Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On not winning the (mock) Newbery

I'm  hanging out in my hotel room with a glass of white wine and Henry, my loaner companion fish. The SoHo Grand, charming and quirky hotel that it is, does not want me to be lonely during my stay, and has therefore installed Henry in my room.

He's not nearly as cuddly as my husband, but he makes some intriguing darts across his fishbowl.

Today's book tour featured a librarian who told me Echo won (I can't make the italics stop. I've given up trying) their Mock Newbery and a fifth-grader who told me he couldn't finish Echo, he did like my book, but he still hadn't read Circus Mirandus. It also featured blueberry pie a la mode with KBB1, which is to say my former boss and decades-long friend, whom I've never actually met before today, Karen Block Breen.

It was so good to be with her. I always felt that I would like her in person even more than I did when all I really knew about her was that she wrote snarky emails, and trusted my negative book reviews. I was somewhat surprised today to learn that reviewing for Kirkus is actually a difficult gig to get, since Karen accepted me at first go. We laughed today remembering my first email to her, which basically said, hey, my friend (actually my agent) says that I have so many opinions I might as well get paid for some of them.

Karen is a fierce and smart advocate of books. I adore her. She spent a bit of time today warning me that now that TWTSML is on all the Mock Newbery lists, I should not allow my heart to be broken if I don't win a damn thing. Sometimes the Committee goes with the book nobody despises. Sometimes librarians worldwide are left scratching their heads.

I already knew this--there are some winners that exceedingly puzzle me--but I appreciated the love with which it was said.

Today a child asked me if Ada couldn't have just as easily had a cleft palate as a club foot--wouldn't that have fulfilled the plot requirements just as well? A girl on full-time crutches told me TWTSHL was her new favorite book in the world. Three young girls, two White and one Black, came up to me after my presentation to ask, urgently, did Sally Hemmings love Thomas Jefferson? I could see that they'd grasped an essential aspect of the story--that it was less horrifying, more palatable, if Sally loved him.

It was a very good day. And if Echo wins the Real Newbery as well as a Mock Newbery, I can say as I did today, that Pam Munoz Ryan has always been a writer I very much admire, and, as I told KBB, no matter the outcome, being in the game is a whale of a lot of fun.

Then I came home to my goldfish and got some wine from the minibar. If Random Penguin thinks I'm extravagant they can stop it out of my pay. At least I'm not charging them for tomorrow's tickets to Hamilton.

Monday, October 26, 2015

In which I turn out to be a country girl after all

Lastweek, my sweet young publicist and I spoke on the phone to go over the details of this week's book tour, which is centered around New York City. My publicist seemed concerned about me coming all the way from Nowheresville, Appalachia, and carefully explained that I would have to switch planes in Charlotte.

I found that amusing, because of course I am a sophisticated traveler, as evidenced by tonight's dinner at a French restaurant cum local bar down the street, where I handed the waiter the closed menu and told him loftily that I wanted steak frites and a glass of red wine, thank you. And he brought it, and it was good.

However. I picked my suitcase up at LaGaurdia, started to walk away, and found my way blocked by a young woman who wanted to see my certification. I goggled at her, and she said, patiently, the way one speaks to a small child, "either your boarding pass or your luggage ticket." I showed her, then realized all the other passengers were walking away with their boarding passes held upright.

We don't do this in Bristol. No one steals other peoples' luggage in Bristol.

Then I didn't know whether or not I was supposed to tip my driver. I understand taxis. I've never had a driver before, not one I was in charge of. I emailed friends, but, not getting an answer in time, comprised by tipping him a pathetic amount.

I knew to hand Wesley, the doorman at my hotel, a dollar after he'd carried my tiny suitcase from the curb to the reception desk. (The suitcase is so small that no one bothered to suggest I needed help getting it to my room.) then I got in the elevator and the button for my floo r wouldn't work. The elevator went up a couple of floors, then stalled, while I repetively and vainly pushed the button for my floor.

A very chic looking young man got on. I said, "I'm trying to go up but the button won't work." He said, "you have to insert your room key." Then he said, "I had trouble with that my first time, too."

So kind. So perplexing. We don't even have elevators in upper East Tennessee.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Days Like This

I am having the strangest day here.

It started with the dog cowering under my breakfast chair.

This is not normal. Normally, the dog comes in from her walk with my daughter, runs to say good morning to me, then runs nonsensically around and around the table. We noticed she was quivering; when I picked her up, her heart was pounding. My daughter did a google check for normal small dog heartrate, then switched her phone to stopwatch mode and helped me find her pulse--140 bpm, quite likely indicating pain.

Meanwhile my husband had got down on the floor. The dog was sitting with her weight well forward, leaning her head on his lap. She groaned.

I went up and exchanged my yoga pants for blue jeans, and took the dog into the vet. It seems she has a spinal disc problem quite common to her breed. She's on pain pills and muscle relaxers, and she has to be confined to her crate for two full weeks. Immobility is what heals.

I went to make a double batch of Snickerdoodles--one to take to the BFIA annual meeting, and one to send home with my son--and we didn't have enough flour. I never run out of flour. I was completely taken aback.

Then I went to sew a button onto my husband's tweed jacket, that he very much wanted to wear out to dinner tonight, and I can't find the missing button. It's not in the coat pockets. It's not in my button box. It's not in anywhere I would put a button, or anywhere I think my husband would put a button, or anywhere else. I got online and ordered replacement buttons, but of course they won't be here in time for tonight. I'm sad about this because I've been promising to sew that button on since July, and if I'd ordered new buttons in July they would be here in time.

My new Oprah magazine has an article on muscle tenseness and how it can cascade through the body. The article suggests several stretches that can be done with yoga balls I already possess. I tried the glute stretch. Now my glutes are spasming.

This whole day is a pain in the butt.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Something's Got to Change, For Sure.

Last week the Richmond, VA, newspaper wrote a heartbreaking article about an elementary school whose students were all--100%--receiving free lunch, a marker for poverty, and whose teachers were moving mountains in their efforts to keep these children safe, fed, and able to learn.

The article described children who come to school in their pajamas, with their shoes on the wrong feet. Children who explain the previous day's absence by saying, "Momma had a needle in her arm." Children who are dirty, abused, and above all hungry. The school keeps a stash of extra clothes on hand. There's a washer and dryer in the teacher's lounge for laundering student clothing. The school feeds all its children breakfast and lunch; many students stay for an after-care program where they get another meal before they leave. On Fridays, some of the children leave with backpacks filled with still more food--donated by a local church--to get them through the weekend. These children suffer so much when they aren't at school that this year the school has made half of Christmas break, and a good chunk of summer break, optional. These kids would rather be at school. It's a safe good place.

The school passed all its federal testing benchmarks last year.

The school, Highland View Elementary, is in my hometown.

Two days ago my friend Jess sent me a link to a speech given by Neil Gaiman about the importance of reading. The bit that stuck in my head--that appalled me--was this: the number of prison cells any particular area will need in ten to fifteen years directly correlates with the number of fourth-graders from that area who aren't reading at grade level. You can closely estimate the size of future prison populations by looking at the number of kids who can't read. Good God. Children's lives are at stake.

Then yesterday Glennon Doyle over at Momastery wrote, "There are no such things as other people's children."

I don't know what I'm going to do with all of this year, but I know I've got to do something. I'll keep you posted. Maybe we can all do something--maybe books can change the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cormoran Strikes Again!

Dear readers. Yesterday was at last October 20th, and at approximately 5:30 pm the latest Robert Galbraith mystery, actually written by JK Rowling and featuring detective Cormoran Strike, was delivered into my hands. And it is wonderful.

I haven't finished it yet--not for lack of trying--it's 492 pages long and I'm really past thinking all-nighters are a good idea. (I think my last was for Harry Potter 5.). For my money JK Rowling is our greatest living author, eclipsing even Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. There's something so effortless about the way she puts words together. I'm reminded of Dick Francis in his prime--not his final two novels, which were a bit forced, but the half-dozen or so immediately before it.

Writers have to be readers first. I tell any aspiring writer I meet to read everything that catches their fancy. Read, read, read. Lately, though, I realize I'm particularly drawn to two types of prose: the stylized, witty sentences of absolute masters like Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian, where you're cackling over sheer subtlety, and the words-flowing-like-water streams of Rowling, Francis--maybe I'd add Patricia MacLachlan, who can say so much with so few words--hmm, poet Marilyn Nelson comes to mind too.

Here's 2 sentences I marked. (To my surprise I have lately become someone who marks up my books. I also dog-ear pages.)

He possessed a finely honed sense for the strange and the wicked. He had seen things all through his childhood that other people preferred to imagine happened only in films.

The spare elegance of those lines. The word choices: honed, wicked. "Preferred to image" not simply "imagine." The feeling of truth.

The older I get, the more I recognize that I became a writer far earlier than I thought. It wasn't with my first published book, or even my first byline. It wasn't when I sat in Patty MacLachlan's children's literature class at Smith. It wasn't when I quit medical school. It was when I was fourteen, the first time I finished a novel, stared at it in wonder and disbelief, then immediately began to reread it, to see if I could discover how exactly the author did that. 

(The book was A Wrinkle In Time.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


So, we had a bit of a whirlwind week. On Tuesday I drove my daughter to Williamsburg, VA, to have a look at William & Mary. It should be about a 6 hour drive, but it got progressively longer as the exit ramps we needed were closed for construction. I've never seen so many highway closures. Yikes.

Wednesday was a lovely day to tour a lovely campus. We got to have lunch with an old good friend, which was a special treat. Then we drove home in time for a late dinner with Dad.

Thursday was an oh-crap day. As in, oh, crap, it's Thursday! I said that at 9:06--the garbage usually needs to be on the curb before 9. My daughter, just stumbling downstairs, said, "We'll both do it," and grabbed her car keys (our driveway is really long, and we have to pick up trash from the barn, too). We got the trash down. Then I realized a whole bunch of other things I'd forgotten--that book I was supposed to review--oh, crap, I hadn't even read it yet--the van needed new tires before we drove it to Indiana that night. I ended up reading my review book at the tire store, while bribing my daughter and her friends with pizza to go get our showjumps from the barn where the pony club show had been held, and fill the truck with diesel while they were at it, and take the dog to the kennel....it was a little stressful there, especially when the guy at the tire place wanted to know where I kept the key to my lug nuts. My lug nuts have a key? News to me.

I got the review written--I do not miss deadlines--and everything essential accomplished before my husband came home from work and we hit the road again. We needed to get somewhere near Kenyon College, which is somewhere near Columbus--this involved driving back up the same highway I'd traversed on both Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm sure I could have been more efficient there. Anyway, we stayed in a Microtel in the middle of nowhere, woke early, and ended up at Kenyon on time despite a complete freak-out by our GPS, which seems to be growing ever more untrustworthy.

Kenyon was lovely. All the colleges are lovely. It was cool, crisp fall, a perfect day for imagining yourself a college student.

At 3 pm, we got back in the car. Destination: Notre Dame. And while our daughter did attend an admissions information session there, our real reason for that college was to see our son and watch the Fighting Irish tromp USC. Unfortunately there was a bit of road construction and a traffic-snarling accident on the way--the four-hour trip took five--eventually we found South Bend and an Italian restaurant and our son and his friends, and it was all good.

Saturday I logged 22,450 steps on my phone's pedometer, all on campus. This doesn't count all the jumping around I did in the upper reaches of the stadium, in an attempt to keep warm during the  night football game. Sunday, driving home to TN with our beloved son--it's his fall break--I logged 450 steps. Mostly those were from the car to a gas station restroom, and back.

It's all good. It's great. It's awesome. Some of my son's friends are doing fancy stuff with their break. They're clearing trails in state parks or helping the homeless or, in the case of the ND golf team, playing the best courses in Ireland. Our son is hanging out with his family. He's sleeping in. He's helping his Dad coach middle-school basketball and going out to lunch with me. He's curled up in his favorite afghan with the dog. He's had a big semester so far; he's worked hard. Next semester will be even bigger, since he's spending it abroad.

When my husband was a medical resident, he could have moonlighted in the local emergency rooms for lots of extra cash (compared to his paltry resident salary). I believe all the other ophthalmology residents did this, even though, like us, they had small children and working spouses. My husband didn't. We had enough money to meet our needs; he valued time spent with us more than the extra stuff more money would buy. I loved and applauded this choice. I like my son's choice now. Sometimes you fill every moment, but sometimes, like now, you very deliberately don't. Sometimes you just need to rest at home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Write the book.

There's a phrase that crops up in at least two of Elizabeth Wein's novels, Code Name Verity and White Raven, Black Dove. (It may also be in Rose Under Fire but I can't absolutely remember.) Wein writes about teenagers who fly airplanes in times of war, and at particularly nerve-wracking moments either someone shouts to the pilot, or the pilot says to herself, Fly the plane.

I'm guessing (Elizabeth? Want to chime in? And what name do you go by--Beth, Betsy, Liza, Liz?) anyhow, guessing that fly the plane is something pilots say, along the lines of riders saying shut up and ride. (I have a small chronic tendency to overanalyze. My instructors tell me this a lot.)

Today I'm adding another phrase, courtesy of the fact that I completely missed my yoga class this morning.

I didn't mean to. I've been going to 8:30 yoga nearly every day for a year. I love my Tuesday class, and was especially eager for it since I had to miss yesterday due to a doctor's appointment. (I'm super, thanks. My asthma is the best-controlled it has ever been.) I got up thinking happy grateful yoga thoughts and I put on my favorite yoga top and some excellent pants. After breakfast I took my last cup of coffee to the computer. This is when I usually write my blog, but I still had my current work open on my desktop and I started with that instead.

And then it was past 8:30, and I'd missed yoga class.

I thought about that. I won't get a chance at another today, because they're in the afternoon and I'm leaving to drive my daughter to William and Mary. My body misses yoga. My brain, on the other hand, is really feeling happy--because I got so involved in my work I lost track of time. It's sort of crunch time on this novel. It's due November 13. I'm going to be gone for nine days during the rest of October, in situations where it won't be possible for me to write, and I need to do the work even it it means putting yoga on hold for a few weeks. So here's my phrase: write the book.

Write the book.
Write the book.
Write the book.

That's all I've got today.

Monday, October 12, 2015

An Ode to My Amazing Son

"Mom, your blog sucks," my son said last week. "You don't mention me for three weeks, and then when you do it's just to correct Dad about Quidditch. Sheesh."

Yeah, yeah. This from the kid who groans loudly whenever I retell my favorite stories about him. Who's tired of hearing the one about the tantrum he threw at age 2 when he was told that no, we were just dropping Daddy off, he was NOT going to be playing a round at one of the finest golf courses in California. (I manhandled him back to the car while he kicked and flailed and screamed I WANNA PLAY SPYGLASS!!! at the top of his lungs.)

My son is smart, funny, genuine. He's studying business but his real passion is sports.

He knows the rules to every game ever invented, including a 9th-century Viking board game called Nefatafl.

When I rode in my first dressage test, back when my son was six, I told him how I'd done a transition at the wrong letter and then said, "Oh, shoot!"

"Mom," he said, "You're not allowed to talk during a dressage test."

"I know," I said. "They took two points off."

"Of course they did," he said. "Next time read the rules."

Next time--when he was seven--he watched my test in person. When I came out of the ring he studied me with his hands on his hips. "So," he said, "What happened with that second canter transition?"

"Oh, hush," I said.

We are at a pub in a tiny town in Ireland having lunch. My son is ten. A line of grizzled Irishmen sits at the bar, watching Irish football, a sport that seems to have no rules at all. Onscreen something happens "AAAHHH!" shouts all the Irishmen, and my son. One of the Irishmen salutes him.

We're on a plane home from Costa Rica and he's discussing Costa Rica's chances in the World Cup with the man sitting next to him. We're watching an English premier league football game and he and the man beside him are discussing the career of one of the more obscure players, in depth. We're watching Notre Dame in last year's bowl game and he's calling the plays ahead of time, trying to get me to watch which players go which direction, trying (and failing) to get me to understand.

He's five, and furious with his t-ball team because they don't know how to turn a double play. He's ten, sliding into first base in practice just for the joy of getting dirty. He's thirteen, leading a triumphant rush onto the floor as his middle-school basketball team wins their first game in two years. He's seventeen, starting a travel agency that specializes in golf trips to the Ireland and Great Britain.

He's twenty, talking to his mother on the phone, saying that he's going to watch his hall (dorm) football team play. "Why aren't you playing?" I ask.

"This is hall football, not section football," he says. "Hall football is full contact with pads. They have try-outs for hall football. I play section football." He plays section football, section basketball, bookstore basketball, golf. Watches his friends on varsity golf, soccer, rugby, lacrosse, hockey, and of course football and basketball. He's a sports-obsessed student at a sports-obsessed school, which means he's at the right place, which makes me very happy even if I don't say so all that often.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Heartbreaking Tale of Thwarted Desire

Yesterday morning when I woke my very first thought was, "October 8th! The new Robert Galbraith novel comes out today!"

Robert Galbraith is, of course, J.K. Rowling's mystery-writing pseudonym. I can not tell you how much I revere J.K. Rowling. I would like to feel a jolt of professional jealousy toward her, that she can be both that good and that prolific, but really I just want her to write faster. Harry Potter changed the face of children's publishing, changed childhood--you would not believe how many colleges now have Quidditch teams--and The Casual Vacancy is a work of literary genius. The Robert Galbraith books are as addictive as meth. (Not that I would know.)

[As a total aside, my son wrecked my barn broom playing high school Quidditch. Also, when he heard about the game, my husband asked the rules. My son started to explain the modifications they were using. My husband wanted to know why they didn't just play under the original rules. After a moment of dead silence at the dinner table, my son said gently, "Dad. Because our brooms don't actually fly." But I digress.]

All morning I envisioned a blissful evening engrossed in a new RG story. I knew I'd have some time after the farrier left, when my daughter would go to tennis practice and my husband would be coaching basketball. I thought I'd curl up on the sun-soaked porch with the book and a glass of wine. Utter bliss.

When I walked back to the house from the barn, midday, for lunch, I checked the porch for the Amazon package, but it wasn't there. I wasn't surprised. Our mail usually gets delivered around 2:30 and UPS can be expected anytime between 1 and 5. My daughter brought the mail up to the barn when she got home from school, and the book wasn't part of that--but again, I wasn't surprised. Sometimes Amazon ships through the post office, but in my experience, when they're dealing with massively popular pre-orders, they usually use UPS.

I finished at the barn and came back to the house. Still no package. Showered, checked email, kissed daughter good-bye. No package. Played a few games of computer Boggle. Still no package.

Finally, fretfully, I looked up the order on Amazon. What if I'd forgotten to preorder? Seemed unlikely, but I supposed it was possible. I'd have to download the book for my Kindle. Not as satisfying, but acceptable.

I found the order. Stared at the page, stunned. Evening wrecked. Anticipation destroyed.

The new Robert Galbraith novel comes out October 20th.

Twelve days to go.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

It's Mountain Day!

Mountain Day: the best tradition at my alma mater, Smith College.

On a random beautiful fall day, the college bells ring at 7 am. Classes are cancelled: students are urged to get outside and enjoy--perhaps by hiking in the nearby Berkshire mountains.

One Mountain Day I went trail riding at King Oak Farm, with my friend Carole Davidson. I remember ogling their cross-country jumps, wanting so badly to try them.  One Mountain Day I went to Hancock Shaker Village with Anna-Liese and Darcy. We'd meant to go to Plimouth Plantation, but got onto the Mass Pike going the wrong direction, and there wasn't another exit for 56 miles. When we could finally turn around we saw the sign for HSV and went there instead. Darcy's family owned an apple orchard and she brought a big bag of apples for the trip so the taste of apples is part of my memories of that day.

My friend Alecia's daughter Julianna goes to Smith now, and so does my friend Kelsey. Today is Mountain Day. I hope they have a marvelous time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

October is The Shortest Month

For most of the years of our marriage, at minimum the last 15, my husband has given me each Christmas a Dilbert-A-Day calendar: 365 Dilbert cartoons. Today Dilbert tells me that it is October 6th, and though I'm pretty sure this seems implausible I can't find evidence for my side.

This is what the rest of October contains:

--the pony club horse show, of which I am in charge for something like the 12th year in a row. We have most of our ducks in a row for it, but I'm sure on Friday night I'll figure out something big I missed, like eggs for the egg & spoon class. Or entry sheets. Or ribbons. Or something. (Relax, Holston--I have the ribbons.)

--all the rest of my daughter's college visits: to William & Mary, Kenyon, and Brown. (You will notice that none of these schools are anywhere near the others.) She's already narrowed an initial list of 24 schools down to between 5 and 8, so I think we're good here.

--a visit to Notre Dame to see my son and watch a football game. We are driving there and back (catching Kenyon on the way) so I've got to have a load of knitting sorted for the trip. "Sort knitting" is on my list.

--a week of my son being home for fall break. I'm not sure he'll be here for the whole week, but I'll want to enjoy all the moments with him that I can.

--a week of book tour, which seems to require talks and visual presentations I haven't yet created.

--my sister's move to from Wisconsin to Charlotte (I'm hoping to help), a farrier visit (takes all day), a surprising number of other required appointments, and of course my usual Wednesday at Faith in Action

This is what October also contains, that some part of the above is forcing me to miss:

--the opening meet of the Tennessee Valley Hunt. Tragic! Any day that starts with a sip of port while you sit atop a gleaming and gorgeous horse, includes a couple of headlong gallops, and ends with a rousing chorus of "Drink, Puppy, Drink" is one to savor, and I'd be there if I possibly could.

--a costumed Halloween party. I'm kind of bummed about this one because I really wanted to dress my husband and myself up. I had awesome plans, and I'm really good at making costumes. Maybe next year.

This is what October no longer contains (thank goodness!):

--a book deadline. It did, but a few weeks ago reason bopped me upside the head, and I plead for a two-week extension.

This is what October doesn't contain, that I wish it did:

--an extra week.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Own Your Own Words

So. Yesterday, if you missed it, I wrote part one of this blog, in which I confessed my biggest failure as a writer to date. Go ahead and read it. I was very nearly very racist, stopped only by the thoughtful intervention of a person who probably wasn't thrilled to have to do it.

What started me on these posts was something I stumbled across on the internet last week. You may have read my previous post about disability in children's literature. You may or may not be familiar with the term "inspiration porn," that sort of literature mean to inspire able-bodied readers with how plucky and courageous disabled people are, as they go about their daily activities. They get out of bed! They go to work! They go to school!

Pro tip: people with disabilities hate serving as your inspiration. Trust me on this. Or, hell, go look it up.

Anyhow, I was reading about how people with disabilities feel about books written about people with disabilities, and I came across a blog post from 2013 about the book Wonder. I didn't remember this from reading the book, but there's a line on page 188 in which Auggie, the craniofacially-disfigured plucky protagonist, shouts at his mother, "I'm not a retard!"

Retard. A slur against disabled people in a book about kindness toward people with disabilities.

This upset one particular 10-year-old reader, whose older sister is developmentally disabled. His mom emailed the author, R.J. Palacio, and asked her to explain. It's Palacio's reply that wound me up:

1. Never start an apology with "if." I apologize if seeing that word in my book has marred your son's enjoyment. She already knew it had. There's no room for if. How about, I apologize that I used a hurtful unnecessary word.

2. "Creating characters that feel real to my readers requires my portraying them realistically.." seems to say that the only way Auggie could come across as a real boy is if he used a slur. And as a writer she is required to do so? No. No, she is not. In Jefferson's Sons, the word n----r would have been both realistic and accurate. Was I required to use it? No. And I did not.

3. "The word was not 'thrown around' without careful deliberation." Wow. In other words, she didn't make a mistake, she intended to use it.

4. That whole last paragraph. Poor Auggie, not aware enough to use the phrase "developmentally delayed." Here's the thing: Auggie is fiction. Auggie does not exist. Auggie is wholly the creation of R.J. Palacio, and for her to hide behind the excuse that her fiction character would just do things on his own is ludicrous and also contemptible.

Because this isn't a hard one to fix. Change the word "retard" to "stupid." "I'm not stupid!" The truth is, that small of a change you could make in the book right now. I've seen more than one novel modified late in the game. Changing one word--particularly when you've been at the top of the best-seller list--would be easy to talk your publisher into doing.

It bothers me enormously that the author of Wonder doesn't own her own words. As writers, we have to. All of us, all the time.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

That Time I was Almost A Horrible Racist In Print

This is part one of a two part blog. Tomorrow I'm going to be annoyed about something another writer wrote, then excused: you'll see.

My point today and tomorrow is this: as writers, we don't get to hide behind 1) ignorance; 2) laziness; 3) the idea that the characters we create aren't under our full control.

I am really, really, in favor of writers, especially, say, white, cisgender, straight, Christian, more-or-less-able-bodied writers like myself, branching out to tell stories about people with backgrounds different from ours.

This is sometimes a controversial opinion. Even now on the Reading While White blog there's a piece that at first glance to seems to say, if you're white, write about your whiteness. At second glance it actually says, if you're white, be very aware of your whiteness and how it gets reflected in your writing--which is wholly different, and harder, and important. We have plenty of straight white cisgender able-bodied people writing straight white cisgender able-bodied stories. For the love of all that's holy, let's try a little harder.

Even if it means we might fail. Even if we fail really badly.

If we do fail, we owe it to our readers to admit that we did.

So, before I tell tomorrow's story, I'm going to tell one on myself. My novel Jefferson's Sons came out a few years ago. It's the story of Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemmings, a woman that he owned. It's written for fifth-graders, which presented a whole host of challenges in presenting the material. Being both honest and appropriate for a ten year old was difficult. Add to it the fact that I'm a white woman writing primarily about enslaved black boys two hundred years ago--throw in a founding father revered by a large percentage of the population--you'd better believe that I went through several drafts, and contemplated every word.

And yet the book was nearly published under a wholly racist title.

Jefferson's Boys, not Jefferson's Sons.

This was as far from my intention as it was possible to get, and still I almost did it, and my (white, duh) editor almost let me.

In my defense, first of all, while all the narrators of the novel are boys, they are all not Jefferson's children. Second, in my home, in my limited personal experience, "boy" is a word of tenderness and love. My husband and I called our son "our boy" from his infancy. Where's the boy? How did the boy do in school today? I even have a made-up lullaby of sorts I call "the boy song."

However, I can't defend that title.

The book was introduced to the sales department, one member of which was a Black woman. She came up to someone on the (white) editorial staff after the meeting, and told them that if it were published as Jefferson's Boys some Black people would refuse to read it based on the title alone.

As soon as my editor relayed this to me, I got it. I understood entirely how racist I'd been. "Boy" has been used for centuries to denigrate full-grown Black men. But I seriously didn't get it until then. I never would have been intentionally racist, and yet I came that close.

I asked my editor to thank the Black sales rep profoundly for pointing out my wrongdoing, and also asked her to apologize on my behalf that I needed such education. I promise, if I hadn't realized the problem until the book had been published, I would have done everything possible to get the title changed anyhow.

So, when I say that writers need to own their words, I mean it. Even their racist ones. Especially their racist ones. No matter how pure their intentions were or are or in future may be.

P.S. Someone on Goodreads or SLJ or somewhere in the blog world realized that the title had been changed, and said it was because I was "trying to be PC." Let's all admit right here: trying to not be racist is not the same as trying to be PC.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Seeing Disability in Children's Books

I saw the duck-faced girl a few weeks before I read Wonder. It was at the Wisconsin parish church during the Sunday Mass in which my nephew Fred was being baptized; the girl and her family sat toward the front on the other side of the aisle.

I didn't know what name to give her facial deformity--I recognized it as a syndrome of some sort, one I thought I'd seen before--"duck-faced," while crude, was as close as I could mentally get.

I didn't stare at the girl or talk to her or have anything to do with her. I was mostly concerned with the heavy weight of baby Fred in my arms, how he smelled like sweet cloves. I probably would not have remembered the girl, but then I read Wonder, and I thought, oh, this is the same thing. So I googled it--the medical condition is never given a name in Wonder--and it's Treacher Collins Syndrome, a specific genetic mutation that results in craniofacial abnormalities of varying degrees.

I liked Wonder but I wasn't blown away by it. I would have preferred the whole book to be in Auggie's point of view, and I didn't care all that much about his sister's friend. I also wondered more than a little bit about whether Auggie would really have been so distanced from his community that his arrival at middle school was such a shock. The girl in the Wisconsin church was perhaps twelve years old. She probably attended Mass at that church every Sunday; she might have gone to CCD classes or been a student at the parish school.  I think of all the places I routinely took my children when they were small--strapping them in car seats, heading to the grocery, the library, the feed store--if my child had craniofacial abnormalities I don't think it would have changed my carting that child all around.

I'm pondering all this today because I've been reading a lot on the disabilityinkidlit site and other sites that discuss the accuracy of disabled characters appearing in childrens' books. It's an important topic for me for two main reasons. First, Ada, the protagonist of TWTSML, is born with a club foot--a very common birth defect--that goes untreated into her adolescence. The folks at DisabilityInKidsLit haven't reviewed it yet, though they've put out a call for a reviewer--my guess is that they're having trouble finding a reviewer with a similar disability, since as far back as the 1920s club foots were routinely treated and pretty much "cured" during infancy. The only places you can find unresolved club foots in adolescents now are in third-world countries among populations with very limited access to medical care, and even those are unusual. Club foot is a rare birth defect that really can be completely and permanently cured so early that the child does not remember it--to the point that not doing so in a developed country is flat-out child abuse--which is, in my book, exactly what it is.

The other big reason the way disabled children are portrayed in books is important to me is that I have a close family member with a chronic health condition, one that's not immediately obvious but that does impact that person's life. And there seem to two main narratives when it comes to the representation of people like my family member: either they die, or they're cured. They're martyrs or miracles. They aren't allowed to just go on coping with whatever condition it is that they're coping with. This is a more than a shame--it's a lie. Most of the kids I know that have some sort of chronic health problem have that problem forever, or at least for a good long time. They deserve stories in which they don't have to be cured. They deserve stories in which they are fine as they are.

I was uncomfortable with the book Crenshaw because while I thought it was a comfortable story to gently ease privileged kids into a sanitized awareness of childhood hunger, it didn't represent how poverty and homelessness feel to children living though those things. In the same way, Wonder, written after the author had a traumatic (on her side) encounter with a craniofacially disabled child, evokes sympathy and perhaps even empathy in able-bodied children, but, I'm guessing--and reviews from people with facial deformities bear this out--doesn't really reach what it feels like to be Auggie, who is, after all, much more than just his face, and who outside the pages of the book would live in a neighborhood with people who saw him every day, saw him as he was, a face and a boy and many other things, like the girl in Wisconsin, who sat with her family in the front of the church, not the back, not out of view.