Monday, June 1, 2020

Black lives matter.

Black lives matter.

Yesterday a POC writer friend of mine spoke out on social media about how angry she felt toward white writers who'd written books featuring black characters yet remained silent now.  I wrote Jefferson's Sons, so this included me.

I replied with this: I’ve given financial support to bond funds and POC, especially black authors, but I’ve done so privately. I’ve reposted and retweeted posts from black people. Right now I’m trying to keep my mouth shut and my mind, ears, and heart open. No one needs my narrative right now. Perhaps, though, I do need to affirm: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The writer friend responded that she thought I did need to affirm it. That while I didn't need to center any story on myself, I needed to stand up for black people. So I put it up on her post, and on twitter, and I'm saying it here.

Black lives matter.

Do not come at me with All lives matter. 'All lives matter' is a way of silencing protest, of saying that these black people don't get to stand out, a way of implying that it's no worse, no harder, to be black in America than it is to be white, when patently that isn't true.

Do not tell me you don't see color. All that says is that you're so accustomed to your white privilege you don't see how your whiteness benefits you.

Black lives matter.

A white childhood friend of mine just posted the story of how, when she was in high school, she tried to pay for something at a store with a counterfeit bill. The clerk noticed and called police, who questioned my friend--now sobbing--then let her go, because they believed her when she said she didn't know the bill was fake and didn't know who'd passed it to her.

George Floyd was murdered for paying for something with a counterfeit bill.

I don't have any idea whether or not he knew it was counterfeit. I don't remotely care. 

Murdered. Over a counterfeit twenty.

Black lives matter.

I watched part of the video of his murder one time. I'll never watch it again. It was filmed by a 17-year-old black girl. Can you imagine being that child? Being that brave, doing something that awful? 

Black lives matter.

In many, perhaps most, of the protests taking place around the country, black people are protesting peacefully; the violence and looting come from white people. If it had been my husband who had a man kneel on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while he died, I might not be protesting peacefully. If it had been my son. I've never needed to worry about that. My family is white. It wouldn't happen to a white man in my country.

Black lives matter.

One of my relatives in the generation above mine said to me, the other day, "I realized I have no idea what it means to be a black man in this country."

Black lives matter.

Once when my children were small, both still in car seats, I was driving them home from school and blew right past another elementary school without slowing down. I was going 35 mph, not 80, but the speed limit there is 10, and there are always police supervising. I saw the blue lights flashing behind me and knew immediately what I'd done. I pulled to the side of the road. My children, frightened, began to cry. I reassured them that while I'd done something wrong, I wouldn't be arrested. I would be given a ticket and I'd have to pay a fine. "The worst thing that's going to happen," I said, "Is that Mrs. B--- [our neighbor] is going to drive past us in a minute, and honk and laugh and wave."

That's exactly what happened. That's all that happened. And I knew that's how it would be. There's a definition of white privilege, if you're still looking for one.

Black lives matter.

I have spent a few days where all I did online was retweet and repost statements made by my black friends. It's taken me a long time to learn that sometimes I need to shut up, listen, and learn, but I'm pretty sure the last few days have been one of those times. This morning a local friend, white, asked me if I wanted to join her white reading and accountability group--biweekly zoom meetings devoted to learning how to be actively anti-racist without requiring black people to do the work of teaching us right now. I'm all in. 

I've ordered books: Waking Up White, The Hidden Rules of Race, Choke Hold, The Color of Law. I've also ordered a trio of YA debut novels by black women that publish tomorrow: You Should See Me in a Crown, A Song Below Water, and A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. I looked them up; they all got terrific reviews, and sound fantastic.

I donated a bit of money to the bail funds of Chicago and Philadelphia, two cities important to my family. Cash bail is a social injustice--you can read about why--and protesters get held for bail as a way of discouraging them. I'm not protesting myself--I'm still protecting my fragile lungs in strict isolation--but this is my way of supporting those who do.

Black lives matter.

I hope that every white person reading this will take some concrete anti-racist action. I hope that every white person reading this will shut up, listen, and learn. And then do something.

Because black lives matter. The end.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Letter to a Beginning Writer

I received a letter from a seventeen-year-old writer interested in publishing books. She asked me some specific questions. I usually don't reply to reader mail in this sort of detail, but I got on a roll here, and then I thought that this might be useful to other writers at the start of their careers. So I reprinted it here, with some identifiers removed.

Dear Writer,

Being a writer and being published are really two separate things. Writing is a combination of craft and talent; anyone can do it, but not that many people learn to do it well, and learning to do it well takes a long time. Most people write for several years before they're published.

Being published means you've created a product for sale. As you already know, there are two ways, traditional and self-publishing. I don't know much about self-publishing. I started writing for publication, first in magazines, in 1987. The entire industry was different then. Self-publishing was much more limited and uncommon. I do know--this held true then and still does now, no matter what the self-publishing industry might tell you--very, very few self-published books earn back the money spent to produce them. As a self-published writer your income will be less than zero. You will pay money to create a book that in all probability won't sell. In many cases this doesn't matter to the writer, who has other reasons for choosing this path. But the only reliable way to have a career as a writer is to be paid for your work, and in nearly all cases, if you write books, as opposed to articles, that means traditional publishing. 

In traditional publishing many books also don't earn back the money spent to produce them, but the publisher bears the costs and takes the loss, not the author. The author still gets paid something. 

Most successful, published authors still have other jobs. Most don't earn enough from their writing to support themselves. There are exceptions, but it's probably important to understand this going in.

Honestly, career coaches and start-up companies aren't useful for traditional publishing. What is useful: learn the basic rules of the industry (easy to do: there are books about it) and write something a publishing company wants to sell. Writing something worthwhile is the hardest and most important part. 

Query Tracker probably isn't the way I'd find an agent, but, again, Query Tracker didn't exist when I started. I've had the same agent for the last twenty years. I just looked her up on Query Tracker, and she probably wouldn't stand out to you at all there, because her listing isn't prominent--but she's one of the best agents in the field, with an excellent reputation among publishers.  Whatever you do to find an agent, do NOT pay them to read your book or offer critiques. Real agents don't do that--but plenty of scammers do. Please understand that finding an agent can be almost as difficult as finding a publisher, because real agents only make money when they sell your manuscript.

You're seventeen--I wouldn't rush into publishing yet. I'd decide if becoming a writer was really important to me, and I'd work on that part. I'd write. I'd read, critically and copiously. I'd try to figure out why the books I liked were good--what about the technical aspects of them appealed to me. I'd get familiar with the Writer's Market 2020--you can find that at your library--and read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing. If you're interested in writing for children, I'd join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which I did at age 19. I'd search for a story worth telling, and I'd work hard to learn how to tell it. 

I had talent at your age. By the time I got to college I also had ambition. I earned rare As in my college writing intensives. I started being published in magazines. I wrote a novel-length manuscript before I graduated, and it earned me a job ghost writing for a popular series. I also worked as a research chemist for nearly five years, because no one was going to pay me enough to write full-time; when I quit that job, it was because my husband was finished with his schooling and making a salary, and we didn't need mine as much. It took nine years from the first time I submitted a manuscript to a publisher to when I had a book come out--and that book got five starred reviews, and earned out its advance, and won some awards, and still I only didn't have to have another job because my husband had a good one. Then I published 14 books in 10 years--still not earning a living wage--then I took four years to write Jefferson's Sons (which also got 5 starred reviews), which taught me enough about writing that my next book, The War That Saved My Life (which got 3 starred reviews--reviews aren't everything), won all sorts of things, became a #1 NYT bestseller, earned a bunch of money, and made me an overnight success--due to luck and timing and most of all perseverance and craft as well as skill.  I wrote six full drafts of TWTSML, and over 12 drafts of the first chapter alone. I had to learn to work that hard.

I tell you all this because I think that the hard work is the important part. It won't come from career coaches or any other external factors. It comes from you. Only you can decide if you're going to be a writer. If you want to be one, start writing and never stop.

My very best,

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

"I'm Not A Racist"

"I'm not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way."

Pro tip: when a white person starts out any statement with, "I'm not a racist," they either just got caught saying, or are about to say, something racist.

I'm sorry that this is true. 

No one wants to be called a racist, but not nearly enough white people are doing the work to not be racist--to be, in fact, anti-racist. 

The above quote comes from Amy Cooper, a white woman caught on camera by a black man, Christian Cooper (they're not related), making a false 911 call that he was threatening her. 

The facts undisputed by both sides:
--Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper were both in a part of Central Park called the Ramble.
--Amy Cooper was exercising her dog. Christian Cooper was looking for birds. He's a birder--a person who keeps track of which species of birds he sees.
--Dogs in the Ramble must be on a leash. Amy Cooper's dog was not. Christian Cooper asked her to put the dog back on its leash. She refused.

At some point in the dispute, Christian Cooper took out his phone and started videoing. Here's what happened next, according to CNN:

 The video begins with Amy Cooper pulling her dog by the collar and telling Christian Cooper to stop recording.
"Please don't come close to me," Christian Cooper says, as she approaches.
"Sir, I'm asking you to stop recording me," Amy Cooper says.
He asks her again not to come close. That's when Amy Cooper says she's going to call the police.
"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life," she says.
"Please tell them whatever you like," Christian Cooper says.
The video shows Amy Cooper on her phone.
"There's a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet," she says. "He is recording me and threatening me and my dog."
While she's on the phone, her dog appears to be straining and trying to get free while she tries to restrain it.
"I'm being threatened by a man in the Ramble," she continues in an audibly distraught voice . "Please send the cops immediately!"
The video ends with Christian Cooper saying "Thank You."
Please note her threat: 'I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man and he's threatening my life." There's no evidence whatsoever that Christian Cooper was threatening Amy Cooper. He stays at a distance; she approaches him. She's letting him know what she'll say to the cops if he doesn't do what she wants. If she were truly in danger, she wouldn't threaten to make the phone call--she'd make it immediately.
Please also note the intentional weaponization of the phrase African-American. Amy Cooper could have said large, frightening, scary-looking, crazy, unhinged, angry--any of a vast number of words to describe why she found a man threatening. She chose African-American. Not once but several times. 
Please note--you have to watch the video there in the link to do this--how her voice changes during the phone call. The first two statements she makes sound matter-of-fact. The last one switches to "audibly distraught" even though Amy Cooper is far away from Christian Cooper, he's not coming closer to her, and whatever threat she feels can not plausibly have increased. 
Black men die in situations like this. Amy Cooper deliberately endangered Christian Cooper's life because she didn't want to leash her dog. If that's not racist, what is?

Thursday, May 7, 2020

On Giving Tuesday, We Gave Thanks. And Books

Judging from the number of emails from various organizations I received asking me to donate, last Tuesday was Giving Tuesday.  At first I thought it was some sort of every-six-months thing, equidistant from the Giving Tuesday right after Thanksgiving, but come to find out it was a Coronavirus thing, because a lot of people need help right now.

My state, Tennessee, has opened back up, though I don't know why as we don't meet any of the suggested federal guidelines. I myself am still quarantining. Back at that start of this mess, in mid-March, I was still coughing hard from the damage wrought by my trip to India, which had ended six weeks previously. Please understand that this isn't really India's fault--no one else on our boat, including all the rest of the tourists and all the staff, got sick from the air pollution, except my husband, who's also asthmatic, and he did much better than me. I wore an N-99 mask most of the time in India, and even then was in really bad shape. I'm a lot better now--no coughing, and I'm exercising again--but the last damn thing I need is the Coronavirus.

So Tuesday, when I went to the post office, I wore my mask again. I had about 200 pounds of books boxed and ready to go out to our Appalachian Literacy Initiative teachers. I print the postage for them here at home, but since ALI ships media mail the post office won't pick it up at my house. (Sometimes I add a first-class package to the mix, and then they do. But also, my postal worker drives a small car, and making her haul 200 pounds of books from my porch to the road and then find room for them among her other mail is not nice.) So all I had to do was dump the boxes inside the post office, which isn't far from my house. Still it was an Outing--I really barely leave the farm these days. These particular books went to teachers in Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, who have all developed ways of getting them to their students.

I'm so grateful for those teachers. I'm even more grateful to the amazing people who've donated to Appalachian Literacy Initiative these last two years. Thank you, all of you. I stack these brand-new books into boxes and I ship them. The teachers deliver them. You all paid for them. Your work paid for them. I look at our donor list, and I'm astonished, really, that so many people believe in the value of the work we're doing. Students absolutely need access to books, no matter what their family's economic status. I know that to be true. You're giving them that access.

So Tuesday afternoon, when I'd cottoned onto this Giving Tuesday stuff, I thought about writing an appeal. But honestly, times are hard for a lot of people for a lot of reasons right now. We promise to always be good stewards of the money our donors entrust to us. But on Tuesday, sending out those books, and today, two days later, I really didn't feel like asking for more. I just wanted to say thank you.

Thank you. All of you. Somewhere, a child is reading because of you.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Hey, Mickey

Mickey was an off-the-track Thoroughbred; he raced four years and won over $46,000, which is both a lot and hardly anything in the weird world of racing. He was quite small, 15.1 hands, which translates to just over five foot at the shoulder. (Horses are always measured to the top of the shoulder as it's the highest fixed point in their anatomy.) His registered name was Modest Man, which cracked us the hell up, because a more immodest horse would have been hard to find. He knew he was spectacular. When he stopped racing he was bought and retrained for eventing by a teenager who worked for an international rider named Dorothy Crowell. She renamed him Hey Mickey, and rode him for several years, competing him up through preliminary level, which contrary to the name is the fourth of six levels. Problem was, he could only jump prelim cross country jumps if he came into them absolutely perfectly--they're big enough that they hit the limits of what he could jump, leaving no room for error. If he couldn't clear the jump, he refused to try, which was smart of him, but meant he wasn't really suited to his rider's goals. You could see it in his record--flawless cross-country rounds at every level until prelim, then a stop or two, then they'd bump him down a level and he'd be perfect, then back up and he'd have a stop. He just couldn't quite do prelim. 

He was a quirky little guy. He was high-strung and nervous and opinionated. He was also wholly brave and reliable. Katie's old horse, Pal (still with us at 33 years old!) had taken her to the first level of recognized eventing, but Pal was already elderly and was starting to lose soundness. A young friend of mine, barely out of her teens at the time--now herself an international level rider--took me aside and said, "Buy her a beginner novice/novice horse, NOT a training/prelim one." I already understood this, but it's worth repeating because so few people follow it--you want your kid on the horse he or she is ready for right at that time, not the horse they might be ready for sometime in the hypothetical future.

Mickey didn't suit many kids, and he'd been for sale for over a year, but when we started looking, online, he popped up over and over again. I'd go to some horses-for-sale site, enter my basic criteria (already evented, not a pony, middle-aged, middle-priced) and start scrolling through candidates. "Oh, here's one that looks good," I'd say to my daughter. "Oh wait--it's still Mickey." Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. The universe was clearly trying to tell us something. 

It happens that one of my trainers, Cathy Wieschhoff, lives fairly near and is a longtime friend of Dorothy Crowell. Cathy gave me Dorothy's number, and I asked Dorothy, mom-to-mom, about the horse. Dorothy said that if her own daughter wanted to event she'd buy Mickey for her. We went and tried him, and he was calm and happy and rideable. With his owner he could move under saddle quite well; with my daughter, who didn't have the same level of skill at the time, he poked his nose out and trotted happy and loose. He vetted sound. We bought him.

Then my daughter had a great big adjustment, going from a phlegmatic square elderly Quarterhorse to a lively nippy Thoroughbred. We'd planned, however, on a long period of transition--we bought him in the fall knowing she wouldn't compete him until late spring. She had time to learn to quit kicking him in mid-air over every jump, which had been necessary if you wanted Pal to land cantering, but caused Mickey to leap into a gallop. She learned that if he was tense he sometimes needed less control, not more; she learned to let him blow off steam with a nice gallop around a field. She also learned when to say, "Mickey, it just sucks to be you," and cheerfully ignore the temper-tantrums caused, say, by a new martingale.  

Right from the start they understood each other. Very early in his time with us, he was on the crossties in our barn when I walked through with a long piece of hose. Mickey spooked. My daughter pressed her palms against him. "It's not a snake," she said.

Mickey said, "That is too a snake."

My daughter: "Relax. Shh. It's not a snake."

Mickey: "Snake, snake, SNAKE!"

My daughter (still talking out loud, still with her palms on his shoulder): I'm right here. You're okay. You're safe.

Mickey (calming somewhat): okay. Okay. But it's still a snake.

My daughter: Not a snake.

Mickey: long exhale. Leans his head briefly against my daughter's.

My daughter: Mom? Move the snake.

Sometimes at competitions he would get so worked up, inside his stall, that steam would roll off his sweating body. But when Katie rode him into the start box he was perfectly calm. At their first event he was clearly delighted to be competing again, and he bopped around cross country like a Thewell pony. At the second event, he remembered that he used to run prelim, where the speeds are much higher, and he burst out of the box like he was jet-fueled. In the center of the vast field I laughed so hard I could barely watch. "I could still steer him," my daughter said later, "and I knew he would jump everything." However, a low levels, cross country courses have speed limits--for safety's sake riders are fined for going too fast. After a few fences my daughter realized they were going Mach Six. She sat up and trotted an enormous circle. Then they resumed jumping. Mickey picked up speed again, so my daughter added a second huge trot circle. She trotted the last two fences, and trotted the hill going home (after the last fence you're not allowed to go slower than a trot, to prevent riders from avoid speed faults by standing still), and missed getting speed faults by one second. It was a pony club event, and Muffin Pantaze, one of of the technical directors, followed her over the finish line in a golf cart and chewed her out for the next fifteen minutes. When I caught up to them I was still laughing. 

She learned control. They were best-conditioned and highest-placed in several of our local rallies. They were fourth in their division at the pony club national championship. Before my daughter went to college they competed up to training level. They never had a cross-country fault in all their years together.

Mickey died unexpectedly between Thanksgiving and Christmas of my daughter's junior year. He was the same age as my daughter, so getting older for a horse, but still lively in every sense of the word. When my daughter left for college we could have sold him--but I knew it would be hard to find a kid that matched his personality. He'd been wonderful for my child, and I owed him, so I told him he was home. He still is; we buried him beside my daughter's first pony. She rides a new horse now. Sometimes we both find ourselves saying, to the new guy, "Hey, Micks, knock it off." Then we tear up a little. Then we smile.

Hey Mickey. You were so, so fine.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Baby Yo-don't

My sister is expecting her fourth child very soon--she has a c-section planned for April 13th. It's a little colossally nerve-wracking to be having a baby right now, not to mention being very strictly quarantined, and trying to work from home, alongside your already-working-from-home husband, your suddenly-homeschooling first-grader, and your five- and two-year olds. It's a lot of chaos. The happy bits are that 1) my sister's in-laws live right down the street from them, and have also strictly quarantined, so they can jump in to take some of the kids (AND visit the new baby, which makes the rest of us, who are so much farther away and not supposed to travel, nor would we still be under strict enough quarantine to be near the newborn if we did, jealous) and 2) my sister deals with chaos enormously well.

She made a onesie for the baby that says, "I was born during a pandemic."

I made the baby a lovely crocheted baby blanket that's five ombre shades of cyclamen. The yarn is this gorgeous washable merino, soft and warm, which I was saving a special project. My husband suggested that before sending the New Baby something quite so sensationally pink, I wait to see if my sister had a boy or a girl (she doesn't know). He thought I should make a different colored blanket if it was a boy.

I mailed it. If she has a boy, that'll be four boys. If a pink blanket actually tamps down some of the testosterone in her house it would probably be a good thing.

Anyway, I immediately looked for something else to knit for her. I went on Ravelry, and found the best--oh, the best--little Baby Yoda sweater pattern. My sister's family are huge Star Wars fans. I consulted my extensive yarn stash, and found bulky (the right weight) yarn in exactly the right colors, left over from Christmas stockings I knit years ago.

I set about knitting. First I made a cunning little green hood, appropriately slouchy. Kitchener-stitched the top seam, and usually I struggle with Kitchener stitch (I know, I KNOW,  it's not that difficult. We all have our weaknesses) but it came out perfect. Next I made a Right Ear and a Left Ear, to be eventually sewn to the sides of the hood. They, too, were perfect, and they made me laugh.

That was it for the green yarn. I started in on the main body of the sweater. Got to the armpits, set that aside, and made two sleeves, also to the armpits. Then I knit the sleeves onto the body of the sweater, and that's when everything fell apart.

First, I screwed up the sleeve placement, but that's an easy, though annoying (can't you count to fifteen, Kim?) fix. No, the real problem came next, when I picked up the remains of the skein of yarn for the body, and realized that lo, it was almost gone.

I set the little not-finished sweater down. I read through the rest of the pattern. I looked at the shoulder shaping and the neckband and the number of rows still left to knit. If I'd wanted to get fancy I could have weighed the remaining yarn, and the partially-finished sweater, and done some math and figured out exactly how much yarn I had left, but it didn't really matter because the non-mathematical answer was: not enough. Not even close. Not even maybe-you-can-knit-the-neckband-out-of-the-green-yarn close.

I went back to my stash and rummaged through it looking for more of the yarn I knew I didn't have, because I remembered buying it in the first place, and making those Christmas stockings, and I knew there weren't extra whole skeins lying around. I found a different yarn in the same color, lightweight (but maybe I could double it) and oh so much softer. I contemplated a sweater that went along in bulky, hairy, somewhat scratchy wool until just after the armpits, when it switched to softer, lighter, finer stuff. I thought, well, it would be good that the neckband was softer. A neckband of that other stuff would really be irritating to a sweet little baby.

Then I realized that I was making an entire sweater for a sweet new petal-skinned baby out of yarn that I, a confirmed wool lover, would find intolerably scratchy even if worn over a long-sleeved shirt.

I thought, well, my sister could bundle the baby way up. Several layers and the baby would probably be fine. Except, of course, that it would be so hot it would be miserable. Plus it was pretty stupid to imagine a newborn wearing a cap beneath a hood, so that the hood wouldn't scratch its little head.

Then I happened to be walking down my own hallway, and noticed the framed newborn photograph of my sister's second son--wearing a Yoda sweater. In short, she already has one.

That was the nail in the knitterly coffin. My scratchy half-finished sweater is now destined for the frog pond, which is what knitters say when they plan to frog something, which is what knitters say when they're going to rip-it, rip-it. The yarn will return to the stash, and maybe I'll use it for another Christmas stocking or something else that won't be worn against the most delicate possible skin.

Sorry, sis. In the meantime, I'll get busy on something else.

P.S. He's here. He's perfect.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Weird Stuff for Weird Times

So here we are in the Weird Times. It's hard and scary and none of us knows how long it will last. I've been writing cheerful animal blog posts in part because I have so many of them--low-hanging fruit, from a writerly perspective--and also because they're my equivalent of cute puppy videos. I'm a word person, I don't do much with pictures.

A lot of my author friends are doing videos right now of themselves reading their books, or talking to students, and I appreciate them but I don't plan to emulate them. I'm a much, much better speaker in person than in front of a camera. I don't like being in videos. I had to record a few yesterday at my publisher's behest, and my daughter and I knew to put the dog on my lap for them, because if I'm not touching a dog or a horse (or possibly other animals--these are the only two I've tried) my upper lip becomes paralyzed and I look into the video camera in the manner of the condemned facing their executioners.

And I'm actually quite good at school visits, or speeches. So I don't think releasing a lot of hopelessly bad videos of myself is in my best interests so far as attracting (or at least not repelling) future work.

That said, I want to do something. So, when I received not one, but three emails this morning from a young reader who also helpfully included the email addresses of two friends, so that I could reply to all of them, I wrote the following. And then I thought, why not, let's share. Here are some weird things off the top of my head. Please tell me weird things off the top of yours.

Dear P, J, and R,

I'm really happy that you all love my books. Thanks, P, for writing, and for including your friends. Since we're all stuck together apart, because of this quarantine, I thought I'd send you some things about me you probably won't find on my blog.

One: I have ridden an ostrich. It's the Weird Face I pull out whenever anyone wants a Weird Fact about me, but it's also true, and it was hilarious.

Ostriches are really just 300-pound chickens. Their brains are smaller than their eyeballs, and it shows. You don't really "ride" an ostrich so much as you hang on by the wingpits while the ostrich careens wherever it chooses, until you slide off the back of it because you're laughing so hard.

That was in South Africa, one of my favorite places on earth. I've traveled a lot. Ireland, South Africa, and Paris are places I could happily live. (Though probably not full time in Paris. I'm not really a city person. But I'd love it for a month or two, or maybe even three. I love walking in Paris, just wandering and wandering. Sometimes when I'm there I walk 20 miles in a day, not to get places, just to walk.)

OK, that leads me to Two (I'm kind of making this up as I go): underneath Paris are miles and miles of caverns. Paris is built on top of limestone, and most of the city buildings, especially the old ones, are built of rock quarried from beneath them. Imagine Paris as a city with a hidden basement. There are places where you can go down and explore, and some people have parties down there. I've never been to a party, but I have been to the only part that's open to the public--that's the catacombs, and it's extremely weird. In the eighteenth century Paris's cemeteries were getting far too full, so they dug up all the old bones and put them into a section of these underground rooms, and you walk and walk through them. My family thought it was strange that I even wanted to go--they didn't--well, it is--but I found it interesting.

Three. I'm working on a book right now that involves World War II, a famous French castle called Chenonceau, Jewish children fleeing Nazis, and the ghost of Catherine de Medici. I've never written a ghost before, and it's fun. This isn't my next book--that's called Fighting Words, it comes out in August--but I hope it will be the one after that. (Things don't always go as planned.)

If you're planning your own homeschooling right now, I think you should look up Ireland, South Africa, and France on a globe. Then look up the Paris catacombs, Chenonceau, and Catherine de Medici online. That'd knock out geography and history in one go. If you want further reading, investigate the history of apartheid in South Africa, and the heroism of a man named Nelson Mandela. 

That's good for my end. What should I know about you?


Thursday, April 2, 2020

Appalachian Literacy Initiative: Books In a Time of Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Horse who Loves Trick-or-Treat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

He grinned. "What story would you tell?"

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

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

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

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

But then I thought of the best story to tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under looked sorry. But then, he usually did.

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

He was a grand dog. With excellent aim.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Cat Who Lived

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

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

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

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

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

We desperately needed a cat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My daughter said, "She's beautiful!"

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

She was mean.

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

The vet's office said, "Good."

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

She hates the other cats. They hate her.

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

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

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

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

This cat will be immortal.

Monday, March 16, 2020

About Recording My Books for Your Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Dear People who ask me questions on Goodreads:

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

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

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Mea Culpa: The Dangers of A Single Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dogs of India

I am mostly over being sick. Mentally, I am way WAY over it. Physically--well, I'm on my third different antibiotic, and this one's a weird one but seems to be doing more good than the first two. I took prednisone for more than 30 straight days, a new record for me, and I'm still using some extra inhalers and a few other random things. I'm also still coughing, though not nearly as much or as violently--I'm actually on an airplane as I'm typing this, and I will tell you, just now nobody loves anyone who coughs on an airplane. I've thought about wearing a sign saying "I do not have Coronovirus. Promise." around my neck. So far I've mostly just glared at people.

As I said, I'm over it.

I'm still thinking about how to write about India. India's a very big place--1.6 billion people, a large chunk of land, and cities simply on a different scale and density than we're used to. When we were in Varanasi, our tour guide called it a "small city." I asked what the population of Varanasi was. "About three million," he said.

Mostly when I think about India, I think about gorgeous saturated color. The saris of saffron and deep orange and violet. The open bags of spices in the marketplace, and the piles of vegetables and fruit. The wildly decorated wedding pavilions. The garlands of marigolds.

The other thing I think about is peace. India isn't quiet, but it's peaceful. There's a sense of happiness there. Drivers honk non-stop on the roads--you would too, out of sheer defensiveness-but there isn't a hint of road rage. No one is cursing. Cows wander the streets, placid and happy; people cut grass for them to eat, or offer them water.

Then there are the dogs.

They're everywhere. They look the same--cross a coyote with a fox, you'd get an Indian dog. Medium to short reddish or tannish hair, dark eyes, alert ears. Never barking; almost never jumping on people. May or may not have mange, but always seems to be well fed. They approach strangers politely, even hopefully, but they don't beg. I don't think they have to. Several times I saw people feeding dogs out on the streets. Dogs would come trotting over until a great pack surrounded the person with the food, but all of them waited patiently for their turn. No hostility, no shoving, just a sense of calm.

I grew to really love the Indian dogs. I was fond of the monkeys too. You had to be a bit more careful with them--they're wily thieves not above sneaking into open hotel windows--but they were fun to watch. I asked one of the men working at a hotel what sort of monkeys they were. He seemed surprised by the question. "Just, you know," he said, "basic monkeys."

Friday, February 7, 2020

Yesterday at the Book Fair

I went to India for two weeks. It was extraordinary, and it was complicated, and I'm left with the feeling that I'm not ready to write about it yet. I'll need to break bits down into smaller stories; so far, it's still all one bright swirl in my brain.

The air pollution there was horrific, which I knew going in. I anticipated having a hard time, because my asthma is exceptionally sensitive to air pollution. I actually packed a small air filterer in my luggage--and someone, somewhere, in one of the airport security checks (Atlanta to Amsterdam to Delhi) pried it apart and broke it. It probably would have been a big help, especially during the part where we were on a boat sailing the Ganges, especially as we got close to Kolkata. As it was I got pushed right to the edge of what my lungs can take. If my trip had been any longer I probably would have cut it short. I was as medicated as I could get away from a hospital, and I wore a high-tech mask--even to sleep in, some nights--and my breathing was a mess, and and still is.

I'll get better. But for the first time, I've been somewhere I know I won't go back, unless they fix their air pollution. I liked an awful lot about India and I'd love to explore it further, and I won't, and that's a little sad. I'll write about all of it eventually.

Meanwhile, we've entered into Book Fair Season with a vengeance. Thanks to the whopping grant Appalachian Literacy Initiative received from First Book, we're going into all the schools on the Virginia side of our town, and giving out gorgeous shiny new books.

Yesterday we were at an elementary school, PK-grade 5, a little over 200 students, 98% of whom qualify for free lunch. (At that point, they give everyone free lunch, and breakfast. But imagine it: four kids in the school whose parents make enough money that they don't qualify for free lunch. Four. Kids.) The school is actually doing a great job teaching the students--the principal was away yesterday getting a big national award for how much the school has improved. The teachers and staff are dedicated and proud.

The library is dire. Many of the teachers told me that they have classroom libraries--and we were able to let the teachers all chose a bunch of books for them at the end of the day--but the library--I have no words. I have a photo I took of one of the shelves--I didn't stage the photo, I just took it. Here:

One of those books--not the story, the actual physical book--was printed after I was born. ONE. I'm 52. And while I love A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park's Newbery winner, none of the rest of the books belong on a modern elementary school shelf. 

If you want kids to read well, you have to give them the proper incentive to practice and master the skill. And the incentive that works isn't Accelerated Reader points, free pizzas, improved test scores, or teacher affirmations. It's stories.

We love reading because we love stories.

We're in a golden age of children's literature right now. Some of the best, most vibrant, diverse, exciting books ever written have come out in the last ten years. Where are they in that photograph? They're the missing books, the ones the children should have access to.


We brought stories.

Each student chose three books to keep.

There's a thing about low-income kids I hadn't realized until yesterday. Their more affluent peers take things like books for granted. A book isn't a big purchase, of course they could have a book. Three books? Great! Middle-income kids can all picture, pretty clearly, what it might be like to be given some books. 

I already knew, of course, that low-income kids face significant challenges in getting access to books. If you can't afford rent, you aren't buying your kids books. If you can't afford school lunches, books probably aren't happening. The public library might be far from where you live, or maybe you can't check those books out anymore because you owe back fines, or because you don't currently have a fixed address. The school library might have shelves like my first photograph. It's why I started ALI; it's why we showed up yesterday with all the beautiful new books.

Anyhow, in nearly every class, when the students came into the library and I gave my speech ("three books, any books, I don't care what you choose or why, take your time") a child would raise their hand, and ask, anxiously, "Money?" Or, "We gotta pay for these?" Or, "We gotta give them back?" When I said, no, free books, no money, no giving them back, it was met not only with cheers, but with relief. These kids know there isn't extra money in their lives. They don't expect to be able to have books.

It was so much fun watching them chose. The photograph above is the big chapter books, but we had shorter chapter books, graphic novels, picture books, and lots of nonfiction. One child gleefully scooped up three books about planets. One black girl saw the book Don't Touch My Hair and said, "Oh, uh-HUH." Kid after kid after kid would select their books, sit down on the library floor, and start reading right away. (I wanted to take photos, but I don't share identifiable photos of children.) When the teachers came after school, to pick out books for their own classroom libraries, several of them reported that they'd given in to student demands and spent the entire afternoon reading. 

One child, walking out of the library, said to another, "This is, like, the best day ever."

So many people have supported ALI. I am beyond grateful to you all. Yesterday was very good. 

You can read more about ALI here and donate to us via PayPal here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

We Need to Talk About MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU. And Then Everyone Needs to Read it. All of you.

Not the concept, though that's important too. The book, Maybe He Just Likes You, new this year by Barbara Dee.

Because we women have all heard that line. Back in middle school and high school especially. A boy does something that a girl doesn't like--crosses a boundary in some way. Makes a comment, maybe, or touches without asking. Pays no attention when the girl says no. And the behavior gets excused with the comment, "Maybe he just likes you."

I know how much that line resonates because every time I mention this book to another female, woman or girl, they flinch when they hear the title. They said, "I hated that."

Somehow for generations now we've let boys get away with ignoring girls' boundaries. We've tried hard to teach girls that not only is it okay for boys to do this, we should be happy when they do. We should treat it as a sign of affection--affection that must always be tolerated, no matter whether we return it affection or welcome it or not.

"Maybe he just likes you." What if you don't like him?

The book is a novel, not an instruction manual. It's about a seventh-grade girl named Mila. She's got a sister and a group of friends and a mom who's looking for a new job. She's in the band and she takes martial arts classes. And lately the boys in her class have started doing things that make her feel a little uncomfortable. And then a little more uncomfortable. But it's not really wrong--or is it?

Barbara Dee is someone I'm proud to consider a friend (we did a panel at NCTE together this fall; we're reprising it at the Texas Library Association conference in March) and she let me read a very early copy of this manuscript. I loved it so much I wrote her a quote for the cover. I've been a fan of this book for a very long time, and that's why I had over 50 copies available at ALI's free book fair last week, for our local middle school with a total of about 500 sixth through eighth graders. Some of the copies I bought through First Book, whose grant made the book fair possible. Some I begged from the publisher when First Book ran out of stock.

We needed every single one of them.

Middle school students not only need this book, they KNOW they need this book. They want help navigating boundaries and consent. They want to know what to do when they or someone else has gone too far; they want to know what "too far" means. Do they have the right to shut someone else's behavior down? What if someone really does like them? Are they allowed to say no?

We had so many good books at that fair. I was so proud of the diversity and quality and breadth of genre and style. Tracy, my partner in crime, said I looked giddy as we laid out the final copies. I didn't feel giddy. I felt right--like I was doing exactly the work I was supposed to be doing in the world.

The first groups to come in were eighth graders. The very first class, several of the girls picked up Maybe He Just Likes You. (Boys should read it too--but the girls were drawn to it.) Then--this is the part I hadn't expected--those girls talked about the book. Told other girls about the book. Before lunch. So that, as the later classes came in, girls walked right up to me at the start, and said, "Where's 'Maybe He Just Likes You'? Because I want a copy of that."

We had Brown Girl Dreaming, Lalani of the Distant Sea, My Jasper June. Halfway Normal, Raymie Nightingale, Beverly Right Here. Lumberjanes, Real Friends, Ms. Marvel, Pictures of Hollis Woods. (Okay, that one also surprised me with its popularity--until a kid held it up to me and said, 'in foster care. Like me.') We had well over 100 different titles. We had complete free choice--if I ran out of a title kids wanted, I could almost always order more.

Twenty percent of the girls in that middle school chose as one of their three books 'Maybe He Just Likes You.'

Teachers. Your students are telling you something. They need to read this book.