Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Raise a Glass to Rewrites!

I'm as nuts for the musical Hamilton as the next person, maybe more. I've seen it twice and can not wait to see it again. Also I listen to the cast recording while I'm driving around town. Also I follow Lin Miranda on Twitter. (Everyone should. His tweets are prolific and entertaining.)

So this morning, in an attempt to vaguely decrease the mess on my desk, I picked up a piece of paper with a note scribbled on it that I no longer seemed to need. Before I threw it away I flipped it over--my whole family uses my rough drafts as random note paper, and I like to see what I've written before.

I read this scene and started to laugh. It immediately put me in line of a lyric from Hamilton:

-cuz if the Tomcat can get married--
(If Alexander can get married)
there's hope for our ass after all!

What I'd found was yet another page from one of the many drafts that eventually became The War That Saved My Life. It was part of the scene in the village hall, when among all the other London evacuees Ada and Jamie were the only ones not chosen.

It's awful. Dreadful. There are random miscellaneous characters--a Miss Nutley?--that I don't remember even briefly creating, let alone why. And every time I see how bad my writing was at some point in that book, I see how much better I eventually made it. That's awesome to know given that I am still working on the sequel.

--cuz if TWTSML can be lovely
there's hope for TWIFW after all!

Cheers. Back to work

Thursday, May 19, 2016

One Last Time

The front of my desk, in between the keyboard and the monitor (my monitor is actually my whole entire computer now, with a touch screen. It amazes me) is scattered with little slips of paper. They're actually the tear-offs from my Dilbert-A-Day calendar; I use their black back sides for notes. One says, "Ruth arrives." That's the scene that's up next in the current iteration of my novel. Next to that is one that reads "Fri Sept 16-Sun Sept 18" at the top (that's the dates for a conference I'm attending this fall; I had to book my flight this week) then "Fri breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sat Breakfast" and part of a grocery list on the bottom. That's for this weekend. The relatives start arriving tonight for my daughter's graduation, which is Saturday.

The slip beside that one is my to-do list for this week, much marked-up and added to. Today's schedule: 10 am ride with a friend; 11:45 lunch with my husband, 2:45 dentist. On the top is the list of unscheduled items I need to accomplish this week. I just crossed off the title of a book I had to review by Sunday because I wrote and sent it in this morning. I crossed off "organize shoes" because it isn't gonna happen.

Next slip is a crosspatch of squiggles and small words, where I was taking notes on my existing manuscript to be sure I had the dates right--Christmas is always December 25th, so if something happens three days before Christmas that's the 22nd, etc. It's surprisingly easy to lose track of this when you're writing a novel.

Next to that a slip with the names of the Holston Pony Club members competing in show jumping rally, along with their division and what I still need from them. I have to get the showjumping entries in by tomorrow.

Next to that another to-do list. It's not looking probable.

As a family we always tried to eat breakfast together. On days my husband operates he leaves the house a little early, and when the children were small I woke them early so we could still eat together. When they hit high school we let them sleep. High school here starts at 7:30, which means the kids needed to leave the house by 7, which seemed early enough for teenagers.

Today my husband left early to operate. My son, who moves to Florida for his summer internship in a few days, slept in. I got up and ate breakfast with my daughter. It is her very last day of high school. It's the last day I'll yell up the stairs to make sure my school-age children are awake and getting dressed; the last day, in fact, that I have school-age childen at all. I'm so proud of my children, how they're growing and spreading their wings. I'm wondering what it's going to be like from now on--do I go back to getting up early on days my husband operates, or do I sleep in? Meanwhile I'm wading through all these little papers on my desk. It's a pretty quiet day for such a big transition.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Tale of Two Class Nights

Friday night was Class Night for our daughter, who's about to graduate from high school. Our son is a rising college senior (How did that happen???) so his class night was three years ago. Neither my husband nor I went to it.

Understand that in our small town, bisected by the Tennessee/Virginia state line, we have exactly two high schools: Tennessee High and Virginia High. Because public education is primarily state-funded, these schools are wholly separate, the heads of two separate school systems.

My children went to the local Catholic school through 8th grade which happened to be on the Virginia side of the line, and thus we were on the Virginia school system schedule and never really paid attention to the Tennessee public school traditions. When my son started high school I relied on him to keep me informed. Hhe used this to his strong advantage. Throughout high school he had two goals: to do well enough to gain admittance into the University of Notre Dame, and to attend as many sporting events as possible. If it didn't contribute to those goals, forget it.

Now this was useful because his first goal made him an extremely motivated student. He signed up for tough classes, did his work, and did well. His second goal didn't cause me any problems either. But things I would have liked him to do (like, say, take the PSAT) tended to fall to the wayside. Instead of asking me, "Should I take the PSAT?" he asked himself, "Does the PSAT contribute to my admittance to Notre Dame? No? Then instead of spending a Saturday morning taking the PSAT, should I attend a sporting event instead? Why, yes!"

This is similar to the calculations my daughter made when she realized she could skip dressing out for swimming days in Freshman PE, take a '0' for those days, and still squeak by with the lowest possible A for the semester, thus protecting the 4.0 that would lead her to becoming co-valedictorian without ever once wearing a bathing suit or tipping a toe into the high school pool. I found out about that plan when I got her report card.

So when my son was about to graduate, I saw that there was something listed as Class Night in the school schedule. I inquired. It sounded important. Absolutely not, my son said. Class Night was simply some ridiculous antiquated tradition in which the senior class handed over the governance of the high school to the junior class, and while his attendance was required, mine was not. In fact he strongly urged me to stay home.

Now, my son wasn't lying, except by omission. There's a whole Class Night script that reads like a relic from the 1950s, in which the seniors present the juniors with the School Shield and the School Axes (not kidding), items which as far as I can tell are then stuffed into a closet until the next Class Night. At some point in the far distant past this ceremony may have had meaning for someone. It doesn't anymore.

However--and this is a really big however, more like a HOWEVER--Class Night is also senior awards night. My husband was off playing golf with a friend, and I was laying on the couch watching Shark Tank in my pjs drinking wine while my son was called down to the stage something like seven times to be honored for his academic success. I found this out the next morning, when my friends started to congratulate me. My son laughed and said, "Yeah, the principal said, 'Stand still so your parents can get a photo,' and I said, 'Yeah, my parents aren't here.'"

Yep. We were the Parents Who Couldn't Be Bothered.

Now my son still insists that he didn't care about any of it, and that while his attendance was mandatory ours was not. He does not seem to understand, despite our explaining it to him, multiple times, that we would have liked to have been present while he was repeatedly called to the stage.

It's possible that some of the school administrators noticed my husband's and my absence. I say this because last week I received an email from my daughter's homeroom teacher gently suggesting that we attend. Not that there was any danger of our skipping Class Night, now that we knew what it was. Also our daughter was the Mistress of Ceremonies, in charge of introducing each portion of the program.

So we went. And it was incredibly, excruciatingly slow. And long. Drawn out beyond reasonable belief. The seniors processed across the gym floor two by two under strict orders that each pair not begin walking until the previous pair had reached half court. The school band played "Pomp and Circumstance" on endless repeat. It was like the world's longest wedding processional. Twenty minutes of slow walking before anyone spoke at all.

Then every senior who got any type of scholarship was recognized. I'm all for that. However, when six kids get the same academic scholarship to the same state university, describe the scholarship and list the recipients. Do not bring every student forward individually and try to change the wording so that the audience doesn't realize it's exactly the same award as was just given. We, the audience, are smarter than that.

The best moment of the ceremony came when my daughter went to the podium, saw that someone had mistakenly carried away her script, and went one with the program so cleanly that almost no one realized she was ad-libbing. It took me years to learn that kind of poise in front of a crowd. The second best moment came when the principal solemnly announced that one student had had perfect attendance for all four years of high school. The principal held up a trophy, called the student's name--and the student wasn't there. She'd skipped Class Night.

I'm glad I didn't skip my second Class Night. It's the last chance I'll ever get. I still wish I'd seen my son through his--but, on the other hand, there's only so much with the Shield and Axes a parent can take. I won't regret that my first Class Night was also my last.

Friday, May 13, 2016

In Which I Win A Gold Sticker After All

When your children's book wins a big-deal award, it gets a shiny sticker on its cover. The Newbery, the Caldecott, the Odyssey, the Siebert, the Schneider, the Coretta Scott King, the Printz--all these awards come with stickers. Until today, TWTSML had earned 3 stickers, a silver Newbery Honor, a blue Schneider, and a gold Odyssey (that one's an audio award and only gets put onto the audio box). Today I won a coveted gold sticker--the Roary Award, presented by the fifth graders of Mt. Kisco Elementary School, Mt. Kisco, New York.

I Skyped into the award ceremony luncheon, held in the school library. It was really lovely. Usually when I Skype into schools I spend the whole time answering questions, but this time I spent the first part listening while groups of students spoke about the book and me and formally presented me with their award. It's a lovely framed certificate AND a medal AND a gold sticker with a pawprint on it. (The school mascot is a lion, hence Roary.)

I knew that the school was a Title 1 school, which means it receives extra federal funds because of the high proportion of its students living in poverty. The students I saw had a wide range of skin-tones and ethnicities. They'd dressed up for the occasion and prepared well. They were sincere and thoughtful; they asked interesting questions and were attentive to the answers. Mt. Kisco seems like a great place to go to school.

When I disconnected from the Skype--15 minutes ago now--I sat a few moments before going back to my writing. I thought about yesterday's blog--about the mother who wanted her child protected from the TWTSML, what with its abuse and trauma and gay characters. I thought about what it means to live in poverty in this country. I thought about the wide-ranging diversity I could see in the Roary committee members and how any diversity that I could see was only part of the diversity that actually was. I thought about what a privilege it is to write for children for a living, and to listen to children tell you that a book you wrote was meaningful to them. I found myself, just minutes ago, more committed than ever to diversity in my writing, not for diversity's sake, but for my reader's sake, that I might be worthy of them.

Thanks for the Roary, Mt. Kisco students. I'll wear it to ALA, with pride. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

My Gay Agenda

So The War That Saved My Life just got its first one-star review on Amazon. The reviewer thought my book was relentlessly depressing, thought no mothers are really as evil as Mam, and felt that descriptions of child abuse should not be read by children. Then she [it's clear from the writing the review is an adult woman who homeschools her children] says, " Just when I thought this book couldn't get any worse, a central character turns out to be a lesbian. Could you be any more cliché??? I absolutely hate it when authors use children's books as a way to push their views on sexuality."

I've already discussed why I chose to make Susan Smith gay, and why I didn't discuss her homosexuality more openly in the book. I don't know how to cite my own blog, but the post is titled "A Touch on Lesbianism."

I'm trying to figure out how having a gay character is a cliche. Can't, quite, but I'd welcome opinions.

Mostly I've been thinking about the last sentence: an author using children's books as a way to push their views on sexuality. At first I thought, no, I wasn't doing that. I was just writing the best book I possibly could.

Then I thought, of course I was doing that. The  reviewer might really hate my views on sexuality. Here they are:

1) Our sexuality--the people to whom we're sexually attracted--is inborn.
2) Our gender identity--whether we see ourselves as male or female--is inborn.

You can argue this all you like. I don't care. I've read up a bit on the current science of it, because I find it interesting. I also know that there was never a moment when I myself made a choice to be cis-gender or straight. I was born this way.


3) Being gay/straight, cis/trans, not a pedophile/a pedophile, evil/virtuous, Christian/atheist/Muslim/whatever are all things that run on separate axes. They are not tied to each other. A gay person is not necessarily evil. A straight person is not necessarily a pedophile.

4) There have always been gay and transgender humans across every human society. Their number as a percentage of the population does not seem to be increasing anywhere.

5) Just as people of color are underrepresented in current children's books, so are gay people, transgender people, and people with disabilities.

6) This is a disservice to our children, who need books that reflect their reality.

7) My main goals as an author are to write books children want to read and to write books that tell the truth.

8) Demonizing people we disagree with is not useful.

9) Not even if they give me one-star reviews.

10) Susan Smith is the fullest adult character I have ever created. She's the farthest thing on earth from a cliche.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The End of the Games

Yesterday my daughter was named to the 2-team All Conference for tennis. It was a nice way to cap her four years of high school sports. Her team advances to regional competition, but as only 5 players per team compete for the state tournament, and she plays number six, she won't be on the court again unless something awful happens to one of her teammates. Monday I watched her play in the individual district competition and realized, when it was over, that a phase of her life and mine was done.

My son is a particularly avid sports fan. Any sport, anywhere, any time. He understands the rules for gaelic football, which no one outside of Ireland besides himself does, and seems to stay on top of my obscure sport, eventing, with no effort at all (Conversation before he went abroad: Me--I texted Lauren to see what we should do about your phone. Him--It's been ten years since Aunt Lauren went to Europe, it's changed. Me--Not Aunt Lauren, my friend Lauren. She was there last fall. Him--Please tell me you did not just bother LAUREN KIEFFER about my phone. Geez, Mom, you can't do that. She doesn't have time for that. Me--she says you should buy a sim card there.) He played tball, soccer, little league baseball, and high school golf.

My daughter events, played tball once, by accident, soccer for several years, and then tennis starting in middle school. She started for her high school tennis team all four years, growing steadily better along with her team. Our boys' tennis team is a state dynasty--3 state championships in the last 5 years--and this year our girls' team might be that good too.

 I've loved watching them play. I've loved seeing their teamwork and camaraderie blossom. It'll sound odd, but I've loved watching my kids struggle. They're both extremely bright; through high school they didn't get much of a challenge academically. I think failure teaches us as much as success, and grit and perseverance are worth cultivating. Both my children are good athletes who've improved through hard work, but they've had tough moments they've had to overcome, all on their own, and they did. They lost some games, but they kept competing.

In high school golf and tennis, there are no referees. Players give themselves penalty shots and make their own line calls. There's room for cheating, and some players cheat. Not my kids. They understood early on that their integrity was worth more than any point in any game. I've been proud of that.

Sometimes when my son was small baseball games and baseball season lasted forever. Sometimes the compressed high school schedules meant we were watching golf or tennis matches every evening of the week for a month. Sometimes it all seemed to take up a lot of time, but in what I've come to understand is the way of everything, it went by quickly in the end. My time spent watching my children play is over. I'll miss it. I'll miss them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Little Free Library at Bristol Faith in Action!


I'm delighted to announce that this afternoon I am finally setting up one of my Christmas gifts, a Little Free Library, on the front porch of Bristol Faith in Action.

Many of you know that Bristol Faith in Action, a community social justice center in my hometown, is a place dear to my heart. I'm currently on the board, and I work there every Wednesday. At BFIA we help Bristol residents through times of temporary financial crisis by paying part of their rent or utility bills. We often have medical equipment and sometimes furniture to give away. We keep a very small food pantry. We also distribute necessary commodities like diapers, tampons, shampoo, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. (none of which can be bought with food stamps)

And now books, one of the most necessary things in life. Hooray!

Little Free Libraries work like this: a steward (that's me) sets them up and maintains them, and initially stocks them with books. Then people take books or leave books at will.

That's it.

You don't have to worry about people stealing books, because no one can steal a free book.

My hope is that this Little Free Library will become a true community asset: that it will be well used by BFIA clients, BFIA staff and volunteers, and absolutely anyone driving or walking past that wants a book to read. Please, all of my friends and anyone reading this, join me in this. Come and leave a book. Come and take a book. Enjoy all the books. That's the only rule.

(Should an amazing thing happen, and you want to put books in the library but it's too full, please leave them at the BFIA desk. I'll put them in later.)

(There's a guestbook if you wish to leave a note. But that's optional.)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writerly Acts of Violence

I'm sitting here trying to decide whether or not to break someone's arm.

It's a fictional someone. I can do that--break this child's arm--or not, however I like.

Heck, even just sitting here, it occurred to me that I could break someone else's arm, too.

Recently someone asked me, in a joking, happy-go-lucky offhand way, what was the weirdest thing I'd researched lately.

I said, "Why people no longer commit suicide by putting their heads into ovens."

That sort of killed the joie de vivre.

It was true, and also the answer is interesting, but I think that when they hear I write children's books, many people assume I write bunny books. Or sweet bedtime stories about fairies.

Nope. Sorry. It's all real over here. Excuse me now, I'm off to break someone's arm.

Or not. Still can't decide.