Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Readers

On Sunday at the Anderson's YA Conference, a young woman bounced up to me and said, "Does your publisher give free ARCs to bloggers?"

This is why I wish the internet had existed when I was in high school. I totally would have copied her gig. Free books, in exchange for writing about them? Yes, please. (Note to colleagues: I will totally blog about your books if send me them. The catch is that I'm almost criminally honest, so don't send me dreck.)

Anyhow, I told the young woman that if she came back at the end of the day, I'd give her an ARC of The War That Saved My Life. She did and I did.

I took several ARCs with me to Chicago. I gave a few to Becky Anderson for raffle prizes. I gave one to a second child blogger. I gave one to a lovely young woman named Margeaux, who sat at my table and who reminded me both of myself at that age and of my daughter, in different ways. Margeaux was one of the few readers at the conference who claimed to love historical fiction even more than dystopian. How could I not be charmed?

I gave another arc to a set of five friends who also sat at my table Saturday morning. I told them to pass it amongst themselves and then give it to their school librarian. Two of the five were sisters, and Goth. I'm pretty much over stoner Goths, but these were artistic literary Goths, and somehow I always find that type vulnerable and charming. Like the black eyeliner is a sort of armor. One of the Goths spent the keynote sessions doodling amazing art onto a sketchpad. (Teachers, please note: it is perfectly okay with me if your students doodle while I'm speaking. To me that's like knitting, something that makes it easier to listen.)

All five of the group that included the Goths had taken black marker and drawn runes on themselves. This has something to do with the series City of Bones. I haven't read those books so I don't understand the runes, but I LOVE THEM. I love them so much. I love that someone, in this case an enormous woman with hot pink hair, wrote down stories she made up in her head, and teens read those stories and identified with them. The Goths are less alone in the world because of those books.

One girl in the group looked almost anti-Goth, with perfect Irish red hair, milk-white skin, freckles, and an amazing smile. It was only when you looked close and saw that her hair had brown roots that you realized she did have something in common with the Goths (hair dye) besides a whole-hearted love of dystopian fiction. That girl's name was Bella; on Sunday, she was on my quiz bowl team, where she absolutely blew me away with how much she knew about current teen fiction and those who write it. Then, just to make me love her more, she leaned toward me and said, "I started the book you gave us last night. I really like it so far."

Monday, September 29, 2014

Forget Hanging With the Cool Kids, I'm Going to Hang With the Writers

I spent the weekend in the company of over 40 of my fellow writers; not just writers, in fact, but writers of literature for teens. It was a near holy experience. I spend most of my time--aside from with my family--with my Bristol People, whom I love. I spend some time each month or so with my Eventing People, and I even occasionally hang out with my Yarn People, but, living in East Tennessee and rarely travelling to events like this weekend's conference, I don't get to be with Writer People very often. And while I love my family, love Bristol, love eventing, and love yarn, I am a writer to the core of my soul. My Olympic rider friend once told me that whenever she meets a fellow Olympian of whatever sport they have a common framework of understanding, and it's the same with writers. We instantly get certain things that are hard for non-writers to understand.

Here's an example. We were on the hotel shuttle bus Friday night, heading to a pizza party that was the unofficial start of the weekend. We were discussing writer's colonies, which are sort of like summer camps for writers, only if you earn a place in one you get to stay for free. I said that my life was like a writer's colony already except that no one cooked my meals. Another writer, whom I'd just met, said that he'd always been put off by the time lapse between applying for a colony and actually staying in one. "What if when I get there I'm in a period of self-loathing?"

We all nodded sympathetically. "Good point," another woman (a best-selling writer, in fact) said. "That would really suck."

Adele Griffin was on my small panel for the breakout sessions. She described her new book The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone and the rest of us shook our heads. "We are not that smart," said T. M. Goeglein; the rest of us agreed. T stands for Ted--he's my age and from my hometown, which we discovered at the pizza party when I could correctly pronounce his last name, an odd one but common where we grew up. Adele's book is this amazing blend of art and story and photographs--it sounded so stunning that I immediately bought it at the conference bookstore. I showed it to my next-door author when we were lined up for booksigning. (Alphabetically by first name; I was in between Les Vlahos and Kevin Emerson.) Les thumbed through it, then looked up, amazed. "This is effing genius," he said.

It is. We all know that because we know the work and the creativity that went into it. In a time of self-loathing any one of us might envy the genius of any of the others, but in our best times, like this weekend, we just get it, and celebrate.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Hanging With the Cool Kids

One aspect of living in a small Appalachian town that I don't like is that there aren't very many writers here. Northampton, Massachusetts, the small town where I went to college, was just chock-a-block with writers. Jane Yolen. Patricia MacLachlan. Barry Moser, the acclaimed illustrator who redid the Wizard of Oz and made the Wicked Witch look just like Nancy Reagan. Julius Lester. You'd run into these people at the local bookstore all the time

We do have Barbara Kingsolver up the road in Glade Springs, and Charles Vess, who illustrated several Neil Gaiman books, in Abingdon. Barbara Kingsolver is a big deal but she doesn't do children's books; otherwise, I'd ask her over for coffee.

Anyway, I miss being among my fellow writers sometimes, so I do enjoy the sort of conference I'm heading to today. Once, way back, I was in Indianapolis with Gail Carson Levine, who wrote Ella Enchanted, and she was a ton of fun. Then at ALA years ago, all the publishing houses had cocktail parties where their authors were expected to show up, drink wine, and be terribly amusing. I had a great time there. Linda Sue Park had just won the Newbery, and her daughter, who was 13, spent a long time telling me all the revisions to A Single Shard that she, the daughter, was personally responsible for. When my agent introduced me to the new president of Random House (or possibly HarperCollins?) whose name was Trip Something, I said, "Wow, Trip, there's an Ivy-League nickname. Where'd you go to school?" My agent nearly killed me, but Trip laughed and said, pointedly, "Brown. AND YOU?" And when I confessed to Smith he told me all about his grandmother who had gone to Smith, and how he hoped his daughter would go there, and we parted good friends although I haven't seen him since and can't remember his last name.

I went to the Dial party at my editor Lauri's request, even though I didn't yet have a book out from Dial. (Favorite Things was underway.) Lauri tempted me, not that I really needed tempting, by promising to introduce me to Katherine Paterson, and she did, and then Dial had a private dinner for all the authors. Gary Blackwood, who like me was at the very beginning of his career then, sat across from me at this big round table otherwise filled with Katherine Paterson, Jane Yolen, Laurence Yep--Gary and I kept wiggling our eyebrows at each other and giggling. I wonder if he remembers that.

Anyway, tonight I'll be having dinner with 46 YA authors, including Carl Hiassen, Holly Black, Joan Bauer, Meg Wolitzer--those are the headliners. I'm not a headliner. I am, my daugher said, in the same room with all the cool kids, but probably standing near the edge. That's fine with me. From what I know there will be several of us over at the edge, and authors always have good stories. It should be fun.

If you're in Chicago--ha! that's likely--actually Naperville, Illinois, which is practically Chicago--you can still get tickets to Sunday's event, Anderson's Fan Frenzy day. See their website for details. (Saturday is sold out.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

This is Not New York.

I'm headed to Anderson Bookstore's Young Adult Literature conference outside Chicago tomorrow. I got my itinerary yesterday at 7:40 pm, which seemed a little late to me, and my publicist* asked, could I get myself to the airport tomorrow, or did they need to send a car for me?

I understand that these questions make sense in Manhattan, where plenty of people don't bother owning their own vehicles, and where getting to the airport by public transportation is a big pain in the neck. But this is Bristol, honey. I'm not sure exactly how one "sends a car." Do we have taxis? Anywhere? We have some buses that run downtown, and out to the hospital and the Bass Pro Shop on one edge and the Wal-Mart on the other. I don't think the buses go to the airport; I know they don't go to my farm.

I'd already had to explain to the folks in New York that my local airport was Tri-Cities, which meant it sat equidistant between Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport, which gave us enough population to support a regional airport. Then my publicist's assistant expressed surprise that I couldn't get direct flights to Chicago from Bristol. Well, no, I told her. You can fly direct to Charlotte or Atlanta, your choice. Even when I'm flying from Bristol to Nashville I go though Atlanta. Were I to fly from Bristol to Knoxville (not that anyone ever would) I would o it through Atlanta. Or Charlotte. My choice.

The plus side is that the far-away airport parking costs $8 per day and is only 10 feet farther from the terminal than the close airport parking ($12 per day). Also it takes 5 minutes to go through security, or 7 if the person in front of you has never flown before and doesn't know they have to take off their shoes and get rid of the extra-large tube of toothpaste they put in their carry-on. It's a friendly sort of airport. Once when we ended up driving back from the Atlanta airport in a rental car (long story), I went to take the rental back to the Bristol airport and forgot to fill it up with gas. The clerk handed the keys back to me. "Honey," he said, "Drive down to the Citgo, fill it up, and bring it back. Otherwise it's going to cost you an extra eighty bucks."

If I really needed a way to get to the airport tomorrow, I'd just call a friend. Someone would take me no problem, in the same way that I've taken people or picked them up when needed. But I'll be taking the surviving dog to the kennel anyhow, and stopping at the bank for some traveling money, and then maybe swinging through the Pal's drive-thru for a big iced tea. I wish the folks in Manhattan would visit sometimes. I'd love for them to understand how we live around here.

*For those of you wondering how I got a publicist, the answer is that when you are published by mainstream publishers they have them in-house, and assign each author one. They're really ramping up the publicity for The War That Saved My Life, which is exciting and terrifying all at the same time.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Duck Feet For Dinner

Yesterday afternoon, through a confluence of coincidences, I found myself in the Asian grocery in Kingsport looking for tamarind paste.

Kingsport is a neighboring city. I had an errand there, which is rare, and it happened to take me very near an Asian grocery store, which is something we don't have in Bristol. And that morning via email I'd gotten a recipe for homemade pad thai that promised me I really did need a bunch of odd ingredients. "Fish sauce" is pretty clear. What's a tamarind?

The Asian grocery smacked me upside the head with how many things humans can eat that I'd never heard of or considered eating before. They had packets of what looked like minnows, eyes and all, freeze-dried. I still can't imagine what you do with those. Toss 'em on a salad? Fish croutons?

I consider myself an adventurous eater. More than once I've had the checkout clerk at Food City hold up something from the produce section and ask, "Ma'am? What is this?" (Of course, one of those times it was parsley, but still.) I've been to some odd places--I recall a shabeen in South Africa where our guide, walking us through the buffet, tried hard to explain the concept of mealie pap, the basis of many South Africa meals. "That's grits," I said, looking at it. "Don't worry. We get it."

"Ah," the guide said, "Okay, to go on the mealie pap this is lamb curry, and this is vegetables, and this is--ah, this is a local delicacy. I don't think you'd like it." He does not say you white people but he thinks it pretty loud.

"What is it?" I asked, peering down at little white rings in a soupy gravy. Calamari?

"Goat intestine," the guide said.

He was right. Us white people skipped that one.

Anyway, back at the Asian market, I discovered that some people apparently eat duck feet. My Polish grandma used to make duck blood soup, pouring a quart of sickly sweet coagulating duck blood into the broth--it was the only delicacy of hers I couldn't eat, and that includes blood sausage--but I'd always assumed that, when cooking a duck, you ignored the feet. I was wrong. I looked up "cooking duck feet" on Google when I got home, and the instructions read, "boil until you can easily pull off a toe."

Ducks have toes?

Is any of this worse than Easy Cheez? Or non-dairy creamer? When my daughter and I were at the World Equestrian Games, we ran into a bunch of Australians who couldn't get over creamer. "Creamer," they kept saying, holding their sides with mirth. "Cream-er."

(At the Olympics in the Olympic park the Brits completely ignored a lovely multiethnic food court in favor of queueing for an hour at the World's Largest McDonald's, but I digress. Oh, except to say that this week I learned that McRib sandwiches are made from a ground combination of pork tripe, heart, and stomach. Yummy!)

Meanwhile, back at the grocery, I'd found fish sauce, rice noodles, mung bean spouts and palm sugar, but was drawing a blank at tamarind paste. One aisle of the Asian market had a list of canned sauces: red curry paste, green curry paste, yellow curry paste, thai noodle paste--no tamarind. I was forced to squint at all the cans, looking for the tiny English letters translating the label.

Finally I gave up. I found the sole employee, a man at the back whacking the feet off dead ducks, and asked him for tamarind paste. He obligingly walked down a different aisle and slapped a slightly squishy red-brown packet into my hand. Animal, vegetable, mineral? I've no idea. I hoped this stuff had no relationship with Tamarin monkeys. I bought it, and at home I looked it up. The tamarind is a tropical, mostly African, tree. It grows nuts. Tamarind nuts. Now you know, and so do I.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Banned Books Week: Harry Potter, Jesus, and Why You Can't Tell My Kid What to Read

A few days ago, my daughter and I both stumbled upon one of the most hilariously awful pieces of fan-fiction ever written. Fan-fiction is when someone, usually a teen fan, takes characters or situations that an author invented and either continues their story or writes an alternate version. Examples of this abound on the internet: the most prevalent, so far as I can tell, are Harry Potter versions in which Harry turns out to love a completely new character who very much resembles the author of the fan-fiction piece.

Fan-fiction is usually not copyright infringement because it's not being sold. It's usually awful, because we can't all be J.K. Rowling. It usually has an agenda, even if the agenda is merely, "But I wish Harry Potter would snog me!"

So the piece I stumbled upon--well, I'll just link to it, here--is a version of Harry Potter written for the sort of evangelical Christian who feels that exposure to the real Harry Potter will turn her darlings into actual witches, or, at the very least, away from God. This is my favorite part of chapter one:

Hagrid laughed wisely. "Evolution is a fairytale. You don't really believe that, do you?"
"Yes, I do!" Aunt Petunia screeched.
"Well then prove it!"
Aunt Petunia could only stare at him; and her big mouth hung open dumbly. Here she thought she was so educated; and always demanded that Christians prove what they believed in; but she couldn't even prove her own religion. It was then that Harry knew who the smart one here was!
"Tell me how to get to this heaven place!" Harry cried wistfully, clasping his hands together. Sometimes, the wisdom of little ones is really amazing. We think we grownups know it all; but then God speaks through the mouths of little ones; and shows us how we are all mortals struggling along the path of life. Humility.
"All you have to do is be saved. Do you want to be saved?"
"I do, I do!" Harry squealed, jumping up and down.
"Then pray the sinner's prayer!"
Aunt Petunia tried to stop him; but she was powerless against Harry's pure, innocent, holy energy. Soon, Harry had said the prayer. Hagrid beamed happily.
"You're a Christian now, Harry!" Hagrid cried proudly.
Harry smiled but then interrogated, "But how do I be a Christian? I don't know how!"
Hagrid grinned widely. "There is only one place to learn that-Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles!"

It's my favorite because it takes talent, really it does, to write this badly. "The wisdom of little ones is really amazing."  Bwwwahahahaha

Now, I would do whatever I could to keep my children, were they at young, impressionable ages, from reading this claptrap. One, because I want them to love reading, and no one can love this dreck. Two, because I want them to believe in evolution AND God. That's just how I roll. Three,  because I don't fear that their faith is so tenuous that the Harry Potter series will cause them to question it or that they would need it constantly reinforced by every piece of fiction they read.

In our house we love Harry Potter. In odd moments this summer my son reread most of the series.

I would guess, however, that viewpoints like the one which caused the woman to write the stuff above (Snopes.com says that it isn't clear whether she's serious or satirical, but I'm pretty sure, given that she's still posting new chapters, that she's serious) are also the ones that drive campaigns for books to be banned. And that's dangerous stuff.

When someone bans a book, they're not saying that they don't want their children reading it. All parents have that right. I myself prevented my kids from reading some of my own books, ones I myself wrote, until I thought they were old enough to handle them. If you think one of my books isn't appropriate for your kid--have at it. Tell them no. But don't lead a campaign to get it banned. When you ban a book, you're saying that you get to decide what is right for all kids--yours, and everyone else's. 

You have the right to believe whatever you like. You have the right to censor your child's reading material. You even have the right to write truly horrific fan-fiction.

You don't have the right to tell my kids what to read.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Anticipating Fred

It's 7:14 am Bristol time as I type this, which means that it's 6:14 am in Wisconsin, where my sister lives. I'm thinking about her pretty much to the exclusion of everything else, wondering what she's doing right this very moment, because, this morning, her son Fred will be born.

Like his older brother Louie (these are my blog names for my nephews: Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Fred. No, those are not their real names. Sheesh.), Fred's coming into the world via c-section, so we've known his birthday for weeks now. I don't actually know what time my sister is going into the hospital, so I don't know what time to expect the phone call, or text, or whatever, that I pray will tell me that Fred is safely into our world.

Some things you can't understand until you've done them. Having a baby is certainly not rare--look around, so many humans--but it's inexplicable. It changes you forever. The morning I went into labor with our firstborn, my husband drove me through these ink-black frosted streets, and every time I saw another car I looked for a glimpse of the person inside. For all of those people, I thought, this was just an ordinary day, but for me and my husband, it was extraordinary. It seemed poignant somehow--everyone else driving off to work, ho hum, when this enormous miracle was just about to occur.

We close our eyes to miracles. We forget how astonishing the world can be. I saw a cookie cake on cakewrecks.com recently (if you're bored of LOLcats but want a laugh, try cakewrecks) that read, "Look! We made a human with our genitals!" and I laughed and laughed, not so much because it was funny, but because the truth of it was so absurd. How can this all work? How can we not be amazed, every day, that it does?

I'll see a photo of Fred today, and in less than two weeks I'll be able to hold him. The other day I tried to tell my son how much I looked forward to holding a tiny baby again, to counting all Fred's fingers and toes, to smell that wonderful sweet spot at the back of his neck. My son, a bit alarmed, thought I was wanting another baby myself. No, that's not it, I told him. I had my babies; I loved my babies. Further babies at this point would be along the lines of a miracle. But so were the first two, and so is Fred, and I can't wait to meet him and revel in his improbably perfect self.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ten Things on Tuesday

1. My eyes are worse this morning, which I would not have thought possible last night. My allergy appointment is at 10:30 and should be miserable. I've done allergy testing at least 3 times before. I am allergic to nearly everything. The most recent testing I was allergic to 74 out of 75 items; the only thing I wasn't allergic to was dogs.

2. I am allergic to horses, and I don't care.

3. Speaking of, we've now trapped something like 5 skunks from our barn. In the hope that this is all the skunks, I cleaned up the piles of skunk poop last night. Fingers crossed.

4. When I talked about mostly hating mission trips, I should have added that I don't hate medical mission trips--the ones where teams of physicians go to developing nations to either give medical care or train local physicians. Correct a child's clubfoot or cleft palate and you don't have to build a long-term relationship or understand her culture to have a profound influence on her life.

5. For all other forms of aid, however: listen first. I recently read about a community in African where several women prostitutes had been killed. What was the answer here? Better law enforcement? Job skills training, so the women could do something else? When asked, the women of the community said that what they needed was a way to keep elephants out of their fields. Elephants were trampling their crops, leaving them so destitute that they resorted to prostitution to feed their children. Accordingly, an aid group raised money to buy fencing materials, and the women themselves built the elephant-proof fence.

6. Back when, I promised to give away my copy of Interrupted to one of the people who left comments on that post. I used a Random Number Generator set between 1 and 4, and the winner is Diane! This amuses me greatly, both because I know her and because her comment was, "Why don't I just borrow the book?" I'll give it to her and she can pass it on however she chooses.

7. I am finally making progress on my to-do list. The freezer has been moved to the basement and the ironing is done (it tells you a lot about my life that after 3 months of no ironing my ironing pile consisted of a few random linen towels, one blouse, and my good napkins). Also, the clipper cord has been replaced, by the same man who sharpens my clipper blades. His name--I'm pretty sure he's making it up--is Will Sharpen, and he does a mail-order clipper repair business worldwide, but also lives about 5 miles from me, so yesterday he showed up in his truck and fixed everything. This means I have functional clippers several weeks before I need to clip the horses, which is amazing. I've also gotten 5 of the 7 horse blankets laundered, just waiting for sunny weather to do the other two.

8. I feel amazing.

9. Except for the eyes.

10. To round out this list, I offer you another quote from the back of my novel, The War That Saved My Life.  This one comes from Karen Cushman. (Get out of town! But it's true.) "You are about to read an astounding novel. I was gobsmacked. Will you cry and rejoice and hold your breath? Absolutely. Will you find the book as exciting, touching, wise, and profound as I did? Yes. Remarkable achievement, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Thank you." (Note: it doesn't get any better than that.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Eyes of Satan

That's me.

I don't mean I've suddenly become the Prince of Darkness. I mean I look like him--or maybe Voldemort. Anyway, it's the eyes: mine are swollen, chapped, and bright, crimson red. They have been since Friday, and they're only getting worse.

For today, there's not a thing in the world I can do about it. It's allergies, and I would guess that the ragweed is in bloom. The house isn't as pollen-tight as usual, what with the workmen opening windows upstairs, and I'd also guess they've stirred up a fair bit of dust ripping the carpet out, and I'm allergic to dust as well as pollen.

Yes, my husband is an eye doctor, and yes, he gives me drops: two kinds of antihistamines and an anti-inflammatory. They don't see to help at all, or if they do, sheesh. Steroid drops would help--they got me through a bad patch last spring--but they also raised my eye pressure to incipient-glaucoma levels, so I can't take them anymore.

Not only am I returning to my allergy doctor and going back on immunotherapy, I have an appointment for repeat allergy testing tomorrow. Which is part of the problem: I can't take antihistamine pills for three days before the testing.This morning my asthma has decided to kick in, for the first time in weeks, and I'm left wondering if I dare go to yoga class or if anything at all will be too much for me. It's a pathetic way to live, but it's only until tomorrow.

This morning as I was moping about the kitchen, feeling sorry for myself, I remembered how bad my allergies used to be. When I was a child I used to wake up with my eyelids crusted together, stuck. My nose ran so much during ragweed season that I'd get a crack along the side of my nose where the chapped skin broke open, and it would stay there for weeks. I overused most of the medicine available at the time, to the point where it either made my nose run worse, or it knocked me unconscious. (I slept through my high school Baccalaureate Mass.)

I carried a purse in high school, mostly to hold my lunch money and the day's supply of Kleenex. I remember a boy in sophomore biology grabbing my purse in a teasing way, saying he was going to see what was inside. "Don't," I said, but of course he did. It was stuffed full of Kleenex, new and used. "Oh, gross," he said, slapping the purse shut.

"It's not gross," the boy behind him said. "It's just Kleenex. She can't help having allergies."

That was a good little memory for a kind of crummy day. It made me smile. Still does. I don't remember the name of the boy who grabbed my purse, but I do remember the name of the boy who stood up for me, even though, at the time, we were enemies more than friends.

I married him.

He still stands up for me, Satanic eyes and all. Thanks, darling.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why I (Mostly) Hate Mission Trips

Back a few years ago, prior to a trip to Africa, I stopped by my pharmacy to pick up some anti-malaria pills. Cathy, the pharmacist (our boys played baseball together), gave me a cheery wave and said, "Going to a mission trip?"

"Nope," I said, equally cheerily. "I'm going as a tourist."

Cathy looked perplexed. I live in the Baptist Bible Belt, and mission trips are pretty common here. But I mostly hate mission trips. I'd rather be a tourist any day.

Here's what I do as a tourist: I come into the country because seeing it has value to me. I spend money at hotels and restaurants, which helps the local economy. I hire local guides. I try to understand the country as a whole, not just from the tourist sites--I've been to a one-room school in Costa Rica, a cattle farm in Botswana, several black townships in South Africa--respectfully, seeking to learn and understand.

Here's what I might do on a mission trip: I come into a country because I think I have value to the people there. I spend a lot of money to get there, none of which reaches the local economy. I preach Jesus, probably in English, to people who probably don't speak English, and I build a school or paint a building or perform some other job which could be equally well done by the people who live there. I come to teach, not listen. I don't learn anything about the culture, except that they are poorer than me but still manage (gasp!) to be happy.

It makes me full crazy when church groups of 20 people spend $2000 each to go to a remote place and impose their will on poor people. That's forty thousand dollars which might have been transformative in the lives of those in that hard place, spend hauling a bunch of privileged white folks there to spend a week learning how blessed they are. Amen!

Which is not to say that I think tourism is the only answer. The people and places most in need aren't in vacation hot spots. Rwanda, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti. Not going to those places any time soon.

Which brings me to a "mission trip" I do support. Help One Now, an organization I've loved for a long time, has sent a group of storytellers to Ethiopia, to meet the organization they support there and spread the word. (Believe it or not, one of the women from Duck Dynasty is there. I don't watch DD, so I can't tell you more than that.) You can read about it here and here for starters.  Or here.

Help One Now partners with local leaders in the countries where they work. They find men and women who are already transforming their communities, and fund them. In Ethiopia, as in Haiti, they're working on a simple program of orphan prevention. Several years ago HON told a community leaders that they only wanted to spend their money on orphans, not on poor children still living with their parents. "Come back in a year," they were told, "and all these kids will be orphans, too." Meaning that their parents, unable to feed them, would surrender them to the orphanage.

Yesterday on the Ethiopian trip, the HON storytellers met an HIV-positive widow with 5 young children. Unable to care for them all, she'd put one daughter in an orphanage. Now, with HON's support, she has found a job, gotten a cow to provide milk for the family, been able to start anti-retroviral medicine, and brought her daughter home. Her children are in school and have enough to eat. Her family has been transformed.

In America our societal problems are often complex. Abuse, addiction, mental illness. In developing countries the problems can be simpler to solve--but not easier. If you have no shovel, and no hope of buying a shovel, you can't dig yourself out.

Help One Now is trying to get 300 sponsorships for 150 vulnerable families in Ethiopia. Each sponsorship costs $42/month, or $504 dollars per year. You know, about one-fourth what you might spend on a mission trip to go paint someone's church. Instead you'd keep a family together. How about it?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ruby Bridges

Tuesday's whining post came courtesy of some sort of virus, but, as usual, it took me most of the day to realize I was sick. I typically run through a gamut of self-castigation--unproductive, lazy, whingeing, etc.--before I understand that I'm actually not feeling well, not because of any personal failures, but because I am sick.

I spent most all of yesterday on the couch, attempting to sleep despite workman landing jumbo jets in the bedroom above my head. (That's what it sounded like. I've no idea what they were actually doing.) The one time I did drift off, the phone rang: it was a man informing me that, "The government has randomly selected you to win a grant of eight thousand dollars--"

"Oh, bull--" I said, and slammed down the phone.

Today is the 13th anniversary of 9/11. My Super Secret Special Project, now defunct, didn't directly concern terrorism, but it had some indirect links. One thing I'd pointed out to my ex-collaborator is that no high school student in America today can clearly remember the attacks of that day. My daughter, a junior in high school now, was a 3-year-old in preschool--we managed to keep her pretty much oblivious of the whole thing. My son, now a college sophomore, was in first grade--he caught on to a lot of the story, and the fear and tension upset him for awhile, but I don't know now how much he actually remembers from his own experience, and how much he remembers from hearing stories of the day retold. (When I was a little girl, I was astonished to learn that President Kennedy had been shot before I was born. I'd heard so much about that day that it seemed I could remember it.) My point being, to the upcoming generation 9/11/01 is history, not current events.

Yesterday was the 60th birthday of Ruby Bridges, who, on November 14, 1960, entered a formerly all-white public school in New Orleans under the guard of four federal marshals.  When you look at photos of that day you can't believe how small she was, how vulnerable, how beautiful. She's wearing a pretty dress and white ankle socks and little patent-leather shoes. I imagine her Momma carefully dressing her, arranging her hair, thinking that nobody was going to say her little girl was dirty or trashy or unkempt. Ruby's mother accompanied her to school the first few days, but after that Ruby and her marshals went alone. She was the only first-grader at the school--all her white classmates had been withdrawn.

Every day a vicious crowd protested outside the school. They shouted insults. One held up a black doll inside a coffin.

Little Ruby's response was to pray for them. Her mother had told her to remember that if she was worried she could always pray, that God would always hear her, and Ruby also remembered that Jesus had prayed for people who hated him. So she prayed for her protesters.

The following year the school opened without protests to integrated classrooms. Ruby Bridges grew up, married, raised four children, and eventually volunteered in the very school she helped to integrate.

Ruby's story reminds me that, though we still have a long way to go, our society can change for the better. We can live less out of fear and more out of love for each other. If Ruby Bridges could pray for her enemies at the age of six, maybe the rest of us can, too.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

One of Those Days

Today my to-do list is kicking my rear.

First of all, my darling 4-year-old nephew Huey is in the hospital with respiratory problems (Huey has asthma like me). Please pray for him, if you do that kind of thing, or send some kind secular thoughts his way.

I'm exhausted, and I'm not sure why. I went to bed late, as I had been getting Facebook message from my sister-in-law about Huey, but I slept okay. But after my daughter left for school all I wanted to do was nap, and I would have except that we're having carpet ripped out and wood floors put down in a few bedrooms upstairs, and that makes more noise than you'd think. If it were a regular sort of noise I could probably sleep through it, but first they pound for awhile, then the generator starts up, then the nail guns, then back to pounding.

I've been waiting a year for these guys to rip out the carpets, so I can hardly shoo them away because I want to sleep. But I'd like to.

Also the phone keeps ringing. My boarder called to tell me that we'd caught another skunk. (For "we" please read "the professional company we hired because while I could probably set a trap for a skunk I'd have no idea what to do if I got one.") I'm not sure how many skunks we've caught so far, but it's not enough, there's still more.

One of the items on my to-do list reads "skunk sh*t." It means "clean up all the skunk excrement in the odd corners of the barn." Of course, this item can't be accomplished until the skunks stop sh*tting.

Then Mack, who mows for me (which means "mows and weedwhacks all 52 acres on a regular basis, except the stand of pines, which he ignores") called to tell me that he's burning the brush pile today. Today. He's been threatening to burn the brush pile since last October. I'll report back on this one. If he actually does it it will be a miracle, since the brush pile, as it turns out, can't be mowed.

I'd like to write (meaning "my novel" not "this unfortunate blog post") but my brain feels like oatmeal. I've tried coffee. It didn't help.

There are 42 items on my to-do list. All of them are medium-term stuff--nothing short term like "dinner tonight," but also nothing long-term like "get the floors redone" or "burn the brush pile." Some of them are problematic. "Ironing" for example. Seems straightforward, but there's a freezer blocking my ironing board. (It's one of those pull-down ones attached to the laundry room wall. I don't have a regular ironing board anymore. I was always catching my fingers in it and my husband deemed it dangerous.) The freezer needs to go into the basement. The guys putting in the new floors have agreed to move it--I've known them forever, they built my house--but first they need to remember to bring a doily.

"Clippers." That means "find someone who can repair the electrical cord on my $300 horse body clippers that my daughter's idiot horse stepped on and severed when I was trying to clip him last year."

"New curtains." "Wash, iron (oh, no!) and hang the curtains you bought at the Highlands Festival flea market in the guest room, replacing those awful floral things." Well, aside from needing access to the ironing board, this requires that the workmen finish in the guest room. They're mostly finished, except for some trim pieces that they need to remember to bring with them.

"Pony club new member." A technology puzzle. I opened her email on my phone, and for some reason it's not on the email on my computer. However, I need to get her attachments onto my computer to print them. I'm not awake enough for this one.

Scratch that. I tried, and now I can't even find the original email. I'll sort this out, I'm sure. As soon as I get a little sleep.

Monday, September 8, 2014

It's Monday and I'm Going To Brag

Last night I sat down with the pre-publication copy (commonly known as an ARC, for Advanced Reading Copy) of my upcoming novel, The War That Saved My Life. ARCs look quite a lot like paperback versions of the novel, complete with the cover art, but they're not quite finished--good thing, because we caught a timeline mistake on page sixteen.

I read parts of the book, including the last hundred pages, because now that the Super Secret Special Project has disappeared I'm back to working on the sequel to TWTSML. (Teens who love John Green's novel The Fault In Our Stars--that is to say, all teens--refer to it as Tif-ee-os, from TFIOS. There's no way to pronounce TWTSML. I've tried.) I've never written a sequel before--the closest I've come is my second book, which was a companion book to my first and also the worst book I've had published--but TWTSML cries out for one in all respects. In fact, my current editor, coming into the project when my previous editor cruelly abandoned me in favor of caring for her newborn son, wrote me early on: What are we supposed to think about the ending of this book? It's happily-ever-after even though their house just got blown up? What about Ada's foot? What if Mam returns? (Okay, Sarah, sorry. I guess there are some spoilers.)

To which I replied: "sequel." And that made her happy.

Then she wanted to know what Tough Issue I was going to tackle in the sequel. I gave her a one-word reply there, too, which made her say "oooooooh," but I'm not going to spoil that surprise.

Anyhow, let me tell you about Amazon reviews, or most other internet reviews you might read. (Goodreads are slightly more reliable than Amazon; regular blog reviews are pretty reliable, but check the background of the blogger for hidden agendas.) Amazon reviews fall into several categories:
1) Those written by the author's friends and family. These are usually very favorable.
2) Those written by sixth-graders who were forced to read the book and post on Amazon for school. Some of these are favorable, others very, very unfavorable. You'll know them by their brevity and misspellings.
3) Those written by people who aren't actually reviewing the book. Many unfavorable reviews fall into this category. For example, I saw someone give Neil Gaiman's exquisite Coraline one star because, "I didn't know this was a children's book." It's not really cricket to blame the author for your own ignorance. Ditto giving the author one star because you bought it from a used bookseller and didn't like the condition of the copy you received.
4) Those written by people with An Agenda. All my one-star reviews for Jefferson's Sons come from a small group of people who really passionately do not want to believe that Thomas Jefferson had sex with a black woman. They don't care about my book; they mostly haven't read it, because the very idea of it pisses them off. One suggests snarkily that the book "should be filed under fiction." (It is.)
5) Everyone else. You can probably believe these reviews, so long as you can distinguish them from categories 1-4. If the author in question has friends and family who are quite talented this may be difficult.

So you'll have to take Amazon reviews lightly. I know I do. But let me quote you a review I got for TWTSML:

"Not all wars are fought by nations; some are fought in small rooms, but for the same issues: justice, opportunity, respect. In Ada's small war lies our large hope that love cannot, will not, be overcome. I read this novel in two big gulps."

It's not on Amazon. It's on the back of the ARC. It was written by Gary D. Schmidt, who wrote Okay For Now and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy , and I swear I'm going to have that blurb embroidered on a pillow and sleep on it at night, because every time I read it I think I've finally done something right. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Super Secret Special Project Has Crashed and Burned

This is not the blog post I was expecting to write today. Sometimes things happen.

I had a Super Secret Special Project well underway. I couldn't officially talk about it yet, and now I'll never get to, because I just had a call from the editor involved and the person in charge is cancelling it.

A few of you have heard from me personally what the Super Secret Special Project entailed, and were excited on my behalf. I was excited, too. I am sorry that it has come to an end.

On the other hand, I notice that I'm not crushed.

It was going to be a collaborative book between me and an author who usually writes for adults. He's more famous than me; both our names would have been on the collaborative book, but his would have been the one people noticed. His name would have gotten the book into airport bookstores and Wal-Marts and such; mine so far only gets me into regular bookstores and libraries and Amazon.

The problem is that with the best will in the world, and with nothing but respect for each other, we still aren't very similar. I write for children; I understand the genre very well, and I think I have a knack for expressing complicated stuff in simple terms. He writes for adults in a complex way that doesn't translate easily to a younger age group. We couldn't really compromise by writing a young adult novel because then both of us would have been at sea (and for other reasons), which meant this book would be very different from all his other books, which was problematic. Both of us write about settings--people, place, and time--that are important to us, and that we understand well. In the first weeks of writing, I was shocked by how much I didn't know about his normal setting, which would have been the book's setting, despite some pretty serious research. I think we were also both surprised by the number of things we couldn't really say because of the restrictions writing for children does put on the expression of adult themes. "We'll have to leave that out of the book," was something we said to each other several times.

"I know I can do this," I said to my husband, back at the beginning of the idea. My husband had reservations: he pointed out that this was not a book I would have thought to write on my own. And that's the real issue. Neither my collaborator nor I would have written this book on our own. I still think we could have written it together, but my collaborator came to believe otherwise, and I respect that.

It probably helps my general attitude toward this that before receiving the phone call I got a three-page email detailing the publicity plan for my novel that's coming out in January (it had been March, it's been moved up). The War That Saved My Life is the book of my heart, something I pulled out of nowhere and everywhere and spun using the best words I had. I'm thrilled that people are excited about it. The War That Saved My Life is mine. The Super Secret Special Project was never really going to be mine. It would have been ours, which was good enough for me, and yet, maybe not really. I find that I can let it go.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

This Sort of Thing Only Happens in College

My son had an interesting night last week, and with his permission I'm sharing the story.

So, midweek, my son's roommate and three other friends decided to drive from Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, to Detroit, Michigan, to watch a night Tigers game. My son, on campus, went to sleep around midnight.

He woke up at 1:30 because someone was banging on his door. It was a guy from down the hall, who was also roommates with one of the people who'd gone to the baseball game. "Dude," this guy told my son, "You've got to go get everyone. They're in Toledo, Ohio."

For the record, Toledo, Ohio, is actually on the way between Detroit and South Bend. You won't think so unless you checked a map, but it is.

"You've got to be kidding me," my son said.

"Dude, their car broke. It's not fixable. You've got to go get them, you're the only one with a car."

Now my son is not the only person at Notre Dame or in his dorm with a car, but apparently he was the only person among the travelers' roommates and close friends to have a car. And it was true: his buddies were stuck in Toledo, at 1:30 am. They'd holed up in an iHOP, the only place open in Toledo at the time.

Eventually my son realized the other guy wasn't kidding. So my son got dressed, walked the half mile to the parking lot, and set out for Toledo. He couldn't take anyone with him, because he had to haul four guys back, and that was going to be stretching the limits of his Civic as it was.

He got to the iHOP at 3:45. He honked his horn, and the guys came out and stuffed themselves inside. "Dude," one of them said, "some seriously weird people hang out at iHOPs at night."

At 4:30, just as he'd gotten onto the Indiana Tollroad, his rear tire went flat.

"Dude," said one of his friends, "we've killed two cars in one night."

"We haven't killed this one," my son said. "Get out." So, illuminated by the light of five cell phones, they figured out how to change a tire on the side of a highway at night. Then they drove 120 miles at 50 mph, on the spare.

They made it back to campus at 6:45. Walked the half mile from student parking to their dorm. Fell into bed. And then--because he's my son, and he's terrific--my son got up at 8:45. "I went to the student center, bought a 5-hour energy shot, a donut, and some milk," my son said. "And then I went to class."

I know the last part is true, because he called me to tell me the story in the 10-minute interval between his 9:30 class and his 10:50 one. I don't doubt the rest of it is true (Ok, maybe they didn't always say "Dude") because really, it's the sort of thing that happens in college. When my husband acted vaguely disapproving of the whole adventure, I told my son not to worry about it. "I could tell you stories," I said, "Your dad did stuff like this, too."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Skipping The WEG Rocked. Here's Why

I will start by saying that three words which should never, ever be strung together in this order are: "Beginner Novice Trakehner." "Beginner Novice," sure. "Trakehner" if you must. "Beginner Novice Trakehner"--are you kidding me?

With all the love and appreciation that I do have for Brian and Penny Ross, who not only organize the Virginia Starter Trials--much more chaotic than a regular horse trials as so many starters don't have a clue--AND allow Old Dominion Pony Club Region to piggyback their event rally onto the starter trials, AND ALSO organized the stabling so that my mare was as far away from her BFF, my daughter's horse, Mickey, as possible, I have to say that putting a trakehner on beginner novice is too much.

{For the Muggles: a Trakehner is a type of cross-country jump consisting of a log hanging over an open, revetted ditch. Trakehners are scary as hell, to horse and human both; they're inherently difficult no matter what their height.}

As posted yesterday, I skipped attending the World Equestrian Games in favor of watching my daughter and my pony clubbers ride like wildfire at the Old Dominion Regional Event Rally this weekend, and I'm glad I did.

Since there was a Starter Horse Trials, and also schooling on Saturday morning, I decided to bring my darling mare Sarah along. Factoring in that we hadn't competed since her rehab from an injury last winter, that I was less than three weeks back in the saddle from knocking myself unconscious, that I was coaching one of my club's riders, and that I was actually also co-hosting the rally, I decided to drop from novice to beginner novice. The Trakehner didn't bother Sarah, who'd jumped it on the Novice Area 2 Championship course the year before. It didn't bother my daughter, who was going Novice, or her teammate Halie, who was riding a combined test. Nor did it overly bother our darling neophyte, Kiri, because I told the rest of the team that if they gave Kiri the idea that Trakehners weren't your usual and customary beginner novice fence I would personally cause them injury.

It was Kiri and her horse Spencer's first riding rally and first event and the third different venue they'd ever schooled cross-country. They schooled brilliantly except for Kiri falling off at the Trakehner. She hopped right back on, pummeled Spencer authoritatively, and jumped it. They were delighted and delightful during the schooling, because they were so willing despite their inexperience, and because Kiri's smile could light small cities most of the time. Spencer accidentally fell off the down bank and said, "Oh, COOL! That's what you want!" and went down it happily every time afterward. He was brave at the water. He barely flicked at ear at anything and he strutted off the course licking his lips, ears forward.

My daughter, meanwhile, put to rest the demons of a difficult week (our old dog died, among other crap). Over one fence Mickey bounced her so loose that I thought her air vest would deploy; she landed on his neck, stirrupless, and disappeared behind a small hill. She reappeared with her butt in the saddle, her feet in the stirrups, her contact reestablished and all her attention focused on her next fence. Her teammates went wild.

As an aside, my friend Michelle also got jumped loose schooling, and her air vest DID deploy. Her young mare Ava took off like a shot, ran loose, and, according to two unrelated eyewitnesses, jumped a parked motorcycle on the way back to the barn. I'm so sorry not to have been the third eyewitness.

So that was Saturday. Then the rally started, with jogs, equipment checks, helmet checks, and formals. Then we walked the courses. Sunday morning my first job was coaching Halie. I'm not much of a coach, more there for moral support, though I did explain to Halie just how and when she was supposed to enter the dressage ring, as it was her first time. I failed to tell her how to exit--as a result, she left not only the dressage arena but also the ring around it, and made her pony Chip climb a small mountain on his way back to me. She put in a lovely test, forward and accurate and happy, and then she went down and coolly cantered her way around the green showjumping course that all the other competitors in her division were nervously trotting. Halie's got her eye on cross country for next time, and I'm thrilled.

When Kiri went into dressage, Spencer ogled at the letter A. "Oh, crap," I said, recognizing a hole in our preparation, "he's never been in a dressage arena before." Caroline McClung, who was coaching my daughter and Kiri, said drily, "Well, that might have been nice to know." But it was a good test--solid, no mistakes.

I couldn't help but be mounted for showjumping when I went to watch my daughter's dressage test--the times were too close--but I did manage to watch her while preventing my horse from ever seeing hers, or hers from seeing mine. (At one point I asked a complete stranger, "Excuse me, could you please pet my horse for a moment? I need her to not notice this bay gelding walking by." The complete stranger obliged.) My daughter has been working very hard to improve her dressage and on Saturday it paid off, with by far their best test ever, which put them in first place in their division, which is not where you typically find us Bradleys after the dressage.

Then I went down and asked when they were going to raise the jumps to BN, only to be told that they were set, which was awesome, and then Sarah and I jumped them and it was REAL RIDING, as opposed to my old technique of point-and-run.

Then Kiri showjumped. On the drive home she said that the course was the best riding she'd ever done, and I wholeheartedly agree. Spencer might have been a little nervous about the grandstand and the bright fences and the atmosphere, but Kiri had courage enough for them both. Then we rode together to cross country. Showjumping had been running behind and they were taking cross-country riders as they got them. We didn't need much warmup. "I'll go first," Kiri said.

I watched her first fences from the startbox--fluid, strong. Then Sarah and I set out. At one point I caught another glimpse of Kiri and Spencer, still cantering so that was good. Sarah found the jumps easy-peasy. I concentrated on balancing her without taking too big a tug--she's gotten so much more responsive that I have to be careful not to pull too much--and it was lovely, lovely, especially when I got to the Beginner Novice Trakehner and Kiri wasn't lying underneat it.

They had one stop, at that wretched Trakehner, but only one. On the second try she got him over. We laughed ourselves silly at the finish line.

Later in the afternoon my daughter romped clear over the novice course. She won her division; Halie and Kiri both got ribbons in theirs. In the rally they were first in horse management and second overall. Our stable manager, Caroline, won the region's stable management award and my daughter's horse got best-conditioned.

The ribbons were lovely, but they weren't the point. The point was all that joy. On the way home I commented to my daughter that this plus her placing at Pony Club Championships insured that she was already qualified for next year's championships.  "Hmm," Kiri said. "So if I want to ride at championships, I have to get another qualifying result--like, say, this fall at River Glen?"

Yes ma'am. You bet.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why I Didn't Go to the World Equestrian Games.

In 2010, I took my young daughter to the World Equestrian Games--the world championships of seven riding disciplines, including my beloved eventing, held every four years opposite the Olympics--in Lexington, Kentucky. We had a wonderful time. Two years later, the two of us made a grand trip to the London Olympics, where we got to watch all four days of eventing. It was the trip of a lifetime. For a long time I planned to go to the 2014 WEG games, which are currently still in progress in Normandie, France. I wouldn't have been able to take my daughter, now a high school junior, but I had several friends going, I have a working knowledge of French, and I love Normandie. I would, I thought, have my own adventure.

As the months went by, however, I began to have doubts. Planning for London was complex but went smoothly; everything about this trip seemed awkward. I didn't get tickets for the dressage phase. Getting to Caen, the hub of the WEG, was easy but the train schedule meant I'd have to spend one whole day going from Caen back to Paris after the eventing was finished, then fly out the next day--hardly a horrible option, but it meant that a trip to see 2 days of competition would take at least 6 days away from home. So I asked my friend, a Very Big Name Eventer, for her opinion: was it worth it?

"Here's what I think," she said. "You're only going to get so many chances to go to something like this in your lifetime. Take them."

That was great advice, but it swayed me the opposite direction. Because the biggest obstacle to my attending the WEG was actually the Old Dominion Region pony club event rally, held in conjunction with the Virginia Starter Trials in Lexington, VA. If I went to the WEG, I'd miss the rally.

I'm 47. My daughter is 16. If I have another hale 35 years, God willing, I will get my chances at 8 more WEGs and 8 more Olympic games. Since my daughter has declared her intention to go to college as far as possible from Tennessee (I'm not offended: I went as far east from Indiana as I could), I very much doubt she'll rally once she's in college. If she does, it won't be over Labor Day weekend. And she loves eventing rally. If I'd gone to the WEG, she still would have gone to rally, but I wouldn't have been there to see it.

Then there's the rest of the team. Some of our club's experienced eventers have family members who also compete, and so they headed to a recognized event instead. That left me, as DC (head of a local pony club), in charge of a fairly inexperienced team. Our stable manager, Caroline, is a bright and competent young woman, but also a D2 who'd never been to a rally before. 13-year-old Halie, doing a combined test, comes from pony hunters and had never done dressage.

And Kiri. Kiri is 18, just starting college. She'd been in pony club four years, owned her horse Spencer for four years, gone as stable manager to several rallies but never once ridden in them. Never evented. Rarely attended local shows. Boards with our joint-DC at a farm with no cross country. Four years ago, at camp, Kiri and Spence could barely trot down a hill--neither had ever encountered hills before. Watching them move up, and learn, and get their C1 and then their C2 over the jumps on my farm has been inspiring to me, and I wanted very much for Kiri to have this one event, this one rally. I once read an article by Denny Emerson that said, "Eventing is the only sport in the world where you can finish 35th and be unable to sleep that night for sheer, transcendent joy."

Kiri had worked so hard. She had done so well. I wanted her to gallop across the cross-country finish line and feel that joy born of effort and hard work, unlike anything else. That feeling would stay with her always.

And finally, my daughter. Some day I'll go to the WEG, maybe even the Olympics, without her. But not yet. This year I went to the pony club rally, while I still had time.

Tomorrow: what happened.