Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Why We Needed Freewater

On Monday morning the Newbery award went to Freewater, a debut novel by Amina Luqman-Dawson. I'd bought the book last summer, but I didn't start reading it until this Monday afternoon, not for lack of interest, but because my To Be Read pile is threatening to overtake my entire house. I knew exactly where the book was in my stacks, and I snagged it and started reading over lunch.

This book, my friends, is exactly what a Newbery winner should be. It's also a primer in Why Everyone Needs Diverse Books. As it happens, the book may not have existed, at least not in its current form, without the work of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 to address the fact that the books being published for children in this country did not reflect the diversity of the children living in this country. WNDB runs excellent mentorship and grant programs for aspiring children's writers and illustrators and for aspiring children's editors. I understand that both Amina Luqman-Dawson and her editor were part of those programs, which absolutely delights me. 

It's vitally important that all children see themselves in the pages of the books they read. When I spoke at Southern Festival of Books a few years back, my daughter and I also spent some time working in the Parnassus Bookstore tent, both out of the goodness of our hearts and because they gave us a hefty discount in exchange. My daughter saw a little Black girl walking past a line of picture books suddenly stop and say, "Mama, look! This girl has hair like mine!" She patted the cover illustration of book showing a little Black girl with tightly curled hair. Her Mama stopped and smiled and acknowledged the likeness. "What's the book called?" the little girl asked. "It's called 'Beautiful,'" her Mama said, and the child beamed.

But diverse books aren't just important for diverse (non-white, non-straight, non-cis, disabled, etc.) readers. Telling stories from different points of view builds empathy and understanding in all of us. That sounds very highbrow--here's what I mean. Freewater takes place within a community of formerly enslaved people (and some freeborn children) living hidden in the Great Dismal Swamp. I already knew the difference between describing someone as a slave and describing them as an enslaved person. 'Slave' seems to indicate something immutable; 'enslaved boy' tells you that the condition has been imposed on the boy by someone else. 'Enslaved person' centers the personhood.

In Freewater, Amina Luqman-Dawson uses the phrase "enslaved soul." 

Think about that for a moment. Think about the difference between an enslaved man and an enslaved soul. It's subtle, but it's very, very real. Enslaving someone's soul feels far more devastating. It's a much more powerful phrase. And it's not one that ever occurred to me, even though I wrote a book about enslaved souls that at the time garnered very positive reviews. My book didn't win awards; for the first time, I'm glad. 

I'm changed by reading Freewater. Hallelujah. You go read it, too.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Day After All The Calls

 Today is the Oscars, the Tonys, and the Grammys of KidLit--American Library Association's Youth Media Awards. The Newbery and Caldecott winners were announced today, as well as the Printz, Siebert, Schneider Family, Stonewall, Coretta Scott King, and others--it's a great big festival of happiness. Nowadays there's a live online feed of the award announcements that draws several thousand kidlit watchers, including, of course, myself. While I technically did have a book published in 2022, there was absolutely no chance that She Persisted: Rosalind Franklin (of which I am quite proud) was going to win anything so I was in all senses a spectator this year.

It's lovely to have a book in contention but it's also strangely nerve-wracking. None of the major awards announce finalists ahead of time. However, winners do get "the call" before the official announcements--traditionally calls were made on Monday mornings very very early--that was what happened when I got an Honor in 2016--but now the switch seems to have been made to sometime the weekend before. That was true in 2021 when I got a call for Fighting Words, and according to a tweet from my friend Christina Sootornvat, it was true this year as well. 

Christina got the call while selling Girl Scout cookies.

I always have favorites going in but hesitate to say what they are, because I know I haven't read a full sampling of the books. I hadn't read any of the Printz awardees this year, nor any of the Caldecotts, though I had books I loved that didn't get any mention. I loved Christina's The Last Mapmaker but I read it so long ago, when she kindly sent me an ARC, that it was almost a surprise to me that it was still eligible.

There are always favorites left off the lists. Both last night and this morning I saw posts online reminding authors and illustrators that books do not need shiny award stickers to be valuable to children. I know this with all my heart. The current surprise runaway hit from the fifth-graders enrolled in ALI? Science Comics: Robots. Honestly probably about as likely to have gotten an award as my Rosalind Franklin book--but 39 kids from a single elementary school in southwest Virginia just requested copies, as did 47 kids from a single school in eastern Kentucky the week before. 

I have firsthand evidence that sometimes writers won't know the impact they've had on readers for years. Twenty-one years ago I published a novel set on the Appalachian Trail called Halfway to the Sky. It's still technically in print, though only electronically. It got good reviews, not great ones (a brief check just now on Amazon finds the phrase, "a fairly standard coming-of-age novel") and won absolutely nothing, though I did have several teachers tell me they enjoyed sharing it with their classes. About five years ago I got a letter from a young woman who wrote to tell me that my story had changed her life--because of it she started hiking. She found she loved the mountains and the woods. She listed some of the places she'd hiked and enclosed a photograph of herself on a summit.

Then I got another letter, from a young woman who'd started hiking because of Dani. She enclosed a photo of herself on the top of Kilimanjaro. 

Then a third letter. Then a fourth. Extraordinary.

I read something you wrote, and my life changed.

No one can say anything better to any author, anywhere.

This year's Newbery Award went to a middle-grades novel called Freewater. I bought it last summer when I happily found myself in Anderson's Bookstore (which resides in the same suburb of Chicago as the nearest TopGolf--my son lives in Chicago, and TopGolf is a good time. So is Anderson's.) I remember holding Freewater and another book (don't remember that one) in my hands, telling myself to pick one (why I was exercising such uncommon restraint I don't know) and going with Freewater on the grounds that it sucked to be a debut author as Amina Luqman-Dawson was, while we were still halfway under pandemic restrictions--I think the author of the forgotten book must have been more wildly known. Everyone is going to read Amina's book now. Everyone will know its name. This is fabulous, and it's even more fabulous that both Amina and her editor came out of We Need Diverse Books' mentorship program. Several years ago some leaders in children's literature saw that we needed to be listening to, upholding, and honoring many more voices, from all backgrounds, not just white peoples'. I'm so thrilled about this. I once wrote a book about enslaved children called Jefferson's Sons. It's out of print but I sometimes get letters from people asking if I know where they can still get a copy. I don't. I've been suggesting people read Crossing Ebeneezer Creek instead, and I do love that book--but hey, here's Freewater, try this one, too. I'm pretty sure you're going to love it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

A Good Ride on Good Horses

 Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of my fifth concussion, the big one--well, okay, the biggest one. I suppose any time you're transported to hospital by ambulance it counts as "big." It was the stupidest of my concussions, too--it was at the end of a foxhunt when we were heading back to the horse trailers, cantering easily across a mown hay field. My mare, Sarah, caught the back edge of her front shoe with her back hoof, and tripped, and I went over her shoulder. Shouldn't have been much, but either I was quite unlucky or my brain had had enough of being knocked around. I was unconscious for eight minutes. When I started to come to, I was surrounded by sniffing foxhounds. One of them started to squat, and I batted and him and growled, "Don't you pee on me," which made our huntsman say, "Oh, thank God."

The huntsman hadn't noticed that Sarah was missing a shoe. I'd been at the back of the very small field, and no one knew why on earth I'd ended up on the ground, let alone unconscious. He'd called the local emergency response, and, when they told him they couldn't send an ambulance to a hay field no matter how exactly he could tell them where it was, rode out to the closest road and found a mailbox with an address on it and gave them that. He also, when the ambulance arrived, convinced them to take me to my home hospital in Bristol instead of the closest, which I think was Greenville. I had an MRI and didn't have a brain bleed. My children were making their ways home for Christmas. My husband rushed to the hospital and held my hand. The ER doc suggested I not ride "for a week or two."

I took six months off, which was the recommended return-to-play from my sport, eventing, which unfortunately sees a fair number of concussions. It was a long slow recovery. For the first several weeks I slept 14 or more hours per day. I couldn't stand to have my head moving in three dimensions, so yoga, which I loved, was out. Worst of all, I had trouble writing--not with ideas or stringing words together, but with the appearance of print on a page or a screen. I couldn't switch between fonts, or between handwritten and typed words, so I had to quit my volunteer job entering data for Bristol Faith in Action. I was working on The War I Finally Won, and the only way I could keep the words from dancing on the screen was to turn down the brightness of my screen and make the font size bigger. And then I could only work for an hour or two before I needed a nap. 

It was a sucky winter, but by spring I was better. In the summer I took a Ride Safe clinic to reduce my chances of injury when coming off a horse. (I'd agreed to quit foxhunting and stay at the lower levels of eventing, but I still wanted to ride.) The Ride Safe clinic was fantastic; I highly recommend it. And I think it did teach me new muscle memory, as I've fallen off a few times since then and managed to protect my head. (It goes without saying that I always wear a helmet. In fact I've got a new one on order now that Virginia Tech just released their new research on concussion prevention.)

But I wasn't right. I was pretty close to right nearly everywhere but in the saddle. The rest of my life went on well. When I was riding I felt short of breath, sometimes dizzy; I couldn't do things I'd always done easily, and I sometimes did completely the wrong thing--little staccato blips of putting my hands or legs or upper body where they didn't belong. Once my trainer, and good friend, Cathy Wieschhoff roared at me, "WHERE IS YOUR MUSCLE MEMORY?" and the only thing I could say is, "I don't know."

My daughter was away at school. My books were doing well, I was more in demand as a speaker, I was traveling a lot. I was a little anxious in the saddle, I have severe asthma, I hadn't exercised in those six months of recovery--I had all the reasons, but no answers. 

Then the pandemic hit. I wasn't going anywhere. I had been riding consistently, but mostly just hacking around the fields, sometimes jumping small things. Now I set about fixing whatever was wrong. I worked on the anxiety and asthma. I worked on slowly becoming more fit. I rode every day. 

I rode poorly.

Sarah was injured in the field. I borrowed a friend's pony but didn't feel comfortable on him. I leased a saintly horse and got back into competition, sort of--I survived, but mainly due to the horse's goodness and care. I wasn't riding worth a nickel. 

It's very frustrating to lose competence in something you love. I really could not figure it out. 

My leased horse had to go back to his owners. Cathy found me a sweet intelligent mare with smooth paces and a broad back, perfect for me. I named her Rosie. I rode her every day and made almost no progress, all winter long.

Then I bought an Apple watch, for two features: its ability to tell me my blood oxygen percentage (a measure of how much my asthma is affecting me) and its fall alarm, which would alert my family if I fell off when riding alone. But I started noticing two things: my heart rate variability was always abnormally low--a sign my autonomic nervous system was running the show--and my heart rate itself soared whenever I rode. If I used the exercise bike in my basement, normal increase commensurate with the exertion. If I trotted around the field, my heart went above 140 bpm. If I cantered or jumped, 170 bpm. This is not remotely normal.

The kicker came when my friend Caroline and I went to Cathy's in May, and had a gymnastics lesson. I would trot into the gymnastic line, canter out. Then I'd wait while Caroline did the same. One hour. Heart rate between 155-170 bpm the entire time. 

My friend Kelly, a biology professor who also rides, suggested that this was all neurological, unhealed damage from my concussion. And it was. This post is already long enough without my going into medical detail, but I spent the summer making trips for treatment to a functional neurologist in Raleigh, and my poor brain is finally better 

Yesterday was cold and bleak. Katie and I haven't ridden much in the last few weeks of rain. We went out to our little ring on our filthy, shaggy horses, and we had the best rides--lovely moments of trot and canter, balance and harmony. It's all coming back now, and Rosie, who loves harmony, all but purred. 

It's been six years, and I'm finally reaching the end.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Happy Monday

 It's an odd day, isn't it? Around here the schools are closed, and I believe PenguinRandomHouse is shut down, too, for the regular two-week all-publishing-houses holiday. My son arrives from Chicago on Thursday. The post office just dropped off two Christmas gifts I'd ordered as well as Cookiepalooza, a box of assorted cookies my friend Rae sends us every year. We love Cookiepalooza; we all have our personal favs. (Meanwhile, Rae, if you get a book that doesn't look like it's from anyone, it's from me. Amazon didn't allow gift messages this year. And I KNOW I shouldn't be ordering from Amazon. Truth is that I'd bought six copies of my dear friend Betsy's new book, Reader I Murdered Him, all planned as gifts, and then I spontaneously gave two to Katherine Paterson and Stephanie Tolan when they were here, so I had to replace them, and of course I didn't think of it until last minute. So.

Our house is absolutely transformed by Christmas decorations, courtesy of my husband, who gets more artistic with every passing year. Our outdoor lights are lovely, too. Some of the trees we used to decorate have gotten too big for that, so last spring we planted a lot of new evergreens (really!) so that we still had plenty of appropriate light-bearing trees. The Santa Duck is up on Weaver Pike, with a new improved stand apparently sponsored by Lowe's. I love the Santa Duck. Everyone does. Also, I need to shout out to the person who lives in the house across from Tennessee High in one direction and Tennessee Middle in the other. They've got a Grinch in their yard and he's taking down the Christmas lights--there's a tree laying sideways on the lawn and another drooping from the edge of the porch. It's inspired.

Meanwhile, at ALI, we're giving out books for Christmas: 500 to Bristol, Virginia, schoolchildren; 75 to the YWCA after-care program; 77 to Bristol Faith in Action; 80 to children who came to the Holiday Open House on State Street; several dozen to an organization in Johnson City who needed last-minute donations for kids aged 0-16. Our regular program is for kids ages 9-12, but we were really lucky this year in that both Books-A-Million in Bristol and Barnes & Noble in Johnson City did book drives on our behalf, so we had absolutely beautiful books for all ages to share. We got a bunch of toys and stuffed animals, too--most of those went to Isaiah House, the transitional place for kids awaiting placement in foster care. If you gave a book this season, thank you so much. (If you didn't--there's still time!) This year we have so much to be grateful for, but tops on our list is the connections we've been able to foster with so many area organizations this year. 

Happy second night of Hannukah to my Jewish friends. I will be Team Sour Cream until I die.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Books Saves Lives--Bid on a Zoom With Me!


Hey all--

I think any of you who know me at all know how passionately against book-banning I am. I'm also a huge advocate for diversity of all types in children's literature, and as such have supported We Need Diverse Books from its inception. WNDB has just started an initiative against book banning called Books Save Lives. I know books save lives; I read my fanmail, and children write to me to tell me that it's true. 

Like most children's book authors, I do paid in-person classroom visits. I'm expensive, and I'm good. As a usual thing I don't do paid Zoom visits, but every year I make an exception in support of WNDB. Their annual auction opens today, and you can bid to have me speak to your classroom or organization via Zoom here. I hope you will! I'd love to talk with your students, and you'd be contributing to a cause very dear to me. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Happy Birthday to Me!

 Today is my book-birthday: the publication date of my 19th book, She Persisted: Rosalind Franklin.

Here's the lovely cover:

Writing a biography of Rosalind Franklin was, oddly enough, a bucket-list item for me. Back when I first dared to think of myself as a writer (while I was, like Rosalind, working as a research chemist) I wrote a quick list of stories I wanted to write, and "Rosalind Franklin's story" was on that list. I think I was 24 then, so I wanted to write about Rosalind for over thirty years. Two years ago, when Philomel, the publisher, announced the first list of 12 "She Persisted" early chapter biographies, all about women who achieved remarkable things, I wrote my usual editor to find out who was editing the series. (Both Philomel and Dial, my usual publisher, are imprints of Penguin Random House.) I send that editor an email saying, essentially, I call dibs on Rosalind Franklin, and she wrote back that Rosalind was on their list for the second year of the series and that she was all mine. 

Writing her story was a delight. Rosalind was a brilliant and meticulous scientist who achieved remarkable x-ray crystallographic images given the limitations of the equipment she was using. One of these confirmed the structure of DNA, something many scientists were working hard to understand. Rosalind's assistant, Maurice Wilkins, shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA alongside the better-known Watson and Crick. Rosalind didn't, because Nobels can't be given posthumously. Rosalind died at age 37 from ovarian cancer very possibly caused by the radiation leaked from the early x-ray microscopes. When James Watson wrote his book about the discovery, The Double Helix, he deliberately downplayed and distorted Rosalind's role and character. Even Francis Crick called it fiction. I'm not sure how much of that was actual misogyny--I think Watson would have thrown Crick under the bus if he could have gotten away with it--but it helped hide the truth about Rosalind Franklin's contributions for a long time. People who study science are mostly aware of the real story--I was, back in my early 20s, and not through any extraordinary effort--but a lot of people aren't. I know, because I've been talking about this book for the past several weeks, and been surprised by the number of people who ask, "Who was Rosalind Franklin?"

Read the sweet little book, and you'll know. And to the real Rosalind Franklin, of blessed memory: I know they've named the Mars Rover after you, and a building at Oxford University, and a whole bunch of other things, but I've honored you in my own way. The sweet little mare I bought just after I signed the contract for the book? I call her Rosalind Franklin. xoxo

Monday, November 28, 2022

Thankful for Katherine Paterson

 Good morning. Happy Monday. Cyber Monday, if you're into online shopping, which I'm mostly not. I don't really in any way do the Black Friday thing either--I'm not sure if that's because I disdain modern commercialism or am just too privileged to need to spend the day after Thanksgiving shopping in order to afford the gifts I want to give. (Both?) Either way, I spent the day after Thanksgiving picking out a Christmas tree on a little North Carolina farm, then watching the USA play England to an unexpected tie in the World Cup. In terms of the pool standings the tie doesn't mean much, but it was really great to see the team play well. I'm invested in Team USA Soccer now that my son works for them. 

His Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the US Embassy in Qatar turned out to have 600 guests and very long lines for food, but he did get turkey. I asked if the team ate there too, and he sounded shocked--apparently it's not the done thing to stuff yourself senseless the day before a big World Cup game.

I'm thankful for my lovely children, of course--always am, every day--but this year I was especially thankful for the technology that let me see my son in real time while I spoke to him on Thanksgiving, even though he was--checks Google Maps--7,202 miles away.

I'm also thankful for this Wednesday, November 30th, because I get to be with Katherine Paterson again. I'm appearing with her and fellow author Stephanie S. Tolan at 7:30 pm at Central Presbyterian Church (it's the one next to King, not the one across from St. Anne's.) Stephani is the winner of a 2003 Newbery Honor for her hilarious book, Surviving the Applewhites. (I just went onto Amazon to check the date of the award, and was informed that I bought the book in hardcover on March 23, 2003. Go me.) I've never met Stephanie but I admire her work, and she and Katherine are in town because their new play, Good King Wenceslas, is debuting at the Paramount by the King University theatre department, Thursday at 11 am and Friday at 7:30. I presume the public is invited. I know I'll be there, as well as to Katherine's 9:45 presentation on Thursday at the King University Memorial Chapel, and the 4:00 pm Thursday meet-and-greet at the Kegley room in the Bristol Public Library. 

Phew. Thursday is going to be a big day, and I for one am going to relish every moment.

I adore Katherine Paterson. I always have. I've said in public, several times, that her book The Great Gilly Hopkins (Newbery Honor, 1979) had a huge influence on me as a writer. It's funny, and spicy, and honest in a way that until then hadn't been done. Along with Beverly Cleary, Katherine Paterson changed the course of children's literature. Her work laid the foundation for the wonderful explosion of creative stories being written today. 

Also, she's funny, and kind, and I love her. She graduated from King University here in Bristol, back awhile ago, so she still returns here often. She's hale for 90 years old, but she is 90 years old. I cherish every moment I get to spend with her. I hope you'll come be with us. You'll cherish her, too.