Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Quick Update

Very quick, because I can hear that my son's upstairs in the shower (his bathroom is directly above my office) and when he's done we're going shopping. I was trying to work on my novel, but have given it up after about 50 words and several internet excursions, one of which was actually research. (Arabic boys' names that American children can pronounce: go!)

People keep asking me if I'm ready for Christmas. It's a common enough phrase--are you finished buying gifts, sending cards (I don't send cards anymore), wrapping gifts, cooking, traveling, receiving travelers, whatever it is you're doing? No one means, are you ready for the holy day? Are you ready for hope in the midst of the darkest part of the year? I'm being a little philosophical here--it's the mood I'm in--but I like to think I'm mostly ready for both. It's been an odd year, but a very good one. My son's home now, and my daughter comes home tomorrow. I know we won't always get this much time together, as they continue into their adult lives, and I'm grateful to the point of driving them crazy. Yesterday I was Facetiming my daughter, who's immersed in final exams, and she said rather bitterly that it was amazing how I could hover from more than 500 miles away.

It's a skill I've honed.


I am behind on my thank-you notes for everyone who has sent me books. Books, books, books--it's been amazing. Really, really, good, and I'm really, really, grateful. I've decided to make this a full-time project--I'm in the very beginning stages of creating a full-fledged charity to put more books into the hands of low-income Appalachian schoolchildren. I'll keep you all updated as that proceeds, but for now--the library in the afterschool program is looking awesome. I'm about halfway through the weeding and I've gotten about half the new books onto the shelves, and they're being checked out and read, which is awesome. If you see on my Amazon wishlist some stuff that doesn't look like Quality Children's Literature--say, for example, Fly Guy, which I have no objections to but which isn't on my personal top ten--some of those are specific requests from the children.

The other afterschool program now has a lot more books that reflect the diversity of the students there. The elementary school has a lot more books.  There is a lot of work to do--and honestly, a lot more places to put books--but what's happening so far is tremendous, and it makes me very, very glad. And also hopeful. So there. I guess I am ready for Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

Today a friend thanked me for posting the titles of books I liked on Facebook. I was actually already thinking about doing a book list blog post, so here you are.

Two years ago I started writing down the titles of every book I read all the way through. For 2017, so far, I have 196 books. Not bad considering that the first few months I was hampered by a concussion and the last few by a book tour. If I counted partially-read books there'd be a lot more. I'm not going to list them all. I see that I started 2017 with a run on bodice-ripper romances by Jo Beverly--no shame  there, but you can find those on your own.

Anyway here are my favorites. I mostly didn't put the author down when I wrote the list, and I'm not going to go searching for it, but I will put the genre after each book.

Mayday  (middle grades)
Freedom in Congo Square (picture book)
Refugee (middle grades)
*The Haunting of Falcon House (middle grades)
*Midnight at the Electric (young adult)
Radiant Child (picture book)
the Maisie Dobbs detective series, all 13 of them (adult)
Olive Kitteredge (adult)
Wolf in the Snow (picture book)
*Textbook, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (adult)
*The Pearl Thief (young adult)
The Other Boy (middle grades)
The Jane Austen Project (adult)
The Poet's Dog (middle grades)
The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (young adult)
Jane Austen at Home (adult non-fiction)
*All's Faire in Middle School (graphic novel, middle grades)
*The Hate U Give (young adult)
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook (middle grades)
*One Crazy Summer (middle grades)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (young adult)
*Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (young adult)
*Evicted (adult non-fiction)
*Dear Martin (young adult)
*Long Way Down (young adult)
The Night Diaries (middle grades)
Heating and Cooling (adult non-fiction)
*The 57 Bus (young adult)
La La La (picture book)
Piecing Me Together (young adult)
Ms. Bixby's Last Day (middle grades)

I only selected books I really liked. I left off mass-market adult paperbacks, like Jo Beverly. I read a lot of books for research this year and I'm not listing any of those, either, although I quite enjoyed most of them. If I dislike a book I don't finish it unless I'm reviewing it and have to. I didn't really read that many picture books this year, but when I did I read really good ones. I made a conscious effort to seek out more middle-school and YA books with non-white narrators and was really happy I did. I don't have a lot of diversity in the adult novels I read, and that's something I'll work on in future.

I've starred my absolute favorites, the ones that really stuck with me, that I thought about over and over again. Of those, my most favorites: Textbook. Amy Krouse Rosenthal was an intellect like no other, and oh, I miss her. All's Faire in Middle School. Victoria Jamison is so, so good at recreating middle school and giving us a lovable flawed character. The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas's startling debut. Worried it wouldn't live up to the hype, but wow, it did. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. This one's a couple of years old and wins the award for the book that surprised me the most this year. Meg Medina doesn't flinch. Loved it. The 57 Bus. Another debut. Dashka Slater's incredibly nuanced, honest reporting makes this perhaps my favorite nonfiction book ever, or at least, of my life so far.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

No Moore. No More!

I woke up in a sort of crummy mood this morning and stalked around the house muttering to myself about how first-world-privileged my issues were. The house is a mess and I've really not started preparing for Christmas, mostly because I was on vacation all last week with my husband, so you all can put the violins away, even those really tiny ones you play between your forefinger and thumb. My son doesn't know when he'll be home for Christmas yet, but he's happy about that--it's a long story, not mine.

My dog is dying. That's true, and I can't fix it. Also some people I love very much have very heavy burdens right now that simply can't be lifted, they have to be borne. So that's hard, and it's truthful, and those are legitimate reasons to be in sort-of crummy moods.

I opened today's Gospel in my email. The University of Notre Dame sends it to me every morning; I only read it sometimes. But today, wandering about my messy house with my ailing dog, seemed like a good one. And I read,"Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest."

No joke.

So that was good, but then the internet got even better. I opened Facebook, and my top post was from my dear friend and heart-sister Christa, who lives in Chicago. It said, "ALABAMA." And then a row of tiny hearts.

I don't have a political home--currently I pretty much dislike all politicians, and the only thing I'd absolutely vote for is term limits, other than absolutely voting that NO SEXUAL PREDATOR EVER BE IN A PLACE OF POWER AGAIN.

I mean, I know that's not realistic. As someone in my yoga class said the other day, there isn't an adult woman in America who hasn't been harassed at the very least. But for so long, sexual assault was discounted, disregarded, disbelieved. Unimportant. And finally, finally, that's starting to change.

Once, when I was already an adult, a friend told me how when she was a little girl, she stayed overnight at a neighbor's and the dad exposed himself to her. She went home and told her mother, her mother pressed charges, and the man was arrested. And I was dumbfounded. You could go to jail? Really? I knew that showing your naked penis to a six-year-old was bad, and technically against the law, but for someone to actually get called on it completely blew me away. I didn't know that was possible. I didn't believe it could happen.

And that was maybe ten years ago.

It's not a party thing. Trump was (is?) a predator and so was (is?) Bill Clinton. Bill Cosby, Dustin Hoffman--don't know how they voted. I read a syndicated editorial the other day, written by a woman, with the title "The Martyrdom of Al Franken." I assumed going in that the title was satire, or sarcasm, but no--the writer really thought that what Al Franken did was "not that bad." That's true in the sense that exposing yourself to a six-year-old is better than making a six-year-old beat you off, which is better than raping the six-year-old, but it's all degrees of stuff that is absolutely wrong, and I'm really proud to live in a place that is not going to put up with that any more.

My husband dislikes the amount of profanity used by my new favorite blogger, Katie at He thinks it overwhelms her message, which is mostly, quit assaulting women you assholes. I think it's the perfect amount of profanity, because after all these years, we are finally allowed to be angry. We are saying exactly what we want to say, because we finally, oh Lord, finally, can.

And predator by predator, we'll call them out, as much as we can. Our daughters won't have to be silent. Our granddaughters won't freeze in shock and horror. It won't be acceptable any more.

So yeah, I'm in a better mood now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Actions Have Consequences

When my children were small, one of the ideas I tried hard to instill in them was that their actions had consequences--both good and bad.  I tried not to protect them from the natural consequences of small mistakes because I preferred they suffered from small mistakes before they got to catastrophic ones. I actually can think of lots of examples, sitting here as I type this, and I'm not going to tell you any of them, because when I start telling what I think are amusing little stories about my children without their permission they get angry. And then I have to face the consequences of being my inappropriate on the internet. That's nailed me before, and I have learned my lesson. See? It works.

Which would be the point.

So. Yesterday I got an email from someone who recently read The War I Finally Won. He wrote, "I am a children’s trauma therapist and you got it right. " 

Thank you. I know I did.

Also yesterday I got an online review from another person who recently read The War I Finally Won. She wrote--I can't find it right now, so not quoting, but this is about right--that she didn't understand why Ada was so whiny and ungrateful and didn't appreciate the way her life had changed for the better. I didn't post anything in response--of course I didn't, people are allowed to dislike my writing for any reason at all--but I thought, Trauma has consequences. When you abuse a child the effects last a very long time.

So. Over the weekend I shared something on Facebook about Roy Moore, the current Republican candidate for an Alabama senate seat, who's been accused of sexual assault on 14 year old girls, among other creepy behavior. I don't get to vote in the Alabama elections but I wanted to register my dislike of any candidate with a history of sexual misconduct. A woman friend of mine commented that I and anyone who agreed with me were wrong because it was not fair to condemn someone without proper trial, innocent until proven guilty and all that. Now, I watched the live interview from one of Roy Moore's alleged victims and I believe her entirely. (I almost always believe the women accusers because it is so damn hard to speak up about abuse, particularly when the accused is someone in power. It's so hard, and so important.)

I agree that innocent until proven guilty is a good law. But no one is suggesting we throw Roy Moore in jail. We can't, for one thing--the statute of limitations has passed. He's in no danger of incarceration. But prison and the United States Senate are two different things. We can say, hey, whatever the actual truth is, there's a whole lot of accusations floating around this man--a whole bunch of stories that all point to a similar truth, and if you assault fourteen year old girls when you are in your thirties, I will not vote for you for dogcatcher, much less the second-highest position in our state. Not even 40 years later. You shouldn't have done that. Your actions have consequences. Just because you got away with shit back then is no reason it shouldn't affect you now.

Then on Sunday the University of Tennessee leaked that it was about to hire Greg Schiano as its new head football coach. I live in Tennessee, and lots of my children's friends go or went to UT. My son's twitter, especially, began lighting up with students and recent alums who thought hiring Schiano was a terrible idea. He worked at Penn State during the time in which Jerry Sandusky was sexually assaulting a series of young boys. On Sunday someone at UT painted "Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State," on the giant graffiti rock on campus, and a whole lot of students protested, as did the governor of Tennessee and other state officials. UT decided not to hire Schiano. 

I went to lunch with some friends yesterday and was surprised that not all of us were pleased by the decision to avoid the man. One friend had been listening to a lot of sports talk radio, where a bunch of men heavily involved in college sports were using words like "lynch mob," thus proving that they had no idea what actual lynch mobs entailed. 

Schiano was never charged with crimes at Penn State. His involvement comes from this deposition, of Mike McQueary--we argued at lunch over whether or not the deposition was under oath. My internet says it was. Anyway, here it is:

During the deposition, McQueary said he once discussed Sandusky with another Penn State assistant, Tom Bradley, who most recently was an assistant coach at UCLA. He said Bradley was not surprised by what McQueary told him because Bradley had heard similar.
From the deposition:
Q: “Did [Bradley] tell you that he had had information concerning Gerald Sandusky and children?”
A: “He said he knew of some things. … He said another assistant coach had come to him in the early ’90s about a very similar situation to mine, and he said that he had — someone had come to him as far back as early as the ’80s about seeing Jerry Sandusky doing something with a boy.”
Q: “Did he identify who the other coaches were that had given him this information?”
A: “The one in the early ’90s, yes.”
Q: “And who was that?”
A: “Greg Schiano …”
Q: “And did he give you any details about what Coach Schiano had reported to him?”
A: “No, only that he had – I can’t remember if it was one night or one morning, but that Greg had come into his office white as a ghost and said he just saw Jerry doing something to a boy in the shower. And that’s it. That’s all he ever told me.”
What happened to that nameless boy after his assault in the shower? The effects of trauma are lifelong, severe, even deadly. No one even knows that boy's name.
In 2016, when the court documents were unsealed and this deposition became public, Schiano denied it was true. He said he had no knowledge whatsoever of Sandusky raping children. And that may be true. I personally doubt it--Roy Moore also says the allegations against him are false, as did Bill Cosby, as did Bill Clinton, etc.--but I agree, we can't throw him in prison for it. But even if he didn't have first-hand information, he was part of a program that turned a blind eye to Sandusky and the parade of children he brought into the locker rooms there. No one asked questions and everyone should have. And for that, I agree, I don't think he should get to be UT's head coach. He can go be an assistant coach somewhere. He can have a job. But his reputation is deservedly tainted: he doesn't get to be the highest-paid federal employee in the state of Tennessee. A long time ago he made bad choices and now he gets the consequences.
A few years ago a friend of mine accused a man I knew less well, but worked with on a charity board and very much liked, of sexual harassment. I was so grieved. I didn't want to believe that of him, but the alternative--that the woman was lying--made no sense to me. She was not in a position of power, she was someone I trusted--and I knew the courage it took for her to make that accusation.
Once she spoke up, other women did too. He had harassed a lot of women. He was entirely guilty.
Sometimes we don't want things to be true, but they are still true. Even long-ago actions have consequences. The way to not face consequences for harming women and children is to never harm women or children. That isn't hard. At least, it shouldn't be.
Also, if I ever again hear sportscasters, newscasters, or any voice of authority anywhere claiming that denying a rich white man the position that he craves is the action of a "lynch mob," I will puke. Go to Google Images. Type in "lynch mob." Ignore the photos of the inappropriately-named band, and look, really look, at the other photographs that come up. Right. Throw "lynch mob" into the bucket with "Nigger" as Words White People Don't Get To Say.
That's all I've got, but if you'd like to read another rant on this topic, may I suggest my dear Katykatikate? Only fair warning, she cusses in print a lot more than I do.

Monday, November 27, 2017

We Miss Ralph and Julie

So Thanksgiving weekend is over; my parents, my husband's parents, and both my darling children have all gone back to their regular lives. We had spent Wednesday night through Saturday morning together in our house in the mountains of North Carolina. It's always terrifically peaceful there, and we had a really nice holiday.

When I was a child, Christmas was a variable holiday--for several years my family went on vacation over it--and while it was always family-centered and enjoyable the details changed from year to year. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, was fixed: I could count on the menu (Grandma's baked apples, among many other things) and the venue and the people and even the after-dinner activities (a walk, then playing euchre partnered with my Great-uncle Paul) staying the same.

After I got married, and especially after I had children and moved south, the holidays reversed. Christmas became the one absolutely steeped in tradition (5 pm Christmas Eve Mass, make-you-own pizza for dinner, taking hours to unwrap the gifts one by one on Christmas morning) and Thanksgiving varied. Most years I cooked, though sometimes I didn't; sometimes family members came, sometimes they didn't; often we hosted friends. But we created one invariable Thankgiving weekend custom: on Saturday, we bought our Christmas tree. On Sunday, we decorated it.

In my hometown there's a vacant lot on the corner of Volunteer Parkway and Holston Drive. In spring the strawberry man sets up there. This time of year, it's Christmas trees. Twenty years ago was our very first Christmas in Bristol. We lived on Holston Drive, so the tree lot was only a block away. I was largely pregnant with my daughter and had a very excited not-quite-three-year-old son, so we were slightly memorable, I suppose, because the next year the sellers did remember us and were happy to see our lovely girl.

And every year it was the same. The Saturday after Thanksgiving. The gleeful excited children, the lovely stand of trees. When we moved out to the farm we increased our order, every year buying not only a tree, but also two large wreaths for the barn doors, and, starting a few years after that, seventeen very small wreaths to grace the windows wrapping our dining room and kitchen. The couple who ran the tree stand--we came to know them as Ralph and Julie--made the wreaths themselves, and they were well-constructed and economical. As the years went on they would often have our 17 small wreaths under a tarp behind the camper they parked on the lot, though some years one of their employees would sell them anyway, and we'd have to come back the next day to fill our order.

My son would always be wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt, and he and Ralph would discuss the football team. My children grew older and taller. One year my son could tell them that he'd just been accepted into Notre Dame; after that, they always asked him how he was doing there.

We probably only spent half an hour at the tree stand every year, but it was half an hour for 20 years, and that adds up. A few weeks ago I saw that the lights and tree stands and the trailer, though not yet the camper, were set up on the lot. I told my children that even though Thanksgiving was early this year I was sure the trees would be ready.

We came home from Linville, unhitched the truck--it's an old truck, it's been part of the day for 17 years--piled in, drove up the Volunteer Parkway--

--and the trees were sparse on the lot, not crammed together as they usually were. There were hardly any wreaths. The camper wasn't there--and neither was the giant blow-up snowman holding the sign that said, "Wolverton Mountain Christmas Trees." There wasn't any sign at all.

We stared. And then we slowly got out of the truck, and a man came up who wasn't Ralph. We asked where the usual people were. The man sighed, as though he'd already answered that question more than he cared to. "They got deployed," he said. "They aren't here this year."

Now I think I remember that both Ralph and Julie were in the reserves. And I get it that people's lives change. But it was still a blow to all of us. We wandered around the not-quite-right lot. "They want a hundred and fifteen dollars for a sixty-dollar tree," my husband said.  I said, "The smallest wreaths they have are too big."

We got back in the truck and drove aimlessly down the Parkway. We found another lot selling better trees for more reasonable prices, and we were able to buy a few wreaths, though not as many and not as good. We sat down to lunch strangely subdued. Ralph and Julie have become part of our lives; we care about them. "I'll see if I can send them an email through the farm website," I said. "I'll thank them for their service. Then I'll tell them to get back here and sell us a tree next year."

Monday, November 20, 2017

In Search of Hope...

So I'll tell you, I started the day by helping my vet castrate a cat on the tailgate of her pickup. It's possible I'm a redneck. The cat did well, though his yowls sounded remarkably like an air-raid siren. (Yes, of course we sedated him--the vet tests to see whether he's sedated enough by yanking out the hair covering his balls. If he yowls--he did--he gets another dose.) My job was to hold the cat still, which wasn't at all difficult once he was appropriately dosed. The procedure was simple enough that I'm pretty sure I could do it myself, next time (though my husband politely requests me not to try).

I was at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in St. Louis the past few days. It's a really nice conference; I'm always glad to go. I felt a little more anxious about my NCTE panel presentation than I have other presentations this year, because this one was my idea. I came up with the topic, recruited the other presenters and the moderator, convinced my publisher to pay for not only my trip but also the moderator's trip, wrote the proposal, and made what slides we had. But I probably needn't have worried, because the other people involved--Andria Amaral, who is a youth librarian in Charleston, SC., and was our moderator, and writers Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Matt de la Pena, and Kat Yeh, are all professionals who also cared deeply about our topic, which was, "Hope for Kids from Hard Places: How the Right Books Can Be Both Windows and Mirrors."

We all spoke from the heart on this one. Teachers took notes. People asked questions. It was super.

Then I came home to 15 boxes of books for my library project. Four more arrived this afternoon, plus my vet gave me books.

After lunch I took one box of books to the Boys and Girls club. I had four boxes for Girls Inc., where I'm revamping the entire library, and I had a box in the car for the elementary school I support, but I never got there, because I ended up spending most of the afternoon at Girls Inc. I showed you in one of my last posts some of the ancient books I weeded last week. Today I removed about as many books as I brought, including about 20 "inspirational romances" which probably didn't have explicit sex in them but were clearly intended for adults. I weeded broken damaged books. I weeded a book written in Latin (I'm not kidding.). I left a lot of grotty paperbacks because honestly the Girls Inc. people were being remarkably sporty about my saying, "all these just need to be thrown away," and I figure we need to take it one step at a time. I've only touched about a third of the shelves so far, so there's plenty of weeding yet to do. But for the first time there are actual YA books on the shelves. For the first time there are graphic novels. For the first time there are picture books that are less than 20 years old AND don't feature movie characters.

After the success of last week's excursion about a dozen girls wrote wish lists for me. I've incorporated them into my Amazon wish lists--but if you're weeding your own shelves, please know we'll take about any series books, including Harry Potter (they have book one, but not two, three...) Easy readers would also be great--I haven't touched that section yet.

And if you're sick of hearing about my book project, just go read the first paragraph again. Then I'll tell you that Bucky, our slightly older barn cat, is best friends with Alex, the cat who was castrated today. When Alex started yowling Bucky grew very concerned and had to be locked in the tack room for the rest of the procedure. Afterwards I took the sleeping Alex, wrapped in a clean towel, and laid him on a tack trunk in the tack room. When I went to check on him a few minutes later, he was laying on his back, eyes open, dazed, while Bucky stood over him, whapping his face with both front paws, over and over, whap-whap-whap-whap-whap. I'm still not sure if he was just beating up on Alex because Alex couldn't fight back, or if he was acting out of concern: "Alex! Alex, talk to me, baby! What'd they do to you?"

By afternoon the drugs had worn off. Alex, Bucky and the others ate ravenously as they'd all been NPO for Alex's sake. It's all good--less traumatic than dragging poor Alex to the vet's office. It would have been air raid sirens all day.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Photos Filled with Thousands of Words

Yesterday started with a cat being an asshole, and ended with incredible grace.

My lovely stalwart Gully, who is a horse, was going to get his hocks injected--this is a way to combat arthritis, and Gully I realized with shock is 21 years old now--anyhow, the vet tranquilized him and scrubbed his legs and was just ready to inject him when our ancient witch-cat, Hazel, jumped onto the tailgate of the vet's truck and smashed all the supplies. So Gully got to brood in his stall while the tranq wore off, and we'll try again Monday.

I went off to Faith in Action, as I usually do on Wednesday. Afterwards I took our two broken printers to the recycling plant, feeling very virtuous until they handed me, in return $1.12. Yep. Two broken printers equal one Pal's iced tea. Or, the gas it takes to drive them to the recycling center.

I went to the school where my husband coaches basketball and fit the team for their uniforms and the librarian at the school gave me a couple of boxes of books--mostly multiple copies they'd bought for of previous state book award contenders that they no longer needed multiple copies of. I put those in my trunk and went off to Boys and Girls Club, where I met the woman who runs the library and gave them some books--plenty more to come, I said. We had a really good conversation about books, and I understand their library better now. It had been full of crap books until last Christmas, when the local Books-A-Million made them the focus of a holiday donation drive. So that's why the books are so non-diverse--they were bought by random customers, without an overall plan. That's also why they have, say, Diary of a Wimpy Kid books 1, 2, 3, and 5, but not 4. Anyway we're going to be able to work well together.

After that I went to Girls Inc., the afterschool place where I'm going to renovate the library. I had one of those reusable shopping bags stuffed full of books, and when I went into the lobby the side of the bag gave out, and the books cascaded to the floor. Girls rushed to help me pick them up--and most of those books never made it into the library room. They got taken home instead. One girl picked up The Hate U Give, and said, "Oh," in happy recognition, and tucked the book under her arm. Another picked up The War That Saved My Life (the girls don't know I wrote it; for that matter, neither does the administration, though the Boys and Girls Club people googled me so they do), held it out to a friend, and said, "This is a really good book." I picked The War I Finally Won off the floor and said, "here's the sequel," and the first girl said, "There's a SEQUEL?" and snatched it out of my hands.

I will get down to the serious work of this library after Thanksgiving--I'm headed to NCTE tomorrow--but I did take away a couple of armfuls of horrible books. Here's a few:

So you see I'm not making things up. These were copyright 1963, 1960, 1959. Also they all had DISCARD written in huge letters on the inside covers. Appealing, right?

There were a whole host of girls now happy about books, so I took them out to my car and opened the trunk and told them to help themselves to the paperbacks I'd just gotten from the school. They said, "You mean to KEEP?" and started hauling books out of the car, some of them selecting a few books for themselves and others just carrying the books into the building for the rest of the girls. It was pretty fun to be the book fairy.

Then I drove home and my back door looked like this:

And when I opened all those boxes I found this:

Can you see it? Can you see the good this is going to do? I've gathered up the gift receipts and I will be writing thank you notes, but for now, THANK YOU, from the absolute bottom of my very grateful heart. Love to all--

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I Am Overwhelmed

Oh, Y'all. You are so beautiful.

I woke up late this morning, which is what happens when you finally give in and take an Ambien at midnight because shit has been triggering you a little too much, and even burrowing under your 25-pound weighted blanket and even having the best man who ever lived lying gently by your side, taking up the space between you and the door because he knows that makes you feel safer, isn't making you able to relax enough to sleep. Your thoughts dodge into dark places and your skin feels too tight, and where do you think I got Ada from, people? and then the drugs kick in and next thing you know it's mid-morning and your doorbell is ringing, whoops.

It's a new day. There's a lot of sunshine. My husband has sent texts saying he loves me. The doorbell is ringing because the very large new bookcase I ordered has arrived, and the men carry it right up the stairs for me (I don't have to assemble it!).

I open my email and get a message that reads, in part, (and I have permission to quote this): I was reading War with my class and we were having a discussion about Becky, one of my 4th graders guessed that maybe Becky was Susan's wife.  A parent complained and my principal made me stop reading the book until it had been approved through our county.  I was so disheartened and defeated.  I filled out all the necessary paperwork and made some phone calls.  Finally last week, I got the approval to continue!  Since it has been approved through our county, schools  can now purchase class sets and teach with it.  Woot woot!

I already know that most of the one-star reviews my two War books get are from people who think being gay is not compatible with being a good person, let alone a Christian. I would say, Roy Moore has been held up as an Excellent Christian for a very long time. So maybe we're wrong about what it takes to be an Excellent Christian. I myself am perfectly willing to be labelled an Imperfect Christian if it means I can distance myself from Roy Moore and anyone, gay or straight, who preys upon children or forces themselves on anyone sexually at any time. I'll stick with the Doing Our Best Christians who limit sex to between consenting adults and not concern myself with how exactly their adult bits fit together.

I had several messages saying that books were en route to me, and glory, I can't thank you enough. And I want to say right now, loudly, that USED BOOKS ARE GREAT. It's the ancient ratty half-torn racist sexist ones I don't want. If you're unsure, send me the books. I'll sort them. (Last night my husband started reading one. His eyebrows went up, and he said, "I'm pretty sure this is YA." I'm pretty sure, too. That'll be going to the YA section at Girls Inc., not to the elementary school.) Books are my thing, y'all. I can sort them.

Then--just as I was sitting down to write this thank you, for hearing me yesterday and hearing Beverly Young Nelson, and standing up for love and integrity and truth, and sharing my posts on Twitter and Facebook and reading them all the way to the end--just as I was already thinking, this is such a glorious day--

I checked my Amazon wish list. The one I created for these libraries for low-income Appalachian children.

It's gone. Or, rather, it's empty.
I put a ton of books on that list. I put 12 copies of some of the books I wanted most.
Thank you thank you thank you thank you.
I love you I love you I love you I love you.
I promise that I'll do y'all proud.

Now I'm going to add more books to that list.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Crap For the Poor (Books for My Kids)

OK, I'm way behind on blog writing and for that I apologize. It has been an interesting fall, in entirely good ways, and in a related comment my house/office/schedule is a mess. This morning I had a bunch of routine medical tests and appointments and while it was all happening I wrote a really hilarious post about it in my mind--about how when I was asked if I'd had a colonoscopy before I said, "Yes, about four years ago--no, wait, let me think--actually 17 years ago," and how that doesn't actually count as recently. Then I realized I was writing in my head, as I've done for as long as I can remember, and that made me laugh.

Then I went grocery shopping. At first I was really cranky about it, because I wanted lunch and also I wanted groceries to magically appear in my refrigerator, and I shamed myself out of that by reflecting on how damn lucky I am to be able to buy whatever groceries I want whenever I want them. And then I saw the bags of food prepacked for donating to the local food bank. You grab a brown paper sack and put it into your cart. The grocery charges you $10 at checkout for it, takes it from you, and gives it to the food bank. Which sounds like an awesome idea--I quite like our local food bank--until I looked at what was in the bag. Generic mac-n-cheese. Generic tuna. Generic green beans. Generic dried pinto beans, which even I don't know how to cook, and I cook a lot of weird things. I personally would not buy most of the stuff in that bag for myself. I might do generic green beans, if I were ever to buy canned green beans at all (and I totally get that the food pantry needs shelf-stable stuff, and that canned veggies are better than no veggies) but generic mac-n-cheese tastes like orange chalk and generic tuna just might be dolphin. And here's my rule: if I wouldn't feed it to my kids, I'm not donating it to the food bank. Because I am almost certain that the rule is, "Do unto your neighbor as you would have done to you." So I am ALL for keeping our food pantry running, but I'm also all for springing for the real mac-n-cheese and the decent water-packed tuna.

Which brings me to my book rant. So. I've signed Bristol Faith in Action up for First Book, a national clearinghouse for getting books into children's hands, and as a result we have some really lovely new books to put into our Little Free Library on the porch. A mom asked me the other day if we had anything that might appeal to her daughter, who's in 6th grade but reading on a 2nd grade level, and, as such, comes home every day with a book written for 2nd graders that she's supposed to read, which she hates, both because the story is aimed at 2nd graders and because she's deeply embarrassed by her teacher handing her a baby book every day. So I handed the mom one of our shiny new books that I thought might work, and book-talked it a little, and the mom smoothed the cover of the book and said, "This looks new," and when I said that it was, her whole face changed a little, because I was giving her something that wasn't a castoff, wasn't crap for the poor.

It's not to say that donating stuff you can't use isn't useful. It's that donating crap is crap. We put lots of nice used books in our LFL, and they go the way of all good books, which is to say into readers' hands. But when we offer people something of value people recognize that we see them as valuable.

So I am on this whole book rant now, as you know if you've read even a smidgen of my posts lately. When I left BFIA that afternoon--that was last Wednesday, day before I left for AASL--I first went to Girls Inc., which is an afterschool and summer care place for mostly low-income girls in our community. They have a super-cute Little Free Library right by the front door. I opened it to discover the most tragic set of children's books I've seen since the Carter County school library that became my summer project a decade ago. I mean, these were books I wouldn't have been interested in back in the 70s, when color printing wasn't a thing yet and when I was willing to read anything. I don't mean these books were boring. I mean these books were actually from the 1960s and 1970s. They were ancient, ratty, un-interesting. I thought about clearing the whole LFL out, but that wasn't my job, not yet at least, so I went inside with my little box of shiny new good books, and I introduced myself to the director, whom I'd never met, and I said I had some books to donate.

She took me into their library, which is a room lined with bookshelves filled with tattered ancient uninteresting books. The comparison between the books in my box and the books on the shelves was fairly staggering. So, I said, I have access to a lot of books. Can I do something about all this? And the woman said, oh, please, none of the girls want to read these and I can't blame them. She gave me a volunteer form so they could run a criminal background check on me, and I promised to come back this week and get started.

From there I went up the street to the Boys and Girls Club, also afterschool and summer programs for mostly low-income youth. By now school had let out and the place was starting to fill up. A black man happily accepted my books, and showed me their library, which was much nicer, newer, and more organized than the one at Girls Inc. However. "This is," I said, "just about the whitest library I've ever seen." The man looked at me like he couldn't believe I'd said that. I'm still not sure if his reaction was because he didn't think I'd notice that, or wouldn't say so if I did, or because he just assumed from growing up with scads of white books himself that we were still mostly in a white publishing world, and hey, we're not as good as we should be but we're getting better in that regard. So I told him I'd be bringing him some books too, and he said he'd be glad to get any books I wanted to give them. The only sets of books they have (multiple copies for book clubs, etc.)--not making this up--were Treasure Island, Little Women, and something equally moldering.

I went back to the recreation room. Bristol's not very diverse but the Boys and Girls Club is about half non-white. I sat down next to a couple of the middle-school students and started asking them what they liked to read. "I don't like to read," one boy, who was black and introduced himself as Ajani, said. "I like to play ball." So I called up The Crossover on my phone and showed him the cover. "Never heard of him," Ajani said. You'll note he said him, referring to the author, Kwame Alexander.

"I like Stephen King," said a white boy, Jonathon.
"So, you like horror stories?" I asked.
"Not really," he said, "I just like the way Stephen King writes."
"Me, too," I said.

I chatted with a few more kids--they were remarkably polite given that they had no idea why I was questioning them--and then I came home and wrote to my editors and agent and some friends in publishing and then I posted some pleas online, because I need a lot of books here. I need a lot of good books. I'll need a lot of help--I can do some of this on my own, but obviously a whole lot more people helping will do a whole lot more good--and I'm still giving books to Highland View Elementary school, too, which this year is not 100% free lunch. It's 99.5% free lunch--one middle-class kid goes there now. (The librarian said, "some of them are getting really excited about reading this year.") and I've got an idea to put a LFL at the food pantry. And of course I'm cleaning out that wretched one over at Girls Inc.

So many people have offered support in the past week. THANK YOU. It's a true social justice issue. I could go on for hours about it. I put a wishlist on Amazon--here's the link--but as I also have friends who despise Amazon (Yep, I get it)--the general idea of the list is, if it's recent, good, if it's a book you loved or your children loved, if it has non-white characters, if it's YA, if it's a picture book, if it's anything you want to send me, please, go ahead. The address is 128 Old Jonesboro Road, Bristol, TN 37620. This is gonna be a long-term project, so send books anytime.

I'll post updates.

Updated 3:14 pm

Oh, world.

I wrote a big blog post about how I need books for the low-income children near where I live, and then I settled down to write my Egypt book but I was twitchy and checked twitter and there was something about another woman accusing Roy Moore of sexual assault. So I found the feed in time to see Beverly Young Nelson, 55 years old now, all dressed up with makeup on, carefully reading her statement. And she was so brave, and so honest, and I could see the pain and fear of that night in her eyes

it never leaves you. I was five years old, and he said if I ever told anyone I'd be taken into foster care and never see my family again

and whoa it's the hardest thing to hear these stories and the best damn thing and the most amazing thing in the world to see predators suffer some consequences for once in their lives

and it's gathering momentum now and maybe the world will be safer for our children

and I tried to go back to my novel but my hands were shaking

and the UPS truck came right then

and delivered two boxes of brand new children's books, so beautiful. The Hate U Give and Bone Gap and Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Best Man and all sorts of other ones, so good, so exactly what I want and need

dozens of books

and they were gifts from people I don't know. People who read my posts and were moved to kindness

and I stood in my kitchen and sobbed

thank you everyone. Thank you, Beverly Young Nelson.

Thank you forever.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Brown Books for White Children. Etc.

A couple of weeks ago I got to be part of the Southern Festival of Books, a great big literary party in downtown Nashville. It was excellent. I shared a ride from the airport with Javaka Steptoe, and was so in awe when I discovered who he was that I said, "I loved Radiant Stepchild. (For the record, it's Radiant Child. He was very nice about me sounding like an asshat.) I got to present with Alan Gratz, author of Refugee. And I got to hang out with my favorite booksellers, from Parnassus Books; my daughter, on her fall break, worked Saturday in their tent.

At one point my daughter came up to me. "I just saw," she said, "a perfect example of why we need more diversity in children's books." She pointed to a little girl holding her mother's hand--a little black girl, perhaps four years old, dressed in a Supergirl dress with a flouncy bright red tulle skirt. "That girl," said my daughter, "she stopped and looked at one of the book covers, and she counted, 'one curly-hair, two curly-hair, three curly-hair!' Then she said, 'Mama, look! Three of the girls on this book have curly hair!' and her mother said, 'That's right. Curly hair like you.'"

It's a really, really simple thing. You are an important part of this world. Your hair, your skin, your smile--your songs, your food--everything you love is true and real and important to the whole world. Your history is important. Your family is important. You are part of the world's stories. Whoever, however, whatever you are.

Which brings me to today's rant. Because last week Nic Stone's incredible new YA novel, Dear Martin, debuted at #4 on the NYT Bestseller List, right under Angie Thomas's equally amazing The Hate U Give, and all of a sudden, to some white writers at least, this was Taking Diversity Too Far. A white writer, Seriah Getty, tweeted that diversity had to be representational,  "Will I include diversity (race, age, gender, disabilities) in my books? Heck ya! But when it fits the story, and serves a purpose. Not just to throw it in there solely for the purpose of being "sensitive" or fit the times."

This caused a fair bit of outrage that she still does not seem to understand. It horrified me. Not the outrage--the ignorance, the continued willful ignorance, the hardened shell of white supremacy, the distance we still have to go. Because diversity is normal. White is not normal. Ablebodied, heterosexual, cisgender--not normal. Not the default. Except that it still is, so many places, so many times, and I am so so sorry and so tired of it.

If you're white, and your white kid mostly reads books about brown kids this year--if those books are assigned to your kid, if what your kid is reading doesn't look like your kid or have anything to do with your kid's lived experiences--get in line. That's what we've done, over and over, to all sorts of non-white kids. For years. For decades. Forever. And if as white people we feel a little uncomfortable when our surroundings aren't 100% white anymore--that would be the effing point. Be a little uncomfortable. Let your children be a little uncomfortable. Let them see for one tiny minute what it's like to not have themselves constantly validated as the normative standard.

Let the little girl in the red tulle dress skip her fingers of a book that shows smiling children with hair exactly like hers.

"What's this book called, Mama?"
The mother looks, and smiles. "'Beautiful,'" she says.*

*Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Here's a Reading Rant for the day--and forever

Teachers, help me out.

I seem to have found a life's passion here. I'm working on all sorts of things, and I don't yet have a coherent message, but let's just plunge in.

A few weeks ago, prepping for a talk I was giving at the Tennessee Association of School Librarians meeting at the start of my 19-day book tour, I came across some staggering statistics--brand new from 2016.

In Tennessee, of public-school fourth-graders receiving free or reduced-price school lunch (that is, 180% of the admittedly-low federal poverty line), 22% tested in reading at proficient or above;

while among public-school fourth-graders NOT receiving free or reduced-price school lunch, 88% tested at proficient or above.

This staggered me.

Now, correlation is not causation. The link between poverty and reading success could be explained many, many ways. And I wondered how my TN stats compared nationwide. I found the following at the National Center for Education Statistics: 2015 data, again fourth graders.

Nationwide, lunch-eligible students at or above proficient: 21%
                      non-free-lunch students at or above proficient: 52%

So not as large, but still, to my mind, shocking.

Children who don't read proficiently by fourth grade are more likely to drop out of high school.
Adults who fail to graduate high school make something like $10,000 a year less than high school graduates who don't attend college.

We have got to get more kids reading.

Access to books is a primary concern: the only data I have is pretty old, but says that middle-class neighborhoods average 13 books per child; low-income neighborhoods average 300 children per book. This makes sense to me: if you can't afford rent or food you're not going to be buying books. And yes, libraries, but that requires transportation, time to get to the library, and a permanent address.

So then I've been looking at the teaching of reading, and what motivates children to read, and this is where I need help from educators. Because it seems like what most schools are doing is at cross purposes to their goals.

Take Accelerated Readers. I hate them. I do not know a single author or librarian who doesn't hate them, and most teachers I've talked to hate them too. We turn reading into something students do for "points," not fun. It demotivates readers. More than that, it's just insane. Last week I had an email from a mother asking when the AR quiz would be coming out for my new book, The War I Finally Won. Her son had read The War That Saved My Life, and loved it, and he was eager to read TWIFW, but, you know, she couldn't let him--he needed points for his reading. I told her that I had no idea.  AR is a company that make money selling the quizzes and systems to schools. I've taken quizzes on my own books and not gotten a perfect score, because the quizzes are stupid. They're designed to prove the kid read the book, not to prove that the kid understood it, or thought anything meaningful about it.

Then, Lexiles. What the actual F? Apparently children take Lexile tests to show how strong of readers they are, and, after that, they're only supposed to read in a range right around their Lexile level--nothing too hard, nothing too easy. The problem here is two-fold. One, we're discouraging love of reading by throwing up barriers to books kids might love. If they're obsessed with dinosaurs, they should read all the dinosaur books you can throw at them.

As adults, how many times do we pick up a book because it's at the correct lexile for our reading level? How many times do we set down that fun-looking current piece of chick-lit and, instead, eagerly pick up Moby Dick? That's right, never. Because we read what interests us. Full stop. Why shouldn't children do the same?

The second problem with Lexile numbers is that they make no sense at all. I've spent a bit of time looking them up this morning.

Les Miserables, the original doorstop novel by Victor Hugo, in translation of course: 1010L.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down: 1010L.

You can not tell me that one of these books is as easily read as the other.

Let's look at a few other numbers:

The War I Finally Won (my new book, 400 pages long): 520L (a number that suggests it's appropriate for many 2nd graders)
Pop! A Book About Bubbles (picture book I wrote for preK): 540L
Dear Martin: 570L (that would be, no higher than 3rd grade!)
The Hate U Give: 590 (ditto!)
Last Stop on Market Street: 610
Oliver Twist: 900
Little House in the Big Woods: 930
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the first one, others are higher): 950

Please, I really mean this. Help me understand how this makes sense. What am I not getting? Because this seems like complete crap to me. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Hello from the Book Tour

Good morning! I'm in Baltimore, at a Hilton Garden Hotel, and I've got 8 minutes until official checkout time and 53 minutes before I'm picked up by someone who's taking me to the airport. It's the third Friday of my book tour. I'm headed to Nashville, for the Southern Festival of Books (I'll be speaking tomorrow in the Nashville Public Library, at 3 pm, with Alan Gratz, please come) and then I'm going home. Mostly I've been touring schools and libraries, but this morning I video chatted with librarians and educators in Nebraska. The schoolchildren of Nebraska gave The War That Saved My Life this year's Golden Sower award, and while I couldn't manage to be physically present at the awards ceremony I very much enjoyed talking to them.

I've been talking a lot. I woke up Wednesday with a cold and today I've very nearly lost my voice, so I'm grateful I don't have school visits today. But the school visits in general have been excellent. I love talking to kids who are enthusiastic for my books, and I love talking to kids who are indifferent to my books. I've been trying to convince them all that reading is not about decoding squiggly lines on a page. Reading is about telling and hearing and understanding stories. I felt like I'd succeeded when a fifth grade girl stood up and said, "I have dyslexia. Do you think I could actually be a writer?"

I said, "Of course you can," and the girl beamed.
I hope she always understands I was telling her the truth.

The whole tour is about the launch of Ada's second book, The War I Finally Won. Wednesday I learned that on October 22nd it's debuting at #3 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. This is amazing. It's astounding. It's everyone-at-Penguin-was-dancing-in-the-hallways and I-couldn't-stop-laughing-even-though-I-was-on-my-second-box-of-Kleenex-for-the-day-and-felt-inspid-glorious. Thank you, everyone.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Happy Birthday, and Thank You.

Today is my Book Birthday, the official release date of my new novel, The War I Finally Won. It's a fabulous day, as pleasing to me as my recent actual birthday--and I loved my actual birthday.

I find I have something to say:

--to the 500 sixth-graders crammed yesterday onto a middle-school cafeteria floor, who listened to every word I said;

--to the student yesterday who handed me a copy of Jefferson's Sons for signing and said, "Thank you for writing this;"

--to the student yesterday who confided to me that they were being raised in foster care, and that when I said, "That's hard. You must be strong and brave," looked me dead in the eye and said, "I am strong and brave;"

--to the parent last night with tears in their eyes, telling me how TWTSML reflected their own reality of adopting traumatized children;

--to the student in the back row who dabbed when I came in, causing me to dab (in an embarrassing middle-aged white woman kind of way) (which the students nevertheless received with touching enthusiasm) on my way out;

--to whoever stuck the sign next to the white board for one of my presentations yesterday that read, "Kimberly Brubaker Bradley--welcome home;"

--to whoever wrote the early review saying, "Ada is for the ages;"

--to my author friends who thought 9 revisions astonishingly many, and even more to my (very few) author friends who thought 9 revisions astonishingly few;

--to the 50 or so people at Penguin Random House who worked very very hard to turn my words into an actual physical marketed on-sale book;

--to my agent, Ginger Knowlton, who loved it before anyone else, and that includes the rest of my family;

--to the indomitable Jayne Entwistle, reader of the audio version, who magically matched Ada's physical voice to her true one;

--to my mom, who thought it was better than the first one;

--to my dad, who caught a bad mistake on page 318 that no one else would have;

--to my daughter, who made one crucial change to the ending;

--to my son, who reminded me to try not to suck;

--to my husband, who helps me find the best stories;

--to Jessica Dandino Garrison, my amazing editor. The book is dedicated to her because she worked so hard and well on it that she deserved to have her name on it;

--to all of you who read it and will read it:

Happy Birthday. This book also belongs to you.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

All Children Need Books. Period.

I'm working on a presentation for the Tennessee Association of School Librarians Conference.

Here are some 2016 statistics regarding public school children statewide in Tennessee:

48.9% receive free or reduced-price school lunch
32.3% live in families that receive SNAP (food stamps)
24.1% live in poverty
11% live in extreme poverty
5% live in foster care

48.4% of 3rd-5th graders are reading at proficient level

Of 4th-graders eligible for free lunch, 22% are reading at proficient level.

This means that 88% of 4th-grades NOT eligible for free lunch are reading at proficient level.

This is the difference poverty makes. If you aren't poor enough for free lunch, you've got nearly a 9/10 chance of reading proficiently in fourth grade. If you are, it drops to 1/5.

I could throw more statistics at you--I've been working on this for two days--but the upshot is, poor kids need books.

Poor kids need books. Get them some. It's the way out.

Monday, September 25, 2017

On Tour: Where I'm Gonna Be

Okay, everyone! My official book tour for The War I Finally Won starts Friday!

Below is a listing of the events I believe to be open to the public:

Friday, September 29th: SCBWI Children's and YA Booksigning Party, Franklin, TN
***through special permission I will be signing TWIFW ahead of its Tuesday release date***
7:30-9:30 pm, Embassy Suites in Franklin. Open to all, and lots of writers will be there!

Monday, October 2nd
Moore High School, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Tuesday, October 3rd:  Release Date of The War I Finally Won!
Encyclomedia Conference, Oklahoma City
Signings from 9:45-10:30, 1:00-1:45, and 2:00-2:30
Sequoyah Book  Award Author Panel with Victoria Jamieson and Lois Ruby, 11:15-12:00

Wednesday, October 11th: Chevy Chase Library, Washington, DC
afternoon event, time tk

Thursday October 12th: A Likely Story Bookstore, Sykesville MD
Educators' Night Wine & Cheese
7:00 pm

Saturday, October 14th, Southern Festival of Books, Nashville, TN
3:00-4:00 Presentation with Alan Gratz, author of Refugee
4:00-4:30 booksigning

Come visit! I'd love to meet you!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Happy Birthday, Beautiful!

It's only 10:45 am and already it's been a weird day.

For starters, my dog collapsed this morning, in the middle of a joyful romp up our hill. It appears she now has heart problems. She's at the vet getting sorted, and the people at the vet were all kind and reassuring, but it's odd writing without her snoring in my office and it wasn't a good start to my day.

After I got back from the vet's I made myself a second pot of coffee, because circumstances called for it.

My writing so far this morning is lousy. I do not blame the excess caffeine. I blame my procrastination 3 months ago which has caused this deadline jam which means I can not just walk away from my desk today but must sit churning out lousy words.

Oh well. First draft. (Brace yourself, Jessica!) (That's my editor. My long-suffering editor.)

The good news is that today is the third birthday of my penultimate nephew, Fred. All my nephews are brilliant and funny and I love them individually and as a pack. I rejoice in my nephews. When I facetimed Fred and his older brother this morning they shrieked with joy and ran around showing me their new house and Fred's presents, a scooter and a microphone and a balloon that somehow sings "Happy Birthday" in Mickey Mouse's voice when you smack it. No kidding.

A few months ago when I was visiting my sister, I picked Fred up, just at one point in the day. He was chattering away, but suddenly he looked down at my face, cradled it in his two chubby hands, and said, in a tone of delighted wonder, "Oh--you're beautiful!"

I have no idea what made him say that, but I have a feeling that I'll remember it all my days.

Happy Birthday, Fred. You're beautiful, too.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Serendipity in Siricusa

So, this just happened. Really, it did. I’m typing this sitting on the floor near the front doors of Catania airport, in Sicily, because they won’t let us check our luggage until two hours before the scheduled flight time (the flight is already an hour late). And I’m so excited I got out my laptop. When I get wifi I’ll post this, and then I’ll really start writing.
I’m in Sicily, which is more or less insane. We scheduled this trip—which is actually a golf trip organized by the association for which my husband rates golf courses—way before I knew I’d have a book tour starting September 28th or that my Egypt manuscript due September 27th. Even knowing how full my September would be, my progress on the new book this summer was slow. I love summer and my girl was home, and I wanted to have fun. Also it was the first time in five years I was writing from a point-of-view other than my beloved Ada’s, and that was difficult. Also everything was a hot mess, as is usual with first drafts. Sometimes it’s hard to keep going when you know what you’ve written so far is shite.
So. Challenged by my friend Dan Gutman to make an audacious goal and achieve it, I joined the September Squad, with the goal of either 50,000 words or a finished draft by the end of the month (If I’ve got 50,000 words and I’m still not finished, the book is much more complex than I thought). I was plugging along happily until I hit this trip. I brought my laptop and my manuscript, but then I’d think—I could write today, or I could explore the Sicilian countryside on horseback, and I picked horseback, and learned what olive groves look like, young and old, and about wild fennel and wild thyme and the exact shade of the Mediterranean Sea, and then I bought a bikini and it’s not like I’m not taking the book seriously, it’s just that I’m not sure I’ll ever be in Sicily again. I’d be a shame to not pay attention.
Meanwhile, I’d hit a place in the Egypt book where I was really really pleased with a particular scene, and with its implications for the rest of the novel, but I was aware that I was lacking a crucial piece of background—that what I had happening needed an antecedent I couldn’t yet identify. So, that’s what first drafts are for. I kept on.
Mostly the itinerary for this trip is pre-arranged, but yesterday my husband and I looked hard at today’s proposed schedule, and thought it lacking, so we hared off on our own. Our hotel concierge suggested we would enjoy Siricusa, an ancient harbor. We arranged for a driver to take us there and then become our tour guide and show us the highlights. Unfortunately the driver we got didn’t speak any English and had never been to Siricusa at all. He got comprehensively lost in the ancient town, driving in circles the wrong way on streets designated pedestrian-only. He stopped several times to ask other Italians for directions. Finally he just stopped the van, threw us out, and told us he’d come back in four hours. By that time we whole-heartedly agreed. His meandering had shown us a basic layout of the town, and we immediately walked to the ancient piazza fronting the 7th century Byzantine cathedral which was a modification of a 5th-century-BC temple to Athena.
So that was cool. We looked at some other stuff. Then I saw a poster advertising a museum exhibit of Egyptian coffins dug up from Deir El-Bahari, which is to say the dig near Hatshepsut’s temple. So we paid five euros and went in. Turned out it was a traveling exhibition from a museum in Brussels.

Turned out it contained EXACTLY the information I needed. Two specific items. I’ve solved the plot issue and I’ve gotten a translation of an ancient source I was searching for, and it was brilliant, absolutely amazingly brilliant, and I have no idea on earth how I came to find this information about 20th dynasty papyri and ushabti in the middle of Siracusa where I hadn’t planned on visiting until yesterday. It’s all amazing. It’s beyond amazing.

So I’m ignoring the rest of my tour group to sit on the airport floor, laptop on my lap, and type this, and the others are sort of guessing that maybe I’m a writer after all. And it’s the icing on the cake, baby. The icing on the Italian cake.