Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Video Edition of The Backstory

Welcome to the first video edition of The Backstory. Jame Richards, the author of THREE RIVERS RISING (Knopf, April 2010) made a surprise visit to to my living room and You Tube studio...

We discussed a lot of things, including Nancy Drew as historical fiction (discuss amongst yourselves...) and most importantly, Jame's first book review!

So get out your remotes and enjoy...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jingle Bells, Batman Smells...

It's the holidays. People are on their best behavior...and their worst behavior. Remember the "Tickle Me Elmo" craze a while back? People were selling their children to get a Tickle Me Elmo--only to then find there was no one left to give him to! And of course, I can't leave out the Cabbage Patch doll holiday shopping bloodbath...ruthless housewives joined street gangs in order to get one of those little dolls under the Christmas tree.

I need to remember to look at my first graders whenever I feel my heart rate start to go up. They definitely keep it all real for me. Anything is possible...and expected with first graders. A few days ago, one of them asked me, "Aren't you going to put up a tree?"

Another great thing is that the holidays are often blurred. One of the girls occasionally brings Halloween back and wears her long, plush cat tail pinned to the back of her shirt. It doesn't create mumbles, or even a stare when she sweeps in with that thing on. Last week we sat down to do our morning meeting and someone casually throws out, "I like your tail."

"Thanks," she responds, with a glamorous toss of the hair. That girl will never have a heart attack.

Show and Tell time remains my favorite activity of the day, and usually consists of long Sears Wishbook lists around this time of year. But one of the girls has a lot of something else on her mind. She leans on the tall stool at the front of the room and gazes out into the crowd, ruefully. "My mom has this new baby," she says. "I keep trying to pet him, and all he does is cry on me."
I hear murmurs of sympathy from the crowd.

"I was helping my mom, and he sprayed pee all over me."

Great. She has mentioned the trifecta. Any brief mention of the trifecta (poop, pee, or underwear) can send your first graders into a frenzy that may last into the next day.

"What's your new baby look like?" I ask, desperately trying to redirect.

She looks up at the ceiling, contemplating. "He's got short hair." She retreats to her seat.

"I've got a new Christmas song," one of the boys says. "I'm going to teach it to the class." Then he stands up, and belts out, Jingle Bells! Batman Smells! Robin laid an egg."

"We need to get going with our work," I say. Then I have to remind myself not to be a Scrooge.
I move on to the business of the day. The high school music department is coming over to give us a holiday concert, so I need to give the standard audience behavior lecture.

My first graders are toward the front of the auditorium, so I'm thinking they will be very interested in the up-close view of all of the instruments. It turns out, their favorite part is the conductor. I'm sure he has no idea that about 30 kids are trying to copy his every move behind him.

One little boy is completely still for the entire half hour. He seems startled when they stop playing. I line everyone up to leave and he looks up at me. "I loved that so much, it turned my mind inside out," he says.

I want to be that kid when I grow up.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Interview with 2k10 Author, Jame Richards!

Today, I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing the author of the soon-to-be-released, THREE RIVERS RISING (Knopf, April, 2010). Jame Richards is a talented writer whose lyrical language speaks to me, and I know you will be dying to hear what she has to say. She writes about serious subjects in her historical fiction, but I'm pretty sure she has a secret second career as a stand-up comic...

You write in such lyrical verse. Have you always written in this form/genre?

I’ve been writing this way for about five years. Poetry came naturally to me, but my poems were considered too long. I had ideas for big stories that demanded novel-length page counts, so…novels in verse might be an obvious solution, but it still took me a long time to figure it out.

Tell me a little about the historical background for Three Rivers Rising.

In the late 1800s railroads were connecting disparate regions of the U.S. and demand for steel was high. Newly moneyed Pittsburgh steel tycoons took their families to vacation in the Allegheny Mountains. A number of them bought shares in a summer resort called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which consisted of a clubhouse, stables, some private cottages and a reservoir held back by an earthen dam.

In the valley below, the city of Johnstown was home to Cambria Iron Works. Mills, stores, hotels, churches, homes, schools: Johnstown was an up-and-coming seat of industry. On the downside, Johnstown was built on lowlands surrounded by rivers and flooding was an expected part of every spring.

Back up in the mountains, over-logging had increased the danger of flash floods, and the design of the dam had been compromised over the years, leaving no way to compensate for sudden increases of water. An unusually rainy spring in 1889 caused the flawed dam to fail, releasing millions of tons of water into the valley, creating an avalanche of debris, and scouring the land down to bare rock in many cases. Deaths total approximately 2,200.

How do you go about your research for your historical fiction?

A story like this, one that surrounds a heavily-documented historical event, has a lot of the research built in: books, documentaries, easy to find. When the story takes place in an arbitrary time frame, it’s trickier. I like to read first-person accounts whenever possible, especially letters. Newspapers are good, too. You can get the flavor of a time period. I keep a dictionary tab open on my computer to look up the dates words came into use. I also like to read census reports…see who was at the Alms House or the Orphan Asylum, good for cranking up the old backstory machine.

Have you always been a writer?

No. I can’t say it was always my intention to be a writer, but I did always make up stories. When my friends and I played house or school or Electro-Woman and Dyna-Girl, it was always up to me to narrate the action and feed everybody their lines! How did I not know I was going to be a writer—everybody else did.

Who are your inspirations?

Patricia Reilly Giff, Karen Hesse, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Judy Blume, Louise Erdrich, Jacqueline Woodson.

What were your favorite books as a child? As an adult?

I have a deep and enduring love for my long lost copy of Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. It was the paperback with the girl sitting at the mirror, placing a hibiscus into her corona of braids. I “loaned” it to somebody. If you’re reading this, and you have my copy of Sally, please return it! Or face the consequences…dunh, dunh, duhhhh.

Other favorites, as you might expect: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The House Without a Christmas Tree, and Mandy. Also, my school librarian forbade me from taking out Flicka, Ricka and Dicka even one more time, or the somber-brown hardcover Marnie.

My favorite books now are Nory Ryan’s Song and Maggie’s Door, Out of the Dust and Aleutian Sparrow, The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.

I also love a little sumpin called Also Known as Harper, ever heard of it?

You have two young daughters. What are five books that you hope they will read?

Mine, for starters! (Actually my older daughter already read it. And gave it a positive review in her school newspaper, thank goodness!) And they’ve already listened to Judy Blume reading Sally, and they loved it as much as I hoped they would. It has become the gold standard for audio books in our house.

1. Anne of Green Gables, the series even, such a big part of my childhood reading those with my mom and sisters.

2. The Little House series—I think about the pioneers everyday and I want my children to know me that way.

3. Almost as often, I think about Anne Frank (Diary of a Young Girl) and I hope they’ll read her words and care deeply.

4. Patricia Reilly Giff’s historical novels which mirror the experiences of our own Irish ancestor (Nory Ryan’s Song and Maggie’s Door), my grandmother growing up in the tenements (A House of Tailors and Water Street), all the way down to my mother (Lily’s Crossing and Willow Run) as a child of World War II. (I know I’m cheating by counting a body of work as one entry on the list!)

5. Along the same line, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My grandmother said after reading it, “That’s exactly how it was!” My daughters didn’t get to meet my grandmother, but they can meet Francie Nolan.

Can you talk about your work-in-progress?

My next manuscript is about one of the many young Irish women who came to the U.S. in the wave of immigration to work as domestics, known as Bridgets. There’s talk of fairies and visions, witches vs. wise women, and tea leaves and typhoid.

Jame has never been one for BSP (BlatantSelfPromotion), so I need to tell everyone that this book was the 2008 winner of the PEN New England Children's Book Caucus Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award...

If you want to hear more from/about Jame, please visit her blog at or her website at

Monday, December 7, 2009

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

After my November post about train riders, I feel as if I would be remiss if I didn't mention my recent plane trip...

Here's the thing: I am a teacher. An elementary teacher. I have been an elementary teacher for a long time and I know I have that "teacher look" about me. This causes various mothers to sit their children near me. It happens almost every time; I can count on it. (The other distinct possibility is SuperSmellyGuy, but that one needs its own blog post). Meanwhile, my husband is comfortably settled across the aisle, his headphones on, with a quiet, polite, low-maintenance business-type guy next to him.

I need to first point out that I truly love kids. I love talking to them. But the ones that sit by me on airplanes are in a different category. You have seen these kids. They are the ones shimmying up the displays and climbing into the refrigerated dessert cases at the grocery store.

The great thing about a train ride is that you can get up and walk around. And moving to the next car is a possibility. On the plane: not so much. You are pretty much strapped in for the duration.

I'm all excited about my impending vacation. I'm going to meet my brother and his family at the HappiestPlaceOnEarth, so I try really hard to put myself in that happy place as the mother near me, helps her children set up their personal DVD players.

The little boy looks like he's about eight, but the movie he's watching is most certainly rated R--or worse. It's some extremely violent and bloody story with an abundance of Humvees. The little girl is about three, and she doesn't have or doesn't like her headphones, so her movie is playing some musical cartoon very loudly. The mother has obviously gone to her happy place, because it doesn't seem to occur to her that the other passengers might prefer a little quiet jazz, instead.

Then the little boy starts questioning his mother (loudly, of course) about what the flight attendant had meant when she was talking about the oxygen masks coming down. His mom replies (casually, but loudly), "She meant if something happens to the plane and the cabin pressure changes or something." (I see a man nearby clutch his arm rest and pop what could only be a Valium). Definitely not a helpful plane comment as the captain has just pointed out the impending turbulence.

At one point, the mom gets up to go to the bathroom and the boy starts slamming his hand on his DVD player. (I'm thinking to myself, the studies about letting kids watch violent movies and video games are definitely true.) Then he picks it up and gives it a good shaking. Finally, Mom comes back and starts screaming at the kid. "You better not be hitting that again! I'm not buying you another one!"

He was! I wanted to jump up and say. So was the little one! Take them away and turn them off!

But when the captain finally says to turn off all electronic devices, I find myself wishing those DVD players were still up and running, because the mom begins a constant babbling conversation with the kids. She points out the window and starts naming things. "I see houses," she says. Her voice sounds exactly like the kid from the Sixth Sense. "I see dead people," I expect her to say next. (I'm sure the eight-year-old has seen the movie, seeing as it was rated R.)

The four-year-old looked up at me as we deplaned as if to say, "Take me with you. Please. Get me away from these people."

But I looked back at her and smiled, as if to say, "Sorry, Honey. You're on your own. I'm off to the HappiestPlaceOnEarth on the BusiestWeekendOfTheSeason where I'm sure there will be a minimum of loud mothers with annoying children...