Saturday, March 17, 2018

Athletes, Artists, and Adventurers

I write this on my iPad in the Bristol airport. I’m waiting for my flight to Charlotte. From there I’ll go to Newark, and then Tel Aviv. My Israel adventure has begun.

(There’s a man in the terminal talking loudly and persistently to everyone—he just said, ‘I’m going for my PHD in math’, and now he’s explaining something about climate change via mathematical models—I’m hoping like heck I don’t sit next to him.)

I’m wildly excited but it was hard to leave home. My darling daughter had surgery yesterday, on the knee that’s been hurting since November. Last Saturday, a week ago, I was watching her fence at the east coast NCAA Regionals. My daughter’s only been fencing for 18 months; she was second-team all conference this year and one of only 6 division-III fencers to qualify for the NCAA tournament in her weapon and region (in fencing, divisions I and III compete against each other). Her knee kept her from training as hard as she wanted to this year, and from doing some very specific fencing moves. This was her spring break; on Wednesday we took her to an orthopedist, had an MRI, and scheduled surgery for Friday. She heads back to school—500 miles away—tomorrow.

At Regionals she told me that one of her teammates related a story from her coach about who he’ll accept as a walk-on for the fencing team. (He plucked my daughter from a Beginning Fencing PE class her first semester of college.) “Athletes, artists, and musicians,” he said. Those three groups knew what it was like to be bad at something, and to work to improve.

I loved the idea that her coach predicted success by looking at who knew how to fail. That’s incredibly what writing feels like to me—successive failures without quitting. I wanted to work on the Egypt book this week—I need to, I have a deadline and it’s not looking good—but I didn’t, except in my head which counts but only a little bit. I spent the week reading my way through the Israel reading list I was given, meeting my review deadline, taking care of my daughter and spending time with her and my husband. It’s all very good.

This trip is an immense gift and I’m determined to learn from it all that I can. I’ve got a big journal going with me—I don’t keep a regular journal, but I sometimes keep them when I’m traveling—and one thing I’ve done so far is copy down quotes from some of the books I’ve read. From Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Herschel: “To have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminated abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.” And from Walking the Bible, by Bruce Feller: “The difference is God,’ [Avner] said. ‘He just appears and begins to create the world, using only words as tools.’”

And the book of Genesis: In the beginning was the Word.

Whee, this will be amazing. It’s a combination of what I love and what I feel called to do, and I’ll be in the company of other writers the whole time. My heart stays with my family. The rest of me yearns for Israel.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani

Children's books debut on Tuesdays, and this past Tuesday was a book birthday for a bumper crop of next-year's award winners--Mapping the Bones, Jane Yolen's 366th (!!!) published book, The Flying Girl, The Field, The Poet X--March 6th was a big day. It was also the book birthday of The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, which features a wee quote from me on the back (so does Mapping the Bones) right next to a quote by Renee Watson, or, as she's now known, Newbery Honor Winner And New York Times Bestselling Author Renee Watson. (I'm pretty excited for Renee. Can I call you one of my #Newberysisters? Loved Piecing Me Together, and loved meeting you at NCTE.)

OK. Sorry. That was a lot of name/title dropping in one paragraph. What I want to do today is tell you how I came to blurb The Night Diary. Because honestly, I wasn't gonna. Until I started reading.

Namratha Tripathi is the editor of The Night Diary. Her office is right next door to that of my main editor, Jessica Garrison, and Nami and I have worked together on some small things and shared meals and I like her tons. So when she emailed and said, I've got this book you'll love, I didn't want to turn her down. But only because I like her tons. It happened to be right as I was about to embark on two weeks of travel for the release of The War I Finally Won, and I was overwhelmed, and somewhat anxious, and I did not need to be reading something about Pakistan, for heaven's sake, from an author I'd never heard of, let alone as an electronic copy, which I dislike, and really for just about anyone other than Nami or Jess I would have said, no, sorry, I wouldn't blurb the New Testament if Christ himself asked me right now.

But it was Nami, so I said, ungraciously but with as much grace as I could muster, well, send it, maybe, we'll see.

Then on one of the very first flights of my trip I was seated in the bulkhead, so had to put all my bags in the overhead storage, and I was the window seat with two large persons in the middle and the aisle. Somehow I forgot to grab a book out of my bag (some sort of Regency romance, I'm sure, the type of book I read when I'm stressed) but I did have my phone, because I was texting family members until the boarding door closed and I had to switch the phone to airplane mode.

So there we have: bulkhead, large impediments to the aisle, bags overhead, phone. Later in the trip I probably would have just gone to sleep. But I sat sulkily looking at my mostly-defunct phone, and I remembered the story Nami sent me. I dislike reading on my phone even more than I dislike electronic manuscripts in general, but desperate times call for strange bedfellows, or something like that. I pulled it up and started reading. I'll be honest--I planned to stick with the novel for exactly as long as it took for the flight attendants to click off the seatbelts light, at which point I was going to make my seatmates get up so I could rummage in my bag.

Then the plane landed. And I was annoyed all over again. Because I had to get up, and I wasn't finished yet.

The very last thing I expected from The Night Diary is that the story and voice would utterly captivate me, especially when I was so determined not to be captivated. But they did.

So go buy it, hey. Or get it from your library. Worth the trip.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Sabbath Days

I’m at the airport typing this on my iPad, because my laptop’s out of batteries. I’m waiting for the airplane that will take me to Missouri for the start of a week of school visits. Friday I’ll take a train from my last school into Philadelphia, and Saturday I’ll watch my daughter fence in the NCAA Regionals. Sunday I’ll hang out in Philly with my whole family, then fly home. Then we’ll have my daughter home for spring break, then I leave for Israel. It’s going to be a mad March, for sure.

Which is why I treasured the last three days. My husband and I spent them at our house in the North Carolina mountains, near a very small town called Linville. We love our Linville house, but this year especially haven’t been able to be there as often as we’d like—we missed a planned weekend in January when our sweet dog was too ill to make the drive. The lovely thing about the Linville house is that it’s there, waiting for us, with a big fireplace and the world’s best porch, and trees shading us from all the world. At Linville I sleep soundly and at length—it’s become a joke in our family. Over and over again my teenaged children would come into my bedroom, sit on the foot of my bed, and say, “Mom. Wake up. It’s time for LUNCH.”

We arrived Thursday night after what had been a very long challenging week for my husband, and a pretty frisky one for me.

On Friday we slept until lunch. Then we went out for lunch, then we went to the grocery for dinner food so that we could return to our pajamas for the rest of the day.

My husband has done this never in his life before.

Mid-afternoon he took a nap.

We rested. We visited our favorite local art galleries. We took walks. We built big fires in the fireplace and drank nice wine. We reveled in each other’s company.

I’ve lived long enough to realize that time is my most precious commodity. It was such a gift to spend three days in happy tranquility. I’m grateful for every moment,

Thursday, March 1, 2018

I Prepare For The Trip of A Lifetime

I'm about to embark on what its organizers are cheerfully calling the Trip of a Lifetime. And I'm pretty sure that will be true. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation selected 20 children's book authors from a larger pool of applicants to spend eight days in Israel learning about Jewish and Israeli culture, with the idea that we would learn enough to be able to write about Judaism well.

I loved the idea. A Jewish German refugee named Ruth is an important character in my recent novel The War I Finally Won. I used lots of beta readers on several sections of the novel, but also I was helped by my naive Christian point-of-view character, who needed everything explained to her anyway. But if I wanted to ever write from Ruth's point of view--and I would like to--I would have to understand Judaism much better than I currently do. So I applied for this trip last fall. In January I learned I'd been accepted. I got final travel arrangements, an updated itinerary, a suggested packing list, and a list of all the participants.

I thought about contacting the organizers and asking if they had any suggested reading. Often when I travel I like to read about my destination beforehand, and especially on this trip I thought some background might be a big help. Before I could email them, however, they emailed me--with a suggested reading list! Some stories were attached as PDF files, and I zipped through those pretty quickly (2 picture books, 2 short stories, a middle-grades novel). The rest were unfamiliar to me, so I got on Amazon and ordered the lot.

"That's a lot of books for a trip that starts less than three weeks from now," my husband observed, as I typed in the order.

I ignored him. I read fast and regularly.

Well. Seven of the ten books just landed on my doorstep.

God in Search of Man. It's 400+ pages, and I just read the first seven. It's actual college-level philosophy. Then there's Israel: A History. 700 pages. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. Etc.

My husband and I are headed out in just a bit to spend the weekend at our house in the mountains. I'd already packed a bag of books for the trip. I just unpacked it, removing Homo Deus and some other you'll-need-to-think-about-it tomes. I'm going to be thinking about Israel this weekend, and reading as well as I can.

I did leave A Duke In Shining Armor in my bookbag. Might need it from time to time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What We Get in Return

This morning my beloved husband came to breakfast with tears in his eyes. It's the night of the team banquet for the middle-school basketball team he's coached for three years, and he had printed off something he wanted to read to them, and was stuffing it into his gym bag. I teased him that if he couldn't get through breakfast without tears he would never, ever get through his speech without tears, but yeah, he's not even gonna try. The man wears his beautiful heart on his sleeve.

Then I went into my office and saw that he'd called up, on my computer, a blog post I wrote three years ago about his basketball team. I suspect he'll be reading some of that. And then I fell down a rabbit hole of my own creation, reading a bunch of old blog posts. Some were about my Egypt book, which I feel like I've still barely begun (despite finishing and discarding an entire first draft). What can I say? I've written books quickly and written them slowly, and the slow ones have always been better.

Meanwhile some teachers have been sharing their students' work with me online. One teacher posted a whole series of poems written in response to The War That Saved My Life. They were lovely. One said, "She has a pony. Butter. Like what she put on my bread." Now, of course I knew the pony was named Butter--I named him, after a horse poem I read years ago that contained the line, "his mane smells like butter in the sun"--and I also remember writing, "all she had, she said, but there was butter on the bread and sugar in the tea," the first meal my Ada eats in Miss Smith's house, when she's startled by the comparative luxury--but I swear I had never connected those two pieces, until this student did. The pony is a piece of softness, like the butter on the bread. That's really good.

In the same vein, only not really, a set of valentines made by another class. The ones the teacher shared made me laugh until I cackled. I really, really want to print them off and make them into t-shirts that I can wear when I'm feeling cranky. One says, "Ada, I've got a crutch on you." That's bad, and hilarious, but the absolute best, honestly, was a very fierce drawing of Mam--all big shoulders and scowls--and the caption, "For Valentine's Day, I'll let you out of the cabinet."

I'm dying. I can't even type that without laughing out loud. It's so perfectly perverse.

I love writing for kids.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Never Again

I last posted on Valentine's Day. Ten days ago--that's a pretty long hiatus for me. All sorts of things happened in those ten days. My truck broke down in an active lane of a Florida state highway with two horses in the trailer I was pulling. My eventing family rushed to my aid--if there's any better response to my first frantic phone call than, "I'll be there in ten," I don't know what it is. Friends got the horses to safety, a total stranger pulled my rig to the shoulder, and we carried on. Then my horse hurt herself--but we have access to pretty good vets down there, and so I learned pretty quickly that it was a mild injury that should resolve soon. At home a dear friend was horribly ill, but he got better, and my daughter was sick, and she got better too. The sexual harassment thing still upsets me a lot, but at least we're talking about it.

On Valentine's Day I wrote and posted my previous blog entry about sexual harassment. It was hard for me to write. I felt edgy all afternoon, because of the post, but then everyone at the barn went off to karaoke night and for awhile life was excellent. Wednesdays are always karaoke night at the Ocala Palms Golf Club restaurant, which is a fancy-sounding name for a short mediocre golf course run through a community of identical retirement villaminiums. The restaurant usually serves cheap wine and burgers. In honor of Valentine's Day they offered a choice of chicken marsala or steak. Every table got a long-stemmed rose. Since there were 12 at our table, and only one couple, we passed the rose from person to person, solemnly. I don't know who ended up with it. We sang. (This is the only place in the world that I'll sing karaoke.) We line-danced. Plenty of couples slow-danced.

Then Poppy, the old man who runs the karaoke machine, called for a moment of silence. He had to call several times, as the crowd was loud and rowdy and the people in the back weren't paying attention. "Five seconds," Poppy insisted. "We're going to have five seconds of silence." He told us there had been another school shooting that day.

He told us 17 people had died.

You're a mother and you imagine hearing that your children's school is on lockdown. You imagine rushing to the school, waiting outside with parents you've known since nursery school, waiting, praying your children walk out. Seeing injured children carried out, whisked into ambulances. You probably know them. Little league, soccer teams, school plays. You've seen these children grow.

Nothing will lessen the tragedy of that day. But I've been watching in awe as those students, the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rose up and spoke out. Seventeen-year-old Camerone Kasky, a junior, asked Florida senator Marco Rubio on live tv if he would refuse to continue accepting money from the NRA. (Rubio ducked the question.) Now there's a movement, NeverAgain, and a march on Washington on March 24th.

My hometown is planning a similar march on the same day. I wish I could be there. I'll be in Israel learning about Judaism, for a future novel. March 24th is Shabbat, the one Shabbat during my trip. I'll spend it in Jerusalem. It will be easy to remember what's happening in the United States on that day.

This is a complicated issue in so many ways. A friend of mine, who hunts, commented on one of the pro-gun-control Facebook pages I shared, "If only it were this easy." It's not easy. I know that. But, as with sexual harassment, I'm profoundly glad that things are starting to change.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day! Let's Discuss Sexual Harrassment

Well, I spent last Sunday in a state of tension that melted into near-despair, from a situation I didn't anticipate. I'd been following some web reports of sexual harassment within the field of children's book publishing, and in the comments section of a School Library Journal people started naming their harassers. Who include some very big names in children's literature, one of whom, Matt de la Pena, I not only considered a friend, but vouched for to another author, who'd had bad experiences in the past. "He's one of the good guys," I said, based solely on my own experiences, which, according to several other women, were not the whole story, nor even close.

My friend--the woman in question--I'm so sorry.

Here's a good recap if you want to read further.

Publishing is like acting; it's very hard to break into the field, and lots of talented people want to. There's an innate power differential between bestselling authors and unpublished ones. This creates situations where power can be abused. It's incumbent upon all of us to be aware, to speak up, to believe accusers, and to distance ourselves from people who behave inappropriately.

One of the men accused, David Diaz, was a member of the board of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators when he was accused of inappropriate behavior several years ago. He was suspended from the board and underwent some sort of sexual harassment training. Then he was let back onto the board. That's the part I don't understand. We have so few people in an organization of over twelve thousand willing to serve on the board that we needed to put Diaz back on? Yeah. Didn't think so. (Subsequent to further issues, he's been removed not only from the board but from SCBWI.)

I'm a sexual assault survivor myself. I know to what extent harassment causes harm. I know how very much courage coming forward requires. I'm absolutely sick about all this. I'm grateful for the courage of those speaking up, because bringing this to light is the only way we can stop it.