Thursday, January 28, 2016

Another Bone-Headed Mistake

Dear Friend Who Came to My Party and Gave Me the Lovely Pen,

Thank you. It's a beautiful pen, the sort I feel every writer should have, and that I didn't until you gave it to me. I'm using it at my desk now to write notes on my current manuscript--due Friday, that's tomorrow--and it's a fabulous change from the crummy derelict pens that always seemed to end up abandoned on my desk. (The last one I was using wrote in orange ink. Where did that come from? 1983?)

I really love the pen, and I love you for giving it to me, and I wrote you a note expressing my emotions. And then I mailed it to the wrong person.

I'm sorry. That was a really great party, and I had such a good time with everyone, and I wasn't expecting any gifts or cards and I got things mixed up. I didn't realize I had--not until yesterday, when a friend who fortunately has a finely-honed sense of humor called and said, "Kim, I got your lovely note thanking me for the pen. Thing is, I didn't give you a pen."

I was thinking about this much of last night--I'm taking a whopping dose of prednisone, thanks to a virus that decided to activate my asthma, and while it's a great drug for keeping me breathing it also keeps me wide-awake at weird hours, mulling guest lists--and the thing is, I can't identify you with any certainty. I can make some guesses--but I did that once already, and look where it got me.

So I'm going to confess my sins right here, on this blog, and hope that you read it. Please know that I'm not ungrateful and not trying to be impolite. I've dropped the ball, but I really do love the pen.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Snowed In

It's snowing like mad here today. It doesn't snow in upper east Tennessee all that often--we usually get 4 measurable snows a season, when "measureable" is defined as anything over 1/4". Really I think we've had a storm like this only a handful of times since I've lived here--the most memorable between when my daughter was 2 weeks old, and the power went out, and we were hanging out in the basement because we were really afraid one of the pine trees surrounding our house was going to come down.

That was a really wet snow. Yesterday we had wet snow, though what fell on the farm was mostly ice pellets. The farm didn't get much, but I'm told downtown Bristol, 3 miles away, got several inches. We had several inches already from Thursday.

I live on a hill with a long, curving driveway. I'm good at driving in snow, courtesy of growing up in Indiana, but snow + hills + very little in the way of road salt or snow removal equipment = staying put on the farm. I know from last winter, when I had to rush my husband to the hospital in a storm, that I can unhitch my enormous truck and power through most things--but yikes. Not sure I could manage this.

Normally I really like holing up at the farm like this. It gives me an excuse to cancel all sorts of things, stay in my pajamas, read books, and write. But honestly, this time around I am annoyed. We were meant to drive to Charlotte this weekend, to see my sister and her family. My sister just moved from Wisconsin, and it's exciting having her closer. My husband and brother-in-law were going to play golf, and my sister and I were going to take my daughter to Nordstom's to buy birthday shoes (my daughter has size 11 feet; Nordstrom's stocks that size) and I was going to bury myself in Dewey and Fred, my lovely nephews. And mostly I miss my sister. It's going to be awhile before we can reschedule, because of my crazy schedule, which is entirely my doing. I'm sorry about that.

The only ways to get to Charlotte from Bristol are to go through one of two mountain passes, both of which got a foot of snow yesterday. Mountain passes in Colorado are equipped for snow like this. Mountain passes in North Carolina are not. My sister gets it, and I get it, but I don't have to be happy about it.

But now I'll sit down with my novel--the one I'm writing, not reading--which is not something I usually get to do on a Saturday. The snow is falling, silent and white. It's a beautiful world.

Friday, January 22, 2016

In Which I Am Interviewed

Today I'm cross-posting an interview I did with Anne Bryant Westrick, author of Brotherhood, for her blog.

When Brotherhood was in the works, Anne asked me for a blurb. When I found out that a white woman from Richmond, heart of the Old South, had written her debut novel about the start of the Klu Klux Klan, I admit that my first reaction was, oh hell no. Not puttin' my name on that But I vastly underestimated the book, as I soon learned--it's truthful, balanced, nuanced, everything historical fiction should be. I've been proud to count Anne a friend ever since, and I was very pleased to be on her blog, which, for the record, is much more visually appealing than mine.

Thanks, Anne!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Twitter, the NYT, my son, and me

An astonishing thing happened yesterday evening.

My son followed me on Twitter.

My children are 18 and 21 now. From their vantage point, my attempts at social media are cute, the way their 3-year-old cousin Dewey calling me "Uncle Kim" is cute, or their baby cousin Fred's attempts to pronounce anything are cute. Oh look, she's trying to social media. Isn't that cute?

My son left for college right around the time I got a Twitter account. He refused to follow me on philosophical grounds: I misused the language (I still tend to say that I sent a "twitt."). Also he didn't enjoy the random twitter conversations I tend to get into about 17th century fashion or aviation or, yesterday, taxation here and abroad. Also he already reads my blog. (Many of my twitter posts are links to my blog.)

It became a running joke between us. "I'm up to 147 followers," I'd say. "You're missing out."

"Yeah, I've got, like, twice that," he'd say.

"That's because you're in college."

"It's because you don't need Twitter."

"I'm excellent at Twitter. And soon I'm going to get a selfie stick."

"The last thing you need is a selfie stick."

My son is in London this semester. I'm loving technology, because FaceTime Audio means I get to talk to him cheap, which translates to often. We can text each other, too.

Before the ALA media awards were announced, a week and a half ago, he sent me a message, "Win the Newbery and I'll follow you on Twitter." When I won an Honor, I suggested it was Good Enough. He declined. "Go big or go home," he said. (He's going to deny saying that. I'm pretty sure he said something like it, at any rate. What can I say? I'm a novelist, I make things up.)

Last night we were hunkering down for a snug night in front of a fire. It was snowing out, hard, which is rare in our parts, and I made chili and cornbread for dinner. It was still simmering and I was on the couch with a book when my husband, checking our joint email, read aloud, "Number 6 on the New York Times Bestseller List."

"What?" I said. He read it again. I jumped up, saying, "You're joking. You'd better not be joking! That would not. Be. Funny," but by then I could read it for myself. It was an email from my editor, announcing that The War That Saved My Life would debut at #6 on the January 31st edition of the list.

New York Times Bestselling Author. I like it.

I'd already spoken to my son, and even though it was late in London knew he planned to stay up to watch the Notre Dame basketball game. I texted him the news. Ten seconds later, my phone dinged. I had a new twitter follower: my son.

Yeah, in my family we know how to celebrate. And as soon as this snow clears, I'm gonna buy me a selfie stick.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

George Washington's Birthday Cake

There's a lot of conversation going on about Scholastic's decision to pull from publication a recently-published picture book, A Birthday Cake For George Washington. Here's how the publisher described the book in press releases: Everyone is buzzing about the president's birthday! Especially George Washington's servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president's cake. But this year there is one problem--they are out of sugar. 

The outrage--and there was plenty of outrage from readers and reviewers--came from two basic issues. One, the "smiling, happy slaves" trope, extended throughout the book; two, the assertion by the publisher/author that the book was based on history. Which is was to the extent that Hercules, Washington's chef, was enslaved, wore fine clothes, and had a daughter named Delia. The happy picture book leaves out the part where Hercules, apparently not so enamored of his position as the book might imply, runs away, and where Delia is left enslaved the rest of her life.

The book's editor, author, and illustrator are all Black. I don't know them personally. I've not read the book, and I'm not likely to now that it's been pulled from publication. You can buy it from third parties on Amazon, but I won't.

Not having read it, I can't have a real first-hand opinion. I can pretty much only comment on other people's comments. One person argued that the book did a service to young readers--that for most of them, it would be the first time they heard that George Washington owned slaves. If this is true, it's appalling. We need to do a better job of teaching history. 

I also don't think that any child's introduction to slavery should be light-hearted. You can't go straight to rape, death, and torture, nor to the toddler-sized manacles in slavery museums, but you also can't start out with a grin. Someone on Betsy Bird's blog said that you needed to have a basic understanding of a subject before you can move on to nuance. Nuance can't come first, or it becomes by default the basic understanding. So you need slavery is evil before you can examine enslaved people could be happy sometimes. 

I argue that you need that understanding down to your bones. I've never forgotten touring Poplar Forest, Jefferson's vacation home, with the historian who ran it (deliciously named Octavia Starbuck) and having her say, "We get school groups in here all the time, and the children say, 'oh, Jefferson was a good slaveowner.' We try to explain that there's no such thing, but most of them just don't understand.'"

As writers, we have an obligation to foster that understanding. We have an obligation to the whole truth. All of us, Black and White.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tiny Notes on the Sequel

Today I've got very little for the blog. I'm impatient to start my real work, the work on my sequel to The War That Saved My Life. (Until about a week ago, the sequel had a title. It doesn't anymore. I'm lousy at titles.)

The thing is, I thought I was mostly finished with this one. If you met me on my October book tour, right after I turned in the latest revision, you heard me say that I thought we were headed to copyediting. I continued with this rosy point of view until December 15, when, right before leaving town for the holidays, my lovely persistent editor suggested I try a little harder. Again.

I throw myself small funerals on these occasions, and my family unites to tell me to get over it. The problem is, they are right. Though I thought most of my books were as good as I could possibly get them when they were published--and they were, at the time--I'd love to go through some most of them again, with what I know now.

(So far, the only change I'd make to TWTSML is swapping "tinned" beans for "canned" beans. That was a miss. Yes, we used some American words in place of British ones, as a deliberate choice for an American audience. But "canned" beans was just a miss.)

Anyway, it's not a bad thing, to improve with age. On Saturday evening my husband threw me a blowout party to celebrate the ALA awards. He did all the work, nearly every little thing; I actually spent most of Saturday foxhunting. (We chased a coyote, them being more prevalent in these parts.)  It was an epic day in all ways, not excluding a quiet morning on the drive to the hunt, just me in my big roaring truck, when I found the one line I needed to make the sequel sing.

I won't tell you, of course. I sent my editor an email, but she was celebrating MLK Jr Day and hasn't responded yet. It doesn't matter. We might not be all the way there, but we're getting closer. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Other Broken Things

Fifteen months ago, I was one of something like three dozen authors featured at Anderson Bookshop's enormous YA Literacy event. It was amazing--if you're a teacher or librarian, you should absolutely go--but even better, I came out of that weekend with a bunch of new writer acquaintances and two new friends.

One of those friends is Christa Desir. I love her. I just loved her from the start. Our very first conversation went from Thomas Jefferson to racism in current society to the portray of interracial relationships in fiction to our favorite bodice-rippers. Then I think we talked about cute shoes. Later, childhood trauma, her work in rape advocacy, PTSD, the work she does with incarcerated youth in Chicago, the girls I knew at the Janie Hammitt home, her children, my children, how much middle school sucks for everyone, and that her youngest child goes by the name Butter.

Just last week I learned that Christa has a photograph displayed in her kitchen of her face superimposed on Wonder Woman's body. And here I thought I was the only one. And Christa said that the main difference between her and me was that she cussed more. I don't think that's true. I just don't cuss in my writing, because nobody puts up with f-bombs in books meant for fifth-graders. When you're writing for high school you can get away with that shit.

Christa is one of the very few people in the world that I felt I could trust immediately with my whole self. So when her new book, Other Broken Things, came out, I was both eager and nervous. It would suck to hate Christa's book. I would never love her less, but I would feel horrible.

No worries. I tore though that sucker. I love it whole. From the opening line, "I'd cut a bitch for a cigarette right now," to the end, "I guess I'll keep coming back." It's about a 17-year-old recovering alcoholic named Natalie, fresh from rehab and trying to figure out what her life can be like sober. It's gritty and tough and honest--much like Christa. The funniest part for me is the acknowledgements in the end, when Christa thanked the beta-reader who suggested Natalie should have a hobby, like horseback riding. Yeah. Christa picked boxing. I'm a little surprised she didn't go with roller derby, which is Christa's actual hobby, but boxing was the bomb. Horses wouldn't have worked in this one.

Here's my very favorite part. Natalie's parents aren't easy, and she's complaining about her father to a friend she meets at AA meetings: "Does that mean that I should just stand on the sidelines watching as he continues to treat my mom like shit? As he continues to get mad that I'm not everything he wants me to be."

The friend replies, "No. You should tell them, tell them both, how you feel. Because that's your truth. Because you're allowed to make your own choices. But you shouldn't expect them to change or suddenly support you. The choice is theirs to make alone. You're not the hall monitor for better behavior in parents. It doesn't work that way. Their system of dysfunction has been working for them for a long time, I'm guessing. You can choose not to be party to it, but you can't pull the whole system out from under them if they want to hold onto it. Let go of the resentment. Be honest with them. Be honest with yourself. But this can't belong to you anymore."

And a bit farther down, my favorite line: "Everyone needs someone to care about their stories."

I care about this story. Well done, my sister and friend.

Friday, January 15, 2016

And Today It's Just Me

Yesterday, every time I checked my email I started to cry.

I received congratulations from my old elementary school, the one I walked to from kindergarten through fifth grade. Patty MacLachlan wrote that she remembered me as "young, lovable, and wonderfully ambitious," and then sent another email to add, "You are still young and lovable." (Ok, that made me laugh, not cry, because when I read the first email I thought, at least I'm still wonderfully ambitious.)

Then I got a letter from an 18-year-old girl named Ruthanne Hawks, who'd found an old book going through her bookshelves and wanted to tell its author how much it meant to her as a child. That would be my first novel, Ruthie's Gift, which was based on stories from my grandmother Ruth Ann Hawk. The reader Ruthie included a photo of her book's inscription--she'd gotten it for her 2nd birthday, and said she always felt, growing up, like she was never alone because she had a fictional twin.

Then I read Sophie Blackwell's blogpost about all her emotions surrounding her Caldecott win for Finding Winnie. Sophie quoted my post from last week ("I want to win the Newbery so bad it makes my teeth hurt. At the same time, it doesn't actually matter at all.") as something that helped her cope with the pre-awards buzz. And I'm keeping in mind advice I got from Kirby Larson. She won a Newbery Honor for Hattie Big Sky, and was kind enough to send me congratulations the moment my Honor was announced.

"What do I do now?" I asked her.

She wrote back, "Buy a sparkly dress and learn to say no."

Then my editor wrote wanting some stuff about my next book, for its launch which is coming soon.

I'm an introvert, albeit a chatty one, and I absolutely need time alone with my words. For me, down time is up time--it fills me. So today I'm writing. I'm paying taxes, and I'm mailing my son the charger he forgot, and I'm going to yoga where my instructor, Adriel, assures me we will celebrate my awards by "resting in plank." (She's serious. For Adriel plank is a resting position.) I'm doing laundry, because I always do laundry. Every damn day there is laundry. And I'm writing, by myself, in a quiet house with my dog at my feet, the way I do nearly every day. The buzz is frothy and delicious, like champagne, but I'm a writer, not an awards-winner. It all comes back to stillness and words on a page.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Patricia MacLachlan and Me

Twenty-nine years ago, second semester sophomore year, Smith College. Three of my four classes are set by my choice of major: organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physics. Four-count-'em-four labs per week. That was what second-semester sophomore chemistry majors did. So when my roommate suggested that we both take an education department seminar on Children's Literature, I jumped at the idea. It was a senior-level seminar that met once a week, at night. Sam petitioned the teacher and got us both in.

I loved children's books. I'd graduated myself from the children's department when I was thirteen--my branch didn't have a YA section then--but a few years later snuck myself back in. I never dreamed of being a writer. I'd never met a writer. It didn't seem like something people actually became. I loved chemistry. I planned to become a physician. My roommate's "campus" job was actually in the children's department of the Northampton public library, right across the street from college hall. She'd bring home any new releases of interest, and I'd read them in between going to lab. But until that education class, I never considered Children's Literature as a subject, as a thing.

It was a survey class, not a writing one. Each week we had a topic: nursery rhymes, animal stories. Each week we had several books to read--10 to 20 picture books, perhaps 5 novels. I read them all. I was entranced.

Someone took a photo of me that spring, sitting in the living room of my dorm. I've got a notebook on my lap--I'm writing my first manuscript. It's a picture book about a girl and a pony, titled Sarah's Child. (Remembering this now, as I write, I get chills: I'd forgotten that manuscript, but currently ride a mare I named Sarah.) I write it in longhand, in the living room, and then I type it up properly on my typewriter. That's all the plans I have. I wrote it for fun. But my roommate says, "No one ever publishes manuscripts that sit on author's closet shelves." She frogmarches me to the professor's office, has me slide it into her mailbox.

When the next class ends, the professor calls me up front. She's holding my manuscript. "Are you serious about this?" she asks. I find myself nodding before I can think. "Okay," she says, "then there's a local branch of the Society of Children's Book Writers [now And Illustrators, but not then] that you need to join. Jane Yolen runs it. They meet the third Thursday of every month at Hatfield Public Library. Do you have a car?" I shake my head. "Okay, call this woman--" she scribbles down a number--"Barbara Goldin, and tell her I said to give you a ride. She lives up the street. And there's a conference at UMass next weekend you should go to. Registration's closed, but call Masha--" another number--"and tell her I said to let you in. And tell Barbara to give you a ride to that, too."

Then she hands me my manuscript. She's written one word in red across the top of it.

I'm speechless, staring at the word.

My life changes, with that word.

I do what my professor says. Barbara Goldin drives me to the conference and to meetings in Hatfield for the next 2 1/2 years. Jane Yolen teaches me, and a basement full of others, how to take apart a story, how to spice things up, how to eliminate twee. How and where to submit manuscripts.

I start submitting. My stories are not publishable, not yet. But meanwhile, in my remaining four semesters of college, I take 3 writing courses, two of them requiring writing submissions in order to be accepted into the class (in the last of these classes there will be at least 3 future novelists among the 15 students). I become a writing tutor for the college--a coveted and prestigious job. I'm the only science major among the writing tutors, so have the pleasure of critiquing every single freshman lab report.

I begin writing small pieces for horsey magazines. It brings in enough to pay postage, then enough to pay my phone bill. During the sweltering hot summer I spend at Smith doing chemistry research, I write my first novel, in the evenings, on a typewriter borrowed from my boyfriend.

I graduate, get married, and with my new husband start medical school.

I last six weeks. It's more than enough: a beginning and an ending never once regretted. I take a job as a research chemist, but I'm still writing, at night and on weekends, and I get published in more and more places, and then I get a job freelance editing and another ghostwriting novels and then I'm pregnant and I quit my lab job and it's all writing from then on. Meanwhile I run into my old professor at a writing conference where I now live--she's the keynote speaker. She recognizes me in the crowd and comes over, laughing. What are you writing now? she says. What are you reading?

I send her a copy of my first book.

She gives me a blurb for my sixteenth. That's The War That Saved My Life. On Monday, when it won a Newbery Honor, I sent a note to Jane Yolen via Facebook: tell me how I can get in touch with Patty today.

My professor was Patricia MacLachlan. She won the Newbery for Sarah, Plain and Tall a week before she began teaching my children's literature class.

Dear Patty, I wrote (I only called her Patty after I graduated), I'm pretty sure I could walk down to the basement and immediately find the very first manuscript I ever wrote. It's dreck, and you took a red pen and wrote "Lovely" at the top of it. That word made me a writer; it carried me for years.

Lovely. The word she wrote was lovely.

Dear Kim, she wrote back. Is it wrong to say I'm thrilled you didn't become a doctor?

It isn't. Thank you, Patty. So much, for always.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Jayne Entwhistle and Me

Four of my ten novels, including the last two, have come out in audio versions. I have almost no say in anything to do with the audio versions beyond saying, "Thank you for putting my book out in audio." For The War That Saved My Life, I got an email saying that the narrator the company wanted could only do the book if she could do it immediately, and so they'd hired her and they hoped I didn't mind.

"Is she British?" I asked.

Dur, they said.  Awesome, said I.

I love audio books. I listen to them on long drives. Because I have the Last Living Tape Deck among all my friends and family, I've got a great big library of books on tape now, donations from everyone who'd upgraded their technology. And don't look down your nose at me about it. My tape deck sits above the CD slot in my extremely badass Ford F-350 quad cab diesel dually, which I bought in 2001 and will never, ever, sell. That sucker could pull a house out of a sinkhole, and it's pulled my horses and carried my children safely and well. And it has a tape deck. And I have the entire Outlander series (except the last book, not released on tape), most of the novels of Jane Austen, and Teacher Man read by Frank McCourt himself, so I don't lack for entertainment on the road.

I can be picky about my narrators. If they don't match my idea of how the book should sound, I stop listening and read the paperback later.

I could not have been more pleased about Jayne Entwhistle version of The War That Saved My Life. She got every nuance exactly right--Ada's grit, Jamie's innocence, Lady Thorton's upper-crust accent, Susan's cultivated Oxbridge one. Someone recently tweeted that they could listen to Jayne read the phone book, with enjoyment, and I could, too. I loved, loved, loved, listening to her read my book.

A book Jayne recorded won the Odyssey last year as well. I really don't follow current audio book trends (see: last living tape deck), and so while I loved my audio book I didn't have any sort of feeling about its winning an award. Nor was I told ahead of time, since the award goes to the producer, not the author. Which meant it was a pleasant surprise, watching the live feed awards show. It turns out that the internet feed must have been a few seconds slower than the actual live announcement--which makes sense--because just when they announced the Honor award for Echo my phone went off like a firecracker. I looked down at its screen and saw I'd won--the producer had won, Jayne had won, whomever, it was all good--just before it came up on the computer screen.

(The publishers all know slightly ahead of time. They've got their announcement tweets ready, and hit SEND just as the award is given.)

The awesome part about this is that I will apparently now get to meet Jayne Entwhistle. I am such a fan.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Me

So in the past few days I've amassed some ALA stories. (That's American Library Association, for you Muggles.)

Sunday morning I went to church, like always. The weather was dreadful, heading for worse, with cold rain which is the hardest weather on horses. As soon as we got home from church, I changed into barn clothes, and, while my daughter was changing, so that we could go get our horses under shelter, I went into my office to check the weather radar. On my way through the kitchen I grabbed my cell phone so I could plug it into the charger in my office.

Now please note: as you might imagine, I was completely aware of all the awards ALA was going to be handing out Monday morning. I was pretty sure that someone would call me first if I won something, which turned out to be 2/3rds correct, but I did think any calls would come through my home phone number. Not that I'd spent a whole lot of time considering the logistics of calls from award committees--I just want you to understand that when I was walking into my office late Sunday morning and my phone went off in my hand, I didn't think it was any big deal.

Then I saw the caller ID: a number from Boston, MA. Boston, where the ALA Midwinter meeting was. (For the record, I'm in east Tennessee..) I laughed, briefly thinking that it was cruel for the universe to send me automated calls about credit cards, or whatever sort of dreck this was, from the very city hosting ALA.

"This is Kim," I said.

"This is the Chair of the Schneider Award Committee," the person on the other end replied. (She said her name. I never caught it.)

I said, "Oh, my."

On the other end of the phone a room erupted in laughter. Clearly I was on a speaker to the whole committee. The Chair explained that for the first time in the history of the Schneider Award, they'd been unable to chose between two books, and had therefore declared both winners. The War That Saved My Life was one.

"Who's the other?" I immediately asked, but they told me I'd have to watch Monday's press conference to find out. They advised me that the Schneider award would be announced very early in the lineup. I told them I'd get up for it.

I was 99% sure that I knew who the other award-winner was. The Schneider Family Award is given for disability representation in three age groups: young child, middle grades, and YA. I'd thought all along that I had a chance at the Schneider, but I also thought Lynda Mullaly Hunt had a strong chance, for her lovely nuanced book about a dyslexic girl, Fish In A Tree.

Now the Real Committees can do what they like, at any time, and while I follow children's literature closely (hello--it's my job) I don't read or even hear about every book. So I thought my co-winner was Lyn Hunt, but I didn't know it. I was itching to find out. At the same time, I'd promised the Chair that I would only tell my immediate family and my editor before the press conference on Monday.

So I got on Twitter and sent Lyn a personal message. No words, just an emoji of a smiley face blowing her a kiss. I figured she'd either know exactly what I meant, or she'd think I was nuts, but since we'd never met there would really be no harm done.

Five minutes later she tweeted me an emoji of a smiley face with hearts for eyes. After that we switched to words.

Hooray for Lyn! Hooray for Fish In A Tree! Go read it, if you haven't already. I like it very much.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Wow. (That was All She Could Say. WOW.)

Well, we've had rather a good Monday morning here at the Bradley household. I just finished watching my book, my very own book, the one I wrote and rewrote (and rewrote and rewrote) and love, get all the love at the American Library Association's youth media awards press conference. The War That Saved My Life is now a Newbery Honor book and co-winner of the Schneider Award; the audio version won the Odyssey.

It's pretty amazing. I haven't even begun to process it, but meanwhile my phone is going off like the smoke alarm on Thanksgiving Day. I love the other winners: Last Stop on Market Street (though seriously--who saw that coming???), Echo, Roller Girl, and Fish in a Tree. I'm really chuffed right now.

But I'll tell you a secret: we had our big celebration last night. NOT because I knew what was coming--I did find out about the Schneider Award yesterday, to my amazement, but got the call from the Newbery committee at 6:30 this morning and learned about the Odyssey award by watching the press conference.

Last night my husband cooked me and our daughter a wonderful dinner. We ate it in front of a fire in the fireplace, with the sort of wine he cellars for special occasions. My food was served on the CONGRATULATIONS plate that our family pulls out when congratulations are due. And it wasn't for the Schneider, although I'm massively thrilled about that.

It was because my family celebrates journeys instead of destinations.

I don't want to get all mushy here. This day is really important to me, but I've always known that awards are way outside my control. All I can ever do is write as well as I can, and this year, as the buzz increased, it was pretty clear that a lot of people thought my book deserved a seat at the table. So we gave it one at our house, too, toasted the book and the trip, not the award.

My husband is a very talented surgeon. He's awesome about spending time with our family, both by working reasonable hours and by taking lots of vacation, but his days fill up really far in advance and he can't just decide to skip one. Rescheduling patients is reserved for family funerals, the birth of a child--even when he ruptured his Achilles tendon and had to have emergency surgery, the man only missed two days of work.

So you can imagine my surprise last Thursday night, when Bart said, "I'm going to tell you now. I took Monday off work. I'm going to stay and watch the awards with you." He grinned. "If you win we'll cheer, and if you don't we'll say, "Boooooo."

"You took Monday off?" I'm flabbergasted.

"I wanted to be with you."

"Yes, but--when did you do that?" I know he's scheduling surgeries six months in advance.

He smiled even bigger. "Months ago."

Geez, the love I have behind me. Geez, the party I have in front of me. We're over the moon, here--and we were before the announcements began.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Chronic PTSD, Ada, and Me

This is a cross-post from, something I wrote as part of their special month-long blogathon about mental health issues in YA books. I hope it helps someone somewhere. It's about as personal as I've ever gotten in print, so be nice to me, please.

Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Ada, and Me

Back when I fell to pieces, about ten years ago, the therapist who helped me said that she thought I had Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a result of years of childhood sexual abuse. She also told me I needed to be on anti-depressant medication, yesterday, and on anti-anxiety medication until my overall health improved.

I didn’t have any qualms about taking medication. It was very clear to me that I needed help. I already took medication to control my asthma and allergy symptoms, and, for that matter, used oral contraception. Medicine to keep me from harming myself and my family, and to help pull me out of my current abyss? Yes, please.

But my scientific mind—I make my living as a writer, but I was trained to be a research chemist—had questions. The psychologist was telling me that 1) my symptoms were a direct result of the abuse in my past; and 2) my symptoms were the result of faulty chemistry in my brain. For this to be true, then my abusive past had to have caused my faulty brain chemistry. (Clearly there could be a genetic predisposition as well, which I think likely looking up the branches of my family tree.)

Ten years ago my psychologist said, probably yes. Today, with a decade more of neuroscientific research on the topic, we know that the answer is actually, oh hell yes. Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is similar to the sort of PTSD that battlefield veterans get, but differs in some specific ways important in terms of its treatment. (For more on this, I recommend the excellent book The Body Keeps The Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.)

I get annoyed when people say glibly, “Oh, trigger warning,” about something that might make a person a teeny bit upset. A real trigger feels like an explosion. An atom bomb. Something, some small phrase, or sound, or smell—especially smell—sends those of us with PTSD straight back into the actual experience of our trauma—the sights, the sounds, and especially the terror. Real triggers set off wailing air-raid sirens in my nonverbal brain—what I call my Inner Lizard—and I descend straight into memories of forty years ago, as though they are my current reality. Telling myself that I’m grown up, I’m safe, I’m strong, doesn’t help at all—my Inner Lizard can’t access verbal logic. I can only be soothed by what is physical—such as my heavy blanket, a special therapeutic comforter that weighs 25 pounds—or chemical, such as Atavan.

Trauma survivors avoid triggers at all costs. Luckily, most of us have become ace at a handy defense mechanism called dissociation. It’s when we psychically leave a situation we can’t physically escape. Our bodies and brains disconnect. This keeps us more-or-less sane through moments of crisis, but unfortunately can cause to big problems in dealing with the everyday, non-traumatic world. Once you’ve learned to dissociate, you can’t always stop doing it, even in times when you’d like to stay fully present and aware. And people hate it when you leave them.

In my novel, The War That Saved My Life, triggers, flashbacks, and dissociation plague my ten-year-old protagonist. Ada has grown up imprisoned by disability and by physical and mental abuse. She’s evacuated—this is London, World War II—to the home of a woman who treats her kindly, but Ada carries internal scars. She dissociates when people touch her. Several incidents—memories of her mother’s insults, the smell of damp air raid shelter—send her into full-blown meltdowns. Because it’s England, 1939, I can’t give my dear Ada modern medication, nor can I give her the trained, patient help of a modern therapist. (Even 30 years ago, therapy quite often did more harm than good to people with Chronic PTSD. My current psychiatrist says it’s one of the most challenging mental health problems to treat.) But I give her all the small things that I found helped me along the way. Ponies. (I’m not being funny—look up the use of horses in therapy.) Being wrapped tightly in a blanket. Physical ways to counteract triggers—such as Susan hanging sage and lavender in the air raid shelter, to mask the damp smell. Susan learns to be patient and careful about how she physically interacts with Ada; Ada learns to keep breathing through her distress.

It’s a slow process. There’s never a magic turning point in the book in which Ada is suddenly healed. Trauma survivors don’t heal like that. In nurturing, safe environments we can advance in small steps, gradually rebuilding ourselves from the shattered pieces of our past. Then, if we’re very lucky—as I was--we become better, more empathetic, more compassionate versions of who we might have been. I would prefer not to understand trauma as well as I do. Yet without my past I never could have written The War That Saved My Life. I can’t say I’m grateful I was harmed. I’m not. I know I’m lucky to have healed as fully as I did. And yet—I’m grateful I could write this book. Grateful every day, to have told Ada’s story well

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"Do I Ever Revise?"

In half an hour or so, I'm Skypeing a group of students from--well, I just went and looked it up, and I don't know where they're from. I know the name of their school, but frankly it could be anywhere. Anyhow, their librarian sent me a list of their questions ahead of time, which I completely appreciate, not so much because I need to prepare answers, but because it cuts down on questions like, "Have you ever been to prison?" which I have gotten before. (No. I have not.)

One child is apparently going to ask me, "Do you revise?"

I am so tempted to say, No. I do not. Every word in The War That Saved My Life is printed exactly as it first sprung from my brow, shining and whole. I don't even have to fix typos.

It would be, of course, the world's biggest lie.

In the spirit of inquiry, this morning I tried to look up my first email from my editor, Liz, about TWTSML. I have long remembered, and maintained, that her initial reaction was to say, and I mean this as a quote, "This isn't really your next book, is it?"

Which is of course editor speak for this is SO bad. We are never, ever, publishing this. Yikes.

It turns out I changed email addresses right about then and so my email records don't go back quite far enough. Liz retired and no longer has her files, either, and Lauri Hornik, head of Dial and my very old friend, insists that Liz would never have been quite so blunt. Lauri understands memory as a fallible thing, which it is, but still I'm pretty sure I'm correct here. Liz's first reaction was oh hell no. And I read her first reaction and thought, damn. Then I wrote back that yes, it was indeed my next book, but that clearly I had some work to do. And I took the 70 pages of novel I had at that point and threw them into the trash. I started again.

And again. And again. For a few drafts I solicited opinions from my husband and daughter, and these were so uniformly negative that I didn't even bother consulting Liz. But then I finally got it. I sent Liz another couple of pages with the triumphant heading, "Ada Finds Her Voice," and these were on the new email, so I just unearthed them.

And they're terrible. Really gut-clenchingly bad. Here, exhibit A, the opening paragraph (skipping a prologue which I eventually discarded):

I'm remembering what it was like, seven years ago when things began.  Susan found my birth certificate, so now I know that I was ten years old in 1939, but I didn't know it then.  It's hard to believe I didn't know how old I was, but in truth my world before the war consisted of two things:  our third-floor flat, and whatever I could see or hear or talk to out our single window down to the street.  Birthdays weren't celebrated in our flat or on the street.  No one ever mentioned mine.
Please contrast that to the opening of the final, published version:

"Ada! Get back from that window!" Mam's voice, shouting. Mam's arm, grabbing mine...

This is actually making my day, because I'm hip deep in revision of the sequel, and honestly it's starting to be a real mess. (And I'm sorry about the double-spacing. I can't get it to stop.) I mean, I'm at the part where most of the stuff that will happen is down, but my editor (Jess) had a sort of brilliant idea about getting rid of a whole bunch of fairly good writing, so I'm trying to do that while retaining my favorite lines--it's a mess. And apparently, that's okay. Because if I can turn "this isn't your next novel" into "Ada Finds her Voice (which, while dreck, was infinitely better than what it replaced)", and the crap paragraph above into an actual novel, then I'll be okay with this sequel too. After all, I do revise.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

About That Pesky Newbery

Several years ago, I was volunteering in the cafeteria of my children's school (least favorite volunteer job ever) and kept checking my phone. After awhile one of the other volunteers gave me an Odd Look about it. "The Newbery Award is being announced this morning," I explained (I have to believe this was before the days of live internet feeds. Otherwise I'm pretty sure I would have been home by my computer.). "I'm dying to see who wins."

"Oh," said the Other Volunteer. "Who do you want to win?"

I said, "ME!"

She said, "OH!" as though she had never once considered that, which she probably hadn't, because 1) most people in Bristol assume I self-publish, and 2) why would she?

She asked, "Is that, like, possible?"

"Possible," I said. "I have a book that's eligible. Not probable. And I'm thinking that if I did win, I would already know by now. But still--"

Looking back, I'm pretty sure this was the year of For Freedom, which, while never winning a major award, inexplicably came in at #57 on Time magazine's recent list of 100 Best Children's Books Of All Time. So it was a long shot, but not perhaps a wholly ridiculous one.

A few weeks ago, at a middle school basketball game, I asked a friend who is a middle school librarian, "So, who do you like for the Newbery?"

"Echo!" she said. "I am such a fan of Echo!"

"Angie," I said, "you're supposed to say me."

"Of course, you too," she said instantly. "Your book, and Echo. I really loved Echo."

Somewhere, Pam Munoz Ryan, who wrote Echo, is sitting down to work (actually, I think she lives in California. She may still be asleep) trying not to remember that this time next week someone's book will have been awarded the Newbery Award. Laura Amy Schlitz is also putting it out of her mind. As well as Sharon Draper, Cassie Beasley, and a host of other writers, including me.

I want to win the Newbery so bad it makes my teeth hurt.

And yet, it doesn't really matter at all.

Both of these things are absolutely true.

Earlier this year, when The War That Saved My Life started attracting a whole lot of buzz--way more than any of my previous books--a lot of people that love me and know a lot about publishing cautioned me not to get my hopes of too high. Yes, there was Newbery talk---but talk was cheap, and the Committee (I always think of them as a variation on Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree) made their own choices. The Newbery is not a popularity contest. Sometimes, or so I'm told, it's a compromise.

Sure, I told my friends. Of course I already know that. Take a look down the list of winners. Some make perfect sense to me--others, not so much. And the ones that make sense to me puzzle other people exceedingly, and vice versa. "How about the bug poems one?" I offered as an example. "No one likes the bug poems."

"I LOVE the bug poems," another librarian (and ex-Committee member, though not for that year) exclaimed. "I have kids reading the bug poems one ALL THE TIME."

So there you are. Five days until the big reveal. Not that I'm counting. (I'm counting.) (Hi, Pam!)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Fun Goes On

We have been on vacation. We do it really well. Just this past weekend we went to Arizona, to watch my son's school (and husband's alma mater) lose abysmally to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The game was a bit of a drag, especially after Jaylon Smith got hurt (He blew out his knee. He was expected to be a top-ten NFL draft pick. He also is a graduate of my Catholic high school's cross-town Catholic rival, and he lived in the same dorm as my son. So I kind of felt I knew him, though we never met.), but the rest of the trip was fabulous. We hiked in the desert and went to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West (it turns out FLW was really odd). I couldn't live in a desert full time--tough country for horses--but it was interesting to be in it for awhile.

Yesterday my husband got up at 5:30 and toddled off to do important and life-changing eye surgery. I planned to get up in time for the 8:30 yoga class--but instead slept until 10:20. Which meant I still got up before my children. It's turned cold in Bristol--it was 70 here on Christmas Day, then 70 in Arizona, and last night was 15--but my daughter and I went out riding anyhow, me muttering my winter mantra ("there is no bad weather, there are only inappropriate clothing choices") through clenched teeth. Then I went to a late yoga class, and cooked a nice dinner, and stared at the tree in the living room, still decorated but starting to look a little tattered. My husband, who after restoring sight to the blind tried to teach a bunch of fifth graders to play better basketball--your guess as to which task is harder--no, I'll tell you, it's basketball--sighed and suggested we start taking it down, but I'd gotten a new Felix Francis (that's Dick Francis's son, not as good as his father but reminiscent enough to be worth reading) novel from the library and I suggested we leave the tree alone.

Our son leaves tomorrow for a semester in London. I've prepared him by sharing my TunnelBear subscription and buying him a large jar of peanut butter. Not kidding. TunnelBear makes your computer look like it's in a different country, which is how I've seen all of Season 6 of Downton Abbey already (itv in Britain shows replays on line, to British computers only); my son will use it to access our DirecTV subscription and watch important American sports. As for the peanut butter, someone from the study abroad office actually advised the London students to take peanut butter with them, as British peanut butter is noticeably inferior. When my son asked if I thought this was true, I told him that when my dear childhood friends the Magliochettis moved to London, Mrs. Mag packed a case of peanut butter and a case of her favorite brand of tampons. So yeah, it made sense to me.

I went to England when I was thirteen, to visit the Magliochettis. The War That Saved My Life is dedicated to Mrs. Mag.

Anyway, the party's over. It's 7:25 am and I'm writing. From where I sit, it's all good.