Monday, December 17, 2018

Clear the Decks and Deck the Halls

Ten minutes ago I finished reading the contract for my new middle-grades novel, the one that started  as an unplanned stream-of-consciousness rant because I was so unbelievably angry and frustrated over the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the basic inability of our nation to discuss sexual abuse, PSTD, and mental health in general with any sort of integrity or veracity--yeah, okay, even that sounds like a rant--anyway, I wrote a rant. I sent it to Dial on October 2nd. Ten minutes ago I signed the contract for the book that is in the process of arising from that rant. Two minutes ago, through the magic of the internet, I received my countersigned copy.

It's under contract. On December 17th.

Wow.

I mean, really, things never happen like this. I am so so happy.

The first full draft is already in my editor's hands.

The final draft is due January 28th.

My last four books have taken an average of 3 years each to finish, so four months start to finish, whatever, bring it, I'm ready.

I did some excellent work on another manuscript last week, and on Friday thought, that's a good place to leave it until February.

Today I did paperwork, went to yoga, then unexpectedly had to take a trip to Johnson City to sign some bank stuff (I'm officially an officer in Holston Pony Club, again. I've been secretary, DC [which is like president], nothing, joint-DC [vice-president], DC again, nothing, and now I'm treasurer, which means I've covered everything, I think). Anyway the incoming DC gave me a lift in her truck, which is equally as fabulous as mine (2001 Ford diesel engine, it will never die). (When I got into her truck, she said, "I usually apologize for the mess, but I never really mean it.) The incoming DC is a computational biologist. After we signed the papers we went out for tacos and discussed her research. It's fascinating.

The rest of the week is all about happy Christmas prep and this new novel. The rest of the month: happy Christmas and the new novel. The month after that: visiting my son, and the new novel.

I LOVE THE NEW NOVEL.

It's a wonderful life.

P.S. I'm just about to head to the post office to mail my own personal gifts to the teachers and people associated with our first year of the Appalachian Literacy Initiative: copies of Dpnalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's book Game Changer. It's all about how improving access to books improves students' reading ability and academic performance. It's an excellent gift for any teacher or librarian you know.

If you want to improve the lives of Appalachian school children, I'd be grateful for any and all gifts to ALI.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.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Return of Santa Duck

We have acquired a poinsettia at our house, so our Christmas decorating has officially begun. I have wondered if our neighbors are puzzling over why the Bradleys' trees, usually lit up all around the house, remain dark this year. The answer is, you can't string lights on trees while using a walker. And I myself have never been part of that operation. It's possible lights will be strung on December 22nd, the day the tree goes up, when the children are home. Or not. I'm happy either way.

Some of the other houses that usually decorate on our road are dark this winter too. We're rather somber. But with great joy, and not a little relief, we all noticed when the Santa Duck reappeared.

Santa Duck is an inflatable duck. He looks exactly like a bath duck grown to dinosaur size, except that he wears an inflatable Santa hat and a jaunty, I suspect homemade, red knit scarf. He sits on the top of the flat gable of the roof of a small square house on Weaver Pike. The house is down in a hollow, so the top of its roof is barely above the level of the street. Santa Duck usually shows up right after Thanksgiving and stays until after the New Year.

This year Thanksgiving came and went. No Santa Duck. The next weekend came and went. No Santa Duck. The natives of Bristol grew restless. The Bradleys without lights on their trees? Eh. Whatever. Also Doc had surgery, didn't you hear? But the lack of Santa Duck--I truly cannot remember a Bristol Christmas without him--caused community-wide concern.

We discussed it in my yoga class. I muttered about it to friends. Someone took a photo of the empty flat roof and posted it online, and soon someone else had created a Facebook post called Bring Back the Bristol Santa Duck. It was widely shared, and, quite quickly, someone put up a photo of a bearded man sitting at a sewing machine, repairing a seam on the duck.

All was well. The Santa Duck has been restored to his rooftop. My yoga instructor texted me a photo of him, fully blown up and well tethered down, within hours of his reinstatement. The town breathed a happy sigh. Santa Duck lives.

And if you think that giant festive inflatable bath ducks have nothing whatsoever to do with the birth of Christ Jesus the Savior of humankind, I'm here to say I think you're wrong. Joy. Light. Santa Duck. It's all part of the story.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

I'm calling it Advent

Things are looking up. My brave husband survived a week of working half-days. It was very close to too much for him. The irritating thing is that he went back to work then because his surgeon specifically told him he would be ready, and then, when he did it (and he'd scheduled a full week of patients so it would have been hard for him to back out) both the surgeon and the physical therapist acted as though he'd been peremptory.  They were all, "Whoa, dude, that's a bit much, don't you think?" and he said, "That's what you TOLD ME to do!" But it turned out okay.

Today we would have attempted church despite the stairs and the standing, except that we can't make it down our driveway. We're having a snow day. It usually snows here in upper east Tennessee about 4 times a year, to any measurable amount; we usually have a day or two that I can't make it down my driveway about every other year. I could probably get out with my truck--but there wasn't any way I was letting my husband attempt the snow and ice and general slipperiness. No sir.

Normally we are very into Christmas decorations. By that I mostly mean my husband, but really, I love it too. I just leave so much of the decorating to him because I can, and because he takes such joy in it. Every year he concocts an elaborate centerpiece for our dining room table, and he never seems happier than when he's creating it, humming to himself, deciding between red decorations and gold. He decorates our banister, too, and puts up a secondary tree in the living room, and none of that's happening this year. Our family tree, which we usually decorate on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, will go up December 22nd when the children return. I do plan to get out the Nativity sets and the stockings, though I'm a little concerned that the dog will see the Nativity sets as elaborate chew toys. She's already been very enthusiastic, this morning, about her first snow.

So it's a small Christmas, to match our small Thanksgiving, and it's perfectly fine. We Catholics aren't supposed to get too excited ahead of the main date anyhow. (Despite what Amazon.com is telling you the Twelve Days of Christmas are actually Christmas and the eleven days following, not before.) This year it turns out we're celebrating Advent, thoroughly and well. Veni, veni, Emmanuel.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Anne Frank, Again

Thank you! I now have a list of 12 books to investigate, only 2 of which I was aware of before yesterday. That's fantastic. Meanwhile I went to the library. I came home with a pretty enthusiastic stack, including a recent biography of Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin. I've only just begun it but already I can see that her husband was in life more nuanced than he appears in Wikipedia. Not surprising.

Meanwhile, oddly enough, the book I sat down and devoured during my husband's appointments yesterday was the graphic novel version of the Diary of Anne Frank. I say "oddly" only because I'd said I didn't want to read any Holocaust novels, and of course DAF is not only a Holocaust story, but it's a true one in which the teenage heroine is murdered at the end.

(I'll interrupt my blog to add a link to a post I recently read, an article in the Smithsonian pointing out some real problems with the public adoration of Anne. It begins, "People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much." It's very worth reading.)

I have a long relationship with the Diary of Anne Frank. I don't remember when I first heard about the Holocaust, but I remember the first time I read Anne's book. I remember it with awful clarity, because I thought it was fiction when I picked it up. I didn't know it was a true story. I expected it to end well. I still remember laying stomach-down across my bed, engrossed in the book, and running full-force into those awful words, "Anne's diary ends here." And then the shattering afterword. I buried my head in my pillows and sobbed.

When I was in Israel I said a few times to some of the other writers on the trip, "I've always wanted to change the ending of the diary. I've wanted to Anne to survive, and I've wanted to write what happens to her then." It's true; I've wanted to write that story for as long as I've known I was a writer. My friends, every one of them, said, "You can't do that." And they're right. I can't. What's next--a kinder, gentler Hitler?

I imagine the adapter and illustrator of the graphic novel felt a certain trepidation, but the version they've produced is stunning. Certain emotive elements of the diary lend themselves very well to full-page illustrations--the sequence of Anne comparing herself to her "perfect" sister Margot is brilliant, economical, complete. But then they fill whole pages with large passages from her diary, uncut, barely illustrated. They're using the full version of the diary, not the edited version first published. Anne shines in these pages.

And still the chilling words, "Anne's diary ends here."

If you're a teacher or librarian, get this book. Your students will love it. Your students will learn from it.

Also, you all were great with the reading recommendations yesterday. What have you got that's high-interest for fourth-graders? ALI is putting together our book lists for our two spring selections. I've got some good ideas but I'd love to have more. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Help! I need help!

It will come as no surprise to anyone that replacing one's entire knee joint is a rather big deal. I saw an x-ray Monday of my husband's new knee. They sawed off the ends of his shinbone and his femur, and shaved the backside of his patella, and added whole new ends made of teflon or something that fit together cunningly well and will, in time, work brilliantly, I'm sure.

They are starting to function now. It's been painful, and difficult. My husband reacts oddly and un-usefully to opiods and apparently also has some strange anatomy--some nerve too close to some artery--that makes nerve blocks not work well. So everything hurt, and still does. He has been diligent in this therapy. He's slowly improving. He's back to work half-days this week.

Last week sucked for several reasons, some of which aren't wholly my story. One of the more minor examples: after a very quick business trip to Orlando on Friday (I accepted the Sunshine State Young Reader's Award, with thankfulness and joy) the plane I was on got within five miles of home before deciding it was too foggy to land. We diverted back to Atlanta where I spent the night in a cheap airport hotel. Not a crisis. Just annoying. But other bits were worse.

In the midst of all of it I've been struggling to find a single damn thing to read.

I took The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici with me to the hospital on the day of Bart's surgery, along with a French grammar I'm studying. We had to check-in by 5:15 am. Yeah. Luckily I've got some easy computer games on my phone.

At home I tried again with the first book on my to-read pile. The Librarian of Auschwitz. Yeah. No. I don't care how well-written the book is, Auschwitz is still Auschwitz. Not something to enjoy in times of trouble.

Okay, so next I went with a duo of two Mary Balogh Christmas novellas. I quite liked the first one. Fluffy, but very Christmassy. Then the second was essentially the first over again. Slightly different setup but exact same Christmas details, down to a small boy claiming he could, "skate like the wind." They were written years apart; publishing them in the same volume was a really bad idea. So I was off Mary.

Tried N. K. Jemisin next. I think she's brilliant and I'll probably love her stuff when I've got the brainpower to make sense of it. This is not that time.

My book club book is Girl, Wash Your Face. My sister loved it. I think in most circumstances I would like it, but again, not now. From what I can tell it's a light pep-talk, and while I usually love me a good advice book I'm not taking advice this week. I'll try that one again on the weekend because I would like to have read it by book club.

I have a lot of books downloaded on my iPad, most of them comfort fluff. I was just starting to go to them when I shattered my iPad's screen. I looked at it one morning and it was broken. Probably I knocked it out of my bed on the night. Anyway, it still functions--though probably not for long--but it's very hard to read the words behind the broken screen.

I had Challenger Deep from the library. Love Neal Schusterman. Don't really want to read about schizophrenia this month.

I had The Nanny Diaries from the library, too. I felt too sorry for the children in the book to find it funny.

Nine Rules to Break When You're Romancing a Rake. Sounded very promising. However--if you're going to write Regency-era novels, for Lawdssake learn enough about horses. Everyone rode them or traveled in carriages back then. No one drives a high-perch phaeton in the country in a snowstorm. No one. If you don't understand what is meant by the phrase, "well-matched bays," don't use it, and don't stick women on stallions as though it were an everyday thing. Stallions themselves--not an everyday thing. Not even then.  (Once I read ten pages of a book where, on page 10, the young Duke grabbed his shotgun and went out solo on foot to do a little fox-hunting.)

Ahhhhhh. I re-read my two favorite Joanna Bourne novels, Rogue Spy and The Black Hawk. Then I fumbled around with the opening chapters of Kate Morton's The Clockmaker's Daughter. She's like JoJo Moyes where I'm concerned--sometimes I like her, sometimes I don't. This one I don't.

Picked up--again, library book--Life Among The Savages, a memoir by stellar American novelist Shirley Jackson. I was really enjoying it--funny, accessible, light--when I noticed on the bio on the back that she'd died in 1965, aged only 48. I'm 51. So that sucked. So then I looked her up on Wikipedia to see why she died so young, and the answer was heart trouble and cigarettes and addiction and anxiety, and also her husband was an over-controlling womanizer who forced her to agree to an "open marriage" she didn't want. Now I know Wikipedia is not wholly reliable. My own entry is rigorously policed by my daughter's friend, who has to keep editing out ridiculous phrases other people keep putting it--it's become on the nature of a family joke--but still, reading about her life made me see her memoir, in which her husband keeps murmuring about money while heading off to his office, gleefully, which she tries to cope with four children and a series of unreliable household help and writing novels that are still considered classics in their genre seventy years later, as well as making most of the household income--a little differently, and much less amusing. When she died her younger children were still living at home. I was not looking to read about disasters.

Then my lovely friend Hilary McKay recommended a old book by Elizabeth Von Atrim, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther. My new iPad had arrived, so I looked this book up, and it was FREE on Kindle, probably because it's so old and obscure. Started it with great joy. Then put it down. I'll probably love it some day. For now, not so much. I read 20 pages and absolutely nothing happened. Not one blessed thing. Lots of words, charming words, not a one of them fine active verbs. I'm not absolutely addicted to plots, but still.

That was last night. That's my reading history of the past two weeks. I typically read 4-5 books per week. The past two weeks: 3--the two Joanna Bournes, and Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's Game Changer, a short brilliant nonfiction book about increasing access to books in schoolchildren. So, 1.5 books per week in weeks when I've had lots of reading time. It's no wonder I'm cranky.

I'm headed back to the library this afternoon while my husband's at physical therapy. Help a sister out, here. What's good? What will be not sad and not stupid and not too bleeping literary?


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Giving Tuesday, blah blah blah

I'm cynical about this Giving Tuesday stuff.

We only give this one day a year?
Eh.
For what it's worth, I'm also not a fan of Black Friday or Cyber Monday. I'm okay with Small Business Saturday, but mostly only because some of the people with small businesses around here are my friends.

When you live in a small town you quite often know the people on the other side of the counter, and they you, and if you like their business you want it to stick around.

I recognize the privilege in my constant willingness to ignore Black Friday. The amount of money I'd save isn't worth the hassle to me. That's nice for me. But anyway, I'm cynical about the whole thing.

We usually decorate our Christmas tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We didn't this year. We had it tentatively scheduled for the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, before the children flew back to their current homes, but my husband wasn't feeling up for it--this knee replacement stuff is hard and painful--and none of the rest of us wanted to proceed without him, so now we're decorating the tree on December 22nd, which is when the children come back (it's so fantastic that they both get to spend Thanksgiving AND Christmas with us still). We are not putting up little wreaths on all the dining room and kitchen windows. My allergies were so bad last year I declared it was time to ban indoor fresh fir, and I haven't yet found a source for fake small wreaths. Not that it matters as the husband isn't yet ambulatory. Likewise the garland on the bannister. Also the outdoor lights. I'll put up the Nativity sets soon, and get out the stockings, but on the whole it's a pared-down Christmas just as it was a pared-down Thanksgiving.

And that's fine. Thanksgiving was lovely. I could wish an easier recovery for my husband, but I'm grateful for, among other things, my work-at-home life that makes it easy for me to care for him. I'm grateful for our full first-floor bathroom that means he can shower without climbing stairs. I'm grateful for a lot of small things, and many big ones.

This morning I packed up bookplates to send out to the schools enrolled in the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. The first set of student-selected books are on their way to the classes, and the second set has been ordered. (We'll be a little quicker next year--we want the first set arriving by the end of October. But this is our pilot year, we're still figuring things out.) We had stickers made that read, "This book is a gift from Appalachian Literacy Initiative, and now belongs to:" and then there's a line for the student to write their name. I got extremely pleased as I went along, because--I need to order more stickers. I got a great deal on them online, and remember wondering how many I should buy, but this was before any of the schools had applied. I was vaguely hoping we'd be able to enroll 20 classrooms--the board thought that was overly optimistic--so I bought 2000 bookplates. In the end we enrolled 28 classrooms from 40 applications. 675 students x 2 books so far = 1350 books. Then 16 classroom books so far x 28 classrooms = 448 books. That's almost 1800 stickers.

1800 books.

To finish out the program for the rest of the year will take another 1686 stickers and books.

I am so loving this math.

I know I keep asking for money on this blog, and here I am doing it again, because after all it is GIVING TUESDAY. I'm practically obligated, right?

Here's the thing: our 501(c)3 status hasn't been granted yet. We registered as a non-profit in the state of Tennessee last March. We created a board, voted and approved our articles of incorporation and other legal bits, and filed for status with the IRS in early June. It was a big honking application and I was proud of completing it. On June 25, I got an official IRS letter saying they'd received my application.

And there we sit. There's no problem of which I am aware. Last week I got a tich frustrated and called the IRS and rattled off all our official numbers, and was told that we had not yet been assigned an agent, which as far as I could tell after further questioning meant that no one had done a damn thing. "It has not yet been 180 days," the IRS agent told me, indignantly.

OK. 180 days will be Christmas, and want I really want this year is tax-exempt status for ALI so we can apply for all these grants I've researched and learned about, and all the corporate-matching funds people offer me, and so I can approach publishers who don't have strong reason to love me (my own publisher, who does, has made a generous donation.) Right at this moment we're having to rely on personal donations--and when we do get our status it will apply retroactively to March 2018, our date of incorporation, so yes, your gifts should be tax-deductible, they just aren't yet--and people have been amazing, I swear they have, and I'm so grateful,

But you know, it's Giving Tuesday. Maybe you'd like to give a book to a kid who's never owned one before. Maybe you are buying books for kids in your own life, whom you love, and while you're at it you'll buy one for this kid--this fourth-grade girl in Leon, West Virginia, or the boy in Berea, Kentucky, who never saw themselves as readers because they honestly had nothing to read. Because their teachers are trying to build classroom libraries from books they find at Goodwill. Because the dollar books from Scholastic Book Fair look like leftovers, and when you're a poor kid you're sick of getting stuck with leftovers all the time.

You've got a thousand places to put your money. I know that. I don't even like Giving Tuesday. But maybe you do. And maybe ALI is something you'd like to support.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Small Thanksgiving

This morning my husband's stress meter was set to Apocalypse even before he stepped on the candy shard. I'd just gotten into the shower when he made a noise like Chewbacca. "I just stepped on a tiny sharp white thing!" he shouted.

"The dog got into your peppermint Life Savers!" I shouted back.

He growled again. My husband, I mean. It's not my fault the dog found his Life Savers but it is my fault that we have a dog. And I thought I'd cleaned up the mess, but the bathroom floor is speckled shiny white and blue tile and those pieces were hard to see.

"If I cut my foot I can't have surgery!" he said. This is true.

"Put on some socks!" I said back. I'm pretty sure Life Savers aren't sharp enough to penetrate the thick socks he wears.

My husband has been having a rough time. This morning he was still on call for his practice, about to go perform surgery, and less than 24 hours from a total knee replacement. That he's receiving, not performing. Also his tooth still hurt. His mind was running an auto-loop of all the things that could go wrong with his knee, and it was not effective to try to reassure him because just recently everything possible went wrong with one of his teeth. Three root canals. Extraction. Dry socket. Heavy antibiotics because of the pending knee surgery.  He's lost 15 pounds in the last few weeks simply because it hurt too much to eat.

He's having his knee replaced because he has no cartilage left. When he was a boy he fractured his patella playing baseball and it healed with a sharp internal edge. He's had repeated surgeries on that knee and we've known for awhile that a joint replacement was only a matter of time. He hoped, however, for a little more time.

I'm optimistic. He, right now, is not. Did I mention the time he ruptured his Achilles? That hurt. A lot. Still does. Then there's the shoulder surgery....orthopedists love the man.

As do I. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is going to be small this year. It's funny to me how my holidays flip-flopped. When I was a child Thanksgiving was sacrosanct. It would take place either at my house or my aunt's house, but it always, always involved the same family and the same food and the same card games. Christmas changed from year to year. Thanksgiving never did.

Then I grew up. My children have known a never-changing Christmas. We found a good set of rituals early and kept them. It's been rare for us to have family visiting on Christmas and we never travel. The only big change is that now that they're adults they don't wake us up at four am. Thanksgiving has been our variable holiday--different family, different friends, different food. We've traveled and hosted friends and been hosted by friends, and all of it has been lovely, but not this year.

This year will be the four of us. I had family willing to come and I told them no. My husband will be two days postop, sleeping in my office. My children don't arrive home until late Wednesday night. I floated the idea of getting our turkey from Bojangles this year. (For my Yankee friends, that's a Southern fast-food fried chicken chain.) Bojangles deep-fries turkeys. I always thought deep-fried turkeys sounded interesting but also, in my hands, a near-guaranteed way to set the house on fire. We all like Bojangles, especially my son, who hung out there after school with his friends so often in high school that the manager gave them all t-shirts.

But the children protested mightily, and finally I got to the root of their unhappiness, which was, you can't stuff a deep-fried Bojangles turkey with my grandmother's stuffing.

My grandmother's stuffing--made primarily of saltine crackers and bacon--is legend. It achieves greatness only by being cooked inside the bird--you can't get anything close to the same texture or taste without it absorbing all the poultry juice and drippings. It is magical. I cram that turkey as full as possible with the stuffing; no matter how much I make, there are nearly no leftovers.

Ok. I understood. Grandma's stuffing had to be on the table. But that caused me to rethink the entire menu. What if, instead of making all the dishes I usually did, I only made what mattered most?

Turkey with stuffing. My daughter added cranberries. My husband added our traditional sweet potato casserole. My son added Sister Schubert's pan rolls. (Those come frozen in Southern grocery stores.) We thought hard about dessert and decided to go with fancy ice cream. The end.

It will be plenty to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Can Your Book Club Help Mine?

Phew. I'm back from the fall rush. Now I'm in the middle of a book rush. It's a good place to be.

Monday I spoke at a lovely public middle school in New Jersey. It was well-appointed but not crazily so; the students were well-behaved, diverse, well-prepared, inquistive--everything you'd want in a school group. It was a pleasure to be with them.

As usual, I asked the librarian what percentage of the students get free or reduced-price school lunch. The librarian looked startled. "I'd guess hardly any," she said. Later I looked the school up on niche.com, and sure enough, it's listed as 1%.

In a perfect world, none of our schoolchildren will grow up in poverty.

Where I live--I just stopped to do some math with the stats on niche.com, because my town is divided into both Tennessee and Virginia sides, and has 9 elementary and 2 middle schools--in my hometown, 71% of the elementary students and 63% of the middle school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. That's 3000 students out of a little over 4000.

This is why I started the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. If you're struggling to feed your kids you're going to struggle to get them books.

If they don't have access to books, they don't learn to read as well.

Nationwide, of the students who get free and reduced-price lunch, only 22% read proficiently.

At ALI, we've enrolled 28 classrooms, 675 students, in this year's program. By the end of the year each teacher will have a classroom set of 28 new high-quality books and each child will have four brand-new books of their choice to keep. "I hate to say this," one teacher from Kentucky told me, "but you give some of my students one book and you've just increased by 100% the number of books in their home."

The books we give are interesting and age-appropriate and shiny bright. They are books designed to get kids hooked on reading.

They are not free or reduced-price books. (Though our partner, Parnassus Books, does give us a great discount.) And the truth is, we've committed to these kids, but we don't know yet how we're going to fund the whole year. We're working on it! We'll take all ideas.

Meanwhile, the librarian at that school in New Jersey had a suggestion that I'm going to pass onto all of you. If you're reading this, you probably enjoy reading.
If your reading this, you may belong to a book club.

If you belong to a book club, would your club sponsor ALI? Perhaps we could be your holiday project. For $40 you could sponsor a student. $210 will sponsor the teacher's classroom set. $1000 is an entire classroom for the year.

I know, at this time of year you've got a million worthy charities vying for your attention and your dollars. Can you still spare a moment for us? I believe so sincerely in this cause. I believe so sincerely that the right book can be a lifeline for a child.

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 30, 2018

Sitting in Sadness

This has been a seesaw time.

Some things have been wonderful and lovely. I spent a morning having coffee with a childhood friend, with whom I've reconnected via the internet. I think we could have talked for days. I had a fantastic visit home with my parents, and then I accepted the Indiana Author's Award at this big gala dinner in Indianapolis, at the downtown library, which I've always loved. Last weekend I watched my daughter sword-fight with gusto and tenacity and success. (College fencing.)

And at the same time there's a lot going wrong. Much of what is happening is not my story, or not entirely, but, once again, people I care about are struggling with big problems that won't be easily or quickly solved.

And then someone shot up the synagogue in Pittsburgh.

I'm heartbroken over it. I'm Catholic. For a week this spring I was part of a small, close-knit, loving Jewish community, a group of children's writers and illustrators traveling through Israel. The people on that trip--only one other person wasn't Jewish--shared their faith and culture with me all week, lovingly, openly, with joy. They showed me how many different ways it was possible to be Jewish. After the latest round of sexual abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church this summer I struggled for awhile with whether I could remain part of that institution. What kept me Catholic was my Jewish friends, who'd taught me so respectfully that there is room for dissent and disagreement within a faith.

When the madman who'd murdered eleven people at prayer was taken to the hospital, wounded, he was still ranting that he wanted to kill all the Jews. The doctors who treated him were Jewish.

This hatred is insanity. There is no place for it here. There is no place for it anywhere.

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.