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.