Monday, October 22, 2018

In which I will be hanging out with KATHERINE PATERSON

I'm up early. It's a busy day. I'm going to be spending most of it with KATHERINE PATERSON.

You know her, right? Two-time Newbery winner, author of Bridge to Terebithia and Jacob I Have Loved and a whole bunch of other fantastic novels. I love Come Sing, Jimmy Jo and The Same Stuff as Stars and Lyddie, but it was her classic The Great Gilly Hopkins that changed my view of what children's literature could be.

Ah, yes. Here it is. I just now got up from my desk, shimmied around the floor loom that takes up a huge amount of space in my office, and looked for my copy of Gilly.

I read a lot of books. These days, I buy a lot of books. These days, I don't keep that many. I have a pretty good feeling for which books I might reread, and even then, I can always buy them again. So unless I think a book is going to be useful for research, or it was written by a friend, I will mostly pass it on after I'm finished reading it. Not always, but often. Between the Appalachian Literacy Initiative and the two Little Free Libraries I maintain, I've got a lot of places to donate books.

But I used to hold onto every book I ever got. When we moved into this house, nearly 17 years ago, I still had nearly all the books I'd ever owned, and I filled the shelves in my new office with them. Honestly, someday soon I'm going to weed those shelves like crazy. There are plenty of books on them I will not read again. But for now, they're something like a museum, the books I loved long ago.

Here's my copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Paperback. $3.95.  A Newbery Honor winner, which I hadn't realized. (It also won the National Book Award.) This paperback edition copyright 1987--in other words, the year I took the children's literature class that changed my life. I'm pretty sure this book was a required text for the class.

Let me find the passage I remember. Gilly gives a hand-written card to her teacher, who, unlike Gilly, is black:

They're saying, 'black is beautiful!' but best that I can figger, 
Is everyone who's saying so looks might like a 

And inside the card in tiny letters:

Person with a vested interest in maintaining that point of view.

I remember the shock of it. I howled with laughter. I laughed until I cried. (For the record, Gilly's teacher thanks her for the card, saying, "You and I are two of the angriest people I know.")

This was the voice of a damaged child. This told me, in children's literature, there was room for my voice, too.

So, yeah, I've got a little crush on Katherine Paterson. Have for a very long time.

I've met her once before, at a dinner at ALA, years ago. Her book The Same Stuff as Stars had just come out, as had my Halfway to the Sky. I was at ALA only because it was within driving distance and my husband wasn't on call and I wanted to see what the party was like. My editors invited me to some of the cocktail parties, and Penguin had an author's dinner after one of the parties. It was really nice, a pasta buffet. I sat down at a big round table, and was joined by Jane Yolen and Katherine Paterson and Patricia Lee Gauch and Lawrence Yep--and Gary Blackwood, a midlist author like myself. Gary and I were grinning like fools. It was a blast.

Katherine Paterson went to King University, a small school here in my hometown. My friend Martin puts together one of their speaker schedules. If you want me to say yes to an appearance, any time, any where, just put me on the same stage as Katherine Paterson.

I know lots of authors these days. I'm so glad they're my friends. But Katherine Paterson is a whole different level of awesomesauce. All week I've been shamelessly namedropping. "I'm not sure what I should wear at this event with Katherine Paterson." "Where do you think I should take Katherine Paterson to lunch?"

She's speaking this morning at chapel at King, 9:15, don't know if that's for students only or open to the public. (I'll be there--bells on). Then, tonight at 7:00 pm, we're on the stage together, me and Katherine Paterson, at Central Presbyterian Church on Euclid (across from St. Anne's.) That is open to the public, and I'm told there will be book sales and signing afterward. Please do come if you can.

Me and Katherine Paterson. I still don't know what I'll wear.

Friday, October 19, 2018

To Ada, Love Kim.

I’m in Allen, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, visiting author for a community reads program, and having a lovely time. The Friends of Allen Public Library could not be more hospitable; the students I’m visiting are engaged and engaging, and last night we had a great time at the public library.

After my talk I signed books. We ran out of books so I also signed bookplates, and the event flyers, and frankly I’m happy to sign just about anything. I’ve signed kids’ hands before, and hoped it wouldn’t make their parents angry. Last night’s signing, like the rest of the event, was well-run, and so every person who wanted their book personalized handed me a post-it with the name they wanted the book personalized to written on it. This helps immensely, because people spell their own names so many different ways. Kaitlin can be Caitlyn can be Katelynn. People can spell out loud all they want, and I’ll hear M-I-C-H-A-E-L, because that’s what I’m expecting, instead of M-I-C-A-H, and here’s Micah with his brand-new book personalized to some other dude. (There’s a reason most of my reading copies are personalized—it’s because when I screw up, I trade the person out with a book of my own.)

Anyhow, a child came through the line, patiently as it was a long one, and handed me a post-it, and right there, on the yellow square of paper, was everything about why I write for children and why I do events and sign books. It was all the reasons I love my work, distilled into four simple words.

To Kaitlin, it read, Love, Kim.

A presumption of love. That the person who wrote this book, which a child loved, must therefore also love the child who reads it.

Which of course is absolutely true.

To Kaitlin, I wrote. Love, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (because I always sign my full name.)

Monday, October 8, 2018

An Update From The Field

Boy howdy, what a week. I found myself in an incoherent a bit of a rage for four days straight from time to time. I was hard to live with.

I practiced good self-care. I rode my horse. I took baths. I reread favorite books. I stayed away from social media less than I should as much as I could.

Today, though. Today feels better because today is better. The initial classroom sets of books for ALI are heading out--not all of them have reached their schools yet, but some have, and already it feels like we're doing some good. Teachers are saying they're surprised at how excited their students are about being able to chose books to keep.

I'm not. I've put books into disadvantaged kids' hands before. I've seen what happens. I put a small library into a teen girls' group home once. After a few months of my popping by intermittently to add books to the shelves, one day I handed out little cards to all the girls. "Write down the title of a book you want for yourself, to keep," I said. "I'll get it for you."

These were girls I was told by the staff were not the least bit interested in reading. These were girls from very hard places. "Anything anybody can do to anyone," one of them told me, "has already been done to us."

They crowded around me, snatching the cards from my hands. They grabbed pens, scribbled titles on the cards, handed them back. "You can have time to think about it," I told them.

None of them needed to think about it.

Here's the problem with school book fairs, lovely though they are: if you're a kid whose parents can't or won't give you money to buy books, you start thinking, "Books aren't for me."

At ALI we're saying, "Books are for everyone."

So that's all true, and good, but what's really gotten me teared up today is the list our partner, Parnassus, just sent me of all the people who have donated books to ALI through our wish list so far. I don't feel right showing it without donors' permission, but I will say, if I printed the names, you would recognize some of them. Not one but two Newbery Award winners. Other kidlit writers. Friends of mine. And, even more awesomely, people I've never heard of before. Total strangers. Moved to kindness.

Which, God knows, we need more of right now.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Always, a Way Out

Yesterday I took most of the day off social media, cleaned stalls, and cobwebbed the entire barn. It was a useful way to spend the day in more ways than one. I'm going to try to remember that the next time I get the urge to Google anything about politics.

I have been reposting a lot of different things, and posting a few opinions solely my own, on both Facebook and Twitter. Some of them are angry. I'm angry about a few things right now. For myself, as a sexual violence survivor, the last few months have been rough; the last week particularly so.

I've had good friends ask me if we can still be friends, given that their political views are different than mine. As far as I'm concerned, absolutely--and I hope I behave in a manner where despite my beliefs they can still be friends with me. I've never required the people I care for to believe the same things, or give the same weight to different aspects of any story, as I do, any more than I require them to worship God exactly the same way I do (or at all) or dress the way I do, or love horses, or hate olives. If my friends don't like yoga, that's okay with me.

But there are certain lines I won't cross. Because I use social media in part to promote my books, I'm "friends" with a lot of people I don't personally know. Sunday someone had the--I can't even think of the word--insensate racist audacity comes to mind, but it was worse than that--someone suggested, seriously, that what's happening to Judge Brett Kavanaugh right now is the equivalent to what happened to Emmett Till. If you don't know what happened to Emmett Till, look him up. I'll wait. The comparison is beyond ignorant. It's willfully, deeply racist and inflammatory. For once words failed me. I responded by deleting the post and banning the poster from my page.

Most of us harbor some unconscious biases, whether we like to admit it or not. I hope my friends, like me, will continue to question themselves and work toward being better, more inclusive, less racist people. It's a slow ugly process but there's hope for most of us.

Here is something I know: just as there is not a single way to be assaulted, there is no single way to respond to an assault. Yesterday a friend of mine, a muscular Southern man who's usually armed and also usually open-minded, said, "If it really happened, why would she [Ford] ever go to a party again?"

Nope. We don't get to decide how Ford would have acted, based on how we imagine we might have acted were we in her shoes. We are not her; we are not wearing her shoes. Sexual assault is not one-size-fits-all.

Here's another thing I know: Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's house has two front doors. She first told her husband about the assault several years ago, when they were remodeling their house, and she wanted to put in another front door. He thought that was crazy, until he learned why.

Their house has two front doors.

I don't worry about front doors much. What can get my anxiety going is the position of the bedroom door relative to the bed I'm sleeping in. The worst is to have the door open near the head of the bed, and to be sleeping on that side--even typing that sentence makes me tense. The best is to have the door far away, at the foot of the bed, and be sleeping catty-corner across from it. Two doors, for me, would probably be worse than one door--two places from which to be attacked. But for Dr. Ford, it's the opposite--two ways to escape. Someone asked online why not use a back door. I don't know. Is her backyard fenced? The truth is that I'm equally safe in my bedroom no matter where I'm sleeping relative to the door. But I don't feel that way, even after all this time.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's house has two front doors.

Here is the final thing I know about this, and want to say: that the people she names as being present in the house where the assault occurred don't remember the occasion does not mean it didn't happen. They aren't refuting it; they simply aren't remembering it.

Several years ago I went to a funeral in my home town, and afterward to a large gathering that included a meal. My husband and I ended up at a table with a priest, Fr. Widman, who'd taught us in high school. (Because I've mentioned predatory priests who taught at my high school, I will say that Fr. Widman was not one of them, not according to my memory, and not according to the list just released by the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.) My husband and I were in the same religion class sophomore year. I think it was early church history, though I could be wrong. I remember Fr. Widman as someone without much of a sense of humor. He assigned me a paper on iconoclasm, which I'd never heard of but ended up finding interesting. My future husband and I were two of the best students in the class, getting top grades, sitting toward the front with shiny bright faces, and when we met Fr. Widman at the funeral, and told him who we were, we expected him to smile and say something polite about us. Look at you two! Married!

Fr. Widman had no idea who we were. He didn't remember us at all. Not our names, not our faces, not the A I'd gotten on my paper on iconclasm. "I'm sorry," he said, "I just don't."

It is absolutely true that I sat in his classroom--the corner classroom on the second floor--every day for a semester. It is absolutely true that I participated in class, did well on the tests, did my homework, talked to friends. It is absolutely true that 35 years later he didn't remember me at all.

I would prefer a Supreme Court Justice who interpreted the Constitution but didn't try to legislate from the bench. I am against abortion, but I think Roe v Wade is pretty far down on the list of things our government should be working on right now. (A Mormon mother of six wrote an essay cruising the internet about how, if we really wanted to end abortion, all we'd have to do is start castrating every man who causes an unintentional pregnancy. It's brilliant--because of its logic, not its conclusion. Worth your while to find and read.) I don't understand why the Republicans are clinging to a flawed nominee, who very clearly lied under oath at his hearing, several times, and who probably sexual assaulted more than one woman. Surely we have better candidates. Let's find them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

#AmWriting

Writing is my job. I tell people that all the time when they gush about how inspired and creative and I-don't-know-how-you-do-it. "It's my job," I say. "I sit down and I do it." Which doesn't sound romantic but is the truth.

It's also more than my job; it's my vocation. I know that, too. Right now I'm in writer's limbo. I finished a draft of a historical novel. My editor hasn't yet gotten back to me with her thoughts. The best thing I can do for that book right now is ignore it, because I'll be in a better place to start revising if I've stayed away from it for awhile.

I've got other historical novels lined up in my mind like ships awaiting tugboats to pull them into harbor. I can't start them, because they need research, and because I know that it's hard for me to pull my mind from one historical setting to another.

The first few days after I've sent off a draft are usually vacation. I clean up my desk, at least a little. I read. I catch up on any reviews that are due--I usually have at least a few review books waiting. In recent months I've been traveling during these writing lulls.

But right now I'm not. I'm really glad to be home for several weeks in a row, but it's very odd not to be working on a manuscript. For the past few days I've been increasingly uneasy about it. I've written blog posts, but honestly, to me these feel like the scales I used to start my piano practice with. They're something that clears the way for more important work.

The news feed has been disturbing. A lot of my friends are suffering. It's been a hard week for many people I love. And I didn't have a novel to escape into.

Today I woke at 5:45 only because I have a puppy. She woke and had to go out. I'm the one that takes her out. My hard-working husband went to work and I'd had coffee and was wide awake. 6:30 in the morning. Yoga wasn't until 8. I went online and paged through the sites I follow, but that only took about ten minutes. I'm mostly caught up with online correspondence.

I didn't know what to do with myself. So I opened a new word document, set the font to Courier, and typed my name and address in the upper left-hand corner. It's how I've formatted manuscripts forever. I scrolled down, centered the title, and typed WHO KNOWS. by. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. And then I started writing. My new tattoo is covered by a band-aid but halfway through recess the band-aid falls off. I'm walking back to the fourth-grade classroom when my teacher, Ms. Davonte, gasps. "Della," she said, "is that a tattoo?"

And then I kept going for eleven pages of pure stream-of-consciousness writing. I skipped yoga. I've only stopped to riff off this scale, quickly, and because now I've got to go to Faith in Action.

I have no idea if this will turn into anything. I don't care. I am writing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

I don't care who you vote for.... #BookTheVote

...I care that you vote.

Today is National Voter Registration Day, and my primary publisher, Penguin Random House, asked me to share on social media why I vote.

I vote in every election. Looking back, I think I've missed one--a local election, not a national one. I screwed up with the early voting (didn't realize it closed) and was out of town on the actual election day. I'm still irritated that I missed it.

I vote because I usually have opinions.
I vote because I have a voice.
I vote because I can.

Second semester of my freshman year at Smith College a large percentage of the student body staged a sit-in in the main administrative building in protest of apartheid. It was awhile ago now, but if you'll remember, South Africa was governed by a racist, unjust system called apartheid. People across the globe began to refuse to do business with any company that did business with South Africa. College in particular were divesting their endowment funds from those companies.

Starting that semester, and continuing at least while I was there, Smith gave two full four-year scholarships each year to non-white women from South Africa. The first recipients, Thembikile Mazibuko and Siphokazi Koyana, arrived that January and lived in my house (like a dorm, but smaller. Smith doesn't do sororities). So the big apartheid protest happened only a few weeks after they'd gotten on campus.

I didn't take part in the sit-in. I was at the time only vaguely aware of apartheid; South Africa had yet to become one of my favorite places in the world. I had enough to do handling myself at Smith, at the time, and also, the idea of camping out in a hallway in Massachusetts to protest something half a world away seemed ineffectual, possibly ludicrous. But as the week wore on and the sit-in intensified, the president of the school called an all-campus meeting to discuss the situation. It was held in the evening, after dinner, and attendance was mandatory. Each house was to go to the meeting as a group. Attendance would be taken. Attendance was required.

I'd gotten to know Sipho and Thembikile a bit already--they were friendly and bubbly, and I liked them. I'd noticed that they'd taken no part in the apartheid protest. When asked about their country they talked about their families, their home life, not politics. I didn't really think much about this. I, too, was not that interested in politics.

That night we all walked across the street to JMG, the largest auditorium on campus. Sippho and Thembilike walked through the doors, and stopped. They were panicked. They looked ready to vomit, or cry, or both. They were terrified.

I will never forget the expressions on their face.

We can't be here, they said.

Older women from my house said, this is a mandatory meeting. You have to be here. You can't be blamed for attending a mandatory meeting.

They said, They will find out. They will take back our passports. We will have to leave. We will lose our chance.

In South Africa Sipho and Thembikile's families had no vote. That wouldn't come for another several years. But they were convinced, both of them, that their government would find out they'd gone to this meeting in a small town in Massachusetts, and they and their families would be punished for it. That was the difference between their government and mine.

We couldn't talk them into coming farther into the building. They wouldn't sit down. They stood against the doors, shaking. So we stood with them, all the women from my house. We stood in a group in the back of the building. We listened while the president of our school said she was divesting the school's endowment. The sit-in had won.

Divestment won too. Worldwide financial pressure was a large part of why the government of South Africa changed.

Years later, I visited the school in South Africa where Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for protesting apartheid, cast the first vote of his life--for himself, for president of South Africa. In front of the school on that day, some local people had set up a booth to register people to vote. They were all black. Later that week I visited the apartheid museum in Johannesburg. After a whole series of rooms detailing years of oppression, violence, and injustice, the tour ends in a room full of video screens. Each screen shows endless lines of black people lining up to vote for the first time. Smiling, laughing, waiting for hours. Having their say.

If you aren't registered to vote, fix that here.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

3,184

Yesterday the board of the Appalachian Literacy Initiative met to decide which classrooms we would accept into our pilot program this year. Our plan is to provide each teacher with a classroom set of 28 brand-new high-quality children's books, delivered in four batches through the year, and to give every student their choice of any four of those books, to keep, brand-new, again divided across the school year.

When we first started, several months ago, I'd offered up the pie-in-the-sky hope that we could enroll 20 classrooms, 400 students, of fourth graders this school year. The other board members looked at me with skepticism. First, would there really be that much interest? Second, could we afford it? We've been fundraising, but we haven't raised enough yet. We've applied for some grants, but have no idea whether we'll get them.

We had 40 classrooms apply. 850 students.

Oh man, that was tough.

There was one large school that frankly wasn't that badly off (less than half their students got free lunch) on the outer edge of what we'd consider our territory, so we eliminated that one. (We're sorry. We'll help you next year if we can.)

There were a few that were absolutely automatic thank-God-we-can-help-these-kids ins. Small towns in West Virginia rated C-minus on a national website (on a scale of A to C-minus). Nearby county schools where fewer than one kid in three reads proficiently.

And then we read through the other applications. "We have a school library. It is staffed by occasional parent volunteers." "To get books for my classroom, I shop at Goodwill." "Access to books is the biggest obstacle we face." "I believe every loves to read when they find the right book!"

We accepted 28 classrooms. 600 students. 3,184 new books.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Credible Allegations

I've been Catholic all my life. I love the Mass. Right now I am really struggling with the hierarchy of the Church. The Pennsylvania report of 300 priests molesting over 1000 children broke me.

My husband said he didn't understand why I was so upset now. He pointed out that we've known of all this--the assaults, the cover-ups, the pious-looking pedophiles--for a very long time. He said, "Nothing's changed."

I said, "That's why I'm angry. Because still nothing has changed."

My husband suggested that instead of writing a blog post I write to the pope, but honestly, I'm too angry with the pope to talk to him right now. I'm too angry that he suggested that the way out of this morass was for the laity to fast and pray. I think the correct answer is that every bishop who ever covered up an allegation or moved a molesting priest to a new parish or who did anything other than order an immediate investigation involving law enforcement, resigns immediately, forever, and that all allegations not affected by the statue of limitations be prosecuted, and that we extend the statute of limitations on any cases where the victim was a minor.

People from my high school class have been discussing this on Facebook a lot lately, mostly sharing memories of the horrible rampant predator priest actually who lived in an apartment at the Catholic high school I attended. He had already molested a bunch of boys in previous assignments, so he got transferred to a place where he'd have unlimited access to the boys' locker room, among other things.

The worst of it is that so many of us knew about him, even then. Adults must have known. There's no way it wasn't widely known. And it was ignored.

Today the current bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese released this list of diocesan priests accused of sexual assault. One of my classmates just posted, "five 'credible accusations' when me and his dozens of other victims know what the real tally is."

Is it really such a big deal? I'm also reading a bunch of crap today about poor Brent Kavanaugh, who might not get to be a Supreme Court Justice because he almost raped a girl when he was in high school. If I hear another person say, "boys will be boys," or, "well, it was a long time ago," or "well, he was drunk," I will be sick. Priests will be priests, anyone? You can't be angry about one and ignore the other.

It is really such a big deal. Oh, Lord. Ask me how I know. It never leaves you. It changes you. Permanently. Forever.

Read the list from Fort Wayne. Look at the dates of ordination and the dates some of the men were removed from the priesthood, and see what a long span it was. Notice how some of them molested children in this decade--less than ten years ago, even though we're expected to believe that we're safe now. Notice how many pedophiles worked at Catholic high schools, or were the chaplain for Catholic boy scouts, or somehow involved in Catholic schools. 

Over and over and over. And adults knew, and did nothing.

Many of these creeps still live in Fort Wayne. The ones who assaulted children, and the ones who let them get away with it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A visit to the coalfields

Yesterday Tracy and I drove to the coalfields of southwest Virginia and delivered the first sets of teacher books for Appalachian Literacy Initiative.

ALI has a seven-person board, but it's Tracy and I who came up with it, meeting over coffee all through last winter and spring, hashing out what was possible and what was helpful and learning all the things we needed to do to get it done. (Tracy created our website. I figured out how to file the paperwork with the state and the IRS.)

So yesterday was a red-letter day. Yesterday we began.

This is an experimental year. We need to learn what works in reality, and what's actually helpful to teachers as opposed to what we think will be helpful. So we'd made an appointment with this particular school, our first. (Note: if you've applied to our program, don't panic that you haven't heard from us. We're making final decisions at our board meeting tomorrow regarding how many schools we can accept. The school we visited yesterday has a private sponsor, a alumna, so is automatically in.)

There's one combined elementary and middle school in this small town. We met with the principal, who was kind and welcoming. He told us that when kids were avid readers you never had to worry about their test scores. He said he was facing not only entrenched poverty but sometimes entrenched, generational disability, when whole families thought they weren't capable of anything. There's no bookstore nearby, of course (the closest is probably in Bristol, a 90 minute drive away, though there may be a Wal-Mart nearer and they do sell some books), and the closest public library is one town over, reachable only by car, which many of the students' families don't have. So no, they don't have access to books.

We met with the fifth-grade teacher and the school librarian. Only fourth grade is part of our pilot program but we'd like to help as much as we can. The fifth-grade teacher uses some trade books--right now she has a class reading Wonder. The librarian can buy some new books each year. (This isn't true for all public schools). I let them sort through a pile of new and gently used books I'd collected--the beginnings of our mobile book fairs--and both took half-a-dozen titles. The librarian was thrilled to get The Day You Begin. "I love Jacqueline Woodson," she said. I said, "Me, too."

To the fourth-grade teacher we explained our program in detail. Here were two copies (she teaches reading to 67 students) of the ten books on our initial list. We piled the books on the table. She could keep them. Tracy gave her a written synopsis of the books--we took it off Common Sense's website--and we showed them to her very briefly--that Roller Girl was a graphic novel, that How To Steal a Dog featured a sister and brother who lived in their car, that The One and Only Ivan was told from the point of view of a gorilla. The teacher told us that, of her 67 students, she had 4 or 5 who were stellar readers, who loved reading and read on perhaps 8th grade level. She said she had many more than that who were at "pre-primer" level. She didn't use trade books in the classroom because she found it difficult with such a wide range of abilities. She was trying hard to bring them all up to speed.

"They'll probably all want Diary of a Wimpy Kid," she said. We told her that was fine. If her order came back for 67 copies of DoaWK, that's what we'd send her. Then, in December, her students could all pick a second book. If they all wanted the second in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, that's what we'd send.

What if no one wanted some of the books? Then no one would have to have those books. We stressed to her that if we'd gotten the age ranges wrong, or if her students all really wanted to read something else, we were flexible. There would be 3 more sets of books to choose from and we'd change the books as needed.

They really like graphic novels, she said. The ones that can't read can still follow the pictures.

We really like graphic novels, we said.

Do you need them to write about their book? Do you need proof they've read it? Nope.

Here's what we're doing, we said. Your students will each chose a book. Then a big box of books will come to the school, and each student will get the book they chose. Brand-new, to keep, with nothing required of them. No matter what their reading level. No matter how much money their families have. No matter what else is happening in their lives: everyone gets a nice new book that they chose. The end.

The principal said, "Fourth grade is when we start losing them."
We said, "That's why we're starting with fourth grade."

If you've been reading my blog you've heard of some of this already, and I have to warn you you're likely to hear about it again. Thanks for reading. Thanks so, so much. We've had schools apply from Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. I so want to help them all.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Again With The Asking For Books

Y'all are going to be sick of hearing about this, bummer. At Appalachian Literacy Initiatve we had a pie-in-the-sky vision of helping 20 classrooms of fourth graders get books this year, our first. Several schools have told us their applications will get to us this weekend, but even without them, I'm sitting on requests from 30 classrooms, 591 students. I look at the numbers (Hawkins County, Tennessee: 100% free or reduced-price school lunch, 42% reading at proficient level) and don't want to turn any of them away.

Our partner, Parnassus Books, has just created this page for us. If you'd like to donate actual physical books, you can do so here--no shipping, 10% off, you're supporting a real bookstore AND most importantly you're directly handing a book to a child who may never have owned a book before.

Sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. One of the teachers wrote on her application that she'd just asked her fourth-graders--40% of them--8 actual children--didn't have a single book in their home.

Not one.

https://www.parnassusbooks.net/readappalachian

P.S. We're putting our own money into this. 100% of our board has donated. We've applied for some grants, which we'll hear about in a few months, and we've raised about $11,000 so far (in addition to some donated start-up costs). But it looks like we're going to need north of $30K.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Sign up for Free Books from ALI

I have a thousand things to write about today. Most of them are about the Catholic Church. They're fluttering around in my head, things like anyone who covered up for an abuser should lose his job and way past time for women and married priests and even now, the hierarchy doesn't get it, thinks silence is the answer. 

I can't find a coherent way to write about this stuff, not yet. I'll get there.

Meanwhile it is September fourth. We have eleven days left for fourth-grade classrooms to sign up for Appalachian Literacy Initiative's first book list project. Please spread the word.

The application is available here. It's short. Classes who sign up get free books. Teachers will end the year with a classroom set of 28 books; each student will get four books of his or her choice. We want to know test scores and a teeny bit of demographic information.

Last week John Schu, whom I love and adore, posted on Facebook how shocked he was when he gave a student a copy of a book (The One and Only Ivan, which is on ALI's inaugural list) and the boy, thanking him, said it was the first book he'd ever owned.

John Schu, you know I love you, but what schools are you visiting that this could still shock you? Have you never been to my part of the country? Happens. All the. Time.

I found a website that evaluates what seems to be every school in the country. You can search by school name, by county, by state, public or private, high school or elementary. For each school it lists, among other things, % of students reading at proficient level, and % of students receiving free or reduced-price school lunch.

Spend a little time there, poking around. Pull up the stats from the best-performing schools in your area. Pull up the stats from the worst. Observe that the higher the poverty level, the worse the reading scores. Ask yourself, what level of illiteracy is acceptable in America today? Ask yourself, why should rich children get such a better chance to succeed?

Kids need books that they can read over and over, until the covers come loose and the pages are stained. They need books they can dip into, again and again, savoring favorite passages, rereading moments of triumph or bravery or sorrow. More than that--they need access to the words, over and over. Reread a book and you've seen all those words again. They become familiar. Easier. You're practicing with every sentence, without knowing it, because the story sweeps you away.

I read to my children every night from when they were born until they were firmly into middle school. Let's be conservative and say I read 1000 words a night. (Less when they were babies, but way more as they grew older--we tackled some pretty long novels by the end.) Birth to their 13th birthdays (again, conservative). Do the math. It's nearly four and a half million words. No, they themselves didn't read every one of those words. But they heard them, in sentence form, words they knew and words they didn't.

Four and a half million words.

Access to books is a social justice issue. ALI aims to close the gap.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Sharing a post on Catholicism

I've read as much of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on child abuse within the Catholic church as I can stand. I'm reeling from it. I don't know why this one has hit me worse than others--we've been down this road so many times before. As my husband reminded me last night, we knew a predatory priest, growing up. We knew he was after boys. Everyone knew, in silence.

I don't have my thoughts together enough to write about it. I'm under deadline and need to go concentrate on that. But meanwhile, here's a blog post I came across that resonated with me.

If you want to appreciate the scope of the problem, head to the site Bishops Accountability

Pope Francis has called upon the entire Church, predominantly lay members, to pray and repent. I say eff that. Let's throw these suckers in jail, and, if we can't do that (statute of limitations) let's at least throw them out of the priesthood. And maybe share the power--it's past time to ordain women.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Filling my Writer’s Rolodex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Warning: You May Love Gay People

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

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

I so wish I were making that up.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Losing Alice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Alice. Mrs. Bradley's crying.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Appalachian Literacy Initiative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schoolchildren in Tennessee

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Now We Are Fifty-One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Rome, and Back Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prego.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Puppies for Everyone

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

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

Not.

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

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

However, I have a puppy on my lap.

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Unpacked:

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