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goneswimming(Source: http://www.etsy.com/listing/109897871/hanging-gone-swimming-burned-driftwood)

Well, folks might have noticed that I’m not around these parts much these days. One good reason for it is that I’m working on a brand-spanking-new, extra-fancy, now-with-links-and-more website! That’s right! Sometime in the next month or so I’ll update all of Internetlandia with my new-and-improved online world.

So meanwhile, enjoy the summer, keep your toes in the sand and eat copious amounts of ice cream.

I’ll be back before you know it!

 

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Or Why We Need Issue Books Before Something Can Be a Non-Issue

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My book, that’s coming out next year, is a funny Middle Grade novel about a family that gets into typical high-jinks adventures. The family is neither rich nor poor, (poverty is not the issue in the book); the kids are neither brilliant nor developmentally delayed (education and intelligence is not the issue in the book); the friendships are both strong and less-strong (friends are not the issue in the book). And the parents are good, if flawed, people who both happen to be men (the parenting is not the issue in the book). Also not the big capital-I-Issue in the book? The gender of the parents. They are in some ways typical Middle Grade parents — sometimes wise, sometimes missing obvious cues, something funny, sometimes loving. Their sex life figures as prominently as you would expect it to, which is to say not at all (can you imagine Mr. and Mrs. Banks in MARY POPPINS getting all lovey-dovey? Or having to worry about Molly and Arthur Weasley in HARRY POTTER groping each other on the couch in the Burrow? EW).

THE FAMILY FURNIVAL is not what some in the industry refer to as “an issue book.” Issue books are ones that deal with a particular and topical issue: bullying, racism, and so on.

Very often, issue books are popular at a particular time in the awareness of the issue. Divorce, for example, was an “issue” when I was growing up. Divorce rates were skyrocketing and popular media and psychologists alike were expounding on children of divorce and what it all meant. And children’s books appeared on the shelves to deal with this issue the way books always help us deal with things: by helping us empathize, by putting us in other peoples’ shoes, by showing us we are not alone. But slowly, the issue faded. Now there are countless children’s books that have divorced families. We take it for granted.

An issue book can be an amazing nuanced piece of writing. Or it can be a kind of heavy-handed moralistic tale. But regardless, these books play a role in first recognizing, then normalizing, something that challenges us and makes us feel alone. Divorce, boyfriends/girlfriends from another faith, bi-racial friendships, then bi-racial romances, then questioning LGBTQ teens…these are all topics that have gone from being “issues” to be dealt with to common realities in real life and in the pages of kids books.

Polls show that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Other countries are also moving in this direction. Marriage is a pretty mainstream thing. It’s rated G, for the most part, unless there are too many overly romantic kisses, which means it might be rated PG-13.

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It’s hardly like we’re advocating for orgies here.

But at the same time, a quick search showed me that there aren’t a whole lot of kids’ books that reflect this reality. While Young Adult books have really developed issue books to the point where many characters are gay “just because,” so to speak, the same hasn’t really been true about Middle Grade and/or gay families. So while I emphatically did not want to write an issue book, I did want to write a book that showed a world — hopefully one very like our own — where a loving family had the luxury of taking themselves for granted.

After all, doesn’t Dumbledore deserve the same rights as any other muggle wizard?

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(All the amazing photos of these fab signs came from here. check them out for more!)

Well, as I wrote in my last post, I went to Nepal. Why, many people asked. Work? Volunteer commitment? Family connections?

Nope. The answer, to quote the famed climber George Mallory,when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, is simple. “Because it’s there.”

Now I will be quick to point out that we did NOT climb Everest; or attempt to climb Everest, or, frankly, climb anything that resembled it. No, my family and I went trekking, where we walked up and down in the mountains for several weeks, climbing to 5000 meters (15,000 feet) and experiencing the most glorious views, of Everest, Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, and many other famous peaks. There were no ice axes, no crampons, no ropes or belays. We walked.

And this is where we walked:

It is an extraordinary place.

Nepal is also a very spiritual place. The mountains are the homes of the gods, for many cultures, and the Khumbu region and Sagarmatha, to use the Nepali word for Everest, is a holy place. Prayer flags fluttered constantly, releasing millions of prayers into the wind. Prayer wheels lined the village paths and we would turn them clockwise as we walked. Mani stones carved with the Buddhist mantra OM MANI PADME HUM dotted the trails.

It was both easy and hard to feel connected to the divine there. Easy because of how extraordinary the views were, how much the gods and nature seemed to be working in cosmic concert. Hard because…well…we bring ourselves wherever we go. We bring our achy muscles, our itchy socks, our thoughts about how the car needs to be repaired, our annoyance that someone else ate the last bite of chocolate….in short, everything that makes us human.

And while I’d love to say I trekked in a state of transcendental joy the whole time, unbothered by corporeal or mundane challenges, that would be a big fat lie. I trekked in joy, certainly, but also in conversation with my kids about their favorite songs and whether we would have beef stew or Chinese food the first night we got home and if we missed hot showers or fresh fruit more. And sometimes I didn’t trek with joy at all. I trekked annoyed at someone’s whining, or trekked slowly, putting one foot in front of the other, thinking of nothing but how exhausted I was, and dreaming of sea level oxygen.

We are home now. Within days, life at home returned to its former patterns and schedules. After all, we were only gone a month, not years. Laundry piled up, grocery shopping was done, homework starting flowing. Nepal receded from all of our minds.

Nepal didn’t change us, really. I didn’t have whole books spring full blown, Athena-like, from my head. I didn’t have meaningful life-changing discussions with my husband or children. My kids still hoover down a whole bag of pretzels and leave the empty package on the table. It still bugs me and I bark at them. We are the same.

But not exactly the same. We have friends in Nepal now, who invited us to their home and made us lunch, where that home had a dirt floor and an outhouse around the corner in the garden. We stared into the Buddha eyes on stupas and saw holy men, or Sadhus, at Hindu temples and realized that our personal Jewish-Christian hybrid is just one piece of the spiritual puzzle. We watched children holding on to the back of their parent’s motorbikes in crowded cities and realized seatbelts and carseats were luxuries not to be take for granted. We avoided even wetting our toothbrushes with tap water and recognized just how precious clean drinking water is.

Maybe we are changed, but still ourselves.

I hope someday we go back to Nepal. Next time we go, if someone asks why, we will have a better answer. We will say, “because we loved it there.”

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Namaste.

So I realize I don’t write regularly but this is a longer hiatus than usual. I meant to write a long log post leading up to it, but the fact is that I left home almost two weeks ago to trek in the Himalayas, near Mount Everest, with my family.

And I am there right now.

Ye, thanks to the wonders of technology I actually have Internet for the next few hours. So I am popping in simply to say I will be back in Mid-December with epic posts about this trip.

Until then, I will simply enjoy the journey.

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Namaste

An Open Letter to Ann Coulter.

Let’s start by saying that Ann Coulter is an asshat and not worthy of acknowledgement. But I’m posting this response  by John Franklin Stephens to her word-vomit because to me it is the epitome of respectful* discourse.

He writes:

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.

Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.

Read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.

 

*I know calling  her an asshat isn’t respectful. That’s why he’s a better man than I.

The second half of my life will be swift,
Past leaning fenceposts, a gravel shoulder, asphalt tickets, the beckon of open road.
The second half of my life will be wide-eyed, fingers shifting through fine sands, arms loose at my sides, wandering feet.
There will be new dreams every night, and the drapes will never be closed.
I will toss my string of keys into a deep well and old letters into the grate.

The second half of my life will be ice breaking up on the river,
rain soaking the fields,
a hand held out, a fire,
and smoke going upward, always up.

from Crossroads, by Joyce Sutphen (with thanks to writer-friend Margo for the poem)

Peace like a river

I worked briefly in the world of corporate marketing, and while it didn’t really take I can say this: if you are planning to name an organization and call it by its initials, don’t go with Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Or even worse, New England Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators. Because SCBWI and NESCBWI do not exactly roll off the tongue. However, it is a truly amazing organization that offers all kinds of information and resources to writers around the world. But their name kind of stinks.  So henceforth I will refer to it as NESABCDIENSHSDFIOSDPGHFG and you will all know what I am talking about.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about my first ever writer’s conference, held in sexy downtown Springfield MA, which was indeed the New England regional SCVWSDFDIOIOPI conference.

It rocked.

I was inspired by Sara Zarr, who managed to apply writing theory, psychology, and more to the excellent FROG AND TOAD books. (And she read aloud to us…all of us…in the big hotel ballroom. I absolutely luuuurve being read to).

With truly practical hands-on workshops with Kate Messner, Mitali Perkins, and their kin, I learned stuff that has already helped enormously as I slog (again!) through revisions.

And my one-on-one query letter critique with agent Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary agency was also enlightening, mostly for showing me that my query kind of sucked (Not that Joan said that – she was a paragon of kindness and professionalism). But even that news was good! Because I haven’t sent it out yet, and now I know. *wanders off to lick wounds for a few minutes*

In some ways it was a homogenous group. After all, we were all writers or illustrators for kids, and we mostly live in the New England region (with the notable exception being the incredible, talented, hysterical, and mildly creepy Kate Boorman, who I imported from Edmonton Alberta for the event). But even within the group there was diversity of experience, of age, of interest, of talents. And it was fascinating to meet watercolor artists in their 70’s who wanted to begin illustrating books, or illustrators who have dozens of publishing credits to their name but now want to dip a toe in the oceans of writing, not just illustrating.

Jane Yolen, who is perhaps one of the funniest and most deadpan speakers I’ve ever enjoyed listening to, was the North Star of the conference. She answered questions on the first day (a notable response to one gentleman who asked about constantly having to come up with new ideas: “nobody ever said writing was for sissies!”), and gave a closing speech on the last. And though it all reminded us that this takes discipline, it is not for everyone, it is important, and it never, ever gets easy.

The woman has written over 300 books. She is called the Hans Christian Anderson of America.

And she says it’s still hard work.

Just Call me Sisyphus

So yes, SCWSIAODSDFDKLDSI is an incredible organization. I loved getting my nerd on with the aforementioned and awesome Kate Boorman, and immersing myself into the world of writing for a few days. This is a great place to learn and be inspired. Just…maybe don’t take their advice on titles.

No matter how mild the winter, no matter how fast it passes, I’m always delighted to see these.

Happy spring!!

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This could almost work as Monday Book Love, because I really enjoyed Mike Mullin‘s book ASHFALL. It is a very cool premise: a normal fifteen-year-old boy Alex is home alone when the supervolcano brewing under Yellowstone National Park explodes. The world is covered in ash and Alex begins his journey away from his ruined home to find his family.

It’s pretty awesome. There’s the scary. There’s the really nasty. There’s the kindness. There’s the sexy stuff.

Ah, there’s the rub. There’s some sexy stuff. Not really sexy, mind you. Not like, Harlequin Romance style. More a very sweet, kind, realistic and honest relationship between Alex and Darla, the girl he meets and ultimately travels with.

So here’s the thing. In his blog post, author Mike Mullin talks about how he gets lots of disapproval and general grief for the brief, caring, off-screen “sexual content” of his book, while no one* seems to be particularly concerned by the violence. And by violence I mean VIOLENCE. Not DIE HARD style, exactly, but there are heads blown off by guns, eyes knocked out…yeah. Violence.

Reading Mullin’s post was deeply refreshing. And completely in line with what I believe. So I’ll share his words, and the link so you can read the whole thing.

Well done, M. Mullin. If you need help on that censorship campaign, just let me know. I’m behind you all the way.

I WRITE DIRTY BOOKS AND I’M PROUD OF IT

Here’s one of the questions I’ve been asked frequently about my debut novel, ASHFALL: “Is it clean?” The first time the question came up, I was taken aback—what did he mean? I examined the stack of books on the table beside me—had I spilled my coffee and not noticed? After checking over a couple of the books, I reassured the questioner—yep, they’re clean. 

 The librarian standing next to me was shaking her head. “He’s asking about the content,” she whispered. “Oh,” I replied, “it’s about an apocalypse, realistically depicted. It’s violent.”

 “That’s fine,” said the guy—a pastor—picking up a copy.

 The librarian was still shaking her head. “There are, um, sexual situations in the book,” she said. The guy’s eyes widened, he set down the book, and marched away.

 You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought, any kind of violence is okay but the mere mention of sex is not? ASHFALL has a scene in which Alex, the hero, knocks a man’s eye out of his skull. That’s better than two teens exploring their mutual attraction in a responsible, loving way? What exactly does that say about our culture? (None of the sex in ASHFALL is explicit, by the way—it all happens “off-screen,” during the chapter breaks. But if it were explicit, so what? It’s not an illustrated book.)

thought the pastor might be an aberration, but sadly, he wasn’t.  At one school I visited, the librarian prepared the students by reading the eye-popping scene out loud but scolded me for including fade-to-black “sex” scenes in the book.

I maintained my sense of indignation for months. Perversely, every time I was asked if ASHFALL was clean, I’d say no, it’s violent. I held out hope that eventually I’d find someone who would turn away from my work because of the violence, not because of a responsible teenage romance—gasp—realistically depicted. But if those people are out there—those who value love more highly than war—they’re awfully quiet.

The rest of his post can be found here. I encourage you to read it. And to read ASHFALL…even if you’re only looking for the dirty parts.

*Of  course I did not take a poll of every librarian and bookseller in the world and ask if they were okay with the eye-ball poking scene but freaked out by the loving, hoping to have safe-sex scenes. Consider this my waiver against statements of hyperbole.