Friday, July 29, 2016

The Oldest Surviving Pony in Sullivan County,Tennessee

I mentioned Shakespeare few days back. Now I'm thinking I ought to get some blog posts out of the old boy while I still can. He is, after all--according to my vet, and after the recent demises of Patty Pony and Clyde, both well-loved and personally known to me--the oldest surviving pony in Sullivan County, Tennessee. This just may be because he is too cantankerous to die.

I love Shakespeare. He was awesome to my children most of the time, and even now is pleased to be charming to my small nephews. He's an excellent turnout partner for Syd, the large Thoroughbred who lives on our farm and seems to have always wanted a pony of his own. He doesn't cost much to maintain, though more than he used to now that he's down to only one tooth and I have to make him two buckets of mush every day. I love Shakespeare, but he doesn't love me. Mostly when he refers to me it's, "Yo, wench. Where's that mush?" (Sometimes he uses saltier language, but I'm trying to keep this a family-friendly blog.)

We got Shakespeare fourteen years ago, the summer after we moved to our farm. We had built house and barn on what had been open fields. We moved into the house in March, when it was still under construction, because our old house sold more quickly than we expected. Then we moved the horses over in April, when the barn was still very much under construction, because I promised the friend I was boarding them with that we'd be gone in February, and she had a waiting list for the stalls. We didn't have doors on the  new stalls yet (or a center aisle, or a tack room) but we made do with plywood and stall guards; we had one field fenced out of what would eventually be six. At the time we had three horses: my very old retired hunter, Trapper; my brand-new horse, Gully; and Hot Wheels, a sweet red pony belonging to my seven-year-old son. My daughter was four. She rode Hot Wheels, quite often, and groomed him and helped take care of him, and she was extremely salty that she did not yet have a pony of her own.

I'd just finished building a house and a barn and was going to have to put in a driveway and a whole lot more fence. I was not up for buying another pony. I told my daughter so, emphatically. She could have a pony eventually. She could join pony club when she was six, like her brother had.

There were six stalls in the new barn. As the crew was finishing construction I gave them a bunch of bucket hooks to hang in the stalls. After lunch that day, one of the workmen asked me when my daughter's pony was set to arrive. "We aren't getting a pony," I said.

The man burst out laughing. He took me into the first stall on the right side of the barn, one that we weren't using yet. There was a row of new bucket hooks--but they were hung about a foot lower than the hooks in the other stalls. My daughter had gone into the stall with the workman and explained where the hooks needed to be hung. "Because my pony is little," she said.

My daughter at this age quite often spoke to creatures--animal or human, I never knew--that only she could see. Her conversations were private; whenever I asked her about them, she glared at me. But one day I came upon her talking softly to herself in a corner of the kitchen. She leaned forward. "Hurry, pony," she said.

Okay. We still couldn't buy a pony, but I sent a call out to the universe that we were looking for one. (I've done this with every horse I've ever had--envisioned exactly what I wanted, then waited. Last time my requirements were so specific that a riding friend asked, "And would you like that in unicorn?" Actually, I would have liked it in bay gelding. I got it in grey mare. But I digress.)

Two weeks later my farrier (the man who shoes my horses) came into the barn. He said, "You want a pony?"

I said, "If it's small, elderly, broke to death, bombproof, rideable, and free."

He grinned at me and said, "Yep."

That was Shakespeare. That was the beginning.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teaching Me How to Say Goodbye

Several years ago, when my son was still in high school, all four of us traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, to watch Rolex. My husband had just returned from a trip to Australia and was jet-lagged into complete unconsciousness in the back seat of the van. I started to climb into the driver's seat, but my son, who was 17, stopped me. "I'll drive to start," he offered.

I don't love driving, so I happily let him. The first part of the drive is straightforward local highways. Then it turns into curvy hilly local highways, then eventually interstate. It's about a five hour drive. Frequently I offered to take over, but my son waved me off. "Knit and talk to me," he said instead.

When we pulled into our hotel's parking lot my son turned to me and said, "Did I do a good job, Mom?"

"Yes," I said. I felt very proud of him. "You did a great job. You drove very well the whole way."

"So," he said, "You'll have no problem letting me drive to Charleston."

I realized I'd been played. Well played, mind you. My son and husband sometimes went to Charleston and my son liked to take lessons from a golf pro there. He'd been murmuring about going there by himself, now that he was a high school senior, and I'd been shutting him down. You are not old enough to drive all that way by yourself. Except that he'd just proven me wrong.

I've been thinking about that this summer, as my daughter sets about showing me that she, too, is ready to be on her own. She leaves for college next month. For the first time in 21 years I won't have day-to-day care for children in my house. I'll still be their mother, and I know they'll still need me--just yesterday my son, now 21 and interning in finance this summer--called to ask my advice about a plumbing problem. I've always encouraged my children to be independent. I made them responsible for lots of parts of their own lives, early and often. I haven't packed a suitcase for either of them since they were seven years old. I haven't done their laundry since they were 14. But I've loved being with them. They've grown into snarky, smart-mouthed, brilliant adults with strong opinions of their own, and good, trustworthy hearts, and I enjoy them so much right now. I don't wish them to stay--I want them to grow up as they should--but I didn't think they'd be leaving quite so soon.

We got back from our trip to Switzerland, with our daughter, at 7:30 at night. At 5:30 the next morning she left to teach at a riding camp several hours away. She packed herself, drove herself, got the job because she's already proven herself a good instructor, calm and patient and knowledgeable. She was gone a whole week. It was like practice for college, sort of. She managed crises and frightened small children and recalcitrant ponies.

She came home Sunday and this morning she left again. She's off to the United States' Pony Club's Eastern Championships, for something like the sixth year in a row, but the first year without me. She's not riding this year; she's stable manager for one of our region's eventing teams. She doesn't need me. She went to Target last night and came back with a new toothbrush (for scrubbing stirrup pads), a lint roller, wet wipes, a black polo shirt, and a whole bunch of other things. This morning she printed out all the custom stall cards she's made for her team, and she packed her car, and while I've been at Bristol Faith in Action, working my usual shift, she's driven to Johnson City, picked up a friend, and headed off to North Carolina.

Meanwhile I'll be here, practicing, learning the lessons my children are teaching me: that they really are ready to fly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Stealing from Sophie

I'm stealing from Sophie Blackall today. Sophie's the Caldecott-winning illustrator of Finding Winnie and my future friend. She might not know that yet, but it's true. I like Australians. (That's a family joke; it would take too long to explain.) This weekend she was featured in a little Q & A in the New York Times book section, and today, fresh out of ideas for this blog, I'm stealing the format. I'm afraid my answers might not be as interesting as Sophie's, but hey, we can't all be that interesting. Here goes.

READING: I've usually got about six books going at once. I'm still working on Naomi Novik's final Temeraire novel, which is a bit of a shock given how quickly I devoured the first ones. I read an ARC by Juliana Gray called A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, which I thought was extraordinary indeed, though frustrating as since it isn't even being published until October I'll have to wait extra-long for the promised sequel. I'm reading The Long Weekend, about life in English country houses between the wars--that's more-or-less research--and a book called Fluent that explains how to learn a foreign language really well. Every time I travel to another country I'm ashamed of my monoglot language skills. I'm going to do better.

LISTENING: I don't listen to anything while I'm writing. In my car right now I'm alternating between the soundtrack to Hamilton and a CD of Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Civil Rights movement, who has the most gorgeous full rich voice.

WATCHING: I am not really a tv or movie person. If I lived alone it's possible I would not have a tv. The last thing I sat down to watch on purpose was Season Six of Downton Abbey, which I saw last fall though an internet fake. My daughter watches Mythbusters and Doctor Who; my son sports and Dan Patrick talking about sports; my husband sports and cooking shows. We Tivo Survivor and Battlebots. It's not highbrow round here.

FOLLOWING: I love the Yarn Harlot. I'm a fan of Sarah Bessey. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda's tweets, and I pay attention to the Disability in Kid Lit blog, some of the School Library Journal blogs, and whatever my friends call my attention to on Facebook.

GOATS: Sophie Blackall, who lives in Brooklyn, confesses a longing for a goat. I live on a farm in east Tennessee, and I have had goats, and that will not happen again. My goats were 100-pound Angoras with huge curved pointy horns, and the idiot I got them from castrated them the same day he sheared them for the first time. This means that every time I had to shear them they were convinced I was trying to cut their balls off all over again. You've not lived until you've had a knockdown fight with an enormous raging stinky goat while wielding an electric machine capable of cutting your fingers off. Trust me, it's not as much fun as it sounds. I found my goats a good home elsewhere and do not regret it. Now it's possible that Sophie actually wants a goat like my neighbor's goats, which are tiny and cute and excellent jumpers. And hornless. And not shearable. That would be okay. But I'm done with goats, thank you.

PONIES: I've got 'em! Half a dozen, including the oldest surviving pony in Sullivan County! He's a cantankerous old coot, but better behaved than most goats. Sophie, come visit! I'll take you riding! And thanks for this blog.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

In Search of the Matterhorn

So we were in Switzerland, and my husband especially very much wanted to see the Matterhorn. That's the big odd-shaped peak that looms over Zermatt. Unfortunately the weather forecast for our two days in the Alps was atrocious: high of 50, low of 30, rain, rain, rain, and then they actually said Zermatt would get a couple of inches of snow.

My husband moaned. He apologized for the weather. He was sorry he'd planned the trip so that our two days in the Alps would be the two days of the trip when no one could see any mountains. He talked about the weather until my daughter and I shut him up. We can't change the weather so we might as well have a nice vacation anyhow.

Lauterbrunnun was raining, and there weren't any BASE jumpers (Lauterbrunnun is famous for being a place where people jump off cliffs and see how long they can free-fall before triggering their parachute, and still survive) but there were waterfalls. Up at Murren we walked all around the town, but skipped the high peaks. The next day, as I've already recounted, we left early for Zermatt. We took that crazy tunnel-train and ended up in unexpected sunshine. It was cold, but clear.

You can't drive all the way into Zermatt, which is at the end of a box canyon. You can take a train, or you can drive to Tausch and take a taxi from there. We taxied into town on a one-lane road (one lane for both directions, with occasional passing spots; the taxi drivers are pros but I wouldn't try it) then met, at a lot on the outskirts of Zermatt, a little electric car that shuttled us to our hotel.

Now you can't see any of the mountain peaks, not even the Matterhorn, from the streets of Zermatt: it's too steeply in the valley, and the buildings block the view. Our hotel actually sat atop a cliff above the town--it was excellent, the little electric car drove at this rock wall which opened into a little cave, very James Bond, and then there was an escalator that went up to the hotel. But even then, no view: our room faced the back wall. It was a "rock view." For ten times as much money we could have booked the "Tower Suite" which promised a view of the Matterhorn, but trust me, the rock view was pricey enough.

The hoteliers in Switzerland all seem to be competing for Hotel of the Year. This one immediately offered us a complementary welcome beverage in the bar. We declined, because we'd checked the radar, and knew the sunshine wouldn't last. If we were going to see that pesky Matterhorn we had to get up the mountainside now.

It was about one o'clock. We took the escalator to the town, walked to the Rotshorn station, took this weird cogwheel train inside a mountain upwards, then a cable car, then a gondola, until we were at the top of the place said to give us the best view of the Matterhorn. And there it was.

Sort of. It was cloudy-ish. Clouds were scudding across the sky, and they seemed to get caught on the Matterhorn's steep sides and sort of linger there. We sat outside at the restaurant on the peak and ordered lunch and some wine, and sat with blankets across our laps (the restaurant provided the blankets) and eventually we'd seen most of the Matterhorn, in pieces, one bit revealed by the changing cloud cover at a time.

It was maybe 50 degrees up there, mostly sunny, not unpleasant. I was wearing a long-sleeved jacket with a sweatshirt over it. (True story: on the gondola ride down, a man looked at my sweatshirt and said, "Does that say Poly Prep?" "Yes." "The school in New York?" "Yes." "In Brooklyn?" "Yes. I spoke there and they gave me this sweatshirt." The man; "I live next door to it." Small world.) Anyway, I went inside to use the toilet and when I came out it had dropped 15 degrees and started to snow. Actual snow. (It never accumulated in town. I don't know if it did on the mountaintop.)

We reversed our journey--gondola to cable car to train to walking to escalator to hotel. It was a bit before dinner still, and my daughter and I lobbied for the hot tub. A few of the hotels we stayed in had very nice spa facilities and we never used them, because who has time? I've seen spas; I've never been to Switzerland before. But in this one case, a hot tub--an outdoor hot tub--sounded really good. So we put on our suits and padded outside, and there it was.

The Matterhorn. A picture-perfect view. For a moment there were no clouds at all. Then clouds came and went, as they had before, only smaller ones, and we were much closer. My daughter ran inside for her camera. My husband and I sat in the hot tub, sat for an hour, and looked at the Matterhorn, and laughed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How We Ended Up Driving Onto a Train

-We woke up one morning in Murren, a lovely little hamlet perched on a cliff above Lauterbrunnun, and it was cloudy as all get-out, but not actually raining. We'd planned to take a cable car from Murren to the Alpine summit of Schilthorn, but, fortunately (because the cable car ride was expensive) we could check a tv channel in our hotel room and confirm that the summit was entirely encased in clouds. The view was zero. So we gathered our things and headed for Zermatt.

Zermatt is where the Matterhorn is. We really wanted to see some of these famous Alpine peaks, but unfortunately the weather was not on our side. It had been scorching hot and ferociously sunny in Zurich and Lucerne, then rainy and cloudy and cold in the Alps. The forecast for our day in Zermatt included snow (and it did snow--but that's another story). Anyhow, we left Murren, took a train to a cable car to our rental car, parked in a lot in Lauterbrunnun, then set our GPS for Zermatt and found, to our surprise, that the trip was expected to take 3 hours. We'd been told it took two. Also our GPS seemed to have us going in the opposite direction we expected.

We checked a map in one of our guidebooks, and then, confused, consulted the GPS on our phones. (Our phones couldn't make calls in Switzerland, but our rental car had Wi-Fi so we could connect to the internet.) My phone showed the trip taking 2 hours in the direction we expected. Well, good. We set out that way, ignoring the regular GPS's repeated attempts to get us to turn around.

The road went up, and up, and up. It twisted and turned. I imagine many Americans would have gotten a little freaked out by it, but we live a few miles from a section of Highway 421 called The Snake, and it's worse, so we were okay. Also the Swiss seem to like enormously thick, secure guardrails, which I appreciate.

The road went up. We kept going. We could see no reason at all for our car GPS to keep telling us to turn around. I messed with Google maps on my phone, and the route seemed impressively straightforward, even if there were a lot of hairpin turns. There was plenty of traffic, and no treacherous road signs.

Then, suddenly, we saw signs for a toll station. Oh. Perhaps our GPS was set to avoid tolls. We checked. Nope, it wasn't. Whatever. We stopped at the toll booth where we were told a complete torrent of things in German, the only part of which we understood was that we had to pay 27 Swiss francs, which is essentially 27 dollars. We paid, and were handed a leaflet wholly in German that seemed to carry a bunch of warnings about something we did not in any way understand.

Ahead of us the traffic had stopped. Cars were lined up head-to-tail sideways-on to what seemed to be another tunnel entrance. Everyone looked relaxed. We were grateful to be pretty far back in the line, because we had no idea at all what we were getting ourselves into.

The cars began to move forward. We moved with them. The cars went up a ramp, and turned, and so did we, and before we knew it we were driving onto a train. Onto the bed of freight cars, to be exact. A young man in an orange vest motioned us forward. Helpful signs in multiple languages told us to put the car in park and set the parking brake. We did.

The train started moving into the tunnel. It accelerated until we were flying along, in absolute darkness, faster than we'd ever safely drive. It went for miles. Fifteen? Twenty? My husband and I looked at each other and laughed.

Our GPS had been set to "no ferries." Apparently riding your car on a train through the world's longest mountain tunnel counts as being ferried. The things we never knew.

The train emerged on the other side of whatever mountain that was. The clouds had blown clear. We could see the sun--and Zermatt was only 20 minutes away.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Boats, Gondolas, and Cable Cars

When I went to yoga yesterday, one of the women in my class asked, "Is Switzerland as clean as everyone says?"

"Yes," I said. I have no idea how they do it. The streets are clean, the train stations are clean, the public bathrooms are clean (and, in some cases, self-cleaning: one by the famous lion statue in Lucerne actually automatically cleaned itself when you opened the stall door. I suppose in case you forgot to flush.). Switzerland is about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combine; in our time there, we visited most of the major areas, including the cities of Zurich, Lucerne, Geneva, and Bern, and, looking back, I realize I never once saw a panhandler or a person sleeping rough, not in train stations, public parks, not anywhere. I've never before been in a major city where this is true. I'm not sure what that means--whether Switzerland takes better care of their poor and mentally ill, or whether they're just better at hiding them than the rest of us. I can say that the place is very clean.

Also the Swiss love summer. They love growing things. They hang window boxes full of flowers all over their houses--not just in the tourist areas, but anywhere you go. They have some of the most meticulously-maintained garden plots I've ever seen, and they seem willing to stick gardens anywhere. There were vegetable gardens and chicken runs in the middle of Zermatt, a fancy Alpine skiing village roughly akin to Vail or Aspen, except I'm pretty sure they don't allow chickens in Vail, and nobody gives up prime real estate in Aspen to grow potatoes. They were making hay anywhere and everywhere grass would grow--city parks, whatever--and if the field wasn't big enough to justify baling the hay they just raked it up and stuffed a small barn full of it.

I'd heard before that you could set your watch by Swiss trains, and I'm here to tell you it's true. If the train is scheduled to leave at 6:11, its brakes will release softly as the second hand swoops past the 12 on the station clock. 6:11 precisely. Everyone buys tickets but they're only rarely checked--apparently the fine for not having a ticket is big enough to deter freeloaders. Once, however, we accidentally sat in the first-class section of a ferry despite having only bought second-class tickets. (I didn't know there were two classes on boat to begin with.) The ticket-checker said, in excellent English, (the number of Swiss people with excellent English is staggering, and embarrassing, as was the fact that they seemed to all switch to English as soon as they looked at me), "Buy an upgrade, or move downstairs." (We moved downstairs. The view there was even more interesting, because the ferry was actually a steam-powered paddlewheel boat, over 100 years old, and we moved down by the wheel. I never knew they turned so fast.)

The Swiss love the outdoors, their mountains, their "Wanderwegs," (posted walking trails), but they're also nuts about modern technology, and this means they put very good roads where no sane nation would even try. Mountains? Heck, just dig a hole through 'em. I've never seen so many tunnels. Never imagined a place would try to dig so many tunnels. And maintain them. Beautifully. Then, because all the Swiss want to enjoy the mountains, and more importantly want all the tourists to enjoy the mountains, they find ways of hauling people up the mountains.

We rode the steepest cogwheel train in existence to the top of Mount Pilatus. We rode a local train up Mount Rigi, slowing at various mailboxes along the way to drop off mail. (Each bundle squarely tied with white twine.) We rode another cogwheel train in Zermatt that stayed wholly inside a mountain. We rode gondolas and cable cars and learned to tell the difference, though we're still not clear why you would sometimes build a gondola and sometimes a cable car. We rode two different elevators up inside a mountain, one to get to our hotel from a James-Bond sort of cave, and one to be able to walk around inside the mountain perilously near a massive waterfall that crashes several hundred feet through a sort of sinkhole. My husband thinks human beings aren't supposed to get as close to that as we did.

We drove onto a train, purely accidentally. But that's a story for tomorrow.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Never The Whole Truth

This is a public service announcement.

I tell the truth on my blog, as far as I'm able. However, I have two caveats, one big, one small. The small one is that I'm a novelist; I tend to tell the best stories I can, which are not always completely accurate representations of What Actually Happened. I improve the details, shine up the dialogue. My children laugh and shake their heads.

The big caveat is that some stories are not mine to tell. You may notice that I never refer to my children by name on this blog. This isn't because their names are a mystery--wouldn't take much research to learn them, if you're curious and don't already know my kids--but because I don't want this blog to show up if someone searches their names. I don't think that's fair to them. I also don't run stories that feature them without their permission; if they ask me to edit or take down anything I do post, I do so immediately and without fuss. They don't ask to be written about. I use pseudonyms for other people I write about, most of the time; I consciously change or obscure details when I write about friends.

But even then, and even when I make a commitment to myself to tell the truth as far as possible in everything I write about myself, I am never telling the whole truth. I am never pretending or claiming that I do.

Truth is complicated. Truth varies by point of view. More importantly, some truths are not mine to share. They may be part mine or a tiny bit mine or not mine at all but interesting blog fodder, and I don't share them. I value my friends and their stories more than I value this blog. I always will.

I'm saying this because I know that lately the blog has been All Good News. It's been a happy festival of ALA and my books and lots of interesting travel. I got home last night from a week in Switzerland and I'll be blogging about that, because it was interesting and fun. I learned a lot in Switzerland. I learn a lot every time I travel anywhere.

And yet this isn't the whole story, not by a large part. Some difficult things are happening on the edges of my world. They aren't for the blog. They never will be. I just want to acknowledge here and now that the happy stories I've been putting up are not the only stories, not for me and not for anyone. They're simply the stories I'm free to tell.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

ALA Post 6: Librarians are My Superheroes

When I heard about the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, just before ALA, I wanted to do something to show my grief and concern. I bought a bunch of rainbow ribbon and planned to hand it out at the Penguin Random House booth. Turns out I wasn't even remotely the only person with that idea: ALA itself had bowls full of rainbow memorial ribbons set out at registration and all over the conference.

I went to the memorial service on Friday morning, an hour before the exhibit hall opened. It was packed. Members of ALA's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Roundtable spoke. Members of Reforma, the Latino ALA affliate group, spoke. Congressman John Lewis spoke. A full theatre of people listened.

After the service I went to the Banned Books Read-Aloud Booth. They were filming anyone who wanted to stop by and read a passage from their favorite banned book; the videos will be shown online during Banned Book Week in September. I read from TWTSML. I haven't heard of its being banned yet, but I've gotten some one-star reviews solely because the character Susan is gay and honestly? children are going to grow up knowing gay people exist. My daughter read the opening page of Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

I've always considered librarians my personal superheroes because books have always been a refuge for me. Only recently have I started to see that librarians are superheroes for us all. They're supporting banned books. They're supporting all books. They're filling public buildings with books and information, free to anyone, everywhere. They're running teen programs in inner cities. They're creating safe spaces for their patrons.

In my own home town, when they rebuilt the library, they added a row of computers that can access the internet, for people who don't have computers at home. They expanded the room they provide for the Adult Literacy Lab. They built a lovely children's department and just expanded the teen section because our teen program is the third-largest in the entire state of Tennessee.

My hometown library has a circular atrium with gas fireplaces in its center, facing out, so that you can sit in comfortable chairs in a circle around the fires. In cool weather the fireplaces are always lit. Homeless people come in every day and read the newspapers in those chairs. I once fell asleep in one of them, sound asleep for an hour, a book open on my lap and drool running down my chin.

The librarians saw me, but they didn't wake me. They figured I needed to sleep, and they're in the business of giving.

Monday, July 11, 2016

ALA, Post 5: Matt & Vicki & Pam & me.

We will always be the Newbery class of 2016: Matt & Vicki & Pam & me. I'd never met any of them before this year's ALA, and even though I got to speak with them and hang out with them a bit, it was nearly always at official functions. I would have loved to have snuck off for some private time with them, loved to have sat down and really gotten to know them, but that'll have to wait for a time when we don't have green room receptions and offical booksignings and, in the case of Matt and Vicki, toddlers.

Still. We're a team now. At a dinner on Saturday night Vicki said that winning a Newbery Honor gave her, gave us, a platform: that now what we wrote and said would be looked at more closely. We are now granted the gift of greater attention, so it's up to us to create things that deserve that attention.

Matt's wonderful Newbery speech ran along similar lines. He's half-Mexican, half-white; he asked why we see schools of brown kids reading The Catcher in the Rye but never see schools full of white kids reading Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass. He recalled being told at a school that while the librarian liked his books, the school didn't have "that kind" of student there.

Vicki wrote about strong girls navigating middle school friendships and roller derby. Pam wrote about music and magic. I wrote about war and family and healing. All of us wrote about differences and unity, something the world of children's books needs more now than ever.

Matt wrote in the copy of Last Stop that he signed for me: "To a fellow witness."

You bet. I can't wait to see what I write now. What we all write from here.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

ALA, Post 4: A Place in the Picture

After the amazing buzz of the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder banquet, after listening to Sophie Blackall and Jerry Pinkney and Matt de la Pena give absolutely fantastic speeches (they're online as audiofiles), my friend Vicky Smith grabbed me by the hand and we ran for the women's room as fast as we could.

That's because the banquet ends with a receiving line, and I was supposed to stand in it.

Every awardee at the banquet had been assigned an American Library Services for Children (ALSC) board member as a handler and assistant. Vicky asked to be assigned to me, because even though up until that night we had never actually met, we are old good friends. She's the Children's Editor for Kirkus, and I'm one of her reviewers (I just outed myself; a few of my friends reading this are not gonna be happy. Sorry, guys. I promise that if I know the author personally I never ever review his or her books, so don't blame anything on me. Really.). Vicky and I have corresponded for years. She sends me the most delicious honey. Like most writers, I'm a crashing introvert, though a chatty one, and the receiving line became a lot less daunting with Vicky by my side.

But, as I said, being sensible women, we ran to the restroom first. There an even more quick-thinking ALSC board member was guarding the door, keeping out anyone that wasn't Sophie Blackall, Ekua Holmes, Pam Munoz Ryan, Victoria Jamieson, or me, so that we could go and get the receiving line started. Then we went out into the enormous foyer adjoining the ballroom and stood where we were instructed to stand, and people lined up to shake our hands. Really, they did.

They lined up for hours. Actual hours. I was at the very top of the line, next to Matt and his handler, Ernie Cox (who was also chair of the Newbery Committee), and every so often I'd lean back and see how long the line still was, and it was always the same length. It never got longer or shorter. Eventually I figured out that this was because, for most of the banquet attendees, this was not their first rodeo. Some left right away, and some got in line for the receiving line right away, but plenty more stayed inside the ballroom, visiting friends and finishing up the wine that had been set out on all the tables (2 bottles each of red, white, and champagne, per table, times 100 tables). No one was in a hurry. Everyone was having fun. ALSC members went down the line and brought everyone drinks, and then eventually set up little banquet tables behind the line so we had somewhere to put our glasses down, and even longer after that my editor brought me two glasses of water, which I shared with Ernie.

At some point I grabbed Vicky's wrist and lifted it to look at her watch. (I wasn't wearing mine.) I blinked and tried to rotate her wrist--the numbers weren't making sense to me. "No," Vicky said, "That's right. It really is 12:30."

I didn't check when the receiving line started, but it was somewhere around 10:00, possibly as late as 10:30. And 12:30 was not the end. The end came a titch after 1:00.

By that time I'd met librarians from all around the country. I met librarians from Alaska. I shook hands with Sara Pennypacker, and Lynne Rae Perkins, and CeCe Bell. I never got to speak to Kevin Henkes, who was standing in the Caldecott section of the receiving line, but I met his wife and told her how much my children loved Lily's Purple Plastic Purse. It was a giant lovefest of children's books, and I was so honored, so incredibly happy to be standing there.

When the receiving line finished, ALSC asked us awardees to pose for a photograph. They set out chairs and arranged us all. You can see many slight variants of this photograph online, because about fifty people actually snapped pictures. In every single one, the ten of us look, for a group of writers and artists, remarkably relaxed. That's because none of us had any muscle tone left. It was already morning.

In the back row: Sophie Blackall, Caldecott winner for Finding Winnie; Kevin Henkes, Caldecott honor for Waiting; Brian Collier, Caldecott Honor for Trombone Shorty; Christian Robinson, Caldecott Honor for The Last Stop on Market Street; Matt de la Pena, Newbery winner for The Last Stop on Market Street. Front row: Pam Munoz Ryan, Newbery Honor for Echo; Victoria Jamieson, Newbery Honor for Roller Girl; Ekua Holmes, Caldecott Honor for Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; Jerry Pinkney, Laura Ingalls Wilder honoree for lifetime achievement in the field--and me, for The War That Saved My Life.

I can't tell you how cool it felt, to be in that photograph. Sitting next to Jerry Pinkney, for heaven's sake.

I was too buzzed to go to sleep. A group of us went in search of the only bar in the giant hotel complex still open at 1:30 in the morning. I slid out of my dress sometime after two, slid into bed, and slept fast, because I had a book signing less than eight hours away.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

ALA, Post Three: That Dress (Contains a photo!)

Warning: highly superficial post ahead.

If you met me at ALA, you met the ALA version of myself. The Bristol version of myself wears yoga pants or riding tights; the ALA version wears dresses. Bristol version: Dansko clogs. ALA version: high heels until I wrecked a heel on the escalator and gave up and wore my Wonder Woman Chuck Taylor hi-tops. (I passionately adore my WWCTHTs. But I can't wear them around the farm: they're white canvas.) Bristol version: scrubbed, possibly sweaty. ALA version: makeup. ALA version: Spanx. Bristol version: not.

This is partially because I want to present a professional and pulled-together public face, and partially because I don't get big excuses to dress up very often. If you read this blog--and at ALA I met a number of you who do--you already read the four-part saga that was my ultimately successful quest for the perfect Newbery Banquet ball gown. I'm here to tell you now, it was absolutely a success.

Please understand that the dress code for the Newbery banquet is pretty much whatever you want it to be. Betsy Byrd made a dress out of old cards from a library card catalog. Vicki Jamieson, one of my partners in crime, who also took to social media to describe her dress shopping experience, wore a lovely print frock that looked exactly right on her. Ekua Holmes had a regal floor-length dress with a tie-dyed edging (if you think "regal" and "tie-dye" can't coexist, you're simply incorrect). Sophie Blackall went with black lace. Pam Ryan wore a wide full skirt with a beautiful fuschia sash.

I loved putting on my dress. I loved every moment of wearing it. I hated the shoes, on the other hand, with a passion that increased every moment they were on my feet. Which was not very long. If you were at the banquet (a thousand people sat down to dinner; more came just to hear the speeches) you saw me walk up the steps to the stage (dress sparkling in the spotlight, murmur of approval rising from the crowd), shake hands with the Newbery committee chair, pose for a photo, and walk back down. Immediately thereafter I removed my shoes. One of the great things about wearing a floor-length dress is that no one realized I was barefoot for the receiving line.

I am not a glamorous person. I don't have a glamorous shape. I don't actually aspire to glamour. But for one night I wanted to be beautiful in a long sparkly dress, and for one night I was. "If you chose that dress for yourself," one of my new friends said, "then I entirely trust your sense of fashion."

I have a sense of fashion! Who knew?

Note: the photo was taken at home, this afternoon, without benefit of makeup, fancy hair, jewelry, or Spanx.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

ALA: Post Two, The Sweetness of the Schneider Award

I'm still ruminating on my whole ALA experience, and all it meant for me and my fellow children's book lovers. One thing I did not expect was how personal and sweet it ended up feeling to have won the Schneider Award.

The Schneider Family Award for Disability Representation is one of the newest of ALA's awards, having been started in 2004. It is presented to books in three age groups: picture books, middle grades, and young adult. The winners must have primary or secondary characters dealing with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities in a ways that are realistic, non-pitying, and integral to the story. Books which end in death are generally disqualified.

 I'd been aware of the Schneider since its inception, I knew TWTSML would be qualified for it, and of course I knew I would love to win it, but Fish In A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt was a strong contender in middle grades this year so I didn't get my hopes up too far. To my joy, both Lynda and I won: for the first time ever, the committee voted to give the Schneider to two middle grades novels this year. The YA award went to The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, about a support group for teens with OCD, and the picture book award went to Emmanuel's Dream, about a young man born with a non-functioning leg who changed public perception of the disabled in his home country of Ghana.

For some reason the Schneider is treated a little bit differently than other ALA youth media awards. The Odyssey has its own ceremony. The Newbery, Caldecott, and Wilder are given out at a huge banquet, the highlight o.f the convention. The Coretta Scott King, Printz, and Siebert are given out together at a breakfast. The Schneider was given mid-afternoon, as part of a very large ceremony that otherwise recognized specific libraries, librarians, and library programs. We were the only book people there. We were called onstage, read a citation, and given a really beautiful framed certificate that detailed why the committee chose our work. (We also each got a check: this award has a cash prize.)

I thought it was really nice. Then, the next day, I went to the Schneider Award Luncheon, and I understood so much more.

The luncheon was just the committee members, a few ALA officers, the award winners and their families. We'd all met the day before, and we were comfortable, having a nice time, laughing and talking. Then someone put Dr. Katherine Schneider on the phone.

She's the person who conceived and funded the Schneider award. Before the luncheon, I didn't know a thing about her. Did not know her name. Turns out she was born blind, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the late 1940s. Not only did she become the first blind student to graduate from public high school in Kalamazoo, she did so as valedictorian and National Merit Scholar. She earned her PhD in psychology from Purdue University and taught at the University of Wisconsin until her recent retirement.

She loved to read, but, growing up, could never find books about children like herself. In an interview with ALA published two years ago, she says, "Growing up as a blind kid, there was very little available. Not only was there very little available in Braille  or on records back then, but the images of people with disabilities  that were out there in literature, the little lame prince, Louis Braille,  Helen Keller and the seven blind men that went to see the  elephant, that was it.
"Now, Louis Braille, Helen Keller, Very cool. Dead people. And the seven blind men who  went to see the elephant….yes, I know, that was an analogy. But that's not what  kids get out of  it. Kids get out of it that blind people are stupid. They don't know what an elephant looks like. And I know that's what they get out of it, because that's what they said to me out on the  playground.”
Dr. Schneider told us she was delighted that more and more children's books now feature kids with disabilities. She considers her award a success. I'm absolutely thrilled to have my work honored by her and her committee;

Friday, July 1, 2016

OK, ALA: Post One: The Odyssey

My siblings and their families are not coming to my annual Fourth of July soiree this year, and both were a little concerned I might not understand why. HA. Three days post-ALA (that's the American Library Association mid-summer conference, for you Muggles), and I've just started doing the laundry. Yesterday I didn't write, not even a blog post. I did ridiculous amounts of self-care--a trip to the dentist, yoga, a massage, a ride, lunch with my husband, and the pleasure of cooking chicken curry for dinner. I love eating chicken curry and inexplicably also love cooking it. Then my husband, daughter, and I watched three hours of Battlebots. It was brilliant. All this recharging and I don't even have preschool aged children anymore--and my brother and sister travel for work all the time. Yeah, sibs. You're good. You were never on the hook in the first place.

Anyway. I've got gobs to post about ALA. The biggest thing I got from my three days there--even bigger than the Newbery Honor--was the tremendous sense of community and responsibility among my fellow children's book lovers. I live in a small town in east Tennessee. I don't connect to the larger world of literature very often. But I am home there, and it's good to be reminded of it.

On Monday the audio of The War That Saved My Life was given the Odyssey Award for best children's audio book of the year. (The awards were all announced in January and physically given out now.) I have loved the audio of my book from the start, but didn't have any clear idea how it stacked up against the competition, so I was pleasantly surprised when it won. Then I met the committee on Monday, and was blown away.

The Odyssey committee listened to 500 audio books this year. Each. They listened to audio books to the tune of several hours per day, every day, all year. The amount of dedication this committee poured into this award stunned me. (By the way, guys--the poster you all signed and left on my place at the podium? I bought a cardboard mailing tube so I could bring it home without crushing it. Once I get it framed it's going up in my hall.) You can't skim an audio book; they listened to the whole of every single one. Amazing.

My book was narrated by the indomitable, extremely talented Jayne Entwistle. I've loved Jayne from the start. I would love her for Susan's voice alone. But then I met her, by chance in the convention hall, and loved her even more. Then we sat together at the podium for the Odyssey while the audio of Echo got the honor--the runner-up--it was so good--and then Jayne got up to talk about TWTSML, and then we both fell apart.

The first time I listened to the audio of my own book, I couldn't quit crying. I would be driving around Bristol running errands with tears pouring down my face. Couldn't help it. The voices Jayne gave my story were exactly the voices I always heard in my own head, writing. That never happens, particularly when the book is set in England where very subtle things differentiate, say, Susan's Oxbridge educated accent and Lady Thorton's upper-class one.

Turns out Jayne nailed it for two reasons. One, she's brilliant. I knew that. Two--I didn't know this part--the story filled her. By merest chance the Listening Library producer found a narrator who loved my book the way I love it, and who gave my characters her heart.

Jayne got up to the podium and gave a speech that included the words, "Do not cry," as an admonishment to herself. But she cried anyhow. She's not an especially leaky person. Nor am I. But then Jayne read chapter six of the book--read it from four feet away from me--and it was like I was hearing the story all over for the first time, perfectly told, the way I'd want to tell it and never could.

I was onstage in front of 200 people. I covered my face with my hands, pressing my fingertips over my eyes beneath my glasses. I held very still. I tried not to sob out loud. My editor said later that it looked like I was simply listening very very hard, but my family knew I was crying. They cried too. Jayne cried. We all cried. It was a very wet ceremony.

The producer responsible for the audio received the actual Odyssey medal. I left feeling like I'd won the real prize. Jayne, you found the soul of my book and made it sing. Love you.