Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Writing is my job. I tell people that all the time when they gush about how inspired and creative and I-don't-know-how-you-do-it. "It's my job," I say. "I sit down and I do it." Which doesn't sound romantic but is the truth.

It's also more than my job; it's my vocation. I know that, too. Right now I'm in writer's limbo. I finished a draft of a historical novel. My editor hasn't yet gotten back to me with her thoughts. The best thing I can do for that book right now is ignore it, because I'll be in a better place to start revising if I've stayed away from it for awhile.

I've got other historical novels lined up in my mind like ships awaiting tugboats to pull them into harbor. I can't start them, because they need research, and because I know that it's hard for me to pull my mind from one historical setting to another.

The first few days after I've sent off a draft are usually vacation. I clean up my desk, at least a little. I read. I catch up on any reviews that are due--I usually have at least a few review books waiting. In recent months I've been traveling during these writing lulls.

But right now I'm not. I'm really glad to be home for several weeks in a row, but it's very odd not to be working on a manuscript. For the past few days I've been increasingly uneasy about it. I've written blog posts, but honestly, to me these feel like the scales I used to start my piano practice with. They're something that clears the way for more important work.

The news feed has been disturbing. A lot of my friends are suffering. It's been a hard week for many people I love. And I didn't have a novel to escape into.

Today I woke at 5:45 only because I have a puppy. She woke and had to go out. I'm the one that takes her out. My hard-working husband went to work and I'd had coffee and was wide awake. 6:30 in the morning. Yoga wasn't until 8. I went online and paged through the sites I follow, but that only took about ten minutes. I'm mostly caught up with online correspondence.

I didn't know what to do with myself. So I opened a new word document, set the font to Courier, and typed my name and address in the upper left-hand corner. It's how I've formatted manuscripts forever. I scrolled down, centered the title, and typed WHO KNOWS. by. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. And then I started writing. My new tattoo is covered by a band-aid but halfway through recess the band-aid falls off. I'm walking back to the fourth-grade classroom when my teacher, Ms. Davonte, gasps. "Della," she said, "is that a tattoo?"

And then I kept going for eleven pages of pure stream-of-consciousness writing. I skipped yoga. I've only stopped to riff off this scale, quickly, and because now I've got to go to Faith in Action.

I have no idea if this will turn into anything. I don't care. I am writing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

I don't care who you vote for.... #BookTheVote

...I care that you vote.

Today is National Voter Registration Day, and my primary publisher, Penguin Random House, asked me to share on social media why I vote.

I vote in every election. Looking back, I think I've missed one--a local election, not a national one. I screwed up with the early voting (didn't realize it closed) and was out of town on the actual election day. I'm still irritated that I missed it.

I vote because I usually have opinions.
I vote because I have a voice.
I vote because I can.

Second semester of my freshman year at Smith College a large percentage of the student body staged a sit-in in the main administrative building in protest of apartheid. It was awhile ago now, but if you'll remember, South Africa was governed by a racist, unjust system called apartheid. People across the globe began to refuse to do business with any company that did business with South Africa. College in particular were divesting their endowment funds from those companies.

Starting that semester, and continuing at least while I was there, Smith gave two full four-year scholarships each year to non-white women from South Africa. The first recipients, Thembikile Mazibuko and Siphokazi Koyana, arrived that January and lived in my house (like a dorm, but smaller. Smith doesn't do sororities). So the big apartheid protest happened only a few weeks after they'd gotten on campus.

I didn't take part in the sit-in. I was at the time only vaguely aware of apartheid; South Africa had yet to become one of my favorite places in the world. I had enough to do handling myself at Smith, at the time, and also, the idea of camping out in a hallway in Massachusetts to protest something half a world away seemed ineffectual, possibly ludicrous. But as the week wore on and the sit-in intensified, the president of the school called an all-campus meeting to discuss the situation. It was held in the evening, after dinner, and attendance was mandatory. Each house was to go to the meeting as a group. Attendance would be taken. Attendance was required.

I'd gotten to know Sipho and Thembikile a bit already--they were friendly and bubbly, and I liked them. I'd noticed that they'd taken no part in the apartheid protest. When asked about their country they talked about their families, their home life, not politics. I didn't really think much about this. I, too, was not that interested in politics.

That night we all walked across the street to JMG, the largest auditorium on campus. Sippho and Thembilike walked through the doors, and stopped. They were panicked. They looked ready to vomit, or cry, or both. They were terrified.

I will never forget the expressions on their face.

We can't be here, they said.

Older women from my house said, this is a mandatory meeting. You have to be here. You can't be blamed for attending a mandatory meeting.

They said, They will find out. They will take back our passports. We will have to leave. We will lose our chance.

In South Africa Sipho and Thembikile's families had no vote. That wouldn't come for another several years. But they were convinced, both of them, that their government would find out they'd gone to this meeting in a small town in Massachusetts, and they and their families would be punished for it. That was the difference between their government and mine.

We couldn't talk them into coming farther into the building. They wouldn't sit down. They stood against the doors, shaking. So we stood with them, all the women from my house. We stood in a group in the back of the building. We listened while the president of our school said she was divesting the school's endowment. The sit-in had won.

Divestment won too. Worldwide financial pressure was a large part of why the government of South Africa changed.

Years later, I visited the school in South Africa where Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for protesting apartheid, cast the first vote of his life--for himself, for president of South Africa. In front of the school on that day, some local people had set up a booth to register people to vote. They were all black. Later that week I visited the apartheid museum in Johannesburg. After a whole series of rooms detailing years of oppression, violence, and injustice, the tour ends in a room full of video screens. Each screen shows endless lines of black people lining up to vote for the first time. Smiling, laughing, waiting for hours. Having their say.

If you aren't registered to vote, fix that here.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


Yesterday the board of the Appalachian Literacy Initiative met to decide which classrooms we would accept into our pilot program this year. Our plan is to provide each teacher with a classroom set of 28 brand-new high-quality children's books, delivered in four batches through the year, and to give every student their choice of any four of those books, to keep, brand-new, again divided across the school year.

When we first started, several months ago, I'd offered up the pie-in-the-sky hope that we could enroll 20 classrooms, 400 students, of fourth graders this school year. The other board members looked at me with skepticism. First, would there really be that much interest? Second, could we afford it? We've been fundraising, but we haven't raised enough yet. We've applied for some grants, but have no idea whether we'll get them.

We had 40 classrooms apply. 850 students.

Oh man, that was tough.

There was one large school that frankly wasn't that badly off (less than half their students got free lunch) on the outer edge of what we'd consider our territory, so we eliminated that one. (We're sorry. We'll help you next year if we can.)

There were a few that were absolutely automatic thank-God-we-can-help-these-kids ins. Small towns in West Virginia rated C-minus on a national website (on a scale of A to C-minus). Nearby county schools where fewer than one kid in three reads proficiently.

And then we read through the other applications. "We have a school library. It is staffed by occasional parent volunteers." "To get books for my classroom, I shop at Goodwill." "Access to books is the biggest obstacle we face." "I believe every loves to read when they find the right book!"

We accepted 28 classrooms. 600 students. 3,184 new books.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Credible Allegations

I've been Catholic all my life. I love the Mass. Right now I am really struggling with the hierarchy of the Church. The Pennsylvania report of 300 priests molesting over 1000 children broke me.

My husband said he didn't understand why I was so upset now. He pointed out that we've known of all this--the assaults, the cover-ups, the pious-looking pedophiles--for a very long time. He said, "Nothing's changed."

I said, "That's why I'm angry. Because still nothing has changed."

My husband suggested that instead of writing a blog post I write to the pope, but honestly, I'm too angry with the pope to talk to him right now. I'm too angry that he suggested that the way out of this morass was for the laity to fast and pray. I think the correct answer is that every bishop who ever covered up an allegation or moved a molesting priest to a new parish or who did anything other than order an immediate investigation involving law enforcement, resigns immediately, forever, and that all allegations not affected by the statue of limitations be prosecuted, and that we extend the statute of limitations on any cases where the victim was a minor.

People from my high school class have been discussing this on Facebook a lot lately, mostly sharing memories of the horrible rampant predator priest actually who lived in an apartment at the Catholic high school I attended. He had already molested a bunch of boys in previous assignments, so he got transferred to a place where he'd have unlimited access to the boys' locker room, among other things.

The worst of it is that so many of us knew about him, even then. Adults must have known. There's no way it wasn't widely known. And it was ignored.

Today the current bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese released this list of diocesan priests accused of sexual assault. One of my classmates just posted, "five 'credible accusations' when me and his dozens of other victims know what the real tally is."

Is it really such a big deal? I'm also reading a bunch of crap today about poor Brent Kavanaugh, who might not get to be a Supreme Court Justice because he almost raped a girl when he was in high school. If I hear another person say, "boys will be boys," or, "well, it was a long time ago," or "well, he was drunk," I will be sick. Priests will be priests, anyone? You can't be angry about one and ignore the other.

It is really such a big deal. Oh, Lord. Ask me how I know. It never leaves you. It changes you. Permanently. Forever.

Read the list from Fort Wayne. Look at the dates of ordination and the dates some of the men were removed from the priesthood, and see what a long span it was. Notice how some of them molested children in this decade--less than ten years ago, even though we're expected to believe that we're safe now. Notice how many pedophiles worked at Catholic high schools, or were the chaplain for Catholic boy scouts, or somehow involved in Catholic schools. 

Over and over and over. And adults knew, and did nothing.

Many of these creeps still live in Fort Wayne. The ones who assaulted children, and the ones who let them get away with it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A visit to the coalfields

Yesterday Tracy and I drove to the coalfields of southwest Virginia and delivered the first sets of teacher books for Appalachian Literacy Initiative.

ALI has a seven-person board, but it's Tracy and I who came up with it, meeting over coffee all through last winter and spring, hashing out what was possible and what was helpful and learning all the things we needed to do to get it done. (Tracy created our website. I figured out how to file the paperwork with the state and the IRS.)

So yesterday was a red-letter day. Yesterday we began.

This is an experimental year. We need to learn what works in reality, and what's actually helpful to teachers as opposed to what we think will be helpful. So we'd made an appointment with this particular school, our first. (Note: if you've applied to our program, don't panic that you haven't heard from us. We're making final decisions at our board meeting tomorrow regarding how many schools we can accept. The school we visited yesterday has a private sponsor, a alumna, so is automatically in.)

There's one combined elementary and middle school in this small town. We met with the principal, who was kind and welcoming. He told us that when kids were avid readers you never had to worry about their test scores. He said he was facing not only entrenched poverty but sometimes entrenched, generational disability, when whole families thought they weren't capable of anything. There's no bookstore nearby, of course (the closest is probably in Bristol, a 90 minute drive away, though there may be a Wal-Mart nearer and they do sell some books), and the closest public library is one town over, reachable only by car, which many of the students' families don't have. So no, they don't have access to books.

We met with the fifth-grade teacher and the school librarian. Only fourth grade is part of our pilot program but we'd like to help as much as we can. The fifth-grade teacher uses some trade books--right now she has a class reading Wonder. The librarian can buy some new books each year. (This isn't true for all public schools). I let them sort through a pile of new and gently used books I'd collected--the beginnings of our mobile book fairs--and both took half-a-dozen titles. The librarian was thrilled to get The Day You Begin. "I love Jacqueline Woodson," she said. I said, "Me, too."

To the fourth-grade teacher we explained our program in detail. Here were two copies (she teaches reading to 67 students) of the ten books on our initial list. We piled the books on the table. She could keep them. Tracy gave her a written synopsis of the books--we took it off Common Sense's website--and we showed them to her very briefly--that Roller Girl was a graphic novel, that How To Steal a Dog featured a sister and brother who lived in their car, that The One and Only Ivan was told from the point of view of a gorilla. The teacher told us that, of her 67 students, she had 4 or 5 who were stellar readers, who loved reading and read on perhaps 8th grade level. She said she had many more than that who were at "pre-primer" level. She didn't use trade books in the classroom because she found it difficult with such a wide range of abilities. She was trying hard to bring them all up to speed.

"They'll probably all want Diary of a Wimpy Kid," she said. We told her that was fine. If her order came back for 67 copies of DoaWK, that's what we'd send her. Then, in December, her students could all pick a second book. If they all wanted the second in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, that's what we'd send.

What if no one wanted some of the books? Then no one would have to have those books. We stressed to her that if we'd gotten the age ranges wrong, or if her students all really wanted to read something else, we were flexible. There would be 3 more sets of books to choose from and we'd change the books as needed.

They really like graphic novels, she said. The ones that can't read can still follow the pictures.

We really like graphic novels, we said.

Do you need them to write about their book? Do you need proof they've read it? Nope.

Here's what we're doing, we said. Your students will each chose a book. Then a big box of books will come to the school, and each student will get the book they chose. Brand-new, to keep, with nothing required of them. No matter what their reading level. No matter how much money their families have. No matter what else is happening in their lives: everyone gets a nice new book that they chose. The end.

The principal said, "Fourth grade is when we start losing them."
We said, "That's why we're starting with fourth grade."

If you've been reading my blog you've heard of some of this already, and I have to warn you you're likely to hear about it again. Thanks for reading. Thanks so, so much. We've had schools apply from Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. I so want to help them all.

If you’d like to support the work that we’re doing, you can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Again With The Asking For Books

Y'all are going to be sick of hearing about this, bummer. At Appalachian Literacy Initiatve we had a pie-in-the-sky vision of helping 20 classrooms of fourth graders get books this year, our first. Several schools have told us their applications will get to us this weekend, but even without them, I'm sitting on requests from 30 classrooms, 591 students. I look at the numbers (Hawkins County, Tennessee: 100% free or reduced-price school lunch, 42% reading at proficient level) and don't want to turn any of them away.

Our partner, Parnassus Books, has just created this page for us. If you'd like to donate actual physical books, you can do so here--no shipping, 10% off, you're supporting a real bookstore AND most importantly you're directly handing a book to a child who may never have owned a book before.

Sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. One of the teachers wrote on her application that she'd just asked her fourth-graders--40% of them--8 actual children--didn't have a single book in their home.

Not one.

P.S. We're putting our own money into this. 100% of our board has donated. We've applied for some grants, which we'll hear about in a few months, and we've raised about $11,000 so far (in addition to some donated start-up costs). But it looks like we're going to need north of $30K.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Sign up for Free Books from ALI

I have a thousand things to write about today. Most of them are about the Catholic Church. They're fluttering around in my head, things like anyone who covered up for an abuser should lose his job and way past time for women and married priests and even now, the hierarchy doesn't get it, thinks silence is the answer. 

I can't find a coherent way to write about this stuff, not yet. I'll get there.

Meanwhile it is September fourth. We have eleven days left for fourth-grade classrooms to sign up for Appalachian Literacy Initiative's first book list project. Please spread the word.

The application is available here. It's short. Classes who sign up get free books. Teachers will end the year with a classroom set of 28 books; each student will get four books of his or her choice. We want to know test scores and a teeny bit of demographic information.

Last week John Schu, whom I love and adore, posted on Facebook how shocked he was when he gave a student a copy of a book (The One and Only Ivan, which is on ALI's inaugural list) and the boy, thanking him, said it was the first book he'd ever owned.

John Schu, you know I love you, but what schools are you visiting that this could still shock you? Have you never been to my part of the country? Happens. All the. Time.

I found a website that evaluates what seems to be every school in the country. You can search by school name, by county, by state, public or private, high school or elementary. For each school it lists, among other things, % of students reading at proficient level, and % of students receiving free or reduced-price school lunch.

Spend a little time there, poking around. Pull up the stats from the best-performing schools in your area. Pull up the stats from the worst. Observe that the higher the poverty level, the worse the reading scores. Ask yourself, what level of illiteracy is acceptable in America today? Ask yourself, why should rich children get such a better chance to succeed?

Kids need books that they can read over and over, until the covers come loose and the pages are stained. They need books they can dip into, again and again, savoring favorite passages, rereading moments of triumph or bravery or sorrow. More than that--they need access to the words, over and over. Reread a book and you've seen all those words again. They become familiar. Easier. You're practicing with every sentence, without knowing it, because the story sweeps you away.

I read to my children every night from when they were born until they were firmly into middle school. Let's be conservative and say I read 1000 words a night. (Less when they were babies, but way more as they grew older--we tackled some pretty long novels by the end.) Birth to their 13th birthdays (again, conservative). Do the math. It's nearly four and a half million words. No, they themselves didn't read every one of those words. But they heard them, in sentence form, words they knew and words they didn't.

Four and a half million words.

Access to books is a social justice issue. ALI aims to close the gap.