Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I Need Your Opinions for Books Move Mountains

Those of you (both of you--and thanks!) who regularly read this blog know that I've become passionate about getting books into low-income children's hands.

Nationwide, if we look at fourth-grade reading tests results--this is 2016 data from the US Department of Education--and divide children only by whether or not they receive free or reduced-price school lunch,
--of those who get free lunch (the poorer kids) 21% read at proficient level
--of those who don't get free lunch (the richer kids) 54% read at proficient level.

That's right. Nationwide.

So. It's obviously a complicated problem, but I've been throwing books at it, in a couple of local afterschool programs and a very low-income local elementary school, and that's great at all--it'll be awhile of course before we know if it makes any difference at all--but I've been working on forming a real charity, a 501(c3) organization. I have a great friend who's all in, and we had a meeting in December to start to figure things out. We're meeting again today. I haven't done a thing I thought I would do in the meantime, including asking people to be on my board of directors, and it's not actually because I'm a lazy sod. I was trying to figure out what exactly we should be doing.

I love these libraries that we're putting into place, but what I'd really like is for kids to have choices about what they read--studies show that's a strong predictor of reading success--which is the whole point, I don't really care if they ever read Great Expectations, I care if they can read proficiently enough that they can learn chemistry and history and auto mechanics and whatever else intrigues them. I think I'd like kids to be able to keep the books they choose. If you know anything about Appalachia, about all these small mountain towns, you know there aren't many libraries, let alone bookstores. The schools are often poorer than you'd think possible.

I remember as a kid loving the Scholastic book flyers. My mom would always encourage me to pick out books, and it was terrifically exciting to have those books arrive. But if your parents can't pay rent, they can't give you money to buy Scholastic books. You can say all you want that it's not much money--it's not, if you're middle-class. When you're one car breakdown away from homelessness it's harder.

And then kids grow up thinking books are something they can't have. Books are for rich people.


Here's my idea. I want to start something like a Scholastic Book Flyer where the books are free. The kids in low-income Appalachian schools get to pick out a book from the flyer, any one they like. The teacher sends the order in to my organization, and we send out a box of spanking new books.

I'm posting this because I NEED YOUR OPINIONS. You're teachers, librarians, writers, educators. Help me out here--what am I thinking about incorrectly? What else do I need to consider? I really want to do something of value here, and I need any and all of your thoughts.

Thanks so much. It's important.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What I'm Up Against

First of all, thank you very much for the love and support regarding my dog's death. I knew it was coming and had time to prepare, but it's still hard, and the house is very quiet; your sympathy means a lot to me.

We're having a snow day in Bristol, since there is actual snow on the ground. This is the south. It makes more sense to us to occasionally shut down all schools and half the businesses than to invest a whole ton of money in snow removal equipment that we would use once every other year. Or so we tell ourselves. Sometimes I think most communities just calibrate themselves so that, whatever their typical weather is, they get a snow day once in awhile.

My sister in Wisconsin woke to a foot of snow and her kids didn't even have a delay. That may be the only reason to avoid Wisconsin--I love cheese and their summers are lovely--but it's a big one.

Anyway, it's a full-on snow day, with both my yoga class and Bristol Faith in Action closed. I got up early with my husband (it's one of his surgery days) so I could write before yoga and BFIA, and now it's 9:30 and I've pretty much written myself out for the day. Which is fine--I have lots of work to do.
The other day I was excited to receive a book I had to search for--it's called The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun, it's published by the American University of Cairo, and it's all about Qurna, the village near the Valley of the Kings.

On Monday, full of grief, I found it impossible to read this book. Yesterday I made some headway, but not much, and here's why. A sample quote:

"Rather than infer certain economic practices inside the Theban Necropolis from ethnically situated psychological characteristics, here we seek to describe Qurnawi behavior in non-racially conceived terms, instead looking at their relationship with the surrounding archaeological landscape as a formative element in the specific characteristics of Qurnawi agency and action."

In other words, we're not going to assume that all the people who live in Qurna are tomb-robbers, just because they're probably descended from Bedouins.  They lived near all these tombs and sometimes found stuff, and they were poor, can you blame them if they sold grave goods?

Really. Taken in context, that's what they mean.

The book is 499 pages long.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Strange Sense of Calm

I had to have my dog put down yesterday. It was completely the right decision, at the right time, but of course it totally sucked. I was able to have the same vet who castrated one of my barn cats on the tailgate of her pickup truck come to the house and do it there, so it was peaceful and calm, and, oddly enough because I've been dreading this day, that's how I feel today.

I've always written from home, but I've never been alone before today. When I quit my job as a research chemist to write, I was pregnant, and far enough along that the baby felt like a minnow fluttering inside me. (That baby lives in Chicago now, working his first full-time grown-up job.) By the time that baby went to preschool, twice a week, I was pregnant with his little minnow sister. (She's in Philadelphia, at college). By the time she went to preschool, twice a week, we had acquired Under Dog, a wiry terrier of limited intelligence but enduring dogged affection for his people. (Under died five years ago, at a very old age, following a stroke.) Eventually we acquired Under's consort, Sweet Polly, one of the gentlest dogs on earth. So while the children were at school, growing up, I would go to my office to write, and the dogs would follow. Polly liked the green chair or the window seat. Under sometimes curled up in the dog bed in the corner but was more likely to drape himself across my feet, to the extent that I eventually put a dog bed beneath my desk. (It's still there. I just checked.)

Polly snored loudly enough that sometimes I had to walk across the room and wake her, as I absolutely couldn't think with that much noise. Under barked whenever anything happened outside--the day the UPS truck chased two deer up our driveway I thought he would burst his brainstem--and Polly joined in if the threat seemed real.

Yesterday afternoon I felt very sad. I'd been feeling sad all weekend, knowing what was on the horizon, but I'd made my peace with it. It was sad, and right, and good. But I still let myself feel sad. My husband came home late, after basketball practice, but I thought to myself, if there's ever a day you're allowed to put on flannel pajamas at four in the afternoon, it's the day you euthanize your dog. So I did. Then I heard my daughter's voice. While she was home for Christmas, when we came in cold from riding and doing the barn chores, she'd say, "Mom, would you like a hot beverage?" and put the kettle on for tea. So I put the kettle on, and brewed a nice pot of herbal tea. I snuggled up under the floofy couch blanket, and drank tea, and read a book about the Holocaust because the one I need to read, about the village of Qurna in Egypt, was too technical for my sad brain.

I also baked a chicken, because it was a comforting dinner that required very little work on my part.

This morning I slept in a bit. Lately the dog had been sleeping in our bed. It was hard for her to sleep with her heart condition worsening, and it made her feel panicky unless she was with us--but she coughed and wheezed in the night, and the last few nights I'd woken several times to check if she was still breathing. Last night I woke several times, thinking, where's the dog?

But now it's morning. I'm writing in the complete silence of an empty house. It's not as bad as I thought it would be. I miss my darling Polly. I miss Under. And I'm okay with the quiet that surrounds me.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Shaking Down My Family Tree

The other day my daughter's friend came over with her laptop and her access to Ancestry.com. We had a bit of a field day. It was fascinating--to the point where both my husband and I are going to be copying out entries and sending them to our extended family.

I can't write about everything that amazed me--let's just say I found evidence of what had been rumors regarding a couple of family members--the people involved are gone now, but not that long ago, and their stories still don't feel like mine to tell. But a few other things were far enough back that I don't think it matters. One of my husband's way-back ancestors lived in central Indiana, and is listed as having had five children with his wife, and then nine more children with a Miami Indian woman. A written notation (on a census record? I don't remember now) says that he is "a great friend to the Miami." I should hope so.

It turns out that my children are a Son and Daughter of the American Revolution, as another of my husband's way-back ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. No one on my side of the tree had made it to America by that point--I can actually remember much of the generation that immigrated, and the last member of my family born in Poland died only last year. (I was so sorry she missed the Polish translation of The War That Saved My Life--she was literate in Polish, and would have loved it.) We found a copy of a ship's manifest listing my great-grandfather as a passenger--his name in America was Walter Guernewicz, though I called him Dziadek, Polish for grandpa. Family legend says that Guernewicz was a misspelling picked up at Ellis Island, and there in the records we could see it--both spellings of his last name, as well as the Polish spelling of Walter--which now, away from my daughter and her friend's computer, I can't remember, except that it made perfect sense. He went by Walter Guernewicz in his daily life, but on his marriage certificate, written after many years in this country, he spells his name the Polish way.

Walter was 19 when he boarded a ship called the Amerika. He settled in Gary, Indiana, and worked in a steel mill until an accident there blinded him. My mother remembers him as stern and somewhat dour, but when I was small and visiting his and Babcia's tiny house, I would climb onto his lap. He would run his fingers very lightly over my face, smile, and say the only English word I ever heard him say. "Pretty," he said.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year

I've never really understood the big deal about New Year's Day. Some of my friends really love it, see it as a sort of cosmic do-over, a fresh start, a chance to resolve to be better.

I pretty much see it as  Monday. If pressed, I'll add that it's the day after my son's birthday (the moment he took his first breath, 23 years ago, New Year's Eve ceased to have any meaning for me either). It's the day I get to open my new Dilbert-A-Day calendar--my husband's given me a Dilbert-A-Day calendar for as long as I can remember, probably longer than my son's been alive.

Last year the only resolution I made was to finally go out to lunch with one particular friend. We kept saying we were going to meet for lunch, and then not doing it. I'm happy to say that not only did I keep this resolution, I made a habit of it. Lunch with XXX is now a Thing.

I have a book to finish in 2018. ("Finish?" my daughter asked, yesterday. "Finish, or finish-finish. Copyedited finish?") (Her Christmas gift to me was a t-shirt reading Unreliable Narrator. I loved it.)

The answer is, finish-finish. Yes, it is. And no, this book is not the third one about Ada. I can not promise a third book about Ada. A bad book would be much worse than no book at all.

Also, I'm sorry to say this, but the character who dies in TWIFW is dead. Dead-dead. I make up the rules for this particular cast of characters and it never once occurred to me that this person was not entirely dead, until I started getting conspiracy-theory letters from readers who were hoping, really hoping, that this character was not really dead and that in the mythical third book would walk up the cottage's front path to the amazement and heartfelt joy of all. (Please to note: I took the spoilers out. )

It won't happen. But thank you, thank you so much, for wanting it to. Your connection with all my characters, with Susan, with Lady Thorton, Maggie and especially my dear Ada, brings me both amazement and heartfelt joy.

Whatever this day means to you, I wish you a good one.