Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Why ALI?

I'm hanging out at my computer with my dog on my lap. She's gotten to where she pretty much overlaps my lap, but there are men on my roof tearing off all the shingles and the only way the dog can cope with the disturbance is to cleave tightly to me. So we're making it work.

I just got a phone call from my family nurse practitioner. She said, "Did you know that you're famous, like the President?"

I did not know that (nor have I, to my knowledge at least, previously been compared to Mr. Trump) but I did dream last night that I was shaking all the presidents' hands, starting with Reagan and G.H.W. Bush.

"Were you in heaven?" my husband inquired, when I told him about it this morning.

"No," I said, "I was at a Notre Dame football game."

Of course, in our house, that's pretty much the same thing.

I'm famous like the President according to my family nurse practitioner's young daughter, who is desperate to get some of my books signed by me, so what time will today's book signing run to?

It's from four until six, at Blackbird Bakery in downtown Bristol. I'll speak briefly at four, but will absolutely stay until at least six to sell books and sign them and chat with anyone kind enough to stop by. We're also selling cookies. Blackbird is stuffed with pastry goodness, as everyone in Bristol full well knows, but they did a special run of iced sugar cookies for us to sell in benefit of Appalachian Literacy Initiative, the reason for the whole shebang and my heart's most fervent cause.

I was just now, before the phone call but after the dog, looking through the notes I made for the speech that really sparked ALI. It was in fall 2016, and I gave a presentation at the Tennessee Association of State Librarians on the importance of diversity in children's books. I started off with racial diversity, and then spoke on economic diversity in literature, which I thought then and still believe to be another important issue. In Tennessee one-third of the schoolchildren live in families that get SNAP benefits (often called food stamps), but you almost never see SNAP benefits mentioned in fiction. If they are, it's that the family is too proud to accept them, or used to get them back when times were really bad. No one ever gets them now. That has always annoyed me, so I did some research, and then I went straight beyond annoyance into incredulity, and then to a sort of social justice awakening.

If you've read this far and you really want to know where I get my information, I'll refer you to Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's new book, Game Changer, which gathers all the research into one easy-to-find and read volume. Essentially it's this: the ability to read fluently is the bedrock to academic success. The ability is read fluently depends upon access to books. For a variety of reasons, children from low-income families have much less access to books than their higher-income counterparts.

Children from low-income families are 250% less likely to read fluently then their classmates from higher-income families. Poverty is the single greatest predictor of academic failure.

Access to books is a social justice issue.

I came away from that conference pleased by the success of the presentation but greatly troubled by the results of my own investigation. Over half the schoolchildren in Appalachia get free or reduced-price school lunch. Many of the schools themselves are poor beyond middle-class imagination. Many of these children don't have a single book in their homes, have never once had a single book to call their own.

Here in my office, my dog and I are surrounded by a couple of hundred books. There are more in every single room in my house. The laundry room has a bookshelf. I'm not kidding. It's full.

My friend Tracy Griffith, who has a farm deep in an old coal community, was equally troubled by the injustice of this. We met over and over, usually at Blackbird Bakery, to figure out what we wanted to do. Eventually we found our format: enroll classrooms in Appalachia. Let all the students choose books. Good, new, shiny-bright books. Fiction and non-fiction, graphic novels, funny novels, stories about dogs and gorillas and injustice. Trust the students to pick the books they needed. Let them keep the books forever, read them over and over until the shiny covers tore and dulled.

We've given away 2398 books this school year so far. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was pretty popular--151 copies--and so was Captain Underpants (101), but not as much as The One and Only Ivan (183) or Because of Winn-Dixie (178).

Those kids who ordered Because of Winn-Dixie are going to get a surprise. The books are in transit now--and the author, Kate DiCamillo, has signed bookplates to put in every single one. Authors are amazing. We've had support from so many: Kate and Katherine Applegate and Laura Amy Schlitz just to name Newbery winners. Publishers have given us free books. Our corporate partner, Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, gives us steep discounts and accepts donations on our behalf. We JUST GOT our official 501(c)3 status (!!!!! retroactive to February 2018, so everyones' gifts were tax deductible) so we will be able to start applying for grants now, but for this year a whole lot of community members and friends, including every single one of our seven-woman board, has been incredibly generous with private donations, which was so amazing, especially since, at the beginning of this year, I made promises to schoolchildren I didn't have the funds to keep.

Anyway, I'm going on again, because I love this non-profit so much. I love giving books. I believe that what we're doing is important. I think we can change the world. Someone's world, at any rate. One child at a time.

Appalachian Literacy Initiative. We put books in children's hands.

So, if you get a chance, head down to Blackbird this afternoon. You don't have to buy anything. Just come say hi. If you can't make it but want to support ALI there are a bunch of other ways. Think of us fondly, at any rate. Think of a book you read when you were ten that opened your eyes and heart. Then find a way to give that book to a child.

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

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Hill That I'm Willing to Die On

One of the things I've learned well this past year is how many stories aren't mine to tell. I had a great blog post half-written in my head, but realized it had the possibility of making one person--only one--of my acquaintance feel unhappy. Not mortally-wounded-never-talk-to-you-unhappy, but still possibly unhappy to a degree, and although I have no way of knowing whether or not that person has ever once read my blog, it wasn't worth the story.

Not that I mind pissing people off. But I mind meanness, or humor at someone else's expense. I mind sharing private stories that aren't entirely mine. (Lately people tell me things. All sorts of people. All sorts of things. I'm honored by their trust. Won't break it.)

It does all go into my vast mental Rolodex--I guess we need to update that image, let's try vast mental database--of How People Can Be. As a writer I'm always looking to add to this database. It's why I listen to Dr. Laura in the car, when I'm not working on my French.

Anyway between reticence and my new novel I haven't been blogging much. I'm going to work on that because I do have a lot I want to say. But I've been saying it--saying all my truth--in this new novel I'm working on. I realized that on Friday at yoga. I'd given the manuscript to a professor of counseling and psychology at a local college for professional review of some of the content. Said professor also happens to frequent the same yoga classes I do, so she'd brought the manuscript back with her feedback. We talked for awhile, and I found myself saying how important the book was to me. I put my hand on the manuscript and said, "This is a hill I'm willing to die on."

I thought about that again this morning, as I was loading books into the trunk of my car. I don't usually sell my own books, but I am tomorrow, at a fundraiser for my nonprofit, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. (Blackbird Bakery in Bristol, 4-6pm, everyone welcome, please come). If you look at my writing career it's 17 books, the last 2 being bestsellers. But I know that the success of the last two comes actually from the work I put into the book before that, Jefferson's Sons. Jefferson's Sons was a turning point for me. It took me four years to write it well, but I was determined, above all else, that it be written well. To me that story was too big for mediocrity. It was, in fact, a hill I was willing to die on.

Then came Ada Smith, crippled, ignorant, furious---and my editor's famous comment when she read an early draft: "This isn't really your next book, is it?"

Ouch. But Ada's story was also a hill I was willing to die on. Both parts. That turned out to be good, because I needed every ounce of my stubbornness to persevere through the nine drafts of The War I Finally Won.

Now I'm deep in this new novel--untitled, still, we call it the Della book--and in revisions for the Egypt book. I'm reading and preparing for the book after that, which doesn't have a lot of form yet but which does feature Nazi soldiers and a really awesome ghost. I think after all these books I've finally found my secret: I need to write things I will lay myself down for. I need to write from the top of the hill I am willing to die on.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Shout Out to the Bristol Public Library

I love my library so much.

When we first visited Bristol for my husband's job interview nearly 22 years ago, I asked about the public library. To my concern, the doctor with whom my husband was interviewing and his wife exchanged concerned glances. "It's up the road," they said, not volunteering to take me there, and of course I became even more concerned. I didn't need to be. As soon as we got a free moment we found the library, because I can not live where there isn't a decent library, and it was fine. It was small, and antiquated, and the stacks were dark and cold, but it had quite a lively selection of books for a town of this size and was clearly making the best of limited space. The staff, too, were fantastic. Still are. (Though I wish they didn't all recognize me. "I loved TWTSML," one of them said as I was checking out, not long ago. "What are you working on now? Oh, and your fines are up to seventeen dollars and forty five cents.")

Several years ago the library totally outgrew that old building. A lively civic debate followed about where to move it to--it had to be on the Virginia side of town, because of better public funding there (there's a branch in Tennessee); it had to still be downtown, near the shelters, because so many homeless people use the services there. Finally the best solution was simply to tear down the old single-story building and build a new two-store one in its place.

I'm there all the time. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative, my nonprofit, holds its board meetings in the large conference room upstairs. (We used to meet in the small downstairs conference room, but we're loud, and we were annoying one of the regular patrons, who's autistic and often uses the computers near the downstairs room.) I get books by the bagful. I shop at the gift shop (where else can you get cheap romance novels for fifty cents?) I've fallen sound asleep in the comfy chairs in the reading area, and the parrot in the children's department, Citrus, recognizes me and rings her bell when she sees me so I'll give her a treat.

Yesterday I went to peruse the audio/visual department. I'm heading to France in April to do research on a book I just can't wait to write--it's been bubbling inside me for two years--and I'm determined not to show up at the chateau that will be my setting as a typical monoglot American asshat. I had 3 1/2 years of French, in high school, centuries ago, but by golly in April I will speak their language at least a little bit without sounding like a fool.

Years ago, prior to another trip, I'd bought myself a set of 6 "learn French" CDs to play in the car. They're not wholly useless, but they're limited. I never understand some of the decision making that goes into these things. In the unit on "What I like to do" the choices are jogging, (in French that's "jogging"), taking a walk, or wind-surfing. I guarantee you that never in my life will I need to ask the French where I can do a spot of wind-surfing. My wind-surfing days, if I ever had any, are gone.

But anyhow, the time I spend running errands can certainly be usefully employed listening to French, so off I popped to the library, where I found another set of 10 CDs, a different company. Very excellent. That's when I saw, tucked behind the a/v department, our library's new adult learning center. Which includes a 3-D printer and lots of craft supplies. Mmmm. It wasn't open yet (I mean, that morning, I was there early) but I can't wait to go explore. I really want to play with a 3-D printer.

But then, because I was checking out language tapes, the helpful front desk clerk handed me a brochure. Well, heckfire. Turns out there are online language-learning resources available to library patrons. Turns out there's one program available to Tennessee residents, and another to Virginia residents, and as a patron of the Bristol Public Library I count as both.

Oeeee, howdy, these things are the bomb. Both are multifacted--you hear, read, write, and speak. Turns out my work computer, the same machine I'm typing on now, has a built in microphone, and it turns out that some of my basic pronunciation is lousy. Turns out I don't know how to correctly pronounce vous. Which is the formal or plural form of the word you and one of the more basic words in the entire language. The Tennessee program keeps asking you to say the same word over and over until you get it right, so I've just spent half an hour saying, vous. Vous. vous vous vous VOUS Vous! 

Turns out you have to imagine that the s is there even though you don't pronounce it. Kind of like how in Hamilton, there's a line, "Have you read thish?" where you're pretty sure they threw an h onto the word this, you can't quite be sure, but it makes you think they're saying "this shit" even though they absolutely never say the word "shit."

It's a little weird. I mean, clearly the s is actually on the end of the word vous. But it's a silent s. But not entirely. You have to pretend to say it without actually saying it. In the same way, s'il vous plait, which means please, is pronounced almost as though the first l is actually there, but not quite. I'd been dropping it entirely, which makes my computer beep at me and tell me to try again.

I'm also realizing how spotty my vocabulary is. I've known the word for cabbage, chou, forever, but only yesterday encountered laitue, lettuce. I'm struggling over beurre de cacahuetes which means peanut butter.

My husband walked in while I was muttering beurre de cacahuetes to my screen. He asked what it meant (he's had more French than I have, and didn't know either). "Do the French eat peanut butter?" he asked.

"Not to my knowledge," I said. For sure I'm not eating peanut butter within the borders of France. But, by golly, I'll know how to say it when I'm there.