Tuesday, November 26, 2019


Today is my sister's thirty-third birthday. She was born on a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving; I was in college, and remember it like it was yesterday. As it was, pretty much. She's expecting her fourth child, and her three boys and my brother's two are the crazy joys of the past decade of our family.

I am grateful today for a thousand million things. For my husband, who holds our lives together. For my children, both flying home tomorrow. For my dad, who's recovering from a serious illness, and my mom, who's recovering from seeing him through. I'm grateful for the book I finished in the past year. I'm grateful for the dog on my lap as I type this. For the silly black horse we unexpectedly brought into our family, and the glorious two we lost since this time last year.

I'm very, very grateful for my friends.

Flush toilets, washing machines and dishwashers, not to mention a safe and reliable water supply. Food and good meals. The pearly quality to winter sunrises on our farm. A sense of adventure, and adventures to go on. The losses that taught me to savor each day.

So many things.

I am grateful for the gift of words.

I learned a lot this year about words and their power. I thought I knew plenty already--I've been a writer for a long time--but between the seven and a half drafts of Fighting Words and the steady progress of my nonprofit, Appalachian Literacy Initiative--well, I now know more.

Did you know that in this country poor children are two and a half times less likely to read at proficient level than their more affluent classmates?

Did you know that reading proficiency at the end of fourth grade is the most powerful predictor of whether or not a child will graduate from high school?

Did you know that three out of five low-income children have no books at all in their homes? Or that the number of books a child has access to is the only thing that directly correlates to their reading success?

Give kids books = give kids a better future.

Last school year  my friend Tracy and I started ALI, earned 501(c)3 status for it, and gave out nearly three thousand books to 578 low-income fourth-graders across Appalachia.

Last year, one of our schools saw their fourth-graders' reading proficiency rise from 23% to 96%.

This year we've enrolled 1000 students in that same program. Each child gets four new high-quality books of their choice; their teachers get classroom libraries of 30 books.

This year we've also given Girls Inc in Bristol, Virginia, 120 books for their library. We've been able to buy books for the children enrolled in Boys and Girls Clubs in Bristol, Abingdon, and Wise.

Thanks to an amazing one-time grant we received from First Book, we're going to be able to offer "free book" fairs at all four Bristol, Virginia elementary schools and Bristol, Virginia Middle School. Every single child in every single grade will get to choose 3 books to keep.  Those book fairs start next week, Tuesday and Wednesday at Stonewall Jackson and Thursday and Friday at Highland View--if you live nearby and want to help, let me know. We could use more hands.

We could do so much more. Appalachia is a big region--there are far more isolated, low-income schools we long to help. If you'd like to join us, please do. Thanks to First Book and our corporate partner, Parnassus, we're able this year to buy more books with your donations. Last year it cost $32.50 to enroll a child in our program. We won't know our final numbers until the end of the school year, but so far we're on track to be close to $20.

$20 for one child for the year. $150 for the teacher's classroom books. $500 to sponsor an entire class. For donations of $1000 or more we'll put special bookplates in the books honoring the person of your choice. You can send checks to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at P.O. Box 3283, Bristol, TN, 37620. You can use the donate button on our website. Or you can click the Facebook button, above.

Thank you so much. We are so very grateful for you.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Post for Leslea, and Everyone Else

I was going to write about some other stuff today--a combination of weird dumb things I've done lately (ask me where my car is parked right now; ask me why) (oh, okay--blocking the barn doors, because I left the lights on while doing an hour's worth of chores and ran the battery down, and that was a week ago and I still haven't bothered to jump it) and my plans for NCTE this weekend (all I will say there: ARCs of Fighting Words at 2 pm Saturday at the Penguin booth), but I got a little derailed by something, and it's bothering me.

Two somethings, really. The first is small: I continue to notice, when I look at the statistics on this blog, that the most-read post is whatever is the most recent one, which makes sense. The second most-read post is always, always, "A Touch on Lesbianism," a post I wrote in January, 2015. To find that post you'd have to search for it. Apparently a lot of people do. So apparently it's still a Thing.

The second thing bothering me is much bigger. The Nerdy Book Club posted an interview of me on their blog last week, about Fighting Words. The day before, they posted an essay by my friend Leslea Newman. (Her first name ought to have an accent on the a--it's pronounced Les-lee-ah, not Les-lee-- but I can not figure out how to put it there. I'm sorry, Leslea.) Leslea is a more accomplished and gifted writer than I am. She's published over 70 books in every genre--adult fiction, nonfiction, children's picture books, middle grades, YA, poetry for all ages--and she's a talented, compassionate teacher. She's Jewish. She grew up in Brooklyn. She's married to a woman.

Leslea structures her school presentations around sets of her books and a central theme. She offers lots of options for different ages and topics--easy to do when you've written so many marvelous stories. Recently she was scheduled to speak at two conservative Jewish schools in Brooklyn (where Leslea herself grew up) about her Jewish-themed picture books, including her recent Gittel's Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is based on Leslea's own family history. A few days before the visit, the schools called to reconfirm that Leslea would only be talking about her Jewish books. She agreed that yes, she would be.

Then the schools cancelled anyway.

Leslea is also the author of the picture book Heather Has Two Mommies. She's also the author of October Mourning, a teen book about Matthew Shepard.

The schools were afraid she was going to talk about gay people. Or represent gay people. Or simply be a gay person that the students might come to like and respect. I'm not sure which. But Leslea wrote an essay about it, and it made me furious, on her behalf and on behalf of all the kids who missed out on hearing her. Who missed out on an important book about family and courage and Jewish identity. Who missed out on learning how to turn history and facts into poetry and beauty. Who missed out on meeting a woman they would like and respect, whom they might discover, at some point, was gay. Or not.

There are gay children at the schools who cancelled Leslea. There are children with gay parents at the schools who cancelled Leslea. There are children who will someday have gay children at the schools who cancelled Leslea. To pretend otherwise is to ignore truth.

We as a society have got to stop being afraid of gay people. Homosexuality isn't smallpox. You can't catch it from other people. It isn't syphilis. There shouldn't be any shame attached. You can belong to a religion that doesn't allow gay people to be married in your church, and still affirm the rights of gay people to be married under civil law and to be generally as decent as straight people. You don't have to hide their existence from your children. If your children haven't already figured out the existence of gay people, they will soon enough: all they learn from silence is shame. What's that Taylor Swift lyric? "Shame never made anybody less gay." But it might make them suicidal. Pushing another person toward suicide, that's a sin in any faith.

Most of the one-star reviews I get for The War That Saved My Life are from people outraged that I say that my character Susan Smith is gay. (It's not explicit in the books.) What might crack me up if I didn't find it so incredibly irritating is that the reviews often contain an edge of self-righteousness--"I don't hate gay people, I hate sin." Susan, not once, not ever, in either of my books featuring her, commits a sin of sexuality under any definition you could offer. She does not date nor seek to date nor have any sort of romantic or sexual relationship whatsoever. She does not pine for one. She's mourning someone who's been dead three years. For all any reader can tell, Susan may be planning to remain celibate the rest of her life--I myself don't know, because I'm not writing about that--which would render her, in any faith, spectacularly non-sinful. And still. This isn't something children should be exposed to? I can't understand the logic.

I also can't understand the hate. I read my Bible. Among other things, Deuteronomy forbids wearing mixed-fiber clothing, women cutting their hair, tattoos of any sort, and eating owls. Owning slaves is okay. Jesus never once talks about homosexuality, but he forbids divorce a whole bunch of times, and we're all okay with ignoring that.

I'm imaging a world in which a large percentage of the population hated anyone with red hair. Thought red hair was sinful. You could, of course, dye your hair so no one would know. Pretend to be raven-haired. Parents would sit down with their babies and swab their roots. Carefully dye each little eyebrow. Puberty would complicate matters--there's that private hair. You'd have to step up the concealment, or never reveal your private parts to anyone. And your hair would still be red. No matter what you did.

Leslea's website carries the tagline, "Changing the world, one book at a time."

My friend, I certainly hope so. Mazel tov on your work so far.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Requiem for the Best Horse

Every night since he died I've dreamed of Gully. I have a thousand memories, all of them good.

Some of them were only good in retrospect. The day he and his best friend, Syd, got loose at a horse trial, dive-bombed the adult beginner novice warmup area, then cavorted on the cross country course for half an hour before being caught? I was fairly ticked off at the time. Now, though, I remember the glee on Gully's face. I remember my daughter collapsing across a hay bale with silent laughter. It was a dozen years ago. I remember it like yesterday.

Before I got Gully, I had never evented, but I wanted to. My children were 5 and 2 when I had to retire my honest horse Trapper; we already had my son's cheerful pony Hot Wheels. We had just started building our house and barn and really I had no business getting another horse. This was still in the early days of the internet--when people sent you actual videotapes of sale horses instead of putting them online. I started looking at Connemaras--an Irish pony breed, known for their intelligence and athleticism--just, of course, for information's sake. For education.

Did I mention I had no business buying a horse? Did I mention I knew very little about eventing?

I'd look at horse tapes and think, nope, not that one. Until I saw Gully.

On the tape he was in an indoor, under Western tack. He'd had exactly six weeks' work under saddle, and then his owners, who lived in Alberta, had thrown him back into the field. He was three years old. He'd not been started over fences. He'd not been ridden English.

I loved him instantly. Couldn't tell you why. Which was when I had to fess up to my husband--oh, by the way, I've been looking at sale horses and I found one I want, and he's so far away that going to try him doesn't seem feasible, and also I'm not sure how much sense it would make since he knows very little, and I want him. He's my event horse. He's perfect for me.

You can see how much my husband loves me.

When I told my soon-to-be-neighbor and already good friend that I planned to buy a horse I'd have to board a least a year while we finished the house, she said, "Think about this. Light fixtures--or horse?"

"Horse," I said.

She frowned. "LIBRARY BOOKSHELVES--or horse?"

I flinched, but said, "horse."

"Wow," she said, "I clearly don't understand this horse shit at all."

Years later, when I was training with some of the top women in eventing, they'd ask how I came to find my wonderful horse. Their response when I told them was always the same: a look of total incredulity, a shake of the head, and a "wow, were you lucky."

I was so lucky.
I loved him so.

He loved cross country. He loved to jump. He was honest and brave, crackingly smart, oh so good.

Seven years ago I retired him due to a mysterious persistent lameness. We thought it was navicular, but it wasn't, because after two and a half years of turnout he became once again entirely sound. (There's a bit more to the story, but not much, and no clear answers.) I was competing my new mare Sarah then, and didn't have time to keep two horses going,. My daughter had her fabulous Mick. Gully wanted a job, and my young friend Caroline needed a horse to ride. I thought they might be a match. They were.

The very first time Caroline rode Gully, out in our seven-acre field, he tripped on something, fell to his knees, and tossed her. (I don't think it could have been the only time she came off him, but I can't recall another.) Later, in the barn, Caroline said, "Afterward he wouldn't stop apologizing. He kept saying, 'I'm so sorry!' and I kept saying, 'Buddy, it's alright!' He'd say, 'I didn't mean it!' and I'd be like, 'Accidents happen, I understand!'

My daughter stared at her. "He TALKS to you?"

Caroline looked embarrassed, but held her ground. "I mean, um, yeah--he was totally talking to me. I mean, I could understand everything he had to say."

My daughter said, "Because that horse only ever talks to my mother."

Which up until then had been true. Gully only ever loved me, until he met Caroline. Then he loved us both. He carried her for three years without ever a cross-country fault. They were fifth in our region in the year-end standings a year ago, when age caught up with him and we retired him once again.

For the past two months he'd been ill, and lame, and then better, and then not, and then the problem looked fixable, and then even though it should have been getting better it wasn't. Gully was cheerful in his stall, eating, happy to see me, but putting less and less weight on one leg. My vet needed to take an xray but her machine was broken; on Monday, as soon as it was fixed, she came out to the farm.

I was two states away. I could hear the dread in her voice when I picked up the phone. No way to save him. No choice.

My husband offered to drive us back immediately but it would have taken at least eight hours. I called Caroline. "I'll be there," she said. "I'm going there right now. I am on my way."

Any gift I ever gave her, letting her ride my lovely boy, was more than repaid in that moment. Caroline showed up with a whole bag of his favorite cookies. She Facetimed me and my daughter at college to let us say goodbye. Gully was surrounded by love through the end.

Every night I dream of Gully. All the dreams are good.