Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Happy Christmas

I recently mentioned Jen Hatmaker's post about how some of her children, adopted out of hard situations, have a tendency to sabotage Big Days such as Christmas. I was interested in the post, and I went through and read all the comments, of which there were several hundred. Some adults wrote about how people in their families, for various reasons, continued to sabotage Big Days; others wrote that they realized that they had a tendency to make Big Days miserable for those around them.

There are a few reasons I followed the post so closely. One is that in my novel The War That Saved My Life, which is going to be published in 17 days, not that I'm counting, of course I'm counting, my protagonist, Ada, absolutely sabotages Christmas. I got to know Ada very, very well in the course of writing her story. Yes, she's fictional, but whatever. She's essentially adopted out of a very hard place, so she has lots in common with two of Jen Hatmaker's children. I read a LOT about kids coming from Hard Places as research for the book, but I also drew on my own hard stuff. Sometimes, too, Ada's own story seemed to take on a life of her own, in that I felt like I knew exactly what she was feeling even though I didn't really know why. This happened especially in two places in the book, the Christmas meltdown, and the ending, with its unexpected but very real joy.

Anyway, I loved having some independent confirmation that I'd been listening to Ada. But I also realized two things: my paternal grandmother was a prime Christmas saboteur, and, despite that, I have very happy memories of Christmas.

My grandmother was a difficult, complicated person with a mostly hidden past. I loved her dearly, and she loved me, but sometimes she could pull some really crazy stuff. Her birthday was the day after Christmas, which might have been part of the reason why Christmas was always so variable with her around. My dad and my aunt don't talk much about their childhood, but whatever they say about Christmas is pretty bleak. What I remember is that sometimes my grandmother would give completely excellent presents--once she gave my mom and dad and my aunt and uncle both new stoves, complete with built-in microwaves which were pretty new at the time. They were really great stoves, very much appreciated. Then another year she gave both sides queen sets of sheets that she'd clearly bought on some discount table. They were hideous, but they still might have been useful if either my parents or my aunt and uncle owned a queen-sized bed.

I dated my future husband for six years and we were married in July, so it's not like I sprung him on my grandmother, but on our first married Christmas she looked at him as she was passing out gifts and said, "Oh. I forgot all about you." That was the first Christmas I got a snarky gift from her--an impossibly ugly tablecloth meant for a long, skinny table. (My kitchen table was round.)

It didn't matter, though. My parents never let my grandmother spoil the holiday for my brother and sister and me. Christmas morning was at our house, full of happiness. Whatever we got my father, he loved. Always. If it was an article of clothing, he usually put it on right that moment, and wore it the rest of the day. He never criticized any gift we gave him. Not once in my memory. And he loved giving us gifts that suited us well. He loved surprising us.

For a few years when I was in high school my family took off for a ski vacation for the whole of the Christmas holiday. We would leave in our well-packed van the moment school let out, and return right before school resumed. Our Christmases featured tiny live trees we'd decorate with paper and our small collection of skier ornaments, and Mass in the freezing little church with the priest playing carols on the organ himself and inviting everyone over to the hall for a snort afterwards. Just the four of us (my sister wasn't yet born), and happy.

When my own children were small my dad used to say he wanted to have another skiing Christmas. This irritated me: two of my immediate family have medical issues that prevented them from skiing. Now, though, I understand what my father was trying to say: he wishes we could go back to that, to those two happy weeks. But I've never felt I needed to. Christmas was always happy, because my parents took care to make it so.

Friday, December 19, 2014

It Takes A Village to Make a Really Good Book

Yesterday the UPS man brought me three large, heavy boxes, and a small padded envelope. The large boxes contained a total of 96 hardcover copies of my novel, The War That Saved My Life, for me to sign for the First Editions book club of Lemuria bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, which is my new favorite place in the entire state of Mississippi, which is one of the very few states to which I have never been. (Alaska, Arkansas, Oregon, Idaho, possibly North Dakota. That's it.) The small padded envelope contained two hardcover copies of TWTSML, for me personally, sent by Dial's Marketing department to keep me from stealing books destined for Lemuria. They're the first hardcovers I've seen.

They're gorgeous. This is, physically, a very beautiful book. I love the muted blues and browns of the cover illustration. I love the cover illustration itself, including the pony and the funky font of the title. I love the illustration on the back, which wasn't on the ARC, and I am completely over the moon about the blurbs, which come from--hold your breath--Karen Cushman, Patricia MacLachlan, Sheila Turnage and Gary Schmidt. It's pretty much all my favorite authors professing their love for this book. I'm thinking of getting the blurbs tattooed somewhere private, so that whenever I feel down I can strip and reread them. (Maybe I'll just keep a copy of the book nearby.)

It's a red book with grey endpapers. Someone named Jasmin Rubero designed it, and the text is set in Imprint MT Std, which is not a font I know well but which seems clear and easy to read. It has a deckle edge, meaning that the sides of the pages appear to be hand-cut, not perfectly flush, and my editor has pointed out that there's a grey cloth edge on the binding that has something high-class to do with how the book was manufactured.

Last week when Library Journal put up the post I've already blogged about (CORN, CORN, CORN) I got an email from someone in Dial's publicity department saying, "Congratulations, team!" My first, ungrateful, thought was, "Team?" I'm sorry, but I wrote the book. It's my name, right there on the cover.

My second thought was, holy heck, she's right. This was completely a team endeavor, and while right now I'm getting a lot of funky happy strokes and all the corn I can manage, a great big chunk of this book's probable success has absolutely nothing to do with me.

First I had my fabulous editor, Liz, the one who completely rejected my first draft. I didn't bother to show Liz my next several drafts, as I couldn't even get them past my daughter, but when I finally captured Ada's voice Liz rejoiced with me. Then she put me to work. Liz also edited Jefferson's Sons. She makes me crazy because she absolutely will not let me stop working until she's gotten the best possible book from me. This is of course every author's dream, to work with someone so smart and trustworthy.

Liz had a baby and abandoned me for him, but then I got Jessica, who jumped in when the manuscript was finished, or so I thought, and happily sent me a list of stuff to improve. Then it went to Copyediting, and they got back to me with their own list of issues. Copyediting caught a really big continuity error in addition to fixing all my improper commas. I love Copyediting.

Then someone drew the cover, more than once as someone other than me disliked the first. Jessica sent copies off to Big Name Writers for blurbs, without telling me so I wouldn't stress over it. Marketing produced a three-page plan that included all sorts of stuff--galley giveaways, common-core unites, advertising, all sorts of stuff. That woman who wrote nice things in Library Journal's blog? It wasn't me who got her a copy. It was someone in Marketing. Someone on my team.

Thanks, everyone. You all did a wonderful job.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Christmas Book List

I am a huge fan of giving books as Christmas presents. Not only am I sharing something I really, truly, love, I'm helping to support authors whose works I really, truly, love. It's completely win/win. Every year I tend to find one or two books that I give out to several different friends--recent past selections have including Half The Sky, The Scorpio Races, and Carry On, Warrior. This year I've been both buying books for and suggesting books to so many people that I figured I ought to write some of my suggestions down.

For preschoolers/young children:
--The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak. Yeah, he's the guy from The Office, and yeah, it sounds like a gimmick--a picture book without pictures!--but it's actually a really fantastic exploration of what makes a book a book. I love it.
--I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. They're subversive, almost horrifying in a fairy-tale way, and kids love them.
--classic Christmas books. Not the crap that ties in with recent TV shows. Think The Polar Express.
--pop-up books. They're amazing and fun.

For middle grades (and up):
--Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. A lot of adults on my list are getting this, too. It's absolutely gorgeous and difficult and real, and I love it to pieces. It's also written by a friend of mine, so how could it be wrong?
--Jefferson's Sons. Yeah, yeah, I wrote it. Buy it anyway. I'll sign it for you.
--The Scorpio Races. Skews into YA. I have yet to meet the person that read this and didn't love it. So, so good.

For YA:
--The Raven Boys and its two (so far) sequels, by Maggie Stiefvater. So good, so hard to describe.
--The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone. Combines photos and actual artwork to tell the story of a fictional character. In the words of one of my writer friends, "effing genius."

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Rich, literary, true.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. A scientist goes to the Amazon to rescue a colleague. Unexpected on many levels, which is something I probably should start to expect from Ann.
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. I came to this one late this year, or I'd be handing out a lot more copies. Nonfiction about--well, asking. And accepting. And life, and being a rock star. I loved it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On (Not) Blogging About My Kids

Yesterday I had a blog post up for about five minutes. It was mostly about a conversation I'd had with my college-age son, on how your GPA doesn't really matter after a certain point in your life. It was fair game for the blog, but when I wrote it I included some other things my son said, so I asked him to read it, and he asked me to take them out. Since I was at that point at the barn waiting for the vet with only my phone, not my computer, it was a lot easier to just delete the post, so I did.

Neither my son nor I were annoyed about this--though, in future, I'll try to send him posts that are mostly about him before I hit the "publish" button. I have a solid, long-standing deal with my children: my blog is about my stories. Their stories are their own.

You will notice I don't use my children's names in my blog. Even when I use names I often make them up. (Sadly, my four nephews are not really named Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Fred.) This isn't because I'm trying to keep them secret--I'm sure most readers know the names of my children, and, if not, could find out easily enough. It's because I don't want people googling my kids' names some time in the future and finding all these blog posts. Some day my kids will have their own internet presence, so to speak. I tell them to be careful what goes out on Facebook and all the rest. They shouldn't have to be responsible for what I post.

I've been thinking about this a bit these last few days because of Jen Hatmaker's amazing post about her adopted children and their difficulties with Big Days such as Christmas. It's a really good essay that makes sense of a lot of things to me, and to many other people who've read it. (Just look at the comments.) It also talks about the experiences and actions of her two small children in some detail. I don't know how I feel about that. She's a different person than me, and her family is clearly happier in the public eye than mine would ever be, and the stories wouldn't be as effective without the personal details. And she states plainly that she asked her kids for permission before she went public about them.

And yet--no nine-year-old can give legal consent, for good reason. No nine-year-old understands the implications of consent, or of the internet.

I don't like seeing children on reality tv shows either. When they're 13, will they be teased for this? When they're 17, will they feel their childhood has been overshared?

I really don't know the answer for Jen Hatmaker, but I do know the answer for my own family. If they don't want me mentioning something I don't do it. I have plenty of my own stories to share.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Stuff I love About Christmastime

1. My husband's joyful heart. He loves decorating for Christmas--really, truly, loves it. Which lets me off the hook in the most enormous way (note: I AM the person that wraps boxes and mails all the gifts, and if anyone does Christmas cards--not happening this year--it's me) while still letting me enjoy a whole month in a house that's lit up and sparkling.

2. Nearly all Christmas music, including every traditional carol, and, oddly enough, the Dolly Parton/Rod Stewart version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Seriously. When I saw "Dolly Parton/Rod Stewart" on the radio display I thought we'd be in for a horrible surprise, but it's actually marvelous--saucy and cute, just like the song should be.

3. Finding the exact right gift. It's not something I stress over--perfection is so rarely attainable anyhow--but once in awhile I stumble across something that is so exactly right for one of my particular friends that I just can't believe it. This year it was the jumbo bonus pack of 90 yards of camouflage duct tape in 9 separate colors PLUS 45 yards of camo glitter tape in six separate colors--the absolutely stunningly perfect gift for my daughter's friend Syd, who loves duct tape, bright colors, camo and glitter above just about all other things.

4. Salvation Army bell-ringers. I don't know why, I just really like them. I'm a fan of the Salvation Army--in our small town they feed and shelter people every night of the year--and I think they probably don't get the credit they deserve for the good work they do.

5. Cookiepalooza. One of my friends makes eighty-zillion kinds of Christmas cookies every year, then packs a few of each kind in tins and ships them to lucky recipients like me. It's gotten so that when I carry the tin into the kitchen and shout, "Cookiepalooza!" members of my family start to call dibs on their favorite kinds. Which is fine as long as they save the apricot filled ones for me.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Things I Hate About Christmas

Things I Hate About Christmas:

1. The song "Santa Baby," particularly as sung by Madonna. Fingernails on chalkboard. The other day the all-Christmas radio station played this every time I started my car. I began to think it was Groundhog Day.

2. Ads that suggest the perfect Christmas gift would be a brand-new fifty-thousand dollar car. Does this actually happen to anyone? If my husband spent that kind of money on a car WITHOUT DISCUSSING IT WITH ME I'd kill him. (And if he did discuss it with me, we wouldn't be buying the car either.)

3. That our church doesn't spend all of Advent singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," even though it's far and away the best Advent song ever.

That's it, really. You?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The We Need Diverse Books Campaign (Final Part of a Multi-Part Rant)

Though I paused a few days there for egregious self-promotion (CORN!) I do want to write one final post about the We Need Books Campaign. If you'll recall, the indigogo funding for this had begun well before black writer Jacqueline Woodson had to endure a racist remark while receiving the National Book Award a few weeks ago. Thanks in part to the publicity surrounding that unfortunate event, donations to the campaign soared.

It's one thing to say that we need change, but it's another to actually create that change. I liked the aims of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign right from the start, because I thought they were practical and likely to be useful.

With their money, We Need Diverse Books is going to:

1. Fund an initiative called Diversity in the Classroom, in which children in underserved areas receive diverse books and personal or Skype author visits.  (If you haven't visited elementary schools in awhile, particularly in "underserved"--poor--areas, you'd probably be surprised by the lack of resources there. When they can't afford books for their students, they can't afford diverse books.)

2. Create the first-ever Children's Literature Diversity Festival, to be held in 2016 in Washington, D.C.

3. Create and fund an award for Young Adult diverse literature, named after the recently-deceased black writer Walter Dean Myers. I'll be honest, while I think this is cool, and I love Walter Dean Myers, I'm not sure how much this one will help. We already have Coretta Scott King awards and awards for LGBT and disabled youth in literature, and our stats weren't improving. But maybe, and anyway this one probably doesn't cost much.

4. Create Walter Dean Myers Grants for unpublished diverse authors. I do like this, very much. It can be really hard to get that first break into publishing, particularly when you've got other jobs to do so you can pay your bills. A grant to get to a writing conference, to meet with an agent, or just to buy yourself some writing time, could make a huge difference in someone's life.

5. Create paid internships in publishing for students from diverse backgrounds. I love this one, too. Right now publishers and editors are predominantly white. Getting some diversity in on the ground floor? Super!

6. Create and distribute educational kits for libraries and schools. If you go to the We Need Diverse Books tumblr account you'll already see a lot of question and answer posts useful to educators. More educational kits will help spread the word of not only why we need diverse literature, but what literature is available and how it can best be used.

7. Create a Diverse Books Recommendation app. This was the last of the "stretch goals" of the campaign. It's another thing that could end up being really cool, though I'm about the farthest thing possible from a technology wonk.

I think that's a pretty cool list. I'm happy to be part of the diversity in children's literature campaign, and I will wear my tshirt with pride.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

When You Google Yourself....

...it's like being one of those chickens in Skinner's box. You know, teach a chicken that in order to get a piece of corn, it has to peck a little lever. Peck, corn, peck, corn. But then you start only rewarding SOME of the pecks.  Peck, peck, peck, corn. Peck, corn. Peck peck peck peckpeckpeckpeckpeck CORN. It turns out that the way to make the chicken peck the damn lever pretty much full time is to only very rarely reward it with corn.

I'm like that with Google when I have a book coming out.


Google, "The War That Saved My Life." Just like I did yesterday. And the day before. And possibly the day before that.

I like to know what people are saying about me on Goodreads, even though many books I despise get good Goodreads reviews. I want to know if I've been mentioned on any blogs, particularly that red-headed kid I met at the Andersen's Conference who sweet-talked me out of one of my last ARCs by promising a review I haven't found yet.

I want corn.


It was awesome.

Here's the link, so you know I'm not making it up.  And then I'm just going to go ahead a quote a chunk. This is so much fun, it'll make up for all those kids on Amazon.com who think I'm long-winded and boring.

Though the catalog copy compares this to Lois Lowry’s brilliant Newbery Award–winning Number the Stars (Houghton Harcourt, 1989) I think this is really more akin to Michelle Magorian’s Guardian Award–winning, and deeply moving Good Night, Mr. Tom (Harper, 1981) which also tells of an abused boy, an evacuee, who is healed of emotional and physical abuse through the kindness of the old man in whose cottage he is billeted. The war details are ample and intriguing—just the thing for someone like me who heretofore got all her details of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk from the 1942 movie Mrs. Miniver. That said, this is a truly terrific novel and a wonderfully satisfying read. (Here’s a recent review in SLJ for more plot details.) For me, the act of reading this book brought me back in time to the mid-late 1960s when I inhaled one Newbery Award–winning and honored historical novel after another. This book has that same immersive impact. The War That Saved My Life has already garnered quite a few stars. It deserves it. Have you already begun your own 2016 Newbery Medal short-list? Start with this one

Oh, yeah, baby. Have a nice day!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Filming on Tuesday

I'm sitting down at my desk the way I usually do. You know, silk blouse, earrings, full makeup. Oh, wait. The film crew has arrived.

Seriously. They are all here. Noble, the producer, and two cameramen whose names I have already forgotten. They are now unloading gear and tell me they will need about half an hour.

This is way out of my experience level but it's pretty fun. We're shooting a small piece of me talking about my new book (The War That Saved My Life). I'm not really sure what it's going to be used for--marketing, dur, but what sort of marketing? Will I be on You Tube? It's probably better that I not worry about it.

One of the cameraman just pointed to the closed door on one side of my office and asked if there were anything behind it. I told him a toilet, and also all the Target bags and miscellaneous Christmas stuff that had been scattered across the floor of my office a half hour before their arrival. I figured no one would want to film the bathroom.

Now he's moved my office lamp out of view, deeming it "a little wacky." I thought wacky would be part of my authorly charm. Apparently not.

Meanwhile Noble the producer is a graduate of Notre Dame, friend of John Grothaus, who is the older brother of my son's friend Matt. My son and his friend Matt are both at Notre Dame now. Noble asked if my son was feeling stressed; I said, "oh, yeah."

Now they're filming me typing. Apparently it's a very writerly thing to do. In makeup, and earrings, and a good silk blouse. I type like this all the time.

This is such a boring and self-referential blog post. I'm sorry. I'd really like to be starting my Egypt book today but the film crew is a relatively large distraction. If you hadn't noticed.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about what the We Need Diverse Books campaign is going to do with all its money. Because you can't just talk about needing diverse books, you've got to create momentum. I'm happy to say they have excellent ideas.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Small Glimpses of Beauty and Courage

I'm writing this in the half hour before I go meet who I keep referring to as the "repo man." He is not, in fact, a repo man; my old minivan, sadly no longer functional except in first gear, is being sold for scrap, not repossessed. But "repo man" has a nice twang. After that I have one of my favorite personal holiday traditions, the all-day brunch at my next door neighbor's.

I'm lucky enough to live right next to a close friend, a sister at heart, one of the tribe of women who have helped tend and raise my family and whom I hope I have helped equally in return. Every year she throws this open house; I'm usually first to arrive and last to leave, always wearing my gingerbread earrings. I'm wearing the earrings even though I'll be a bit late this year, what with the repo man and all.

My friend Joanne is having heart surgery this morning. She's 83. She had a heart attack last week. She's a strong, adventurous woman, still happy to take two planes and a ferry to visit her son's family in Alaska every year, and I hope that she'll do fine, but I worry, of course. Joanne lives in Florida for the colder half of the year. Last year, when Katie and I were in Ocala together, we invited Joanne to come with us to karaoke night at Blanca's.

Blanca's is a restaurant attached to a small retirement-community golf course. There aren't many restaurants near the horse farms where I stay down there, and Blanca's, with decent reasonably-priced food, attracts a nightly mix of senior citizens and horsefolk in its small single room. Wednesdays are always karaoke night. Wednesdays are packed.

Last year I was determined to sing karaoke. I don't have a natural ear; I can hit pitch sometimes, by accident, or by sliding my voice into the range of a more-talented singer beside me. I sing in church, but that's about all. I had no delusions that I was going to rock karaoke, that I was suddenly going to be able to sing on tune. I simply wanted to push myself out of a place of safety. And Blanca's, where ninety-year-old men in bad toupees stand up and warble To All The Girls I've Loved Before, was a pretty safe place to do it.

My first Wednesday in Florida, the week before Katie arrived, I went to Blanca's with a big group. Karaoke was hopping and the song I entered didn't come up before it hit my bedtime, and I had to go home. (Barn chores come early, thank you.) The second Wednesday Katie and I took Joanne. She was all dressed up, nice clothes and makeup and jewelry. She exclaimed over Katie, who she hadn't seen in two years. When we told her of our plans to sing, she beamed--not because she thought we were good singers, or because she cared whether or not we were. She thought that we were brave. Joanne approves of courage in all its many forms.

So I sang bad karaoke while Joanne pressed her hands to her face and her eyes shone with pride. It's crazy how good it can make you feel to have someone recognize the essence, not the substance, of your actions.

This morning when I first went to sit down at my computer I happened to glance out the window. It was about 7 am and dawn was just breaking across the range of mountains in the distance, in streaks of gorgeous pink and blue. I paused to let the beauty sink in--sunrises and sunsets are so fleeting, a few minutes and they're gone. Then I got a text from my neighbor, up and getting ready for her party. "Did you see that sunrise?" she said.

I did.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Only If You Tell The Truth (Diversity in Books Rant Part 3)

I was struggling to clarify my words for this post--part of my multi-part rant on diversity in children's books--when I received a comment from a friend, the wonderful narrator of the audio book of Jefferson's Sons, which helped a great deal.

She thought that my phrase "listening to each other's stories," was so vague as to be meaningless. Well, on further thought, I agree. Because the straight truth, the slightly uncomfortable truth if you're white like me, is that it's mostly white people who need to sit up and listen, really listen, not judge, not argue, not question, mouths shut ears open listen, to the stories non-whites tell. If you're not white, let's face it, you get white people's stories all the time. Especially in school. Think about the books your children read as school assignments. Just list them in your head. How much diversity?

When my son was in fourth grade he came home one day het up. It was February, Black History Month, and one of the little girls in his classroom had raised her hand and asked the teacher, snarkily, "When do we celebrate White History Month?" I was proud of my son, because--and if you know him you know he meant this sarcastically, he has always been one of the most just people I know--he immediately put his hand into the air and said, "That's the other eleven months of the year."

In her comment my friend went on to say that what we needed was the truth. The truth of our history, the truth of the terrible evil of slavery and other prejudices, and how they shaped our country and ourselves. She said that white people need to stop telling black people to "get over it." White people and black people and all children have to be taught the truth.

When I was a young writer, I was taught very specifically that I should stick to writing within my own ethnicity. That I shouldn't write about black or Hispanic or Native American characters unless I was black or Hispanic or Native American. For a long time I paid attention to this, some because I was afraid my teachers were right, and some because, let's face it, it's a lot easier to write from a familiar point of view. But then I began to be unhappy with the idea. There are more white writers than non-white--but we want, need, more non-white books. (One obvious solution is to get more non-white writers--that's a subject I'll tackle later.)

And then I wanted to write Jefferson's Sons. The story of the children of Thomas Jefferson and his slave (and wife's half-sister) Sally Hemmings. Early on, a few people suggested to me that it would be better if a black person wrote that story. I said I agreed, but didn't see anyone else lining up to write it, and I thought the story needed to be told. You can discuss whether it really is a black story--those children had 7 white great-grandparents, and 3 of the 4 who lived to adulthood ended up integrated into white society--but it is certainly a story of the evils of slavery and our past.

Some people tried to argue me out of writing it for other reasons. "Why would you want to write negative things about Thomas Jefferson?" one woman asked me.  I said, "Because they're the truth." The curator at Thomas Jefferson's second home, Poplar Forest, told me that school groups often came to tour the museum. "The kids always say, 'but Jefferson was a GOOD slaveowner'," she said. "Perhaps your book will make them understand there is no such thing."

Jefferson's Sons took a full four years of research and writing. Any agendas I carried with me were soon buried in a wealth of factual information. I wanted to decry Jefferson and Hemming's relationship--how can there be consent between a 14-year old slave and the man who owns here?--yet one of their children insisted that she'd made choices, extracted promises from Jefferson that he kept. I found it difficult to write Peter's happy innocent voice, knowing the future that awaited him, but his own words, recorded at the end of his life, insisted that his early childhood had been that happy, that carefree. ("Until Jefferson died, I never knew I was a slave.") I wanted Jefferson to be honorable in some sense toward the people he owned--detached, perhaps, but honorable--but then I learned that he'd sold the first-born son of his celebrated French-trained chef and talented blacksmith, sold the boy away at age 11 for no discernible reason at all. James Hemmings was probably the second child born in the White House (he had an older sibling who died shortly after birth.) and he disappears from history at age 11 with one word in the Monticello Farm Book, written in Jefferson's hand. Sold.

Jefferson's Sons is slavery lite. I know that. The main characters are enslaved under the best possible circumstances, with a loving parent, good food, and most importantly the promise of freedom. I wrote it with great care, too, so that in the end it could be put into the hands of a fifth-grader. It would have been very easy to make Jefferson's Sons a book that you couldn't properly put into the hands of a middle school child, because it would have been too violent, too frightening, too awful to be borne. I very much wanted middle schoolers to read it.

I was aware the entire time I was writing it of my own whiteness. I wondered what prejudices or assumptions I was unconsciously carrying with me. I read a lot of books written by slaves or former slaves; I read a lot about white and black relationships. I read "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and a book by a South African writer called "Some of My Best Friends Are White." (A+ for title alone.) I also, though this was more circumstance than anything, went to Africa twice while I was writing it--to South Africa, a country that now talks openly about race because they learned they have no choice. I learned to talk openly about race.

I took my novel through six full drafts and by the end thought hard, over and over, about the children who would be reading it. The black kids, the white kids. It was instructive to me how some of my words changed throughout the drafts. And, because I am a praying person, and because I was aware all along that I was writing about real human beings, not fictional characters, I prayed for intercession to their souls. Please help me tell your story. Please help me tell the truth.

Because while we need diversity in children's books, we need the truth even more. I review books for Kirkus. I get most of the horse books, a lot of WW2 and WW1, and a good smattering of Civil or Revolutionary war books. That's my areas of expertise.

Twice I've gotten to review books by Ann Rinaldi, a pretty famous writer of children's historical fiction. Both of them were horrible history and astonishingly racist. The first--title escapes me--concerned a young white woman who lived on a Gullah island plantation (think Hilton Head before the golf) in 1900. To start with, for Christmas she was given ice skates. Not like the ponds freeze down there, baby. Then she married and went to NYC where he husband had an electric refrigerator--uh, copyedits? Anyone? Worst of all was the supposed history of her plantation home--after the Civil War, all the slaves just stayed on, because they loved Massa! And now they got paid! It was wunnerful!

The second Rinaldi book I reviewed was My Vicksburg, a novel about the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War. My review called it blatantly racist. Those words. My editor called and said really? and I said read it. She pulled my review, wrote a stronger one, and then sent it to the publisher with a letter saying please do not publish this book. If you do publish it, here is our review. I just looked the review up, here's a quote: "an enslaved man (one of the Corbet family’s four loyal retainers) works in his free time—during a siege, no less—to earn money for the Confederate deserter’s escape, instead of for himself. Rinaldi’s African-American characters are Uncle Tom’s direct descendants, complete with cringe-inducing dialect: “I wuz thinkin’, suh, if’n it be okay wif you and your mama...” There’s no excuse for this one." But it was published, and if you look the book up on Amazon, there's no mention of the Kirkus Review. (Because Amazon wants to sell books, dur.) Ann Rinaldi's gotten blasted by other groups as well--there are whole websites devoted to how much Native Americans hate and disagree with her book My Heart Is On The Ground--but mostly she gets good or goodish reviews from mostly white reviewers. Her books are used a lot in schools.

It's comfortable from a white perspective to believe that slavery really wasn't that bad, that lynching and Jim Crow were no big deal, that the Civil Rights movement was just a lot of fuss over nothing and that Eric Gardner deserved to be murdered via an illegal choke hold for selling loose tobacco cigarettes on the street. 

It's time to be uncomfortable. We can start small with our children--with slavery lite, like Jefferson's Sons, with small stories of bravery and injustice. Then as adults we can look injustice straight in the eye, with luck do something, with work make things better. Diverse books is the right place to start. But only if they tell the truth.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"I Don't See Color," But Of Course We All Do. (Part 2 of a Multipart Rant)

One of the things white people say when they're attempting to prove they aren't racist is, "But I don't even see color." Unfortunately, this is in itself a racist thing to say.

If you don't believe me, ask any non-white person. "If you don't see color," someone said to me once, "you don't see me." A white person saying, "I don't see color," is really saying something like, "I see you as white." But the other person isn't white, and doesn't want to be seen as white. The other person wants to be seen as they are.

I happen to have many white friends who have adopted children of other races. Once, years ago, we had a visiting author come to our elementary school. One of her picture books was about a cat--I believe it was a cat who lived in a library--at any rate, the story was about the cat, not about children. The cover of the book showed a large orange cat being hugged by a little Asian girl.

I was selling books at the school while the author was signing them. The second grade had already bought and paid for books that weren't the cat book, but one little girl--Asian, white parents, adopted from an Asian country--stopped when she saw the pile of cat books, and stared. She didn't say a word. She didn't move. Her longing for that book became so palpable as she stood there that I slid the top book into her arms. "I'll write a note and your Momma can pay me later," I said. I knew the girl's mother, and anyway I didn't care. The child didn't even smile. She took the book, had it signed, and returned to her classroom.

That afternoon at pickup she ran into her mother's arms, waving the book and shouting, "Momma! Momma! Finally a book with a girl that looks like me!"

We need diverse books so that we can get rid of the finally. We need diverse books because right now half the schoolchildren in America are something other than white; because they are disabled, or queer, or live in housing projects; because in the current crop of children's books only 15% feature anything other than white middle- or upper-class straight able-bodied characters, a number that has not changed in over 20 years.

When children read books they get a sense of possibility. All of them--every race, every child--need to see the black man as a hero, the gay girl as the wise older sister, the mom and dad of different races in a loving and stable relationship. Or the mom and mom. That's how the world is, and it's how our books need to be.

You don't need to take my word for it. There are some other opinions here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ever Since The Watermelon: A Multi-Part Rant Begins

My dears.

I feel a rant coming on, and, although I may be a little late to the party, I find I have a lot to say.

Last spring I was asked to contribute a series of six articles on writing for young adults to a web blog. I could write them about anything, or so I was told. I wasn't going to be paid for them, but they would generate publicity and some pretty big names had contributed in the past. I was pleased to be asked. I wrote my first two articles, and had them not only rejected but had myself rejected as well, with the comment, "We are not interested in the sociology of race and gender."

This tickled me. I wasn't even aware that I could write about the sociology of race and gender.

I will get back to what I wrote about. I will, in the next few days (this is a multi-part rant) discuss the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and why it matters so much to me, a white more-or-less fully-abled heterosexual Christian woman living in east Tennessee, about as non-diverse a person in as non-diverse a place as you can be.

It matters to me for many, many reasons, but I'm going to start with this:

Imagine that you are a writer. It's not an easy way to make a living, but you are as it happens both hard working and immensely talented. You publish your first book, for middle-grades readers, in 1990, when you are 27 years old. It's well received. Very well received. In the next twenty-four years, while raising a family, you publish twenty-four books, for all ages of children from preschoolers to teenagers. You win just about everything there is to win: Newbery Honors, Coretta Scott King awards, a National Book Award. Then, two weeks ago, your autobiographical verse novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, wins you a second National Book Award.

The man who introduces you at the presentation of the award is a fellow writer and an old friend. He's also white. As you're coming up to the stage with the crowd on their feet, clapping, he says, "And she's allergic to watermelon! Let that sink into your heads."

And she's allergic to watermelon. Even though she's black!

A racist comment marring what should have been one of the proudest moments of your life.

You'll never remember that award ceremony, or the award itself, without remembering the watermelon.

Because you're Jacqueline Woodson you write a beautiful response, published in the New York Times. You acknowledge that the man who said it, Daniel Handler, meant it as a joke, unaware of the history and pain to which he was referring.

Daniel Handler should have been aware. We need diverse books because of him. Because of Ferguson, because of Treyvon Martin, because of racial slurs directed at our President's children, because we don't yet understand each others' stories, and we should. We must. It's time to move past the past, but we'll never truly do that without learning the stories we carry. For a very long time in this country, we've told the stories of white people only, or of non-white people only from white peoples' points-of view.

To Daniel Handler's credit, he got it. A bit late, but better than not at all. He issued a genuine apology, admitting that he had been racist and that he had marred the happiness of the occasion. He then donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books Campaign in progress on Indiegogo, and pledged to match all donations up to $100,000 for the next 24 hours. (Daniel Handler writes under the name Lemony Snicket. He's got the cash.) The campaign had already reached $100,000 at that point, but a lot of people in publishing, myself included, saw a way to make Daniel's comments into lemonade, and happily donated again up to the full $100,000 match.

We need diverse books. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Silence is Another Assailant: Thoughts on UVa

Last week Rolling Stone magazine published a long, heartbreaking story about an alleged gang-rape at a University of Virginia fraternity two years ago. I'm not going to rehash the story: I linked to it on my Facebook page, and it's available all over the internet. Since I couldn't get it out of my head this weekend, I spent some time reading other stories and comments about UVa and what looks like their pattern of concealing and thereby enabling sexual assault.

When the attack was over, the alleged victim, who was 18 and had only been on campus for a few weeks, asked some of her new college friends for help. According to the article they were primarily concerned that if she reported the rape it would be bad for her reputation and theirs. She later went to the Dean in charge of such matters, Nicole Eramo. The story gets a little complicated, but on Eramo's advice the police were never notified. The men involved were not charged. Nothing happened to them.

It would be lovely if this were an isolated incident, but according to stories easily found on the web, it's happened again and again. Thirty-eight incidents of "sexual misconduct" were channeled through Eramo's office last year. In only nine were the cases pursued to any extent; there were zero actual criminal charges.

Erasmo is quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that UVa has to keep allegations quiet, because parents wouldn't want to "send their daughters to the rape school." She's also seen in a video available online, filmed a year ago, as saying that rapists at UVa who confess ought to receive a suspension from the University instead of going to prison. Some alleged sexual violence victims say that UVa pushed them to not pursue criminal charges on the grounds that the rapists' lives shouldn't be ruined.

Let's try this: if a man doesn't want his life ruined by a prison sentence, he shouldn't rape anyone. If a school doesn't want a reputation as a "rape school," then they should work to reduce campus rapes to zero, not cover up those that have already happened.

If a woman is raped, her reputation should not be on the line. That of her rapist should be.

If a woman is raped, she should immediately go or be taken to the hospital, in case she requires medical attention. She should be treated by female staff members trained to do the work. If possible, DNA evidenced should be collected and appropriately held for potential future prosecution. (Please note: victims should not be forced to immediately press charges: in places with mandatory prosecution laws, victims delay necessary medical treatment and commit suicide at higher rates than in places without.)

If a friend says she has been raped, take her to the hospital. Stay with her, support her, listen to her. Understand the rape for the felony event that it is. Don't downplay it to yourself or the victim.

Why didn't the woman from UVa press charges? My guess is that she didn't know how much more she could bear to lose. She lost a lot the night she was raped, but she lost more the next morning, when people were more concerned about gossip than her physical well-being. She lost more when the university discounted her story--more later, when other students wondered why she hadn't yet gotten over it. She lost something at every step. I understand.

Why didn't she say anything? That's the wrong question.
Why weren't people listening?

My attacker told me that if I ever told anyone what he did to me I'd be taken into foster care and never see my parents or brother again. I was five years old and I believed him.

I was seven and a half, and the attacks were becoming unbearable. I told my best friend as we were walking home in knee-deep snow. Horrified, she called me a liar and ran home. For days I hoped she would tell her mother, whom I liked, but I guess she never did.

By fourth grade my attacker was gone from my life. I developed behavior problems in school. My parents switched me into a private school. No one asked me what was wrong.

I finally told my parents when I was sixteen. They believed me and loved me, but they also told me not to tell anyone else, ever, not even my brother. However, they told my high school principal, for reasons I've never understood.

The counselor I saw in high school, before asking me what had happened, told me my parents would forgive me for what I'd done.

My high school best friend, on hearing the story, looked me in the eye and said we could only stay friends if I never mentioned the subject again.

In college I went to a counselor reporting recurrent episodes of dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares. Without asking any questions he assured me that "sexual assault was not that big of a deal."

I got very very lucky. My high school boyfriend, skinny, anxious, and shy, turned out to be the most courageous, honest person I've ever known. He heard me; he saw me; he loved me. When I finally fell to pieces he picked all the pieces up and held them together until I could remake myself, whole.

Saying the truth, living your truth, has a marvelous freeing power. It took me a long time to discover this power; I pray that all abuse survivors find it. I've come to believe that silence is another assailant. If rape is something we must be hide, must be ashamed to have suffered, then we stay vulnerable, trapped by lies. Instead we must give our children words: rape is unacceptable. You can survive it. It was not your fault; the person who did it carries the blame. You've been attacked, you need care. The person who did it should suffer serious consequences. You probably will, too, but you can heal. He committed a crime. You did not. He should feel shame. You should not.

Tell our daughters the truth.
Tell our sons the truth.
Tell our colleges the truth.
Tell the world.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Getting My Act Together--Someday?

I have this persistent fantasy in which I get my shit together.

In which my office desk is not one great sliding pile of very important papers, in which my stack of books to read immediately numbers less than 100, in which the laundry is done, folded and put away all on the same day, the barn is pristine and I don't ignore my home improvement projects in favor of my to-read pile.

My husband thinks many of these problems would solve themselves if only someone could block my access to Amazon.com. But I digress.

Yesterday I coped with the weight of my responsibilities by taking the day off to go foxhunting. Even there it was obvious to the casual observer that I am not quite all together.

To start with: the time schedule. Hounds would be cast at 10 am. I would need to be mounted by 9:45. It should take me 15 minutes to unload my horse, put my boots and jacket on, and tack the horse. It should take one hour and ten minutes for me to drive to the venue.

I pulled out of the driveway at 8:23 am.

Astute mathematical minds will note that I was already 3 minutes behind. Horsepeople will note that I was in trouble: either I'd not given myself any extra time, or I'd already used it up before pulling out of the driveway.

With horses, you have to allow extra time. Things go wrong. The horse decides it would be very amusing to run from you in the pasture. The horse decides it would be very amusing to roll in mud. The horse steps on its own lead and breaks its halter, and you have to find another halter that fits the horse--it will of course be the oddest-sized horse in the barn--before you load. The horse decides it would be very amusing to refuse to get onto the trailer.

Not that any of those have ever happened to me.

Anyway, the biggest problem with yesterday morning was that I didn't pack the trailer the night before. Every horse person knows to do this, but still I didn't. I merrily threw a bunch of tack and my mare--both clean enough for a Thursday--onto the trailer and set out late because I'd wanted another cup of coffee.

I drove fast and got there mostly on time, unloaded the horse, tied her to the trailer, and put my boots and jacket on. (I was already wearing the rest of my gear, stock tie, pin, etc.) My hunting license was in my jacket pocket, as was my plastic dinosaur, talisman of our hunt, so I felt pretty good. I'd remembered my hair nets, too.

I began tacking up. Unfortunately, my daughter and I both have the same brand of girth for our jumping saddles. The difference is that hers is 3" shorter. You can guess which one I had with me. I tugged and pulled and Sarah rolled her eyes and snorted. In desperation I removed the riser pad, and then, in further desperation, took off my fluffy fitted foxhunting saddle pad and rootled in the trailer for something thinner.  I ended up with a square white baby pad with logos embroidered on both sides.

This is not foxhunting appropriate. On the other hand, neither is riding without a girth.

Then it turned out the flash noseband had fallen off my bridle. Flash nosebands aren't really hunt appropriate either, but I still wasn't happy to have lost mine. Then I reached into the trailer tack room to grab my hunt whip, and it wasn't hanging in its spot. I belatedly recalled that I'd moved it into the barn before our final horse trial.

In our hunt you are permitted to ride without a hunt whip, which has a crooked handle and a four-foot long leather lash, because those suckers are expensive, but you are not permitted to hunt without something with which to whack an animal that needs whackin.' I rootled through the trailer tack room again and came up with one of my daughter's eventing crops, fortunately her black one and not the one striped in her colors, lime green and yellow.

By now I was late to mount up, but you could see that coming. I joined the field and murmured apologies to the master for the advertising on my wholly incorrect saddle pad. She graciously forgave me. We cast hounds, and then spent the next three hours wandering around corn fields in a howling wind. The wind dried up all the scent and we didn't chase a thing; Sarah did well until we got back to the trailer, when she snorted, "That's IT?" and proceeded to kick up a fuss.

I went home and did the barn chores thoroughly and well. Then I retired to the house, thumbed through the mail, and thought about the paperwork and housework and laundry. Then I poured myself a glass of wine, got a novel, and took a long hot bath.

Maybe today I'll get my shit together. On the other hand, today was a pretty good day.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Of Deer Meat and New York City

Monday my friend Mike brought me a lovely piece of backstrap venison. Last night I cooked it in a manner befitting his generosity--beautifully roasted wrapped in bacon, with a side sauce of mushrooms and garlic and cream. To go with it I roasted some brussel sprouts (I love 'em, much to my family's dismay) and made homemade sweet potato gnocchi. A nice cabernet sauvignon topped off a wonderful meal.

Mike brought the meat just before I went online for my Early Word practice, so I was a minute late to my computer. I apologized, saying (typing, we were online), "my friend just brought me some venison!"

Well. From the reaction of one of those New York City editors, you'd think Mike had dragged a dead deer into my living room and commenced skinning it on the rug. Of course if you went to some swank restaurant in New York--Daniel, say, or Per Se--you'd find venison on the menu, at a pretty hefty price.

Mike's deer was a Kentucky deer, he told me, bigger and wilder than their Tennessee counterparts. He's probably right about the wilder part. On Monday evening we counted seventeen deer in my hayfield, just across the creek from the middle pasture. All does or youngsters, or so Mike said--I don't have as good an eye for antlers as he does. I could have gotten one of those deer with a shotgun from my front porch, not that I own a shotgun.

I do own some moonshine, though. Three glass Mason jars of it, in fact. At least one of those was given to me by the man who mows for me, and at least one by my farrier, but I don't recall the details because those jars are old. I'm frankly afraid to try the stuff, though I've been told flat that the whole thing about moonshine containing methanol is a lie. Apparently you don't actually get much methanol off a proper still, it was just that some moonshiners doctored their brew with methanol to make it more alcoholic.

The things I know. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

EarlyWord Gets The Cat

On Wednesday I'm doing a Live Chat on EarlyWord.com, which is a website that connects librarians and publishers. I'd never heard of it before I was asked to be on it, but then, I've never heard of a lot of things. It looks very very cool, the sort of site I'd be drawn to by myself: it includes a button where bloggers can request free advance review copies. Oh, my. Because I AM a blogger! (If you could see my office right now you would not think I need more books. On the contrary. One always needs more books.)

Yesterday afternoon I had a practice Live Chat with the three coordinators of the program. We went through how the technology works and ran through some practice questions. One of them was "How many cats do you have?"

I replied honestly: "I have one three-legged cat and one evil cat. I don't really like cats." Then, to demonstrate that I understood how the private message button worked (that means the comments won't air live on the web but can only be seen by the producers), I added a private slur about cats.

One producer told me primly, "Remember, librarians love cats." Then all three posted photos of their cats.

I posted back a photo of my horse Sarah, but was told that for Wednesday I was expected to produce photos of both of my cats.

That might be interesting. Hazel, the evil cat, shows up for food but regards me with extreme skepticism and a healthy dose of aggressive self-defense. (Scout, the three-legged cat, is snuggly. But she sheds like a banshee and I'm allergic to her.)

Please do not bombard me with criticisms about my poor cats. My children love them, so they get plenty of affection. (Ok, so Hazel gets her affection from afar. Trust me, Hazel does not want actual physical affection. This is the cat that when I told the vet I would no longer be bringing her in for vaccinations because it was not worth the injuries I received when trying to stuff her in a cat carry was told by the vet, "Good.") The cats are well cared for, and Hazel is pushing 13 years old, which is pretty good for a barn cat found as a kitten abandoned in a dumpster.

Scout was found in our bushes. My daughter, then around 6 years old, came inside and said, "Mom, Dad, one of the bushes is meowing. What do you think it is?" Scout was born three-legged, and gets around very well.

If you have a question you'd like me to answer on Wednesday's Live Chat, do join in, or ask me now. I'll do my best to answer it, and I promise not to further slander cats.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Holy Day Giving

Yesterday, when I had a little down time at Faith in Action, I went back to our small food pantry and unpacked a recent donation. Now, I'm not calling this donor out, because I understand that s/he was simply clearing out a deceased relative's pantry, but there was some gnarly stuff in those bags. A can of tomatoes with mold on the label. Mayonnaise two years past its expiration date. And, saving the best for last, a jar of marshmallow creme that had separated into two layers, one white and spongelike, the other dark yellow and undeniably solid, with a "use by" date of March 13, 2005.

Meanwhile, over at Momastery.com, it was Holiday Hearts match day. Glennon Doyle, the force behind Momastery, and her group called Together Rising, do charitable stuff all year long, but Holiday Hearts is the biggest. People email requests for Christmas help, none costing more than $100, those requests are vetted, and then, yesterday, they were put up online. Other people then offer to personally fulfill the requests. I kept trying to match myself with a Holiday Hearts request yesterday, but I couldn't do it--every time I tried to post a comment, the listing would change to TAKEN, meaning someone else had got there first.

Momastery put up over 400 requests, and they were all matched in less than 4 hours.

I imagine most of you reading this are going to get lots of holiday giving requests this year. I know for me the flood has already started. Now that crowdfunding is a thing, I've even been getting emails from specific students at my and my husband's alma maters: a Notre Dame student wants to take a medical mission trip, and a Smith student wants to attend a writing conference. Both of these seem more legit than the recent appeal from a 12-year-old who wanted a pony. (You know what? When I was 12, I wanted a pony, too. But I didn't ask the neighbors to buy me one.) Some of you reading this are also needing help. What I hope is that all of us can remember the origin of the word holiday: Holy Day.

This year is a good one for making our giving or getting Holy. For giving with abundance and gratitude, and receiving with abundance and gratitude, the way the Holiday Hearts people seem to have done. (The stories are still up. You can go over to Momastery and read them. Bring Kleenex for the tears you'll shed.) Once upon a time, when we as a family were trying to help some people and an annoying relative kept referring to those people as "the poor," my son, then 13, turned and said, "Please quit calling them the poor. We really don't know whether or not they are poor. All we know is that they're having some trouble, and they need help."

If you're having some trouble this year, accept help. If you're doing better, give help. Be holy and whole, and whatever you do, don't foist your 10-year-old marshmallows on somebody else.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The End Is Near

Yesterday I hit a very exciting point in the first draft of my new novel. It's the opposite of my page-80 doldrums. I've come to the place where the end is near.

It's not here yet, but I can see it from my desk chair. It's wonderfully, terribly exciting. You'll excuse me for not writing a longer blog post; I have limited time this morning and have to pull for the shore.

Meanwhile, another quote from Joanna Bourne's Rogue Spy--this is just a phrase--"close as inkle weavers." I swooned. It's perfect, and it's a tricky little bit of historical knowledge, and how does she know it?

Meanwhile also, I at last have a tentative title for this new book that might actually work. It's the sequel to The War That Saved My Life, and right now I'm calling it The War I Finally Won. Keep in mind that many--nay, most--of my novels go off to my publisher wearing titles such as Kim's New Book That Needs a Title. Progress, baby.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Best Pony Clubbers in the Whole Wide World

I'm still trying to figure out if my pony club members are exceptional, or if I just see them that way.

A year ago I stood up at the USEA Meeting in defense of my kids. Somehow the open town hall meeting on the future of eventing had turned into a slog against kids-these-days, and pony club kids were singled out as being lazy, disinterested, and mounted on very expensive horses they were unable to ride. This went so against my experiences, against my children, that I got up and made some sort of speech. Looking back, I don't remember precisely what I said or exactly why I felt compelled to say it, except that keeping my mouth shut has never been one of my virtues. I do remember saying that based on my experience, if we want kids to be part of the eventing community, we have to offer them community. That what my pony clubbers have right now is each other, and that that has been the strongest force for good in our club.

Last year, a private donation let us bring the phenomenal Cathy Wieschhoff to our summer camp. Our camp is already the single favorite event on our calendar. The kids keep their ponies on my farm and sleep in my basement. In the evenings I show them where the showers are, feed them, and leave them alone. The first night they goof off. The second night they work. We hold our spring rating on the third day of camp, so the second night is one giant member-directed ratings prep, with everyone not rating either quizzing or cleaning tack for those who are. Moving the rating to camp may be the single best thing we've ever done, because it invests the entire club in the success of the tests. Each kid that passes is cheered and high-fived and group-hugged--and, because of that, we now have non-rating members showing up at our fall rating, too, just to pay back the love and the tack cleaning.

Anyway, here in the sticks we don't get a lot of world-class instruction, so when Cathy came to camp my kids were on point. They were neat and prepared and respectful, and they rode hard. They loved Cathy and she loved them. At the end of camp I told them if we wanted her back we'd have to raise a bunch of money. They got busy and raised it.

Our annual fun show, which we had a couple of weeks ago, usually gives us most of our operating funds for the year. This year, the entire membership worked as one--parents, too--from the 8-year-old who spent a long hot day resetting the trail class after each competitor to the grad student who came back just to work registration, from every single family pitching in for the concessions to the former club member who judged the show for free. We didn't make our operating funds for the year. We made our operating funds plus Cathy Wieschhoff returning plus repaying the testing fees for our new HA and HB members. Then we sold Yankee Candles so we'd be able to do even more fun things.

A couple of my older members came to me with a plan to revamp our unmounted meetings. One of my C2s has an idea about how to best prepare our C2s, all seven of them, for the C3 rating.

Oh, and last year my club worked Rolex. Only two of them had ever been to Rolex before. Most didn't really know what Rolex was. They do now. William Fox-Pitt tipped his hat to one of our younger members, who'd had a really crummy year up until then. He thanked her for her work and she'll never forget that, not as long as she lives. She went on to win her division at the D event rally. She has eventing stars in her eyes.

Best of all, as we were cleaning up from the horse show, I saw two little girls struggling to carry a heavy box between them. One of them was our newest member, just joined; the other, a child I didn't really know. "Thank you for helping," I said to her.

"Oh, I have to help," she said, earnestly. "I have to work. I'm gonna be in Pony Club."

Friday, November 7, 2014

A Little Riff on the Fourth Chapter of John

Jesus left Judea and went back to Galilee. The easy way to do that was to cut through Samaria, but Jews never cut through Samaria, they went around it. They hated Samaritans. Really, really despised them. Still, Jesus walked right through Samaria, making his disciples come along. They stopped in a city and the disciples went to find food. Jesus, alone, sat by a well. He was thirsty but didn't have a bucket. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, he asked her for a drink. She was shocked that he would even talk to her, much less ask her for a favor. They talked for awhile, and then Jesus said this:
"...a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit,and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
That's pretty significant, as there are very few places in the Bible where Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah. Usually it's important to look at the person to whom he is revealing himself. The disciples come back, surprised that Jesus is talking to this woman, but by now they've learned to keep their mouths shut at least some of the time. She goes and gathers all the village together, telling them about this person, this Messiah, and they go to Jesus and ask him to stay with them. So he stayed in their village for two days.

It's hard for us to really understand this in modern times, because Samaritan doesn't really resonate with us the way it would have with the ancient Jews and first Christians. But sometimes I see the antipathy many Christians have toward our gay brothers and sisters, and I wonder if the story couldn't be retold like this:

Jesus, walking from one side of New York City to another, chose to walk through a part of town where lots and lots of gay people lived. The disciples were a little wary--they'd been taught all their lives to despise gay people. Jesus stopped at a street corner. The disciples went into a little bodega to get some sandwiches. A woman came walking down the street, drinking water from a bottle. She had short spiked hair and a big GAY PRIDE button on her label; she looked like a lesbian. Jesus asked her for a drink.

The gay woman looked at him in shock and said, "You want a drink?" Then she noticed the cross around his neck, and the little fish pin on his lapel. She said, "But aren't you a Christian? I'm gay, I'm married to another woman, you're supposed to hate me. Won't you die of cooties or something if you drink out of my bottl?."

Jesus said, "Not only will I drink from your bottle, I want you to drink from mine. I'm here to bring salvation to everyone, even the people my disciples, in their ignorance and prejudice, despise. I'm here for all humanity. I'm God."

The gay woman went and found a bunch of her friends. She told them that it turned out they had a place in Christianity after all. The friends, grateful, asked Jesus to come and stay in their homes, meet their families, eat their food. Jesus did. And he brought his disciples along with Him, whether they liked it or not. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

My Passionate Love for Joanna Bourne

Since I went on at some length about why I couldn't get past page 2 of a historical fiction romance the other day, I thought I'd show the flip side (that's this week's theme) by going on at length about some historical fiction romances I love.

Anything and everything written by Joanna Bourne.

Her books have the cheesiest covers and the tackiest titles--well, not all, but really? My Lord and Spymaster? Blech. The Forbidden Rose? Okay, after that they're not so bad. The Spymaster's Lady. The Black Hawk. And, released on Tuesday, Rogue Spy.

I was so impatient for the release of Rogue Spy that not only did I buy it on Kindle (so I could get it immediately upon release day, and not have to wait for pesky mail delivery) but I was tempted to set my alarm for midnight just to read the first few pages. I didn't, because I know myself: I would have kept reading, straight through, and been a wreck the whole day. (Ask me about Harry Potter #7.) Then I had to drive to Knoxville on Tuesday with the horse--it took the whole day, my Kindle sitting in my purse just waiting for a moment when I had nothing to do--alas. In the evening, though, I dove into that book like you'd dive into a swimming pool on a sultry August day, with a run and a jump, deep and clean.

All of her books are set during the Napoleonic Wars, featuring at their core a group of British spies. The five books so far are not sequential--they weave in and out of the same time period so that the main character in one shows up as a side character in another. They're romances in that they feature adults in relationships, but they're character-driven with wildly intricate plots, crisp writing, and very solid history. (Not only can I not find mistakes, I usually learn something.)

It's not just me that thinks so. The Black Hawk won a passel of awards, and Rogue Spy has a star from Kirkus and a spot of the 2014 BBoTY list.

Here's just a bit. It's a senior spy talking to the two elderly aunts, themselves codebreakers, of our heroine, Cami, who's actually an imposter possibly working for the French:

Galba set his hands on the desk, making two temples of them. "Vi, much as I might like to hand her over to you and return to the status quo, you can't simply take her back to Brodemere in a handbasket. There are serious matters at stake. And a major complication."

"Which is?" Lily raised eyebrows.
"She has attacked and seduced one of my agents."
"Has she?" Lily said.
"It can't be much of an attack if he was in any state to be seduced afterward," Violet observed.
Lily murmured, "It seems so unlike her."
"The attacking or the seducing?" Violet asked.

"Neither." Lily frowned. "But doing it to an agent. So odd of her to become involved with a Service agent while she's fleeing...whatever it is she's fleeing. One does not seduce agents in the middle of a desperate enterprise. I don't understand at all." She turned to Galba. "Which agent? Not Hawker, surely. I would regret doing something violent to Hawker."

Galba said, "Paxton."
Lily exchanged glances with Violet. "Matters are a bit more serious,then."

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Flip Side.

Up until yesterday, in the two years that I've owned Sarah, my big grey horse, I had never been grateful that she did not have EPM. (For the Muggles: Equine Protozoal Myelitis, a very serious neurological disease spread by, of all things, possum poop.) That changed yesterday, when we concluded a four-hour examination at the University of Tennessee Equine Rehabilitation Center by injecting her hocks. (For the Muggles: treating a problem that's both very common and very likely to go away.) I spent the whole rest of the night feeling ambivalent about the election returns (I regard most politicians the way I do most possums, not bothering me in any personal way but somewhat icky all the same.) and very, very grateful that Sarah did not have EPM. We are all grateful today. Even the neurologists at UT were practically giddy when then turned Sarah over to the lameness crew.

So then I decided to look at the flip side of my year:

I was down in Florida in February, riding for two weeks in beautiful weather on beautiful farms, and being trained by two of the best eventers in the business, and that I have the opportunity to do that is nothing short of amazing. When Sarah showed slight--very slight--signs of lameness, some of the best equine vets in the country happened to be right there on the farm at the time, and did a full workup, and we found the problem right away. We were able to start treatment immediately. She immediately responded. Wow. My daughter got to join me for a few days, too, and we sang karaoke, and my daughter did not put the video on Facebook. I'm grateful for all of that.

My daughter acquitted herself well at the Pony Club National Championships. She has the quirkiest little horse in the world, and somehow they suit each other perfectly, and I'm still not sure how that happened. When I got knocked out, my daughter stepped up like a hero, keeping me from moving and also preventing the EMTs from cutting my safety vest off by showing them how it could be undone at the shoulders.

My parents were on hand, since they'd come to watch their granddaughter ride, and that meant that my mom rode in the ambulance with me, where she got to answer two questions (What happened? and Where's Sarah?) three thousand times. My dad brought my daughter once she'd taken care of the horses (with help from one of the HM judges, whose name we never knew). I've sometimes had a rocky relationship with my dad, and now I have the sweet memory of him getting a warm washcloth and washing the blood off my face while I was still semi-conscious. My mom and daughter alerted our network of family and friends, and the resulting outpouring of love was a huge comfort to me. My nephews insisted on Facetiming me so they could see I was really okay. Our lovely pony club friends took care of all of our tack and then left a soft comfort-food dinner for us in our hotel room (Soft for my injured mouth.). (My poor husband and son landed from an international flight, learned that I was in an ambulance en route to the hospital, and then had to turn off their phones for two hours while they went through customs, which was agony for them, but I'm always very grateful to them, too.)

I recovered from my head injury without incident. I had been wearing a helmet. My horse was fine.

My Holston Pony Club team was bloody brilliant at their event rally; I was so, so proud.

At this most recent horse trials, it was not snowing, as it was on our farm at home. My daughter had to ride on the first anniversary of a tragedy that shook her high school community to pieces, and it was very hard, and she persevered. Her dressage sucked, but her jumping was beautiful. Not adequate--beautiful.

Best of all, I listened to my horse. She was telling me she wasn't right, and I heard her, and I got off and called it quits. And then I was able to get help, good help, immediately. I live in the sticks, in the middle of nowhere, and it still amazes me that I can get to a nationally-ranked equine center in two hours. Sarah's the fourth horse I've taken to UT (seizures, suspensory surgery, eye ulcer) and every time I've come away grateful for the combination of veterinary knowledge and horse love shown by the staff there. For Sarah it was like a day at the spa. She was surrounded by people who pet her and loved her and gave her cookies, and only occasionally made her trot or poked her with needles.

I am grateful for my big grey horse and her goofy charm. I am immeasurably thankful for my family and friends. When you look at the flip side, 2014 was actually a pretty good year.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Vet, Ambulance, Vet: My Eventing Season in a Nutshell

To recap: I went down to Florida last February, and discovered that Sarah had injured her right hind annular ligament. Ultrasounded it 3 times, spent spring doing rehab. Recovered fully. Registered to compete at River Glen, but first took advantage of my daughter's attendance at USPC Championships/Festival to ride in some clinics myself. Got popped out of the tack, inconveniently landed head first, and spent over six times as much money on the ambulance ride to the hospital as I did on the CT scan once I got there. Sidelined for River Glen. Recovered. Went to the VA Starter Trials/Old Dominion Regional Event Rally, where in addition to being co-host of the rally, DC of a competing club, coach of a rider, driver and chaperone of a second rider, and mother of a third, I bopped around Beginner Novice because I was a little desperate to get back in the saddle/start box.

I had Book Stuff to do on other weekends this fall when I might have evented, so it came down to last weekend, the Virginia Horse Trials, to put some sort of pleasant ending to the season. My daughter was also competing, my husband came and brought out dog, and my friend Michelle had paid for a party tack stall, so it was all looking pretty fun, until Thursday, when Sarah threw one of her semiannual fits about hating dressage, or hating me being the boss of her, or both--whatever. She does have temper tantrums occasionally but they aren't that hard to weather.

Saturday, though--Saturday she didn't feel tantrummy as much as she felt unyielding. She was NOT going to be round, she would not relax. Our dressage has vastly improved since spring and I'd had pretty good hopes for our test, until about fifteen minutes beforehand when we were getting absolutely nowhere in the warmup. My coach thought her back end looked stiff. My husband said she wasn't steering correctly. I couldn't fix it, so I gritted my teeth and did the best I could, which was really stinking lousy. Bad enough that I got sympathy from the dressage judge. Her comments were, "Capable horse not on aids today. Nice effort. Good luck." If she'd been from the South she would have added, "Bless your heart."

I was pretty angry for a few minutes. I fumed and made faces and used bad words. But I had to show jump in an hour, so mostly I just changed tack and snuck out to watch my daughter ride her test. Then we went into show jumping warmup.

Now Sarah is a big part-draft grey mare, and she is more than capable of throwing a large-scale hissy fit. Some days when she gets mad, she actually stomps her feet. But she loves to jump, and she knows the Virginia Horse Park, and she loves to jump--show jumping wasn't going to be dressage, for sure, and it wasn't in that I felt how hard she was trying in warm up, but she was still tight through the jaw, neck, and back, and  she wasn't quite steering well through the turns, and her back end wasn't quite right and her jumps were off too. It was all subtle--no TD would have eliminated me--but it was wrong. I pulled up, concerned, and saw the same concern on my coach's face. She said, "She didn't look like this at the starter trials." I said, "She didn't feel like this at the pony club show last week." We looked at each other for another moment, and then I dismounted and ran up the irons. I thought maybe I was making something out of nothing, finding a problem when there was only a bad attitude, but I've been mistaken the other direction before and I won't do that again. I'd rather be cautious than stupid.

My trainer repeated that Sarah's back end looked funky. I had a chiropractor already scheduled for today, Monday. We came home. My chiropractor is also a vet, and he's convinced that Sarah's problems are neurological, not skeletal. We're drawing blood to test for EPM tomorrow.

So that was 2014: vet, ambulance, vet. I'll pin my hopes on 2015. I know it could be worse, but I'm hoping that it's better.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

I can't read books like a normal person.

I wish I could. The other day, worn out and mentally tired,  I fired up my Kindle and bought a book called The American Duke. I like a slutty book about British nobles as much as anyone. However.

In the very first paragraph Lady Whatever wakes and decides to go for a walk in the ducal garden at dawn. She flings her cloak over her nightdress. I wince, Maybe they had nightdresses in 1812 for duke's daughters, (most women at that time would have slept in their shift, which was basically the bottom layer of what they wore during the day) but it's very hard to believe in a duke's daughter who go outside in one. She'd have absolutely nothing on beneath it. Okay. I move on. Lady Whatever slides her feet into her boots, and I wince again. What boots are these? No Wellies back then. Tall leather boots wouldn't slip. Most footwear she'd either need help to get into, or she would ruin by walking in the garden.

I've gotten to the second sentence and can barely stand to continue.

Lady W goes down to the garden dressed like a slutty farmhand and encounters her father, dead. She runs to the stables for help, and sits down on a hay bale.

Maybe it was possible to bale hay then. I don't know. But it would have been really rare, particularly in England where even now they don't really put hay up in the square bales common in America. Haystacks, people. Haylofts. Not hay bales. Sheesh.

Inside the house, Lady W's sister asks, if Papa is dead, who will be the next duke?

It's hard for me to express how wrong this is. Everyone knew who the heir would be. Everyone, all the time. In on of Jil Paton Walsh's Lord Peter Wimsey books, the Duke of Denver, Lord Peter's brother, drops dead of a heart attack. Lord Peter rushes over, and, as he's examining the body, a family retainer comes up to him and says, "Your Grace--" which is how you address a duke, because, now that his brother is dead, Lord Peter has become Duke of Denver, and everyone knows it immediately.

I realize the author just wanted a way to explain that this crummy American relative would inherit, but it didn't need to be done with inane dialogue spoken by incredible characters. '"Oh, no!" cried Lady Whosis, "now we're at the mercy of the dreadful heir!" It was true. Since the death of her second brother, her father's second cousin's child had become the heir. No one knew a thing about him.' See how easy that was?

I sigh deeply and try to persevere. But the next bit of what is still the first chapter explains how, since their family's descent into poverty, they've had very little to eat. Bullpucky. They live on a landed estate. Gowns, jewels, carriages, anything that has to be bought with cash, they well may not afford, but they've got plenty of food. If anyone in the area has enough to eat it's them.

I'm done. It's awful. I paid for the book and it's stuck on my Kindle; I can't give it away. I can't stand reading it. I know most people aren't like me, but I'm stuck with my neurotic attention to history and I simply can not go on.

(Fortunately, the next book I picked up was Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests. Now that's how to write historical fiction!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


I've been overthinking things with my new novel. I tend to overthink things, anyhow. My husband hates going to movies with me because I dissect them in detail on the drive home. Sometimes--often, actually--when I'm taking a riding lesson and stop to ask a complex question, my instructor says, "Kim. Shut up and ride." With novel-writing I'm even worse because 1) I have only myself to talk to; and 2) all first drafts are lousy.

I know this. I know that the first rule of writing is to get the crap on the page. I know that the magic mostly happens in revision. This will be my 17th book, for heaven's sake. I'm not new at the game.

And yet. I'm piddling, agonizing. What is this book About? Where's the Plot? As if I could ever answer those questions in a first draft. Get on with it, darling.

Yesterday I finished Katherine Paterson's new semi-autobiography, Stories of my Life. I adore Katherine Paterson. I still remember reading The Great Gilly Hopkins when I was quite young, and getting to the part where Gilly, a brat of a foster child, has given a handmade card to her African-American teacher. The front of the card reads, "They're saying 'black is beautiful,' but near as I can figure is that everyone who's saying it looks mighty like a-" and then the inside says, "person with a vested interest in maintaining that point of view." That line made me howl with laughter, probably 35 years ago, and it makes me howl now, but it also--way back when--it showed me a glimpse of how writing works, how you can manipulate words with fascinating results. I met Katherine Paterson once. I wanted to kneel and kiss her ring. I love her so, have always loved her so. So you can imagine my relief when I learned, in this last book, that the time between when she started writing seriously, and when her first book came out, was the same as mine: nine years. Oddly enough that nine-year figure crops up again and again in writer's biographies. It's almost as though it takes nine years to become any class of writer.

The book I'm working on now is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life. It's the first true sequel I've ever written. It's a bit easier to write a sequel, because I already know the characters and the setting, and I've done a lot of the research. But--I realize how self-aggrandizing this sounds--I keep getting good reviews for TWTSML, and they sort of paralyze me with regard to the current book. What if it sucks?

The answer is: of course it sucks. Keep writing.

For my last several books I haven't waited to finish a first draft before I sent it to my publisher. I've mailed off the first 70 pages or so, and mostly they've responded with enthusiasm and contracts. When I sent the first pages of the first draft of TWTSML, I got a concerned phone call from my editor, asking, "Is this really going to be your next book?" Translation: ain't nobody gonna publish that.

I sighed. "Yes, it is my next book," I said, "only, obviously, not quite in this form." I dumped the 70 pages into the trash and started again. And again. And again. Six drafts later, I finally found the main character's voice. From there it wasn't quite smooth sailing, but it was at least open water seas.

That's what I need to think about: the work, not the reviews. The story, and the work, and the inherent lousiness of every single first draft in the world.