Monday, November 30, 2015

Fleeing Christmas

Yesterday at Mass, our celebrant (not the usual Father Kevin, but Archbishop Broglio, here in town visiting family for the holidays--yeah, we feel kinda cool, having an archbishop in the family and all that. Not my own personal family, but my church family. He's here a lot. Better still, he's Archbishop for Military Services USA, which means he's badass, too, in a holy reverent wearing-a-pink-hat kind of way) anyhow, clearly I digress--Archbishop Broglio (don't know why he's "Arch" bishop and not just plain bishop; no one's ever been able to explain that) said that advent calls us to do three things:

1) Flee.

2) Be silent.

3) Pray.

I am not really very good at homilies--sometimes my mind drifts off into writings of my own creation, so that the homily becomes more a chance for me to fix plot holes--but this one was the sort I liked, clear, simple, and easy to remember. Plus it seemed like such a good idea. Flee. Oh hell yes. I love Christmas but sometimes it seems to come packed with way too much stuff. Matching outfits (we don't actually do those anymore, now that the children--let alone my husband--refuse to wear coordinated pjs). Cookies (mostly I save those for Christmas Eve. We always make Christmas cookies on Christmas eve morning.). Cards? (Last year I skipped them. It was, honestly, awesome. I sort of feel bad about not sending everyone photos of my lovely children, a year older once again, but at the same time THIS IS WHY WE INVENTED THE INTERNET, PEOPLE.) Obligations which, the more you think about them, seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

Here is stuff I love: parties. From the all-day binge that is my friend's annual brunch to the pony club holiday party, to thawing out that leg of lamb for my husband's partners to eat. I've got a new dress with sparkles on it. Imagonna shine.

Ornaments. Long ago we started a tradition of buying Christmas ornaments on our family travels. This morning while I was watering the tree I noticed one painted with an image of the USS Constitution, the tall ship that stands in Boston Harbor. I was immediately transported back to a very hot day, a very interesting tour, and my 7-year-old son being crabby as all hell because we were refusing to spend $200 each for bleacher seats to see the RedSox/Yankees. (He's still bitter. I'm still glad we didn't do it.)

Music. All the music., but especially Pentatonix.

Buying gifts, sort of. Too much shopping makes me crazy. Shopping on Black Friday? Never. (Getting a bargain on the internet? Sure.) Deciding which local stores I love best and making a point to go there? absolutely! Buying the right book for someone? perhaps my favorite gift of all.

Speaking of, if you want signed copies of The War That Saved My Life, and you don't live close enough to swing by the house or drop them off at Faith in Action (I'm there every Wednesday), Parnassus Books in Nashville has them in stock, AND today only is offering 15% off every signed book in the store. Think about where you shop. Parnassus rocks.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Going to Mass with My Son

Sunday I flew up to Notre Dame, where my son is a junior, so that I could spend all of Monday driving a car back home. It's kind of a complicated story, but essentially my son had to drive himself back to school after fall break because the airline screwed up in large ways. He already had a car at school; he already also had plane tickets to fly home at Thanksgiving. AND he's coming home with his own car and all his stuff in it at Christmas, since he's going abroad next semester.

Fetching the extra car gave me a chance to have a really nice, relaxed day with my son. He picked me up at the airport. We had lunch together, then for dinner took a group of his friends to a local hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant that is simply several cuts above every other Chinese restaurant to which I have ever been. It's amazing food. Best of all is the old woman who must be the owner. She came to our table and said, "You want to order? Or you want me to surprise you?" Two of the students ordered; the rest of us--five people--said, "surprise." The food started coming--plate after plate after plate--and we passed it all the way around. Salt and pepper spareribs. Almond shrimp. Some sort of spicy fried fish. Chicken that I believe was called "Haha" chicken or maybe "Hot-hot" chicken but that instead of being spicy hot was slathered in sliced garlic. Oh my. When we had all stuffed ourselves there was a serving of fish left. The woman asked if we needed a box, and the students all agreed eagerly that yes, we did. I wondered aloud whether someone would actually eat leftover fish in a dorm room, and the student across the table from me leaned close and said, "The rule is, never throw away this woman's food." Which is of course entirely right.

Now that my son's at Notre Dame, every time I go there I'm struck with gratitude that the place exists, that it is the way it is, and that my husband and I got to send our son there. It's so clearly the right place for him. He worked on a paper on Sunday afternoon with his room door open and the NFL muted on the tv. People walked back and forth along the hall, some of them popping their head in to say hi. I met the ND quarterback who lives next door to my son--listened to the guy down the hall play his ukelele--read my son's paper--and then, at 10:30 at night (well past my usual bedtime) I got to go to Mass in my son's dorm.

I've been wanting to go to a Stanford Hall Sunday Mass since my son matriculated. I've actually been to several Masses in the chapel at Alumni Hall, my husband's old dorm, because Alumni always has a Mass either immediately after a Saturday day football game or immediately before a Saturday night one; it's packed to the gills with alumni and said by the aged rector who remembers my husband's student days not because my husband was brilliant nor because he won a prize for bidding and getting a grand slam in bridge but because my husband once fell headfirst out of his lofted bed. Stanford Hall doesn't do a football mass, and I'd never stayed at Notre Dame over a Sunday night.

My son loves his rector, Fr. Bill, as well as the other priest that lives in his dorm, Fr. Pete. Notre Dame puts both priests and chapels in every one of the student dorms. In addition to being rector Fr. Bill teaches at the law school. Fr. Pete is chaplain for the men's basketball team but also does something in administration, I think. I'm not sure if the current ND president, Fr. Jenkins, lives in a dorm-but until he needed assisted living care, the late president emeritus, Fr. Hesbergh, always did.

At 10:30 we joined a crowd of male and female students heading down the stairs (ND dorms are single-sex, but all Masses on campus are open to anyone, and students like to attend with their friends). About half the dorm showed up, by my rough count, which seemed pretty high considering that 1) many students aren't actually Catholic; 2) many Catholic students prefer to attend earlier Masses, especially the morning ones at the Basilica.  Two of my son's friends took turns playing the piano for the Stanford Mass, and a small number of students arranged themselves on one side of the room to be the choir.

I liked Fr. Pete's sermon--the Holy Cross priests are always intelligent and nearly always articulate. I liked the community passing of the peace, in which every student attempted to hug every other student there. I enjoyed the slight tensing of several students, including my son, when the "Holy, holy, holy," started on the piano, and the ripple of amusement that went through those same students when the piano player botched it (apparently this student always botches Holy, holy, holy). At the end of the Mass, singing the closing song, all the students slightly elevated their hymnals, and just as I was wondering what was going on, slammed them shut in unison on the final note.

My very favorite moment came on the crowded elevator going back to my son's room. "Man," said one student, a guy I'd never met, "'Taste and See' is the best hymn. It's like, the Joe Montana of Catholic hymns."

"Like the Tom Brady," another student said, in apparent agreement.

The first student frowned. "No, man. No. That's not it at all. 'Taste and See' is not Tom Brady."

I still have no idea what that meant. But I promise I'm putting it in a book someday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The War That Saved My Life: The Rest of The Story

I read a Goodreads review of my novel The War That Saved My Life the other day that absolutely moved me to tears. I looked for it today, and can't find it--I'm sure I could if I really searched, but I'd rather not. Just trust me that the review said something like this..."Ada is 86 now. She walks. She has been walking for a long time, ever since Susan got her foot fixed early in the war..." It goes on to predict what happens to Ada, Jamie, and Susan.

I loved it because, doing the math myself, I realized that Ada is 86 now. She's the same age as the gregarious old man I spoke to in the museum at Rye, whose face went white and still when my daughter told him I was writing a book about WW2 evacuees. "I was an evacuee," he said.

"For how long?" I asked.
"Six years," he said, and turned and walked away.

Ada is 86. She walks. She has been walking for a long time, ever since Susan got her foot fixed early in the war.

She does become a teacher. You can see the seeds of that in the sequel I'm writing. Remembering always what it felt like to know nothing, Ada is a remarkably patient and able teacher. She delights--absolutely delights--in being loved by her students, and, later, her husband and children.

Jamie, who becomes like a son to the Ellstons as well as Susan (you'll meet the Ellstons in the sequel), grows up to be a farmer. You can see seeds of that in the sequel, too. After the war Susan becomes a teacher at a small girls' boarding school. I know that Ada and Jamie give her grandchildren to delight in. When she dies she's buried not beside Becky, but beside the grave of another woman who became the companion of her later years. I know that Butter dies of advanced old age, and is buried on the Thorton's farm. I know that Ada continues to ride--that after she's a wife and mother she buys a small bay cob and keeps him in the field behind their home, rides in the local hunt, teaches her daughters to ride. I know that after the war the Thortons don't continue to live in their grand estate, so empty except for memories--but I don't know exactly what they do with it. Lord and Lady Thorton move to London, to a small elegant flat that's easier for Lady Thorton to manage. Maggie does not go to finishing school, nor university. She takes a secretarial job for awhile, simply to have something to do, and has a few escapades with Ada on the Continent, but marries rather young and enjoys being a traditional stay-at-home mother.

Stephen White dies in the very last days of the war. Ada's grief is terrible.

 Ruth--a new character in the sequel--keeps up a correspondence with Ada throughout and after the war, awkward at first but eventually, as the age gap between them lessens, a very real source of pleasure to them both.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin wall, Ruth and Ada travel to Dresden. They visit the ruins of the bombed Cathedral, frozen in time from the war (its ruins lay untouched until it is rebuilt with the exact same stones) and the site of the old Dresden synagogue. They look in vain for Ruth's former home. Ruth dies before the cathedral and synagogue are rebuilt, but Ada goes there again to see them, with a daughter and grandchild.

There's one other new character I could include here, but I won't, because I don't want to take away from the impact of the new book's ending. And there's a character I'm not mentioning. When I spoke to a lovely group of fifth-graders on my book tour, who actually cheered and high-fived each other when they found I was writing a sequel, a boy came up to me after my talk. "What happens to Mam in the sequel?" he asked.

I said, "I am not telling you that."

"Well, you know," he replied, very earnestly, "an awful lot of bombs fell on London during the war."

Ada is 86. Widowed now, she will get up this morning alone in her small home. She will make herself a cup of tea, let the dogs out, put on a cardigan against the cold. She will stand at her kitchen window and look across the paddock, at the horses standing there, the very old cob who is the last horse of her heart, and the pony, a treasure, that she found for her grandchildren and Jamie's grandchildren to ride. I should phone Jamie, she thinks. It's his birthday Saturday week. We should have lunch together, just the two of us.

And they do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Refugees in the Family

Monday I got in a Facebook argument with someone I don't know in any way--it was all on a friend's post--and it didn't go well. I should know better. But I'm really disgusted by the knee-jerk reaction of closing our borders to Syrian refugees (thank you, Gov. Haslam, for including Tennessee among the xenophobic states of America) and sometimes I can't keep my mouth shut.

First of all, there's a lot of bs on the internet right now. I did get to read some things reposted by a friend who works with refugees. Since 9/11, no terrorist attack has been committed by someone who entered the country as a refugee. Refugees are well-vetted here (not quite so much in Europe, with its porous borders). Our terrorists come in on student or tourist visas. If you questions the veracity of something you find on the internet (please do!) check

I don't agree that we need to fix all the problems in this country before we attempt to help the world. That's like saying I need to have everything perfect in my own life before I lend you a hand. It's not gonna happen. There will always be people in need, here and everywhere. Maybe it's because I've walked through shantytowns in Africa, or watched my kids play soccer at a rural Costa Rican school--I can't care less about the suffering in Syria than I do about the suffering in Bristol. We are all made in the image of God. Also? If you really believe we need to help our own first, get off your ass and start helping. Understand the problem and try to be the solution. Any problem. Any solution. Do something. From where I sit, it's looking like the loudest people are the least active.

I think what bothered me most in the past few days was someone posting that in order to come to America, you should first be required to speak English. If that were the rule, I wouldn't be here. My great-grandfather came over from Poland at age 19, fleeing a famine. He found a job in the steel mills--hard labor, and dangerous (my mother knew someone whose father fell into a vat of molten steel), but it supported his family. He never learned English. I don't know whether or not he tried; don't know how hard it would have been for him. I remember climbing onto his lap when I was quite young. He ran his hand down the length of my hair and smiled at me--though not with his eyes, since he was blind--and said, "pretty." The only English word I ever heard him say. He died soon after.

His children grew up speaking Polish and English; two of the three went to high school. His grandchildren spoke English and went to college. One of his great-grandchildren had the luxury of not only graduating college but becoming an artist--working with words, not her hands. We used to call this the American Dream.

Unless you are Native American or Black (and your ancestors likely came here on a slave ship, by force) and you live in this country, you are descended from immigrants and refugees. You were born in America; even though your own life may have been difficult, you live in a country without war, without extreme violence, with a social safety net and with enough food for all. As Glennon Doyle Melton says, "Let's quit acting like we had something to do with the fact that we were born on third base while millions are dying outside the stadium." We need to move forward with love, not fear.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Being Ashamed of Being Unable to Breathe

I realized this weekend that I've spent over 40 years being ashamed of not being able to breathe.

I'm still processing the implications of that. I'm still trying to unpack the legacy shame handed me; still figuring out how it's going to feel to not be ashamed.

I have asthma. Most days I'm not affected by it, thanks to a modern drug I inhale every morning. But when it does flare, the flares can be severe, and they can be set off by just about everything--exercise, allergies, viruses, some chemicals, random perfumes, cigarette smoke, cold air. When I worked as a chemist I couldn't go down to the basement of our laboratory, where the chemical storeroom was. Something in the air there set off an asthma episode every single time. The basement was also our tornado shelter--this was in Indiana, where there are lots of tornadoes--and eventually my boss found me a carbon-filter gas mask to wear during tornado drills or bad storms.

I was ashamed of the mask.

When I was a child I could swim forever. I rode my bike to swim practice every morning, did the laps, rode home. Rode back when the pool opened and stayed there all day. At summer camp I won a bet by treading water for 45 minutes--I stopped only because it was time for dinner--and I was one of a handful of campers who swam all the way across the lake.

At swim meets I felt like I was drowning. I went off the blocks flat out, as hard and fast as I could. One-lap races weren't as bad--I didn't really need to breathe in one lap. But when I aged into 2-lap races I couldn't do it--couldn't breathe, needed to breathe, gulped for air. Flailed, swam, choked. Lost.

At the end of each and every swim meet my ribs would hurt from the effort it took to force air in and out of my lungs. This is actually end-stage asthma--the muscles between the ribs, the intercostals, can actually tire to the point of giving out. When your ribs hurt it's a very bad sign.

My family laughed at me. Such a terrible athlete. They didn't understand how I could be so bad. Maybe I should try a little harder? I was such a disappointment to them. Embarrassing to watch me, they said.

I've had three separate physicians tell me I was lucky not to have died after a swim meet. Lucky I didn't die in my sleep.

Sometimes I was afraid to go to sleep.

Over and over, my father bought me running shoes. He wanted me to go jogging with him. Sometimes I did. Afterward I wheezed for hours. I was in such bad shape, he said. I needed to go running every day. He really wanted me to go running every day.

I swam; I danced. I was fit. I couldn't breathe.

I hated running. Still do.

Asthma doesn't feel like being out of breath. It feels like a constrictive tightening inside the chest. Stiffening lungs send up mucus; I coughed and choked. When I played soccer for my house in college, we used to call time out so I could vomit on the field. Then I'd keep going. I wanted to be capable. Also I had no idea what was really wrong.

A sudden cold snap, a foxhunt on my green Thoroughbred mare. I felt panicked even though she was behaving well. Suddenly--too late--I realized I couldn't breathe. Couldn't talk to call for help--could no longer move air past my vocal cords.. I blacked out, toppled from the saddle. It took fifteen minutes for me to regain consciousness. Cell phones hadn't been invented yet and I was three miles from the nearest road. Members of the hunt helped me back onto my horse, walked me out to the closest trailer, took my horse back to her barn. I assured them I was fine. Fine.

So ashamed.

The blackout, and the six months of severe episodes that followed it, finally brought a diagnosis. I have asthma.

I'm always picked last in gym. I can't run. I'm not fast. I'm not coordinated. I can't catch a ball (nearsighted with no depth perception; I get glasses at age 17). I can't breathe through my nose at all (broken nose, sometime in early childhood, circumstances unknown, discovered and surgically corrected when I'm 19.) I'm an abuse survivor with a gift for dissociation, and I dissociate from all of it. The asthma doesn't feel as shaming when I ignore it.

I ignored it as much as I could.

When I started eventing my asthma flared during cross-country. I discussed it with my doctor, and for awhile had four different medicines that I took in the days leading up to a competition. I also had oral prednisone, for times when nothing else would work, only sometimes that wouldn't work either. I pulled out of an event one year in cross-country warm up, and waited for my coach, an Olympic athlete, to berate me. Unfit disappointing embarrassment to all.

She didn't berate me. I found her matter-of-fact sympathy harder to bear than the insults I expected.

Usually, if I had any trouble on course, I kicked on instead of pulling up. Several times I crossed the finish line in a state of near collapse. It made my family--not my birth family, my created family--angry. Why was a ribbon more important than my health?

I wasn't concerned about the ribbon. I was avoiding the shame. Power through, prove that I might not be such a disappointment after all. I would wheeze for the next month for letting a flare get out of hand--but at least I wasn't a weakling.

My husband has asthma. I've never been ashamed of him.
I'm not ashamed of my eyeglasses, either.

Two days ago I ran cross-country at 8:16 am. It was 27 degrees. I'd already had to use a rescue inhaler the night before, in the hotel, for reasons unknown. I could see trouble ahead. I dreaded failure. I hated, hated, hated, telling my coach I could see trouble ahead.

Lately I've been quite fit, thanks to my yoga practice. The last several times I've run cross-country, in reasonable weather, I've been delighted by how little I had to think about my breathing. Somewhere on course I'd realize I was breathing just fine, and I'd laugh, and it was great. But Sunday was so cold, and cold air usually shocks my lungs.

I walked the course in predawn shadows, fast over hilly ground, trying to push my lungs a little, and they were fine. I took my rescue inhaler ahead of time. I warmed up well--no coughing. Over the first fence--second--third--small tussle with the mare down the hill to the fourth, regarding who was in control of our ship--won--fine jump. Then the gallop to the fifth jump, a combination--and the sharpness in my chest, the constriction. Suddenly my concentration is all on breathing--I have to think about breathing in order to breathe. I'm not as forceful as I should be over fence 5A. I sit up and make 5B work out--but I'm less than a third of the way through the course and already riding less well. I can't do this to my mare. I pull up, one hand in the air, signalling to the fence judge that I'm retiring.

My coach walks over to me (it's a different coach). I wait for her to be ashamed.

She isn't.

And suddenly I understand that I shouldn't be, either. It's a new feeling. It leaves me shaky, not just from trying to breathe. I ride my mare back to her stall. My daughter strips off the mare's tack and takes the studs out of her shoes while I take off my safety vests and find my inhaler. Then my daughter walks my horse dry because I can't do it. I can't breathe well enough to walk at a normal pace. What on earth made me think I could have finished cross-country? I wouldn't have finished. I'd have risked blacking out again. Hurting myself, hurting my horse.

I can't help having asthma. I never could.

My current lack of shame makes me feel oddly vulnerable. I don't know what it means yet to say, "I can't do that. I can't breathe," and have someone say, "Don't worry. Try again once you can." I suppose I'll find out.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pressure's Off


The novel is not done, but the third revision of the novel is. I spent a lot of last week making sure that would happen.

I had a tough week in other respects, too. I'm switching from one antidepressant to another in hopes that the high blood pressure I've developed is a side effect of the first antidepressant (we have reason to think this might be true), and, while I love antidepressants, coming off them even while starting another is tough. Last week was Weird Brain Week. I seem to be over the bulk of it. I certainly hope so.

This weekend I went to the last horse trial of the year, with my daughter. She was moving up a level, which is a big deal in eventing. Neither of us got a completion score--two long stories there that I'll probably tell later this week--but we failed in very positive ways. I'm proud of us. It was a lot of work getting ready for the competition, especially given Finishing The Book and Weird Brain Week, and I'm proud of how my daughter and I did that, too.

Now we settled into more quiet rhythms, winter rhythms. Everything I set aside in the last few weeks needs to be dealt with, but it will be, in its own time. I'm not under deadline now. On that note, I'm going to go read a book.

Friday, November 6, 2015

I Have An Anxiety Attack

I continue to get really interesting feedback about diversity and writing, and I've also got a major revision looking at me down its long, cold nose. There are a ton of things I could write about, and a ton of excuses to not blog today. What I want to tell you is this:

I had an anxiety attack last night.

No reason, at least none I've been able to uncover. I had a lovely evening--jumped my mare, took a shower, made a nice meal which I enjoyed with family and a friend. Curled up on the couch and watched tv with my beloved; drank some nice red wine but not too much, went to bed at a reasonable hour. Earlier the day's activities had included a good yoga class, lunch with my beloved, and a lot of writing. It was a really good day.

I went to bed, and it started. Muscle cramps running down the outside of my legs--that's the canary in my particular psychic coal mine, the first sign of trouble. Lately, however--for the past several months--I've been able to stop any anxiety right there with some calming self-talk and deliberate breathing. This time the anxiety rolled right over the self-talk and slow breaths. My skin started to feel too tight to contain my insides. (I know it sounds gory, that's just how it feels.) My brain began a sort of electric race--completely unfocused, because I was honestly not upset about any particular thing--I ran options through my mind. Was it the anniversary of some sort of trauma? Had my daughter hit the anniversary date of something traumatic in my own life? (you'd be surprised how powerful that can be--but no, my daughter's now old enough that she's outstripped my own particular traumatic time bombs) Was there a cause?

There was no cause. None.

Didn't matter.

My heart was racing now. I tried all my relaxation techniques. Didn't help. I got out of bed and fetched my heavy blanket, 25 pounds covered in flannel. It's fantastic. I smoothed it under my regular covers so that it weighted my body evenly on all sides.

Didn't help.

I'd been tossing for over an hour now. My husband slept peacefully beside me. I reminded my brain, over and over, that we could turn the alarm sirens off. I was safe. Entirely safe. But the sirens kept going.

Once when I was living in Indiana, a squirrel got into our town's main electrical plant and shorted some wires. It led to the entire city being without power for most of the day.

I had a squirrel loose in my brain, tripping circuits, firing them up instead of shutting them down.

Finally I went to the bathroom and took half an Ambien. It takes seven hours for the effects of that to wear off, and our alarm went in six. When it did I mumbled half the story to my darling husband. He kissed me and left me to sleep. I am so, so loved.

My doctors and I have been experimenting with lowering the dose of my antidepressant, since my antidepressant seems to be raising my blood pressure. Already we'd decided I needed a different course of action, a completely different medication; Monday I go to a specialist. Hooray.

Even before last night I didn't need convincing that I should stay on psych meds. Psych meds are life-saving, healing, fabulous tools. I don't feel badly about having an anxiety attack, either, any more than I'd feel guilty about a lupus flare or something setting off my asthma. My brain is fantastic. It's just wired a little funkily, and there's always the danger of a squirrel getting in. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Options for The Hired Girl and A Fine Dessert

People aren't really commenting publicly about my most recent post, on racism in some recent children's book, but they're commenting privately more than usual. It's an interesting and important discussion.

I'm sure the authors of these books have already thought of how they might have done things differently, but here are some options, just to show you that options exist.

For The Hired Girl: drop references to Indians, and to "playing Indians." In the first part, the paragraph can probably be cut, but if the character really needs some sort of comparison have it be to a fictional person, or perhaps to a Bible reference--like the ancient Egyptians in the Moses story. For "playing Indians," substitute playing wild bears in a forest--living in caves. Or perhaps cowboys out West, roping cattle.

For A Fine Dessert: if you want to really tackle slavery, have the enslaved mother/daughter not get to eat any of the dessert--have the illustrations show their disappointment. Or have them get caught eating the leftovers, and punished for it. Both of those, while accurate, are pretty harsh. Here's another idea: have the black family be the one shown in 1910--not enslaved. Or show a biracial family, or ones in which the races of the children and parents don't match. Or a same-sex-marriage family.

In fact, now that I think of it, instead of gingerly tipping one toe into the waters of diversity, this book could have been one big festival of different kinds of families. It could have gone whole-hog--every group different, every one celebrated, all tied to that simple dessert. After all, it shows technology changing throughout the centuries--why not families too? 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Do The Hard Work of Getting It Right

If you follow the children's literature blogosphere you'll know all about the recent debates on The Hired Girl and A Fine Dessert.

For those of you who don't, a quick recap: The Hired Girl, by Newbery medalist Laura Amy Schlitz, is the story of a young Catholic girl who becomes a servant in a Jewish household in Baltimore in 1910. It's primarily about the girl's growth and is notable for the way it addresses Catholicism and Judaism directly--something that's sadly rare in children's books. It also contains a few references to "Indians"--Native Americans. Joan, the protagonist, has limited and stereotypical views, quite in line with her background and education--and yet, the references are unnecessary to the story, which isn't about Native Americans at all. They're also unchallenged--Joan thinks and does stereotypical things and the stereotypes just sit there, to be read and absorbed by modern readers, including modern Native children.

It's a big lovely book, and the Indian language is a problem, and I'm betting Laura Amy Schlitz regrets it though I haven't seen any comments from her about it..

A Fine Dessert, text by Emily Jenkins and pictures by Sophie Blackwell, follows the making of blackberry fool through three centuries--four stories, set in 1710, 1810, 1910, and 2010. The utensils and circumstances change, but the sense of family and the glee over the fine dessert stay the same. Most White people look at this book and think it's lovely--but the 1810 part shows an enslaved mother and daughter making the dessert for their owners, then eating the scraps while hiding in a closet. A lot of people, myself included, wondered about this choice. Surely we could have had a free Black family? Or an 1810 family that didn't include slaves? The pictures and text are gentle--too gentle to be in an way truthful about slavery--and the slaves are smiling while they pick blackberries and whip cream.

I don't know what Sophie Blackwell thinks about the controversy. Emily Jenkins has publicly said that she tried to be inclusive, that she realizes she failed, she's sorry, and she'll do better next time. She's owning her words, which I think all of us appreciate.

I saw the musical Hamilton while I was in New York last week--more on that later. Then I read some online interviews with its brilliant creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He talked about wanting to see Latino men, such as himself, in stories that didn't have to do with gang warfare, where everyone wasn't armed with knives.

In the same way, every historical story that features Blacks doesn't need to perpetuate the myth of Happy Slaves.

When I read the reviews of A Fine Dessert, I'm struck by how many White people love it, and how many Black people don't. In other words, White readers tend to be blind to the problems that are obvious, and painful, to Black readers.

One commentator, on all this controversy, said rather petulantly that the publishing industry can't have it both ways: you can't ask White people to include non-White populations and then jump all over them when they write stereotypical tropes. Well, that's not exactly what the commentator said. It's my interpretation. Because there's a third option: White writers pay very close attention to the privilege and nuance behind their words. White writers do their homework. White writers work harder than they're used to working and think thoughts they're not used to thinking, and consider how their words might look to children who are not White.

This is difficult, and necessary. I know how difficult it is, because I wrote Jefferson's Sons. It took me a very long time to get parts of that book right. I learned a great deal. If I can do it, so can everyone else. We are lucky to be able to write stories; it's on us to write good ones.

Monday, November 2, 2015

In Recovery

I am back from my book tour. It was a good book tour, although I acknowledge that, as it was my first, I don't really have anything to compare it to. I met a lot of passionate readers and librarians and teachers; I talked a lot about my books and about other books. I spent a week immersed in books in the company of other people.

It completely wore me out.

I am an introvert, which you might not guess if you met me on book tour. That's because I'm a chatty, apt-to-be-overenthusiastic introvert (one librarian, after having lunch with me, introduced me to her colleague by saying drily, "she's like you--no opinions at all."). But spending a week acting extroverted wore me completely out. I slept a good part of the weekend and would go back to sleep right this minute if I didn't have an appointment to get to. Also a novel to finish--deadline is 11 days from now--and some other stuff, like all the laundry.

My favorite bits of book tour: the Chatsworth Elementary kids who squealed and high-fived each other when I told them I was writing a sequel. The child who came up to me after that talk to ask what happened to Mam in the sequel, and when I said I wasn't going to tell him, offered suggestively, "You know, an awful lot of bombs fell on London."

The boy who wanted to know what else I'd written about wars (he left the library with For Freedom tucked under his arm). The class whose faces changed when I told them that in Kent, Ada got a pair of crutches--when they realized that something as simple as crutches could have changed her life in London. The girl who--oh, all of them, all the children who were engaged and caring and true, which was, honestly, most of them. These were great kids. I'm proud to have written something they cared about.

On Tuesday, when I had a few hours of free time, I finally met Karen Block Breen, my former boss at Kirkus, over tea and blueberry pie. Karen was exactly who I thought she'd be, and we had a great time, and I wish we could meet for pie every week.

On Wednesday, when I had a few hours of free time, I met an old college friend for wine and quesadillas. I hadn't seen her since college graduation, which is longer ago than either of us had been alive at the time, and yet we were back instantly to easy intimacy. I'd not realized how much I'd missed her.

On Thursday, when I had the evening to myself, only in Greenwich, CT, instead of Manhattan, I pulled the curtains, got into my pajamas, rolled out my yoga mat, and ordered dinner delivered to my room. The guy that brought it took one glance and said, "Long day?"

Long day. Long week. But oh, such a good one.