Thursday, April 2, 2020

Appalachian Literacy Initiative: Books In a Time of Coronavirus

Life gets stranger every day under the quarantine. I'm fortunate in many ways, the largest of which is that all of my family, near and close, is currently symptom-free. My sister in Wisconsin is expecting a baby in two weeks, and she's never far from my mind. My two children are back living at home. My son does his job remotely from a desk in our living room; he normally lives in Chicago. My daughter is completing her senior year of college online from her childhood bedroom; she's normally in Philadelphia. My husband's ophthalmic surgery center is closed; he and his partners are restricted to seeing emergency patients.

I'm writing, after a fashion. I've got books to review and research to complete.

Tuesday, I spent the entire day sorting, packing and shipping 22 boxes of books to teachers enrolled in ALI.

The schools are closed everywhere. Think about what that means for the low-income children we serve. Sixty-one percent of low-income kids don't have any age-appropriate books in their homes. Their school and classroom libraries aren't currently accessible to them. Public libraries, even if normally within reach, are closed. The rural areas we serve don't typically have bookstores, and if they did, they'd be closed too--and none of these families, in a time of financial uncertainty, are going to be buying books from Amazon.

There's distance learning, of course. They're trying to implement it in Bristol. A lot of the kids don't have wifi or devices to access the internet. That's true everywhere Appalachian Literacy Initiative serves. It's also true that for most of the kids we serve, two of their meals each day were provided by  their school. (In three of Bristol's elementary schools, over 98% of the students get free breakfast and lunch.)

Happily these students have amazing teachers who recognize the obstacles they face. As soon as the schools closed down, teachers and school systems started figuring out ways to get food to the children who depended on it. Then they tackled the problems of learning remotely. ALI is in five states this year, and the solutions each school has come up with vary. I spent a fair amount of time in the last few weeks contacting all the teachers enrolled in our program, figuring out ways to get the books to their kids. In some cases we're still working on it. In others, I sent books to the school, where they'll be given out with lunch. In still others I sent to the teachers at their homes--the teachers are making arrangements to deliver them.

Here's what some of the teachers had to say:

"I could make a Google survey so my kids could choose their books. I will call those who don't have internet. I don't have access to my classroom at this time... If you ship the books to me I will try to deliver them out to the kids." (Bulls Gap, TN)

"We are delivering student work by bus.  This will be a great surprise for them in their folders." (Elk Park, NC)

"Our school is providing breakfast and lunch 2 days per week.  I am seeing several though that.  We also have a bus we are taking food, books, packets, and school supplies to our families who don't have transportation to our school.  I could distribute the books in the third order to families pretty easily." (Fall Branch, TN)

"I can definitely get the books to my students, but you will have to ship them to my home address instead of our school." (Charleston, WV)

"This program has built so much enthusiasm and excitement for my students about reading. Thank you so much for providing such a wonderful thing for our class." (Limestone, TN)

I continue to be acutely aware of the trust the people who've donated to ALI put in me and in the program Tracy and I built. When I look at the boxes of books I see the work it took to create the money that bought them. I also see the good the books are doing in the lives of the children who receive them.

"Hey," one boy said to another, as they were walking out of one of our free-book fairs this year, "let's get together after school, and read."

They can't get together. But thanks to their teachers, and to all the supporters of ALI, they have books at home to read.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Horse who Loves Trick-or-Treat

It's kind of a glum day here. Cloudy and wet, and of course there's the coronavirus. Yesterday morning I spent with my vet (for the record, she's canceled all her routine care. Her farm is also 10 minutes from mine, which is super handy) pulling the third left-hand molar of our venerable Quarter horse, Pal. Pal's 33 years old, and no, horses don't normally live that long, but he looks remarkably good. In some ways old age has improved him--I used to describe his conformation as "a shoebox with legs" but now his spine has sunk a little and he actually has withers. Pal's teeth have aged remarkably well also, in that he still has all of them, and the sucker we needed to remove yesterday still had roots over an inch long. (Horses' teeth, like rabbits, descend as they age, and are worn down by their chewing.) Sarah, my vet (my mare is also named Sarah; yes, it causes confusion) had to work pretty hard to pull it out, but once it came we were rewarded by some really nasty gunk coming out with it--Pal had developed an infection beneath the tooth. There aren't too many veterinary procedures I'd put a 33-year-old horse though, but this one seemed reasonable.

My daughter was there helping. I said, "I should tell a Pal story on the blog." She said, "Which one? There are so many..."

Pal came to us when my daughter was 8, my son was 11, and Pal was 19. He never actually went up for sale, because I'd told his former owner, who was heading to college, that I'd buy him whenever she was ready to sell. My daughter was ready to do more than her small previously-foundered free-to-us pony was capable of. She rode Pal until she was 13; they competed a recognized event together when Pal was 24. He had started to get a little stiff by then, and Katie wanted to keep going. We loaned Pal to a friend for her young daughter to enjoy, and then, after a few more years, loaned him to another friend who used him to teach adult beginners how to ride. Three ago he came back to our farm. His jobs now are to eat grass and be happy. He has done all his jobs well.

Pal is not particularly athletic. He was never fast or nimble or beautiful.

He was good. He was patient and honest and kind.

On our watch he competed in pony club rallies in games, dressage, show jumping and eventing. He did pole bending and barrel racing and competitive trail. My daughter took him on mountain trails and to a high profile event camp, and other than once laying down with her in the water jump (it was such a hot day; the water was so nice and cold) his behavior was, at all times, exemplary.

One starter trials (a non-recognized event with small jumps) in North Carolina inexplicably ran up and down a very large hill. Rider after rider went up the hill and then rocketed down, out of control, gaining speed, missing jumps, falling off. No one was hurt but lots of people were panicking.

Then my daughter set out on Pal. He went up the hill, carefully jumping each jump. Then he came down the hill. My daughter, who had learned how to canter down steep hills, told him to keep moving, and he listened, but in the slowest, most deliberate canter on earth. He carefully jumped the jumps. He carefully came down the hill. By the end of the round everyone was beaming at him, and I could have sold him to anyone there.

But where Pal really excelled was in costume class. Our pony club ran a fun show each year near the end of October. Turns out, if you present Pal with a strange, possibly scary, piece of costume, and at the same time feed him a cookie, he will immediately grasp that the costume means COOKIES, and be all in.

The year my daughter was in fifth grade, she had to dress up as a saint for All Saints' Day, and chose Joan of Arc. I was also dragging her with me to a horse trial over Halloween weekend, and promised that she'd still be able to celebrate Halloween. We combined these with the pony club costume class and went all out.

At Wal-Mart I found a bolt of shiny metallic silver fabric for $2 a yard. I found a large plastic silver sword, a piece of foam board, and some glue. I cut the foam board into the shape of a shield and covered it with the fabric. Then I made my daughter a long tunic, a helmet cover, and some half-chaps, all in silver. I made Pal a silver blanket like medieval armor. I took an old fly mask and covered it with fabric (cutting out holes for his eyes) for a chaffron.

At home we gave the full costume a trial ride in the field, to make sure Pal really didn't mind being decked out in fluttery stuff that caught the sunlight. At the sight of him, our boarder, Syd, spooked wildly in the adjoining field, getting so upset that his pasturemate, my daughter's old pony, Shakespeare, came running. Shakespeare stared at Pal in all his finery, then rolled his eyes at Syd. "Duh," said Shakespeare, "Costume class," and went back to grazing.

My daughter and Pal won the costume class against stiff competition (it was always popular). Without her horse my daughter wore her part of the costume to the All Saints' Day Mass. In between was perhaps Pal's greatest triumph: Halloween.

This was before my daughter was eventing, even at starter trials, but I took Pal with us and my horse to the show. The fall Virginia Horse Trials is a huge affair--up to 400 people competing--and eventers occupy most of the barns at the Virginia Horse Center. My coach, Cathy, brought along her young son and his pony, too.

It happened that the day was packed and it was full dark before we could dress the children. We'd promised them trick-or-treating, knowing that horse people in general, and event riders in particular, are well-stocked with food. So off we went--Cathy and me and our two mounted and costumed children. (Cathy's son was a headless horseman.)

Since my daughter had her hands full with reins, the sword, and the shield, we'd tied her treat bucket around Pal's neck. We went into one of the barns. "Trick or treat!" my daughter and Cathy's son said to the first people they saw.

Much excitement! Adults thrilled at small children riding. Candy in the buckets. Carrots for the pony and for Pal. That went well. On to the next group of people. "Trick or treat!" Candy in the buckets. Carrots for the equines.

Well. Pal learned fast. This was perhaps the best night of his life. My daughter no longer needed her reins. Pal went from person to person, stopping square in front of them, nose out, ears perked. "Trick or treat!" Carrots! "Trick of treat!" Carrots!

There are eight barns at the horse park, around 200 stalls in each. We only let the children go to four of them before we made them put the horses away and packed them off to dinner at Waffle House. They had enough candy to make themselves sick. Ask us how we know.

Meanwhile, I am pretty sure that if I went up to Pal in the field right now and said "Trick or treat!" he'd poke his nose out hopefully, and smile.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Under Dog, Or, Why I was Never Mother of the Year

My son--who's now 25 and normally lives in Chicago, but who's home now because working from our farm where he can use the fitness equipment in the basement and has room to walk outside is marginally better than working from a one-room apartment in a city that's been entirely shut down, came into my office a few minutes ago to say good morning.

(I was actually watching this video that Colby Sharp put up this morning. Oh, my. And I swear I didn't pay him to say all that.)

Anyhow, my son asked what I was going to do, and I said--because my life is closer to normal than most people's now--I was going to write my book, and also probably write a blog post. I told him I'd enjoyed writing about Hazel. "So I thought I might write about Under Dog."

He grinned. "What story would you tell?"

I said, "Maybe how he loved riding in your car with you. He loved cars and he loved you, and being in your car was the best of all possible worlds."

My son said, "Remember how when I came home from college he'd curl himself up on whatever clothes I left on the couch?" (I do. I have a photograph of that--the last photo ever taken of Under Dog. He was very old at the time.)

I said, "Or how he used to curl up inside your big duffel bag?"

My son said, "He knew I was going to take my stuff back with me. He figured that way I'd take him, too."

But then I thought of the best story to tell.

Under Dog was a random small wire-haired terrier with oddly long legs and a Mohawk. We used to call him a CVS terrier, because we found him in the parking lot of a CVS, and it amused the snot out of us when people heard that, nodded sagely, and said, "Yes, of course, I've heard of that breed," or--even better--"So was he imported?"

He was never a smart dog, but he was sweet and loving and loyal. He tended toward anxiety and is the reason I still take my current dog out on a leash to do her business--because he would run down the hill and out onto the road and into traffic every chance he got. He was the first of several dogs I brought home and imposed upon my husband, when the children were just five and two years old. We named him Under, and taught the children to sing the Under Dog theme song even though they'd never seen the cartoon.

That first summer with him, he wasn't quite full grown. He wasn't particularly house trained, never having been asked to be before. It happened that I was under a strenuous deadline for a novel--I'm guessing it was Halfway to the Sky, because the timing would be about right, and because I had to write about a million versions of the ending before I came up with something decent--anyhow, it was summer. My son no longer napped, but my daughter did, right after lunch, and so I told my son that he would need to play by himself for one hour every day while his sister napped and I wrote.

We lived in a raised ranch, a peculiar house. My son's bedroom, the large family room, and a bathroom were all on the lower floor, the rest of the bedrooms, the kitchen, and two other rooms upstairs. The other rooms would have been a dining room and living room, except that we used them as a random play room and my office.

On the first day of summer, after lunch, I read to them both and put my daughter down in her crib. I took my son downstairs, showed him the time on his digital clock, and explained when he could come back upstairs. I said, "I don't want to see you unless you're bleeding or the house is on fire. Got it?" This now strikes me as a fairly horrible thing to say to a five-year-old, but I was feeling pretty fierce about my book and also about Being A Writer. For a long time, that seemed like something I had to fight for, instead of something I just was.

I sat down at my desk in the corner, opened up my manuscript, and heard a small noise behind me. I turned around. Across the room, in the open doorway, stood my small son, actually wringing his hands with anxiety.

I had been alone for two minutes. It was the first day of summer. I barked--and this is probably why I was never nominated for Mother of the Year--"Are you bleeding, or is the house on fire?"

And my poor boy said, "Under Dog just pooped on my train."

I took a deep breath and said, "That counts." We went downstairs together, where I discovered that my son had been in the process of building a very elaborate track with his wooden train set. And there, right exactly on top of a section of track, was a large steaming still-warm turd.

Under looked sorry. But then, he usually did.

When I reminded my now-grown son of the story, just now, he laughed. "It was amazing," my son said. "It wasn't train-adjacent. It wasn't something I could work around. He actually pooped right on top of my train set."

He was a grand dog. With excellent aim.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Cat Who Lived

Yesterday my daughter (home from college indefinitely thanks to the coronavirus) went out to fill the back water trough. She came back grinning. "Hazel's out here!" she said.

Hazel, oldest of our barn cats, hadn't been seen in a week. This didn't absolutely mean she was dead--she's disappeared for weeks before, most notably when she moved into Molly's barn down the hill--but honestly, eventually, and statistically speaking pretty soon, the cat is going to die, unless she really has traded her soul to the devil in exchange for immortality.

Which those of us who know her think is a strong possibility.

Hazel just may be the meanest cat in Sullivan County, Tennessee. She was born that way.

We moved horses into our brand-new barn on our brand-new farm in April, nearly eighteen years ago. Within a week the mice had followed, attracted by the grain the horses spilled out of their buckets. Within a month the mice were thumbing their noses at me as they pranced past. They were practicing line dances. They had no fear.

We desperately needed a cat.

Now, I have never since had trouble finding cats. Cats show up in my life, uninvited, and stay for years. The barn is currently home to five cats--besides Hazel we have Scout, who we found in a bush; Alex, dropped off at our neighbors' farm and rescued from being eaten by their dogs; Mouse, who arrived in a snowstorm and wouldn't leave; and Bucky, who came because my daughter begged her father for permission to get a kitten. She knew better than to ask me.

Anyhow, back in the day, eighteen years ago, I needed a cat. None of my friends with barns had spares (exceedingly unusual). One of the shelters didn't want their cats to live in barns, and I wasn't willing to lie about it. Another was out of cats. 

After a strange week or two in which I searched for a cat and couldn't find one, and the mice grew ever bolder and more numerous, my dog vet, Tige, called. He said, "I hear you need a cat. We found one outside the clinic."

I went right over, making the mistake of bringing my four-year-old cat-loving daughter. Tige came out to the waiting room cradling a teeny handful of calico floof.

"Tige," I said, "that is not a cat."

He smiled beatifically. Until then, I had not realized he also was a cat-lover. "Oh," he said, "it will be."

My daughter said, "She's beautiful!"

We took her home and named her Hazel. She loved the barn. She persecuted the mice.

She was mean.

My daughter, whom all other cats adore, spent years trying to tame Hazel. It never helped. When I took Hazel in for her kitten shots, she sank her tiny teeth into Tige's wrist, down to the gums. Eventually she'd bitten so many of the vet staff that her file was rimmed round with red tape, a warning. I'd bring her in, howling ferociously from the cat carrier, and the vet staff would take the carrier from me and go into a back room. They'd come out and hand the carrier to me. "She's all done!" they'd say. I never knew exactly what they did--vaccinate her through the holes in the sides?--but it got so that if I showed up at the barn with a cat carrier, Hazel would disappear for a week. After about ten years of struggle, I announced, "that cat has had all the vaccines it's going to get."

The vet's office said, "Good."

When Molly opened her riding school down the hill, Hazel went down and terrorized the children. They'd try to pet her and she'd attack. Eventually Molly put an open can of cat food onto the upside-down lid of a very large Tupperware box. When Hazel came to eat it, Molly slapped the rest of the box on top of her, and brought her back to me.

She hates the other cats. They hate her.

She's old now, thinner and frailer and if anything more beautiful. She's either gotten senile or more duplicitous, as she now comes up to people and rubs against them, purring, like a sweet friendly cat. Then, when they try to pet her, she scratches them.

When I put her photo up yesterday I loved the responses I got. My cat-loving friends who don't know Hazel were thrilled she was safe. Many commented on her sweet little face. Many expressed relief and imagined my anxiety.

Meanwhile, my friend Rosie, who has a barn, suggested aI run with the new hashtag, #notdeadyet. Caroline, who rides with me, said she was happy Hazel was still alive, but wasn't going to start liking her. And Lisa, who's known Hazel for as long as I have, took the last word:

"The meaner they are, the longer they live!"

This cat will be immortal.

Monday, March 16, 2020

About Recording My Books for Your Students

Phew, we're living in interesting times. I hope everyone is staying safe, staying away from each other, and washing your hands. I think we're going to be coping with this virus and its ramifications for far longer than any of us want.

I've gotten a bunch of requests from teachers asking permission to read all or part of one of my novels online to share with their students, who of course aren't in school. As far as I can tell a lot of my other writer friends are getting the same question. I thought it would be easiest to answer this in a blog.

First, you, the teachers, and especially your students, have all our sympathy and concern. As children's book authors we love to have you use our stories to engage your students, and for the most part we wholeheartedly encourage you to do that however you can.

However, please understand that I (I can't speak for all other authors here, but I assume most are the same) can't actually grant you this permission. In the case of my recent novels, audio rights are actually owned by Listening Library. (I own all rights now to my first novel, Ruthie's Gift, so go ahead and record that one if you can find it--but I don't own the audio rights to any of the others.)

Asking Listening Library for permission probably won't get you anywhere, as they're covered up with requests. And everyone understands that these are unique circumstances.

So: in general, it's okay to record a few chapters. It's mostly not okay to record the whole book. It's also okay to record for closed-circuit uses--if you've got a platform that only your students can access, that's much more permissible than sticking your recording anywhere the entire internet can find it.

My suggestion would be to record one chapter at a time on a closed system, then delete chapters so that you're not putting up more than a handful at a time.

I'm also happy to take questions from classes that are still trying to teach any of my books. I can't promise I'll answer everyone, but I'll do my best.  Thanks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Dear People who ask me questions on Goodreads:

I can't answer them. I don't know why not. Goodreads sends me the questions in emails, then, when I click on the box to answer the question, tells me that the author (me) doesn't exist. If I go into Goodreads to my author page, it asks me for my password, then tells me the password is incorrect. Even when it isn't. Even when I just changed it.

So--if you've got a question that needs an answer, as a recent poster seems to, please go through my website, www.kimberlybrubakerbradley.com. There's a link on the right hand side where you can send me an email. I can answer those.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Mea Culpa: The Dangers of A Single Story

One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately is the Danger of a Single Story If you click on that link, it'll take you to a tape of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's brilliant TED talk of the same title. Basically, it's this: if all you ever hear about a place is a single story, you'll think the single story is all there is. You'll miss the breadth and depth and realness.

This was on my mind a lot in India, because the Single Story we hear about India is that it's an exotic, hot country full of poor people who live in slums, many of them beggars, many of them dying. As I walked through India I was reminded of this because to some extent you see what you look for. So I did see people living in slums and on the streets in India. But I also know of homeless people in my hometown. I did see a few beggars in India--but not nearly as many as I've seen in San Francisco. Unlike some of my fellow travelers on that trip, I wasn't stunned that people with far less material goods than me could actually be happy. I tried hard to imagine, any time I was a white woman walking through a sea of brown people, what it would be like if I flipped the scene, and was a brown woman walking through a sea of whites.

Then I came home, all spiritual and woke, and did the exact same thing.

Yesterday I stopped at one of the schools where ALI gave out free books last month, to drop off another box of books. (We're awash with books right now. Most of them are in boxes in my mud room, which looks like I'm a hoarder about to be given my own television show.) The principal of the school spoke with me. She's very grateful we gave her students so many books. And she's dismayed, and rightfully so, about the photograph of her school library I put up on this blog a few weeks ago.

The photograph showed nine books, eight of which were older than me. Here are some things about that photograph that are true:
1) I took it in the school library;
2) I didn't stage it--I neither added nor removed books from the shelf.
3) I was appalled by it.

Here are some things that are also true:
1) It was the worst shelf in the library. I wasn't looking for a typical shelf, or a median shelf--I took and posted the very worst one.
2) It's possible (and I admit this didn't occur to me until the principal pointed it out) that part of the reason the shelf looks so awful and out-of-date is that all the modern books that would be shelved there (the principal said Harry Potter would be a prime example) were checked out.
3) This is the most important point: there is more to that school than that bookshelf.

I wanted to illustrate a point about how poverty affects our public school system. I started ALI in the first place because of the glaring discrepancies between the average performance of low-income students and the average performance of their more affluent classmates. (Richer kids are 2 1/2 times more likely to read proficiently than poorer ones.) I started ALI because the way we fund public schools through property taxes makes me crazy, since it means that our schools in poor neighborhoods have far fewer resources than those in rich ones. (If I could change anything about education, it would be this.) I give out books because I know that poorer kids by and large lack access to them, and that this lack of access is a driving factor in their lower reading levels, and, therefore, chances of later success.

But. Showing only one photograph taken at one point in time told one story about this school: poverty. And that isn't the only story.

Six years ago this particular school ranked in the bottom 10% of public schools in the state of Virginia. This year it was rated one of the top 73 public elementary schools in the entire country. Since there are over one thousand elementary schools in Virginia alone, that's quite an achievement. And, during those six years, the amount of funding the school got didn't change. The demographics of the student body (97% free lunch) didn't change. The staff and teachers poured a lot into that school, and did an awful lot of things right, and have made the students' futures immeasurably brighter. That's a more important part of this school's story than the books in the library.

Here's another thing I didn't realize until after I posted that blog and got some responses: people thought that the photograph could only have been taken in a very low-income school in Appalachia. That it was somehow a regional thing.

I wish that were true, because it would make the problem so much smaller. It's not. Those of you who wrote me from around the country--there are schools like this near you. Really there are. A quick glance at Niche.com--San Francisco, a school that's 73% free lunch, 37% reading proficiency. Chicago, near where my son works--82% free lunch, 32% reading proficiency. Tampa: 82% free lunch, 28% reading proficiency.

There are underfunded public schools everywhere. Most of them have almost no budget for new library books. Some of them have no trained librarians. It's a national disgrace, which is the point I was trying to make, albeit imperfectly.

To the students, teachers, and families of the school whose photo I posted: I apologize. I regret misrepresenting you, and I'll try hard not to do it, not only to you but to any school, again.

And also? Despite the hardships you've had to work with, you're reading at 72% proficiency. Y'all are kicking it. I'm glad to know you.