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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Other Term for 'Politically Correct' is 'Correct'

Kay. I woke up fierce this morning, astonished and appalled by how some people waste their precious limited time.

I'm serious. Sunday was my birthday and Monday was the funeral of someone I loved. I woke up in the middle of last night when my husband made a sudden noise and my heart flooded with gratitude--here I am, beside the man I've loved for thirty-five years.

It's been a hard spring for many people I care about. I can feel my perspectives shifting.

All over the internet, people who never heard of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement Award before this weekend are raising a big unholy fuss over thae changing of its name, acting as though this is just another step in a slippery slope that leads to--I don't know, what? Equality? Justice? Loving thy neighbor?

Folks, we're not saying that it's possible that the racist depictions in the Little House books might possibly someday be harmful to some kids. We're saying they are harmful to some kids. We're saying we know they have caused harm. And that therefore, a woman who died 61 years ago no longer gets to have this award named after her. She won it, its inaugural year. No one is taking that honor away from her.

But seriously, all the things to get upset about in this world, you're gonna pick that?

I'm not.

People are still dying from hunger in this world. People are dying from lack of medical care. People are dying from loneliness and mental illness and social injustice and sometimes they're dying for no reason at all, and I'm picking my battles carefully from here out.

When I was doing school visits this year, for the first time, a student asked me directly in a large group presentation, "Is Susan gay?"

When I said, "Yes," the room applauded. The entire room. It was clear to me that the students had talked about it beforehand and cared about my answer.

For the record, I was in a small conservative midwestern town. After my presentation, a girl came up to me, beaming, to thank me for Susan. Here's the thing: it wasn't because she was gay (she may or may not have been; she didn't say). It was because her parents were gay, and they were good parents, and it was important to her to see her family's reality reflected in books.

In my book The War I Finally Won, Susan, the loving adoptive gay parent, makes Ada write, one hundred times, "I will not continue to conflate lack of knowledge with lack of intelligence."

Here are my lines:
I will not revere the past at the expense of the present.
I will not equate skin color, religious belief, country of origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity with morality, virtue, intelligence or worth.
The mountain I die on will be worth the price.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

We Don't Hate Laura Ingalls Wilder But I'm Glad We Dropped Her Name

On Saturday, the Association of Library Services for Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, voted unanimously to rename their lifetime achievement award. It will now be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award instead of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.

Laura Ingalls Wilder included racist passages in her books. You can argue all you like about whether this makes her a racist--though, if you read all her other writings, and the biographies written about her, it seems that she was--but you can't argue that having Ma say, repeatedly, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," is not racist. And before you get up telling me that Laura was only writing down what her Ma actually said, hogwash. Laura decided what words to write and what stories to include. Her books were loosely autobiographical but not entirely.

The nine books were published from 1932 to 1953. They were at their peak of popularity during my childhood in the 1970s, around the time of the even-more-loosely-autobiographical, hugely schmaltzy TV show. I adored the books. I adored the series. I dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween.

The first time I read Gone With the Wind, when I was 18, I was captivated. (Yes, this post feels digressive. Stick with me). The sweeping story, the vivid characters, the fantastic historical backdrop--amazing. A few years later, when I was still in college, I picked it up to read it again. And I was horrified. I had learned to be a writer, had learned to examine carefully the choices writers made.

The same thing happened with the Little House on the Prairie books. When I read them to my children, I found myself editing many of the passages. I found myself unable to say, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." I thought of my college friend Jen, a Sioux (she's now principal of a reservation school). I couldn't really edit the passages where Pa dresses as a "darky" and performs in a minstrel show. I told my children why it wasn't considered okay to do that now, but I couldn't really explain to them why it was considered okay then.

I remember loving the Little House books, but the farther away I get from my childhood, the less I admire them. I'm grateful that ALSC changed the name of their award. I don't think that the highest possible honor in children's literature--the only thing that trumps the Newbery, the Prinz, the Caldecott--should be named after a woman whose words are offensive. There's a big internet kerfluffle from people who have only read the headlines. No one is banning the Little House books. No one is rewriting them.

If you're really upset about the name change, do this first: read the books again. All of them. Then get back to me.

We've renamed an award so that it reflects our current awareness of who our kid-lit audience actually is. Halleluia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Actual Job

So I'm reading this enormous deadly research book.
On Saturday my husband and I were up at Linville, driving home from a morning visit to the farmer's market, talking to our son through the speakerphone in our car. (Bluetooth, whatever. I don't know how it works.) I moaned about the book.

My son said, "Isn't that your actual job?"

I said, "Yes. Yes, it is. This afternoon I will be hard at work on my actual job while your father goes off and plays golf."

My husband said, "She'll be hard at work for twenty-two and a half minutes. Then she'll curl up with the puppy and they'll both fall asleep."

I said, "Twenty-two minutes of very hard work!" but no one believed me.

The puppy is on my lap now. She's come to believe this is part of our morning program. I sit at the computer, doing my actual job, and she sits on my lap, doing hers. Which, for the record, is licking my feet.

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Rant About Privilege

I saw a political ad yesterday that really annoyed me.

OK, yeah, all political ads annoy me. All politics annoy me, more or less, and as I've said multiple multiple times I have no political home. I hate all the parties. I would call myself an Independent, but that seems to put me in the same group with Gary Johnson, who looks pretty in a well-made suit but could not name a single current foreign leader.

Still, this one was amazingly bad. It was pretty much the definition of Privilege used to claim that someone was not privileged. It's someone running for Governor of Tennessee. I didn't catch his name, but I'll look for it next time so I remember not to vote for him.

Starts out, "When I was eight years old, I went to work in a factory my father owned for one dollar an hour."

Let's unpack that.

By the time he was eight years old, his father owned a factory.

As the owner of the factory, his father felt able to flaunt child-labor laws and nominally "hire" his son. (Since 1916, no one under age 14 is allowed to work in any kind of non-agricultural job.) At 8 years old, the boy wasn't really working, or he was being put in harm's way. You'd better bet the other factory workers, who weren't the boss's son, were having to keep an eye on him. Joy.

One dollar an hour was minimum wage from 1952-1960, which is when I'm guessing this was. It was on par with what teenage workers would get.

Next sentence is something like, "I paid for college by operating an injection machine." (Photograph of factory floor.)


He went to college. So, beginning work at age 8 didn't disrupt his education, which means it was after school or in summertime.

Someone paid him enough while he was in high school, working at most nights/summers, that it covered his college tuition bill. So, probably not talking minimum wage.

Look, my husband went to work when he was young, first mowing the grass at the business his dad and grandpa owned, then working in the eyeglass lab as a teen. It was a skilled job and he worked hard; he didn't fool around, he put in the hours. But everyone else in the lab was a full-time long-term employee. The only reason there was room for him in the summertime is because he was the boss's son. It doesn't mean he didn't work. It means getting the job in the first place was for him a function of privilege.

Imagine some poor ill-dressed black teenager showing up at that factory, wanting to work part-time for enough money to pay his tuition. Not as likely he'd be hired, is it?

Then there was more blathering, followed by some kind of dreck about people who don't know how to work and live off welfare.

I know there are people in this country who don't know how to work, or, if they do know, don't care to exercise that knowledge. I know some people scam disability or anything else they can. I work in social justice a couple of hours a week and I am neither naive or stupid.

However. "Welfare" has not existed in this country for twenty years now. What we have are federal housing assistance, food assistance, Medicare, disability payments, and that's about it. There's something called Temporary Aid To Needy Families (TANF) which is a cash payment like the old type of welfare checks. A person is limited to five years lifetime or two years in a row, and I've never seen a monthly benefit of over 250 dollars.

Sometime soon I'll post another blog about starting from the bottom. What offended the hell out of me regarding that ad is that the man running seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that much of his life turned out so well because he started at the top.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Whose Idea Was This Puppy?

I haven't been writing much in the past few weeks, and it's making me insane. I get really cranky if I don't write on a regular basis--the months I suffered from major depression and couldn't write were incredibly scary for me on that basis alone. What if I could never write again?

Today my mental health is quite good, except for the transient crabbiness. I spent last week making new good friends with a couple we were hosting from Scotland. (Yes, we spent a complete week hosting total strangers, in our home, and it was a blast. It's not the first time we've done something like that. It's always ended well.) We were up in our mountain house, and just before the Sinclairs arrived I got a long editorial letter from my editor about my Egypt book, which was perfect--if you can, you need to let editorial letters marinate a few days. I mulled. I didn't write.

The editorial letter was comprehensive and fair. My husband, who had been very happy for me when I finished the draft and joyfully declared that it was a Book, was a little flabbergasted by the amount of work still left to do. There's a whole part of the setting that hasn't been adequately addressed, a few characters that drop out halfway through the book, some motivational issues--a lot of work. My husband said, "Are you okay?" and I said, "Oh, honey, I already knew most of that." The thing is, you can't--or at least, I can't--work on problems in a novel until you have a novel. Spend too much time perfecting the first chapter and you'll never get to the second chapter, much less the end.

Two things prevent me from diving headlong into the morass. One is that I now absolutely need to finish the 486-page 400-pound reference book I've been avoiding because it was written by someone who loves jargon and actively resents clarity. Yesterday I made it through 6 pages in 20 minutes before I fell asleep.

480 pages to go. It'll take me til Christmas.

The second thing is my darling puppy. She is a barrel of fun. She is fluffy and cute and opinionated and I love having a dog in the house again, but man, this morning she is wearing me out. Last night I went to sleep composing a blog post in my head (because even writing this blog post is much better than not writing at all) about the incredible beauty of my friend's little daughter frolicking with the puppy on our lawn. This morning I woke to the discovery that the puppy has been using a secluded spot under my floor loom as her own personal loo, and perhaps toilet-training hasn't been going as well as I thought.

I took her out, then put her in her crate while I cleaned up the mess and got dressed. And made coffee. She began to bark maniacally. I took her out. She grabbed the middle of her leash with her teeth and attempted to lead me. It's cute when it's not your puppy doing it. I put her back in. She barked. I took her back out. She shot me insolent looks, and lay down. I took her inside and put her in the puppy playpen. She pooped. Instantly. I grabbed her and took her out for the final dribbles.

Into the crate. Clean up the floor. Attempt to eat breakfast. Puppy throws tantrum in the crate. I don't care. I ignore her. She barks. I take her out. She tries to lead me.

I put her in my lap. She snuggles for a few paragraphs (the first two, above) then tries to bite my hands as I type. I put her back in the puppy playpen, now moved to my office, with a nice fresh chew bone. She barks maniacally. I ignore her--it's more puppy tantruming. Finally she goes quiet, and I turn to give her some attention now that she's not barking. She's just peed an enormous pee all over the wood floor and is sitting in it. Her expression says clearly, "I told you I needed to go out."

It's not even 9 am and we need a do-over around here. Happily I'm off for a walk at the weir dam, with my friend and her large dog. I'll take the puppy, and she can walk and walk and frolic and poop, and after that she'll be knackered, and I'll sit down with that damn reference book and more coffee so I can stay awake and learn everything I need to know. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Other Opportunities

I'm hanging out at my house in the mountains this week.

We bought this place 11 years ago. It's pretty high up one of the western North Carolina mountains, high enough that there usually aren't mosquitoes, and it's usually about 10 degrees cooler than it is in Bristol, only a 75-minute drive away. (It's about 20 degrees cooler than Charlotte, on average, which is why this community exists in the first place. It's been a resort area since well before the advent of air conditioning.) My allergies aren't as bad up here and between that and the coolness we leave windows open, which I never ever ever do at home. I love it.

The last few years we've not been able to spend nearly as much time here as we wanted. Some of that was just life and some of it was over-scheduling. We're working on changing what we can; yesterday evening, as we enjoyed a glass of wine on our back porch, surrounded by trees, a puppy sleeping in my lap, my husband said, "I want to be here more and I want to travel more. I'll just have to work less."

Meanwhile there are still some very hard things happening here. Still not my story, so I won't say more, but it feels dishonest to write an everything's-lovely post. Some things are lovely. Some things will always be lovely. Other things will always be devastating. Nothing can change that. Not ever.

Meanwhile my editor is supposed to call me TODAY to discuss the current iteration of what I'm still calling The Egypt Book (eventually it will have a title). I woke up thinking about the call, and the joy of knowing What Comes Next (answer: lots of work.). When Jess tells me she hopes to call me today, I think she means that she'll probably wake me up with her phone call because she was so eager to discuss my budding genius that she kissed her babies good-bye at 5 am and took the first subway into Manhattan so we could chat before anyone else in the building arrived. She means she'll try to get to the call today but it'll probably happen tomorrow, or Thursday, because I am not her only author and any book that won't be published by Fall 2019 at the earliest is way down on her priority chart than stuff that has to happen before lunch. Also while she loves me she's not getting up early for me.

Meanwhile a book I didn't anticipate as my next book is shoving itself to the forefront of my mind. I always have a mental queue of things I might write next. I would have said I had three or four other books in front of this one. But no. The storyline is spinning out, the characters are taking shape, even though I've not even remotely begun the research.

I did bring four or five books on the topic with me this week. I won't read them all--we'll have company all week, starting tonight, and we have lots of activities planned--but I'll make a dent. And then, as soon as I hear from Jess (in the next half hour, I hope) I'll be back in Egypt, with Howard Carter, King Tut, and Hussein.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

So I was Really Sick

We've had the puppy for two weeks now--her name is Cava--and I spent one of those weeks really sick. For some reason I was entirely in denial about how sick I was. I'm still not sure why.

It was food poisoning--campylobacter, as it turns out--which has an incubation of 3 to 7 days, so hard to say exactly where it came from. I started feeling bad Saturday night--eleven days ago--when, just after I went to bed, I came down with the worst chills of my life. Pretty soon I was huddled under five blankets, wearing a wool sweater and socks over my pajamas, shivering so hard my shoulder muscles ached afterward. That lasted a few hours. Then I spiked a fever that had me on top of all the blankets, wearing only a t-shirt, drenched in sweat.

My husband plied me with Tylenol, Advil, and Imodium--I needed that, too--and my symptoms abated for a few hours, only to return every time the meds started wearing off. I spent all Sunday asleep in my bed, alternating between chills and fever.

Monday I moved to the couch, which somehow seemed like improvement enough that I flat-out refused to go to the doctor. Even now I can't really say why. I didn't want to, and I didn't go. I should add that my husband is actually a doctor, and that he was saying, emphatically and often, that I needed to go to my own doctor. And I wouldn't do it. I didn't want to be sick.

Which as we all know has nothing to do with anything.

So. I had another really difficult night Monday night--three in a row, for those who are counting--and I woke up realizing that I really did need to go to the doctor. I'd eaten very little the day before and my gut was starting to feel heavy, turgid. I was wildly thirsty. I went downstairs and took a slug of Sprite and pain shot through my abdomen. Yikes.

So then I ended up in the emergency room, with my lovely patient husband trying not to grind his teeth over how annoying I'd been. Fortunately my daughter is home for a few weeks and she stepped in also--between the two of them they kept me company and helped me get proper care and took care of the horses and the new puppy. They were superstars.

I was not, even then. My husband left the ER for a few hours to see some urgent patients of his own and clear the rest of his schedule. When he returned, I told him hotly that some woman from "respiratory" had come in and told me they were scheduling me for breathing treatments, and that I'd told her it was all hogwash, I would just take my asthma inhalers the way I usually did.

My husband said, "Could you please start being a patient and quit being a pain in the ass?"

I have a feeling that as a doctor he's waited a very long time to say those words to somebody.

Anyhow I complained that I didn't need "Respiratory" and he said, "Your sat is 93," and I said, "WHAT?" because I know full well my blood oxygen saturation is supposed to be above 95, always. I said, "why is my sat 93?" and he said, "Because. You. Are. Sick." and I said that if the Respiratory woman had told me my sat was 93 I wouldn't have brushed her off. (It didn't matter. She came back and gave me a treatment as though I'd never tried to refuse it; I got them twice a day the whole time I was in the hospital, and my sat went back up.)

Anyway I ended up admitted to the hospital and I stayed there until Friday. We had to cancel a family golf trip, to our dismay. (I don't golf, but I love the place where we were going.) My son was able to come home instead of meet us at the golf place, so that was good. I had big bruises all over my arms from all the IVs and blood draws. I took naps all weekend and eased back into eating.

Yesterday my daughter was cleared to ride her horse again, after the knee surgery she had 10 weeks ago. We went out together on a long walk hack, through the wet high grass redolent  with the heavy smell of honeysuckle. It was fantastic.

I really am better now. I really was sick.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Puppies and Writing as a Real Job

I'm writing this with a sleeping puppy in my lap.

For real. Her name is Cava. She's a 10-week-old cavoodle, which is a cross between a miniature poodle and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. She finds our house a little overwhelming, what with all the smells and textures and sounds (she's very sensitive to loud noises, dislikes my sneezing) but already seems willing and able to find comfort in my husband and me.

It feels so good to have a dog in the house again. I like this one in particular very much.

Yesterday I got an email from a school who'd expressed interest in an author visit. I'd written back with my parameters, including price. Now, I charge a lot for author visits. My novel The War That Saved My Life hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list, won a Newbery Honor, and has won eight state reader's choice awards so far. In other words, it's a critical success that appeals to children (those things don't always go hand-in-hand). I'm also good at presentations. I've done them for 20 years. And in the past two years I've had many more requests than I can accept. The amount I charge for school visits reflects all of that.

The school wrote back, asking if I'd accept 13% of the fee I'd quoted them.

I wanted to ask--I didn't, but I wanted to--Would you have asked a male author to reduce his fee that much? My gut feeling says no.

Writers in general don't talk about money as much as I think they should. Recently, in an effort to increase transparency, author Michelle Cusolito conducted a survey about author visits and pay. You can find the results here. I participated in the survey. What was most striking to me was the gender gap--that despite the fact that women outnumber men in children's publishing, men get more school visits, higher pay, and more book tours (that's when a publisher antes up the money to send you out for publicity) than female authors.

There's still something about being a female author of children's books that encourages people not to take you seriously as a professional. I'm counteracting that by taking myself seriously, as a professional. I don't devalue myself.

P.S. Just as I finished writing that, Cava woke up and started to whimper. I took her outside and told her to go potty. She did. In the GRASS. SCORE.

Friday, May 4, 2018

What a Wonderful Year

I type this sitting at a table inside the Atlanta airport, on my iPad, alongside a glass of white wine. Through a strange set of circumstances (a school visit schedule that ended at one, the instant availability of an Uber driver in Warrenton, VA, an extremely accommodating Delta airlines employee, and decent luck with the hellacious Dulles security line) I got ontology flight leaving at 3pm rather than 5:30 and am therefore scheduled to land at my Home airport at 8:15 instead of 11:30. I am grateful. I had a great day and an excellent week, but I am very glad to be headed home.

Today was my final school visit of the 2017-2018 academic year.  Between the book tour arranged by my publisher and events I arranged privately, I visited 39 schools this academic year. I gave presentations at 3 public libraries and many, many bookstores. I spoke at 5 major conferences. I have been gone nearly as much as I’ve been at home.

I have learned to pack for a week of presentations with only a carry-on bag. I have learned to adapt any presentation at any moment, including on a Friday afternoon when your “maximum 300” middle-school audience turns out to be 600 students seated on rickety enormous bleachers in a gym, whose windows can not be covered so no one can see the presentation slides (the microphone won’t work either). I’ve learned to stock less-than-3 oz sizes of all my favorite toiletries and also to check all small white tubes carefully, as the only thing worse than brushing your teeth with Benadryl is brushing them with Monostat.

I’ve learned to always set two alarms.

I’ve learned to hang onto the little cardboard envelope they stick your hotel key into, because it has your room number written on it, and after six hotels in six days you won’t clearly remember what city you’re in, much less what room number.

I’ve met hundreds of excellent educators and thousands of wonderful students. I love the people I write stories for. I think of the child who told me, forthrightly, that she was in foster care, so she understood how Ada felt. I think of the boy staring at me this morning, concentrating so hard my entire presentation, asking a very thoughtful question, and how afterward his teacher said she’d never seen him engaged before. I think of the children who draw pictures of ponies and who hoped Mam would get bombed and who loved Ada every bit as much as I do. I think of the eighth-grader in a small conservative town, who got up the courage to ask flat out, “Is Susan gay?” I think of his classmates, who cheered when I answered, “Yes.”

I think of the students from that group who came up to me after my presentation to thank me for writing about a loving gay parental figure, because they had loving gay parents. I think of the little girl who stood up and said into a microphone, “I have dyslexia. Are you saying I could really be a writer?” And I think of the way her face lit with joy when I answered, “of course you can, if you have a story to tell.”

I think of the unknown child who drew a sign on a piece of lined notebook paper, ripped it out, and taped it on the wall of his or her school library, right next to the place where I’d stand. “Kimberly Brubaker Bradley,” it read, “welcome home.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

shop Dogs and Someone Else’s Story

Yesterday I left home weighted down by a story not my own. I’m on my final week of school visits for the year, and while I love talking to students this particular week is hard on me, mostly because of things that are not my story to tell but make me feel I should be at home.

I flew to Nashville and went to Parnassus Books, which is honestly one of the places other than my home that I feel most at home in the world. It’s a fantastic bookstore, exemplary in nearly every way, but it’s also the first bookstore where I can just barge into the back office and be greeted with, “Yay! You’re back!” My husband didn’t quite understand why I went straight to the bookstore from the airport yesterday, instead of checking into my hotel or shopping or something. But I needed to discuss that evening’s presentation, with excellent authors and friends Linda Williams Jackson and Andrew Maraniss. I need to scout the ARCs. (Snagged a copy of Naomi Novik’s latest!) I needed to look at all the books. I needed to discuss the partnership between Parnassus and the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. And, most crucially for my mood yesterday, I needed to commune with the shop dogs.

I’ve been without a dog since January. It’s been difficult; one of the negative side effects to over-packing my spring schedule (though not the only one) is that there has not been a good time to get a new dog. In fairness to said hypothetical dog, I would need to be in its life for more than five days without leaving for a week. .But the Shop Dogs of Parnassus are always good for a cuddle.

Sadly, that was all I got. The dogs on duty were Frankie and Bear. Frankie is lovely, polite, understands her role as a shop dog and graciously permits me to cuddle her all I wish. But it doesn’t
move her. She has people, and I’m not one of them.

Bear is elderly and stiff. He patrols the shop with dignity. One does not take liberties with Bear. He would permit it, but one would sense the imposition.

I’d really been hoping for Lewis, the hyper enthusiastic floof who’s perfected giving complete strangers full body hugs. Or Mary Todd Lincoln, the long-haired dachshund with dignity to match her name, with whom I have an affectionate long-standing relationship. Or Sparky. Sparky just seems to really like me.

At any rate, I had a lovely evening, with dogs and friends, children and writers. This morning I’ve got a late call at the hotel, so I woke, breakfasted, worked out, got dressed, got ready to go,  sat down and wrote this blog. Next I’ll put on the earrings my girlfriends Tracy, Meg, and Diane gave me, put on my “love mercy” necklace, and go out to brave the world. Xoxo xoxo 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Introducing the Appalachian Literacy Initiative

First let me tell you a story.

Ten years ago I was asked to do a week of school visits in a town near mine, in upper east Tennessee. I was not so much in demand for school visits in those days, and my fee for the week was about what my daily fee is now. Even still, one school asked if I could do a half-day instead, because they very much wanted me to come but couldn't afford the whole day. We messed around with the schedule and I agreed to do two half-days at schools close enough where this was feasible, though the one who'd asked for the half-day in the first place was pretty far out into the country, in a neighboring county. Rural Appalachia. I hate the stereotypes but some of them are rooted in truth.

For this school I dealt with the principal, which was odd--I usually deal primarily with the librarian. Come to find out, this school, grades preK-8, didn't have a trained librarian. They had a part-time teacher's aid with a high-school education who sat in the library three mornings a week, put on a video, and glowered at kids who tried to check out books, because then she'd have to reshelve them, and that was work. I am not kidding.

The library itself was half of the space behind what had once been a theater on the side of the gym, blocked off with plywood. When you climbed the steps to the former stage the first thing you saw was a Pepsi machine. To get to the library you had to walk past the Pepsi machine and through the teacher's lounge. Ancient, dusty books were crammed willy-nilly into ancient, leaning shelves. It felt like despair.

The principal was new and dynamic and trying desperately to change things. She'd gotten a local hardware store to sponsor my half-day visit. When I looked at her proposed schedule I'd realized she hadn't set aside time for booksigning. I suggested adding some. She said, "Oh, honey, these kids aren't going to buy any books."

I took a deep breath. I said that I would arrive with a box of books under the condition that they be given out to the students entirely at random. No books-only-for-good-kids. She agreed.

The kids went nuts. They acted like those books, which were mostly remaindered copies of some of my old titles, were solid gold. One girl ran with hers to the principal's office and put it there for safekeeping, until the end of the day.

The principal, shame-faced, showed me their library. I was horrified. That night I said, "Something has to be done."

My husband said, "It's not your job."

I said, "I know it's not, but it looks like I'm the only one prepared to do it."

So I did. That was my first book project. My son and his best friend earned all the service hours needed for their confirmations that summer by taking boxes of books I weeded from those shelves and carting them to the dumpster behind the school. I solicited donations. I bought new books. I wrapped them in protective covers and categorized them and rearranged the whole damn library and got rid of the Pepsi machine. There were science books and creative nonfiction and easy readers and a lovely selection of middle grade novels. I was so proud of that space when we were done.

I don't know if it made much difference. The principal was thrilled. The teachers, when they returned to school, were astonished.

The school is closed now--budget cuts a couple of years back.

I can still see that library as it was--they had a book on the shelves from the 1950s explaining, "Why We Have Different Races." They had all those old, outdated, racist "Childhood of Early Americans" biographies. They had books about accepting Jesus as your Savior. (I'm all for Jesus, but not on the bookshelves of a public school.)

These were the only books those kids had. There wasn't a public library within 20 miles. There wasn't a bookstore within 30. Every single child in that school was poor. No one was buying new books on

I could drive through Appalachia today and find a hundred schools just like that one. I was shocked ten years ago; I wouldn't be now. If you're reading this I hope you read the guest post I put up on Tuesday, by Donalyn Miller, about why access to books is so crucial to children. If you didn't read it, please go back and read it now.

On Tuesday we held the first board meeting of a new nonprofit I'm directing. It's called Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We're partnering with Parnassus Bookstore to give low-income schoolchildren in Appalachia the chance to pick out several brand-new high-quality books a year. We're incorporated in the state of Tennessee, and, now that we've had our first board meeting, are ready to apply for nonprofit status. When we receive that it will be backdated to the date we incorporated, March 13, 2018, so donations will be tax-deductible. If you feel so moved, contact me. For now I've put up a gofundme page for initial donations, though we'll mostly be fundraising through different venues.

Thanks for reading. These striking teachers? They really do have something to strike about. Decent educations are a moral imperative. So is access to decent books.

Monday, April 23, 2018

It's Not Complicated: a guess post by Donalyn Miller from Nerdy Book Club


I have been blogging, writing, and talking about children’s independent reading lives for over ten years—starting with my first Ask the Mentor column for Education Week Teacher in 2007. I am not the first or the last educator to take on this topic. Scores of literacy leaders, like Daniel FaderRudine Sims-BishopStephen KrashenTeri LesesneAlfred TatumRichard AllingtonLaura RobbNancie Atwell, and many more have been fighting for the reading lives of young people their entire careers—long before I came along. The work will continue long after me—led by folks like Pernille RippCornelius MinorKimberly ParkerSara Ahmed, and Tricia Ebarvia.

Literacy still matters, but the literacy opportunities we provide children have to change. We have to change. The children cannot wait while we figure it out. I know more about the conditions that engage (or fail to engage) children with reading today than I did in 2007. I will continue to evolve in my understanding as I go forward. I don’t have all of the answers, but I am a seeker. Teachers must remain students of our profession for our whole careers. We hold on to what we know as long as it serves kids, and not one minute longer. Our two greatest skills remain kid-watching and reflective practice. Who are my students? What do my students show me they know and need? What have I tried that worked? What have I tried that didn’t? What am I going to do about it?

Here’s one thing I know for certain changes reading for kids.

Everybody knows. We (as a society) just don’t care enough.

It’s all about access.

Access to books increases children’s future prospects and has a significant influence on the level of education they will attaintheir productivitytheir health, and their quality of life. Buy the books and give them to the kids. It’s not complicated. Why are we making this so hard? It’s frustrating. It’s defeating at times. In one of the richest countries on Earth, we cannot provide all of our children with the books they need. Before you protest about how much it will cost, figure out the cost of not doing it and get back to me. We can provide all of the books children need for summer reading for less than $200 a child (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 2013). The cost to Society for failing to graduate students with strong literacy skills and an orientation towards reading cannot be fully quantified. As author Jennifer Nielsen asked in a recent speech, “Do we understand the societal implications of failing to help kids find the magic of reading? Reading fosters empathy for others.”

I know getting books into kids’ hands isn’t flashy or ground breaking. It’s not new. We’ve been talking about it forever. Unfortunately, we have never successfully provided consistent book access to all children. While we scramble to implement one-to-one laptop programs, we never figured out how to get a paperback into every kid’s hand. Ensuring that all of our children have access to books 365 days a year may not get you in the local paper or earn you superintendent of the year, but it is one act that communicates you care about what kids really need to succeed personally and academically.

Ask yourself:

Who has book access in your community and who doesn’t?

What role does differential book access play in perpetuating systemic, discriminatory educational and social structures?

Who does it benefit to deny meaningful literacy opportunities to some children and not others?

Many of our children live in book deserts without meaningful, consistent access to books at school or home. Children in urban and rural communities—disproportionally children from historically marginalized groups—suffer the worst. They don’t have consistent, quality access to books at school or home, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens every day.

A child from a middle income home may have as many as ten access points in their lives where they can find a NEW book to read, including classroom and school libraries, public libraries, brick and mortar bookstores, Amazon one-click ordering, book fairs and subscription services. Children who do not have these resources may have only one or two places they can find a book to read— predominately their school and public libraries. This means that the book access we offer children in school and public library collections must be as varied, relevant, current, and engaging as possible. For many children, this is the only book access in their lives and it has to count.

We also have to consider barriers that prevent all children from access to the books they need and want to read. For many of the children we serve, there are tangible obstacles preventing equitable book access.

Some actions that will increase book access for all children (a starter list):

Determine the factors that might prevent families from using the public library. For many families, access to the public library isn’t “free.” Barriers such as limited services, residency requirements, or location can hinder equitable access. Is your library closed some nights or weekend days? What identification does your library system require to get a library card? What fees and dues are charged? Where is the library located? How hard is it to reach on foot or by public transportation?

Re-evaluate your school and community library fine programs. Last year, the New York Public Library system discovered that blocking check out privileges for patrons who owed $15 or more in fines prevented 20% of NYC children who had library cards from checking out any books. President of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, knows that poor children lose their book access more often under such policies, “No one is suggesting that people — including children — should not be held responsible for bringing books back. People talk about the moral hazard. But there’s also a moral hazard in teaching poor kids that they will lose privileges to read, and that kids who can afford fines will not.” As a result of these findings, the New York Public Library system announced a fine forgiveness reset for all children under the age of 18 who owed library fines.

Advocate for librarians. Access to librarians increases children’s test scores, closes the achievement gap, and improves writing skills (Lance, 2012). If your librarian is also a technology support specialist or course instructor, they need clerical help to focus more time on reading advisory and less time on paperwork. School Library Journal recently provided these suggestions for fighting library cuts and advocating for librarians. Find more information supporting the effectiveness of school librarians by accessing Scholastic’s School Libraries Work! research brief.

Develop summer reading programs that increase access and book ownership. The best school-based summer reading programs that exist physically put books into the hands of children before they leave for the summer. Book donation initiatives and long-term checkouts from school and classroom libraries guarantee that all children have access to books for summer reading. According to Allington and McGill-Franzen’s research, “…providing self-selected books for summer reading produced as much or more reading growth as attending summer school! For the poorest children the effect of our summer book distribution was twice as large as attending summer school (2013).” Don’t assume that subscribing all students to online databases and computer-based reading programs provides every child access to texts over the summer. Not all children have wi-fi or access to a computer or device at home.

Get rid of reading incentive programs that demotivate children from reading long term or develop internal motivation to read. The research is ubiquitous—incentivizing reading has long-term negative effects on fostering children’s internal motivation to read. I recommend reading and discussing No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers by Barbara A. Marinak and Linda Gambrell (Heinemann, 2016) and Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards for more information about the negative consequences of reading incentive programs. Furthermore, summer reading programs that demand children log pages and minutes do little to motivate readers and don’t provide any evidence that reading with comprehension really took place.

Purchase and donate new books whenever possible. Every child should own at least a few new books. When children’s book access is limited to other people’s cast-offs, it is unlikely they are receiving current, nourishing, quality reading material. Book ownership is a powerful factor in the development of positive reading identities. Additionally, when we buy new books, we support the artists who write and illustrate for young people. Blog posts, reviews, and tweets are great, but book sales ensure artists can keep making art. If you read a book in ARC (advanced reading copy) format and you like it enough to recommend it, buy the final book. Review copies are marketing tools to build advance buzz and interest in the book. If we want more books written by authors we love, we need to buy their books. This is particularly important for authors and illustrators from historically marginalized groups, who have already overcome discriminatory obstacles to become published in the first place and may not get a second chance if sales aren’t good enough.

Provide young people access and encouragement to read any text they want in any format they can.There’s abundant research on the benefits and appeal of audiobooks, e-books, graphic novels, serial fiction, picture books, poetry, or any format you can imagine. As a teacher who taught students with a wide range of reading experiences, abilities, interests, and development, I celebrate any format that fosters reading engagement and reading growth. It’s not a competition or hierarchy. The best books for kids are the books they can and will read.

Dedicate your time and resources toward literacy initiatives that put books in kids’ hands—especially kids from marginalized communities. Here are a few literacy organizations and initiatives that I recommend. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Please add the organizations you support in the comments, so we can all learn about them and support them, too.

Evaluate whose voices are missing in your school and classroom libraries. I see article after article bemoaning the poor reading performance of boys and children of color and listing perceived deficits in children and their families as the root cause. What books are young people reading in school? Do all children have the opportunity to see themselves and their families reflected in books? Whose “canon” is valued? Children deserve positive, affirming portrayals of all of their experiences—not just stories of oppression and suffering that perpetuate stereotypes. Lee and Low has a created a list of steps to creating a diverse book collection—a vital evaluation and development process.

I am just getting started, but this post is already 1800 words long, and I have said enough for now. I know that many of you are working every day to increase children’s meaningful, consistent book access. What ideas and resources do you have to share? What obstacles and issues do we need to add to the conversation? Please leave your suggestions in the comments. I look forward to learning from all of you.

Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On the Bright Side

Today's going to be a crappy day.

I mean that. I'm starting my prep this afternoon for the colonoscopy I'm having tomorrow afternoon. It's a routine screening procedure, so nothing to worry about, except the misery of making sure every inch of my intestines is squeaky-clean for the camera.

I'm in a bit of a funk this morning, despite all the myriad blessings in my life. I was in a funk part of yesterday, too--the 104th day of January, sleet bashing against my office window while I wrestled with my novel manuscript and mostly it kicked my--well. I stuck with it, because writers are people who stick with writing, and also because my publisher seems serious about the deadline, but I would like to point out that at no time yesterday did I feel the slightest flicker of inspiration. Nada. And yet in the end, by sticking it out, I came up with a respectable number of pages that aren't half bad.

I don't do page or word goals, by the way. I'd rather end up with 20 brilliant words at the end of a long day than 1000 crummy ones. But that's just me. All authors work differently.

Anyway, between more time on an airplane (flew up to Chicago to visit my son last weekend, weather was crummy there too but my son oh so lovely, had a great time) and lots of hours in my desk chair, my hips were hurting last night. (I sit cross-legged at my desk. It's not great posture for my hips but I've been doing it forever and am really uncomfortable any other way.) I was half-asleep in bed when I suddenly asked my husband, "You know how my hips are hurting?"

"mmm," he said.

I said, "Do you think there's any chance it's cancer?"

He woke up a bit more. "Kim," he said, "That's your IT band. It's been hurting for twenty years, and if it was cancer you'd have died a long time ago."

That cheered me right up, and I went to sleep.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Goy On The Bus

Catriella, the PJ Library employee who was in charge of the Author Israel Experience, asked all of us lottery winners participants to write a reflection after the trip. I sent her links to my previous blog posts about Israel, but I didn't consider them my Official Reflection, because, primarily, I hadn't had enough time to reflect. I dropped back into my normal life short of sleep and saturated with new experiences, and there were broken fence boards and a horse missing a shoe and another pretending to limp (he's the drama queen) and laundry and school visits to prepare for and oh yeah a book under deadline.

I've been interested in my friends' reactions both before and after my trip. Mack, who's worked on my farm for the past 20 years, usually gets worried every time I travel abroad. He warns me of terrorists in Scotland, in Austria, in Italy. My trip to Egypt five years ago rendered him nearly speechless, and now, with increasing troubles of his own, I figured he was not going to take the idea of Israel well. I expected a whole lot of you-shouldn't-go-there and mideastern-terrorists from him.

"Miss Kim," he said instead, a few days before I left, "I need you to promise me somethin.' When you get to that Wall, will you say a prayer for me?"

I did. I wrote my prayer out on paper I ripped from my journal, and I took a photo of it, and then took a photo of it stuffed into a crevice in the temple wall. When I got home Mack asked, "Did you remember?" and I showed him the photos.

For me the Wall will ever be first its foundations, as we saw them from the ancient tunnel by which we approached it. It will be sitting in the shade while our guide Jonty explained the architecture, the vanished archway, the rubble and broken pavement left over from the temple's destruction two thousand years ago. It will be watching women pray with their foreheads against the wall and tears streaming down their faces. It will be a small group of friends walking backward away from the wall, slowly, because we wanted to be in solidarity with the women who cried.

Yesterday at Mass word had gotten out about my trip. Several people brought up "The Holy Land," and one person said, "You walked where He walked!" Jesus, sure. Standing at the Temple, or looking out at the Mount of Olives, it's impossible for me not to think of Him. But I was on the trip in search of what it meant to have a Jewish identity, not to explore my own Christianity. I left the Via Dolorosa for another time.

(The bus is trundling down a modern highway, through not-quite-desert, lots of sand and bluffs. Gail, sitting next to me, calls out, "Jonty, what's this on the side of the road?" It's a little domed church, mosque-like but with a cross on top, and a parking lot and a few trees. "Ah," Jonty says. "That's the place where Jesus was baptized." Oh, okay. No big deal.)

I was one of only two non-Jewish writers, and I think--I may be wrong--the only practicing Christian. This came out when we introduced ourselves the first night, Right from that moment my fellow writers were kind to me. They welcomed my questions. They explained traditions. Several times, different people would come up to me and ask how I was doing. Was I learning what I felt I needed to know? How did I feel about whatever activity we'd just done? Was it awkward for me? Was I okay?

The second night we had a drum circle on the beach near the Dead Sea. A man taught us all to play the drums, then led everyone else in singing a few songs. Everyone else because they were Jewish songs, in Hebrew, and I didn't know a single syllable. On the walk back to our rooms people asked, Did I feel out of place? Was it uncomfortable for me?

No, it wasn't. Because of them--because of how they welcomed me. I came to understand how songs were important in Israeli life. I could feel how the kibbutzim used to gather and sing in the evenings. I could feel the traditions--not just religious, but cultural--behind the songs. The other writers' honesty and openness made the whole trip like that for me--easy, eye-opening. I wasn't Jewish, but I belonged.

That is, until Yad Vashem. Only three of us went there, skipping a culinary tour of Jerusalem's enormous marketplace. I love markets, but I thought I needed to see Yad Vashem. Then Stacia decided to go because she thought I shouldn't have to see Yad Vashem alone, and Gail decided it might help her book, too.

I knew it wouldn't be easy. It shouldn't be easy, it ought to be dreadful. But I'd been to the U.S. Holocaust museum, and I'd seen Schindler's List and old newsreels from the liberation of the death camps. I'd seen the awful images before. What I wasn't prepared for was the beginning, the history of Antisemitism and how thoroughly it was entangled in and propagated by the Catholic church. I knew the history--but I'd never seen the vile medieval artwork before.

And then, Poland. My mother's side of the family is all Polish. They came to the United States in the early 1900s, in the wave of Polish immigration fueled by a famine in that country. My Polish side was also my Catholic side, and when I was 11 a Polish cardinal became pope, and I would have said that historically Poland was pretty much always entirely Catholic, and I would have been wrong. Poland had over 3 million Jews before WWII--about 10% of its population. And three million died in the Holocaust. German Jews had much higher rates of survival than Polish Jews. Nearly everywhere else had higher rates of survival than Polish Jews.

So suddenly this felt very personal to me. My people, my heritage, were not the good guys here. It was hard to absorb.

I also learned some very specific information that fixes the plot problem I had on a book I'm working on in my head. I laid it out to Gail and Stacia in the cab ride back to the rest of the book, and to the cabbie, too, who joined in our discussion with gusto. I would end up unable to sleep much of that night, bothered by nightmares, but when we rejoined the rest of our group, outside the marketplace, they surrounded us with tenderness and love. Were we okay? Yad Vashem is so hard. Had we eaten? Were we hungry? Here, have some food. Here, walk with us. We're going to a bakery.

The very next day we would see the Dead Sea Scrolls, up close, not behind glass, and someone would read a line from one of them, and nearly everyone would start to sing.

This is what I learned in Israel: we are all different. We are all the same. And words can last forever.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Night Flight from Tel Aviv

It's Wednesday, and I'm headed to Missouri. School visits in Chillicothe, where I spent a delightful two days several years ago--it's the second time I've been invited back to a school I visited before.  My intensive travel year is nearly over--I've got a week of visits in May, and then it's all fun and games until September.

If you're at all interested in having me visit in 2018-2019, please contact me now. I sincerely doubt I'll be squeezing anything else into October, mid-November through the end of January are booked for my husband's surgical recovery, and spring is filling up really really fast. Plus it's still marginally possible that I'll have a new book out next spring--I should know for sure in a few months--and if that happens I won't accept new visits until the launch details are worked out.

So. Last night I dreamed of airports--no surprise--and Israel. I want to tell you about my flight home, and a boy named Yoshe (that's not his name; I don't use the real names of minors in my blog. But it could have been).

To understand my night you first have to understand the day. It was our last day in Israel. We woke early in Jerusalem, ate a good breakfast (how I loved Israel breakfast buffets! a multitude of offerings I'd never eaten before. Sashushka! Berochis! (I have no idea how to spell that) Persimmions! Potato Kugel! Gefilte fish! every day I'd take a serving of whatever I couldn't identify, take it back to my table, and ask my friends what exactly I was eating. Someone always knew.), staggered onto the bus, and drove to Tel Aviv. It's not far, maybe an hour. Unlike most of the places in Israel, which pre-date Christ, Tel Aviv didn't even exist until 1909, not in any form. It feels like a very modern city, nothing at all like Jerusalem.

First we visited the house where David Ben-Gurion, founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister, lived. He had the best personal library I've ever seen; I think we all felt a longing for it. Then we went to an adjoining conference space and had some reflection on the trip as a whole. Then we went to Independence Hall, the former Tel Aviv art museum where Israel declared its independence in 1948. Then we were turned loose on the city for nearly two hours. Mara Rockliff and I went through the Tel Aviv market--I'd missed the tour of the Jerusalem market by opting for Yad Vashem. We ate some sort of lovely flatbreads at an outdoor stand, bought spices and halva, and I had my first ever Turkish Delight. As Mara warned, I was deeply disappointed. This was why Edward sold out Narnia? I think less of him now.

The market ended near the beach. We walked along it, searching in vain for somewhere without steep rocks, so we could wet our feet, and more successfully for a public restroom. Then back on the bus to another part of town, where we had a graffiti tour, which is exactly like what it sounds--a tour of graffiti on the buildings. By now it was getting darkish. We had our farewell dinner, highlighted by a talk given by one of Israel's leading modern writers, whose name I entirely forget, though I liked him.

Then it was 8:30 at night. The first flight out--the one that went to New York, not California--left at 11:10, and given the size of the plane and the scope of Israeli security we were actually leaving it a bit late, but we all made it. I was in seat 45J--that's the 45th row back, actually the ninth seat over, the aisle seat of a group of three against the far side of the plane. The window seat was occupied by a very nice woman from Boca who had been visiting family in Israel. The middle seat was occupied by Yoshe.

He was, he told us, eleven years old. He was slender, slight for his age, an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose long forelocks were pulled back and tucked securely into the edges of his kippa. He was fluent in both English and Hebrew and I have no idea where he was actually born, or lived; he was part of a family so numerous that the very small children were seated with the parents and Yoshe nowhere near them.

He delighted being alone. He delighted in the screen on the seatback in front of him, which showed whatever movies or cartoons or video games he wanted. He delighted in the dinner they served him. He was audibly pleased when the flight attendants announced that while the only meals they would be serving were dinner right after takeoff and breakfast immediately before landing, anyone who felt hungry during the 12 hour flight could go to the middle galley and pick up whatever snacks and drinks they liked.

I was worn out from the day and the trip. I was full from dinner. As soon as we took off I made myself comfortable, glasses and shoes off, wrist guards on, neck pillow in place and a light scarf thrown over my head. My superpower is sleeping on air planes and on this one I needed no medical assistance. I was whacked.

I'd barely shut my eyes when Yoshe tapped me gently. "Sorry-sorry," he whispered. He needed to get out, and he was too small to clamber over me without banging into me.

I removed my scarf, moved my legs sideways, and said, "I'm going to be sleeping this entire flight. Anytime you need to get out, wake me up. It's okay. I won't be angry." It was only fair. He grinned.

He went off, to the bathroom I presume, then returned via the middle galley carrying a can of Coke. I went back to sleep. He turned on his overhead light (the only overhead light on in the plane, a small puddle of light, not enough to disturb me), put his headphones in, and started watching movies.

When he finished the Coke, he whispered, "sorry, sorry," pushed himself past me, went to the bathroom, and returned via the middle galley carrying another Coke.

And another. And some pretzels. Half a dozen bags. And some Sprite, for a little change, and then back to Coke again. At one point when I woke to use the toilet myself he handed me two empty cans to throw away. Then it was his turn to get up. "Sorry, sorry."

His second or third movie, Despicable Me, cracked him up entirely. He giggled and giggled. I'd been perfectly happy moving six or seven times so he could pee and refuel, but this was too much. I raised my scarf. "Quieter," I said.

"Sorry, sorry." He reached to adjust the volume on the movie.

I said, "No. YOU."

"Ah." A big grin. "Sorry, sorry."

He was quieter. He kept drinking soda. He never once slept, not for one single blessed moment, whereas I, despite everything, slept for 10 hours. With interruptions every eight ounces or so.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Things Change

I've got 20 minutes to write and post something before I have to leave for yoga; I have to leave early because my yoga studio moved and I don't know exactly how long it will take me to get there. (Previously, it was exactly 10 minutes away--so my aim was always to leave at 8:10 for the 8:30 class knowing that I usually run a few minutes late. Today I'm leaving at 8. Or so I tell myself.) I'm tetchy about the studio moving. The old studio was for me an extremely safe space, a place of total security and comfort, and it messed me up for two weeks when they painted the walls a different color. So I expect to be out of sorts at yoga today.

I want to write more about Israel but I'm not sure I can. Something awful happened to one of our group late last week--unexpected and thoroughly horribly awful--but it's not my story and I won't say more, except that I had come to feel quite connected to all the people on the trip and now we're connected by sorrow and concern for our friend. So that's hard.

Yesterday was Easter. It was the first Easter Mass I celebrated at home for something like 13 years. Once the children hit school age their spring breaks always started with Good Friday, and we love to travel--I've heard Easter Mass at the Duomo, at Notre Dame in Paris, at St. Mark's in Venice and in a cinderblock church in a very remote part of Costa Rica. Yesterday we had a nice Mass at home, and later I made nachos. My son went to church with friends in Chicago and then had brunch out. My daughter went to church with friends in Philadelphia and then went on an unsuccessful trip to find Peeps, because they heard that if you stuck toothpicks in the Peeps and then put a pair of them in the microwave the Peeps appeared to be fencing. Unfortunately the stores were fresh out of Peeps. The Penn fencers must have got there first.

I want to say something profound, about loss and resurrection, perhaps, or the universality of love and grief, but really I've got nothing this morning. A cup of coffee. Yoga in a new studio. A trip to the grocery, a horse getting a shoe back on. Novel-writing. Laundry. One usual blessed day. Perhaps. It's early.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Unpacking Israel: The Surface Layer

Last night my husband had a business call at 8 and after that we were going to watch Survivor. (I love Survivor.) I fell asleep on the couch a few minutes before his phone call, and I thought, hey, I'll take a little nap while he's talking, and I'll be fine and dandy. Nope. Staggered off to bed before nine and slept so soundly. It was the exhaustion of Israel catching up to me.

Our trip was stuffed, just stuffed, and it will be a long time before I begin to understand all I've learned. I know the easy things--the surface level. I'll figure out the rest.

For a recap, I was traveling with a group of 19 other American and Canadian children's book authors, on a trip designed and sponsored by PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to give us all story inspiration.

Best quote of the trip, though I don't remember who said it, regarding the compact powerhouse that is Gail Carson Levine: "Has anyone checked Gail's back for wings? Because I'm pretty sure she's actually a fairy." (If you understand that Gail writes fairy tales, this gets even better.)

Best funky coincidence: The mom of my host family for Shabbat dinner, graduated from my college the year behind me, and although we didn't know each other we waxed rhapsodic about our mutual favorite history professor.

Best moment of enlightenment: We went on a kayaking adventure in the Dead Sea; our large group had to be shuttled over rocks and sand in smaller groups from the tour bus. I was in the first group, about six people; five of us were standing at the edge of the sea, but Marla Frazee stripped to her swimsuit and started walking in. We told her we didn't think we were allowed to do that; also, our tour guide had said we might have time to swim in the Dead Sea later that afternoon. Marla said, "What if this is our only chance?" and kept walking. The rest of us thought for a moment, stripped to our suits, and went in. It was brilliant. (We did get another chance later on.)

Best made-up word: bunnyrat.

Best moment, ever: We were in the laboratory that's conserving and digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls. We got to see actual scrolls from inches away--amazing, never to be repeated--but then the director of the lab pointed to a place on the scrolls, and one of our group who could read Hebrew read out the first line of a Psalm. It's a Psalm still sung in Jewish liturgy. Three-quarters of the group began to sing. That piece of parchment is over 2000 years old, and its words are still a known melody. Even thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

Best non-Jewish experience of Judaism: Mine. I've never been in a situation where every question I had was welcomed and answered. I came on this trip wanting to know some very specific things for a book I had in mind, and repeatedly, over the course of the week, people sat down with me and discussed what they thought might help me, and it did, but I also learned so much more. I will take the joy of Shabbat into my Catholic Easter; I will remember this always.

Best group catch-phrase: Dibs!