Archive for October, 2010

Deep breath…

Friday, October 29th, 2010

I’ve been avoiding the topic all day, but it would feel too strange not to post about it here.  (at the very least because my mom will want the links. Hey, Mom!)

So I have to share that I got a very upsetting review this week. From a reader I have, until now, valued. This blogger and I share a lot of favorite books, and she’s smart and eloquent, and I’ve felt honored by her appreciation for my writing.  But she hit a wall she couldn’t see over when, while  reading PENNY DREADFUL, she met two women named Willa and Jenny.  She wrote this about the experience:

The only problem is, being a lesbian is not normal. It’s not something that “just happens” to people, like being poor or brave. In fact, when you look through Biblical glasses, homosexuality is, well, an abomination.

Characters like Willa and Jenny, however, with their happy little family, show elementary-age readers that Christian beliefs are hateful and silly. Add these characters to the full-blown assault of politically-correct propaganda that is molding America’s children.

I spent last night, and most of today, trying to process this review. I was really really sad, and shocked.  Not because I didn’t know that people would respond this way. But because I wasn’t expecting people I liked to respond this way. I was just… baffled.

I’ve avoided posting a comment, not because I’m uncomfortable with conflict (quite the opposite), but because I didn’t want to get tangled up in any vitriol before I knew how I felt. I didn’t want to fan the flames of a comment-war, and I didn’t want to have to own other people’s responses (even those in my defense).  Though I appreciate the emotions people are sharing, and I am grateful for the fact that, by and large, people are keeping it civil. I appreciated that Roger Sutton blogged about the situation, and I continue to appreciate all the warm notes from friends via Twitter, Facebook, and email. Penny thanks you all!

Now I want to say a few (somewhat unrelated) things. They are the things swirling in my head. They may shift, but I know I can claim them:

1. I will support, always, the right of any reader to  NOT read a book.  No book is right for every reader, and no reader can love every book.    I will also support the right of any reviewer (blogger, writer, etc) to criticize any book. On any grounds, really, so long as the reviewer is honest. A reviewer doesn’t have to be right, or smart, or even fair.  They just can’t make things up.

2. That said, I think it’s sad that (as was pointed out by many) the blogger in question made a leap from being  uncomfortable with homosexuality to thinking that a benign/happy depiction of a gay family is a threat to  Christian principles. It isn’t a threat. It really never is– not even to this flavor of   “Christian” principles.  A free flow of information and ideas will serve to test and strengthen any convictions worth having.  These sorts of knee jerk reactions are made out of fear, not conviction. I hope she’ll finish the book, and see how she feels at the end.  Some of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had were with books I hated.

3. I think it’s sad that in the comments that followed the post, the blogger began to sound less mindful, less thoughtful, increasingly defensive.  Automatic. More fearful. Midway through the comments she  expands her  fear of books about happy gay families.  “It’s exchanging the truth of God for a lie, whether the family practices homosexuality, worships Allah and Mohamed, or declines to believe that the historical Jesus is God’s Son.” I can’t even begin to tackle that one.  If any non-”Christian” sympathetic character is a problem for a reader, the conversation is finished.  I mean, Anne Frank?  Trump card. Game over.

4. Related: the Levy Family, in my book Any Which Wall, happens to be Jewish.  I wonder if knowing that will change the blogger’s experience of the book.

5. I am refraining from making a list of all the famous gay authors of children’s books.  Maybe I shouldn’t refrain.

6.  In a comment below his own post, Roger says “I also think she could have constructed a sparky kind of post had she taken on the topic of authors inserting what sometimes seem to be gratuitous ads for their pet causes (or favorite books; this happens frequently) in ways that I think pull the reader away from the story. I read the Snyder a while ago and don’t remember if I felt this way or not…” To that question I’d like to offer that I don’t think Willa and Jenny are gratuitous. I didn’t toss them in to be politically correct. Their role is minor to the plot, but they are part of the project at hand. One thing I wanted to do with this book was to show the deep diversity of a tiny community. I wanted to showcase that small towns can be as diverse as large cities– in some cases more so because in a small town, everyone has to learn to actually live together.  I wanted to show the strengths of that way of living, and I wanted to highlight the profound effect small town community can have on a child. I wanted the new world of Thrush Junction to have a big effect on Penny, and I wanted all of the different sorts of characters (old and young, hearing and deaf, rich and poor, gay and straight, artistic and professional,  uptight and bohemian–and so on and so on) to get sort of thrown together, like family. So there’s that. Not a defense, but an explanation. I stand behind my inclusion of  Willa and Jenny in the book. Not just politically, but creatively.

7. In her last comment, the blogger adds, “My comments are not about my opinion. They come straight from the Bible, the only standard of truth and morality that has ever existed.” This is not something I can argue with. Until I saw that line, I’d been planning to write a real letter to the blogger, something for her eyes only. I thought maybe we could have a conversation about all of this, she and I. But that line’s a show stopper. If she truly believes this to be the case, that the Christian Bible is the “only standard of truth and morality that has ever existed,” I don’t know how to engage her.

8. I don’t think “being brave” just “happens to people.”

On NOT writing an LGBT book…

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Out in the streets (and all over Facebook) people are wearing purple today. In support of LGBT teens in general, and specifically in memory of the six kids who died this year (that we know of) after experiencing severe anti-LGBT bullying. Which is so sad and difficult even to think about…

Not unrelated, Kirkus has a great link to  some notable gay/lesbian books, some great books, and that got me thinking… about my own book, Penny Dreadful, and the decision that I made to include a certain family in it.  There’s a character, a small boy named Twent, who has two mommies–Willa and Jenny.  Readers don’t get to know Jenny much (she’s mostly at work) but Willa stays home with Twent, and she’s massively pregnant, and she has long hair, and Penny thinks she’s wonderful!

But here’s the thing– Penny Dreadful isn’t, I don’t think, an LGBT book. Though I’m honored to have it included in lists that suggest it is. It isn’t about anyone being gay, or about anyone being straight (I can’t think of many middle grade books that are about hetero identity, really, despite all the randy straight parents who are surely boffing all night long, in the pages that never got written. Naughty Marmie!).  Penny Dreadful is just about people who happen to be lots of things. There are characters who are gay and straight, white and black, hearing-impaired and not-so-much, timid and brave, rich and poor, old and young. Simply because I challenge you to find a town that isn’t all of those things.  I didn’t write Willa and Jenny into the book to make it a gay book. I wrote them  to make it a real book, an honest book. A book about the world, which is full of all kinds of people.

I think we need this–books not about things–as much as we need books about things.  I talk about this a lot, with regards to Judaism, that we need to read about Jews in picture books that aren’t clobbering us with a big Jewish educational hammer.  Because I think it helps kids, to see themselves  and their families, in a book, just being human , living in the world, finding magic or having adventures, or eating spaghetti, or doing chores, or whatever…

This is something I’m learning about right now, a step I’m taking with my writing.  I’m trying to engage with reality a little more than I have in the past, and part of that is engaging with diversity.  And I want to think that if more books represented diversity this way, simply, without it being a big issue all the time, more kids would understand that it isn‘t always a big issue.  I’d like to think that children’s books are a wonderful way to begin the process of educating people about how varied human experience is, and about how all of it, all of it, is normal.

Kids do  a lot of things. They struggle with their homework, eat peanut butter, kill dragons, fight with their parents.  Some of the parents are Jewish and some of the kids are Asian and some are gay and some are Mormon and so on and so on…  that’s not really the story, at least not all the time.

Though the dragons… well, when the dragons are gay Mormons, that changes things a little.

But I can’t tell you about that today. You’ll have to wait for my next book for that tale.

The Penny Dreadful Book Club!!!

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

I know that some of you have been waiting for this. Here ’tis!  I hope you’ll help me circulate it to teachers and librarians.  I’m especially interested in reaching out to home-schooling groups who may not often have a chance at an in-person author visit, and to schools without budgets for such things.

Ahem. Here goes nothing!  I may live to regret this moment…

Below, you will find a list of books I love. Some of them are newish books, but most of them are old. Most of them are “classics.”   These are also books Penny loves, and so Penny and I have talked about these books, and decided that we want  to encourage kids (and grownups) to read them.

To that end, we hereby announce the PENNY DREADFUL BOOK CLUB.  Intended as an experiment in new technology and old books! The rules are as follows.

  1. For any group of (at least) THREE kids (or grownups, I guess) who wants to get together and read THREE books from the list below (that they have not read before) I will offer a FREE SKYPE VISIT to chat with the group about the books they’ve read.  I’ll also happily chat about other things, but at the heart of the conversation should be the books on this  list.
  2. This offer is open to anyone, any group of three readers, for the entire year of 2011.
  3. Skype visits will be scheduled at a mutually convenient time, but must be arranged at least a month in advance.
  4. I will schedule eight visits per month, no more.  First come first served.  Once the slots are filled, they’re filled.
  5. Groups should email me before they begin the process, so I can keep everything organized. When you write to me to express interest, I’ll send you all a little envelope with some bookmarks, for keeping track of your reading!
  6. Nobody needs to like the books I like.  In general, Penny and I agree that good conversations usually involve some amount of disagreement.  But I am pretty certain that everyone can find something on this list to like!
  7. A parent/teacher/guardian/librarian/grownup of some sort must be the initial point of contact for the visit.  I will make up a permission slip, so that everyone feels nice and safe.  I’m a pretty harmless person, but a permission slip will  keep things tidy.
  8. Skype visits will commence in January, 2011.  When I’m home from the road.
  9. Kids should feel free to read MORE than three books.  But three seems like a nice number to start with.
  10. Groups can be as large as they would like to be! I’m happy to meet with classrooms and organized books clubs or library groups. But I don’t want home-schooled kids or interested threesomes of readerly afterschool chums to be excluded.
  11. Participants should feel free to email me through my website, as they read, if they have questions, or want to chat/connect.  I’ll also be happy to follow up with emails after any skype session, to strengthen the sense that kids have really “gotten to know” an author.
  12. I reserve the right to add books to the list, as I read them.  I don’t want any books on the list I haven’t read myself, because I need to be able to discuss them too!

I think that’s basically it. Pretty simple, really. You find a few friends, read three books from this list of awesomeness, and I’ll skype in to chat with you and see what you thought.  Any questions? Leave them below!

***

Matilda, Dahl

Hello, Mrs Piggle Wiggle, McDonald

Mary Poppins, Travers

The Penderwicks , Birdsall

Betsy-Tacy, Hart Lovelace

Swallows and Amazons, Ransome

Bedknob and Broomstick, Norton

The Bad Beginning, Snicket

Pippi Longstocking, Lindgren

Olivia Kidney, Potter

Seven Day Magic, Eager

Five Children and It, Nesbit

Because of Winn Dixie, DiCamillo

The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster

Gone Away Lake, Enright

Ballet Shoes, Streatfield

The Thirteen Clocks, Thurber

Coraline, Gaiman

The Anybodies, Bode

Savvy , Law

Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, Konigsberg

The Egypt Game, Snyder

The Girl Who Could Fly, Forrester

Island of the Aunts, Ibbotson

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, Rowling

My One Hundred Adventures, Horvath

Over Sea, Under Stone, Cooper

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis

Bridge to Terabithia, Patterson

Tuck Everlasting, Babbitt

Island of the Blue Dolphins, O’Dell

A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle

Emily of New Moon, Montgomery

Princess Academy, Hale

Dicey’s Song, Voigt

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Speare

Little Women, Alcott

Sleep when you can…

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

I’m in what you call “the thick of it” now.  Last week I was in Baltimore for a three day school visit. Then I came home to finish/turn in my new novel.   This weekend I’m in DC, and next week I have to finish/revise my new picture book.  Next weekend I’m in Mississippi…

And so it will go until December 6, when I return in the morning from St Louis, to spend my evening at the Atlanta Press Club Holiday Party.  After that I plan to fall over in a heap.

But I will add that I have a mantra for each trip: “come home rested.”  I’ve returned to my most important early-baby-having-lesson (sleep when you can).   Because all of my trips are weekends, and because I have to wake up at home each Monday, with two little monkeys jumping around me, this is critical, that I NOT come home from each weekend tired.

So I am trying my best to do just that.  To spend the non-work time in each city reading, sleeping, eating healthy food, going for walks, attempting to stay sane.

Wish me luck!

Jewish middle grade books…

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

It turns out… there are some!

The delightful Heidi Estrin knows all about them.   New ones. Old ones. Even funny ones!

So stop over at the Mixed Up files and discover  all her secrets, as revealed to me in a top-secret interview.

(okay, it wasn’t so top-secret, but didn’t that make it more fun?)

NaNoWriMo and me…

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Wow!  I totally forgot about this…

But it’s true. Penny Dreadful began as a NaNoWriMo book.

It changed a ton after I drafted it. It changed three times, actually, and was rewritten entirely.  But that first draft resulted from the amazing madcap November dash called National Novel Writing Month.

Now, I’m sitting here, remembering, and thinking about how I’m turning Bigger than a Breadbox over to my gifted copyeditors this week.

And I’m wondering if I can do NaNoWriMo again,  and survive Jewish Book Month at the same time.

Hmmm….

PENNY bits and nibbles…

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Poor Penny.  I’ve neglected to blog all her first-week-of-existence nibbles. I’ve just been so dang busy.  On the road! Doing school visits! Getting ready for my mommy’s birthday! Catching a cold!

But in case you’re interested… here are a few…

I love the cast of characters; not only Luella, Penny and her parents, but the other residents of Thrush Junction and the Whippoorwills, too. It’s like Mayberry meets The Wonder Years.

Penny will grab your heart on page 1. She is an “every girl” that allows you to see yourself as a 10-year-old, too.

This is one of those books you can happily hand to any patron. Adults will enjoy it just as much as kids.

…. a great read for any child whose family is dealing with financial strain or changed employment circumstances.

Also… Penny is a WORD book of the week!

And in case you want more… last night Penny did a fun “live chat” over at Books-A-Million!

Return to middle school…

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

I must confess… I hated middle school.  Hated it.

I didn’t love high school that much either, but I really loathed middle school.  In part because for me, getting through middle school involved a lot of pretending to like it.  We moved when I was in the seventh grade, and as the “new girl” I did a lot of pretending.  (look for that theme in my next book…)

Honestly, I’m not a good pretender.

But I’m happy to report that my return to middle school this week, for a three day school visit in Pikesville, MD, has been wonderful so far.  Great kids!  Nice grownups!  Lovely school! A chance to be myself in a middle school for the first time.

All good stuff!

(though I might go out for lunch today. My nostalgia for cafeteria mashed taters can only extend so far)

I wonder… was it just me, or did other people struggle at that age? How was middle school for you? What sticks in  your memory from those years?

My middle school highlight was probably being on the “publicity committee” with my friend Jacqui.  We got to paint banners for all the school events. For some reason that was really fun.

My middle school DESPAIR involved a lot of bra snapping.  Remember that?  Remember when some boy a head shorter than you tried to snap your bra, and then laughed at you because you didn’t have one?

Oh, the shame…

Bzzzz…

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Busy bee-ing, haven’t had time to post the details about the Penny Dreadful book club.  Or about the lovely reviews and mentions the book has gotten the last week or two.  Or about the fact that fall is finally in the air!

But now I’m in Maryland, for a three-day-school visit at Pikesville Middle School.

And then, in a week, I turn BREADBOX over to copyediting.

And then, after that, I turn LONG WALK over to copyediting.

And then, after that, I spend  ten (TEN?) consecutive weekends away from home.    I get tired just thinking about it, but in truth I’m also crazily excited to visit so many wonderful  bookstores and festivals.

And then… then… then… I crash and learn to knit.

Cross my heart.