power differential between bestselling authors and unpublished ones. This creates situations where power can be abused. It's incumbent upon all of us to be aware, to speak up, to believe accusers, and to distance ourselves from people who behave inappropriately.

One of the men accused, David Diaz, was a member of the board of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators when he was accused of inappropriate behavior several years ago. He was suspended from the board and underwent some sort of sexual harassment training. Then he was let back onto the board. That's the part I don't understand. We have so few people in an organization of over twelve thousand willing to serve on the board that we needed to put Diaz back on? Yeah. Didn't think so. (Subsequent to further issues, he's been removed not only from the board but from SCBWI.)

I'm a sexual assault survivor myself. I know to what extent harassment causes harm. I know how very much courage coming forward requires. I'm absolutely sick about all this. I'm grateful for the courage of those speaking up, because bringing this to light is the only way we can stop it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Again With The Pesky Newbery

It's that interesting time of the year. This morning I finished an essay I'm writing for The Horn Book. I sent an email to one of the publicists at Penguin Random House about it, and got back an auto-reply, "I am at ALA Midwinter." Then I wrote a book review, submitted it, and then, before sitting down to the Egypt book, draft 3.1, clicked on School Library Journal's website, where people are making Newbery predictions. Some, bless them, mention The War I Finally Won.

Last week I wrote a blog post about riding and writing and meeting my goals. One of my friends emailed me for clarification. What were my writing goals? And if I say I've met them, am I done?

Ah, no. Writing is part of my identity. It's who I am. I have so many stories left to tell. I wish it didn't take me quite so long to tell them, but that's how I am. I've learned that I prefer writing good books to bad ones. I can write bad books quite quickly--my record is  2 1/2 weeks--but good ones take me years. What I need to do now is make every book meet my goals.

Of course I want to win the Newbery on Monday. Every writer who had an eligible book published in 2017 wants to win. Every. Single. One. And Lord God, do I love TWIFW being part of the public discussion.

Winning the Newbery is not, and never has been, one of my goals.

Goals are something we have some control over. Not perfect control, of course--life isn't predictable, anything can happen, usually does--but awards are something I have no control of whatsoever. What I can control is the story I tell, the words I pick, the meaning I find. All my life I wanted to write stories that were hard and honest and true--and I think I've learned to do that, and I'm glad.

On Tuesday the middle-school boys' basketball team my husband coaches had a phenomenal win. They beat their cross-town rivals in an upset. I was delighted, not because the results of any middle-school basketball game anywhere are actually significant, but because I could see the growth in the team. They ran plays. They snapped passes. They boxed out. They threw the ball to the man on the corner knowing the man on the corner would be there, and he was. They held their ground. They dug in. I've watched these boys for three years, and I love their increasing skill.

At one point they were set up to receive an in-bound pass. One of the boys looked up at the bleachers and happened to catch my eye. He broke into a wide grin. Hey, Mrs. Bradley. Isn't this fun?

Yes. Yes, it is. I am so grateful to be playing this game.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Swimming Free

I'm home for a week. I've entered the home-for-a-week, gone-for-a-week phase of my year. I've got three weeks of school visits and an amazing trip to Israel on the schedule for later this spring, and next week I'll be back in Florida, where my horse Sarah and my other horse Gully and Gully's young rider Caroline all still are. We'll come home together.

I let myself off the hook. I'm proud of myself for that. My main coach Cathy was gone from Florida for a few days, so Caroline and I took lessons with our awesome friend Hannah Sue Burnett. On Sunday we went to a horse trial. Caroline was fantastic and wonderful Gully went around like a top, very happily; they got a ribbon in a class won by a member of the Canadian Olympic team (Selena O'Hanlon, a super nice woman and lovely rider).

Sarah and I had a credible dressage test--really just about our best in terms of her basic movement. I rode well in showjumping, and she jumped well--and then we decided not to run cross country. That's the short version but it'll suffice. Sarah was nervous; she worked herself into quite a temper tantrum at one point, and she's brilliant at temper tantrums. It wasn't directed at me or what I was asking of her, but it was reflective of her general discomfort with the whole situation. I've owned and ridden Sarah for six years; she hasn't competed at all for the last two, and, until we went to Florida, hadn't been off our home farm since my accident 14 months ago. We schooled in a couple of places last week, and that went well, but the truth is that we weren't ready to run cross country. Some days it's best to pat your horse and move on. Cathy's riding Sarah this week and will be able to expose her to a few more new things, and then I'll be back, and we'll go to a show, and maybe we'll attempt all the phases, and maybe we won't. Whichever, it will be okay.

Sunday, withdrawing from cross country in the rain, while my horse whinnied and jigged, was a terrific day. My lovely husband tried to console me afterward. I didn't need consoling. I had learned several things, all of them good.

One was that Sarah and I just weren't quite ready to compete. It wasn't a fear thing or a shame thing; we simply hadn't been able to prepare enough.
The second thing was that I could recognize that we weren't ready, and so withdrawing was the correct choice, easy to make.
The third thing--this took me awhile to understand, but it came as a sort of revelation--in some part of my brain I must have known we weren't prepared enough, and I think that it was that, not the head injury, not the accident, that was causing me to feel uneasy last week.

We hadn't competed in two years. We hadn't competed since just after The War That Saved My Life won the Newbery Honor. I went down to Florida in the immediate afterglow of that phone call, as planned (the trip, not the phone call!), and then my life started changing in ways I never anticipated. TWTSML was my sixteenth published book. It won awards in California, Nebraska, New York City. It hit #1 on the New York Times. I traveled a lot more; I spoke at conferences nationwide.

I love having this new platform. This year I wrote a proposal for NCTE about a topic very important to me, and marshalled some friends to join me, and not only was it accepted but it went really well--a whole lot of teachers and librarians listened hard to what we had to say. That was fantastic. I have something to say, and opportunity to say it. What a blessing; what a gift.

In other words, the head injury was part of my riding story, but not the whole of it. I don't think I'd truly grasped that until Sunday. I still entirely love riding. Sarah makes me laugh every day. Eventing brings me joy. I'll learn a lot next week but then I have a busy spring--I won't compete again until June at the very very earliest. Perhaps that won't be feasible. Perhaps I won't be able to compete again this year; perhaps my books will keep me busier and busier, and I won't compete again. Every option will be fine. That's what I learned on Sunday. That's a pretty good lesson right there.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fire and Fury and Why Word Choice Matters

Last week I checked the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff, out from the library.  I was curious about it but thought I probably didn't want to pay Wolff royalties, and turns out I was right.

I am not a fan of Donald Trump. I'm sure big parts of the book are true. But I'll never really know, because I stopped reading on p. 55, permanently, forever. I didn't mind the subject matter. I was terrifically annoyed by the writing.

Let me offer the following example. Here are some facts about a man.

1) He grew up attending Catholic schools in Richmond, Virginia.
2) He got a bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech.
3) He spent the next seven years of his life in the Navy, first on ship duty and later at the Pentagon.
4) He was a Naval lieutenant.
5) While still on active duty he obtained a master's degree from Georgetown.
6) After leaving the Navy he went to Harvard Business School and obtained his MBA.
7) He then spent four years working for Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, reaching a mid-level position there.

Now, I could write those facts in paragraph form like this:

After a childhood spent attending rigorous Catholic schools, he graduated from Virginia Tech, one of the best universities in his home state. He joined the navy as a lieutenant and spent seven years in service to his country. His performance on board ship earned the attention of his superiors, who transferred him to the Pentagon. There, while working full-time on active duty, he also earned a master's degree from prestigious Georgetown University. Honorably discharged at the end of his term of service, he continued to none other than Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA. He then worked four years as an investment banker at Golden Sachs, reaching a mid-level position in that short time.

Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Okay, here's another version. This is from Fire and Fury, page 55:

"Catholic school in Richmond, Virginia. Then a local college, Virginia Tech. Then seven years in the navel, a lieutenant on ship duty and then in the Pentagon. While on active duty, he got a master's degree at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, but then he washed out of his navel career. Then an MBA from Harvard Business School. Then four years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs--his final two years focusing on the media industry in Los Angeles--but not rising above a mid-level position."

Doesn't sound as good, does it?  Our man may be a bit of a wastrel--"local college," "washed out of his naval career," "not rising above a mid-level position." But in that first paragraph we have "in service to his country," "prestigious," "reaching a mid-level position within that short time."

These two paragraphs slant the same set of facts diametrically different ways. I wrote the first, not out of any personal conviction, but just to show the opposite point of view. The problem is that all of Fire and Fury is slanted. Every bit. And after awhile--because I'm a writer, because I know how to control slant and how easily some readers are affected by it--after awhile it made me really angry.

The guy in question, by the way, is Steve Bannon. I don't like Steve Bannon. I would be interested in reading more about him, but not in the way I quote above. It's dishonest to suggest that seven years in the Navy and degrees from VT, Georgetown, and Harvard represent failure. You could say, despite all that, and give us some other facts, or quotes people said about him, or something--but if you're trying to skew every single fact you find, I'm not going to read your book. And I'm really glad I didn't pay you royalties.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Letting Myself Off the Hook

I'm in Florida with my horse again.

A year ago I was 6 weeks into my recovery from a head injury. I was still sleeping 14 hours out of every 24, by necessity, not choice. I had figured out how to change the monitor on my computer at home so that I could stand to use it, and I was working two to three hours a day--pretty much all I could manage--on The War I Finally Won. I couldn't do my usual work at Faith in Action--having to switch windows repeatedly on the database and refer to handwritten forms was too much for the visual processing part of my brain, which, along with the arousal portion (see: sleeping 14 hours a day) took the biggest hit from my injury.

Before last year, I'd come to Florida to ride for a week or two for eight years running. I am friends with some professional event riders who spent the winter in Ocala, and I took my horse down and rode with them. It was always wonderful fun. I immersed myself in the rhythms of barn life, of making horses a major focus of each day. At home I ride several times a week but I don't have lessons, let alone at gorgeous facilities with proper dressage arenas and a wide assortment of cross-country jumps, let alone with tremendously talented women who understand me and my horse and my goals very well.

Then last December my horse pulled a shoe cantering across a mown hay field, and tripped. I went over her shoulder--an easy, straight-forward fall with difficult and complicated consequences. I was wearing a new, properly-fitted, high-quality helmet. But I'd hit my head several times over the years, and my brain was over it.

I want to live a long life with my brain working well to the very end. I really don't want dementia. I want to be able to travel with my husband to all the places we still haven't seen--it's a huge list. I have so many stories left to write. I would rather lose large parts of my physical capabilities than lose the ability to write.

I'm aware it isn't all up to me. I don't have control over large portions of my life. But it's up to me whether or not I ride again, whether or not I jump, whether or not I compete. My sport, eventing, has a high rate of injury. I tend to minimize that, but I can't deny it. It's true that the worst falls tend to happen at upper levels I never dreamed of reaching--but it's also true that I fell last time cantering my horse on grass.

Obeying the protocol suggested by my sport's governing body--the fact that my sport has a detailed protocol accounting for frequency of head injuries and their severity should tell you something--I didn't ride for six months. My mare pouted. I couldn't explain. While I was still sleeping 14 hours a day I didn't miss riding, except in the abstract--barn chores were enough of an effort--but by about month three I ached to be back on my horse. I love riding. I love my sassy, quirky, emotional mare.

I did my homework. I took a two-day clinic on how to fall off safely. I bought a new very good helmet. I gave myself time to heal. I resigned from the hunt I rode with. I gave up the goal I'd always had of reaching the Preliminary level in eventing (despite the name, it's the fourth of six recognized levels, with the sixth being Olympic caliber). I decided that from now on, I'd stay at the lower two levels, where the jumps are smaller and the speeds slower.

One of my first times back in the saddle I galloped on a beach in Normandy with my daughter. The sand was firm and flat and went on for miles. It was glorious.

I was out of shape (no flow yoga for six months, either) and at home I started out slowly, hacking my fat mare. I paid a lot of attention to proper body position and correct movement, and our flatwork started to come together. It's better now than it ever was. Eventually I started jumping the small jumps in my fields. It was fun--but I also felt a little anxious.

There's good-anxious and bad-anxious, a kind you should pay attention to and a kind you should overcome. I wasn't sure which this was. I'm still not. I had to skip my trip to Florida last year and I was eager to go back this year--but what were my eventing goals, now that Preliminary was off the table? For a decade I've worked to make myself a better rider. Was I going to be happy striving for the title Queen of 2'6"?

It was an interesting dilemma from an intellectual standpoint. Why do we pursue what we do? Would I still write every day if I knew I would never reach my goals? (We'll never know, as I've mostly reached them.) Riding was something I loved, but it was never my vocation; I never yearned to be a professional or had remotely the discipline to reach the top. (Unlike writing.)

I filled out entry forms for two competitions down here in Florida, both at Beginner Novice, the lowest level. My husband said, "Please don't do this if you feel afraid." I spent a lot of January thinking about this, riding my horse on my farm in ugly weather.

Really, I thought too much. Overthinking is one of my character flaws. I started explaining how I felt to my daughter, at length, and eventually she interrupted me. "Mama," she said gently, "let yourself off the hook."

So I did. I came down here. I said to my coach and long-time good friend, "I'm not afraid on the flat, but over fences I'm a little afraid." That's all I said. She heard me. Yesterday, my first lesson in well over a year, she started me over a line of cavaletti and poles on the ground, and then eventually they were jumps at beginner novice height. I had a lovely time. Every so often my coach would yell, "Breathe!" and I would--I'm back to yoga now, I breathe like a champ when I remember to do it--and everything smoothed and softened.

It was a very easy lesson compared to what I've done in the past.

It was exactly what I needed.

I don't know yet what the answer is going to be. I don't know what new goals I'll come up with, or if I need goals to be happy, or if I want to keep competing or keep jumping at all. I'll find out, slowly. Meanwhile I woke early this morning, pulled on pants and boots and went out to bring my mare in from the field. Above the live oaks dripping Spanish moss the full moon shown in the lightening sky. My horse sighed and touched my shoulder, lightly, with her nose. We're glad to be here. I've let myself off the hook.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I Need Your Opinions for Books Move Mountains

Those of you (both of you--and thanks!) who regularly read this blog know that I've become passionate about getting books into low-income children's hands.

Nationwide, if we look at fourth-grade reading tests results--this is 2016 data from the US Department of Education--and divide children only by whether or not they receive free or reduced-price school lunch,
--of those who get free lunch (the poorer kids) 21% read at proficient level
--of those who don't get free lunch (the richer kids) 54% read at proficient level.

That's right. Nationwide.

So. It's obviously a complicated problem, but I've been throwing books at it, in a couple of local afterschool programs and a very low-income local elementary school, and that's great at all--it'll be awhile of course before we know if it makes any difference at all--but I've been working on forming a real charity, a 501(c3) organization. I have a great friend who's all in, and we had a meeting in December to start to figure things out. We're meeting again today. I haven't done a thing I thought I would do in the meantime, including asking people to be on my board of directors, and it's not actually because I'm a lazy sod. I was trying to figure out what exactly we should be doing.

I love these libraries that we're putting into place, but what I'd really like is for kids to have choices about what they read--studies show that's a strong predictor of reading success--which is the whole point, I don't really care if they ever read Great Expectations, I care if they can read proficiently enough that they can learn chemistry and history and auto mechanics and whatever else intrigues them. I think I'd like kids to be able to keep the books they choose. If you know anything about Appalachia, about all these small mountain towns, you know there aren't many libraries, let alone bookstores. The schools are often poorer than you'd think possible.

I remember as a kid loving the Scholastic book flyers. My mom would always encourage me to pick out books, and it was terrifically exciting to have those books arrive. But if your parents can't pay rent, they can't give you money to buy Scholastic books. You can say all you want that it's not much money--it's not, if you're middle-class. When you're one car breakdown away from homelessness it's harder.

And then kids grow up thinking books are something they can't have. Books are for rich people.

So.

Here's my idea. I want to start something like a Scholastic Book Flyer where the books are free. The kids in low-income Appalachian schools get to pick out a book from the flyer, any one they like. The teacher sends the order in to my organization, and we send out a box of spanking new books.

I'm posting this because I NEED YOUR OPINIONS. You're teachers, librarians, writers, educators. Help me out here--what am I thinking about incorrectly? What else do I need to consider? I really want to do something of value here, and I need any and all of your thoughts.

Thanks so much. It's important.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What I'm Up Against

First of all, thank you very much for the love and support regarding my dog's death. I knew it was coming and had time to prepare, but it's still hard, and the house is very quiet; your sympathy means a lot to me.

We're having a snow day in Bristol, since there is actual snow on the ground. This is the south. It makes more sense to us to occasionally shut down all schools and half the businesses than to invest a whole ton of money in snow removal equipment that we would use once every other year. Or so we tell ourselves. Sometimes I think most communities just calibrate themselves so that, whatever their typical weather is, they get a snow day once in awhile.

My sister in Wisconsin woke to a foot of snow and her kids didn't even have a delay. That may be the only reason to avoid Wisconsin--I love cheese and their summers are lovely--but it's a big one.

Anyway, it's a full-on snow day, with both my yoga class and Bristol Faith in Action closed. I got up early with my husband (it's one of his surgery days) so I could write before yoga and BFIA, and now it's 9:30 and I've pretty much written myself out for the day. Which is fine--I have lots of work to do.
The other day I was excited to receive a book I had to search for--it's called The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun, it's published by the American University of Cairo, and it's all about Qurna, the village near the Valley of the Kings.

On Monday, full of grief, I found it impossible to read this book. Yesterday I made some headway, but not much, and here's why. A sample quote:

"Rather than infer certain economic practices inside the Theban Necropolis from ethnically situated psychological characteristics, here we seek to describe Qurnawi behavior in non-racially conceived terms, instead looking at their relationship with the surrounding archaeological landscape as a formative element in the specific characteristics of Qurnawi agency and action."

In other words, we're not going to assume that all the people who live in Qurna are tomb-robbers, just because they're probably descended from Bedouins.  They lived near all these tombs and sometimes found stuff, and they were poor, can you blame them if they sold grave goods?

Really. Taken in context, that's what they mean.

The book is 499 pages long.